In Search of the True Dao

Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos
Daoist practitioners meditating in a cave in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China, 2011

Last year I got a call from Abbess Yin, an old friend who runs a Daoist nunnery near Nanjing. I’ve always known her as supernaturally placid and oblique, but this time she was nervous and direct: a group of Germans were coming to spend a week learning about Daoist life; could I travel down from Beijing to help? To translate, I asked? No, she said impatiently, to mediate—to avoid a disaster. These foreigners, she explained, had spent years learning qigong (a neologism that refers to Chinese forms of meditation and exercise practices broadly similar to tai chi). But they knew nothing about Daoism. This perplexed her—how could they know one without the other? She foresaw innumerable misunderstandings.

I imagined days spent translating words like “energetics” into Chinese and dredged up a host of reasons why I was busy. Abbess Yin let the line stay silent for a few strategic seconds, forcing me to do what I knew I must: wimp out and accept. I steeled myself for a lost week.

Abbess Yin was right: it was a week of misunderstandings, but it was also illuminating. At heart, each side was worried about being used by the other. Once this mistrust was overcome, something meaningful and even beautiful took place.

Many of the concerns were small but symptomatic. The Germans objected to having their pictures taken at every turn, thinking it was part of a money-making ploy to sell lessons in China, a not unreasonable assumption. They also didn’t want to wear Daoist robes on a visit to a nearby town, feeling they were props in a circus act. And they weren’t keen on lectures about the interminable number of Daoist deities; what did this have to do with learning new forms of Daoist exercises and meditation?

As for Abbess Yin and her nuns, they were perplexed too: these foreigners knew so little about the Daoist religion other than the Daodejing, the classic text of aphorisms ascribed to Laozi.1 The nuns were a bit upset that their techniques of self-cultivation—meant to encourage a virtuous life and achieve enlightenment—had become mere skills for the foreigners to use in their professions, which ranged from massage and conflict resolution to personal coaching. It struck me as analogous to nonbelievers using a church as a setting for a wedding.

After a bit of shuttle diplomacy, we reached an accord. The nuns explained that the photos were meant to show local officials how adept they were at spreading Chinese culture—a big priority under Xi Jinping. Doing this would give them a bit more leeway in dealing with the omnipresent Communist Party. The Germans understood and agreed to being photographed, as long as the photos wouldn’t be made public without their consent. As for the robes, the…

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