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Lee Irwin

Lee Irwin

Thursday, 28 January 2016 17:04

Esoteric foundations of chinese alchemy

Chapter: Daoism in the West - an excerpt from Daoist Alchemy in the West: The Esoteric Paradigms by Lee Irwin

Early European writings on Daoism such as Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata (1667), characterized it as “full of abominable falsehoods” and as originating in a form of idolatry transferred from ancient Egypt. Jesuit missionaries further muddied the waters by describing Daoists (as opposed to Confucianists whom they supported) as “magicians and enchanters” whose alchemical search for immortality was “ridiculous”. [7]

The German philosopher Leibniz (c. 1690s) was among the first of the European intelligensia to see in the Chinese classics, and in the synthesis of Neo-Confucian and Daoist thought, a true religious expression of philosophia perennis, the ancient and perennial, unitary truth underlying all great religions, a concept resonant with much of Western esoteric thought. [8]

The Leibnitz theory of the monadology, of living beings mirroring and interacting through harmonious relations, of the uninterrupted flow of continuous unfolding, has strong resonance with Daoist ideas. [9]

More serious study of Daoism developed in the 19th century after the appointment of Abel Rémusat to the first European chair of Chinese language and literature at the Collège de France. In 1823, Rémusat published Mémoire sur la vie et les opinions de Lao-Tseu, one of the earliest European works on Lao-tzu and classical Chinese Daoism. [10]

It was during this same period that Jacques Marter published his book Gnosticism (1828) in France which first used the term “esotericism” as a construct linked to perennial philosophy and secret knowledge. [11]

Stanislas Julien published a French translation of the Daodejing (the most popular classic text of Daoism) in 1841; in 1915 the French Jesuit Père Léon Wieger published his etymological Dictionary of Chinese Characters plus a large volume of translated Chinese texts (some from the Daozang); and by 1921, J. J. M. DeGroot had published his detailed six volume study of the religious systems (primarily Daoist) of China, a work largely ignored by the European intelligensia. [12]

By the 1840s, European scholars had constructed a form of Chinese religious philosophy that they named “Daoism”--a term not used before this time. As a philosophical tradition, Daoism became associated with a very limited selection of classic texts (Yijing, Daodejing, and Zhaungzi) as epitomized in the early 1848 English translation of the “old philosopher Lau-Tzse” by John Chalmers who presented the text as a serious work of metaphysics. [13]

By the late 19th century, “classical Daoism” was constructed in an orientalist paradigm as a text based philosophy, a perennial wisdom tradition that “reflected a timeless spiritual quality” while “later” or “religious” Daoism was seen as a decline from its original essential purity. [14]

This dual attitude toward Daoism as a transcendental philosophy unencumbered by religious practice as juxtaposed to a marginalized and degraded magical religion was largely a French Catholic construct that was popularized well into the 20th century in both Europe and America. In 1876, the Scottish Congregationalist minister, James Legge, was granted the first British Chair in Chinese studies at Oxford University. His construction of “Daoism” through reputable classic text translations engendered an attitude and vocabulary around western Daoism that virtually ignored the history and complexity of Daoist esotericism. [15]

Legge dismissed “popular” religious Daoism (Taojiao) as ‘superstitious’, ‘unreasonable’ and ‘fantastic’ much in the same way that other Protestant scholars dismissed Western esoteric traditions of magic and the occult. Subsequently, the emergent orientalist paradigm of Daoism was an imaginative projection by western scholars and esotericists based in a reification of a narrow text corpus reminiscent of the Christian New testament as “foundational” and essential to western constructions of religion. [16]

In America, scholarly and popular interest in “oriental religions” resulted in a Daoist representative attending the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. American interpreters also carried forth the theme of the universalist aspect of Daoism as illustrated in Samuel Johnson’s 1878 work on “oriental religions” in which a limited philosophical Daoism is shown to be a manifestation of a transcendental “universal religion” independent of any creed or dogma or rituals and united with the celebration of nature as found in the New England Transcendentalists. [17]

By way of contrast, as early as 1853 the first Chinese temple was built in San Francisco and by 1900 there were over 400 such temples stretched along the American west coast, mixing popular Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. This living presence of Daoism was largely ignored by American scholars and mostly engaged by Chinese immigrants. [18]

In 1912, C. H. Bjerregaard gave a series of lectures on The Inner Life and the Tao-Teh-King, discussing the mystical aspects of philosophical Daoism, at the American Theosophical Society; the lectures were then published by the Theosophical Society. Bjerregaard was a newly initiated member of Hazrat Inayat Khan's Sufi Order (Khan was a murshid of the Indian Chishti Order); this tentative relationship between Daoism and Islamic esotericism would be later developed in Europe and America (see below). This publication also marks the beginning of American interests in esoteric Daoism. [19]

[7] J. J. Clarke 2000: 39, as published in Charles le Gobien’s Histoire de l’édit de l’Empereur de la Chine, 1698.
[8] J. J. Clarke 2000: 40.
[9] J. J. Clarke 2000:70.
[10] Lee Irwin 2001:18.
[11] Antoine Faivre 1998: 118.
[12] See Léon Wieger 1927a and 1927b, passim.
[13] See John Chalmers, 1848, passim, J. J.clarke 2000: 54.
[14] See Richard King, 1999, passim, for more on the “orientalist” paradigms constructed by Western scholars and esotericists.
[15] See James Legge 1881, passim.
[16] J. J. Clarke 2000: 44-45.
[17] See Johnson 1878, passim; J. J. Clarke 2000: 45.
[18] Lee Irwin 2001:21.
[19] C. H. Bjerregaard 1912, passim; Andrew Rawlinson, 1993: passim.

Elixir Pills. Eastern Jin Dynasty; Unearthed from Tomb No. 7, Elephant Mountain in northern suburbs of Nanjing; Diameter: 0.5cm; Total Number: over 100 pills; Now preserved in Museum of Medical History, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine

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