Professor Cheng Lesong Delivers a Lecture at Yenching Academy on the Facets of Daoism

On October 20, Professor Cheng Lesong from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Peking University, delivered a lecture at Yenching Academy entitled “Facets of Daoism: From Immortality to Daily Life”, as part of the Topics in China Studies Lecture Series for the 2022 Fall Semester. Yenching Academy Associate Dean Brent Haas hosted the synchronous online and in-person class held at the Second Gymnasium (Erti), PKU, and he was joined by teeming Yenching Scholars and teachers. The class focused on providing an account of the Daoist tradition and the fundamental ideas of Chinese religions by taking a closer look at the lives and religious practices of Chinese people.

Prof. Cheng described the philosophical and religious school of Daoism, explaining that the intellectual axis of Daoism represents the shared ways or fundamental principles of the cosmos and the social and human bodies operating in harmony with the natural order. He noted that the ancient pre-Qin dynasty thinkers, including Confucius, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, and intellectual schools emphasized the importance of ‘Dao’, which was regarded as the starting point of their intellectual work and proposals for the (re)construction of the ideal order of social, political, and individual lives in harmony with the cosmos. The pre-Qin era, with its focus on ‘Dao’, thus, heralded a golden age that facilitated inspiring ideas and debates on what constituted the ideal order of ancient Chinese society.

Furthermore, Prof. Cheng discussed the philosophical and religious orientations of Daoism, highlighting the importance of Laozi, considered the foremost proponent and thinker of Daoism, and opponents like Zhuangzi, in facilitating the theoretical tenets of the Daoist school of thought. He argued that within philosophical Daoism, the ancient thinkers emphasized a naturalist understanding of social life (i.e., to embrace the Dao) and dialectics gained through self-cultivation, bodily practices, or daily life experiences. On the other hand, religious Daoism considers immortality, revelations (encounters with immortals), skills, rituals, and negotiations with the immortals to ensure the continuous functioning of the universe. Besides, Prof. Cheng explained that while the common sense perception of conventional religion involves possessing systematic theological theories, a network of temples, etc., coherence is a myth in Daoism since it is devoid of a perfectly formed theoretical system.

The guest lecturer noted that two modes of misunderstanding religious traditions exist, especially in the Chinese context: semantic and methodological dilemma and Sinology prejudice. He explained that the most popular and widespread methodological views of religious systems established in the West (in line with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so on) do not fully apply to the religious life of Chinese people grounded on the orderly functioning of the cosmos. Secondly, although Western religions distinguish between sacredness and secularity, no clear-cut boundaries of these concepts exist in Chinese religious beliefs. Instead, there is a distinction between ‘daily’ (leading a peaceful life, offering rituals to deities, and attending religious festivals) and ‘non-daily’ (negotiating solutions with immortals after encountering misfortune). Overall, Prof. Cheng noted that it is necessary to adjust the academic research to fit the context of Chinese religious studies and draw on Chinese religion as a dimension of Chinese culture towards an interpretative reconstruction of the world.

Furthermore, the professor explained the concept of immortality as understood in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.  “Immortality does not exclusively pertain to longevity but also involves how we can surpass the limitations of our lives and deal with the anxiety of death,” Prof. Cheng stated. The guest lecturer noted that Daoism offers distinct avenues for practitioners to attain sagehood and immortality. Still, the process and result of these avenues were entirely outside the control of the practitioners. Moreover, Prof. Cheng reiterated the absence of a coherent body of religious theories and diverse sects, noting that the basic unit of Daoist religious life is the network of local communities or communal religious life. “This mode of communal religious involves a combination and compromise synthesis of different forces and traditions… the communal sectors and characteristics are different from one region to another,” he added.

The last part of the lecture discussed the Qingcheng Mountain, one of the sacred mountains in Daoist tradition, located in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and its historical relevance for the development of Daoism. Prof. Cheng noted that many Daoist schools exist in the region, the first of which was founded by Zhang Daoling, a Chinese philosopher. Also, he added that the significance of the different mountains stems from the accumulation of various events of revelations and the local people’s conviction that the sites offer a higher possibility of encountering immortals. He encouraged the Scholars to be attentive to the different structures and designs and the diversity of deities in the Daoist temples and sites (e.g., Jianfu Palace, Shangqing Palace, Laojun Tower, etc.) they visit during their future field research in Chengdu.

Yenching Scholars raised several questions after Prof. Cheng’s presentation. One question pertained to the concept of continuous revelation and the practical ways continuous revelations occur in Daoism. Prof. Cheng explained that Daoism teaches that revelations are an encounter with the immortals via which they teach mortals different levels of skills for their daily practices. The revelations are attained in two ways: a special period during which the deities’ teachings or skills are given to humans and the continuous exploration of the contents and meaning of the classic texts. The adoption and execution of these skills help the mortals to gain immortality per their destiny, and they, in turn, hand down the teachings they have acquired to their disciples vis-à-vis their qualifications and destiny. Also, he added that those who receive the revelations are forbidden to publicly expose the details of their revelations to those who are not qualified to receive them.

Another question inquired into how the search for an ideal social order has influenced different philosophers’ comprehension of time. Prof. Cheng explained that the main point was more on the tendency and direction of change within the structure of time rather than on an understanding of time, which was more of a metaphysical issue. He pointed out that this notion involves understanding the history or evolution of society and how historical trends have impacted different aspects of societal configuration. The ancients were thinking about how to restore the natural order of social life, and this calls to mind two critical notions of history: a linear process or a repetitive or circular sequence of events. In modern times, Christianity, for instance, teaches a linear view of time – a beginning and an end.

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