The Dog that Attacked its own Tail:
the problem with money in Daoism.
The monastic structure of Daoism has often been noted to have certain rules which preclude religious leaders from demanding payment from new disciples of the temple who wish to join the clergy.
Recently, a post about this by a prominent and very respected scholar made me have pause to think about how economics and religion have a problematic and difficult relationship.
Before getting to the main feature of this article, I want to state outright that I believe economics and large scale religion are inseparable and that it is a fantastical error to assume that it is possible to divorce religious orders from money in society. I also must iterate the point that Daoism as a cultural phenomenon is much bigger than the component parts of the Daoist religion. Daoist ideas comprise a very large field of Chinese cultural study which has touched virtually every part of classical Chinese culture, the monastic system, and every area of Chinese aesthetics and life, so in many ways I am in disagreement with the purist scholars who wish to make the Daoist religion the only point of consideration in Daoist issues.
Now for the dog who bites its own tail…
Have you ever seen a dog attack its own hind quarters?
Surely it is a very comical sight and can remind us that often in attempting to pursue the things we are interested in, we can also hinder ourselves.
This reminds a great deal of an epistemological problem that scholars of religion face when dealing with the complex problem of religious economics.
Just like any other organization, religious groups require the support of their communities to continue to exist and provide the service they offer.
As such, religious leaders are always torn between the concept of sanctity of practice and economic pragmatism. How can the doctrine be spread without accepting some form of payment?
From the perspective of the ancient Daoists, this problem could be simplified in various ways. While it is true that many temples either accepted patronage or even engaged in the sale of items such as tea in order to maintain themselves, there were also self sustaining hermits and communities therein who could subsist on their own via small scale agriculture or the acceptance of alms.
Beyond this, Chinese culture has a long and historied culture of students providing for the economic well being of their teachers, whether it be through donations of money on various important days of the year or by inviting a teacher into the home and providing for their welfare as such.
In any event, tradition allows for the master teacher to be supported in various ways by his or her followers, this is not only logically consistent, it is an obvious solution to the self imposed poverty of religious leaders. We could refer to this type of behaviour as the social negotiation of the terms of self imposed poverty.
This type of social negotation also allows for the clergy to keep its hands clean when dealing with new disciples who are being indoctrinated into the order. The new disciple also engages in the same set of agreements as the already existing clergy and as such is not required to make any form of monetary donation to the order (although Daoist history fans will be aware that the original heavenly teachers sect required a donation of grains in order for the members of their cult to be protected under the banner their theocratic state). This of course is also compounded by the unsmall number of fraudulent “half immortal” pseudo Daoists who have historically practiced various forms of incantation and other forms of magic in order to appease clients wishing to receive various types of blessing or divine intervention on the part of the Gods. Even today Daoism has no shortage of frauds who sit outside of temples charging money for fortune tellings and other types of bogus magic.
Thus, we feel vindicated in making the point that the ecclesiastical tradition does not accept money for ordination and we have a point of common agreement.
The problem is that in many senses, the argument of economics in Daoism goes beyond the problem of ecclesiastical culture and street corner imposters.
One of the first major problems we must contend with is that of modernity and the expedience of free market economies in the development of religion.
The biggest problem that comes to mind here is that in a modern market, the survival of a church comes not only from the ability of its patrons to build and maintain buildings, as well as feed to clergy, it also comes from the ability of the church to remain relevant in a competitive market.
Surely this was also a historical problem, and the ongoing relationship between clergy and government shows us just how competitive religion was in Chinese history, but today, the situation is exasperated by the need to reach a larger audience via new media and to attract ever greater numbers of travellers to enable to existing religious infrastructure to maintain relevance in the eyes of rent collecting entities within government and private corporations who may feel the need to encroach on areas of economic significance.
In this way, we can begin to become more clear as to why the leaders of Wudang and Shaolin have felt it so important to incorporate martial arts into their public offerings. While there is virtually no veracity behind the idea that either place was very important to modern empty hand civil martial arts, there is great expediency in the promotion of these arts to people who might otherwise be completely uninterested in what the religious offerings of these temples.
Thus, it is possible for a lay practitioner to become a disciple of Wudang without ever spending the time required to learn the fundamentals of the Daoist teachings they are most famous for.
This sense of expediency should not be scoffed at either, because it is required for religion to change with the times and only the most staunch of traditionalists would say that the nature of religion must remain pristinely as it was one thousand years ago.
Changing with the times may require ideological modification in order that the order not be made irrelevant in light of social change.
If a historical comparison is needed to illustate this point, we could compare the martial arts of Wudang to the ancient Buddhist and Daoist tea industry, which also served as a means by which temples could ensure their survival as tourist areas. In this light, we see more potential continuity than discord and might be drawn to making the conclusion that very little has changed.
So if martial arts are off the table, what about things like Qi Gong and meditation?
I think it is fair to say that since the advent of modern Qi Gong is largely secular, then Qi Gong as taught by temples should fall under a similar category to martial arts and we cannot judge payment for Qi Gong as anathema to the ongoing zeitgeist of religious economics. Meditation may be a more thorny issue, but seeing as Daoism does not have the final say on meditation, since methods similar to those employed by the Daoists have been used by Confucians, Buddhists, folk religious groups, and secular practitioners throughout history, then it is not fair to assume that meditation methods should fall solely under the domain of monastic culture and thus, no individual or organization may lay claim to them. At this point, the argument becomes more related to the morality of individuals and organizations and although certainly criticism is a required part of any reasonable discussion, the issue still remains a matter of personal values.
Now, the most problematic issue, that of whether initiates should not be charged money.
As we can see, this issue is far from settled and while the the criticism of money for entry into a religious order is well placed, it is also foundationally difficult to say with a clear conscience that monetary payment is somehow different than any of the other major routes of entry into the graces of the church, especially in light of how many payed services the church offers to its lay patrons.
This brings me around to a thorny and often overlooked issue (especially among academics whose livings require them to report on religious society), what to say about the colleges in which religion is studied for academic dissemination?
Surely prominent religious scholars must see the precarious position they are place themselves in when they abandon objectivity and “go native.” Because in so doing, they create an internal ideological conflict which in turn requires them to respect the rules of the religion while at the same time making their living from its dissemination.
This is one of the major reasons why anthropologists generally view themselves as observers rather than participants and it is a key conflict in the dissemination of religious information at a secular academic level (not to mention the conflict of Christian scholars who enter religious colleges with hopes of making a living as a representative of the faith).
Should the casual observer not be excused for feeling a certain confusion at the sight of a scholar who both claims membership in a non corporatized ecclesiastical community and at the same time makes her entire living as its written representative?
And yet somehow, this conflict of interest never enters the mainstream debate surrounding corporate spirituality, and still tenure at an acclaimed university must surely be seen as one of the better stations that such a promoter of the religious message might hope to attain for themselves.
Thus, we are left with the image of the dog who attacked its own tail.
In its excitement at uncovering the subject of its aggression, the dog spins about in a fury of biting and barking, not recognizing that the very thing it is attacking is its own back side.
In the words of Laozi:
“if not going forth to meet its front, it cannot be followed to meet its back.”