Long rages the debate of the nature of Daoism, and whether it is a philosophical exercise or a religion, or something else entirely.
I personally have penned many articles from all sides of the debate, and in each article, I have generally made the argument that Daoism has historically taken many forms and entered into many parts of society.
In this article, I would like to take a slightly different tack and suggest that the bulk of the current argument over the nature of Daoism comes from poor communication.
It has been stated by many people on the side representing the Daoist religion that there has never been an organized group who have described themselves as philosophical Daoists. This of course is true, being that there is no historical term used in ancient China to describe philosophy as distinct from religion. Having said that, a distinct, albeit long dead school of Daoism known as the Mystery Study School does fit into the definition of a philosophically inclined approach to Daoism, and doubtless there were many other such projects throughout Chinese history that were not recorded and preserved as well as the writings of Wang Bi and Guo Xiang.
This notwithstanding, the major works of Daoism such as Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi have been widely disseminated by intellectuals in China for 2000 years and anyone who has made a study of the Chinese classics in any serious way would have been familiar with these books. thus, I would like to introduce the concept that Daoism certainly existed as an extremely influential literary genre outside of the mainstream clergy and that there were many people who learned Daoist teachings without engaging seriously in Daoist religious practices.
Why is this important and why can’t we give this topic the rest that it so dearly deserves?
My opinion is that there is a great deal of exclusivity and oneupsmanship in the academic Daoist community outside of China and that to completely write off the existence of Daoism as an intellectual and literary genre is a great disservice to the countless people who have brought the principles of Daoism into their lives, while not being involved in the ritual and magical practices of the Daoist clergy.
I think it is very important as a point of fact and a point of respect to point out that Daoism is a very multi faceted study and should not be pegged down into a fully formed and single approach, since within the vast context of Chinese cultural history, Daoism really has served many functions that exist outside of the strictures of a hierarchic organized religion.