Taoism: a gift to the world: Key takeaways from the 3rd International Taoist Forum
On November 25/26 2014, the 3rd international Taoist Forum, held in Longhu mountains, Jiangxi province, China, gathered some 600 participants from 27 countries. After a bit of history about this forum, its aim and a few words about the choice of this holy place and breathtaking surroundings, I will discuss the key themes of this event and share with you some personal takeaways. I also, at this stage, want to make sure that every reader keeps in mind that no event of such nature can be organized in China without the supervision of the Chinese government. This means that the messages highlighted during this forum are not only the expression of what the Taoists think but also what the government wants to focus on to help shape the Chinese society. That makes these messages even more interesting to better understand what’s on the official agenda…and what is not.
Before that, and though I am sure most regular ILR readers are familiar with it, a few words on Taoism. Though Taoism can be seen as a philosophy (Daojia), it is considered first and above all as a religion which takes the Tao (The way) of Laozi as its highest principles and whose fundamental purpose is to help seekers attain transcendence, being one with nature. It cherishes virtue, compassion, humility moderation and harmony among all things. It is a foundational element of Traditional Chinese Medicine. What personally brought me to Taoism and got me invited to this forum is my work on Chinese values and belief systems as part of my PhD work at Saybrook. When analyzing the Taoist thought through Clare Graves’s ECLECT framework, I have been amazed to realize how much convergence there is between Taoist principles and Clare Graves Tier 2 level of thinking though Laozi, and Zhuangzi developed their ideas some 2,500 years ago, a time when life conditions, according to Graves’human development model, should not have prompted them to think the way they thought, contrary to Confucius, but their perception did. Taoism is one of the 5 official religions in China and counts around 9,000 temples across China.
1) A bit of history of this forum. I want to share in the following lines how the forum has evolved, as for me it reflects also how China is evolving overall and how the government thinks about Taoism in particular and other ancient Chinese religions and philosophies in general.
In 2007, the first forum, called at the time “The International Forum on the Dao De Jing” – one of the core Taoist classics-, was organized by the Chinese Taoist Association (CTA) and the China Religious Culture and Communication Association (CRCCA) in X’ian with the Theme “Building a harmonious way through the Dao”. As Allerd Stikker reports in his book Sacred Mountains, it was the first time in 50 years that the Chinese government organized a conference on a critical text of its own history. At this occasion, high-ranking party officials publicly stated that the wisdoms expressed in the Dao De Jing were invaluable for modern China and that this ancient worldview should come back to the heart of Chinese society.
The success of this forum led to the second forum in 2011, held in Heng Mountains in Hunan province with the key theme “Respect the Tao and Honor Virtue”. The name of this forum was formally changed to “International Taoist Forum”, aiming at gathering a larger audience. This time, the organizers decided to broadcast one session of the forum during which Xu Jialu, former vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, and Martin Palmer, prominent sinologist, driving force behind the creation of this forum and Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, debated before millions of Chinese viewers about the inspiration Taoism could bring to the government and the nation and how Taoist wisdoms could persuade and move entire nations.
This year the forum was held in the Taoist sacred mountains of Longhu, aimed at delving “deeper into the Taoist religious wisdoms, particularly into the areas of ethics, health and well-being, and environmental issues; to encourage the positive effects of the Taoist religion on promoting social harmony and economic development and to demonstrate the contemporary values of Taoist religious culture”, as stated in the event booklet. The overarching theme was “Practice the Tao and Establish Virtue, Aid the World and Benefit Others”.
With the titles of these three consecutive forums, one can have a glimpse at how the Chinese society has evolved in the last decade and how the Chinese government sees it. 2007 is considered as the peak year of modern China development. The combined profitability of centrally owned state enterprises reached about $ 140 billion, compared to close to zero a decade earlier, with increasing perceivable side effects of this unprecedented wealth creation. It was time to invite the Chinese to consider less materialisticly and reduce in selfish behaviors.
Living in China since early 2006, I certainly have witnessed a degradation than an improvement of these behaviors in the following years. So it is not surprising to see that the wording used for the overarching theme of the second forum in 2011 was more in the form of request than simply an invitation.
The 2014 forum insisted on the pressing needs to come to an implementation time of Taoists thoughts. The government certainly sees Taoist thoughts as an ally in its current quest to bring back a higher sense of morality in the Chinese society. Interestingly, for the first time, it extends this action to the “World”. This could reflect both China’s recent move to embrace international responsibilities more in line with its new economic status and global impact as well as the need for China to change its often bad image around the world. Either way, this is good news.
2) Longhu Mountains: Longhu, literally dragon and tiger, does not only offer a wonderful scenery as you can see on some pictures but is as well a holy mountain sacred to the Taoist religion for more than 1,800 years. During its most flourishing time, Longhu Mountains counted no less than 130 Taoist palaces, temples or courts.
3) Key topic, themes and discussions:
The event opened by an impressive opening ceremony held outdoor, despite the rain and the cold. It started by a blessing of the event, followed by speeches from Xu Jialu former vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. This morning session concluded with a series of wonderful art performances as some pictures illustrate.
The afternoon kick-started this year’s discussions around four themes:
To benefit without causing arm: the spirit of charity and compassion in the Taoist religion: Xu Jialu, the highest-ranked political personality of this panel emphasized how Taoism can help Chinese society better understand where it comes from and where to head for. He compared current China to the Warring States period, a period where greed, excesses and power conflicts dominated. In order for Taoism to have an impact on the society and bring back the notions of charity, simplicity and humility compassion, it needs, for him, to engage in three dialogues: 1) review the original texts with our latest knowledge, including scientific knowledge –e.g. on the notion of health preservation immortality -, and talk about the core of Taoism with modern words; 2) Understand the practical Dao experience with modern knowledge. Here, Xu took the example of Traditional Chinese Medicine which can be analyzed and explained through modern science knowledge 3) Review how Taoist, Buddhist and Islamic religions function in harmony in China to inspire countries where religious conflicts prevail.
Master Ren Farong, President of China Taoist Association sent a few clear messages:
Life is easy: respect nature and love each other;
Life is all about relationships among people;
The size of universe is yours;
We are our own enemies;
You need to blame yourself when bad things happen
Preserving truth and dispelling falsity: themes of sincerity and trust in Taoist religious thought
From this session, I took away the following messages:
To act, use your honesty and humbleness, not your social position and money;
Share with others, serve the society;
Truthfulness is at the heart of our inner-self;
Taoism advocates for self-cultivation through meditation to reach our inner-self;
A ruler needs to tell the truth (what a statement in China!);
Let go if you want to experience the joy of simplicity;
You have to love yourself to love others;
The difference between the Tao and our heart is like between dad and father;
Taoism is about love for all that is under heaven.
At the end of this session, a few questions were raised about how to put in action these great Taoist values. David Hessler, a history faculty at the Montclair Kimberley Academy, stated, based on his work with young people, that the notion of simplicity advocated by Taoism was a very appealing way to introduce Taoists thoughts in a world where complexity has made many people lost.
Health of mind and body: The way of Taoist well being
This session was probably the most appealing to the general public and therefore three debates were broadcasted. Four principles for maintaining a good health were highlighted:
- Integrate body and spirit to gain peace of mind and harmony
- Always take a holistic view to avoid extremes and practice moderation
- Build our ethics by loving each other and being integer
- Practice Wu Wei or no action by following the law of nature and listen to people’s heart.
I would like here to make one comment on the Taoist notion of non action, Wu Wei. What it really means is that one should only act when needed, that is at the right time, with necessary reflection and with minimum interference, that is in the right way, to share a different possible path more in accordance with the law of nature. It is not, in my view, as passive a behavior as it may look like.
The axis of all things: Ecological wisdom in the Taoist religion
Many different subjects were presented during this session, from the reasons of our today’s problems to some concrete examples of better harmony with nature.
Pr Gengsen from Anhui University discussed the separation between subject and object in western philosophy, a major cause for losing harmony between humankind and nature. The holistic view of Taoism, following the Tao, can help us recover this harmony. Ji Hongzhong, President of Shanghai Taoist Association highlighted how much distraction the industrial revolution brought to our world and the urgent need to follow the Tao and listen to the “Qi”, the source of all life around the globe.
The notion of Yin and Yang was emphasized to help modern society take a more balanced view of its development, and to create wealth, which is about nurturing biodiversity. The importance of looking through hearts and minds rather than eyes was presented as an expression of Taoism which can be found in Chinese landscapes painters who looked in nature rather than at nature when painting.
The last point I would like to share with you is the notion of Tao EQ, presented by Chen Zhixia, Vice President of Singaporean Taoist Association. The Tao Ecological Intelligence is a concept being developed by Chen to show how sacred Air, Water and Earth are. Chen elegantly summarizes her quest: make the invisible, visible.
At the end of the first day, we got invited to a magnificent show which can be attended all year long and is based on Taoist stories. I will not tell more here to let you enjoy the day you will visit but I can share that even mountains moved…
At the closing ceremony, made of closing speeches and artists’ performances, all participants received the “Declaration for the Third International Taoist Forum”, read on stage in Chinese by the vice President of the Chinese Taoist association, in English by the President of the American Taoist association. I want to share here what I consider as the key messages:
…At present, science and technology flourishes and people’s minds turn towards prosperity, however, there are still problems to address in the areas of the natural environment, society and human civilization. The solution open to us today is to take our stand in the present and maintain our traditions.; to draw together within the halls of the Taoist religion / Taoism and bathe in its Mysterious Aura; to respect and trust each other, allowing for differences while seeking common ground…may our discussions range from the topics of ancient times to the present, bringing us to common understanding and concord…may we act in accordance with the ways of nature and respect all living things…may…we act without entering into competition or striving.
These few sentences illustrate, in my view, the key challenges the government sees in today’s Chinese society. First, it believes that innovation is key to its next phase of development but many Chinese view ancient religions and philosophies has a key reason for having missed the industrial revolution. It is therefore important to state that both are not incompatible, on the contrary. As a matter of fact, the only message reported by the National newspaper, China Daily, about this forum was on this very topic. I personally fully agree with that. The greatest Chinese inventions are from the period of the Tang dynasty, a time where Taoism was the most flourishing. I do not want to go into details here but having people driven by a strong, shared meaning-making purpose, quest of immortality at the time, and free minds, is a key element to foster creativity and innovation.
Personal Take-away of this forum
- Taoist leadership: Living and managing businesses in China since almost 10 years, I have experienced how difficult it can be to make an organization perform with excellence in China. Excellence, in my western standard, includes: everything works according to plan, the unexpected has been anticipated, people have a sense of contribution and personal fulfillment…I must say that I have really been impressed by the organization of this event by the Chinese Taoist A Yes the government officials were present, yes the international visitors always tend to have a better treatment…but not only every thing was perfectly orchestrated from airport to airport for some 600 participants, the rain at the opening ceremony anticipated, but above all I felt a great notion of care in the level of details things had been thought through and the interaction with the organizers had just been a wonderful experience. No particular stress could be felt. What a great example of what can be achieved by a group of people motivated by a shared purpose and common noble values. Everything was in Flow, as Csikszentmihalyi would describe it.
- Political aspect: Though I know that politics play a significant role in most aspects of life in China, I have been surprised to hear speeches from high-ranking politicians at the opening ceremony, at the fist breakout session and again at the closing speeches. As few things happen just by coincidence with the government, this gives, I believe, an appreciation of how much the current government is willing to influence people’s behaviors for the better and how important ancient philosophies and religions like Taoism are seen as way to achieve that aim. This is in my view, not only a very smart approach but a much needed one.
- The only academic research presented at the forum came from western scholars. We have not heard Chinese scholars, except one teaching in Wales, talk about their current research. It is a bit unfortunate to only hear the western view of research on Taoism. More diversity would certainly bring richer exchanges and contribution. For those interested, there is a clear opportunity to conduct research in the area of Taoism and innovation.
- Joy: This forum has been my first exposure to such a large Taoist community. Joy is the word which came to my mind to express how I felt about the overall atmosphere of this event. Taoism, contrary to Buddhism or Confucianism considers that life is good. It promotes making one’s life better, happier and enjoying it with humility, in a moderate and compassionate way. This clearly transpired in every aspects of the Forum.
- Openness: I was extremely pleased to see that Buddhists and Confucians had been invited to attend this forum. This respect and willingness to share and learn from people who have different belief systems or life principles is very refreshing and inspirational.
- Moderation. The last point I want to make touches upon one of the key elements of Taoism that is moderation. Though the venue of this event wasn’t fancy at all, the various shows we got invited to were very much, for me, an expression of the need for China to show what it has achieved in the recent years. This is fully understandable after so many years of felt humiliation but I do hope that this phase will soon be over and that our Chinese friends will rather inspire the world not by fancy infrastructures and events of any kind but by helping the world learn from and practice its ancient wisdom which includes moderation, an essential element, in my view, to built healthier human relationships.
This forum has been a wonderful experience and exemplified how harmony can be achieved between people of very different cultures, illustrating, in my view, that the issue of mutual understanding we observe today around the globe is not about cultural differences but about lack of shared values. A global super ordinate goal seems urgently needed and Taoism can be inspirational to create it around the notion of Harmony and Oneness between human kind, nature and the whole Universe, cultivating simplicity, humility and compassion
I want here to thank Martin Palmer, General Secretary of ARC and He Yun, head of ARC in China for their inputs to make these field notes a better reflection of what happened at this forum.
About the Author
Jean-Claude Pierre, MSc, MBA, PhD is a chemical engineer by training, Jean-Claude moved rapidly to managerial positions in almost all functions of a company, on three continents, in start ups as well as Fortune 500 companies and in fast growth and declining markets. These experiences gave him an appreciation of the human potential and the importance of engaging in a well hearted manner.
In recent years, he transformed a China based business into a global leader with environmental concerns at the core of this major change. Through that process, Jean-Claude became very mindful about sustainability matters. So much so that he decided to start a PhD in Organizational Leadership and Transformation at Saybrook University with a specialization in Sustainability.