Taoist priest spreads ancient wisdom

Struck by the similarities he observed between Western and Eastern philosophy, the grandson of a fung shui master became a Taoist priest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 7:05am

The principal philosophy and religious traditions of Taoism, which incorporate elements of Buddhism, were established in China about 2,400 years ago. Yet even today, the lives of Taoists may still appear veiled in mystery to the casual observer. The latest official statistics indicate that there are more than 30,000 mainland sites dedicated to the religion. Hong Chen, 41, recently spoke about the lives of modern Taoists and what led him to become a Taoist priest.

What got you interested in Taoism, and why did you want to be a priest?

I was born into a family of fung shui masters in Jiangxi province, which is considered the birthplace of Taoism and therefore of great symbolic value to Taoists. Many fung shui masters in my hometown are Taoists. My grandfather is a well-known Taoist and fung shui master.

Since my childhood, my grandfather has taught me ancient codes and records of traditional Chinese Taoism, which combines Eastern philosophy, religion and science. Interestingly enough, I decided to become a formal Taoist priest when I was 27 years old, the year I migrated to the US. I love studying religion and philosophy, which had been shelved on the mainland since the 1950s, especially during the Cultural Revolution between the 1960s and 1970s. When I approached Western philosophy in the US, I found that modern civilisations in the West were heavily influenced by philosophical naturalism and German classical philosophy, which are very similar to the philosophy of Taoism. After that, I wanted to be a priest so I could spread Eastern philosophy, dating back thousands of years, to mainlanders and foreigners. I believe the ancient wisdom of Eastern philosophy can also help modern society.

How did you become a Taoist priest?

There were several schools of Taoist thought that are based mostly in philosophy. Tianshi Mansion on Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi is believed to be the first formal school and the holy land of Taoism, as significant as the Vatican is to Catholicism. In the past, only Tianshi Mansion could certify a Taoist priest and ritual master. All Taoist priests were required to be students of Tianshi Mansion, and only those who received shoulu, the imparting of Taoist instruction, there could perform Taoist services in Taoist rituals. [Today, other Taoist temples are allowed by the government to certify Taoist priests.]

I'll briefly explain that shoulu, in Taoism, means to accept someone as a disciple in the sect. And it is known as "imparting a register" to the person. Receiving this register means someone has been formally converted to Taoism and has become a formal Taoist priest, not just a Taoist worshipper. When imparting a register, a talisman is also imparted, so the act is generally known as imparting talismans and registers. But the tradition was broken on the mainland when the Communist Party came to power. It wasn't until Taoist temples started to be re-established in the 1980s that shoulu gradually resumed. However, the scale and frequency of shoulu have been restricted by the State Administration of Religious Affairs. Since 1989, authorities have approved fewer than 20 shoulu rituals, and in each of them about 200 people could be imparted a register by Tianshi Mansion and become formal Taoist priests.

In 1999, I passed a series of tests at Tianshi Mansion, such as in philosophy, codes and rituals, and I received the register to became a formal Taoist priest.

How is Taoism applied and practised in modern China?

Taoism's influence has been found in everything - including Chinese art, poetry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, alchemy and chemistry, cuisine, martial arts, and architecture - since it began in China about 2,400 years ago. Taoism was the official religion of the early Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), and it also influenced the dominant ideologies of subsequent emperors and dynasties. As is the case with other religions, Taoism has been set aside on the mainland since the 1950s, as the government is officially atheist and tries to maintain a separation between people and religion. Though there has been a massive effort to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples since the mid-1980s, and even though the government has also expressed support for Buddhism and Taoism, authorities really only convey to the people that Taoism is a part of traditional Chinese culture, linking it to health and long life.

However, when it comes to spreading the philosophy of Taoism, including individual freedom and self-development, or any concept or ideology that differs from the dominant party's system or theory, it is almost impossible to promote and reach the public.

What are your plans for the future?

In 2012, I wrote and published a book called Interpretation of Tao Te Ching: Live a New Life Every Day. The Tao Te Ching was written around the 6th century BC by the sage Lao Tzu, who is also the founder of Taoism. The text is fundamental to both philosophical and religious Taoism. In my book, I translate the Tao Te Ching and provide specific examples of modern life based on my understanding. This year, I plan to translate Han Lung Ching [ The Art of Rousing the Dragon], a classic book on ancient Chinese geography. It's a book about geomancy [the placing of buildings or other sites auspiciously] and is attributed to Tang dynasty (618-907) fung shui master Yang Yunsong. In the next couple of years, I hope to travel around the country and help local people understand that urban development should follow the rules of nature and protect the environment. I will also try to approach local enterprises and promote Taoist culture and philosophy.


Hong Chen spoke to He Huifeng