Daoism, unlike Hindu and Buddhist faith systems, has not yet been studied seriously by many in the West. Until the dawn of the last century or so, very few scholars knew much about its texts, rituals and customs over its long history in China. Canadian-born professors David A. Palmer and Elijah Siegler investigate the spread of the Dao and its practices in “transnational circulations” in their book Dream Trippers. The title refers to seekers from Healing Tao USA visiting the sacred mountain site of Huashan, known as “Flower Mountain,” where they meet with monks and mix with throngs of secularized Chinese tourists. For the authors, the “water” of Daoism sloshes in and out of its “institutional container,” as Eastern and Western fluidity wash aside facile dichotomies and stereotypical binaries.

A third presence triangulates with these two Daoist groups. Louis Komjathy, a West Coast-based religious studies professor, insists upon a far more bookish, scholarly and faithful adherence to a demanding regimen which, in this American-born academic’s estimation, the Dream Trippers dismiss.
Complicating matters, monastic master Chen Yuming leaves Huashan and those pilgrims who had depended upon him for guidance. Palmer and Siegler narrate the “anxieties” generated by the “predicament” of global spirituality through its “encounters, flows, and appropriations” of the indigenous traditions as they return to the motherland “Americanized.” Through tours, marketing and networks, the Dao’s adepts and aspirants follow “trajectories” as subjects within late modernity.

Adopting Zygmunt Bauman’s post-modern critique of the self-improvement Esalen/ Human Potential movements. which the ‘60s counterculture promoted as a consumer commodity, the authors situate these representatives of Dao as a fresh product shared and sought beyond East Asia. As Chinese autonomy dwindles in the homeland of the Dao, American ambitions increase among the pilgrims coming to Huashan to accelerate their immersion into qigong (vital energy practice).

But factions resist easy categorization. Western does not equate with anti-traditional, nor does any authentic Chinese experience trump any fabricated New Age-tinged experience. Palmer and Siegler respect all the participants whom they observe in Huashan, beginning in 2004. They witness the massive tourism overwhelming Huashan as the purportedly socialist regime markets its dramatic vistas and quaint monks as lucrative attractions for a burgeoning base of eager novelty seekers from within an avaricious urban Chinese target audience. Those eroding the Daoist legacy come not only from abroad, but within a cynical state calculating a pro-Daoist turnabout as countering the burgeoning Christian presence throughout the P.R.C. Many of the monks are unsuited for the rigors of their life, and loaf as “temple rascals.”

Palmer and Siegler compare the Dream Trippers, “metaphysical travelers,” to the monastic system struggling to sustain itself as Huashan’s slopes fill with Chinese crowds. The Westerners value therapeutic methods channeling the power of the Dao and the complicated “inner alchemy” developed over two millennia ago; Easterners come and go for vertiginous vistas.

This book will appeal to anthropologists, sociologists of religion, and religious studies professors and students. While Palmer and Siegler commendably avoid jargon and offer a detailed index and glossary, they expect their audience to be familiar with postmodern theorists and thinkers.

No pure legacy remains in Huashan. The rupture caused by communist devastation of religion has eased but has left behind a weakened heartland for the Dao. Yet the authors regard this evolution as “simply another wave” of meetings between East and West. Louis Komjathy opposes this benign judgment, denying that Daoism suits the Trippers. Combining an introspective pursuit with a teaching career, he responds (as do others interviewed) to the authors by claiming fidelity to the Chinese contexts. Komjathy disqualifies any who traverse the “spiritual marketplace” browsing fake commodities. Michael Winn, founder of the Trippers, begs to differ; the authors hear all sides out and report fairly.

Whether the Dream Trippers embody a cure or a symptom to the present-day “liquid self,” lacking once-stable social structures in a hyper-capitalist consumer-driven existence, is left for the reader to contemplate. In a coda, Chen Yuming gets the last word. This sage announces: “The flower has dried up, but the root is alive.” As institutional Daoism totters under tourism, a few from all over the world join those indigenous holdouts who agree to pursue virtue and find transformation.

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