It didn’t occur to us to see our names as anything grand or advantageous. Deng Ming-Dao was just what I was called in Chinese school, mostly as the prelude to a dreaded command to recite lessons or to be scolded for my behavior. Besides, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect the lofty Tao that was the underpinning of thousands of years of culture with myself, a boy with patches on his pants struggling to get through the droning lessons of Chinese-language school each night. We were made to memorize poetic lessons of the deepest quality, even as we were told that we were ordinary and dumb children who could not possibly comprehend the deep profundity of the sages. The most we could expect was to get some dull inkling decades later, or to have our morality shaped—as if the words were some sort of enchantment. One teacher would tease us before a test: “If you haven’t studied, you ought to take your books home and boil them in water and drink the soup. Maybe then you’ll pass the examination.” It wasn’t for some years that I finally realized that the Tao I read about was also the name I had been given.
I undertook what would become an ongoing study of the Tao and Taoism. I’ve read as many books as I could find relevant over the course of decades. I’ve studied arts allied to Taoism: martial arts, herbalism, calligraphy, painting, meditation, poetry, music, qigong, feng shui, mathematics, the Chinese classics, literature, and history. Repeatedly, the leaders in these fields keep pointing back to the Tao. Repeatedly, the Taoists assert that any one of these seemingly adjunct fields will lead to the Tao as surely as scriptural study. I went further. At one time, I went to the appearances of every visiting Taoist, Buddhist, lama, and yogi. I traveled to China to visit different sites and to see how Taoism existed today.
One might think that the easiest step would be to go to a Taoist temple. But the Taoism practiced in Chinese communities today is not the Taoism that interests me. This is Taoism as a folk religion, a Taoism of colorful altars, chanting of scriptures, burning of incense, kneeling with offerings, and contacting the gods through divination and spirit mediums. Read more