International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape

edited by N.J. Girardot , James Miller , Liu Xiaogan

Introductory Essay by Kang Phee Seng

Although it has been a commonplace assumption that Daoism reveals an obvious and compelling affinity with global ecological concerns, there has been very little serious discussion in the English speaking world on the topic. This extraordinary collection contains five sections with 30 papers. It is based on a conference in 1998 at the Center of the Study of World Religions at Harvard University. It seeks to explore Daoism’s possible contributions to addressing the problems of the perceived ecocrisis in our modern world.

This collection operates with a broad and inclusive understanding of Daoism, and attempts to merge philosophical explication with religious accounts, covering not only Daodejing and Zhuangzi, the classics of philosophical Daoism, but also various texts of religious Daoism. However, the significance of Daoism is not confined to the ancient texts and romantic imagination, it also encompasses topophlia, an aesthetic respect and a practical love for one’s particular life-scape, a love that is rooted in the specific topography of a lived body and environment. This, after all, is the “natural” way of life “within a cosmic landscape”.

The proper human response to the problems of our perceived ecocrisis that emerges from these essays is refreshingly simple. Environmental problems, according to the wisdom of Daoism, reveal deeper cultural or human problems. Environmental restoration comes from massive cultural change which, in turn, comes from inner awakening and individual renewal. Healing planet Earth and all its inhabitants will depend in large part on how religious insights and perspectives are reappropriated, reinterpreted and revitalized to accomplish the daunting task of inner awakening and collective renewal. “To regulate the world, we have to cultivate ourselves, to tend to our inner landscape ... [to] find a whole new world of spiritual ecology” [92].

While the applicability of Daoism for ecological thought and practice is appreciated, one is cautioned not to take Daoism simply as a sort of “resource” to deal with the ecological problems of our modern society. Skeptics are quick to point to the ecological devastation in China and other parts of East Asia as a clear indication that Daoism and many other Asian religions remain ecologically helpless in the face of the science and technology of the modern era. The idea of interconnectedness between humans and nature does not seem to lead directly to a solution of the blatant pollution of the environment and degradation of the earth.

The editors wisely chose to operate with a broad and inclusive understanding of Daoism, allowing diverse views of Daoist scholars and practitioners to be represented, gathering essays both for and against the ecological significance of Daoism. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this extraordinary collection lies in the fact that it has successfully initiated public dialogue involving both the practitioners and academicians of Daoism. They cogently address the issue of any possible Daoist contribution to the questions of environmental crisis and ecological responsibility and present their discourses to scholars in the wider field of religious studies.