Taoism in the United States: Americans searching for the Tao (Yoel Benhabib)


Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy of life whose teachings are ascribed to Lao Zi, an ancient philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE. It is said that he was the author of the Tao Te Ching, the main scripture of Taoism, that deals with the esoteric knowledge about the Tao or “The Way.” The Tao or Way cannot be really described or explained in any way, everything is a mystery, and this book and later writings just tried to emphasize on the need for a simple and balanced life. Harmony should be pursued in order to live a happy and long life, and this is clearly exemplified in the Taoist symbol of Ying and Yang, representing how the opposites (masculine-feminine, hot-cold, tall-short) when united, complement themselves in perfect balance. Whoever follows a simple life and understands these concepts it is said can achieve immortality. Later on, it became a religion with many gods, incorporating practices such as meditation, martial arts (Tai Chi), and magic, attracting many people and evolving up to modern times where it is even practiced in the United States.
We could say that Americans approach Taoism in many ways. For some people, it is just a philosophy of life, while others just take from it the tai chi or martial arts practice. Especially after Bruce Lee’s movies became quite popular in the 1970s people just felt attracted to anything Chinese. That is why it is not strange to drive around some parks and recreational areas in the States and see some people, especially old, doing some exercise and wearing some shirt with Chinese letters, they probably are practicing tai chi. “One issue facing Daoism is the culture of religious syncretism in the United States. Many Americans may take an aspect of Daoism and incorporate it into their own spiritual practice. Practitioners of Healing Tao may belong to or identify with a different religious tradition and often do not consider themselves religious Daoists, even as they seek to enjoy the benefits of taiji and qigong. This trend leaves many American Daoists grappling with the question: Should such a practitioner be considered a “Daoist”?”(1) As we can see, Taoism is practiced in a very freeway in the United States. People do not need to go to any temple or perform any rituals, some Americans could simply wake up one day and feel the Tao is calling them and they just follow it. I could ascertain this when one time I visited the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Temple Terrace and discovered that the instructor was an American woman and most of the students were old American ladies, no one Chinese, only one was Korean, I do not know if that counts. When I asked for a Chinese instructor, they just said they communicate with him online and that they joined the Taoist Tai Chi Society because they felt attracted (I guess the Tao called them), and for the health benefits of physical exercise. One thing I can say, they were very happy and looked like indeed had achieved harmony following the way of the Tao.

  1. “American Daoism in the 21st Century”, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University website, accessed June 19, 2020, https://pluralism.org/american-daoism-in-the-21st-century



Author:  Yoel Benhabib (History professor)



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