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)



The Control of appearances in Renaissance Italy. What happened with freedom?

“The Control of appearances in Renaissance Italy. What happened with freedom?”

By: Yoel Benhabib

Governments had a great influence on Renaissance society by controlling and defining the way their citizens were supposed to dress according to their gender, their social status, and the relations between opposite sexes. A series of very detailed sumptuary laws were passed and enforced, who according to Diane Hughes (“Sumptuary Laws and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy”), the government put a lot of emphasis on stopping the sumptuous ornamentation that characterized society, specially the expenditure and luxurious extravagance of women. Such luxury was seen as a vice and contrary to the morals of the Church who also preached and supported governmental decisions against vanities and the expenditure of money that could have been used to strengthen the Italian economy. Although, I have to say that the merchants and businessmen were in reality the ones behind it since they looked to protect and maintain their power, because by applying these laws they were restricting the imports from outside and forcing people to only buy from them preserving this way their monopoly. In Venice for example, the Senate limited the value of wedding gifts to forty lire di grossi (each coin=504 grams of silver), and someone giving a dowry of thirty lire di grossi and upwards had to present himself to the government’s office and swear to follow the law. Dresses, ornaments, and other luxuries were also regulated according to the age of the woman and if she was single or married, in which case the value could not exceed more than seventy lire di grossi. There were also laws establishing the way men must dress indicating the type of shoes, pants and hats; but they were mainly concerned with women’s appearance, the importance of modesty in their clothes, and in relation with the opposite gender, as women were seen as the ones inducing men to sin and sensual pleasure. We appreciate on the portraits from the time that high elite women wore long sleeve dresses and certain covering on their heads as sign of piety and the way the laws dictated; although excessive covering was condemned as it happened in Venice limiting it to religious related matters.  It seemed there was some kind of preoccupation with social disorder and the local governments were trying to preserve peace on their territories and holding this way onto power. At the same time these regulations on dress code always marked the difference between the elite and the poor people since clothes were indicators of social status in society. Hughes seems to indicate that they were not really concerned with money but feared the power of women since they were the more directly affected and controlled; these were perhaps, attempts to control their money and inheritances. We must consider that men’s livelihood depended sometimes on his wife’s dowry and if they could not use their money “extravagantly” or as they pleased, then their husbands could make use of it perpetuating a form of male domination and keeping the men dominant status in society.


Author: Yoel Benhabib





Book review: False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, by Nora E. Jaffary.

Book review: False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, by Nora E. Jaffary.
Author: Yoel Benhabib


In her book, False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, Nora Jaffary examines the cases of a significant number of popular mystics who were accused and tried by the Inquisition in New Spain, Mexico, of having feigned their revelations and prophetical abilities. The book offers a significant study on the relations between gender, status, and mysticism in a society that was more and more mixed and developing its own local identity in opposition to the Spanish Crown. Jaffary explores the cases of these ilusos or alumbrados between the end of the sixteenth and beginning of nineteenth centuries and how the Holy Office saw them as a threat to the Catholic Church because of their unorthodox practices. They were accused of unconventional practices and of having been tricked by the devil into believing they had received true prophecies from God. In this regard, Nora E. Jaffary argues that “inquisitors founded their determination of false mysticism only partly on an examination of the religious practices of the accused.” She uses inquisitorial records, a database of iluso and alumbrado trials, documents from ecclesiastical councils, magazines from the time, etc. Although the argument could be persuasive it does not deepen enough into how these Inquisitorial records were acquired from the accused and how reliable could they be in establishing the reality of what actually took place, meaning what can we really get from them? The cases were presented lightly without further deepening. Certainly, a document presenting the testimony of someone frightened and coerced can not be taken as a reflection of the total truth but as a biased reflection of its authors, inquisitorial officials.
The book also explores the reason for these popular mystics and how some were after status, power, and material gain in an unequal society. What is surprising is that many wealthy patrons supported them and boosted their prophetic careers. The ilusos or alumbrados criticized the corruption in society and within the Church, composed theological treatises, personal prayers, and documented their visions and prophecies. It was clear that for ecclesiastical authorities such liberties endangered their authority, although Jaffary says these false mystics just wanted to “secure spiritual and societal endorsement.” During this period, the very fact of being poor and a female were reasons enough to be suspected and accused if you had claimed prophetic inspiration. Women, especially among the mystics, were a challenge to a male-dominated intellectual and religious social order since they were not expected to exhibit such behavior and status.
Jaffary’s argumentation that the Inquisition ruled what was false mysticism by the accused practices is well presented in the book by its many examples. People claimed that these mystics or ilusos were able to perform miraculous deeds setting them apart from the common people such as in the case of Ana Rodriguez de Castro y Aramburu of whom many “detailed the ecstatic fits, visions, prophecies, and bouts of demonic possession they had watched Aramburu experience.” At the same time, others gave a very negative report of her discrediting her deeds and moral reputation, in general, saying she was a drunk woman. But could we say that either testimony presents us with a real characterization of the facts? It is obvious that the Inquisition choose to side with those who presented negative reports about these popular mystics, something that the book does not question deeply enough on the biases and reliability of the records. Could this perhaps have affected the result of the evidence? It could certainly be the case. Although it is not easy to dig further over one hundred and two cases in just a book. The author tells us that as an approximation half of the accused were female and “almost all of these women were either poor members of the laity of beatas.” On the contrary, few of the men tried were poor or belonged to the laypeople. Could such trial reports have enough credit when they seem to target specific strata in society? It seems not really possible for me in such a biased environment.
The author herself tells us the Inquisition manipulated the way in which orthodox Catholicism in Mexico determined what was heretical and what was not, especially during this Counter-Reformation period. Many people, such as in the case of Pedro Garcia de Arias, who was condemned to the stake “for his unorthodox ideas and for his heretical presumption that God had inspired his knowledge of them.” In his case, the tribunal determined that his ideas reflected the teaching of the Lutherans and therefore, a threat to the Church. It seems to be, though, that he was sentenced because he refused to abjure from his ideas and submit to the authority of the Inquisition. It is obvious then that the Church was more worried about preserving its orthodoxy and primacy in a society infected by Lutheran, Indian, and African influences.
Therefore, although Nora E. Jaffary does a good job in presenting us with some of the heretical practices of the ilusos or alumbrados and how the inquisition derived their definition of heresies from such practices; the book does not deepen enough on the reliability of the sources and testimonies of those accused, and the Inquisitorial methods of obtaining them. The records came to us from those who condemned the mystics, a biased and manipulated description of blurred realities from a distant past. Even though, the book is a good source for a better understanding of people’s lives in Colonial Mexico and the efforts of the Church to suppress whatever seemed to pose a threat to their authority and that of the Spanish Crown. Thanks to Jaffary’s research we can learn about how the common people, especially women, claiming divine inspiration and mystical powers were able to obtain wealth, status, power, and influence in an unequal and male-dominated society. Overall the book is a good source of knowledge on gender, status, and mysticism throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth-century Mexico.


Yoel Benhabib

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