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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #1 (December 30, 2003), page 13.
English author pens concise, accessible, and handsomely designed overview of Taoism
By Jennifer Oldstone-Moore
Oxford University Press, 2002
Hardbound, 112 pages, $17.95
By Dave Johnson
Ursula Le Guin’s deftly translated and gorgeously designed version of the Tao Te Ching, and Deng Ming Dao’s intriguing and provocative daily meditations — Everyday Tao and 365 Days — provide students and practitioners with the basic tenets of Taoism. But until now there hasn’t been a compact, concise, and accessible overview available to Westerners intrigued by this ancient Asian religion.
That niche was filled when Jennifer Oldstone-Moore published Taoism, an in-depth look at one of China’s three central religions. She has penned a textbook on Confucianism and perhaps will give us a streamlined, westernized version of Buddhism as well.
Her explanations of the precepts, practices, and history of Taoism are presented in a well-designed book that includes breathtaking photographs of mountain cliffs where many Taoist spirits reside and vital energy is particularly strong. There are also paintings, silk scrolls, and brush-and-ink sketches featuring Taoist deities. The venerable personality of Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, is also captured visually throughout the book. My favorite illustration comes from a 19th-century Taoist weather manual. It’s an ink-and-cinnabar graphic that depicts fire (yang) and cloud (yin) combined to form a burst of ch’i (energy). I think that one is going on my wall.
Even if readers aren’t specifically in search of Tao (The Way), they will find this handsome collection of Asian art and literature a worthy addition to any bookshelf collection of philosophical or spiritual pathways.
Oldstone-Moore divides her overview into short, brisk segments that include a look at the historical development of Taoism, an examination of sacred texts, sacred personalities, sacred time, ethical principles, death and the afterlife, and how this religion fits into modern society — in particular, how it has survived the emergence of the Communist regime.
Throughout the book, there are passages from ancient texts accompanied by the author’s commentary. For example, she quotes from "Autumn Floods" by the mystical visionary, Chuang-tzu:
"Of all the waters under heaven, none is greater than the sea. The myriad streams return to it, the rivers ever flow into it, and yet it does not empty. Spring and autumn do not change it; flood and drought have no effect on it; it is immeasurably greater than the Yellow River and Yangtze."
The author explains that "Chuang-tzu affirms the eternal flux of nature, the ever-shifting shapes and manifestations of the natural world that are part of a glorious whole, where nothing is ever lost and from whose vantage point all things must be considered as being equally precious and significant."
In "Sacred Spaces," the author explains how mountains are central to Taoist fundamentals, home to immortals, sources of herbs and minerals, and "meeting places between the human and divine."
She also talks about grottoes or "cave heavens" thought to be illuminated by their own light and mentions Tower Abbey, founded on the site where Lao-tzu reportedly delivered the Tao Te Ching before he disappeared into the West. This spot was renamed the Abbey of the Holy Ancestor and has become a cult center.
In keeping with the yin/yang dynamic of Taoism, Oldstone-Moore presents a female figure — Our Lady of T’ai Shan — who brings good luck and controls life and death with compassion and concern for the poor. A popular deity in late imperial China, she has been compared to Kuan-Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.
The book also delves into how Taoism is expressed during holidays and festivals. The New Year or Spring Festival is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, a period of time when the renewal of yang is celebrated after the doldrums of the winter solstice (yin).
Another intriguing festival is The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts, on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, during which the gates of Hell swing open and Taoist priests perform rituals to protect the community from hungry ghosts. Regular folks can help by performing music and theater, and offering refreshments and amusements to placate the astral troublemakers.
As she concludes her presentation of Taoism, the author discusses its relationship to Buddhism, once thought to be a foreign version of Taoism. She says that Zen has been described as a marriage between Buddhism and Taoism.
Oldstone-Moore is an assistant professor at Wittenburg University in Springfield, Ohio, where she is a member of the departments of Religion and East Asian Studies.
Other titles in this series published by Oxford University Press are Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, and Shinto.