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Russell Kirkland is associate professor of religion at the University of Georgia. He earned his B.A. in religious studies and M.A. in Asian history from Brown University in 1976; and an M.A. in religious studies (1982) and Ph.D. in Chinese language and culture (1986) from Indiana University. He has taught Taoism and related subjects at the University of Rochester, the University of Missouri, Oberlin College, Stanford University, and Macalester College. He has published more than a dozen studies of Taoism and the history and religions of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. A frequent contributor to Religious Studies Review, he has been Book Review Editor for the Journal of Chinese Religions since 1990, and serves on the executive board of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions.

 

Abstract of paper given at Taoism and Ecology conference:
"Life," "Nature," and "Responsible (Non-)Action": Perspectives from the Neiye, Zhuangzi, and Taode jing

For decades, classical Taoism has been widely interpreted as offering solutions to problems that modern Westerners perceive in their own world. Such ideas have been based upon certain readings of specific Taoist texts. Generation after generation have burdened those texts with layer upon layer of interpretation that have little or nothing to do with the historical or textual realities of the original texts. As Steve Bradbury has said, "Because the vast majority of its translators, Western and Chinese, were attracted to [the Taode jing] in the first place because of their humanist faith in Taoism as a 'common heritage of mankind,' and of the Tao Te ching as proto-humanist doctrine compatible with liberal Protestantism, they have usually produced. . .readings of the work that not only tend to reduce it to a Western epistemology but also endorse a Western agenda" (see "The American Conquest of Philosophical Taoism," in Translation East and West: A Cross-Cultural Approach, edited by Cornelia N. Moore and Lucy Lower [Honolulu: University of Hawaii College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature & East-West Center, 1992), 29-41, p. 31). That agenda, generally speaking, relates to a modern meta-narrative, which at times subordinates historical and cultural facts to a yearning for a utopian society, free of the evils that supposedly afflict the world under whatever oppressive yoke the interpreter sees as their cause (e.g. "organized religion," "industrial development," "big business," "technology," or "patriarchal hegemony").

I propose to set aside such interpretive agendas long enough to see if exegetical analysis can establish the authentic parameters of what the contributors to ancient Taoist texts really thought about the nature of life's forces and about the responsible human's proper course of action (or non-action). Specifically, I will explore three classical texts--the Taode jing, Zhuangzi, and the long-neglected Neiye-- to see what they do or do not actually say concerning certain basic issues of our own conceptual and ideological debates. Among those issues will be the following: What, precisely, is the nature of "life" (that is, what are the characteristics of living things)? What, precisely, is the significance of "life" (that is, in what sense, if any, is "life" more desirable than its absence)? And what does it mean for a human to live in accordance with the "nature" of things as they are? I expect that some of the answers to these questions may suggest a need for reconceptualization of many of our own issues.

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