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Elizabeth Reninger

Taoist Nuns: Seclusion & Survival

By March 23, 2010

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The Taoist hermits rode the clouds, teleported through space and were once worshipped across the nation for their extreme pursuit of ultimate freedom. Yet the attractive philosophy of the ancients can sometimes seem somewhat out of step with modern cravings for conspicuous consumption.

Even those who choose to separate themselves from the manmade material world soon find they must face challenges from the corrosive aftershocks of reform and opening-up.

So begins the article Testing Times For Taoists, a profile - offered via the CPC-aligned "People's Daily Online" - of a Taoist nun in the Quanzhen lineage, who is the head of a Taoist nunnery in east Beijing.

The article did a nice job, I felt, of highlighting the tension between the aspirations of individual practitioners, and the various governmental regulations they are subjected to; as well as the commercialization that seems necessary for the economic survival of the temples.

According to the Chinese Taoist Association, in 2007 there were 5,000 Taoist temples and some 50,000 Taoist priests and nuns on mainland China. These temples support themselves in part via donations; but also through revenue generated through stores (selling incense, talismans, etc.) and restaurants; as well as by charging fees for performing rituals.

There are some interesting comparisons drawn between Chinese Taoist and Buddhist institutions. The Quanzhen nun Liu Chongyao speculates that Buddhist monasteries are doing better than their Taoist counterparts as a result, in part, of the individualistic tendencies of Taoist practitioners, who are slow to unite in such collective and public endeavors. And the modern Taoist colleges apparently teach more CPC-approved political theory than they do Taoist doctrine.

Also pointed to is the tension between Taoist practice as a spiritual path, and as an occupation. In China, "Temple management" is something one can earn a Master's degree in. Nuns and priests living at the monasteries receive not only room and board but also a monthly salary, for their spiritual services.

The article only hints at the devastating effects of the Cultural Revolution on Taoist practice: "Religions wax and wane, she says. The Cultural Revolution, for example, forcibly returned thousands of priests and nuns to lay life." Not only were Taoist priests and nuns "forcibly returned to lay life," but many were forcibly imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or killed; and countless temples were destroyed. Not all that surprising, then, that there might be hesitation on the part of some Chinese Taoist practitioners to once again become visible in this way.

Finding a workable balance between ones spiritual aspirations and various economic necessities and political demands is, of course -- with the possible exception of the most secluded and self-reliant of hermits -- something all of us must contend with. It's not unique to Chinese practitioners. But since China is Taoism's historical homeland, it's interesting to tune into how this is playing out there, now.

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