Daoist Alchemy in the West: The Esoteric Paradigms

Lee Irwin

Daoism, as the primary indigenous religion of China, is a highly
esoteric tradition. Constructed of many different strands, over
several thousand years, Daoism has a complex history of integrating
various techniques of meditation, spirit communication, consciousness
projection, bodily movements, medicine, and "internal alchemy" with a
profound transpersonal philosophy of nature and a metaphysics of human
relationships based on an ideal of spiritual transformation leading to
immortality. The mythically structured world of Daoism is rooted in
the tripartite division of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth which interact
through a rich web of symbolic correlations and correspondences
centered on the Daoist sage as a master of a parallel integration of
spirit, mind, and body. Thus while Daoism emphasizes bodily
disciplines like T'ai Chi and Chi Gong, a healthy diet, and a natural
life in harmony with nature and natural processes, it also emphasizes
a paradigm of embodied spirituality that seeks to actualized various
inner potentials that can lead to the radical transformation of the
natural. Rather than seeking to attain transcendence "beyond nature,"
Daoism emphasizes the value of nature as the ground of all
transpersonal development.[1] Such a paradigm is highly congruent with
certain streams of practice and thought in Western esotericism as well
as with current, emergent models of participatory spirituality
influenced by Daoism.[2]

Over the last fifty years, Daoism has become increasingly accessible
to the west, primarily through the translations of esoteric texts and
through the increasing propagation of multiple Daoist traditions by
both Chinese and Western teachers. Daoism is by no mean a single
hegemonic tradition, but a mosaic of textual, ritual, and interpretive
practices and schools that eludes any simple quantification. Much like
Western esotericism, Daoism is a complex reflection of movements and
dialogical interactions, often based on the writings or oral
traditions of individual masters whose teachings were at times
subversive or highly controversial within the Chinese context.[3] This
dialogical interaction was unmediated by any single institutional
hierarchy until very late in Chinese history and even in that late
context, individual Doaists continued to develop esoteric practices
through personal interpretations of the immense collection of Daoist
esoteric texts, as epitomized in the Daozang or collected sacred texts
of Daoism, canonized in 1444 and still largely untranslated into
English.[4] The thousands of texts in this collection are highly
esoteric and yet, there is no specific doctrinal framework for the
collection which leads, in turn, to many sectarian differences in both
interpretation and application of those texts.

Simultaneously, specific schools have also institutionalized their
ritual enactments and training processes resulting in highly diverse
sects, each with its own ethics, techniques, and relationship to the
local community. The cosmological and philosophical reflections
(daojia) of the sages and the religious activities (daojiao) of the
institutional priests combine in a dynamic syncreticism that is unique
for each school or, possibly, for each Daoist. Only a loosely
confederated series of specific texts, practices, and concepts, such
as yin-yang, wuxing five-element cosmology, reiterative
correspondence, basic moving and sitting meditations, a shared
pantheon of deities, and a search for immortality link the various
schools.[5] By the Tang dynasty, the mythical founder of Daoism, Laozi
[Lao Tsu], was worshipped by many Daoists as both a divine ancestor
and as the personification of the great Dao, incarnating as or
appearing to different Daoist masters.[6] Daoism, like Western
esotericism, is a plurality of traditions, not a unilateral
institution, a rich synthesis of diverse texts and practices, not a
dogmatized creed. Further, Daoism is also influenced by shamanic
practices, Chinese folk religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and various
missionary influences from Islam and Christianity (beginning with the
17th century Jesuits). Daoists have reacted diversely to these
additional influences and have debated, sometimes fiercely, with each
other over the appropriation of non-Daoist ideas or practices.


Daoism in the West

Early European writings on Daoism such as Athanasius Kircher's China
Illustrata (1667), characterized it as "full of abominable
falsehoods" and as originating in a form of idolatry transferred from
ancient Egypt. Jesuit missionaries further muddied the waters by
describing Daoists (as opposed to Confucianists whom they supported)
as "magicians and enchanters" whose alchemical search for immortality
was "ridiculous". [7] The German philosopher Leibniz (c. 1690s) was
among the first of the European intelligensia to see in the Chinese
classics, and in the synthesis of Neo-Confucian and Daoist thought, a
true religious expression of philosophia perennis, the ancient and
perennial, unitary truth underlying all great religions, a concept
resonant with much of Western esoteric thought. [8] The Leibnitz
theory of the monadology, of living beings mirroring and interacting
through harmonious relations, of the uninterrupted flow of continuous
unfolding, has strong resonance with Daoist ideas. [9] More serious
study of Daoism developed in the 19th century after the appointment of
Abel Rémusat to the first European chair of Chinese language and
literature at the Collège de France. In 1823, Rémusat published
Mémoire sur la vie et les opinions de Lao-Tseu, one of the earliest
European works on Lao-tzu and classical Chinese Daoism. [10] It was
during this same period that Jacques Marter published his book
Gnosticism (1828) in France which first used the term "esotericism" as
a construct linked to perennial philosophy and secret knowledge. [11]
Stanislas Julien published a French translation of the Daodejing (the
most popular classic text of Daoism) in 1841; in 1915 the French
Jesuit Père Léon Wieger published his etymological Dictionary of
Chinese Characters plus a large volume of translated Chinese texts
(some from the Daozang); and by 1921, J. J. M. DeGroot had published
his detailed six volume study of the religious systems (primarily
Daoist) of China, a work largely ignored by the European
intelligensia. [12]

By the 1840s, European scholars had constructed a form of Chinese
religious philosophy that they named "Daoism"--a term not used before
this time. As a philosophical tradition, Daoism became associated with
a very limited selection of classic texts (Yijing, Daodejing, and
Zhaungzi) as epitomized in the early 1848 English translation of the
"old philosopher Lau-Tzse" by John Chalmers who presented the text as
a serious work of metaphysics. [13] By the late 19th century,
"classical Daoism" was constructed in an orientalist paradigm as a
text based philosophy, a perennial wisdom tradition that "reflected a
timeless spiritual quality" while "later" or "religious" Daoism was
seen as a decline from its original essential purity. [14] This dual
attitude toward Daoism as a transcendental philosophy unencumbered by
religious practice as juxtaposed to a marginalized and degraded
magical religion was largely a French Catholic construct that was
popularized well into the 20th century in both Europe and America. In
1876, the Scottish Congregationalist minister, James Legge, was
granted the first British Chair in Chinese studies at Oxford
University. His construction of "Daoism" through reputable classic
text translations engendered an attitude and vocabulary around western
Daoism that virtually ignored the history and complexity of Daoist
esotericism. [15] Legge dismissed "popular" religious Daoism (Taojiao)
as `superstitious', `unreasonable' and `fantastic' much in the same
way that other Protestant scholars dismissed Western esoteric
traditions of magic and the occult. Subsequently, the emergent
orientalist paradigm of Daoism was an imaginative projection by
western scholars and esotericists based in a reification of a narrow
text corpus reminiscent of the Christian New testament as
"foundational" and essential to western constructions of religion. [16]

In America, scholarly and popular interest in "oriental religions"
resulted in a Daoist representative attending the World's Parliament
of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. American interpreters also
carried forth the theme of the universalist aspect of Daoism as
illustrated in Samuel Johnson's 1878 work on "oriental religions" in
which a limited philosophical Daoism is shown to be a manifestation of
a transcendental "universal religion" independent of any creed or
dogma or rituals and united with the celebration of nature as found in
the New England Transcendentalists. [17] By way of contrast, as early
as 1853 the first Chinese temple was built in San Francisco and by
1900 there were over 400 such temples stretched along the American
west coast, mixing popular Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. This
living presence of Daoism was largely ignored by American scholars and
mostly engaged by Chinese immigrants. [18] In 1912, C. H.
Bjerregaard gave a series of lectures on The Inner Life and the
Tao-Teh-King, discussing the mystical aspects of philosophical Daoism,
at the American Theosophical Society; the lectures were then published
by the Theosophical Society. Bjerregaard was a newly initiated member
of Hazrat Inayat Khan's Sufi Order (Khan was a murshid of the Indian
Chishti Order); this tentative relationship between Daoism and Islamic
esotericism would be later developed in Europe and America (see
below). This publication also marks the beginning of American
interests in esoteric Daoism. [19]


In general, the American Theosophical Society supported an ecumenical
idea of the philosophia perennis, an underlying primordial wisdom
teaching, as inherent to all world religions, an interpretation that
was reinforced throughout much of the 20th century. [20] Another
supporter of the "universalism" inherent to Daoism was Paul Carus, a
German emigrant to America who published (1906) with Teitaro Suzuki
the first English translation of a Daoist text on the afterlife and
karmic retribution, following his 1898 translation of the Daodejing in
support of his beliefs in a universal brotherhood inherent to many
eastern traditions. [21] A similar approach to the text was made by
Dwight Goddard's (1919) translation of the Daodejing, entitled
Laotzu's Tao and Wu Wei, later (1939) retranslated and edited with an
article on Daoist philosophy. In 1928, Obed Johnson published A Study
of Chinese Alchemy, one of the earliest western accounts of Daoist
alchemical theory in English. [22]

In Germany, Daoist alchemy was first introduced through the
publication of Richard Wilhelm's The Secret of the Golden Flower
(1920's in German, 1931 in English), a small esoteric Daoist text
selected from the Daozang canon, with a commentary by C. G. Jung.
Wilhelm also published early German translations of the Yijing (with
Daoist influenced commentary) and the Daodejing (1924). Wilhelm's
translation of the Yijing was extremely popular in its English
translation (1950) in both Britain and America. [23] In 1910, Martin
Buber published a German translation, with commentary, on the Zhuangzi
(the other classic work of Daoist philosophy). Buber drew parallels
between Daoism and Hasidic Kabbalah as shown in a common use of tales
and parables of spiritual masters, religion as social protest, an
ethic of unconventionality, common meditation-visualization
techniques with a goal of mystical union. [24] From the 1920s to the
1970s, Martin Heidegger drew on German translations of the Zhuangzi
and the Daodejing (as well as Zen Buddhist texts) as primary sources
for his philosophical reflections after writing Being and Time. In
fact, Heidegger made his own translation of the Daodejing. Concepts
such as being-in-the-world, releasement, letting-be, his affirmation
of worldliness and "openness to Being" all seem resonant with primary
Daoist teachings. [25]

C. G. Jung, a proponent of modern alchemical and gnostic psychology,
used the Wilhelm translation of the Yijing as a therapeutic aid in
"exploring the unconscious" of his patients in analysis. Further, his
popular idea of "synchronicity" was deeply influenced by his Daoist
readings as an alternative holistic idea in the face of the more
mechanistic theories of contemporary science. Jung also borrowed from
the Daoist theory of visualization processes and from Yin-Yang to
develop his theory of the polarity of the archetype and the general
polarity of the psyche in search of wholistic integration. [26] Other
psychological theorists, like Erikson and Maslow, also contain ideas
resonant with Daoist thought, while a few limited studies in Daoist
alchemy were also being published. [27] By the 1950s, a limited
textual Daoism was being propagated in academic institutions and a
rudimentary beginning was made in the study of the religious, social,
and historical aspects of Daoism through the work of Maspero, Needham,
Creel, Girardot, Wing-tsit Chan, and others.

Thus the primary influence of Daoism in the west was through texts and
translations, not through the study of religious rituals or alchemical
practices which remained largely obscure and unknown. Further, these
texts were composites based on generations of redaction and
application to religious life and not simply the unedited
philosophical texts of individual masters. This literary bias, based
on a western orientalist textual paradigm, has obscured much that is
esoteric and magical within living Daoism, both in the past and in the
present. The 5,000 texts of the Daozang are filled with esotericism of
the most diverse and complex kind, written in special languages, with
hundreds of symbolic, alchemical drawings, mandalas, maps, diagrams,
and instructions for internal alchemical transformations. The Chinese
terminology for the various esoteric traditions has a highly complex
etymological and semantic history (the 1915 Chinese-German dictionary
gives 46 different meanings for the term Dao). While the Daodejing has
over 200 translations in 17 languages, the inner teachings of Daoist
esotericism still remains obscure in the popular context. [28]
Nevertheless, Daoist thought has impacted both European intellectual
traditions and American transcendental thought and popular culture in
significant and enduring ways.


Early Western Esoteric Interests

In Germany, the first German translation of the Daodejing (1870) was
introduced as a theosophical work of "ancient esoteric wisdom"
(~prisca theologia). [30] The theme of "ancient wisdom" (coupled with
a developing interest in the "exotic east") attracted some western
esotericists to explore Chinese Daoist texts as resources for the
development of their own systems. The range of intersection between
the two is a fascinating melange of cross-cultural comparison,
systemic parallelism, and synthetic integration. Daoist Five Element
(wuxing) cosmology is based in a theory of correspondences very
similar to theories developed in the Greco-Roman world and
subsequently passed onto Medieval Europe. The many diagrams of the
various Daoist correlative systems, distinctive within the various
Daoist schools, resemble in many ways the correlative symbolism of
European Renaissance esotericism in synthesizing the elements (in
Daoism five: in the four directions, water (N), wood (E), fire (S),
metal (W), and earth in the center), with seasonal, astrological,
herbal, mineral, animal as well as with colors, human organs, and
spirit correlations. Equilibrium is found by balancing the Five Agents
through meditative (neiguan), symbolic processes of internal alchemy
(neidan), based in what Isabelle Robinet calls a "double syntax" of
balanced polarity and creative ambiguity. [31]


The Five Agents are a product of the deeper Yin-Yang dynamics which
originated as a relationship between Yang (light, breath, movement,
male heaven) and Yin (darkness, bodily stillness, female earth) in the
midst of which emerged the Human (jen) realm of mediation and
synthesis. This tripart division of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth each
have their correspondent rulers, spirits, and powers. The interactive
dynamics of Yin-Yang integration emerges from the Primordial Breath
(yuanqi or taiji), the creative energy of Being, which is itself is
born of wuqi (Highest Non-Energy). These correlations, which are many
and highly diverse within various Daoist systems, were further
correlated with the eight trigrams and the sixty four hexagrams of the
Yijing, accompanied by multiple Daoist commentaries, associated with
many diverse deities, and strong emphasis on astral influences of the
Big Dipper constellation (Thunder Magic). All of these associations
were tied to ritual and magical practices carried out by trained
Daoist masters who were experts in the esoteric lore and visualization
techniques of Daoist alchemy and ceremonial invocation. [32] This
correlative approach is highly congruent with the western Hermetic
tradition rooted in a similar correlative cosmology based in early
Greco-Roman alchemy, based on five elements (earth, water, air, fire
and aether) transmitted through Islamic alchemical traditions in the
form of alchemical and Hermetic cosmological texts which were
translated into European languages during the Italian Renaissance. The
Hermetic texts were primary sources for western esoteric theories of
the prisca theologia and the philosophia perennis and were clearly an
early, comparative resource for the esoteric reading of translated
Daoist texts. [33]

Renaissance correlative cosmology was highly visual (graphic arts) and
imagistic in mapping the body, for example Robert Fludd's microcosmic
"atmospheric" depiction of the body or various Kabbalistic theories of
the body, in ways more detailed and elaborate but similar to Daoist
theories of the "landscape of the body" which contains a multitude of
sacred beings, astrological energies, and a tripart division of upper,
middle and lower chambers, each with its ruling spirits and
cosmological correlations. [34] Renaissance esotericists also used
number schemas to elaborate their cosmological symbolism encoded in
archetypal patterns of three, seven, nine and twelve, as do many of
the Daoist masters, particularly using schemas of three, five, nine,
and twelve. Western esotericism has many hierarchical systems in
organizing its cosmology as do the many Daoist schools where various
planes correspond to specific orders or powers or deities, linked
through correlative relationships forming a "chain of being" between
the different orders, as illustrated in ~Cornelius Agrippa's De
Occulta Philosophia (1533) and similar to many Yuan dynasty Daoist
texts. [35] However, Daoists have tended toward a less rigidly
structured hierarchy and have been tolerant of diversity among the
various Daoist esoteric schools. [36]

Many texts on Daoist alchemy share resonances with Western esoteric,
hermetic practices including the refinement of material substances
through various stages of transformation, a search for an immortal
elixir or "cinnabar pill", use of an hermetic vessel or cauldron,
occult animal and talismanic (fu) symbolism including special magical
scripts, the use of mineral, vegetable and pharmacological substances,
secret or orally transmitted instructions (later written down), the
use of esoteric visualization (tsun), breath and movement techniques,
reclusive withdrawal from the world, fasting and asceticism, the
significance of dreams and a general visionary epistemology, as well
as the elusive search for varying degrees of immortality, a particular
goal of Daoist practice. Magical practices, with invocations, sacred
circles, geomantic inscriptions, carried out with magical implements
like the staff or sword, with incense, bells, and chanting are also
common aspects of both Daoist and Western esoteric techniques. [37] It
was the religious and magical techniques of Daoism that strongly
attracted the interests of certain western esotericists, much more
than the strictly philosophical texts of early classical Daoism.
Mythical stories and imagery, dragon bones and water fairies, the
golden peaches of immortality from the gardens of Hsi Wang Mu (Queen
of Heaven), as well as the reputed occult powers and abilities of the
Daoist masters or "immortals" (xien), both embodied and disembodied,
resonate well with the imaginative worlds of western esoteric, magical
thought. The Daoist emphasis on "internal" (neidan) alchemy or the
distillation of the "Golden Elixir" (jindan) based on ritual,
meditation and breath techniques for personal spiritual
transformation, as compared to the more "external" (waidan) laboratory
practices, also resonated well with late 19th century magical society
practices that emphasized personal transformation while the mingling
of both alchemical aspects was common in western esoteric traditions. [38]


Israel Regardie tells the story of how, in the late 1920's, he
watched Aleister Crowley of Golden Dawn fame "operate the sticks" for
the oracular use of the Yijing in Crowley's apartment in Paris in
order to "obtain some augury for the ensuing period." [39] Crowley at
that time had "written a poetic interpretation" of the 64 Yijing
hexagrams which Israel Regardie observed him using in oracular
fashion. After Crowley obtained his Hermetic revelation from Aiwaz,
the messenger of Horus in Egypt in 1904, he then traveled to China
(1905) and in 1907 established his own magical order, Argenteum Astrum
(AA/Silver Star) in which he integrated rewritten Golden Dawn rituals
with "yogic and oriental materials of his own." By 1925, Crowley, a
high standing member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) German magical
order, became the international leader of the OTO. [40] It was in this
magical ritual context that Israel Regardie, later a prominent member
of the Stella Matutina (a late division of the Hermetic Order of the
Golden Dawn), went to Paris in 1928 where he was introduced to the
transliterated "Daoist" texts of Crowley as his secretary. Crowley,
like Jung, took a serious interest in the Yijing and published in the
1930s, Shih Yi; A Critical and Mnemonic Paraphrase of the Yi King and
Khing Kang King, The Classic of Purity (a paraphrase of the
Daodejing). [41] At the very least, Crowley seems to have learned
something of the Daoist oracular use of the Yijing and of the
importance of the classic Laozi text as fundamental to Daoist
occultist practices. Crowley mixed a magical brew of east-west
esoteric symbolism, oracular divination and spirit invocation,
reminiscent of Daoist religious techniques, without any exposure to
genuine Daoist religion. [42] In 1932, Regardie also referenced
yin-yang and Daoist theory in his classic work on Stella Matutina
magical Kabbalah. [43]

An~other follower of Crowley, Louis Culling, who in the early 1930s
joined the magical gnostic order of the GBG founded in America by C.
F. Russel (a disciple of Crowley) and who became head of the southern
California section of the GBG Order, studied the Yijing for many years
as intrinsic to the GBG gnostic magical path. Culling became the
expert on magical interpretation of the "pristine" Yijing which he
believed was hidden beneath the "barnacles" of historical text
transmission. He eventually published (1966) a written version of the
text, The Pristine Yi King, as used in the GBG starting in the late
1930s. The casting of the divination sticks (or wands or coins) fell
according to a "Supraconscious Intelligence" working through the
operator of the sticks. The 64 hexagrams were memorized as a Magic
Square by members of the GBG and drawn on a white cloth for the
oracular casting. In developing his magical use of the Yijing, Culling
demonstrates familiar with Daoist terminology and the symbolism of the
bagua prognostic chart of the eight primary trigrams. He rejected the
Yijing translations of Wilhelm and Legge and claims to have
"recovered" the original text based on the eight bagua (trigrams) of
Fushi, the original (mythic) author of the Yijing. Culling created a
table of correlations for each of the eight bagua consisting of a
trigram, a symbol, a specific meaning, a quality, and "sigil" or
geomantric graphic image of an element--for example, "Khien" (three
solid yang lines), symbol of heaven or sky, the meaning is projecting
strength or power, the quality is will or creation, the sigil is a
large T symbolizing the lingam (Sanskrit), the male sexual organ. [44]
This is all a strange mix of Daoist and east-west magical symbolism.
From this table of correspondences, Culling then develops a system of
interpretations of the position of each of the bagua in 64
combinations and gives the magical application of the hexagrams as
related to a magical circle very similar to actual Daoist ritual
practices related to the hour, day, season and so on. He then gives
only a single line "translation" for each hexagram, coupled with his
own original commentary based on his primary table of correspondences.
Subsequently, this oracular technique was taught by Culling to the
GBG members.

While the writings of C. G. Jung and Mircea Eliade on western alchemy
set the stage for even greater interest in possible parallels with
Daoist alchemy, perennialists such as René Guénon, Titus Burckhardt,
and Julius Evola were also strongly attracted to Daoism as an esoteric
expressions of philosophia perennis. [45] Whereas earlier writers,
as noted above, drew parallels between Daoism and Kabbalah, these
neo-traditionalists drew parallels between Daoism and Islamic Sufism.
By "perennialists" I mean a coterie of European intellectuals
committed to sophia perennis, or a "perennial wisdom" that they
claimed as the authentic, inherent core of all "true" religious
traditions, epitomized by Frithjof Schuon as a "transcendental unity"
inherent to all religions, a claim still made under the term
"primordial tradition" in America by such scholars as Huston Smith and
Seyyed Hossein Nasr. [46] The link with Daoism was made through the
circuitous route of identifying an inner core of teachings reflecting
a universal and transcendent, esoteric spirituality supposedly free of
all cultural and hermeneutic influences. Daoism was eventually
assimilated into this esoteric ideology through comparisons drawn
between various mystical texts and initiatic traditions, which came to
include the "pristine" teachings of the Laozi and Zhuangzi.


John-Gustaf (Ivan) Agueli, a Swedish painter and Swedenborgian living
in Paris in 1905, was a member of the Paris Theosophical Society. In
1907, while on a second visit to Egypt, Agueli was initiated by a Sufi
sheikh strongly interested Islamic "universalism" (philosophia
perennis), 'Abd al-Rahman 'Illyash al-Kabir, head of one branch of the
Shadhili Sufi Order. Abd al-Rahman initiated Agueli and confered upon
him the title of moqaddem, one who has the authority to initiate
others into the order. Agueli was possibly the first European
traditionalist sanctioned to give esoteric Sufi initiations. In the
same year, 1907, Agueli also wrote an article for the journal La Gnose
on the universal and esoteric similarities between Daoism and Islam.
Agueli's understanding of Daoism came from Albert Puyon, Comte de
Pouvourville, "who had been initiated into a Chinese Daoist secret
society" (c.1907) where he took the name Matgioi. [47] In 1907, René
Guénon had started publishing La Gnose, as an esoteric journal, which
he continued for about five years. As an esotericist, Guénon helped
to organize the Spiritualist and Masonic Congress of 1908 where he met
Fabre des Essarts, `the Gnostic patriarch' (or `Synesius') who
initiated him as a "bishop" into the Masonic brotherhood founded by
Encasse (Papus) where he assumed the name `Palingenius'. During this
same period he was also initiated into the Primitive and Original
Swedenborgian Rite, and given the title (or name) Chevalier Kadosch,
and, supposedly, in 1912, Agueli initiated Guénon into the Shadhili
Sufi order. The Daoist Puyon, the Sufi Agueli and the Traditionalist
Guénon were friends and collaborators on La Gnose, thus creating a
context for an orientalist reconstruction of "Daoism" along the lines
of a traditionalist ideology. [48] Guénon also references another
French esoteric source, a small work entitled "Les Enseignements
Secrets de la Gnose," which discusses the various esoteric aspects of
the gnostic revival, such as in Kabbalah and Freemasonry, and the
gnostic connection with Daoism. [49]

From this initial introduction, Guénon went on to develop an enduring
interest in Daoism as a manifestation of sophia perennis, even though
he eventually migrated to Egypt where he was fully initiated into
Sufism. Significantly, Guénon's first book, published in 1924 was
entitled Orient et Occident (East and West) and touches on Daoist
ideas as part of his development of an esoteric, traditionalist
paradigm. In his Symbolisme de la Croix (1931), which was composed in
part for La Gnose, he writes extensively on the concept of jingyong
(unchanging middle) and on the yin-yang symbol and its universal
significance for all religious and esoteric traditions, specifically
quoting many times La Voie Métaphysique written by the Daoist
"initiate" Puyon (Matigoi) who cites the Yijing. Guénon also compares
the Sufi "primordial man" with the kabbalist Adam Cadmon and the
Daoist "wang" (Emperor) quoting the Daodejing. [50] In later works
such as La Métaphysique Orientale (1939) and particularly in La Grande
Triade (1946/1994), Guénon focuses on the Daoist ternary-- Heaven,
Man, Earth -- while referencing other traditions, as an "inescapable
feature of all spirituality," a triad whose symbolic structure,
according to Guénon, offered guidance for inner development and
spiritual transformation. Guénon continued this comparative and
analogical analysis of Daoism in relationship to Sufism and other
traditions until the end of his life, particularly as epitomized in
his work, Insights into Islamic Esoterism & Taoism (Aperçus sur
l'Esotérisme Islamique et le Taoïsme, 1973). [51]

The Italian hermetic and magical baron, Giulio (Julius) Evola, was a
keen follower of Guénon and wrote a book on his life among his many
other esoteric works. While Evola, as a "philosopher-visionary", sage,
esotericist, painter and mountaineer applied the traditionalist and
perennialist ideology to political matters, he also had a strong
interest in Daoism. Evola borrowed from Daoist, Buddhist and Tantric
texts to formulate his magical theories of correspondence. Recently,
Evola's thoughts on Daoism have been published in Taoism: The Magic,
the Mysticism (1995). [52] Evola, whose interests centered on an
"aristocracy of the spirit" epitomized by heroic, kingly figures and
ascetic, mystical "men of knowledge," understood Taoism as a paradigm
of the "primordial Eastern tradition." Lao-tzu, whose teachings are
described as "mysterious, elusive, and bewildering," became a
"super-temporal being" after his death (a reference to the
divinization of Lao-tzu in the later Han period), and was an initiator
of "real men" though his visionary appearances to various Chinese
masters. This initiatic element reflects a universal esoteric current
"strictly associated with the royal function" meant to guide elect
human beings to higher knowledge. Evola regarded the Tao Te Ching as
an esoteric text of the great "primordial tradition" centered on the
Dao, or Way, manifest in two aspects: the great principle of
primordial unity (transcendence) and the active principle (immanance)
of spiritual virtue or law (de).


He rejects, as did other traditionalists, the religious (daojiao)
aspects of Daoism, focusing on the "impersonal" philosophical teaching
(daojia) of the text as "characteristic of the Far Eastern
Weltanschauung, its superhuman purity...and what may be called its
`immanent transcendentalism'." For Evola, Daoism reflected a prefect
integration of both immanence and transcendence, actualized through
the virtue of emptiness (wu), in order for these two aspects of the
Dao to initate the "eternal development of the world." However,
somewhat at odds with his rejection of religious Daoism, he theorized
that virtue (de) is a magical power whose efficacy was not based on a
"moralizing theology" (Christian) but was an expression of a "superior
influence uncaring about individual human existence." This virtue was
a magical power of presence that "real men" manifested through their
spiritual perfection, a presence that did not require them to act, but
only to be "real" in order for that magical efficacy to impact others
and the world at large. The "men of Dao" undergo a profound
transformation "beyond form" that results in their being true men of
spirit (shenren), "illumined by a great light" and beyond all
rudimentary forms of change or horizontal existence. The term "real
men" for Evola reflects an ontological state of spiritual perfection
that he borrowed from Guénon as a "purified and subtle doctrine of the
`superman'." Such "real men" are rare, aristocrats of the spirit
concerned with "transcendental inner life and not external social
conduct." [53]

The Daoist concept of spontaneity (po) is interpreted by Evola as not
"animal-like innocence" but a state hinted at in the myth of the
Golden Age as the "naturality of the supernatural" in certain
individuals. The perfected "real man" of Dao does not act but bends,
withdraws, gives in, in order that the principles of yin-yang may
manifest the will of the Dao in harmony with him who is truly in
accord with the Dao. Such an individual is an "impenetrable type of
initiate" whose similar type can be found, according to Evola, in
western Hermeticism and in Rosicrucianism, as well as in Sufism, as an
antinomian "real man" who dismisses current values and norms as
insufficient for true spiritual life. Such an individual has the
magical traits of invulnerability, spiritual charisma, and a
transcendent detachment that reflects his royal ontological status (as
wang or king). He is a true "sovereign" and mediator between heaven
and Earth, a custodian of doctrine, a natural leader and "royal man"
who is not passive but active through his magical presence. Evola sees
an "Olympian" quality in Daoist political teachings: the initate
leader who acts with supreme detachment and whose subtle, invisible,
and immaterial influence, based on his attunement with Dao and De, is
superior to any type of force or coercion. Detached from every human
feeling with "impersonal impassibility," utterly neutral before good
or evil, he fosters "primordial simplicity" in the common folk, in
order for the Dao to act with perfect freedom and efficacy. For Evola,
this uptoian, kingly ideal was realized in the "ancien regime" in
Europe (King Arthur, the Grail, and so on). [54]

The decline of Daoism from its utopian ideals is evident, according to
Evola, in the rise of popular, folk religious Daoism (daojiao),
"surviving only as a cult practiced by monks and wizards." However,
operative Daoism survived in the form of an esoteric alchemy whose
adherents sought immortality (xien) through the formation of secret
initiatic schools. Daoist immortals, in Evola's view, attain
immortality through the transformation of the physical body using
techniques of "fixing the breath" and practicing the "coagulation of
subtle ethereal substances" in order to avoid the loss of connection
with the One/Dao (and the fall into rebirth and loss of all spiritual
knowledge). Immortality consists, then, in sustaining consciousness
while undergoing the crisis of radical changes of state (at death)
through training in esoteric techniques similar to initiatic
traditions of the west. The formation of the "immortal embryo" is the
esoteric alchemical technique by which one forms an enduring identity,
one consonant with a "real man" (immortal) of the Dao. Consciousness
then is transferred to an embryo or immortal body, or into a "pure
form" analogous to the Forms of Platonic scholasticism, a teaching
that Evola regards as beyond the understanding of the ordinary
non-initiate. Further, these immortal forms reflect an esoteric
hierarchy of higher and lower types manifesting the degree and
intelligence of the individuals thus transformed. Finally, Evola
references Matigoi (Puyon) as a European who had direct training in
esoteric Daoism and who was clearly a source of information for
Evola's interpretation. [55]

Another less dogmatic traditionalist and esoteric writer, Titus
Burckhardt, was also influenced by Daoism, particularly by Daoist
aesthetic theories as seen in Chinese painting. Burckhardt, a close
intellectual compatriot and friend of Frithjof Schuon, espoused a
universalist Sufi wisdom (sophia perennis) and wrote on alchemy and
gnosis. He also wrote at length on the Daoist idea of "creative
spirit" in painting, which he identified in Daoism with "the rhythm of
cosmic life." The flow of brush and ink, like the appearing and
dissolving of a snowflake, reflected the dynamic reality of the Dao
underlying static, perishable physical phenomena. Burckhardt saw in
the Daoist perspective, a less individual or "homocentric" emphasis,
which expressed an inner calm of contemplation that revealed a hidden,
timeless harmony normally veiled by "the subjective continuity of the
mind." He accurately grounds this deeper harmony in the Daoist concept
of wuqi (non-being or void) as a primordial, transcendental truth. He
also references the importance of Daoist concepts of "wind and water"
(fengshi), sacred geography (mountain and water), simplicity,
naturalness, and spontaneity, all basic to classical Daoism. [56] In a
similar spirit, Toshihiko Izutsu, a scholar at McGill University,
published his perennialist work, Sufism and Taoism (1967) comparing
the mystical writing of Ibn `Arabi (Fusus al-Hikam) with the Zhuanzi
and Daodejing, which became highly popular among traditionalists and
esotericists supporting philosophia perennis.


Chinese Daoist Teachers and Western Esotericism

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Daoism in the west had entered a
new phase. Scholarship was producing new translated texts for study,
historical interpretations were moving beyond the old paradigms, and
Daoist studies were moving increasingly away from a simplistic
interpretation of a few classic texts. [57] Increasingly, Daoism was
differentiated from western models of mysticism and spirituality in an
attempt to elucidate its unique cultural and historical aspects. The
"immanent" aspects of Daoist spirituality were emphasized in contrast
to Christian "transcendence" and the religious and magical aspects of
Daoism were increasingly regarded as normative features of the
religious traditions--there was no true split between "philosophical
and religious" Daoism. Instead there was only an increasing complexity
and interweaving of diverse sources, as more ethnography was published
and more texts from the Daozang have become accessible. [58] Starting
in the 1970s, American-Chinese authors also began to publish
translations on Daoism, beyond the normative texts, such as Lu K`uan
Yü's (Charles Luk) The Secrets of Chinese Meditation (1964) and his
more influential Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality (1970) which
gives a translation of the Xin Ming Fa Jue Ming Zhi ("The Secrets of
Cultivating Essential Nature and Eternal Life") written by an late
19th century Daoist master of internal alchemy, Zhao Bi Chen. This
work and its useful Chinese-English alchemical glossary has become
highly referenced by contemporary esotericists and by many Chinese
Daoists in America.

In the 1970s, authors like J. C. Cooper (1972), began to write popular
but short overviews of Daoism, published (like Charles Luk) by Western
esoteric presses, which covered the subject in a way that demonstrated
familiarity with more diverse aspects of the esoteric tradition. [59]
Fritjof Capra also published his very popular work, The Tao of
Physics (1975), which explored parallels between modern physics and
"eastern mysticism" and has a chapter on Daoism. Capra draws heavily
on the Zhuangzi and on the Daodejing and Yijing but applies the ideas
to the physics relativity paradigm, to holistic transformation, and to
wu-wei, or non-action, as intellectual ideas precursory to quantum
physics and a "dynamic transformative view" of the universe, with an
emphasis on flow, change, and the integrated polarity of the Dao. Such
a work helped to give credibility to Daoism by aligning it with
science (following Joseph Needham's earlier work) and with a
detheologized metaphysics. [60] Even more popular were two outstanding
authors who were very influential in making Daoism accessible to
westerners, John Blofeld and Alan Watts. Both Watts and Blofeld have
associations with western esotericism simply because they helped to
popularize Daoism at a time when "eastern religions" were part or an
emergent "new age" paradigm that was impacting many currents within
American and European esotericism. [61] While both authors had
strong interests in Buddhism, Blofeld's work was largely based on his
actual meeting with Daoist masters and practitioners during his 17
years in China.

Blofeld, an English gentleman, was a world traveler, an outstanding
réconter, and a gifted writer who got along well with practitioners of
many diverse esoteric schools, particularly among Daoist hermits.
Following the publication of his own translation of the Yijing (1966),
he published a work on Daoist "mysteries and magic" (1973) based on
the Daoist classics (using reputable English translations), Charles
Luk's previously mentioned works, and a reconstruction of his
"wanderings" in the mountains and hermitages of China (1930s) where he
met and conversed with as "many different kinds of Daoists as
possible." [62] Blofeld clearly states that there is little or no
distinction among practicing Daoists between philosophical and
religious Daoism. He draws parallels between Daoism and Sufism,
western mystics and esoteric writers, and tells many a remarkable and
entertaining tale embedding Daoism in its proper Chinese cultural
milieu. [63] This is not scholarly or textual Daoism, but a living
representation of the foibles, ritual practices, magical techniques,
and remarkable accomplishments of real Daoists. Following Luk, Blofeld
also discusses Daoist yoga or meditation and Daoist sexual techniques,
a theme which has attracted some contemporary esotericists. In
Blofeld's other major Daoist work (1978), he draws extensively on the
Dao Jia Yu Shen Xian (Daoist Philosophy and Immortality) of Zhou Shau
Xian based on selections from the Daozang canon. Blofeld describes
this expanded overview as "a first comprehensive sketch of Huang-Lau
Daoism" and discusses popular Daoist religion as well as three
chapters on Daoist alchemy, with an appendix tabulating a variety of
wuxing correspondences. This work is one of the first, very readable,
overviews of Daoist religion. [64]


Alan Watts, an English emigrant to America, had an early interested in
Buddhism and its Zen variations, and toward the end of his
controversial and somewhat eccentric life, wrote a book exclusively on
Daoism. Being a great popularizer of "Eastern religions" through
public lectures, Watts (author of 25 popular books melding Eastern and
Western thought) was a member of the English Theosophical Society and
was friends with D. T. Suzuki and Krishnamurti (the promised "Avatar"
of the Theosophical Society). Interested in Zen "enlightenment" and
Daoist yin-yang principles of spiritual transformation, Watts
eventually migrated to America in the mid-1940s and embraced the
perennialist view (influenced by Aldous Huxley) of the universality
hidden in all spiritual traditions. [65] After leaving the Episcopal
ministry and rejecting institutional religion, Watts "embraced
insecurity" based on his "Daoist" interpretations of individual
freedom, the immediacy of experience, and the abandonment of all
creeds and dogmas. [66] By the late 1950s, Watts was on the lecture
circuit to about 100 American cities, had a radio program, and his own
televised education special ("Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life" a
24-part series on NET). Watts, more than any other individual,
popularized "eastern religions" to the American public and rode a wave
of enthusiaum for his books throughout the 1960s and 70s. His book on
"nature, man, and woman" (1958) had very strong Daoist influences and
from this point onward, his interest in Daoism deepened. A friend of
Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Das), Watts became a charismatic
"guru" to many younger people, influencing them to practice meditation
and take an interest in eastern teachings. By the late 1960s, he
became increasingly identified as "the American Daoist" through the
publication of Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown (1968) and his last
book, Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975), published two years after his
death. [67]

Watts was also involved in the human-potential movement, centered in
the California Esalen Institute where he met and gave seminars with Al
Huang, a popular Chinese Tai Ji teacher, calligrapher, dancer, and
organizer of his own Daoist institute, the Living Tao Foundation. Al
Huang, a close friend of Watts, helped complete his final Daoist book
after Watts' death and illustrated it with his own gracious and
flowing calligraphy. Watts also read and supported Huang in the
writing of his popular Tai Ji book, Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain
(1973). Huang teaches "Watercourse Way Tai Ji" (not Tai Ji Quan), a
popular improvisational form of Tai Ji and dance movements, and seeks
to "represent Dao without the ism" through improvisational classes
designed specifically for Westerners. Using Daoist concepts such as
yin-yang, wuxing, and Yijing bagua symbolism, his work represents a
mediating East-West cultural synthesis that bridges the normative gap
between academic scholars and popular writers and Chinese Daoist
teachers. [68]

During the 1970s, in China, a popular wave of interest in Tai Ji
reanimated cultural inquiry into Daoism and Chinese Daoist teachers
began to immigrate to America (and Europe). Eva Wong, PhD, came to
America in the 1960s as a member of the Daoist Fung Loy Kok temple and
eventually became director of studies at Fung Loy Kok Taoist Temple in
Denver CO. which offers various Daoist activities, including scripture
study, meditation, classes in qi-gong, retreats, chanting, and
training in traditional Lion Dance. Dr. Wong, who grew up as a Daoist
in China, has translated many Daoist texts and contributed to a
growing interest in Daoist religious practices. [69] In the 1970s,
Lily Siou, who began her studies in Daoism at the Dai Xuan monastery
in China on the "dragon and tiger mountain" of Long Hu Shan and was
eventually initiated and confirmed as the 64th generation Master of
the Zheng Yi (Lingbao) Daoist school, opened her own school in Hawaii
(Tai Hsuan Foundation College) where she teaches Daoist theory, magic,
and Tai Ji to many American students. [70] In 1974, Jwing-Ming Yang,
PhD, came to American as a Qi Gong, Wushu, and Tai Ji teacher and
eventually formed the Oriental Arts Association (Boston) where his
students have won outstanding international awards for excellence in
Tai Ji. Dr. Yang mixes science, martial arts, and Daoist internal
alchemy with vocabulary drawn from English esotericism and European
alchemcial thought. His eclecticism typifies a willingness to
synthesize and accommodate his American students common to many
Chinese Daoist teachers. [71]

In 1978, Michael Saso, a Western scholar fluent in Pinyin and
classical Chinese as well as in Japanese, published his excellent
Taoist Master Chuang about the life and esoteric practices of a
Zheng-Yi Daoist master then living in Taiwan. Saso lived with Master
Chuang in Taiwan and studied with him over a period of years. He
writes, "Daoism is an esoteric religion" and he observes that Daoist
masters draw a clear distinction between "common doctrines" and the
"secret teachings of the highly trained specialist" which he then
describes in a detailed, though introductory fashion. [72] From the
mid-1970s on, "esoteric Daoism" based in wuxing (correlative
cosmology) and neidan (internal alchemy) became increasingly
accessible through texts and ethnographic descriptions. While these
resources have proliferated, it has been the Western students of
Chinese teachers that have introduced Western esoteric ideas into a
Daoist context. These ideas in turn have initiated dialogues that
have resulted in publications by Chinese teachers (and by their
students) that meld Western esotericism and Chinese esotericism into a
variety of systemic comparisons and a rich vocabulary of teachings and
practices. The mediating language of this comparison, in America,
Canada, Britain, and Australia, has been English in translations,
ethnography and in Daoist writings. Subsequently, it is the English
vocabulary of esotericism that is most commonly used and assumed by
these writers. Thus there is a certain amount of "matching
terminology" (ge-yi) between systems of Chinese and English
esotericism, simply assumed as normative by both Chinese teachers and
their American students.


The most prolific of all the Chinese teachers in America is Hua Jing
Ni. He is a 74th generation Daoist master who dates his school back to
the Han Dynasty. He was educated in the Daoist spiritual traditions by
his family and was then chosen to study with Daoist masters "in the
high mountains of mainland China." After more than 30 years of
training, he was acknowledged and empowered as a master of traditional
Daoism. Master Ni arrived in America from Taiwan in 1976 and has since
written many books (over 30) related to the practice of traditional
Chinese medicine and Daoist esotericism. He is also the founder of Yo
San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the College of Tao and
the Integral Way, and the Universal Society of the Integral Way. [73]
Master Ni's earliest English works are translations of classic Daoist
texts, while many later works are on esoteric Daoism and the creative
interactions "of East and West, ancient and modern" as seen from a
Daoist master's perspective. [74]

Master Ni's writings are eclectic and diverse, borrowing many Western
esoteric, psychological, and scientific ideas in a non-systemic
fashion, in order to explain Daoist esoteric thought and practice. He
writes, "to attach an `ism' to Dao is to attach a limit or title which
is really not appropriate." Terms like astral realm or worlds, astral
beings or entities, ghosts, demons, subtle beings, multiple subtle
bodies or souls, nine astral lights of different colors, astral rays,
elixir, alchemical furnace, magic, elementals, mountain and lake
spirits, human aura, reincarnation, invisible masters, channeling,
energy centers in the body, microcosm and macrocosm, dream states,
higher mind, universal energy, psychic powers, and so on, abound in
his writings demonstrating his correlations of Chinese Daoist
esotericism with English language esoteric vocabulary. [75] His son
Maoshing Ni is also trained in Daoist esotericism and Chinese medicine
and is a teacher and Vice President of Yo San University (established
in 1989) which he describes by saying, "The heart and soul of the
university is the Daoist approach, which includes a strong Qi program
and offers over 15 different courses in Qi development." The Yo San
program covers five branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine:
acupuncture, herbology, massage, nutrition and Qi Gong. Much of the
vocabulary of the school reflects the above esoteric terminology. [76]

Perhaps the most prominent influence of the contemporary fusion of
Daoism and Western esoteric thinking has been through the teaching of
Mantak Chia. Chia was born in Bangkok, Thailand and, after studying
Tai Ji Quan, Aikido, and Kundalini Yoga, he met and followed the
Daoist Master Yi Eng, known as the White Cloud Hermit. Originally from
Central China, but living in the mountains not far from Hong Kong
after WW II, Yi Eng taught Chia "Daoist Esoteric Yoga" during a five
year training period, with the "formulas and methods of internal
alchemy, culminating in the Reunion of Heaven and Man." His teachings
also combine various healing techniques, including the Buddhist Palm,
a martial arts system uniting Thai Boxing and kung fu, a Shao-lin
technique for collecting internal energy and the Iron Shirt and Steel
Body techniques for strengthening muscles and tendons. In 1977,
Master Chia moved to New York city and began teaching Daoist Yoga and
his "universal Dao system" in a contemporary, modern form. Author of
ten books, he is particularly well known for his techniques of
self-healing, male and female sexual yoga practices, and for founding
the Taoist Esoteric Yoga Center and Foundation in New York City in
1981. He presently has 32 Universal Dao Centers worldwide and in an
international Daoist teacher with his home center (after 1994) in the
Tao Garden Healing Arts Resort just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

During his years in New York City, he attracted many students and
several of them had a background in Western esotericism, particularly
Eric Yudelove in Kabbalah and Dennis Lewis, who was a student of the
Gurdjieff breathing techniques. Yudelove's work is by far the most
integrative work on Daoism and Kabbalah (The Tao & the Tree of Life:
Alchemical & Sexual Mysteries of the East and West). Yudelove
references John Blofeld (1973) as highly influential on his thinking
and talks of his interests in Kabbalah, the Yijing, and Western
alchemy during his earlier years. The study of Western alchemy led to
interests in Chinese alchemy, Wilhelm's publications, Aleister
Crowley, Charles Luk, and subsequently to Daoist martial arts where he
met Mantak Chia in 1981 in New York City, a rather archetypal journey.
Yudelove notes that he "taught Master Chia about shamanism and the
Western study of the elements called Hermetics." [78] Yudelove picks
up on an old theme of the connection between Daoism and Kabbalah, as
first compared by Martin Buber, then in the masonic text "Les
Enseignements Secrets de la Gnose," and later by members of the Golden
Dawn like Israel Regardie, and more recently by Réne Guénon.
Yudelove's book is a remarkable dialectic exploration of Kabbalah and
esoteric Daoism.


Yudelove tracks the parallel developments of Daoism (from its shamanic
roots) and Kabbalah, linking them through magical practices and
specific theories of the body. Chia remarks in the preface that the
Sephirot practice of the "flash of lightning" is a "good way to move
Qi energy quickly through the body." [79] Yudelove describes Daoist
Yoga as a "very advanced shamanic system" and sees a clear parallel
between the upper, middle, and lower worlds of the shaman and the
triadic Heaven, Man, Earth cosmology of Daoism as well as a parallel
with the "upper and middle" worlds of Kabbalah. Both Kabbalah and
Daoism are "magical traditions" and both have masters who are experts
in ascending to the higher worlds. [80] In introducing Kabbalah, he
distinguishes between Jewish Kabbalah and "Western Kabbalah" as found
in post-Renaissance Christian Rosicrucianism, astrology, and magic
(via Crowley and Regardie). He emphasizes that the comparisons with
Daoism are found primarily in this "Western, esoteric" [non-Jewish]
side of Kabbalah. [81] He then compares terminology and worldviews,
matching terms (ge-yi) such as Wu Qi (Energy of Emptiness) and Ein
Soph (limitless) or comparing the highest three sephira (kether,
hokmah, and binah) with the three great Daoist principles of Taiji,
Yin-Yang, and the Three Pure Ones (divinities of Heaven, Humanity, and
Earth). He uses a classic Kabbalah text, The Sepher Yetzirah, as a
basis for many such comparisons, a text he describes as "a system most
similar to Daoist yoga." [82]

Yudelove recreates a Daoist Tree of Wisdom by matching the Five
Element (wuxing) correspondences with the 10 Sephera spheres:
wu-qi/kether, yang/chokamah and yin/binah (upper triad); fire/geburah,
wood/chesed and sun/tiphereth (second triad); and metal/hod,
water/netzach, moon/yesod (third triad); with earth as malkuth, the
lowest sphere. [83] He then goes into considerable detail on the
Mantak Chia "universal dao system" (comparing Qi to aether and other
Western esoteric ideas on subtle energy) and the circulation of Qi
energy in the body, including an overview on Daoist sexual yoga and
various energy exercises on "inner and outer fusion" (inner energy
alchemy). He discusses bagua (eight trigrams) theory and the inner
mandala, visualization processes of "higher fusion" and advanced
circulation of the Qi, with a brief overview of Daoist Qi meridian
systems. He then compares this with Kabbalah practices from Franz
Bardon, the well-known Austrian occultist writer (d. 1958) who also
explored the relationship between Kabbalah and eastern religions,
while developing his extensive invocational magic system. [84]
Yudelove regards the Chia "fusions" as a form of Hermetic practice and
develops a correspondence theory between the Hebrew letters, number
theory, and the organs of the body based on his reading of the
Yetsirah and Bardon's Kabbalah writings. These correspondences are
then related to the "power of sound" (Hebrew invocations) and compared
to the "six healing sounds" of Daoist esoteric healing chants. He also
links the color system found in Bardon to a Daoist five-element color
system, with their comparative vocables, sacred names, and internal
visualizations. [85]

Just as esoteric orders of the West have graded stages of mastery
(Rosicrucian and Golden Dawn), so too, the Daoist training of
adepts--both follow pathwork training and proceed in stages from
higher to lower ranks using the various visualization and meditation
techniques he outlines in comparative fashion. He compares various
concepts of energy bodies and soul conceptualizations, as well as "sex
magic" in both traditions, particularly drawing on Crowley for
practices related to Kabbalah. He has written a much longer work on
Taoist Yoga and Sexual Energy (2000) which explores the topic in
great detail without the references to Kabbalah but published by a
press specializing in Western esotericism. [86] He then goes on to
discuss more advanced practices of Daoist internal alchemy, in
relationship to astrology and Big Dipper (Thunder) magical techniques,
astral visualizations in the body related to Kabbalah visualizations
of Herbrew letters in the body, astral magic invocations, and the
"return to heaven" or mystical realization in both traditions. The
final sections of the book gives meditative exercises for both Daoism
and Kabbalah. Overall, his book is an initial exploration of
comparative esotericism, East-West synthesis, and a portent of such
comparative systems yet to come. [87]

Another of Mantak Chia's students, Dennis Lewis has also written a
1997 work on Daoist breathing techniques and practices which he
compares to certain breathing techniques and ideas that he studied
with John Pentland, the English teacher of the Russian Gurdjieff
system. Gurdjieff had, at least in part, learned his breathing and
dance exercises during his travels and studies among the Sufi
dervishes of central Asia. Gurdjieff's esoteric "law of three"
(active, passive and neutral) corresponds well with the Daoist triad
of Tai Qi mediating between yin and yang, as do the three chambers of
Daoist alchemy (stomach, heart, and head) correspond well with
Gurdjieff's "three bodies" of the carnal, emotional, and spiritual.
Lewis attributes John Pentland (d. 1984) with teaching him "how to
think from the perspective and sensation of wholeness" and thanks Jean
Kline, an Advaita Vedanta master, for helping him to understand the
"that love and consciousness are at the very heart of being." [88]
Lewis, blending Western esotericism with Vedanta, is particularly
interested in Ji Nei Zang (Chi Nei Tsang) a Chia healing technique
using an "internal organ Qi massage" with breathing techniques to
clear tensions and illness from the body. He has been certified by
Master Chia in Ji Nei Zang and combines his work with Gurdjieff
breathing techniques to break down the "buffering mechanisms"
(Gurdjieff) that inhibit connection with deeper self-awareness and
good health.


Following Gurdjieff's maxim that "without mastering breath, nothing
can be mastered", Lewis gives a warning that correct breathing is an
art and science that needs to be thoroughly studied to be correctly
applied. Correct application leads to "deep inner relaxation and a
freedom from willfulness," whether one is a Daoist, a yogin, or a
follower of Gurdjieff, that in turn allows for true, natural breathing
and a "return to the expansive emptiness of wu-ji." [89] Citing
Gurdjieff, Lewis writes that learning wholeness requires first seeing
that one is not whole but often fragmented and imbalanced; the
discovery of balance cannot be forced, it requires inner quiet,
clarity, calm, and learning to "follow the breath without
interfering," listening to the body, and practicing the three breaths
of balancing, cleansing, and energizing. [90] Lewis notes that,
reflecting Gurdjieff's ideas, both attachment to and identification
with particular images, ideas, emotions, sensations, or actions can
create severe limitation and disharmony, inducing poor breathing
habits. These habits of identification and attachment, according to
Gurdjieff, "reduce our impressions of what nature transmits to us as
energy, the flow of life, slowing us down, creating poor health and
leading to exhaustion." [91] For Lewis, this "energy" is Qi, the
fundamental life force according to Daoist teachings. Lewis goes on to
discuss inner alchemy, the Daoist meridian system, whole body
breathing, the expansive and smiling breath, and various systems for
the circulation of ji-breath in the body. [92]

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Daoism has become increasingly popular
and accessible to the general public, primarily through the increasing
presence of Chinese and American teachers in the area of Daoist
martial arts. Micheal Winn, another of Mantak Chia's students, and a
25 year practitioner of Daoist martial arts has his own teachings of
internal alchemy, based on "the seven Tao alchemical formulas Chia
transmitted from the wandering Daoist Yi Eng." Winn has studied
alchemy (East and West) and uses a vocabulary replete with East-West
alchemical terms in teaching Daoist martial arts and internal
practices. [93] Deng Ming-Dao's Chronicles of Tao : The Secret Life
of a Taoist Master (1993), published in three volumes during the
1980s, tells the fascinating story of a Daoist martial artist's
training and then journey to America. Deng has also published an
esoteric work on Daoist scholar-warrior's training (1990) and several
other popular works. Eo Omwake, who established the Mind, Body &
Spirit Academy near Chadds Ford PA, is a member of the Gold Mountain
Jin Dan Taoist Order, a "traditional Taoist order with roots going
back many generations into old China." Omwake, a highly respected
martial artist, writes on "Taoist Alchemy and Symbolic Language"
(using Western terminology) to discuss the esoteric aspects of symbols
and images as they apply to Daoist marital arts and personal
psychological development.

More popularly, Flying Without Wings: A Manual of Taoist Meditation
and Subtle-Body Development has recently been self-published by
martial arts student Brian Orr, a fifth generation disciple of Gao Yen
Tao, grandmaster of the Bu Di Zhen system, which contains the
teachings of both Shaolin and Wudang traditions. The book also
reflects strong interests in Western esotericism, "arua building"
techniques, subtle body development, astral travel, a ninefold
chakra-system, inner alchemy, and other aspects of an East-West
synthesis. [94] Articles in the popular American Daoist e-journal, The
Empty Vessel, initiated by Solalal Towler in 1994, at Abode of the
Eternal Tao in Eugene OR, has become a site for the mixing of Daoist
and Western esoteric thought. [95] Edwin Shendelman's article in the
journal, "The Vision of the Primary Body-Focus Zones in Qigong
Practice," compares the three body zones of Chinese esotericism (from
the base of the torso up to the solar plexus, to the mid-brow region,
to above the mid-brow) to the Christian Hermetic emblems of Robert
Fludd where he equates 17th century terminology with Daoist cosmology.
He writes, "the lower region is the sublunar elemental region, the
sphere of the senses" while "the middle region represents the astral,
ethereal region, the seat of the soul and vital spirit, the mediator
between upper and lower, and the upper region refers to the unity of
the light of human nature, the divine fire-heaven, the intellect, the
subtle, spiritual fire." He also makes a comparison drawn most likely
from Yudelove's work on the Sefer Yetsirah, noting how in Kabbalah,
the three Hebrew mother letters are visualized "in the mid-brow, heart
and navel areas respectively." [96]

Conclusion: The Dao in Esotericism

Contemporary interest in Daoism abounds in popular culture, promoted
primarily through martial arts centers and teachers, but also through
the increasing abundance of newly published materials, increasing
interest in Chinese medicine, and an ever-expanding scholarship in
Daoism. Recently, Orthodox Daoism in America and the British Taoist
Association have been formed to promote a better understanding of
Daoism. [97] Another area of contemporary intersection with Daoism is
in spiritual ecology as tied to Daoist philosophy of nature and to
feng-shui (wind and water) geomantic arts. One scholar has noted that
Daoism offers a foundation for a "genuinely ecological society" and
the necessity of maintaining a healthy and positive relationship with
the natural world. Daoism provides a genuine integrative perspective
on relationships with the natural environment and on values of
cooperation and balance rather than on issues of control and the
exploitative use of resources. There is a convergence of themes in
Daoism and in deep ecology that may well be assimilated into a more
global esotericism that seeks to develop a cosmology of nature,
drawing on Western esoteric resources, for example, such as German
Naturphilosophie or New England transcendentalism. The ecological
aspects of Daoism have been recently explored by a number of
distinguished scholars, as an "older wisdom" able to enrich
perspectives on contemporary attitudes toward nature. [98]


Increasingly, Daoism is resonant with various aspects of the
deontologized views of physics, for example in "chaos theory," which
has also manifested intersections with various magical theories, such
as "Enochian magic." Daoism presents an interesting resource for
cosmological speculations that are very current in terms of
astrophysical theories concerning "self-organization," an "open
universe," fractal transformation, and a general process view of
change and development. [99] Post-modern theorists have also
reflected on Daoism, drawing certain aspects of Daoist language theory
into post-modern discourse, claiming an affinity between the two.
Deconstructive writers—who seek to undermine dualism and binary
opposition—have seen in Daoism a theory of non-exclusive mutuality
between pairs that undermines all oppositional metaphysics. Daoist
theories of interdependence, harmony, and accommodation, its
non-logocentric view of natural processes, and a pragmatic theory of
immanence and transformation all contribute to a "post-philosophical"
discourse that emphasizes the value of diversity, alternate
perspectives, and multivocal language. [100] Daoism continues to
expand its influences in ways that will no doubt stimulate esoteric
thought and practices in the years to come.

In summary, there are three notable stages of Daoist impact on Western
esotericism. In the first and earliest stage, Daoism was seen as an
exotic, strange, alien cultural alternative that was perceived only
through a very limited textual horizon, primarily through questionable
translations of the Yijing, Daodejing and Zhuangzi, studied in a
completely decontextualized atmosphere of Western speculation, theory
building, and deculturalized appropriation. Opposed to a Confucian
bias, reinforced by the early Jesuits preference for social order, and
contrasted as a deviant, eccentric, and "degenerated" religious
influence, Daoism was reduced to its classical texts as appropriated
by intrigued European intellectuals, such as Leibnitz, Buber,
Heidegger, Wilhelm, and Jung. In this stage, "Daoism" was constructed
with little relation to its living religious practices, and was only
minimally represented by the early formative roots of its most classic
texts. The dominant paradigm of "philosophical Daoism" was built
around the concept of philosophia perennis, as an enduring "truth"
inherent to all religious traditions and as manifest in the
comparative study of classic texts. Daoism was not seen as "esoteric"
but as a vaguely understood mythic wisdom tradition whose enigmatic
teachings perplexed and fascinated Western intellectuals who
assimilated the classic texts into a metaphysical discourse built
around themes of universalism, comparative mysticism, and archetypal

In the second stage, some esotericists upheld a theory of Daoism as
~prisca theologia (ancient wisdom) resonant with Renaissance
astrological and correlative cosmology. These esotericists noted
various structural similarities between Daoist and traditional
pre-scientific, Western cosmology. Further similarity was noted
between Chinese and Western practices or theories of alchemy, ritual
magic, and divination techniques. Magical practitioners, like Crowley,
Regardie and Louis Culling investigated the oracular use of the Yijing
and the "pristine," underlying sophia perennis of a few Daoist texts.
Simultaneously, European traditionalists such as René Guénon, Titus
Burckhardt, and Julius Evola drew parallels with Sufism and other
forms of mystical and esoteric, perennial teachings. Daoism in this
context referred to the textual classics and was interpreted
ideologically in terms of a universalist approach to mysticism and a
constructivist, orientalist paradigm. In this context, "esotericism"
came to mean a "traditional, initiatic school of masters and students"
which passed on a universal teaching discoverable in the texts of all
"authentic" religions. These traditions were hieratic and wisdom was
based on authoritative teachings and masters that sought to elucidate
each tradition in terms of an "inner core" of mystical, transcendent
essence. Guénon in particular had specific ties with Western esoteric
societies and initatic lodges and epitomizes the intellectual
appropriation, as does Schuon, of other religions into their unique
brand of ideological universalism. However, some scholars, like
Toshihiko Izutsu, were more carefully textual in their comparative

The third stage was initiated by an increasing dissemination of Daoist
teachings through the popular writings of Westerners like Thomas
Merton, John Blofeld, and Alan Watts as well as through emerging
Chinese translations from writers like Charles Luk. These authors help
to create a more receptive climate for Daoism in a popular context of
interest in esotericism and "new age religions" and provided
introductory works accessible to the general public. Watts
specifically had ties to Western esotericism and more than others,
promoted "eastern religions" as a source of wisdom without promoting
any particular ideology regarding the relationship between traditions.
Also in this same late 20th century period, Chinese Daoist teachers
from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan began to immigrate into
Western countries and began to attract Western students, particularly
in relationship to Qigong, Taiji, and other martial arts related to
"internal alchemy." Chinese teachers began to publish materials on
their own traditions at the same time that Western scholars began to
publish on Daoist religion, its history, cultural context, and rich
text traditions. Ethnographic descriptions of "Daoist esotericism"
such as those by Michael Saso, were complimented by the writings of
Chinese teachers, such as Deng Ming Dao, and many new translations of
texts from the Daozang.


Chinese teachers, like Master Hua Jing Ni, have continued to write and
publish prolifically and many have started Daoist organizations in the
West in the form of training programs, schools, universities, and
institutions for advanced training in Daoist medical and martial arts.
In turn this is complimented by a growing American interests in
martial arts, internal alchemy, and Daoist techniques of healing and
self-development. Students of these Chinese teachers have written
works that explicitly tie Daoism to Western esoteric traditions, in
areas such as esoteric cosmology, Kabbalah, magic, occultism, and the
teachings of specific Western masters, such as Gurdjieff.
Increasingly, Daoist esotericism is resonant with Western esotericism
in "matching terms" to form a basic vocabulary that is not strictly
Eastern or Western, but a bit of both. At this stage, the comparative
synthesis is far from fully developed but shows a deepening
integration by those who are practioners of both traditions. However,
the emphasis for contemporary practitioners is far more on "embodied
spirituality" than on any particular essentialist ideology; the goal
of actualizing energies latent within the body seems to be the
normative goal. The esoteric alchemical texts of physical
transformation are far more influential in this period than the early
classic philosophical texts because the latter texts are tied to
spiritual practices inseparable from a concern with alternate
perceptions at the somatic, sensate level. Daoism in the context of
esotericism offers an entrance into energy practices, meditation,
visualization, and martial arts that is far more grounded in body work
and self-development than earlier Western interests. The "internal
alchemy" practices written about by Western students of Chinese
teachers are particularly tied to visualization and magical techniques
highly congruent with many of the practices in Western esoteric
magical societies.

Without doubt, the "dao in Western esotericism" will continue to
develop as more texts, more enhanced practices, and more familiarity
with Daoist esoteric magical rites become known. Overall, Daoism may
prove to be far more amenable to synthesis with Western esotericism
than other traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism due to its very
strong connections with nature, magical techniques, martial arts,
living a healthy long life, and a thoroughly magical and transcendent,
detheologized cosmology. The implicit relationship with much of the
history of interest in Daoism lies in its adaptability to a
non-theological view of nature and human development. Western
esotericism shares similar interests and both traditions favor a
diffuse and decentralized institutional structure that allows for
great variability without any controlling central authority, nor any
strict monastic or ascetic traditions (though both exist in variant
forms of Daoism). Popular Daoism has assimilated the classical
tradition into its religious practices and subsequently developed a
complex metaphysics that shows some compatibility with modern science
and deconstructive theories of language (as in "the Dao that can be
spoken of is not the true Dao"). Coupled with its highly developed
esoteric practices, Daoism clearly offers a rich field of comparative
study for the development of esoteric paradigms neither exclusively
Western nor Eastern. In that context, Daoism will certainly provide a
rich source of esotericism for those willing to make the necessary
efforts to truly understand its inner teachings.

Lee Irwin

Religious Studies

College of Charleston

Charleston SC 29455


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[1] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 3. Since there is no strict convention for
the conversion of Chinese characters into English, I have written this
article using contemporary Pinyin transliterations. Thus, Tao te Ching
(Wade-Giles, the older English system) is written as Daodejing
(Pinyin). At present, there are four major transliterations used for
converting Chinese to English, all of which ave various problems due
to the subtlety of Chinese intonation and its distinctive lingual

[2] . Jorge Ferrer, 2002: 5-6.

[3] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 9.

[4] . Isabelle Robinet 1997: 196-97; Michael Saso 2000: 31-45.

[5] . J. J. Clarke 2000:18-21.

[6] . Isabelle Robinet 1997: 50-52.

[7] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 39, as published in Charles le Gobien's
Histoire de l'édit de l'Empereur de la Chine, 1698.

[8] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 40.

[9] . J. J. Clarke 2000:70.

[10] . Lee Irwin 2001:18.

[11] . Antoine Faivre 1998: 118.

[12] . See Léon Wieger 1927a and 1927b, passim.

[13] . See John Chalmers, 1848, passim, J. J.clarke 2000: 54.

[14] . See Richard King, 1999, passim, for more on the "orientalist"
paradigms constructed by Western scholars and esotericists.

[15] . See James Legge 1881, passim.

[16] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 44-45.

[17] . See Johnson 1878, passim; J. J. Clarke 2000: 45.

[18] . Lee Irwin 2001:21.

[19] . C. H. Bjerregaard 1912, passim; Andrew Rawlinson, 1993: passim.

[20] . Antoine Faivre 1998:120.

[21] . J. J. Clarke 2000:47; Paul Carus 1898 and 1906.

[22] . Obed Johnson 1928.

[23] . For Daoist influences on the Yijing, see J. J. Clarke 2000: 59-60.


[24] . J. R. Herman 1996: 15, 135, 163.

[25] . J. J. Clark 143-44, 172-175; Graham Parks 1987: 79-91.

[26] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 73, 100, 121-22, 126.

[27] . David Rosen and Ellen Crouse 2001: 120-129; Chung-yuan Chang,
1973; Tenny Davis, 1939.

[28] . J. J. Clarke 48, 50-51.

[29] [29]

[30] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 54.

[31] . Isabelle Robinet 1997: 9, for an introductory overview of
Daoist cosmology see 1997: 7-14; also John Blofeld 1985: 189-191.

[32] . Michael Saso 2000: 208-218 gives a very condensed summary, also

[33] . Antoine Faivre 1994:58-59.

[34] . Kristofer Schipper 1993: 103-112.

[35] . Isabelle Robinet 1997: 252-256.

[36] . John Henderson 1984: 54-58.

[37] . Michael Strickmann 1979, passim, for a good introduction to
Daoist alchemy; also Micheal Saso 2000, passim, for an excellent
overview of Daoist magical practices; J. J. Clarke 2000:122-128.

[38] . N. J. Girardot 1983:292.

[39] . Louis Culling 1989:ix.

[40] . Neville Drury 2000: 92-93, 99, 108.

[41] . For an interesting comparison of Crowley and Jung, see Lloyd
Keane 1999.

[42] . Aleister Crowley 1971, 1973, passim.

[43] . Israel Regardie 1999: 42-44, 58, 60.

[44] . Louis Culling 1989: 25, Table One; GBG is a secret anagram,
uninterpreted by Culling.

[45] . N. J. Girardot 1983: 294-98.

[46] . See Huston Smith 1977; Frithjof Schuon 1984; Seyyed Nasr 1990.


[47] . Robin Waterfield 1987:42.

[48] . Andrew Rawlinson 1993, passim; Robin Waterfield 1987: 35-42.
Mark Sedgewick 1999: 3-24, passim.

[49] . René Le Forestier 1990, contains the entire work.

[50] . Réné Guénon 1958: 6, 95-98.

[51] . René Guénon 1994: 171; 1973, passim; 2001.

[52] . Julius Evola, Taoism: The Magic, The Mysticism (Oriental
classics, Holmes Publishing Group, 1995; original 1959). This short
text was written as an introduction to an Italian translation of the
Tao Te Ching.

[53] . Julius Evola, 1995: 8-14.

[54] . Julius Evola 1995: 18-21.

[55] . Julius Evola 1995: 21-26.

[56] . Titus Burckhardt 1967: 134-142.

[57] . Such authors as Angus Graham, Livia Kohn, Steven Bokenkamp,
Roger Ames, David Hall, Chad Hansen, Thomas Cleary, Isabelle Robinet,
Kristofer Schipper, Julia Ching, and Eva Wong have all contributed to
the new paradigms.

[58] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 146-47, 160-165; also Russell Kirkland 1997,

[59] . J. C. Cooper 1972.

[60] . Fritjof Capra 1975: 106-118, 126ff; Clarke 2000:75-77.

[61] . See Irwin 2001, passim.

[62] . John Blofeld 1966, 1973: 15; Blofeld's title (Taoist Mysteries
and Magic) is no doubt a paraphrase of Alexandria David-Neel's popular
book on Tibetan esotericism; Blofeld's Daoist books are still in print.

[63] . Blofeld 1973: 30-31,

[64] . John Blofeld 1978, passim.

[65] . Alan Watts 1950.

[66] . Alan Watts 1951.

[67] . Edmund Ballantyne 1989: 436-445.


[68] . Al Huang 1973; Solala Towler 1996: 111-130.

[69] . Solalal Towler 95-109; beyond text translations, she has also
written a good overview of Daoist religious history and practices, Eva
Wong 1997.

[70] . Solalla Towler, 1996: 49-57; see also

[71] . Jwing-Ming Yang, see YMAA (Yang's Martial Arts Association
Press), Yang says, "The best way to find a teacher is one who has
published books"; Solalal Towler 1996: 15-29. I have studied Tai Ji
with one of Yang's teacher-students for five years and attended his
workshops; I have also studied Tai Ji with two other Chinese teachers
(from mainland China) and all of them borrow esoteric constructs from
Western alchemy and magical traditions.

[72] . Michael Saso, 1978/2000 (plus many other works), this is an
excellent introduction to Daoist magical rites and practices.

[73] . Hua Jing Ni, see

[74] . See Hau Ching Ni, 1979, 1989, 1992, 1995.

[75] . Hau Ching Ni 1979/1996, passim; Solalal Towler 1996: 1313-149.

[76] . Solala Towler, 1996: 30-48; Maoshan Ni, Yo San University at:

[77] . J. J. Clark 2000: 133-134; Solalala Towler 1996: 58-73 and
<www.universal-tao.com/index.html>; Tao Garden Healing Arts Center

[78] . Eric Yudelove 1995: xviii-xxi.

[79] . Eric Yudelove 1995: xv.

[80] . Eric Yudelove 1995: 7-9.

[81] . Eric Yudelove 1995: 16-18.

[82] . Eric Yudelove 1995: 25-27.

[83] . Eric Yudelove 1995: 34-36.

[84] . Franz Bardon, 1975 (original 1971).

[85] . Eric Yulelove 1995: 81-92.

[86] . Eric Yudelove 2000.

[87] . Eric Yulelove 1995, passim; see also his web page:

[88] . Dennis Lewis 1997: 6.


[89] . Dennis Lewis, 1997: 21-22.

[90] . Dennis Lewis 1997: 50-54.

[91] . Dennis Lewis 1997: 145-46.

[92] . For more on Dennis Lewis, see:

[93] . Michael Winn, see: <www.healingdao.com/course_index.html> and


[94] . Brian Orr, see:

[95] . Solala Towler, The Empty Vessel, see: <www.abodetao.com/mainsite/>

[96] . Edwin Shendelman, see: <www.abodetao.com> under articles for
The Empty Vessel.

[97] . J. J. Clarke 2000:20.

[98] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 82-84.

[99] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 64-65; also David Jones and John Culliney,
1999, passim.

[100] . J. J. Clarke 2000: 184-193.