Essay about Daoism and Local Religion: Defining a Complex Relationship

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Daoism As The Framework For Local Cults
Daoism and local religion are a complex relationship, one that is challenging to accurately articulate and successfully define. Some scholars have attempted to define the connection as purely antagonistic, stating that Daoism is aggressively suppressing and prohibiting local religious practices, while attempting to clearly distinguish itself as the true path to aligning with the Dao. Others define the connection by the passivity with which Daoism chooses to ignore local cults and their gods. Another theory about the connection between Daoism and local cults is ever changing, the Daoist Pantheon incorporates multiple local deities and gods, there for acting as a sponge absorbing local influence. Even though each of the these theories holds a reasonable defense, I believe once an individual takes the time to prod the foundation of Daoism, such as Vincent Goosaert has done in his work “Daoism and Local Cults In Modern SuZhou: A Case Study of QiongLongShan,” that individual would reach the same conclusion I have; Daoism has not been passive, antagonistic, or a sponge adsorbing the beliefs of the local cults but rather acting as an agent of the government has been a major influence in the formation and control of local cults. Daoism’s relationship with local religions can be best described as being a framework for local cults influencing their core values, traditions, and practices. The overwhelming influence of Daoism as an agent of the state was instrumental in ensuring local cults would have a longstanding and acceptable structured role in their local society. I believe that the strength of the Taoist religion as a framework and controlling influence in the growth and evolution of local cults is clearly illustrated by Vincent through his multiple references to the strong bond the Taoist religion had with the state authority. “…the Yuan Emperor gave the Heavenly Master the privilege to canonize gods, and that the local community did take advantage of this avenue for promotion.” (Goosaert 236). This reference to a religious inscription discussing a message conveyed by a local god demonstrates how Vincent believed that Daoism was not separate from the state but rather empowered by the government. Another piece of evidence that supports this theory and thus highlights the power of Daoism in state affairs as an agent in controlling local cults is the actions Daoist had taken with the Wutong cult. Daoism often canonized local gods integrated them with in the orthodox and stable bureaucracy of the Daoist pantheon. It was through this demonization and promotion of local gods that the Taoist attempted to tame the nature of local cults. It is known that the attempt to change and truly morph the Wutong cult’s belief system was not substantial and by some was labeled a failure. However Vincent makes the valid point that although the fifteen stories supporting vegetarian acts and essential moral changes created by the Taoist did not truly change the path of this religion, the fact that the government went to the Heavenly Master Administration to function as the main stream state religion and to control the Wutong is evidence of the role Daoism had and the power it held. This frequent collaboration between the Daoists and the state with a common goal of managing local cults signifies the power Daoism had in guiding local cults to adopting themes and practices accepted by the government. One could argue that a strong relationship with the government does not truly testify to the power Daoism had on a local level. However Vincent is able to point out multiple scenarios where there is a clear respect from the local people for the Heavenly Master’s decisions. One example, which demonstrates this respect, is in cases of disagreements on temples and territories. When delegating power to local gods it was the Heavenly masters who were able to have the final say. The Heavenly Masters