The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

It's not often a news story or feature geared toward the general public mentions the indigenous Chinese religion known in the West as Taoism (also spelled Daoism), but The New York Times managed to produce one last week. So how’d America’s newspaper of record do?

Let’s call it a less than “A” effort. But it did expose the difficulties that Western news media tend to encounter when trying to explain Eastern traditions that view religious beliefs through an entirely different lens — which is why it merits a GetReligion post.

I'll say more about that later. But first let’s deal with the merits of this particular Times story. Please read it in full to better follow my reasoning.

The focus was the impact that organized religion -- China’s traditional faith movements, in particular -- are contributing to the nation’s newfound emphasis on environmental awareness. Taoism, in the form of a $17.7-million “eco-friendly” temple located on a “sacred site” named Mao Mountain, provided the anecdotal lede.

The piece itself only superficially sought to explain Taoist beliefs and their role in contemporary Chinese society. It utterly failed to address questions such as, what’s the justification for a $17.7-million temple when Taoist philosophy has a clear emphasis on the virtue of simple living?

(One thing Eastern and Western religions apparently share is the human affliction we’ll refer to as the edifice complex — also known in some American Buddhist circles as “spiritual materialism.” Ah, but that’s a post for another time.)

Nor does the Times story break new ground -- but how many news features actually do?

This piece broadcast in 2014 by the now departed (it last aired in February) PBS show Religion & Ethics News Weekly covered the same territory, including mentioning Taoism. Also, just last month the Times itself gave us this piece that made the same general points.

Now back to the difficulties of writing about Eastern beliefs in news stories meant for Western audiences.

I've been trying to personally understand and write journalistically about Eastern beliefs -- Hinduism and Buddhism, for the most part -- for about 40 years. But I make no claim to being an expert, and I hope this post doesn't come across as just another supercilious scold.

I'm well aware how difficult it is for any of us to deeply understand and be able to articulate religious beliefs regardless of their geographical or cultural origin. It's a huge task to even understand on a deep level the tradition into which we were born.

How much more difficult it is to understand the philosophical and faith claims of a tradition that's emerged from a culture that we've only come to on our own as an adult? Complicating all this for journalists is the need to write about religious concepts using language accessible to a broad audience and space or broadcast time limitations.

Nevertheless, here are some cases in point from last week’s Times story. Because of my own space limitations here, I’ll limit my comments to the story’s references to Taoism.

Mao Mountain, with its stretches of untouched land, stands as a monument to nature. Chongxi Wanshou, Abbot Yang’s [full name, Yang Shihua] eco-friendly temple, opened in August 2016. Its 20 acres include an organic vegetable garden. Nearby is a giant statue of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, who is worshiped here as a “green god.” Bees’ nests hang undisturbed, and signs remind passers-by that branches and trees are synonymous with life.
The mountain’s spiritual leaders say they are seeking to define a distinctly Chinese type of environmentalism, one that emphasizes harmony with nature instead of Western notions of “saving the earth.”
Xuan Jing, a Taoist monk with a black beard, said Western notions of the environment were focused on treating symptoms of a problem, not the underlying disease.
“You must cure the soul before you can cure the symptoms,” he said. “The root lies with human’s desires.”
As he sipped tea, he jotted down Taoist teachings: “Humans follow the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows Taoism, Taoism follows nature.”

Descriptive? Sure. That’s what journalists with an eye for detail and pithy quotes excel at. 

Consider this, however. Was Lao-tzu really the “founder” of Taoism?

Maybe, but perhaps not. Because unlike Islam or Christianity, it's not easy to trace a tradition’s origins when its roots go back some 2,400 years, or perhaps even longer.

So while Western journalists may be conditioned to think of Jesus of Nazareth or the Prophet Muhammad as the founders of the religions they're associated with, that mindset can't simply be carried over when talking about Taoism (or Hinduism or Buddhism, for that matter).

The following is from a Taoist website:

Most of the specialists today believe that Lao-tzu didn't exist as a person and author of Tao-te ching. Lao-tzu would have been the title of the book (ascribed to him) or the name of a group of persons interested in philosophy and wisdom.

The same applies to the quote in which Lao-tzu is referred to as a "green god." Note that it's lower case, which to me signals that Lao-tzu, in keeping with Taoist beliefs, is not considered the Deity in the same way that a Christian believer in the Trinity might refer to Jesus. But would the average American reader get that distinction without any explanation?

What about the vast differences between institutionalized folk Taoism, as practiced in its many forms, as opposed to philosophical Taoism, which is more a solitary than communal pursuit?

There’s so much still to unpack here, but I think it best to just reiterate that Eastern and Western thought differ dramatically and to provide some links relating to Taoism for those interested in learning more on the subject.

So here’s Wikipedia’s Taoism page. And here’s a BBC overview of Taoism and another from the Patheos website's library materials.

OK, I'm finished here. I've shown you the Way. (Click on one of the explanatory links just above for an explanation of what "the Way" means in Taoism.)

Please respect our Commenting Policy