Judson B. Murray
Daoist mysticism is a subfield in academic areas of study including comparative mysticism, Chinese religions, and Daoist studies. Methodologies employed in it often adopt and adapt different definitions, categories, and theories formulated in contemporary Western scholarship on the subject of “mysticism” for the purpose of analyzing Daoist thinkers, texts, practices, and traditions throughout the religion’s history. Important topics examined in scholarly works on Daoist mysticism include, first, Daoist views of the human self, both as it exists in its problematic state of degeneracy—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and morally—and in the natural and optimal condition it can and should embody. A point of emphasis regarding the latter condition is the self’s experience or consciousness of, conformity to, and unity with that which is of ultimate significance for Daoists: the “Way” (Dao/Tao). Daoist mystics, by understanding themselves to be microcosmic embodiments of the world and its processes, grasp that they are inherent constituents of the Dao and are unified with the totality of existence that it encompasses. Second, there is an array of Daoist self-cultivation techniques that are combined into training regimens aimed at cultivating and actualizing this awareness. Methods range from practices relating to the optimal setting and lifestyle to adopt for training, proper preparation and maintenance of the body, qi/ch’i cultivation, ethical observances, visualizations, and other meditative techniques. Third, successful training in them achieves the mystical aims, experiences, and transformations that practitioners seek, including physical vigor to aid the body’s functioning and longevity, moral integrity, profound visions, true and omniscient insight, correct and effective conduct, self-divinization, and immortality. Fourth, the scholarship also identifies both notable continuities and intriguing innovations in comparing ancient Daoist mystical ideas, practices, and goals to later expressions and elaborations of them.
Studying Daoist mysticism has also reciprocally contributed to Western scholarly inquiries into theories of mysticism and comparative mysticism, not only in providing a wealth of material that is relevant to these fields, but also in offering both additional perspectives on debated issues and new trajectories for future research. For example, recent scholarship has contributed to the debate between, on the one hand, Essentialist and Decontextualist theorists and, on the other, Contextualists concerning the subject of mystical experience. Scholars of Daoist mysticism have also underscored the distinctiveness of the content and the literary form of its mystical writings, as well as the vital role the practitioner’s body plays in its theories and practices, and how these defining features distinguish Daoist mysticism from some of the world’s other mystical traditions.