Sunday, May 17, 2020

David Palmer + Elijah Siegler's "Dream Trippers": Book Review

Daoism, unlike Hindu and Buddhist faith systems, has not yet been studied seriously by many in the West. Until the dawn of the last century or so, very few scholars knew much about its texts, rituals and customs over its long history in China. During the past dozen years, professors David A. Palmer and Elijah Siegler investigated the spread of the Dao and its practices in "transnational circulations."

Dream Trippers stands for those from Healing Tao USA, seekers visiting the sacred mountain site of Huashan, "Flower Mountain." There, they meet with monks and mix with throngs of secularized Chinese tourists. For these two scholars, the "water" of Daoism sloshes in and out of its "institutional container," as Eastern and Western fluidity wash aside facile dichotomies and stereotypical binaries.

A third presence triangulates with these two Daoist groups. Louis Komjathy, a West Coast-based religious studies professor, insists upon a far more bookish, scholarly and faithful adherence to a demanding regimen which, in this American-born academic's estimation, the Dream Trippers dismiss.                                                                                                                                               Complicating matters, monastic master Chen Yuming leaves Huashan and those pilgrims who had depended upon him for guidance. Palmer and Siegler narrate the "anxieties" generated by the "predicament" of global spirituality through its "encounters, flows, and appropriations" of the indigenous traditions as they return to the motherland "Americanized." Through tours, marketing and networks, the Dao's adepts and aspirants follow "trajectories" as subjects within late modernity.

Adopting Zygmunt Bauman's post-modern critique of the self-improvement Esalen/ Human Potential movements which the 1960s counterculture promoted as a consumer commodity, the authors situate these various representatives of Dao, as a fresh product shared and sought recently beyond East Asia. As Chinese autonomy dwindles in the homeland of the Dao, American ambitions increase among the pilgrims coming to Huashan to accelerate their immersion into qigong (vital energy practice).

But factions resist easy categorization. Western does not equate with anti-traditional, nor does any authentic Chinese experience trump any fabricated New Age-tinged experience. Palmer and Siegler respect all the participants whom they observe in Huashan, beginning in 2004. They witness the massive tourism overwhelming Huashan as the corrupt regime markets its dramatic vistas and quaint monks as lucrative attractions for a burgeoning base of eager novelty seekers from within a freespending China. Those eroding the Daoist legacy come not only from abroad, but within a cynical state calculating a pro-Daoist turnabout as countering the burgeoning Christian presence throughout the PRC. Many of the monks are unsuited for the rigors of their life, and loaf as "temple rascals." 

In thematic chapters, Palmer and Siegler compare the Dream Trippers as "metaphysical travelers" to the monastic system struggling to sustain itself as Huashan's slopes fill with Chinese crowds. The Westerners value therapeutic methods channeling the power of the Dao and the complicated "inner alchemy" developed over two millennia ago; Easterners come and go for the very vertiginous vistas.

This book will appeal to anthropologists, sociologists of religion, and religious studies professors and students. While Palmer and Siegler commendably avoid jargon, and offer a detailed index and glossary, they expect their audience to possess familiarity with postmodern theorists and thinkers.

One under-examined aspect is the wider impact of the Dao on contemporary popular culture; references direct the inquirer to sources, through documented end notes and a broad bibliography. A general reader will gain value from this in-depth look at a novel predicament created by the global reach of a faith-system which until recently has mostly been relegated to (often woefully inaccurate) translations of the Daodejing and the tales of Zhuangzi when it comes to shelf visibility abroad. 

No pure legacy remains in Huashan. The rupture caused by communist devastation of religion has eased, but it has left behind a weakened heartland for the Dao. Yet the authors regard this communal evolution with equanimity. "Simply another wave" of many meetings between East and West characterizes the broad view taken of Asian reactions to the West, and vice versa. A "back and forth" pattern of outer forms adapting to each era exists within this religious discipline. Pursuits elevating the mind and energizing the body link enthusiasts from affluent professions and nations. Palmer and Siegler assert real connections, however brief, bonding the visitors with those dwelling on Huashan.

Louis Komjathy opposes this benign judgment. He denies that Daoism suits the likes of the Trippers.

A diligent exegete, his textual study grounds his everyday life as a Daoist, heir to a priestly lineage. Combining an introspective pursuit with a teaching career, he responds (as do others interviewed) to the authors by claiming fidelity to the Chinese contexts. This, lacking in callow New Age itinerants, disqualifies for Komjathy any who traverse the "spiritual marketplace" browsing fake commodities. Michael Winn, founder of the Trippers, begs to differ; the authors hear all sides out and report fairly.

That predicament, Palmer and Siegler surmise, blends a Western consumer mentality with an esoteric Eastern pursuit. Whether the Dream Trippers embody a cure or a symptom to the present-day "liquid self," lacking once-stable social structures in a hyper-capitalist consumer-driven existence, is left for the reader to contemplate. In a coda, Chen Yuming gets the last word. This sage announces: "The flower has dried up, but the root is alive." As institutional Daoism totters under tourism, a few from all over the world join those indigenous holdouts who agree to pursue virtue and find transformation.

Reviewed for Spectrum Culture. 3/8/18.

1 comment:

Nithya said...

Thanks for the amazing book review post. I am extremely interested in reading books related to religious studies. Daoism is new to me, and I wish to read the book Dream Trippers very soon. Very eager to read the narration of Palmer and Siegler.