A question that I get from practicing Taoists is how to deal with a person that is calling him or herself a Taoist, but has spent very little time educating him or herself on Taoism or in the practice of Taoism. The concern is not about someone who is new to the Taoist path, and inexperienced, but rather about someone that is just using the label.
I understand the origin of this question. To a practicing Taoist it can seem almost as if the “false” Taoist is belittling the practitioner’s efforts. You have taken the time study. You have suffered through the personal turmoil of spiritual growth. To you, identifying yourself as a Taoist is identifying yourself as one of a proud group, across thousands of years of chosen trial. What right has the false Taoist to identify in the same manner as you? For you, the name is a badge of accomplishment and belonging.
There is no ambush in this statement. I am not going to suddenly jump out and call you, the practitioner, wrong, and tell you you should be more humble. This is not a piece centered on shaming you.
Important Things To Consider
Let’s examine what’s involved more closely.
It is an issue in any religion of the world as to what criteria it takes to qualify a person as a follower of a given religion. For some religions, there is a formal indoctrination process before you are recognized as a follower. The problem is that there is no guarantee that an indoctrinated follower is going to behave any differently than a Joe off the street. If there is no difference in behavior, is there really a separation created by the ceremony? Aren’t the Joe and the indoctrinated the same quality of follower?
In general, the tradition within Taoism has been to allow people to self-identify as they choose. The label is considered to be an illusion. Labels are a symbol representing reality and not reality itself.
In general tradition, it is acceptable to change one’s name to better fit one’s nature or aspiration. This renaming can be done by the practitioner or by the practitioner’s teacher. It becomes one’s Taoist name. Even a practitioner’s Taoist name may change during the course of his or her life to better fit nature and aspiration.
How a Taoist Should Behave
Given this very pliable tradition of self-naming, there is not a lot that a practicing Taoist can do about another person self-identifying as a Taoist. To such a person, the name is a totem to provide him or her with comfort or status. To oppose that self-naming, however, is to oppose the established tradition of pliability in naming.
That being said, there is a substantial difference in quality of those self-identifying. If the name of Taoist is unreliable, then what do you do to find your own kind?
Separating the Seed from the Chaff
No matter the circumstance, when choosing to spend a significant amount of time with a person or when choosing to place a person into a position of trust, it is important to assess the quality of the person, and make a conscious decision as to whether you will continue with that person. If you are making a quality decision about whether you want to have the person around as a Taoist, here are guidelines for assessing how far a person has engaged Taoism:
- From what sources has the person drawn his or her Taoism?
- Does the person have a teacher or sect affiliation?
- Does the person engage the Taoist mind—contemplating Taoist practice, thoughts, or text?
- Does the person try to solve problems in a Taoist fashion?
- How many weekly hours does the person spend in practices like qi gong and meditation?
- Does the person have a conception of the Tao itself?
- Has he or she experienced insights from the Tao? What are they?
In decades of working with practitioners at all levels, I can tell you that these questions can be answered by any practicing Taoist with some ease. These are also areas where the response becomes more clearly defined and in depth as the person progresses.
Releasing Yourself From the Offense
If you have taken offense at a person that is a “false” Taoist, acknowledge to yourself that is how you feel and explore it. There are many insights in that process by itself.
Keep in mind that the self-identification as a Taoist occurs because a person admires the Taoist. It is flattery. Keep in mind that a non-practicing Taoist is carrying a burden, and missing out on a more direct experience of the Tao itself by not actually walking the path.
It is his or her pain and loss, not yours. There is no reason to undertake an additional burden yourself by holding onto outrage, resentment, or indignation.