Is There Religious Fundamentalism in Chinese Culture? The Case of the i-kuan Tao in Taiwan Jen-Chieh Ting



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4.2. The I-Kuan Taos Attitude toward Scripture

Within the global political context, under the pressure of globalization and modernity, people may appeal to an absolute and sacred authority to counteract external forces. Usually the religions with the revelational scriptures have a higher probability of this fundamentalist response breaking out, because in the revelational tradition, the revelational texts can be more easily appropriated as an absolute base to revitalize further social and political practices.

Thinking about the I-Kuan Tao sect, it does look like a revelational kind of religion. Although the sacred messages come from not only one but various deities sources, the magical revealed texts have been taken as absolute and unquestionable sources of sacred authority. The form of the texts, such as the xunzhongxun itself has been proved to be magical; without deities’ direct involvement, there is no way of creating this kind of sacred texts. Whereas with regard to the Classics, in the I-Kuan Tao it is also believed that although these Classics may not have been written by deities’ spirits, yet at least they were written by saints, who actually attained the highest mental state, that of enlightenment, that any spirit being could possibly reach.

Nevertheless, comparing the I-Kuan Tao to monotheist revelational religions such as Christianity and Islam, some noteworthy differences should be pointed out.

Even without referring to the obvious distinction between monotheism and polytheism, two things in the I-Kuan Tao are already in great contrast with most fundamentalism in other areas: (1) For the god or deities behind the revealed texts, there is a still higher and ultimate authority behind them. This authority, say Tao, has the characters of being imminently interpenetrable to everything around it. Therefore, the wills of gods are conditioned by this Tao and cannot be arbitrary. (2) The relation between human beings and gods is both a continuing and mutually discernible. That is, a person can attain the status of deity during the personal journey of self-cultivation and moral endeavor, as well as can sense and communicate with the deities’ intentions any time if he or she has a purified mind. Therefore, deities and people are always interacting and have the potential of mutually transforming.

With regard to the issue of theism, indeed, the I-Kuan Tao has evolved into a religion with an appearance of monotheism, having the Eternal Primordial Mother as the sole supreme deity for people’s eternal salvation. However, because this new system evolved from traditional folk religion, it still recognizes the already existing folk deities and the hierarchical relations among these deities, thus this new system still sharply contrasts with a typical monotheist system, in which the authority of God is in conflict with any other sources of authority.

In the I-Kuan Tao’s system of “deities/Tao/ heaven,” these three all can be referred to as the entities embodying with the ultimate truth. Although ordinary people could possibly reach this ultimate truth, however, an enlightened master’s or spiritual saint’s mediated role would be crucial. This mediated role can function either through the initiation ritual’s mystical transmission of Tao or through text writing to reveal the hidden truth, therefore making the ultimate truth more accessible to ordinary people.

Within the “deities/Tao/heaven” triumvirate, the dynamics of Tao are pivotal. Tao is omnipresent, penetrating into government, community, family, personal cultivation, and so forth. Tao is the rather dynamic and invisible principle within the human and natural realm, not like a deity or heaven that can be referred to as a visible and specific entity.

Since Tao is an omnipresent and dynamic principle, a fixed designation cannot confine its essence and mechanisms. Therefore, if one only focuses on worshipping a specific deity or reading a limited pool of scriptures, according to the principle of Tao, one may risk not only binding oneself in a fragmentary and biased understanding of the truth, but also one may be actually totally missing the point. For this reason, from the very beginning, the I-Kuan Tao always claimed itself to be a “Tao” rather than a “religion” (jiao 教), because it believes that any kind of fixed arrangement, either in doctrine or organization, is bound to circumscribe and restrict the dynamics of Tao.

Since Tao is omnipresent and beyond social hierarchy, anyone can embody this Tao. This immanent nature of Tao makes it so that no one can monopolize Tao.

However, presumably there is a Tao Lineage, in which some historical figures had embodied Tao and transmitted Tao. It is believed that this Tao Lineage manifests either in wise and virtuous emperors or in the saints and profound persons who can really appreciate Tao. The latter, since they do not have real political power and thus may be free from the danger of corruption, may embody a purer state of Tao. To this sense, Tao’s embodiment is not only beyond social hierarchy but also may actually reveal itself much more in those people without governmental position. For example, in terms of Zhu Xi’s (朱熹) construction of the Tao Lineage, even though his intention was not exactly to create a religion, in his depiction of this Tao Lineage, he showed it starting from the legendary political figures Yao (堯), Shun (舜), Yu (禹), Tang (湯), Wen (文), Wu (武), and the Duke of Zhou(周公), then in later transmissions of this Tao Lineage Confucius and Mencius are added as nonpolitical figures.

At least until Mencius in this Tao Lineage succession, Zhu Xi’s construction has been accepted by all of the I-Kuan Tao divisions.

Furthermore, in the I-Kuan Tao’s own words, to link this Tao Lineage with the current

social context, an argument about recent historical development has been elaborated: 13-14):


In the very distant past, there was no differentiation between “emperor” and “teacher”---- all bore the mandate of heaven. This means that there were two kinds of authority, authority to govern people and authority to educate people. Later, politics and education differentiated. The mandate of heaven could confer to either the emperor or the teacher. Such was the great virtuosity of Confucius; he was not an emperor yet bore the mandate of heaven. His mandate of heaven was to be a saint and to be the model of a great teacher….

The greatly virtuous people would bear the mandate of heaven. Neither “emperor” nor “teacher” could monopolize this mandate of heaven. The “emperor” could be an emperor only on a very short term, yet the great teacher would be commemorated by later generations over a long period of time….

Once the teachers could not bear the great responsibility of education, the mandate of heaven would be conveyed to ordinary people. History now is fated to this new direction. (Lee & Lin 1992:13-14)

The I-Kuan Tao’s own characterization of this Tao Lineage thus shows that the great tradition now has already been transmitted to the ordinary people. Why? Because of the Westernization, the emperors are gone, and Confucian intellectuals were replaced by Westernized technicians and scholars. Now only ordinary people are left to bear this Tao Lineage and mandate of heaven. The quotation at the beginning of this current paper also has shown that, under recent historical disturbance, I-Kuan Tao members found out their legitimacy and responsibility to embody as well as to spread Tao. Before this, the responsibility and legitimacy never had fallen on commoners.

Another interesting question is: When appropriating Chinese classical scriptures as its main texts, why does the I-Kuan Tao still need to revise and reedit the scriptures, and even have Zhu Xi’s descending to confess his own mistakes in reorganizing the Four Books? May this stance be sharply at odds with the orientation of fundamentalism?

Here, we may say that the classical Confucian scriptures, within the circle of Chinese Confucian intellectuals in earlier time, had not yet been embedded with strong religious tenets. Then, after the Tang (A.D.618-907) and Song (A.D. 960-1279) dynasties, there was a big switch in Confucian intellectuals’ interpretation of traditional scriptures. The so-called Second Epoch of the Confucian Way, where there was a “creative response to the Buddhist and Taoist challenge and an imaginative reinterpretation and re-appropriation of classical Confucian insights,” began a new path of Confucianism. This Neo-Confucian path, as represented by Zhou Dun-I (周敦頤), Zhang Zai (張載), Cheng Hao(程顥), Cheng Yi(程頤), Zhu Xi(朱熹) and Lu Xiang Shan(陸象山), takes an anthropocosmic vision of Confucianism (Tu 1993:167-177). Zhu Xi’s restructuring the priority of the Confucian scriptural tradition by placing the Four Books (Si Shu四書) above the Five Classics (Wu Jing五經) and giving the Four Books a particular sequence—the Great Learning, the Analects, the Book of Mencius, and the Doctrine of the Mean—was especially crucial (Tu 2003:174).

This Second Epoch of the Confucian Way not only redirected Confucianism into an anthropocosmic vision emphasizing a process of self-transformation together with its cosmic connectedness, but it also gave Confucianism a perspective very close to that of religion.

Zhu Xi’s construction of the Tao Lineage, this act itself, already shows a sign of a creative shift, in order to give Confucianism a parallel appearance to Buddhism’s religious patriarch lineage.

However, after all, the Second Epoch of the Confucian Way only made Confucianism more anthropocosmic rather than making it a religion in which spiritual beings may interact with the human realm. Regarding this, a revising of traditional Confucian scriptures and an appeal to deities’ descending thus may enhance the “Second Epoch of the Confucian Way into a religious template.

In this sense, without checking in detail the textual differences between Zhu Xi’s version of the Great Learning or the Doctrine of the Mean and the I-Kuan Tao’s versions, it is already enough for us to notice that, since Zhu Xi’s anthropocosmic view of Confucianism still greatly departs from a supernaturalized version of Confucianism, therefore for the general populace a new version of the scriptures, supported by the deities’ descending to rectify the texts, under Chinese cultural contexts and at the current historical moment, is crucial and necessary. The actual internal mechanisms involved in the process of generating a newly revised version of the classics at least includes what follows:


1. To create a grassroots fundamentalism in Chinese tradition, the first step is to push the classical scriptures, especially Confucian scriptures, into a revalational kind of text. After this, the great Chinese cultural tradition, following the Second Epoch of the Confucian Way’s anthropocosmic shift, can be transformed further into a new assembly with immanent needs for both personal salvation and collective cultural identity.
2. After accepting the new form of the Classics, which are backed up by the deities’ approval at the current historical moment, whether psychologically or physically, the traditional classical texts immediately are conjoined to the present time frame and world arena and thus have an up-dated connectedness.
3 A new footstep coming from descending deities also renews and reaffirms the linkage between deities/Tao/heaven and human beings, thereby recharging people’s religious faith and engagement.
4.As the traditional classical texts are open to all of the general public, a renewed version of the texts, although it may present a sectarian boundary to the readers, yet also stimulates an exclusive kind of feeling. That is, as the previous Classics actually were too diffused to be appropriated as a base for fundamentalist response, reformed texts with specific deities’ reveled codes may make Chinese cultural tradition both inclusive and exclusive at the same time and thus can possibly stimulate further bounded engagements and coagulate collective identity under a broader and more diffused kind of cultural background.


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