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  • Karl Thunemann

May I Dwell in ‘The Taoist Body’

The roots of this epistle extend back to 2014, and maybe even further, into forgotten realms of my unconscious. It was a wayward chapter looking for a home in my now uncompleted novel, A Yinward Way.

It began with this auspicious summary: Suppose you are creating a work you imagine to be wholly your own, completely unprecedented, when you discover a clue that people of an ancient culture—one you have long revered—entertained a very similar vision.

But this discovery arrived inauspiciously as I prepared for a medical appointment soon after one of my many road trips to California. I looked to my small library for a book to read in the waiting room. This is what I found: The Taoist Body, by Kristofer Schipper. *

The volume was isolated in the closet and seemed as if it had been there for a long time. It appeared to be unread, for it lacked the aura of abuse that envelops all paperbacks that I have spent an hour with. While I did not remember acquiring the book, it did seem familiar.

(L)ooking out on the sun glistening on the waters of Puget Sound, listening to seals bark in the rocks just a few yards away, I had another epiphanic vision. How better to explain our culture’s mass—and apparently mad—obsession with role-playing games?

Ah, it looked like the sort of book I might buy, in fact the sort of book I often bought, with a title and cover art that piqued my interest. And yet these books so often remain unread. Oh, I might peek inside to read the foreword or introduction, but as these books are so often either incredibly dry or so inscrutably arcane—and sometimes both—that I often fall asleep over these prefatory articles. And now I found this. I was intrigued, so I slipped the book into my bag. Maybe I would have time to look through the table of contents and pick out the most intriguing topic.

My doctor was very prompt that day, and I wound up carrying the book around for a few weeks until one day I  found myself wheeling into Golden Gardens, a park on the shore of Puget Sound, to while away a couple of hours between appointments in Seattle. I hauled out the book and selected a chapter called “The Inner Landscape.”  I buzzed down my windows to let in the sharp marine air, and soon was transfixed by the very first paragraph:

“The human body is the image of a country,” say the Taoists. There they see mountains and rivers, ponds, forests, paths, and barriers—a whole landscape laid out with dwellings, palaces, towers, walls, and gates sheltering a vast population. It is a civilized state, administered by lords and their ministers.

The vision of the human body belongs both to Taoism and Chinese medicine. The fundamental work of medical theory, the “Simple Questions of the Yellow Emperor,” describes the body thus: “The heart functions as the prince and governs through the ‘shen’ [‘soul’]; the lungs are the liaison officers who promulgate rules and regulation; the liver is a general and devises strategies.

From there the chapter grew more esoteric. But I stuck with it, jotting out this passage: “The human body is the image of a country” implies a relation that transcends the simple metaphor. The emphasis on country reflects the interdependence of the human being and the environment, as well as Taoism’s fundamental teaching that favors the interior over the exterior.

If every person is a nation, what can we say of this archipelago in the Philippines? Photo via World Atlas

I was excited. I felt vindicated … no, validated in so many ways … in my eclectic, personal Taoism … in the thesis that had evolved in my novel. … the thesis being that all humans contain multiple identities and must cultivate them … that every human is the image of a country … these countries are comprised of vast populations, not smatterings of personalities whom the reader might, in the end, might wave off as wayward but treatable refugees from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders … validated, oddly enough, in  running debate with Gertrude. I had argued that my novel’s value might lie in its universality, whereas Gertrude said its potential appeal lay in its singularity.

Sitting there, looking out on the sun glistening on the waters of Puget Sound, listening to seals bark in the rocks just a few yards away, I had another epiphanic vision. How better to explain our culture’s mass—and apparently mad—obsession with role-playing games? It begs to be delineated in terms of dysfunction, but perhaps the phenomenon suggests a universal longing to gain contact with that vast, thriving world that seethes within each of us. We are yearning to regain the simplicity and creativity this world demands, settling instead for a contrived, inadequate commercial alternative.

On the wings of this vision, I felt moved to rush home and write a short chapter, to be inserted somewhere in the narrative, explaining this astounding discovery. But fate—let’s call it synchronicity—intervened. When I decided to move on to my next appointment, my car—my beloved Lem—would not start. The engine almost turned over, then subsided in a few feeble clicks. Clearly, the battery was dead. My cell phone still worked, so I called Triple A for a jump start and then canceled my appointment. I went for a walk along the shore and bought a soft-serve cone at Little Coney.

And still I had more than an hour to peruse the mysterious work. I discovered that in the second century CE an influential Confucian scholar had successfully separated the intellectual philosophy of Lao Tsu and Chaung Tsu from its liturgical roots in popular folk Taoism. But wait! Did I really care to read about liturgy, about the immortals, gods, and festivals of this all-but-vanished religion? For the sect described by Schipper seems to have no place in the contemporary Western world.

In the foreword—yes, I even started to read the foreword! —I learned that Schipper, a Dutch sinologist based in Paris, had studied Taoist practices in Taiwan. Finding that his formal academic approach interfered with his ability to perceive the substance of his study, Schipper began studying to become a Taoist priest—and eventually was ordained. Here he learned that the value of Taoist liturgy did not lie in its meaning (take that, you latter-day types groveling at the feet of Lao/Chaung!) but in the body’s own experience of endlessly repeating these age-old rituals, hundreds upon thousands of times.  It might seem irrational, but this tantalizing detail drove me even further from writing about my discovery of this book.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat browsing through the foreword and waiting for the tow truck driver, I began to sense that perhaps the material seemed a little too familiar. I began to anticipate information in a manner suggesting that I had previously read this essay. This could scarcely be prescient! Finally I began to realize how I had acquired this book. Sometimes I would run across a reference to a particularly alluring book that was not in the collection of the King County library. So I would initiate an inter-library loan and become so enamored with the book that I would buy a copy, promising to study it. But these promises so often went unmet, the new book left to stand pristine among the volumes that had been ravaged by their owner. So easy to forget—there were only five or six such books.

So at last I had determined how the book had come into my hands. I still hold to its value, though in some ways the book’s argument set a quandary for me. Would I have to choose between Schiffer’s view and the ideas expounded by James Hillman, the post-Jungian American psychologist? The Taoist view is thousands of years old; Hillman may yet be reduced to a 20th century footnote. I opt not to choose. Hillman did not posit the idea that each of us was a nation, but he did propose that every person contains many possible identities. He contended that each of these entities should be encouraged to find fulfillment. Hillman rejected the idea that they should all be folded into an established adult identity. Perhaps he could find resonance with the vision espoused by Thich Nhat Hahn, the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, in his writing about safe harbors. One should view oneself as a beautiful island!

As I proceed, I will work on learning to hold both views. They are not mutually exclusive. The Taoist Body springs from roots that seem to be larger than the debates that continue to rage in contemporary psychology. I yearn to be part of this picture, to see myself as an island in a great archipelago, not as a footnote to be discerned in the DSM 5. And so I conclude with this loving-kindness wish for myself—and for you too if it appeals to you:  May I dwell in ‘The Taoist Body.’


* The Taoist Body, by Kristofer Schipper.

Schipper, p. 100


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