Taoist sages embody and transmit to others compassion, humility, and wisdom, even when confronted with persecution. It is the story of Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men.

by Massimo Introvigne*

*Introduction to the webinar “Freedom of Education, Freedom of Belief, and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on January 24, 2024, UN International Day of Education.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on January 25th, 2024.

A Taoist master teaching his disciples. AI-generated.
A Taoist master teaching his disciples. AI-generated.

At the beginning of this month, I visited Taiwan together with other scholars to attend the 17th International Conference on Taoist Studies in Taichung. After the conference ended, the well-known British scholar Eileen Barker and I remained in Taiwan for another week to attend several Tai Ji Men events.

While open to dizi of all religions, Tai Ji Men is an ancient menpai (similar to a school) rooted in esoteric Taoism. Tai Ji Men’s idea of education and the role of its Shifu (Grand Master), Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, although universal and not limited to a specific religion, do resonate with some of the deepest principles of Taoism that we explored during the Taichung conference.

Taoism emphasizes harmony with the natural order of the universe. Education in Taoism goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge; it encompasses the cultivation of wisdom, self-cultivation, and alignment with the Tao, the underlying principle of everything. The sage or master plays a crucial role in Taoist education, guiding individuals on their path towards self-discovery and enlightenment. The term “Shifu” is traditionally reserved to sages and masters who, in addition to self-cultivation, also teach martial arts, as Dr. Hong does.

Taoism views education as a lifelong process that extends beyond the confines of formal schooling. It recognizes that true education encompasses the development of moral character. Education in Taoism is rooted in cultivating intuitive wisdom, rather than accumulating facts and knowledge. It encourages individuals to find their own unique path, promoting self-discovery and understanding.

The sage is an enlightened being who has attained deep understanding and harmonious integration with the Tao. The sages embody the three fundamental Taoist principles of compassion, humility, and wisdom, leading by example and inspiring others to cultivate these virtues.

Through their enlightened presence, the sages aid in the transformation of consciousness, encouraging the integration of wisdom into daily life. Taoist education employs various methods to transmit wisdom from master to disciple. These methods encompass direct instructions and experiential practices. Direct instructions involve verbal teachings, discussing philosophical principles, and guiding the disciples’ reflections. Experiential practices include martial arts, Qigong, breathwork, and energy cultivation techniques, enabling students to deepen their connection with the Tao.

A fundamental aspect of Taoist education lies in fostering harmony with nature and the universe as a whole. The Taoist sage teaches how to align our actions and thoughts with the flow of the universe, embracing the principle of “wu wei” or effortless action. Through this heightened awareness of harmony, Taoist education cultivates a profound sense of inner peace and an intuitive apprehension of the fundamental unity of all things. Taoist education offers a transformative path that connects individuals with the timeless wisdom of the universe.

Political “wu wei”: the emperor instructs his ministers in the art of government. AI-generated.
Political “wu wei”: the emperor instructs his ministers in the art of government. AI-generated.

Since the 4th century BCE, the Taoist idea of “wu wei” also referred to an ideal political system where the emperor is not directly involved in in the routine of the administration but selects honest and well-educated ministers and bureaucrats and let them manage the daily affairs of the empire. In the words of French scholar Marc Lebranchu, the emperor “should act without acting. He is a model, a discreet center. People may barely know he exists, as his effectiveness radiates and harmonizes spontaneously” (“Découvrir le taoïsme,” Paris: Eyrolles 2020, 64). This may still be a valid principle today, comparable to the principle of subsidiarity in Western political thought, but, as the Tai Ji Men case demonstrates, only works if the bureaucrats are honest.

Scholars of Taoism insist that a disciple who is man or woman of conscience and pure heart would immediately recognize a sage or spiritual master. This is the same experience dizi have reported so many times to us about their encounter with their Shifu. Some of them had parents who were already dizi, others met Dr. Hong as adults for the first time. But all, at some crucial stage of their life, recognized in Dr. Hong the spiritual master they were looking for, one capable of giving a deeper sense to their lives.

I have personally experienced, as without doubt did his dizi, how Dr. Hong embodies the three features of the Taoist sage: compassion, humility, and wisdom. He also teaches both through words and effective experiential practices, including Qigong and martial arts.

Tai Ji Men protest in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protest in Taipei.

There is however another, perhaps less frequently mentioned, character of the Taoist sage. By studying the long history of Taoism, one encounters many masters of wisdom who were persecuted. Some were killed. Teaching wisdom means teaching freedom, which is not always appreciated by the powers that be. It is thus not surprising that Dr. Hong also met with opposition and persecution. By resisting persecution, however, he strengthened his role as Shifu and made his dizi stronger.

Ultimately, Taoism teaches that the fools serve a purpose in the universe, as they make the light of the sages shine brighter by contrast. We read in the “Tao Te Ching,” verse 41: “When a wise man hears of the Tao, he immediately begins to live it. When an average man hears of the Tao, he believes some of it and doubts the rest. When a foolish man hears of the Tao, he laughs out loud at the very idea. If it were not for that laugh, there would be no Tao.”

Artistic rendering of verse 41 of the “Tao Te Ching.” AI-generated.

While the fools laugh stupidly, believing their persecution would destroy the sages, it is the sages who have the last laugh. This is the story of Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men: a story of compassion, humility, and wisdom—and persecution.