Connect to your own truth and follow that
Interview with Livia Kohn, emeritus professor of Religion and East Asian Studies at Boston University by Adina Dabija
Livia, you translated many books on Daoism from Classical Chinese into English, you organize Daoist conferences and you are teaching self-cultivation practices. When did you hear “the call of the path” – and why Daoism?
As a child, I was always a good reader and interested in books, but also running around a lot, doing sportsy things. Somehow when I was 13-14 I came in contact with this book by Eric Fromm, who is a psychologist and Freudian interpreter, You Shall Be As Gods. This is actually a quote from the Bible, and although I wasn’t Christian – my parents were agnostics – this book fascinated me. This book argues that the purpose of human beings on this planet is to become like gods, to attain a high level of harmony, spirituality, a higher purpose beyond making money, looking good and having a big house. So that changed my outlook on life, on what I want to be in life.
How can I be more like a deity, to develop these divine qualities within myself
Of course, when you are a teenager you ask yourself what do you want to be – a doctor, a car mechanic or an engineer… So rather than looking at the outside kind of things to determine a good career path, and adopt a kind of thinking like “society needs more dentists, I better become a dentist”, I shifted my perspective within. This is very important for young people today, especially that there are so many possibilities today to open an online business and also a lot of distractions – to start looking inward. So, for me this book was an invitation to ask myself who I am as an individual, who I am in relation to the Universe, how can I be more like a deity, to develop these divine qualities within myself.
My father was very money oriented and he really wanted me to pick a career and make a lot of money, so he wanted me to be a dentist, which I had no interest in, or something else that would give me a lot of prestige and a high income, but I really wanted a life of exploration, of new ideas, of curiosity, of visiting different places.
So around the age 16, my uncle from my mother’s side, who was a professor of political science in Northern Germany – I grew up in central Germany near Frankfurt – was consulted on different career opportunities and he asked me what I was really really interested in and what I enjoyed doing. I said I really like languages, but not just languages but understanding how people’s ways of looking at the world is different depending on their language.
At the time we learned Latin in school, and I fascinated that in Latin you say memoria tenere which means holding with the help of memory, whereas in both English and German we say “I am keeping it in memory” – so memory is a space and you put something in it, like in a box. In Latin it is not a box, it’s a tool, so there was this sense of relief that it’s not a box and it’s something more functional that you can use. So a lot of things that I was learning in Latin were just fascinating to me, so I realized the world is different depending on the language you grow up with. But I didn’t want to do Western languages so my uncle suggested Chinese or Japanese or Arabic, so I ended up looking into those. I took some electives in high school and one was about China.
I started reading some books and I became interested in China. So I chose a Chinese major in college, I went to Gottingen University in the North, where my uncle was and I stayed at his house before I moved into the dorm.
When I was interviewed by this professor and he asked me what I wanted to study he said this is a terrible field and I will never get to read all this stuff without a dictionary and there is no money in it – he was as discouraging as it can get and I was like… it’s okay, I’ll do it anyway… Because you are following something that speaks to you at a very deep level, if you just look at something that brings money and is convenient, there is no joy in it… you need to find something that really resonates with you at a deeper level and also be very persistent.
When I start to analyze Chinese texts I go into that flow state, there is no boredom, no anxiety, I fail to keep track of time
What is that deep level within you, what does Chinese language and Daoism resonate with, deep within you?
So Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist from Chicago University, came up with this concept called “flow”. One of his early books when he started to develop this concept is called Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. So if you do something because your parents want you to do it, like your parents want you to be a lawyer, but it’s not really your thing, you get anxious and nervous about it. If you do it just for money or for safety, you eventually get bored. So if you find joy in what you do, you are in a flow state.
So when I start to analyze Chinese texts I go into that flow state, there is no boredom, no anxiety, I fail to keep track of time and I am really engaging in a very absorbing kind of manner and it’s very satisfying. So it’s not “This is what I am meant to be”, it doesn’t go that far, but it’s very satisfying.
Would you be open to think that your connection to Daoism is coming from a past life?
It’s possible. There was this Doctor Phil episode where this woman left her husband and son to go off with some band, I think it was Grateful Dead, because she thought she had a connection with the singer in a past life. And the son and the husband were like hey, we want our mother back!… So dr. Phil interviewed her and they talked about it and eventually he looked at her and said: “You know what? The key to this thing is that it’s a past life! It’s past! It’s over. You are now a mother to these people!”
So the answer is that it’s entirely possible that in a past life I was in China and I was connected to the Daoist tradition, but you know what, it’s over and I don’t want to think that way.
So you want the freedom to choose.
As someone who has lived both in the modern West and in Asia and has an intimate knowledge of both cultures, could you please compare the two educational systems?
In the Western culture, there is a lot of emphasis on performing and achieving – which means you are getting a lot of reinforcement from the outside. In the Daoist system, the key concept is authenticity, being genuine, so it’s really more important to connect to your own truth and follow that.
Striving to be authentic means doing what is important for you
The first book I bought from Three Pine Press, about ten years ago, was Living Authentically: Daoist Contributions to Modern Psychology. Can you summarize, for the average young reader, the tenets of an authentic living, according to the Daoist tradition, and maybe offer us some personal examples of how these tenets expressed in your life?
Striving to be authentic means doing what is important for you. When I first got acquainted with Daoism, I was at Berkley and I had to return to Germany as my grant was for one year. So I went back to the same professor who had discouraged me from going into Chinese studies earlier.
By that time he had moved to Bonn University, so I graduated from Bonn University, but I liked him. He was actually very funny, a very nice man. When I told him I will do these studies on Daoism he discouraged me, he said who needs Daoism anyway… we don’t want it… But in the end I did my dissertation on this Daoist saint and the only thing my professor, who was more into confucianism, said in the end: “Oh, this makes a new contribution into the study of neo-confucianism!”. And I was like “Oh, no, I am not even interested in neo-confucianism!” So after that I ended up going to Japan because for Daoist studies in those days you could either go to Paris or Japan, as China was still very communist and they were not allowing religious studies.
In my dissertation – I was studying immortality – the core question was what does immortality really mean and that continued to be my guiding light over the years and it came out that this immortal that I studied, Chen Tuan, a Song dynasty figure, was stylized in terms of mysticism, and the way mysticism was described was using a lot of Chuang Tzu and I imagined him being more stylized as the mythology of the immortals, like eating funky drugs and mushrooms and doing weird things, so he was more a mystic.
So my question was: where is mysticism in China? So I ended up pursuing this question for about ten years and I wrote a couple of books about it and my mentor in Japan, Anna Seidel, originally from Germany, has gotten her PhD in France and worked for this French research institute which had its headquarters in Kyoto, said there is no mysticism in China, this is a total waste of time, this is bad, you’re an idiot. So even if these are important people and have important opinions you have to say back off, I hear you, but this approach is not for me.
And this happened to me quite a few times over the years. And the tendency I found was that I was ten years ahead of the curve – ten year later everyone is talking about mysticism.
And in the early nineties I got into monasticism in Daoism. And there are all sorts of interesting contrasts and overlaps with Buddhist monastic life, and parallels and it’s absolutely fascinating. And nobody was interested in monasteries and they found the topic boring, but ten years later the hot topic of Daoism was monasteries.
So striving to be authentic means doing what is important for you.
The other part of the Daoist cultivation is very physical and practical and this is another point I would like to emphasize: that practice and theory should really go together.
As I was doing my studies of Chinese religion I started to learn these very interesting practices. So I read a lot of books about Chinese culture and I got fascinated by the traditions and the popular religion – it’s very different, cheerful, vibrant, colorful, practical and I got into an exchange program with the University of California so I came in Berkeley as an undergraduate student and here I came in contact with Andrew Chifer who was a professor of Chinese literature and also interested in Daoism so he opened this door for me to study Daoism and I was just fascinated by it.
There are very strong dynamics between being intellectually curious about something and experiencing it in the body and mind through exercises and meditation
There was no taiji teacher in Germany in the 1970s, but the moment I hit Berkeley for my college I was set to find a tai ji teacher, and I did, I practiced every week with him and I practiced at home every day and I got really serious about it and I still do the long yang form and I love it: it changed the way I was in my body, it changed the way I worked with energy.
And also in Berkley I said to myself the key practice of the mystics was meditation, so I need to learn how to meditate.
But those days in Berkley there was only transcendental meditation available and the way it was set, you had to pay a guru from India to give you a personalized mantra to repeat while you meditate and my scholarship money wouldn’t allow for that, and then there was Hari Krishna, which was obviously part of a cult, which I had no interest in following.
Then as soon as I got to Japan I found an announcement about a Vipassana meditation, and I ended up practicing Vipassana for a long time.
So you read about something and you realize this is a piece of a puzzle that you are trying to assemble and the only way to put it together is by practicing.
There is this Tang dynasty text called Sitting in Oblivion that I translated and it talks about stages of meditation in Daoism and some are imported from Buddhism and I very much read this text through my Vipassana practice lens.
And then I had this shoulder injury back in the nineties and I ended up joining a gym to strengthen my muscles and the gym was also offering yoga, which I tried and I really liked it and a few years later in 2002 I did the yoga teacher training at Kripalu and I became a yoga teacher, which I still do.
And then I started to look from the practice, for yoga correspondences in the Chinese tradition and how does it work and what is the physiology of the stretches, how does it connect to the spirit and I ended up studying this book called Chinese Healing Exercises – Dao Yin and I wrote about the history of what is the equivalent of yoga in China based on experience.
So there are very strong dynamics between being intellectually curious about something and experiencing it in the body and mind through exercises and meditation. So the two really work together in a very dynamic way.
While in Japan, I interpreted at various conferences including Zen Buddhist conferences and I got to the point when I realized I can either remain an English teacher in Japan or I can make some use of my academic training and become a professor so I applied for different jobs everywhere including back in Germany and I received some jobs offers but I wasn’t ready to go back to Germany quite yet.
And that has to do with the authenticity thread. Germany, as I said earlier, had this major prejudice against Daoism and to be a young person and study something that no one supports would have been very very difficult.
I thought I needed to be more solid in the field before I go back to Germany and say this is important and I know about it and you don’t.
First at University of Chicago as a substitute teacher then in 1988 I got hired at Boston University where I stayed close to twenty years.
And that’s how I got to the US. So there is this tension between what you need to do and the powers around you require – but I ended up turning down jobs in Germany which would have been very good financially or academically.
If you are in the right direction the Universe sort of conspires to support you
One of my questions was if you had any difficulties on your path, but you kind of already answered that…
It really flowed pretty well… And if you are in the right direction the Universe sort of conspires to support you.
For example when I finished my college in Germany I really wanted to go to Japan and I applied for a scholarship there and I found out that the kind of scholarship I was interested in wasn’t offered, it didn’t really exist.
So I applied for this other grant which was through the Japanese Ministry of Education and it required you to take language classes for a long time and do other things I really had no interest in but I applied nevertheless because that was the only thing available.
So I applied and I had an interview with this big committee of fifteen professors and I passed and then my professor – the same who said Daoist studies are a hard field, called me into his office and said: “You know, you passed, but they are not giving you this Japanese Ministry of Education thing, they are giving you this all new thing, about science and research”.
And it was exactly the kind of scholarship I had envisioned. It ended up being two years, very generous, a lot of freedom, high profile – Japan is a very hierarchical society – this was a level of grant that was really highly respected, it worked out perfectly.
So then Boston University came, it was great, I got promoted on the regular schedule and eventually I got tired of active teaching and I quit in 2006.
I wanted to dedicate myself to doing more research and I founded a publishing company called Three Pines Press specializing in daoist books.
I also got involved in organizing daoist conferences and teaching workshops integrating the theory and the practice of dao yin exercises and dietary practices. There are always some hiccups but I didn’t encounter any big difficulties.
You have four books on time. Why is time such a big topic for you?
I stumbled upon this topic when I visited the leading daoist practitioner and master of Chinese Medicine in South Mexico and we were talking about helping people heal and he says “You try to help them and give them herbs and acupuncture but it doesn’t always work because the time is not right. This is the time to have some ailment and you kind of wait it out until the time is changing.” And he explained to me that time in Daoist culture had power, and was not neutral.
We think of time as neutral, like we can do anything at any time. But in Daoist tradition time has intrinsic power. Midday is the time to nurture the heart.
Most people who have high blood pressure know that it gets highest at 11 am. So there is biology but it’s more than that. So I kept in touch with him and I ended up looking at books on time and I eventually found the International Society for the Study of Time founded by Julius Fraser in the 1960s – now its headquarters are in Zurich.
They have a conference every three years, they bring together people from many disciplines and some Daoists were there.
But the last time anyone discussed China was in the 1980s and this was 2017. So I said: let’s do something about this.
So the next conference the Time Society organized was in June 2019 in Los Angeles and we organized a Daoist conference just before that so the Time people can come to ours and our people can go to the Time conference and we will focus on this.
And then I sent out an email to my list of 500 Daoist scholars and I asked them, regardless of their participation in this conference, for a contribution to a journal on the topic of Time.
And I expected ten people to be interested and I actually got 35 people willing to contribute.
So we ended up having three volumes, one focused on Classical Philosophy, one focused on Practices and Cultivation related to Time and one on comparatives – Daoism and Zen Buddhism, Daoism and Ancient Greece, Daoism and modern Western philosophies and physics and biology.
And I got inspired by Fraser’s system on temporalities – Time and the Cosmos, Time and the planet, biological time, time and language and I am asking the question how do all show up in Daoism and I ended up writing a book on that. So it ended up being four books that came out in 2021, so that’s a big project that is now concluded.
So are you a Daoist?
To a certain degree. I am not part of a Daoist lineage, I didn’t receive a formal initiation and a formal name in the tradition. I’ve been a taiji and qigong practitioner since the 1970s, I organize my space according to feng shui, I respect the circadian clock, I observe the flow of yin and yang so I am sort of a practice oriented Daoist, but not ritual oriented and only in limited ways a philosopher. Daoist certainly pervades my thinking and the way I live my life and I do have a few images of Daoist deities around.
Ecology and environment preservation are important goals of the global shift to sustainability that modern societies are striving to make. What is the relationship between ecology and human society, according to Daoism?
Human society and nature should be working together. In Daoist view, the human being is part of the natural flow and network.
Humans should act in nature in a gentle and non-invasive way, respectful to the land, the trees, animals and other human beings. Lao Zi says “A good traveler leaves no trace”.
So deep ecology is a similar concept in the west. We should be respectful and look at the systems. In the anthropocentric system people are important and nothing else matters.
On the other end of the spectrum there are people who say we have to protect the animals and nothing else matters.
In Daoism we are looking at the interrelations of the system, at the connections, the network that is really at the center.
If you compare Daoism to Chinese Medicine, Confucianism and Buddhism, which I’ve done in some books, Daoism focuses on the Universe, Chinese Medicine on the human being, Confucianism on the social connections and Buddhism on the mind, the karma, the resolution of the spiritual problems.
So Daoism is always the zoom out from the picture: yes, you work with the body, the mind but ultimately you are asking how do I connect with the Universe.
It’s not just about the body, about the mind or the society, but about integration. That’s why Daoism can integrate so many things, which goes back to where we started: Who am I in relation to the Universe?
How can I be more God-like and manifest the gifts that I have in relation with the Universe. In my case I ended up being very well supported and well off financially doing what I love to do. Now I run a series of lectures on Zoom, called Dao Explore.
They happen twice a month on a Thursday, but subscribers also get a link to the recording, so they can watch at any time. Check it out: www.threepinespress.com. Or email me directly: [email protected]
Thank you, Livia!