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Report from the First Maoshan Daoist Ecological Temples Forum

September 13, 2018:

The First Maoshan Daoist Ecological Temples Forum: Heavenly Grottos, Lucid Waters and Lush Mountains Meeting Report, September 7, 2018


The First Maoshan Daoist Ecological Temples Forum ran from August 19-21 at Maoshan near Nanjing. It has been described by the China Daoist Association (CDA) as the ‘most successful Daoist event for 10 years”.

Representation: More than 200 major temples were represented; there were also people from local government, environment NGOs including WWF-China, Chinese experts and architects and international representatives from ARC, the Norwegian EAT Foundation, the Norwegian Rainforest Foundation, the American International Renewable Energy Institute, the British Ecological Sequestration Trust and the Dutch Valley Foundation.

Agenda: The key item on the agenda was the launch of the draft Second Daoist Long-Term Environment Plan. The Daoists had seen how the first Daoist Long-Term Plan, launched at Windsor in 2009, had been an extremely effective way of making environmental change, and that stating a vision and making a plan to activate it had positive effects throughout the country, at hundreds of temples and also far beyond the gates of temples in cities and communities. The Plan concentrates on wildlife issues, mercy release, protecting Daoist natural sacred reserves/grottos or dongtians, and the key role of Daoist temples and monks as teachers and examples.

Future: Since its closing ceremony we heard back from Master Yang Shihua, Abbot of Maoshan, President of Jiangsu Daoist Association and Vice Secretary General of the CDA, who hosted and chaired the event, that the success has guaranteed that Maoshan will host the 2020 International Daoist Forum. He has noted that at that next meeting the Second Daoist Seven-Year Environment Plan and the whole issue of Daoism and ecology will be centre stage.

Inspiration: There is a huge statue of Lao Zi, the sage of Daoism, built around 10 years ago at Maoshan. At that time a swarm of bees settled on the finger of the statue. The hive has grown and now looks like a great carbuncle. But the Daoist masters have left it there. It symbolizes to them their philosophy of living in harmony with nature.

More information: A press release about the wildlife issues in particular is here, with a link to the Draft plan. news34a3.html?pageID=891


Despite a typhoon battening down the hatches and train stations and airports at the beginning, the event ran smoothly and the input from all the speakers was of a very high quality.

It was good to hear that much of the debate was extremely practical as well and showed how far we have come from the early days of the Daoist Ecological Temple Network (DETN). DETN began at Taibaishan in 2005 with sponsorship of the first Daoist Ecological Temple by the Ecological Management Foundation (now the Valley Foundation), support by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation and the energy and backing by the Daoists. A workshop took place there the following year with 24 attendees from 13 temples.

Here, 13 years later, were more than 200 temples wanting to know what to do next and how they could best do it.

As a result the new Seven Year Plan was unanimously approved to go through for overall approval from the CDA and then was immediately expanded through follow up discussions. (The previous was an Eight Year Plan launched in 2009 but the Daoist leadership wanted to fit with the 2025 target year of the Chinese Government on environmental issues, so made this one extend for seven years.)

It now goes forward for final overall approval from CDA which we have every reason to believe will be forthcoming. Key to Daoism is the notion that the human body is a map of the cosmos and the cosmos is a map of the human body. It follows from this that it is for the individual in his or her choices and lifestyle to be a model and a teacher for others. And key to the Daoist Seven Year Plan is the notion that Daoist temples should be models and teachers for communities, because the one contains the all.

There are more than 9,000 Daoist temples in mainland China and when you include Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore etc the total is around 10,000. They are places that, as Master Yang Shihua, chair of the event, said “are where people can understand Daoism and feel the Dao.”

The meeting was titled “Heavenly Grottos, Lucid Lakes and Clear Mountains,” a title that combined the Daoist, the Ecological, and the Poetic.

The significance of Maoshan

Maoshan is a sacred area in China, near Nanjing. Close by there are more than 100 lakes and it is a “Model Protection city”. It has a dongtian or heavenly grotto (a Daoist sacred place where the Dao is said to manifest and cultivate the body and soul), and in 1995 was in a generally poor state following the cultural revolution and years of neglect. Much of the ancient temple structure has also recently been built and rebuilt along environmental principles. These linked traditional stories about the links between heaven, earth and humanity to the temple architecture to contemporary discussion about sustainability.

Following from the first Long-Term Daoist Environment plan, Maoshan was developed and repaired in seven years from 2011. “We used three colours, grey-brown, purple-red and white”, Master Yang said. They were colors compatible with both tradition and the environment around Maoshan. “We had trees; if they were along the wall then when we built the wall we designed it to keep the trees intact. We built the building around the trees.”

Contemporary requirements like air-conditioning units and electrics were sympathetically built to blend into the building and be hidden with appropriate materials (including local sustainably sourced timber). This is not the case in all temples, Master Yang said, but he hoped to inspire change. “Inside some temples I visited I found litter, chaotic wiring and pipes. These things are so ugly. We put all electrics underground and used ecological principles. It didn’t take much money; it took thought and understanding.”

The political context

This event, and the second Daoist Long-Term environmental plan were expressed and compiled very explicitly in the context of the Chinese government programmes for “ecological civilization”, integrating green lifestyles into development programmes, and banning use of endangered wildlife. These are the “Two Centenary Goals”, the “Realisation of Chinese Dreams” and “Beautiful China” (also known as “Green China”) as well as national laws passed banning use of endangered animal parts in any context.

The key discussion points at the Maoshan meeting

1. Daoist temples to be/continue to be outstanding models for good practice Central to the draft Plan (which can be read in full through a link to this page news34a3.html?pageID=891) is the role of Daoist temples, leaders and communities in promoting good environmental practice and in addressing climate change.

“The ecological Daoist temples will serve as demonstration sites for best environmental practices: First they will strictly enforce the energy efficiency standards of buildings, promote the use of renewable energies such as solar energy and bio energy, and encourage, where applicable, temples to produce electricity from renewable energy and feed the rest to the grid. Second they will improve drainage and sewage systems and collect and recycle rainwater in the temples in order to improve the temple environment as well as to conserve water. Third, they will improve the recycling system of temples, separating waste and recycle as much as possible. Fourth, they will improve water management of temples, where applicable using efficient water saving technology and products, and promote water-saving awareness among the Daoist community and the wider society. Fifth, they will green the temples, planting trees inside and outside the temples’ public spaces. Sixth, they will promote green lifestyles, requiring all Daoist followers in the Daoist temples to live green and low carbon lives and avoid the waste of food. Seventh, they will use energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly low-carbon products such as high-efficiency electrical appliances and water-saving appliances and reduce the use of disposable articles in Daoist temples. Eighth, they will promote green travelling, use low-carbon transportation systems in temple scenic areas and give priority to public transportation, optimize transport modes, and promote energy-saving and new energy transportation.” 

This theme was supported by Daoist speakers. Also Zhou Weiwen of the Jiangsu Bureau emphasised the importance of connecting Daoism with daily life and development; Li Jian from the Municipal Committee called this religious place “a centre for vitality”

2. Wildlife Protection In 1993 the Chinese government prohibited rhino horn and tiger bone. In 2016 they issued a notice to stop process of ivory. In 2018 it became illegal to buy or sell ivory. Yet the illegal trade persists with smuggling, illegal online selling and tourists carrying the products to China. There are many initiatives to try and stop this.

There is also a general lack of awareness about legislation protecting wildlife.

“Daoists should advocate the use of herbs as much as possible and avoid as much as possible the use of animal parts for medicine,” states the draft plan, which was prepared and debated by key Daoist temples in China and overseas as well as by the China Daoist Association. It is due to take effect in early 2019 and run through to the end of 2025. 

“Daoist medicines and diet prohibit the use of threatened animals such as pangolin, which are protected by the Wildlife Law and listed as an endangered rare species. The Daoist community encourages temples to train Daoist doctors and believers on the laws and policies concerning the protection of wildlife in the country, as well as traditional Daoist values and raise public awareness and resist the illegal wildlife trade.” 

The plan requests all Daoists and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctors not only to avoid using rare animal products (which have been banned under Chinese law – rhino since 1993 and ivory since January 2018) but also actively to take steps against smuggling and poaching whenever they see it. 

Mia Xiao of WWF-China said in her presentation that having heard many presentations she thought Daoist views were quite similar to WWF’s views, as they both emphasized an equality between humans and animals. “Through our research we see how if we develop economy too much it will lead to extinction of animals. I hope that we can work together,” she said. “China has become a big consumption country for ivory and there are many other products smuggled in… Many elephants have been killed to provide China’s ivory. In the next 20 years wild elephants could be extinct.”

WWF is working with Facebook, the mallforafrica shopping app, BaiDu, Tencent, Google and others to explain to the Chinese community the consequences of the illegal trade. They also work with companies, non-profits and the police. “Today I want to learn something about Daoism and I want to invite the Daoists to fight against illegal trade… If Daoism can help us to educate their believers and give people the right message we can fight the trade together to make a harmonious coexistence.”

3. Mercy Release The mercy release issue has risen up the agenda in the last year. The Buddhists in China issued their strongest statement against it in 2016. Details here: newsd571.html?pageID=816 and an animated feature about it here. news2956.html?pageID=817

There are plans for the Daoists to discuss this with more partners including WWF, especially the creation of alternative ways of ‘releasing’ through the creation of Daoist and Buddhist wildlife foundations. Having the firm commitment of the Daoists is a major step forward. The speaker from WWF China showed an interest and awareness of the significance of Daoism.

4. Dongtians (heavenly grottos) to work towards World Heritage Status In around the 4th century or earlier Daoists identified 10 major places and 36 minor places where heaven and earth were separated by, to use a western metaphor, a gossamer thin veil. Where you could walk both on earth and in heaven. Later 72 more places were added to the list. These were preserved until the 20th century when they fell into disuse. They are the earliest recorded conservation areas set aside for preservation. About five years ago it was realised that many still existed and were more pristine than other areas. Preserving watersheds and places of preserving species and their ecological system was acknowledged. They are called heavenly grottoes but it is not a good translation of dongtian. They vary from the size of a churchyard to the size of a park.

In further discussions and as a result of the presentation, the meeting resolved to support the programme of working towards World Heritage Status for the dongtians in partnership with CDA, Maoshan, Aishan Foundation and WWF, especially WWF-Netherlands. There is much to discuss about how this could be done and what sort of focus the DETN in particular and CDA in general can bring to this campaign.

The protection of heavenly grottos was important in itself but also (along the Daoist philosophical lines of the small being a microcosm of the large) a model for wider society. Professor Li Yuanguo in Session Two remembered how in the Tang Dynasty (around the ninth century) the government set a prohibition on cutting down trees, particularly on the thousands of hectares of sacred mountains in China. In the Qinling mountains about 200 sq li (100 square kilometers, or 10,000 hectares) were protected. And in that area there were also 40,000 different species of insects; a huge and wonderful diversity.

5. Food and healthy living A further issue that is now on the agenda is food especially its links to health, environment and overall wellbeing. This was discussed at length in the wider context of the notion of healthy living. “People seek luxury and they deplete natural resources,” said Master Wu Chengzhen.This will be developed in partnership with the EAT Foundation in Norway who were present with us. At its heart is the cosmological understanding of human health and wellbeing which raises such a different model of what the body is, what illness is and what health means to the norms of Western science and thinking. With a major report from the EAT Foundation and Wellcome Foundation in The Lancet due out in the next few months on all this, the necessity to challenge assumptions on food consumption is crucial, and is now recognised by the leadership of EAT and Wellcome.

Olav Kjorven from EAT foundation discussed how 30-40% of food in the world is wasted. “The most important environmental decision we make each day is what we put on our plates. It’s a highway to healthier people on a healthy planet.” He discussed how in northern Europe there is a trend towards eating more of a plant-based diet (and less of a meat and fish-based) diet. China is currently going the other way as part of its rapid development, but Daoists could help it speed the process towards a more prosperous planet, which has to bring with it healthier eating (for both the planet and for people).

Delegates were invited to a Daoist ritual meal which involved eating three bowls of food: one of rice, one of vegetables, one of vegetable soup. It was eaten in silence, it was eaten without waste, and it was preceded and followed by prayers of thanks. It felt like the past and it also felt like the future.

6. Green villages and towns This is a significant new area of Daoist action, as part of the Green China/Beautiful China key government initiative by President Xi. The Daoists have designed two new towns in and around Tiantai Shan – these are good harbingers of this as a way in which Daoism can improve the quality of urban living by applying old wisdom and care to very contemporary issues.

7. Ecology temple design Architect Dr Li Tao talked about the Space Design of Daoist Ecological temples, both by night and day. He worked on a design for a garden at Fuxing Temple in Hangzhou, combining historical ideas (including in the Shu Guan Ping, which is the traditional book of temple design) with contemporary sustainable techniques. “When we talk about the ecological temple we have to also talk about its design”. It includes keeping the trees as much as possible, planting more plants and trees, both for aesthetics/spiritual comfort as well as for food and medicine, using sustainable materials, being aware that people needed to find spiritual help from the landscape itself, and that they might find inspiration there for secular sustainable beautiful buildings.

There are three parts to the work of making ecological temples (there always are three, in Daoism) – the natural environment, the buildings and green planting. “In Shanghai I see sometimes with foreign plants replacing the originals. Sometimes you can see plants from South America and the Middle East and after the winter most of them died; only a few survived.”

The message promoted at the meeting was that it doesn’t have to take a great deal of money, but it does need thought.

8. Other issues

There has been a growth of Daoist businesses such as Dao Organic foods and others promoting Daoist medicines and this is an area where ancient and modern are working side by side.

Some next steps

• The plan will go forward to the CDA for final approval. When it gets that then it becomes CDA policy and the Plan will become officially binding on Daoist temples. Willingness is (as it is in many forums) more important for the success of this plan than rules from an administrative body, but it seems also clear that this willingness is present too. From the modest beginnings of 13 temples in 2008 the 200+ members of the Daoist Environmental Temple Network today represents real progress. The next target is 500 in the next two years and 1,000 by the end of the Plan. It is of course not just the temples that will change but the many millions of followers that will learn from its example, and see how to be prosperous in a Daoist, sustainable way.

• Master Yang at Maoshan is already a keynote speaker for some of the 100 top companies in China on values and will be the spearhead for the China focused programme as part of FaithInvest.

• The Daoist University at Tiantaishan (four hours south of Shanghai) is going to be a training centre for the development of the Seven Year Plan. ARC’s China programmes director He Yun already lectures there and the expansion of the current college promises well for the intellectual leadership of Daoism in the future.


ARC September 2018

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