As a Taoist priest, one of my main responsibilities is the spreading of the Taoist faith and culture. Several days ago, one of my disciples told me that she had decided to formally convert her 5-year-old child to Taoism.
Those not acquainted with the Taoist faith might assume I would be happy with this news. After all, there would soon be another Taoist disciple in the world, and the religion would continue being passed from generation to generation. But in reality, I was furious.
Taoism is a religion native to China that follows the philosophy of “Tao,” which emphasizes harmony with nature. Taoists do not believe in a single creator, but rather put faith in the natural order of the universe.
Of course, Taoism is still an organized religion. Followers of the faith must study Taoist scripture, pay respect to the gods, and follow a priest’s mentorship. There are all sorts of rules, like dietary restrictions, that followers of the faith must adhere to.
Converting to a religion is a serious commitment. People need to be resolute when choosing a new faith — it’s a huge responsibility, and there’s a lot that you need to give up. This is why I strongly objected to my disciple’s choice to convert her young child. I believe becoming a follower of Taoism is something that a person needs to decide on their own, and I can’t accept an adult forcing a young, unsuspecting child into the religion.
There are two main schools of Taoism in China currently: Zhengyi Dao, and Quanzhen Dao. The Zhengyi movement preaches naturalism and allows its disciples to practice Taoism without having to live in a convent. It also doesn’t prohibit marriage and allows its members to start families.
The school of Quanzhen, on the other hand, has a stricter set of principles and restrictions. It advocates leading a life of faith and discourages marriage and copulation.
My followers and I belong to Quanzhen, but I teach my disciples to follow their hearts — I don’t mind them marrying if they meet the right person, as long as they keep their faith.
Because of China’s one-child policy, many adults are the only child in their families, and their family line will end with them if they decide not to have children of their own. I believe it’s important to pass on the virtues of Chinese culture from one generation to the next.
This is why I didn’t mind my disciple marrying and having a child. But since this isn’t the standard in the Quanzhen tradition, this is the first time I’ve encountered the dilemma of child conversion.
Taoism advocates teaching children a wide range of traditional knowledge, but I believe that depriving a child of their right to choose a religion is unacceptable. My disciple’s faith should remain separate from her child’s. Taoism requires sacrifice and clarity of mind, and it’s something that a person shouldn’t enter into until they’re old enough to give consent.
We must be vigilant in ensuring the teaching of Taoism is spread in the most justifiable way. Our children’s future is full of excitement and possibilities, and we should provide a safe space for them to grow. We shouldn’t decide their futures for them, or deprive them of the right to choose their own religion.
I am an enthusiastic advocate of Taoism. I do everything in my power to introduce the religion to anyone I can. I even encourage introducing Taoism to young children as well by having them visit Taoist temples, experience the Taoist lifestyle, and observe our rituals.
I think children should be encouraged to have religious experiences. However, if the child is either unwilling or too young to coherently decide what he or she wants, we should not force them to join the faith — which requires them to follow a strict set of rules on how to live their lives.
I told the mother how I felt and she agreed with me, saying that she will let the child decide when he grows up. From now on, I will specifically prohibit my followers from converting Taoism for young children.
(Header image: Three children dressed in Taoist robes play with ink brushes in Beijing, May 25, 2015. VCG)