After spending 19 years studying Taoist medical practices, Bernard Shannon opened his own temple in Palm Desert, California, in 2006. "There were only a handful of disciples and a few visitors. People came to me primarily for medical qigong or tai chi lessons," Shannon said, speaking at a Taoist forum in Yingtan, Jiangxi province.
Shannon, who has been ordained as a disciple of the 66th generation of the Celestial Master Sect of Taoism at Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi, found that the popularity of his teaching grew over time, and as his students dug deeper into exercises and medicine rooted in Taoist understanding of the body and the cosmology, they became increasingly interested in the sect's religious beliefs.
Taoism, also known as Daoism, is an ancient tradition of philosophy and religious beliefs based in Chinese customs that emphasizes harmony between humanity and the natural world.
Shannon's temple now has 50 disciples, and four of them have been authorised to establish temples across the United States. "There has been significant growth (in the number of disciples and visitors). People come tome to learn about philosophy, qigong or meditation exercises, but then something wakes within them. They want to learn more and more, and then pretty soon they want to seek ordination," he said.
He admitted that pushing forward the ritual, ceremonial, and various religious aspects of Taoism is difficult and challenging in a country such as the US, which has a predominantly Judeo-Christian population: "But the Taoist philosophy is becoming much more popular. The belief in harmony, yin and yang, and being good to one another fits very well with all sections of society in the United States."
According to Martin Palmer, secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, the global influence of Taoism as a formal religion is limited compared with other religions.
Palmer, who has worked with the China Taoist Association since the 1990s and has also translated a number of Taoist classics, said there are only a small number of Taoists in the United Kingdom, an estimate confirmed by the UK's 2011 census in which 4,144 people described themselves as Taoists.
However, Taoism is influencing people through practices such as tai chi, traditional Chinese medicine and qigong. Palmer estimated that about 300 million people outside China use TCMs, and millions practice tai chi and qigong, despite having limited knowledge of Taoism as a religion.
In another sign that the religious side of Taoism has been gaining influence outside its home country, an increasing number of foreign Taoists have travelled to China to be ordained in temples in recent years.
The international forum in Yingtan, held in November, attracted more than 400 practitioners and scholars from 27 countries and regions.
The number of ordinations conducted by the Celestial Master Sect of Taoism, in Longhu Mountain in Yingtan, has risen to about 300, from 184 in 2012, and 160 in 2010, according to the website of the Taoism sect. "The number of foreign disciples ordained has exceeded the number of Chinese ordained," said Zhang Yanhong, a practitioner at Longhu Mountain.
Huang Xinyang, vice-president of the China Taoist Association, said the association will continue with a programme to push forward Taoism overseas, including visiting three to five countries each year to spread the Taoist classics and host demonstrations of qigong, the Taoist method of maintaining corporeal well being.
Last year, the association launched its maiden overseas cultural exchange in Europe to promote the Taoist culture, and Huang said it's also preparing to establish a global fellowship society to increase the number of exchanges between Taoists across the globe.
Journey to the East
Many Western practitioners were introduced to Taoism through its medical practices, and also by reading the TaoDe Ching, attributed to Lao Tze (571-471 BC), who is often described as the founding father.
However, according to Palmer, unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, there are no Taoist masters in the West. "There is nobody in the West who can teach you Taoism. You have the books, the art, music and philosophy. And really you then make it what you want," he said.
To further their knowledge, many practitioners travel to China, often visiting sacred mountains, to seek inspiration fromTaoist priests.
Herve Trestard, chairman of the Mexican Taoist Association, had studied traditional Taoist medicine and the sect's classic books before he decided to learn more about the religion itself. He travelled to China in 2007, and visited a number of temples in Beijing and provinces such as Henan, Shaanxi and Jiangxi in his search for a teacher. Eventually, he met a priest at the Qinghuagong Temple in Xi'an in Shaanxi who was willing to take him as a disciple.
"I received my Taoist name (Jingwei) and changed my faith to the Daoist religion. I returned in 2008 to live for a month in the temple, where I was ordained in the Longmen branch of Quanzhen Taoism," he said.
"I think we have to share the experiences of Chinese priests, because in the West we only have Daoist theories and translated books. It's very important to live in the temple so we can understand the reality of the priests' lives, "he said.
Recalling his arrival in China in 2004, Shannon described how he marveled at the examples of calligraphy he was given as a gift at a temple on Qingcheng Mountain in Sichuan province. He said he always explains the calligraphy to his students in their first lesson as a reminder of the importance of sticking to Taoist traditions.
The Taoist philosophy, based on respect for nature and the promotion of a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature, has enabled the religion to play a bigger role in environmental affairs.
"There is huge interest in Taoism right now because of the global economic collapse and the environmental crisis. People are looking for other ways to understand who we are, our place in the universe, and our relationship with the rest of nature," Palmer said.
Zhao Yanxia, director of the Center for Taoist Studies at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in the United Kingdom, said Taoist philosophy has inspired a growing number of environmentalists around he world. "Other groups, including feminists and hippies, are also turning to Taoism for inspiration," she said.
According to Palmer, one of the reasons Taoist thought becoming increasingly popular is that it offers a life philosophy to people who don't want to belong to an established Western religion: "They find wisdom, and poetic and beautiful descriptions of our relationship with nature. That does not require a God, but it does require a compassionate heart.
"In Taoism, a lot of people find a kind of spiritual and philosophical way of thinking about the world that offers a real alternative. This is influencing artists, influencing musicians, and influencing people who write stories and novels," he said.
Shannon echoed Palmer's view, saying that many of his students are atheists: "After a few years of studying qigong, they are feeling the earth and energy in their body. And then they believe there must be something."
Yam Kahkean, a professor at the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Malaysia who is also the president of the Malaysian Taoist Association, said the fact that some Taoist classics are open to interpretation can also give rise to inaccuracies.
"In Malaysia, for instance, the Chinese community will go to a temple and worship the Taoist gods, if they are not already members of another religion," he said. "Sometimes, people just build an altar or a temple quite casually, but these are really just dedicated to Chinese folklore religions, rather than Taoism," he said.
Yam said the rise of new media has facilitated the spread of Taoism because it enables easy exchanges, but it can also result in practices that may harm the religion's reputation. "It's much easier to access Taoist classics now than ever before. That means anybody can learn some of the classics online and claim to be a Taoist master," he said.
Palmer said the challenge for the Chinese Taoist Association lies in accepting that Taoism is no wan international religion. "I would say that in China there's still a slight feeling that Taoism is a Chinese religion, but they (practitioners) are very happy if Westerners want to come and look at it," he said.
"I think it's too early for the China Taoist Association to know how to deal with the fact that Taoism is now an international philosophy, rather than an international religion," he said.