A personal reflection on the subject of "What is Daoism, and who is a Daoist?
The first part of the question, i.e "What is Daoism?", is reasonably straightforward to answer. Here are two succinct ones:
(Note: "Daoism" and "Taoism" are the same thing. The old way of spelling it (Wade-Giles transcription system) is with a 'T'. The modern way (Pinyin transcription system) is with a 'D'.)
"Daoism, also known as Taoism, is a religious or philosophical tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Dao (道, literally "Way", also romanized as Tao). The Dao is a fundamental idea in most Chinese philosophical schools; in Daoism, however, it denotes the principle that is both the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists." (extracted from the Wikipedia entry)
"Daoism is the native religion of China. Its most direct and universal functions for people in the ordinary world are recognition of natural laws, promoting of health, prevention of illness, prolongation of life, and stimulation of the development of culture and civilization based on successful cooperation between humanity and nature, and between individual and society as a whole." - Chen Kaiguo
The most important thing for me however is that Daoism is an ancient yet vibrant tradition and body of knowledge and practices that is remarkably coherent, and for me seems to be based on a deep understanding of who and what we are.
So who is a Daoist?
This question, on the other hand, may not be so easy to answer. I've been studying Daoism and some its related practices for over twenty years, and in my experience there are almost as many answers to this question as there are people who call themselves "Daoists".
However the following framework, from a book I highly recommend titled "Daoism, A Beginner's Guide" by James Miller, is as good as any I've found. The book commences as follows:
"What is Daoism? Who is a Daoist? The ways in which Daoist creativity is acknowledged and embodied in ritual and culture vary so widely that these questions are frustratingly difficult to settle. Nonetheless, Daoists and scholars of Daoism have historically sought to understand Daoism and Daoist identity in three main ways: 1) as the indigenous religion of China; 2) as a lineage of transmission; and 3) as universal path."
So where do I, as a westerner, fit into these identity categories?
I'm not Chinese. So definition 1 does not apply.
As for definition 2: I've not been accepted into a lineage, although I have been taught by teachers who have been. I certainly would not claim to be able to represent a traditional lineage however.
I have had some contact with definition 2 i.e. some of my teachers are "lineage keepers".
For me, Daoist thought and insights make deep sense. They are not the only truth, but I find they have been very helpful in my quest to understand more about what life is and how it works. (I know, 42 is the answer, but Daoism expands a bit on this!)
Definition 3 is what resonates with me.
"As a westerner I have been drawn to an oriental philosophy and healing system because it offers something I have not found in my own back yard: a coherent, living vision of the world as energy, and a poetic and metaphorical language to express this perception."
An insight from one of my teachers that was made during a workshop I attended has stuck with me over the years.
In the West, religion says "Just believe. We'll take care of the rest". In Daoism they say "you don't have to believe in anything. But without practice, waste of time" - Mantak Chia
And this is why I feel comfortable in calling myself a Daoist. Because it makes sense to me, and I practice. And this regular Daoist practice has had great benefits in my quest for better health, well-being and inner balance. To those men and women, no matter where they lived or what culture they came from, who discovered, developed and passed on these practices and insights over the millennia, I give heartfelt thanks.