Thursday, September 11, 2008


Taoism refers to a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions and concepts. These traditions have influenced East Asia for over two thousand years and some have spread internationally. The Chinese character ''Tao'' 道 means "path" or "way", although in Chinese religion and it has taken on more abstract meanings. Taoist propriety and ethics emphasize the : compassion, moderation, and humility. Taoist thought focuses on health, longevity, immortality, wu wei and spontaneity.

Reverence for nature and ancestor spirits is common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists view as debased. , , , several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines are intertwined with Taoism throughout history.


There is debate over how, and whether, Taoism should be subdivided. Livia Kohn divided it into the following three categories:
#"Philosophical Taoism" . A based on the texts ''Tao Te Ching'' and ''Zhuangzi'' ;
#"Religious Taoism" . A family of organized religious movements originating from the Celestial Masters movement during the late Han Dynasty and later including the "Orthodox" and "Complete Reality" sects, which trace back to Lao Zi or Zhang Daoling in the late Han Dynasty;
#"Folk Taoism". The Chinese folk religion.

This distinction is complicated by hermeneutic difficulty, making the categorization of Taoist sects and movements very controversial. Many scholars believe that there is no distinction between Daojia and Daojiao.
Taoism does not fall strictly under an umbrella or a definition of an organized religion like the Abrahamic traditions, nor can it purely be studied as the originator or a variant of Chinese folk religion, as much of the traditional religion is outside of the tenets and core teachings of Taoism. Robinet asserts that Taoism is better understood as a way of life than as a religion, and that its adherents do not approach or view Taoism the way non-Taoist historians have done. Many scholarly works conclude that Taoism is a school of thought with a quest for immortality.


Taoism has never been a unified religion, but has rather consisted of numerous teachings based on various revelations. Therefore, different branches of Taoism often have very distinct beliefs. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that nearly all the schools share.


Taoism theology emphasizes various themes found in the ''Tao Te Ching'' and ''Zhuangzi'', such as naturalness, vitality, peace, "non-action" , emptiness , detachment, the strength of softness , receptiveness, spontaneity, the relativism of human ways of life, ways of speaking and guiding behavior.


Tao can be roughly stated to be the flow of the universe, or the force behind the natural order. Tao is believed to be the influence that keeps the universe balanced and ordered. Tao is associated with nature, due to a belief that nature demonstrates the Tao. The flow of qi, as the essential energy of action and existence, is compared to the universal order of Tao. Tao is compared to what it is not, like the negative theology of Western scholars. It is often considered to be the source of both existence and non-existence.

Tao is rarely an object of worship, being treated more like the Indian concepts of and dharma. The word "Taoism" is used to translate different terms. ''Daojiao/Taochiao'' refers to Daoism as a religion. ''Daojia/Taochia'' refers to the studies of scholars, or "philosophical" Taoism. However, most scholars have abandoned the dichotomy of "religious" and "philosophical" Taoism.


Tao is also associated with the complex concept of ''De'' "power; virtue", which is the active expression of Tao. ''De'' is the active living, or cultivation, of that "way".

Wu wei

Wu wei is a central concept in Taoism. The literal meaning of ''wu wei'' is "without action". It is often expressed by the paradox ''wei wu wei'', meaning "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice and efficacy of wu wei are fundamental in Taoist thought, most prominently emphasized in Taoism. The goal of wu wei is alignment with Tao, revealing the soft and invisible power within all things. It is believed by Taoists that masters of wu wei can control this invisible potential, the innate yin-action of the Way.

In ancient Taoist texts, wu wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Water is soft and weak, but it can move earth and carve stone. Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts his will against the world, he disrupts that harmony. Taoism does not identify man's will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that man must place his will in harmony with the natural universe.


''Pu'' is translated "uncarved block", "unhewn log", or "simplicity". It is a metaphor for the state of ''wu wei'' and the principle of ''jian'' . It represents a passive state of receptiveness. ''Pu'' is a symbol for a state of pure potential and perception without prejudice. In this state, Taoists believe everything is seen as it is, without preconceptions or illusion.

''Pu'' is seen as keeping oneself in the primordial state of ''tao''. It is believed to be the true nature of the mind, unburdened by knowledge or experiences. In the state of ''pu'', there is no right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. There is only pure experience, or awareness, free from learned labels and definitions. It is this state of being that is the goal of following ''wu wei''.


Taoists believe that man is a microcosm for the universe. The body ties directly into the Chinese five elements. The five organs correlate with the five elements, the five directions and the seasons. Akin to the "hermetic maxim" of "as above, so below", Taoism posits that by understanding himself, man may gain knowledge of the universe, and vice versa.

In Taoism, even beyond Chinese folk religion, various rituals, exercises, and substances are said to positively affect one's physical and mental health. They are also intended to align oneself spiritually with cosmic forces, or enable ecstatic spiritual journeys. These concepts seem basic to Taoism in its elite forms. Internal alchemy and various spiritual practices are used by some Taoists to improve health and extend life, theoretically even to the point of physical immortality.


The Three Jewels, or Three Treasures, are basic virtues in Taoism. The Three Jewels are compassion, moderation and humility. They are also translated as kindness, simplicity and modesty. Arthur Waley describes them as "he three rules that formed the practical, political side of the author's teaching". He correlated the Three Treasures with "abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment", "absolute simplicity of living", and "refusal to assert active authority".


The traditional Chinese religion is . Its many deities are part of a heavenly hierarchy that mirrors the bureaucracy of Imperial China. According to their beliefs, Chinese deities may be promoted or demoted for their actions. Some deities are also simply exalted humans, such as Guan Yu, the god of honor and piety. The particular deities worshiped vary according to geographical regions and historical periods in China, though the general pattern of worship is more constant.

There are disagreements regarding the proper composition of this pantheon. Popular Taoism typically presents the Jade Emperor as the official head deity. Intellectual Taoists, such as the sect, usually present Laozi and the Three Pure Ones at the top of the pantheon of deities.

While a number of immortals or other mysterious figures appear in the ''Zhuangzi'', and to a lesser extent in the ''Tao Te Ching'', these have generally not become the objects of worship. Traditional conceptions of Tao are not to be confused with the Western concepts of theism and monotheism. Being one with the Tao does not indicate a union with an eternal spirit in the Hindu sense, but rather living in accordance with nature. It is a foundational scripture of central importance in Taoism. It has been used as a ritual text throughout the history of religious Taoism. However, the precise date that it was written is the subject of debate: there are those who put it anywhere from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC.

Taoist commentators have deeply considered the opening lines of the ''Tao Te Ching''. They are widely discussed in both academic and mainstream literature. A common interpretation is similar to Korzybski's observation that "". The opening lines, with literal and common translation, are:

"The Way that can be described is not the true Way."


"The Name that can be named is not the constant Name."

''Tao'' literally means "path" or "way", and can figuratively mean "essential nature", "destiny", "principle", or "true path". The philosophical and religious "Tao" is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Tao. Tao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form. Hence, it cannot be named or categorized. Even the word "Tao" can be considered a dangerous temptation to make ''Tao'' a limiting "name".

The Tao Te Ching is not thematically ordered. However, the main themes of the text are repeatedly expressed using variant formulations, often with only a slight difference. The leading themes revolve around the nature of Tao and how to attain it. Tao is said to be unnameable and accomplishing great things through small means. There is significant debate regarding which English translation of the Tao Te Ching is preferred, and which particular translation methodology is best. Discussions and disputes about various translations of the Tao Te Ching can become acrimonious, involving deeply entrenched views.

Ancient commentaries on the Tao Te Ching are important texts in their own right. The ''Heshang Gong'' commentary was most likely written in the second century AD, and as perhaps the oldest commentary, contains the edition of the Tao Te Ching that was transmitted to the present day. Other important commentaries include the Xiang'er, one of the most important texts from the Celestial Master movement, and commentary.


The Daozang is sometimes referred to as the Taoist canon. It was originally compiled during the , , and dynasties. The version surviving today was published during the dynasty. The Ming ''Daozang'' includes almost 1500 . Following the example of the Buddhist Tripitaka, it is divided into three ''dong'' . They are arranged from "highest" to "lowest":

#The ''Zhen'' grotto. Includes the Shangqing texts.
#The ''Xuan'' grotto. Includes the Lingbao scriptures.
#The ''Shen'' grotto. Includes texts predating the Maoshan (茅山)revelations.

Daoshi generally do not consult published versions of the Daozang, but individually choose, or inherit, texts included in the Daozang. These texts have been passed down for generations from teacher to student.

The Shangqing school has a tradition of approaching Taoism through scriptural study. It is believed that reciting certain texts often enough will be rewarded with immortality.

Other texts

While the Tao Te Ching is most famous, there are other important texts in traditional Taoism. ''Taishang Ganying Pian'' discusses sin and ethics, and has become a popular morality tract in the last few centuries. It asserts that those in harmony with Tao will live long and fruitful lives. The wicked, and their descendents, will suffer and have shortened lives.


The ''Zhuangzi'' was named after its author, who also appears as a character in the book's narrative. It is more in the form of a collection of stories than the short aphorisms and maxims of the Tao Te Ching. Also among the cast of characters in the Zhuangzi's stories is Laozi of the Tao Te Ching, as well as Confucius.


Taoism's origins may be traced to prehistoric Chinese religions in China. They are found in the composition of the ''Tao Te Ching'' . Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid second century AD. Taoism gained official status in China during the Tang Dynasty, whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. Several Song emperors, most notably , were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the ''Daozang.'' Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes. The Qing Dynasty, however, much favored classics and rejected Taoist works. During the eighteenth century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Taoist books. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Taoism had fallen so much from favor, that only one complete copy of the ''Daozang''still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. Taoism is one of five religions recognised by the PRC, which insists on controlling its activities through a state bureaucracy .


The number of Taoists is difficult to estimate, due to a variety of factors including defining Taoism. The number of people practicing Chinese folk religion is estimated to be just under four hundred million. Most Chinese people and many others have been influenced in some way by Taoist tradition. Estimates for the number of Taoists worldwide range from twenty to over fifty million.

Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people: mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and various Chinese diaspora communities. Taoist literature and art has influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and these countries' folk religions have many common elements to that of China. Organized Taoism seems not to have attracted a non-Chinese following until modern times. In Taiwan 7.5 million people are Taoists. In Singapore, 8.5% of the population is Taoist. There are also small numbers of Taoists in the Western world.


At certain dates, food may be set out as a sacrifice to the gods and/or spirits of the departed, such as during the Qingming Festival. This may include slaughtered pigs and ducks or fruit. Another form of sacrifice involves the burning of Joss paper or Hell Bank Notes, on the assumption that images thus consumed by the fire will reappear—not as a mere image, but as the actual item—in the spirit world, and be available for the departed spirit to use.

Secular Activities

Also at certain dates, street parades take place. These are lively affairs which invariably involve firecrackers and flower-covered floats broadcasting traditional music. Street parades may also include lion dances and dragon dances; human-occupied puppets ; ''jitong'' who mutilate their skin with knives; ''Bajiajiang'', which are gongfu-practicing honor guards in demonic makeup; and palanquins carrying god-images. The various participants are not considered performers, but rather possessed by the god in question.

Fortune-telling—including astrology, I Ching, and other forms of divination—has long been considered a traditional Taoist pursuit. Mediumship is also widely encountered. We may distinguish between martial forms of mediumship and X spirit-writing, typically through the practice of fuji .

Many Taoists also participated in the reading and writing of books. Taoists of this type tend to be civil servants, elderly retirees, or in modern times, university faculty. While there is considerable overlap with religious Taoism, there are often important divergences in interpretation. Wang Bi, one of the most influential philosophical commentators on the Laozi was in fact a Confucian.

A number of martial arts traditions, particularly T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Bagua Zhang, Won Yuen Yat Hey Jueng, Bak Mei Pai, Bok Fou Pai, Yaw Gong Moon and , embody Taoist principles to a greater or lesser extent, and some practitioners consider their art to be a means of practicing Taoism.

Taoist symbols and images

The ''Taijitu'' symbol as well as the 八卦 are associated with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organizations make use of the yin and yang symbol, one could also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. The yin and yang make a backwards "S" shape, with yin on bottom. One is likely to see this symbol as decorations on Taoist organization flags and logos, temple floors, or stitched into clerical robes. According to Song Dynasty sources, it originated around the 10th century. Previously, yin and yang were symbolized by a tiger and dragon.

Taoist temples may fly square or triangular flags. They typically feature mystical writing or diagrams and are intended to fulfill various functions including providing guidance for the spirits of the dead, to bring good fortune, increase life span, etc. Other flags and banners may be those of the gods or immortals themselves.

One sometimes sees a zigzag with seven stars, representing the Big Dipper . In the Shang dynasty the Big Dipper was considered a deity, while during the Han dynasty, it was considered a ''qi'' path of the circumpolar god, ''Taiyi''.

Taoist temples in southern China and Taiwan may often be identified by their roofs, which feature Chinese dragons and es made from multi-colored ceramic tiles. They also stand for the harmony of yin and yang . A related symbol is the flaming pearl which may be seen on such roofs between two dragons, as well as on the hairpin of a Celestial Master. But in general, Chinese Taoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it particularly from other structures.

Relations with other religions and philosophies

The terms Tao and De are religious and philosophical terms shared between Taoism and Confucianism. The authorship of the Tao Te Ching is assigned to Laozi, who is traditionally held to have been a teacher of Confucius. However, some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching arose as a reaction to Confucianism. Zhuangzi, reacting to the Confucian-Mohist ethical disputes in his "history of thought", casts Laozi as a prior step to the Mohists by name and the Confucians by implication.

Early Taoist texts reject the basic assumptions of Confucianism which relied on rituals and order, in favour of the examples of "wild" nature and individualism. Historical Taoists challenged conventional morality, while Confucians considered society debased and in need of strong ethical guidance.

The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction and syncretism with Taoism in particular. Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism was particularly modified by Taoism, integrating distrust of scripture, text and even language, as well as the Taoist views of embracing "this life", dedicated practice and the "every-moment". In the Tang period Taoism incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the doctrine of emptiness, and collecting scripture into tripartite organisation. During the same time, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism.

Ideological and political rivals for centuries, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism deeply influenced one another. They did share some similar values. All three embraced a philosophy emphasizing moral behavior and human perfection. In time, most Chinese people identified to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. This became institutionalised when aspects of the three schools were synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school.

Tao in the West

The west has recently embraced aspects of Taoism: the name and concept of Tao, the names and concepts of yin and yang; an appreciation for Laozi and Zhuangzi, and a respect for other aspects of Chinese tradition such as qigong. At the same time, Western appropriations differ in subtle ways from their Asian sources. For example, the word Tao is used in numerous book titles which are connected to Chinese culture only tangentially. Examples would include Fritjof Capra's ''The Tao of Physics'', or Benjamin Hoff's ''The Tao of Pooh''. These uses of Tao are more as a token of exoticism or esotericness rather than referring to Taoism itself.

Further reading

*Kohn, Livia. ''The Taoist Experience: An Anthology'' .
*Saso, Michael R. ''Taoism and the Rite of Cosmic Renewal'' . ISBN 978-0-87422-054-4
*Sivin, Nathan. ''Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies'' .
*Sommer, Deborah. ''Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources'' . ISBN 0-19-508895-6
*Welch, H. and Seidel, A., ''Facets of Taoism''

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