- For other uses of the words "tao" and "dao", see Dao (disambiguation).
Taoism (or Daoism) refers to a set of philosophical teachings and religious practices that are considered to be rooted in a specific understanding of the Tao, developed primarily in the works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.
The scope of Taoism
Taoism has had a deep and long-lasting influence in many domains of Chinese culture and has spread widely throughout Asia. Often considered as the counterpart of mainstream Confucianism, Taoism emphasizes freedom, nature, cosmology, self-cultivation, retirement from social life and even the search for immortality. Most accounts prefer to separate two Taoisms: one being mostly philosophical, metaphysical and aesthetical, the other focused on religious practices, encompassing exorcism, alchemy and a wide set of popular beliefs.
The Tao of Taoism
In Chinese thought, the word Tao often has the meaning of: way—a space-time sequence. An individual walks a particular way; as does a village and even a country. Different schools of ancient Chinese philosophy used the term "Tao" to indicate their differing views on the proper conduct of individuals, society, and their relationship with the universe as a whole.
In Taoism this grand cosmic harmony is known as the "Great Tao." It is thus obvious, as Shen Dao argued, that everyone and everything "follows" the Great Tao. We can also speak of Natural (sometimes "Heavenly") Tao. That would roughly resemble any course of history that conforms to the laws of nature—with the same consequence. No one needs to try to follow it—you cannot fail. Both "nature's way" and the "great way" can inspire the stereotypical Taoist detachment from moral or normative doctrines. Since it is thought of as the course by which everything comes into being (the "Mother of everything"), it seems hard to imagine that we have to select from among accounts of its normative content. It may thus be seen as an efficient principle of "emptiness" that reliably underlies the operation of the universe.
Other ways we can call "possible ways" or ways that actually do guide us (tao used as a verb). These, however, according to the Tao Te Ching (also Daodejing) are not constant. That is, we can choose different guiding taos and we may interpret them differently so we disagree about what they tell us to do. We can attempt to follow them and fail. These are prescriptive ways such as the moral way of Confucius or those of Laozi or of Jesus. Nevertheless, the Tao Te Ching makes the point that everything's nature is beholden to the Tao, suggesting that even these paths will serve this ultimate principle.
Taoism as a tradition has, along with its traditional counterpart Confucianism, shaped Chinese culture for more than 2,000 years. Taoism places emphasis upon spontaneity and teaches that natural kinds follow ways appropriate to themselves. As humans are a natural kind, Taoism emphasises natural societies with no artificial institutions. Often skeptical and ironic on human values such as morality, benevolence and proper behavior, many Taoist writers do not share the Confucian belief in civilization as a way to build a better society. Rather, they share the will to live alone in the mountains or as simple peasants in small autarchic villages.
For many educated Chinese people, (the Literati), life divided into a social part, where Confucian doctrine prevailed, and into a private part, with Taoist aspirations. Home, night-time, exile or retirement provided good occasions to cultivate Taoism and, say, re-read Laozi and Zhuangzi. The Literati often dedicated this period of life to arts like calligraphy, painting, poetry or personal researches on antiquities, medicine, folklore and so on.
Sources of Taoism
Tradition attributes Toaism to three sources:
- The oldest, the mythical "Yellow Emperor"
- the most famous, the book of mystical aphorisms, the Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing), allegedly written by Laozi (Lao Tse), whom legend depicts as an older contemporary of Confucius
- the third, the works of the philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tse)
- Other books have developed Taoism, such as the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness, by Liezi ; and the Huainanzi compilation
- Additionally, many regard the ancient I Ching (Yijing, The Book Of Changes) or related divinatory practices of prehistoric China as an original source of Taoism
The Tao Te Ching
Main article: Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing—The Book of the Way and its Power) emerged as a written text in a time of seemingly endless feudal warfare and constant conflict. According to tradition (largely rejected by modern scholars), the book's author, Laozi, served an emperor of the Zhou dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC) as a minor court official. He became disgusted with the petty intrigues of court life, and set off alone to travel the vast western wastelands. As he reached the point of passing through the gate at the last western outpost, a guard, having heard of his wisdom, asked Laozi to write down his philosophy, and the Tao Te Ching resulted. Laozi reflected on a way for humanity to follow which would put an end to conflicts and strife. This became the original book of Taoism. The scholarly evidence (buttressed by a cluster of recent archeological finds of versions of the text) suggests that the book took shape over a long period of time in pre-Han China (before the 3rd century BC) and circulated in many versions and edited collections until standardized shortly after the Han Dynasty.
Taoist philosophy teaches the following central precepts:
- From the Tao arises (one unified force or path from where all things in the universe arise), yin and yang-the dual nature of all manifestations of the Tao.
- Act in accordance with one's nature.
- One should find the correct perspective for one's mental activities until one finds a deeper source for guiding one's interaction with the universe (see 'wu wei' below). Desire created through the influence of society's artificial values hinders one's ability to understand The Way (see also karma). In essence, most Taoists feel that humans should appreciate life as it is according to each individual's capabilities, rather than desire a life predicated by the demands of society, that is beyond their reach. Desires are the source of expectations and the disconnect betweens one's expectations and the reality of one's life is the source of suffering.
- Oneness: By realizing that all things (including ourselves) have their origin in the Tao, we come to see all things as they are, and ourselves as a simple part of the current moment. This understanding of oneness leads us to an appreciation of life's events and our place within them as simple miraculous moments which "simply are" in the present.
- Dualism, the opposition and combination of the Universe's two basic principles of Yin and Yang forms a large part of the basic philosophy. Some common associations with Yang and Yin, respectively, include: male and female; light and dark; active and passive and motion and stillness.
Taoists believe that neither side out-ranks or surpasses the other; indeed, neither can exist without the other, as they form equal aspects of the whole. They ultimately provide an artificial distinction based on our perceptions, so only our perception of them really changes. See taiji.
- Taoism sees existence as an interplay between three elements: the individual; society and its artificial values; the principles of Nature. In order to lead a content life, the individual must understand the principles of Nature, the values of the social structure in which he must forge a life, and his own internal wants and needs. According to Taoism, what is good and bad varies over time and between societal groups, therefore, unlike the principles that guide Nature, the values of a given society are arbitrary and artificial.
Much of the essence of Tao lies in the art of wu wei (action through inaction: taking no-action is, in itself, an action). However, this does not mean "sit doing nothing and wait for everything to fall into your lap". It describes a practice of accomplishing things through proper action by knowing when to and when not to act according to an individual's personal capabilities/limitations and desires.
Wu Wei works once we understand our capabilities, our true desires as opposed to those we adopt according to the social value system in which we live, and our place in nature. In other words, by trusting our nature rather than our mental contrivances-the desires we develop through society's demands, we can find contentment without a life of constant striving against forces real and imagined.
However, one of the least addressed principles of Wu Wei in western descriptions of Taoist philosophy is that of "non-interference." The Taoist strives not to interfere in the paths of others nor to allow others to interfere in theirs. Therefore, he does not take a course of action that is of no benefit to himself.
Though the Tao Te Ching or Zhuang Zi do not mention specific religious aspects, as Taoism spread through the population of China it became mixed with other, pre-existing beliefs, such as the Five Elements theory, alchemy, ancestor worship, and magic spells. Taoist philosophies also directly influenced Chinese Chan Buddhism. Eventually elements of Taoism combined with elements of Buddhism and Confucianism in the form of Neo-Confucianism. Attempts to procure greater longevity formed a frequent theme in Taoist alchemy and magic, with many extant spells and potions for that purpose. Many early versions of Chinese medicine had roots in Taoist thought, and modern Chinese medicine as well as Chinese martial arts still in many ways deal with Taoist concepts such as Tao, Qi, and the balance of Yin and Yang. Many of these spells and alchemic formulas can be found in the later Taoist text known as the Daozang (Taoist Cannon). This was produced many years after the original core texts of Tao Te Ching and Zhuang Zi and was more of a collection of many commentaries and elaborations by numerous masters over the years.
In addition, an organized Taoist community formed, originally established in the Eastern Han dynasty by Zhang Daoling. Many sects evolved over the years, but most trace their authority to Zhang Daoling in one way or another. For example, the original followers of the Shangqing school in the 4th century were ordained priests in Zhang Daoling's tradition. The Taoist churches incorporated entire pantheons of deities, including Lao Zi, Zhang Daoling, the Yellow Emperor, the Jade Emperor, Lei Gong (the God of Thunder) and others. Two major Taoist churches function today: the Zhengyi Sect (evolved from a sect founded by Zhang Daoling) and Quanzhen Taoism (founded by Wang Chongyang).
Today, many people whom researchers (and sometimes government bodies) label as "Taoists" do not recognize themselves as such. One problem is that Taoism is often difficult to distinguish from the Chinese folk religion in general. To the extent that these are different, an ordinary Chinese person might assume "Taoist" to refer to a Taoist priest. This folk religion has no particular name and includes Buddhist as well as Taoist elements, often without differentiation.
Taoism outside China
People in countries other than China practise the Taoist philosophy in various forms, especially in Vietnam and in Korea. Kouk Sun Do in Korea exemplifies one such variation.
Taoist philosophy has found a large following throughout the world, and several traditional Taoist lineages have set up teaching centers in countries outside China.
In the West, Taoist philosophy has allegedly inspired a number of popular spiritual works ranging from Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics to Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh. In these cases the concept of "Tao" is generalized well beyond its original cultural context, to the point where it is all but unrecognizable. A similar fate seems to have befallen Zen.