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For other uses of the words "tao" and "dao", see Dao (disambiguation).
Chinese: 道教
Pinyin: Dojio
Wade-Giles: Tao-chiao

Taoism or Daoism, is usually described as an Asian philosophy and religion, although it is also said to be neither but rather an aspect of Chinese wisdom.


The Tao of Taoism

In Chinese thought, a Tao (道) is a way--a space-time sequence. There is the way you walk and the way your village does, and a way the country walks. Ways can be summed so we can speak of the ultimate way as the way the world goes--the sum total of space-time history of particles and waves from the big bang to . . . . In Taoism this is known as the "Great Tao." It is obvious, as Shen Dao argued, that everyone and everything "follows" the Great Tao. We can also speak of Natural (sometimes "Heavenly") tao. That would be roughly like 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 '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 to be what it is (the "Mother of everything"), it seems hard to imagine that we have to select from among accounts of its normative content. It thus can 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 (tao used as a verb) us. These, however, according to the *Tao-te Ching* 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 Lao Zi or Christ, etc. Nevertheless, the *Tao Te Ching* makes a point of God's beholden nature to the Tao, suggesting that even these paths will serve this ultimate principle.

Taoism is a tradition that has, with its traditional counterpart Confucianism, shaped Chinese life 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 being ironic on human values as morality, benevolence and proper behavior, Taoist writers don't share the Confucian belief in civilization as a way to build a better society; they rather share the will to live alone in mountains with wild animals, or as simple peasants in small autarchic villages.

For many Chinese educated people (the Literati), life was split into a social part, where Confucian doctrine prevailed, and a private part, with Taoist aspirations. Home, night-time, exile or retirement were good occasions to cultivate Taoism and, say, re-read Lao Zi's and Zhuang Zi's books. This part of life was often dedicated to arts like calligraphy, painting, poetry or personal researches on antiquities, medicine, folklore and so on.

Sources of Taoism

Traditionally, Taoism has been attributed to three sources:

  • The oldest, the mythical "Yellow Emperor";
  • the most famous, the book of mystical aphorisms, the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), said to be written by Lao Zi (Lao Tse), who, according to legend, was an older contemporary of Confucius;
  • and the third, the works of the philosopher Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tse).
  • Other books have developed Taoism, as the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness, from Lie Zi; and the Huainanzi compilation.
  • Additionally, an original source of Taoism is often said to be the ancient I Ching, The Book Of Changes or related divinatory practises of prehistoric China.

The Dao De Jing

Main article: Dao De Jing

The Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and its Power) was written in a time of seemingly endless feudal warfare and constant conflict. According to tradition (largely rejected by modern scholars), the book's author, Lao Zi, was a minor court official for an emperor of the Zhou dynasty. He became disgusted with the petty intrigues of court life, and set off alone to travel the vast western wastelands. As he was about to pass through the gate at the last western outpost, a guard, having heard of his wisdom, asked Lao Zi to write down his philosophy, and the Dao De Jing was the result. Lao Zi was reflecting on a way for humanity to follow which would put an end to conflicts and strife. This is the original book of Taoism. The scholarly evidence (buttressed by a cluster of recent archeological finds of versions of the text) was that the text was taking shape over a long period of time in pre-Han China and circulated in many versions and edited collections until standardized shortly after the Han Dynasty.

Taoist philosophy

  • From the Way arises one (that which is aware), from which awareness in turn arises the concept of two (yin and yang), from which the number three is implied (heaven, earth and humanity); finally producing by extension the entirety of the world as we know it, the myriad things, through the harmony of the Wuxing. The Way as it cycles through the five elements of the Wuxing is also said to be circular, acting upon itself through change to affect a cycle of life and death in the ten thousand things of the phenomenal universe.
  • Act in accordance with nature, and with finesse rather than force.
  • The correct perspective should be found for one's mental activities until a deeper source is found for guiding one's interaction with the universe (see 'wu wei' below). Desire hinders one's ability to understand The Way (see also karma), and tempering desire breeds contentment. Taoists believe that when one desire is satisfied, another, more ambitious desire will simply spring up to replace it. In essence, most Taoists feel that life should be appreciated as it is, rather than forced to be something it is not. Ideally, one should not desire anything, not even non-desire.
  • Oneness: By realizing that all things (including ourselves) are interdependent and constantly redefined as circumstances change, 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".
  • Dualism, the opposition and combination of the Universe's two basic principles of Yin and Yang is a large part of the basic philosophy. Some of the common associations with Yang and Yin, respectively, are: male and female, light and dark, active and passive, motion and stillness. Taoists believe that neither side is more important or better than the other; indeed, neither can exist without the other, as they are equal aspects of the whole. They are ultimately an artificial distinction based on our perceptions of the ten thousand things, so it is only our perception of them that really changes. See taiji.
  • According to the Tao Te Ching, the "great secret" lies in seeing the teacher-like role of "good men" over "bad men." The sage can then protect the good man as he undertakes his teaching task. Han Fei Tzu took this vision a step further and listed all the responsibilities of the sage in protecting the emporor from his own picadillos. At the top of the list was dancing girls.

Wu Wei

Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of wu wei (action through inaction; the uncarved block). 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 minimal action. By studying the nature of life, you can affect it in the easiest and least disruptive way (using finesse rather than force). The practice of working with the stream rather than against it is an illustration; one progresses the most not by struggling against the stream and thrashing about, but by remaining still and letting the stream do all the work.

Wu Wei works once we trust our human "design," which is perfectly suited for our place within nature. In other words, by trusting our nature rather than our mental contrivances, we can find contentment without a life of constant striving against forces real and imagined.

One could apply this to political activism. Rather than appeal to others to take action for a certain cause--regardless of its importance or validity--one would instead understand that simply by believing in the cause, and letting their belief manifest itself in their actions, one is bearing their share of the burden of their social movement. Going with the flow, so to speak, with the river (which in this case is a societal mindset).

The Taoist religion

Though specific religious aspects are not mentioned in the Dao De Jing or Zhuang Zi, as Taoism spread through the population of China it became mixed with other, pre-existing beliefs, such as Five Elements theory, alchemy, ancestor worship, and magic spells. Chinese Chan Buddhism was also directly influenced by Taoist philosophies. Eventually elements of Taoism were combined with elements of Buddhism and Confucianism in the form of Neo-Confucianism. Attempts to procure greater longevity were a frequent theme in Taoist alchemy and magic, with many extant spells and potions for that purpose. Many early versions of Chinese medicine were rooted in Taoist thought, and modern Chinese medicine as well as Chinese martial arts are still in many ways concerned with Taoist concepts such as Tao, Qi, and the balance of Yin and Yang.

In addition, a Taoist church was formed, originally being established in the Eastern Han dynasty by Zhang Daoling. Many sects evolved over the years, but most trace their authority to Zhang Daoling, and most modern Taoist temples belong to one or another of these sects. 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. The two major Taoist churches today are the Zhengyi Sect (evolved from a sect founded by Zhang Daoling) and Quanzhen Taoism (founded by Wang Chongyang).

Taoism outside China

The Taoist philosophy is practiced in various forms, in countries other than China, especially in Vietnam and Korea. Kouk Sun Do in Korea is one of such variations.

Taoist philosophy has found a large following throughout the world, and several traditional Taoist lineages have set up teaching centers in countries outside China.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has multimedia related to Taoism .

External Links

  • Taoism Initiation Page
  • Online Taoism Courses

Last updated: 02-08-2005 05:34:39
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01