Understanding taoism

What is taoism?

Taoism is a philosophical approach to spirituality that is primarily associated with the Chinese School of Yin-yang, which was prominent in the third and fourth centuries BCE. It is a doctrine that is officially recognised in the People's Republic of China to this day. Essentially, adherents of Taoist culture are interested in finding the 'way' towards perfection. In fact, Tao is best translated as 'way' in both the sense of 'path' and of 'method'. To Taoists, learning the right approach to life is just as much about making progress as it is in doing things in the correct – or best – manner possible. One of the major concepts in the philosophy is something called wu wei, which is sometimes referred to as inaction. However, it is probably best to translate it into English as meaning effortless or natural action. With wu wei, Taoists are supposedly able to act spontaneously in the 'right' way. This goes with the so-called three treasures of Taoism, compassion, frugality and humility.

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 When did Taoism first develop? 

Taoists started to develop their philosophy formally under Lo Tzu, a fourth-century BCE philosopher and writer who spent much of his time contemplating and interpreting the teachings of the School of Yin-yang. This group of what we might call today naturalists developed widely understood concepts like yin and yang for the first time. However, it is probable that the early Taoists, like Lo Tzu, also drew on even earlier folk traditions in their concepts. Some scholars suggest that the shamanism of the wu period of warring states in China contained many elements of philosophical teaching that we might consider to be Taoist these days. The Zhengyi school of Taoist teaching started to gain ground in the second century CE, while under the Han dynasty, Taoist thought took root and was incorporated into the state religion of that time in what is modern-day Sichuan Province.

Where did Taoism spread to?

It was in the Song dynasty, from 960 CE onward, that Taoist philosophy began to spread further afield from its central base in Sichuan. Emperor Huizong was notable among the Song rulers for popularising Taoist teachings in both his own empire and beyond it. Later, Taoists became dominant in northern China under the Yuan dynasty. The Quanzhen school was exempt from paying taxes under the rule of Genghis Khan, who spread its influence further as his empire grew. Under the Ming and Qing emperors, Taoist teachings were often mixed with, or subsumed by, Confucian thought, something that continued until the twentieth century when the Chinese Nationalists sought to reject it entirely. Although some Taoists were persecuted under the Chines Communist Party's Cultural Revolution, it is now accepted. In the West, a Taoist teacher named Henri Maspero was a major proponent of the philosophy until his death in 1945.

Why is Taoism regarded as a religion?

For some, Taoists are followers of a religion. This is largely based on the liturgical aspect of the philosophy, which is something that followers of the Abrahamic faiths would immediately recognise as similar to their own beliefs and religiosity. That said, there are many Taoists who do not think they are following a religion at all but are part of a wider philosophical perspective on themselves and the rest of nature. Daojiao is often the term used to refer to the religious aspects of Taoist thought, although it can also be translated as simply the teachings of Tao. On the other hand, Daojia is the term most commonly associated with the mystical and philosophical teachings of Taoists. Nowadays, many scholars agree that Taoism is both a philosophy and a religion and that a clear distinction between the two is pointless. In fact, some see it as a Westernisation to fixate on whether Taoists are following a religion or a philosophy. That said, deities are mentioned in Taoists traditions, unlike some other Eastern philosophies.

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Who is God in Taoism?

There is no single entity that can be regarded as God in Taoist thought despite the veneration of deities. This causes some confusion, as mentioned previously, as to whether it is a religion or a philosophy or a fusion of the two. In Taoist traditions, it is the Tao that is venerated in a God-like way. The universe springs from the Tao, but it is not a god in the Pagan, Judeo-Christian or Islamic sense. It is merely the 'way' and, although venerated, it is not worshipped as such. Like Hinduism, there are plenty of god figures who have stories and characters in this philosophy, but there is no overarching God who oversees everyone and everything else. Lao Tzu, one of the early teachers or the Tao, is referred to as a personified god, however. His example of the Tao helps to guide all those who wish to follow him.

Are Taoism and Daoism the same?

Yes, they are. It is easy to get confused by the two terms, however. This is because, in Indonesia, Korea and Malaysia, adherents of the philosophy tend to use the term Tao rather than Dao. In China, however, it is now more common for the term Dao to be used. Both mean 'the way', and although schools of thought in Tao-Daoism may have different interpretations, they are basically the same. Tao is the Western way of writing what Chinese speakers say for 'the way'. This way of writing the word has been in use since early Westerners started trading with China in the early modern period. The system for representing consonants this way has been around for centuries and was formalised in the Wade-Giles system. In 1958, a new system was developed in China, which meant Daoism became the official way of writing the word in that country. It has yet to catch on elsewhere fully, however.

Can you convert to Taoism?

In some sense, it is possible to convert to Taoism simply by reading about it and attempting to follow the Tao as a part of your daily life. In this sense, Taoists are very much like adherents to a particular philosophy. They simply assert their beliefs and viewpoints for themselves, and this is enough for them to be considered Taoists. In this way, no conversion is needed to become a Taoist. In many of the major religions of the world, a particular rite might be needed for a conversion to be considered to be official, such as a baptism, for example. However, there is no such equivalent in Taoist thought. If you want to be a Taoist, you won't need a priest or even a teacher. You can become one simply by reading.

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How are Taoism and Buddhism similar?

Like Taoists, Buddhists are often thought to be adherents of a religion while they, themselves, may say they are merely following a philosophy. Although Taoists have priests – or professional Taoists – they do not have monks in the same way that many schools of Buddhism have. That said, both philosophies have a great deal in common. For example, the use of shrines to worship. Both philosophies teach that being at one and in harmony with the universe is beneficial. To Buddhists, this means gaining enlightenment and breaking the cycle of reincarnation by achieving perfection. To Taoists, perfection is more akin to being in harmony or at one with the Tao. In the end, Buddhists try to follow the life example of the Buddha while Taoists do much the same with Lao Tzu. Indeed, some Taoists suggest that the Buddha may have been a student of Lao Tzu, although there is no historical evidence for this.

What are the central beliefs of Taoism?

As mentioned, being at one with the Tao is what the philosophy teaches all adherents. That said, there are three central doctrines that help to achieve this. The first is ethics which comes in various forms. Wu wei is the ethical way of acting effortlessly, while ziran is the concept of self-organisation. The aforementioned three treasures are often considered to be ethical virtues that Taoists must possess. The second doctrine is cosmology. This encompasses concepts like yin and yang, the idea that opposing forces keep the universe in balance as well as qi, or universal life force. The third doctrine is theology which is where god-like concepts come in, such as the veneration of Lao Tzu. Divinity is often expressed in Taoist thought through the concept of 'the way' rather than through a personified God, however.

How is Taoism practised?

As well as the reading of Taoist texts, Taoists will have certain rituals and rites they perform, just as happens with many of the world's major religions. In ancient times, Taoists might have sacrificed animals, although this is a practice that has long since been discontinued. These days, Taoists tend to sacrifice paper money as a symbol of what might have gone before. Other rituals include the use of lion dances at festivals where performers are said to be possessed by spirits as opposed to acting out the movements of creatures. In some schools of Taoist thought, divination is used. This includes fortune telling from astrology, among other methods. Keeping physically fit is also something many Taoists consider to be good since a long life is associated with adherence to the Tao. This idea of becoming immortal – or a xian – in Taoist thought is to achieve enlightenment with the Tao, after all.

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What are the texts of Taoism?

Many of the texts associated with Taoism are ancient. One of the most influential Taoist texts is Tao Te Ching. It is ascribed to Lao Tzu himself and contains the famous opening which says: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Zhuang Zhou, master of Taoism in the warring states period of China, is the author of another important text, the Zhuangzi, which is named after him. This was very popular after his death, although it seems that some of the chapters in Zhuangzi were added by later writers and not Zhuang Zhou himself. Later, the Tao Tsang, or Taoist Canon, was produced under the Jin, Tang and Song dynasties. It attempted to bring together many of the texts that had been written over the centuries into a central body of work. Many Taoists only use the sections of the Tao Tsang they are most concerned with and do not bother with the rest of it.

What does Taoism teach about death?

The way of the Tao is not primarily concerned with death. Instead, Taoists are more concerned with the living and their ability to live at one with the Tao. Those who live for a very long time are getting closer to achieving enlightenment and becoming xian, as the example of Lao Tzu demonstrates. Therefore, there is no emphasis on the afterlife as happens in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, for example. However, death does feature in Taoist thinking. It is known as shije, which translates as a release from the corpse. For religious Taoists, the body is filled with both spirits and monsters. Death is just another phase of existence to many Taoists as people continue their path to immortality and enlightenment.

Which books on Taoism are worth reading?

Alan Watts' book, 'Tao: The Watercourse Way' is an easy to read non-fiction work on Taoism primarily focussing on philosophy. It was first published in 1975 but remains in print. First released in 1982, 'The Tao of Pooh' by Benjamin Hoff is a popular book that makes it easier for many Westerners to think about the Eastern belief systems that underpin Taoism through the eyes of an innocent mind, hence the use of Winnie the Pooh as a narrative device. Considered a classic, 'The Secret of the Golden Flower' is an English translation of an old Chinese Taoist text that focuses on neidan – or alchemical - meditation. Edited by Dr Wayne Dwyer, 'Living the Wisdom of the Tao: The Complete Tao Te Ching and Affirmations' contains sections of many of the classic texts of Taoism.

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Taoism in summary

Although Taoist thought has informed Buddhist traditions and the later philosophies of Confucianism, it has its own rituals, rites and beliefs. Because much of what developed into philosophical Taoism over two and a half millennia ago had its roots in certain folk religions, it contains many of the elements that might be associated with a wider belief system. However, drawing a firm distinction between its religious and its philosophical aspects is fruitless because the two are intertwined with one another, a little like the concept of yin and yang whereby two forces strike a harmony by balancing one another. Westerners are sometimes confused by the need to accept Taoism as both a philosophical approach to life and a form of religion. However, if you think about the way ancient beliefs from the pre-Christian era sit alongside modern religious teaching in Europe, in particular, then it is not such a strange phenomenon.

The basic idea behind Taoist teaching is to achieve inner peace through harmony. That is harmony in one's body, one's mind and in one's relationship with the rest of the universe. Taoists often describe humans as being microcosms of the universe containing everything. Although everyone is different, the concept involves recognising and following the 'path' or 'way' that will lead to enlightenment and to avoid taking extreme positions. Although Taoism is deeply embedded in Chinese culture – even during the communist era – it is a philosophy and religion that has many adherents worldwide, including in the West, but mostly in Eastern and Southern Asia.

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