History of Taoism
Tao (pronounced "Dow") can be roughly translated into English as path, or the way. It "refers to a power which envelopes, surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living. The Tao regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It embodies the harmony of opposites (i.e. there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female.)"
The founder of Taoism was Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), a contemporary of Confucius. (Alternate spellings: Lao Tze, Lao Tsu). He was searching for a way that would avoid the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted life during his lifetime. The result was his book: Tao-te-Ching
Taoism started as a combination of psychology and philosophy but evolved into a religion in 440 CE when it was adopted as a state religion. At that time Lao-Tse became popularly venerated as a deity. Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, became the three great religions of China. With the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1911, state support for Taoism ended. Much of the Taoist heritage was destroyed during the next period of warlordism. After the Communist victory in 1949, religious freedom was severely restricted. "The new government put monks to manual labor, confiscated temples, and plundered treasured. Several million monks were reduced to fewer than 50,000" by 1960. During the cultural revolution in China from 1966 to 1976, much of the remaining Taoist heritage was destroyed. Some religious tolerance has been restored under Deng Xiao-ping from 1982 to the present time.
Taoism currently has about 20 million followers, and is primarily centered in Taiwan. About 30,000 Taoists live in North America; 1,720 in Canada (1991 census). Taoism has had a significant impact on North American culture in areas of "acupuncture, herbalism, holistic medicine, meditation and martial arts."
Taoist Beliefs and Practices:
- Tao is the first-cause of the universe. It is a force that flows through all life.
- The goal of everyone is to become one with the Tao.
- The concepts of a personified deity is foreign to Taoism, as is the concept of the creation of the universe. Thus, they do not pray as Christians do; there is no God to hear the prayers or to act upon them. They seek answers to life’s problems through inner meditation and outer observation.
- Time is cyclical, not linear as in Western thinking.
- Yin (dark side) is the breath that formed the earth. Yang (light side) is the breath that formed the heavens. They symbolize pairs of opposites which are seen throughout the universe, such as good and evil, light and dark, male and female. Intervention by human civilization upsets the balances of Yin and Yang. The symbol of Taoism, seen at the top of this page, represents Yin and Yang in balance.
- "The Tao surrounds everyone and therefore everyone must listen to find enlightenment."
- Five main organs and orifices of the body correspond to the five parts of the sky: water, fire, wood, metal and earth.
- Each person must nurture the Ch’i (air, breath) that has been given to them.
- Development of virtue is one’s chief task. The Three Jewels to be sought are compassion, moderation and humility.
- Taoists follow the art of "wu wei", which is to achieve action through minimal action. "It is the practice of going against the stream not by struggling against it and thrashing about, but by standing still and letting the stream do all the work. Thus the sage knows that relative to the river, he still moves against the current. To the outside world the sage appears to take no action – but in fact he takes action long before others ever foresee the need for action."
- One should plan in advance and consider carefully each action before making it.
- A Taoists is kind to other individuals, largely because such an action tends to be reciprocated.
- Taoists believe that "people are compassionate by nature.left to their own devices [they] will show this compassion without expecting a reward." 1
There is a long history involvement by Taoists in various exercise and movement techniques. 5,6 Tai chi in particular works on all parts of the body. It "stimulates the central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and gently tones muscles without strain. It also enhances digestion, elimination of wastes and the circulation of blood. Moreover, tai chi’s rhythmic movements massage the internal organs and improve their functionality." Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that illness is caused by blockages or lack of balance in the body’s "chi" (intrinsic energy). Tai Chi is believed to balance this energy flow.
Tao-te-Ching ("The Way of Power," or "The Book of the Way") is believed to have been written by Lao-Tse. It describes the nature of life, the way to peace and how a ruler should lead his life.
Chuang-tzu (named after its author) contains additional teachings.
The best definition of Taoism proceeds from Alan Watts pen. We quote some phrases, too:
"Different Chinese philosophers, writing probably in 5-4 centuries B.C., presented some major ideas and a way of life that are nowadays known under the name o Taoism, the way of correspondence between man and the tendency or the course of natural world. The principles of these trend can be noticed in the constant rhythms of the water, of the air and fire, rhythms that are subsequently imprinted upon or imitated by the rhythms from stone and wood, and later by the different forms of art".
As we can see, Taoism is a way of life – nothing mystic here – inspired, it’s true, from the rhythms of the natural phenomena.
But how could a human way of life draw its inspiration from nature? The best example is offered by martial arts, which borrowed initially the essential elements – attack, defense, slipping away – from the corresponding movements of the wild animals. So we have "schools" of martial arts that wear picturesque names as "school of tiger", "school of monkey", etc.
There is also in the everyday domestic life the possibility to get your inspiration from the events of natural world.
The Main Streams
Generally the Taoism is divided in two streams:
1. The philosophical Taoism, or The school of Tao (tao-chia) that flourished in China during the period of the Warring States, 5-4 century BC and
2. The religious Taoism (tao-chiao) dealing with the mystical-magic speculations like those related to Chinese alchemy. The latter kind of Taoism seems to be in fashion even today within the occidental world. Its ideal is reaching immortality and the means differ from one school to another.
The opinion of the specialists is that these two streams can’t be really separated – the philosophical Taoism and the religious one exist together with the ancient religious conceptions of antique China. Of course, this opinion is to be discussed.
The Philosophical Taoism
"The School of Tao" is without any doubt a syntagm unknown by a Chinese as, in fact, the philosophical doctrines were defined, in the history of China, after the name of their founders. And what we define nowadays as "the school of Tao" is but a linguistic convention. It designates a group of philosophers and their ethic-moral beliefs centering upon speculations on the nature of Tao, regarded as a unique, uncreated principle of the Universe. All these beliefs were in contrast with the pedantry of the ethical philosophy of Confucius and excelled in the nihilist and hedonist attitudes concerning the relation of the human being with himself and with the world like in the case of Yang-tzu. Among the ones who promoted the School of Tao, we can mention the famous Lao-tzu and others. These controversial personalities, and somehow strange will be the subject matter of the section "chen-jen" of our site.
What characterizes the philosophy of these forerunners is, besides their distant attitude towards the social life, their focus on calmness – the peace of mind – on their withdrawal within the inner world and on their seclusion from the outer world. Many people interpreted these attitudes as direct invitations to practice the Christian monastic asceticism.
Unfortunately, no one noticed that that promoting this way of living doesn’t represent, in the case of the forerunners of Taoism, a kind of code of behavior, resembling the code of order and inner discipline of the Christian monasteries. The Taoist quietism is rather an attitude imposed by the social circumstances, by the Will of Heaven, and it is up to everyone to appreciate when he should "withdraw himself" or he should "make headway". Unfortunately, the modern specialists – the sinologists – ignored this aspect and created a socio-historical and philosophical image of primitive Taoism according to the idea of already constituted doctrine while it is obvious in fact that initially there was nothing like this.
Adaptation to Reality
We can mention from the very beginning that for a Taoist any kind of social or philosophical norm, previously imposed, has no importance. Chuang-tzu openly expresses this opinion "What you should do – what you shouldn’t do, he asks himself, adapt yourself to the course of events". Or, the idea of adaptation to the events presuppose a vision of an Universe which is continuously changing – a Heraclitean one, in the words of the philosopher Anton Dumitriu; an Universe which didn’t crystallize his shape and rather evokes a changing substance, which can be figured like a kind of steam which alters its form or a cloudy structure which, in the same way, gets the strangest shapes and images. In these circumstances, the conduct of man must be extracted from the context: he borrows the water attitude which remains substantially the same though it emulates the obstacles and pitfall it encounters.
The Taoist Way
If we have to imagine a "way" or a spiritual Taoist "discipline", we should emphasize a very important thing: the famous Taoist masters didn’t have schools to teach in the strict sense of the word, as we understand it today: buildings especially designed for teaching, a fixed programs and a syllabus or all those exams getting on your nerves. They didn’t have even a systematized doctrine. They used to speak using metaphors and comparisons – like the New Testament in which we come across the so-called "parables" or sayings of Jesus Christ – and they used to teach by their own examples. "The schools" were itinerant and the master focussed especially on the philosophical dialogue, reflection and introspection. Knowledge did not represent a stiff subject matter that the disciple had to learn by heart. This aspect was not mentioned by the modern specialists.
*Paper by Jean Chiriac, President of SOTAR
Lao Tzu (lou-dyuh), is the purported author of Tao-te ching (dou-duh jing, The Book of The Way and Its Power), the first book of Taoist thought. Called the "Patriarch of Taoism," the "Old Boy, Old Fellow," and the "Grand Old Master," his thought stressed yielding to the way of nature rather than being bound by society and its formal/informal rules.
Chuang-tzu (jwahng-dyuh, 369-286 B.C.), whose name is the title for another classic Taoist text, is the second of the major founders of the movement. He advocates spontaneity, freedom and a natural-mystical approach as ways to deal with the chaos found within society. Discarding conventional values, freeing oneself from worldly attachments, and following a mystical, esoteric approach is Chuang-tzu’s theme.
Chang Tao-ling (chahng dou-ling, A.D. 142), an exorcist and founder of the Five Pecks of Rice movement, established a mystical/religious healing school of thought. Today, most Taoist priests consider Chang Tao-ling as their main inspiration.
Wang Che (wahng-jeh, 1112-1170) founded the northern Ch’uan-chen (chwahn-jen, complete perfection) Taoist school. The early Ch’uan Chen masters lived unique lives. Once, Wang Che slept on ice; another time, he meditated in a hole for a couple of years. An austere, simple life was the pattern to follow. Monasticism, asceticism, and self-cultivation (realizing the "true nature" in the mind) are the defining characteristics of the movement.
" The two essential ideals of the Taoist religion are individual longevity or immortality, and social harmony and peace." — Liu Xiaogan, "Taoism" (in Our Religions, pp. 274, 233.)
Taoist belief draws from indigenous Chinese religion and incorporates that thought into its schema. Visiting scholar Liu Xiaogan of Princeton University writes concerning the Taoist system.
"In its popular forms it is represented by a pantheon of gods, spirits, and ghosts, and it has absorbed almost every ancient practice known to the Chinese people, such as offering sacrifices to ancestors, praying for favorable weather, and dispelling evil spirits." (Our Religions, p. 284.).
This foundation explains the popularity, on an individual level, of the religion. To understand Taoism is to appreciate the alternative world view it offered to Confucianism.
Confucianism–classical, socially oriented, geared to public functions of Chinese families and the state, accepting of social duty and responsibility with an influx of rules, laws, ceremonies and traditions–soon became a system of social and psychological pressure. A diversion was needed. With romantic simplicity, openness and artistic wisdom.
Taoism offered a departure. Withdraw from the endless struggle and conflict.prize the individual life. Seek unity with nature. Obtain inner space and peace, freed from the excesses of confining Confucian practicality.
Tao, as the "path" or "way," emphasizes major themes. a. Transcendence Taoism seeks to surpass the limits of the ordinary. It seeks an ultimate reality which is behind all, a mystical insight which is beyond the scope of words.
"As a thing the way is Shadowy, indistinct. Indistinct and shadowy, Yet within it is an image; Shadowy and indistinct, Yet within it is a substance." — Tao Te Ching, XXI:49 (trans. D.C. Law, p. 78.)
Way of the Universe. Taoist thought identifies the way of the universe, the pattern, rhythm, driving power, the ordering principle behind all life. In this sense, Tao (and the Taoist religion), becomes the integrating principle behind all of life.
"In his every moment a [person] of great virtue Follows the way and the way only." Tao Te Ching, XXI:48, XI:27 (trans. D.C. Law, p. 78.)
Way of Life. Tao means the way of human life, that is, the way life should be. Tao is the natural guiding force which enables all things to realize their full potential.to be fulfilled.
Long Life. Quest for long life became a Taoist goal. Stemming from the focus on nature, with its rhythm of constant renewal, and trying to emulate that rhythm, Taoism focused on techniques to prolong life. In the Classic of Great Peace, an expression of the common values of the Chinese people, long life became a most important goal between heaven and earth. Taoist thought sought to conserve life in many ways. In keeping harmony within the spirit and material forces within the body, a life inducing heart, mind and will ensued.
Meditation–focusing one’s spirit and so avoiding dissipation–became a valued technique. Consolidation of vital powers so as to resist death became the ideal–not nirvana or release. People die early not because of fate but because their way of living hurts their spirits or bodies. Moderation in the desires and emotions preserved body and soul. Gods become identified with specific body parts– heart, liver, spleen–and homage to these gods becomes a focus of devotional exercises.
Three main branches of Taoism became prominent, the philosophic, psychic and religious.
Philosophic. The Taoists philosophy school sought transcendence–a going beyond the limits of this world, a breaking of the bonds of the universe. By reflection and intuition, a person could order his life in accord with the way of the universe. The philosophic tended to become increasingly individualistic and critical. A blank mind became an ideal.
Psychic. Psychic Taoism focused on yogic exercises and meditations. Exploration of the inner self became the ideal. Selflessness, cleanliness and developing a sense of emotional calm were uppermost. Practitioners thus could mediate a healing, psychic sense of calm over those around them.
"Therefore the sage puts his person last and it comes first, Treats it as extraneous to himself and it is preserved. Is it not because he is without thought of self that he is able to accomplish his private ends?" — Tao Te Ching, VII:19 (trans. D.C. Law, p. 63.).
Religious. Religious (popular) Taoism concentrated on long life in the here-and-now. It respected the emperor and the broad Confucianist movement. The practical and social tenets of faith became uppermost. Life lived long and with a minimum amount of friction was the goal. In addition, this popular school of thought sees gods, magic and sorcery as repositories of the power of the universe. Worship includes rites dealing with ghosts, exorcisms, faith healing, fortune telling and magic.
Taoist Texts. "He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm. He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light." — Tao Te Ching, chap. 24.
The Tao-tsang (dou-dzhang—Repository of the Tao) is the most comprehensive of Taoist texts. Written in priestly language, often meant to be understood by only the knowledgeable, it is difficult to translate and comprehend. During the Ming dynasty, the massive Tao-tsang comprised 1,120 thread bound volumes and 1,476 titles.
The Tao-te ching (dow-duh jing–Book of the Way and Its Power) is the earliest rendering of Taoist thought. Also called the Lao-tzu (lou dyuh, after its commonly understood author), the Tao-te ching is the most widely translated Chinese classic.
Concerning the legendary formulation of the Tao-te ching, the following is instructive:
"At the end of his life, Lao-tzu is said to have climbed on a water buffalo and ridden west towards what is now Tibet, in search of solitude for his last few years. On the way, he was asked to leave behind a record of his beliefs. The product was a slim volume of only 5,000 characters, the Tao-te ching or The Way and its Power. He then rode off on his buffalo." (Lonely Planet Survival Kit–China, p. 63.)
Wu-wei (woo-way). This term describes the Taoist ethical ideal. One follows the natural course of things (The Tao), going with the flow and allowing others to do so as well. Wu-wei restricts human action. When tempted to engage in a frenzied pace, become involved in a flurry of activities, or run from one excited project to the next, wu-wei encourages serenity and a fasting of the spirit.
The Good Life. The Taoist ideal, the good life, is a community living a natural, harmonious, simple life without the pressures of war and competition. "Being" not "having" becomes the enlightened style of life. Contented individuals, simple, whole and alert possess the necessary leisure to engage in a life of harmony with others and with nature. The result is a sense of personal spontaneity (‘tzu-jan’ [dzuh-rahm], spontaneity, nature, naturalness) which comes from within, in concert with the ebb and flow of nature itself.
Other personal traits within the tradition include reverent humility, and an avoidance of strident, aggressive behavior with others and nature. Selflessness, cleanliness and emotional calm characterize the fulfilled individual.
World religion scholar Huston Smith describes implications of the way Taoism seeks attunement with nature.
After the British had climbed Mt. Everest (the "conquest of Everest")."D.T. Suzuki remarked: ‘We Orientals would have spoken of befriending Everest.’ The Japanese team that scaled Anapurna, the second highest peak, climbed to within 50 feet of the summit and deliberately stopped, provoking a Western mountaineer to exclaim in disbelief, ‘That’s class!’" (The World’s Religions, pp. 212-213.)
Nature is to be befriended rather than conquered. In remaining attuned with nature, Taoist thought served as an early precursor to the ecological/environmental movement.
"Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will never, I notice, succeed. The earth is like a vessel so sacred that at the mere approach of the profane it is marred and when they reach out their fingers it is gone."
(Tao Te Ching, ch. 29.)
Women in Taoist Thought
Taoist Trends. With its emphasis upon natural simplicity, infinite potential and distaste for confining rules, limiting regulations and excessive laws, Taoism may seem to advocate little more than a mindless submissiveness and lack of involvement in societal issues. However, this school of thought exerted a strong influence on Chinese society– especially concerning the position of women.
In focusing upon the lowly individuals in society (nature’s "valleys"), Taoist practitioners upgraded the position of women and curtailed murder of female infants. The philosophical ideals of passivity, adaptability and a sense of yielding all flowed from traditional understandings of "female" virtues.