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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. Translated literally, it means "the Teaching of Tao".

The Tao of Taoism

In Taoist context, Tao can be understood as a space-time path — the order in which things happen. As a descriptive term, it can be taken to refer to the actual world in history — sometimes distinguished as "great Dao" — or prescriptively, as an order that should unfold — i.e., the moral way of Confucius or Lao Tzu or Christ, etc. A theme in early Chinese thought is Tian-dao or 'way of nature' (also translated as 'heaven', 'sky' and sometimes 'God'). This would correspond roughly to the order of things according to natural law. Both 'nature's way' and 'great way' can inspire the stereotypical Taoist detachment from moral or normative doctrines. Thus, 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 among any accounts of its normative content — it therefore can be seen as an efficient principle of "emptiness" that reliably underlies the operation of the universe.

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 sceptical and being ironic on human values as morality, benevolence and proper behavior, Taoist writers don't share the Confucean belief in civilisation as a way to build a better society, they rather share the will to leave alone in mountains with wild animals, or as simple peasants in small autarcic villages. For many Chinese educated people (the Literati), life was split unto a social part, where Confucean doctrine prevailed, and a private part with Taoist aspirations. At home, during the nights, being banned far away or after retiring where good occasions to cultivate Taoism and, say, reread Lao-tzu's and Chuang Tzu's books. This part of their life was often dedicated to arts like calligraphy, painting, poetry or personal researches on antiquities, médicine, 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 Teh Ching), said to be written by Lao-tzu (Lao Zi), who, according to legend, was an older contemporary of Confucius;
  • and the third, the works of the philosopher Chuang Tzu (Chuang Zi).
  • Other books have developed Taoism, as the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness, from Lieh-tzu; 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 Tao Teh Ching

The Tao Teh Ching (or Dao De Jing, 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.

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 ten thousand things, through the harmony of the Five 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 realising 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.

Wu Wei

Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of wu wei (action through inaction). 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 Chuang Tzu, 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. 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.


  • Kaltenmark, Max. Lao Tzu and Taoism, translated from French by Roger Greaves. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969.
  • Maspero, Henri. Taoism and Chinese Religion, translated from French by Frank A. Kierman, Jr. Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
  • Wikipedia. (2004). Taoism. Retrieved Sept. 21, 2004.

Further reading

  • Benjamin Hoff's Tao of Pooh introduces a Westerner's perspective of the Taoist worldview using characters from Winnie the Pooh
  • Eric Yudelove's Dao and Tree of Life discusses perceived similarities between Taoism, Kabbalah, and shamanism
  • Mantak Chia's books claim to cover some aspects of Taoist Alchemy practices
  • Michael Saso has written books on the practice of Taoism.
  • Thomas Cleary has translated several Taoist texts.

External links

Document Source

  • This page was originally sourced from Thelemapedia. Retrieved May 2009.