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Taoism is the English name referring to a variety of related Chinese philosophical and religious traditions and concepts. These traditions influenced East Asia for over two thousand years and some have spread internationally.  Taoist propriety and ethics emphasize the Three Jewels of the Tao; namely, love, moderation, humility. Taoist thought focuses on wu wei ("non-action"), spontaneity, humanism, and emptiness.
The character Tao 道 (or Dao, depending on the romanisation scheme) means "path" or "way", but in Chinese religion and philosophy it has taken on more abstract meanings. Tao is rarely an object of worship, being treated more like the Central Asian concepts of atman and dharma. The word "Taoism" is used to translate different Chinese terms. Daojiao (道教 "teachings/religion of the Dao") refers to Daoism as a religion. Daojia (道家 "school of the Dao") refers to the studies of scholars, or "philosophical" Daoism. However, most scholars have abandoned the dichotomy of "religious" and "philosophical" Daoism.
Most traditional Chinese Taoists are polytheistic. Nature and ancestor spirits are common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists (Daoshi) view as debased. This sort of shamanism is eschewed for an emphasis on internal alchemy among the "elite" Taoists.
Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines are intertwined with Taoism throughout history.
- 1 Categorization
- 2 Beliefs
- 3 Ethics
- 4 Pantheon
- 5 Scripture
- 6 History
- 7 Adherents
- 8 Practices
- 9 Taoist symbols and images
- 10 Relations with other religions and philosophies
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Notes
- 14 External links
There is a great deal of debate over how, and whether, Taoism should be subdivided. Some scholars have divided it into the following three categories.:
- "Philosophical Taoism". (Daojia). A philosophical school based on the texts Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi;
- "Religious Taoism". (Daojiao). A family of organized Chinese religious movements originating from the Celestial Masters movement during the late Han Dynasty and later including the "Orthodox" (Zhengyi) or "Complete Reality" (Quanzhen) sects, which collectively trace back to Zhang Daoling in the late Han Dynasty;
- "Folk Taoism". The Chinese folk religion.
It must be noted that this distinction is complicated by hermeneutic difficulty. The categorization of Taoist sects and movements is very controversial. Many scholars believe that there is no distinction between Daojia and Daojiao, and that the distinction is propagated by people who are not familiar with Taoism.
Much uncertainty exists over the meaning of Taoism. In some countries and contexts, such as the Taoism organizations of China and Taiwan, the label is applied to Chinese folk religion, which would otherwise not have a readily recognizable English name. However, many of its practitioners would not recognize Taoism (in any language) as the name of their religion.
Taoism has never been a unified religion and has always consisted of different teachings based on many different original revelations. Therefore different branches of Taoism often have very different beliefs. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that all the schools share.
Taoist theology focuses on doctrines of wu wei ("non-action"), spontaneity, humanism, relativism and emptiness. This philosophical aspect of Taoism emphasizes various themes found in the Tao Te Ching (道德經) such as naturalness, vitality, peace, "nonaction" (wu wei), emptiness (refinement), detachment, the strength of softness (or flexibility), and in the Zhuangzi such as receptiveness, spontaneity, the relativism of human ways of life, ways of speaking and guiding behavior.
- Main article: Tao
Tao can be roughly stated to be the flow of the universe, or the force behind the natural order. Tao is believed to be the influence that keeps the universe balanced and ordered. Tao is associated with nature, due to a belief that nature demonstrates the Tao. The flow of qi, as the essential energy of action and existence, is compared to the universal order of Tao. Tao is compared to what it is not, like the negative theology of Western scholars. It is often considered to be the source of both existence and non-existence
- For more details on this topic, see De (Chinese).
Tao is also associated with a "proper" attitude, morality and lifestyle. This is intimately tied to the complex concept of De (德), or literally "virtue". De is the active expression of Tao. Taoism generally expresses this as "integrity" or "wholeness". Tao is considered a "way", while De is the active living, or cultivation, of that "way".
- Main article: Wu wei
Wu wei (Traditional Chinese characters: 無為 Simplified Chinese characters: 无为) is a central concept in Taoism. The literal meaning of wu wei is "without action". It is often expressed by the paradox wei wu wei, meaning "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice and efficacy of wu wei are fundamental in Chinese thought, most prominently emphasized in Taoism. The goal of wu wei is alignment with Tao, revealing the soft and invisible power within all things. It is believed by Taoists that masters of wu wei can control this invisible potential, the inate yin-action of the Way.
In ancient Taoist texts, wu wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Water is soft and weak, it is noted, but it can move earth and carve stone. Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts his will against the world, he disrupts that harmony. Taoism does not identify man's will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that man must place his will in harmony with the natural universe.
Pu (樸) is translated as "uncarved block" or "simplicity". It is a metaphor for the state of wu wei (無為) and the principle of jian (儉). It represents a passive state of receptiveness. Pu is a symbol for a state of pure potential and perception without prejudice. In this state, Taoists believe everything is seen as it is, without preconceptions or illusion.
Pu is seen as keeping oneself in the primordial state of tao. It is believed to be the true nature of the mind, unburdened by knowledge or experiences. In the state of p'u, there is no right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. There is only pure experience, or awareness, free from learned labels and definitions. It is this state of being that is the goal of following wu wei.
Taoists believe that man is a microcosm for the universe. The body ties directly into the Chinese five elements. The five organs correlate with the five elements, the five directions and the seasons. Akin to the "neoplatonic maxim" of "as above, so below", Taoism posits that by understanding himself, man may gain knowledge of the universe.
In Taoism, even beyond Chinese folk religion, various rituals, exercises, and substances are said to positively affect one's physical health. They are also intended to align oneself spiritually with cosmic forces, or enable ecstatic spiritual journeys. These concepts seem basic to Taoism in its elite forms. Internal alchemy and various rituals are intended to extend life, even to the point of immortality. Immortals, their actions and their relationships with the gods and natural forces form a significant portion of Taoist mythology.
- For more details on this topic, see Three Jewels of the Tao.
The Three Jewels, or Three Treasures (Chinese: 三寶; pinyin: sānbǎo; Wade-Giles: san-pao), are basic virtues in Taoism. The Three Jewels are love, moderation and humility. They are also translated as compassion, simplicity and modesty. Arthur Waley describes them as "[t]he three rules that formed the practical, political side of the author's teaching". He correlated the Three Treasures with "abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment", "absolute simplicity of living", and "refusal to assert active authority".
The first of the Three Treasures is ci (Chinese: 慈; pinyin: cí; Wade-Giles: tz'u; literally "compassion, love, kindness"), which the Tao Te Ching parallels with familial and brotherly love. It is compared to loving others and the world as a person loves their own existence. The second is jian (Chinese: 儉; pinyin: jiǎn; Wade-Giles: chien; literally "moderation, economy, restraint"), which the Tao Te Ching praises. Jian is connected with the Taoist metaphor pu. (樸 "uncarved wood; simplicity"). It represents perfect efficiency and simplicity of desire. The third treasure is the phrase bugan wei tianxia xian (不敢為天下先), meaning "not dare to be first in the world". It is connected to a fear of death, out of a love for life. Taoism posits that to be first is to expose oneself to the world's destructive forces. Remaining behind and embracing humility allows time for one to bear fruit.
- Further information:
Traditional Chinese religion is polytheistic. Its deities are part of a heavenly hierarchy that mirrors the bureaucracy of Imperial China. Deities may be promoted or demoted. Some deities are exalted humans. The particular deities worshipped vary according to geography and historical period, though the general pattern of worship is more constant.
There are disagreements regarding the proper composition of this pantheon. Popular Taoism typically presents the Jade Emperor as the head deity. Intellectual ("elite") Taoists, such as the Celestial Masters sect, usually present Laozi (Laojun, "Lord Lao") and the Three Pure Ones at the top of the pantheon.  In particular Taoist systems, Hong-jun lao-zu (鸿钧老祖 or 鸿元老祖, the great primal originator) is the common ancestor/teacher of all the deities.
While a number of immortals or other mysterious figures appear in the Zhuangzi, and to a lesser extent in the Dao De Jing, these have generally not become the objects of worship. Traditional conceptions of Dao are not to be confused with the Western concepts of theism and monotheism. Being one with the Dao does not indicate a union with an eternal spirit in the Hindu sense, but rather living in accordance with nature.
The Daozang (道藏, Treasury of Tao) is sometimes referred to as the Taoist canon. It was originally compiled during the Jin, Tang, and Song dynasties. The version surviving today was published during the Ming dynasty.The Ming Daozang includes almost 1500 texts. Following the example of the Buddhist Tripitaka, it is divided into three dong (洞, "caves", "grottoes"). They are arranged from "highest" to "lowest":
- The Zhen ("real" or "truth") grotto. Includes the Shangqing texts.
- The Xuan ("mystery") grotto. Includes the Lingbao scriptures.
- The Shen ("divine") grotto. Includes texts predating the Maoshan revelations.
Daoshi generally do not consult published versions of the Daozang, but individually choose, or inherit, texts included in the Daozang. These texts have been passed down for generations from teacher to student.
The Shangqing school has a tradition of approaching Taoism through scriptural study. It is believed that reciting certain texts often enough will be rewarded with immortality. In Taiwan, one often finds Buddhist texts being chanted in Taoist temples. Some Chinese movements and Western schools of Taoism emphasise newly-revealed scriptures.
While the Tao Te Ching is most famous, there are other important texts in traditional Taoism. Taishang Ganying Pian ("Treatise of the Exalted One on Response and Retribution") discusses sin and ethics, and has become a popular morality tract in the last few centuries. It asserts that those in harmony with Tao will live long and fruitful lives. The wicked, and their descendents, will suffer and have shortened lives. Both the Taipingjing ("Scripture on Great Peace") and the Baopuzi ("Book of the Master Who Keeps to simplicity") contain early alchemical formulas that early Taoists believed could lead to immortality.
Tao Te Ching
- See also: Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching, or Daodejing, is widely considered to be the most influential Taoist text. It is a foundational scripture of central importance in Taoism. It has been used as a ritual text throughout the history of religious Taosim. However, the precise date that it was written is the subject of debate, there are those who put it anywhere from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century BCE.Taoist commentators have deeply considered the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching. They are widely discussed in both academic and mainstream literature. A common interpretation is similar to Korzybski's observation that "the map is not the territory". The opening lines, with literal and common translation, are:
道可道，非常道。 (dao (ways) can be way-ed, not usual ways)
"The Way that can be followed is not the constant Way."
名可名，非常名。 (names can be named, not usual names)
"The Name that can be named is not the constant Name."
Tao literally means "road" or "way", and can figuratively mean "principle" or "true way". The philosophical and religious "Tao" is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Tao. Tao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form. Hence, it cannot be named or categorized. Even the word "Tao" can be considered a dangerous temptation to make Tao a limiting "name".
The Tao Te Ching is not thematically ordered. However, the main themes of the text are repeatedly expressed using variant formulations, often with only a slight difference. The leading themes revolve around the nature of Tao and how to attain it. Tao is said to be unnameable and accomplishing great things through small means. There is significant debate regarding which English translation of the Tao Te Ching is preferred, and which particular translation methodology is best. Discussions and disputes about various translations of the Tao Tao Ching can become acrimonious, involving deeply entrenched views.
Ancient commentaries on the Tao Te Ching are important texts in their own right. The Heshang Gong commentary was most likely written in the second century CE, and as perhaps the oldest commentary, contains the edition of the Tao Te Ching that was transmitted to the present day. Other important commentaries include the Xiang'er, one of the most important texts from the Celestial Master movement, and Wang Bi's commentary.
- Main article: History of Taoism
The number of Taoists is difficult to estimate, partly for definitional reasons (who counts as a Taoist?), and partly for practical ones (it is illegal for private parties to conduct surveys in China). The number of people practicing some aspect of the Chinese folk religion might number in the hundreds of millions. (Adherents.com estimates "Traditional Chinese religion" at nearly four hundred million). The number of people patronising Daoshi (Taoist priests or masters) would be smaller by several orders of magnitude, while the number of literary Daojia would be smaller yet. At the same time, most Chinese people and many others have been influenced in some way by Taoist tradition.
Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people: mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and various Chinese diaspora communities. Taoist literature and art has influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and these countries' folk religions have many common elements. Organized Taoism seems not to have attracted a non-Chinese following until modern times.
Nearly all forms of Chinese traditional religion involve baibai (拜拜)--bowing towards an altar, with a stick of incense in one's hand. (Some schools prescribe the use of three sticks of incense in the hand at one time. ) This may be done at home, or in a temple, or outdoors; by an ordinary person, or a professional (such as a Daoshi 道士); and the altar may feature any number of deities or ancestral tablets. Baibai is usually done in accordance with certain dates of the lunar/solar calendar (see Chinese calendar).
At certain dates, food may be set out as a sacrifice to the gods and/or spirits of the departed. (See, for example, Qingming Festival.) This may include slaughtered pigs and ducks, or fruit. Another form of sacrifice involves the burning of Hell Bank Notes, on the assumption that images thus consumed by the fire will reappear--not as a mere image, but as the actual item--in the spirit world, and be available for the departed spirit to use.
Also at certain dates, street parades take place. These are lively affairs which invariably involve firecrackers and flower-covered floats broadcasting traditional music. Street parades may also include lion dances and dragon dances; human-occupied puppets (often of the "Seventh Lord" and "Eighth Lord"); jitong (乩童 male "Mediums") who mutilate their skin with knives; Bajiajiang, which are gongfu-practicing honor guards in demonic makeup; and palanquins carrying god-images. The various participants are not considered performers, but rather possessed by the god in question.
Fortune-telling--including astrology, I Ching, and other forms of divination--has long been considered a traditional Taoist pursuit. Mediumship is also widely encountered. We may distinguish between martial forms of mediumship (like the aforementioned jitong) and more literary forms in which the possessed medium communicates messages from the spirit world by writing them with a special utensil (such as use of the "planchette").
Isabelle Robinet's book Taoist Meditation describes various practices given in the Maoshan texts. These include controlling bodily fluids such as urine, saliva, and the breath; visualisation practices in which various internal organs are imaginarily linked with corresponding gods and/or celestial bodies (e.g. the stars of the bei tou, the "Big Dipper"); and heavenly journeys via the Great Pole, which is reached by a limping shamanic dance called the "Step of Wu".Many Taoists also participated in the reading and writing of books. Taoists of this type tend to be civil servants, elderly retirees, or in modern times, university faculty. While there is considerable overlap with religious Taoism, there are often important divergences in interpretation. Wang Bi, one of the most influential philosophical commentators on the Laozi (and Yijing) was in fact a Confucian.
For many educated Chinese people (the Literati), life was divided into a social aspect, where Confucian doctrine prevailed, and a private aspect, with Taoist aspirations. Night-time, exile, or retirement provided the opportunity to cultivate Taoism and reread Laozi and Zhuangzi. The Literati often dedicated this period of life to arts such as calligraphy, painting, and poetry, or personal researches into antiquities, medicine, folklore, and so on.
A number of martial arts traditions, particularly T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Bagua Zhang, and Xing Yi Quan, embody Taoist principles to a greater or lesser extent, and some practitioners consider their art to be a means of practicing Taoism. The accuracy of these claims varies greatly depending on the particular art and/or practitioner.
It should be noted that while many Japanese martial and cultural traditions (i.e. judo, kendo, cha-do, kyu-do) have developed a distinctly zen character over the years, the "do" is in fact one of the Japanese pronunciations of the Chinese "tao" (alternatedly rendered as "dao" by some translators), and it is written with the same character. Again, the extent to which these practices reflect taoist principles varies depending on the specific school and practitioner.
The Taijitu ("yin and yang") symbol 太極圖 as well as the Bagua 八卦 ("Eight Trigrams") are associated with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organisations make use of the yin and yang symbol, one could also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. The yin and yang make a backwards "S" shape, with yang (black or red) on bottom. One is likely to see this symbol as decorations on Taoist organisation flags and logos, temple floors, or stitched into clerical robes. According to Song Dynasty sources, it originated around the 10th century. Previously, yin and yang were symbolized by a tiger and dragon.
The five directions as conceived by the ancient Chinese (east, south, west, north, center) each have their own attributes, as follows in the chart below.
|Direction||Element / Phase||Symbol / Constellation||Season||Force|
Taoist temples may fly square or triangular flags. They typically feature mystical writing or diagrams and are intended to fulfill various functions including providing guidance for the spirits of the dead, to bring good fortune, increase life span, etc. Other flags and banners may be those of the gods or immortals themselves.
One sometimes sees a zigzag with seven stars, representing the Big Dipper (or the "Bushel", the Chinese equivalent). In the Shang dynasty the Big Dipper was considered a deity, while during the Han dynasty, it was considered a qi path of the circumpolar god, Taiyi.
Taoist temples in southern China and Taiwan may often be identified by their roofs, which feature Chinese dragons and phoenixes made from multi-colored ceramic tiles. They also stand for the harmony of yin and yang (with the phoenix being yin). A related symbol is the flaming pearl which may be seen on such roofs between two dragons, as well as on the hairpin of a Celestial Master. But in general, Chinese Taoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it particularly from other structures.
The origins of Taoism and other philosophical schools are intimately related. The authorship of the Daodejing is assigned to Laozi, traditionally thought to be a teacher of Confucius, yet appears to be reacting against Confucian doctrine (suggesting the text comes after Confucianism). Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), the other defining philosopher of Daoism, reacted both to the Confucian-Mohist ethical disputes and to related developments in theory of names (language). There is little evidence of a link between Laozi and Zhuangzi--whose most frequent interactions are with Hui Shi (of the school of names). However, the chapters of the Zhuangzi written after his death include dialogues between Laozi and Confucius that mimic (or inspire?) the style of the Daodejing, suggesting the first association of the two texts dates from around that time. The "history of thought" contained in the Zhuangzi cites Laozi as a prior step (and demotes Hui Shi to a postscript). It includes the Mohists by name and the Confucians by implication and a cluster of other less well known thinkers.
The terms Dao and De (virtue/excellence) are shared terms of debate in this period. Most of the texts of ancient Chinese philosophy argued for some dao or other and advocated cultivating de in that favored dao. While dao was initially ethical-social norms, it quickly broadened to include the norms of language use and of claiming or attributing knowledge. This broadening dialectic about dao is what warrants describing the views of Laozi and Zhuangzi as Daoism. Daoism represents the view that the norms for language, knowledge, ethics and society are grounded in and continuous with natural norms. So any discussion of dao and de involves us in reflections on the nature of human society and its place in the universe as a whole.
These early Taoist texts reject numerous basic assumptions of Confucianism, embracing instead values based on nature, perspectivalism, and spontaneity. They express skepticism of conventional moralities and Mozi's Utilitarian or Mencius' benevolence based revisions. Since politics was conceived by these traditional schools as a scheme for unifying all "under the sky" in their favored dao, Taoists tend toward anarchism, mistrustful of hierarchical social structures and particularly, governments. (Zhuangzi argues that the proponents of benevolence and morality are usually found at the gates of feudal lords who have stolen their kingdoms.) Although philosophical Taoist appear to be anarchist, it is clearly an over statement. Mitigated Anarchism would better categorise the philosophical Taoists, they tend to believe in the idea that the government should act in a 'non acting' or 'wu wei' manner. This means that they should only act when necessary and their actions should not be felt directly by the people, nor should they be visible to the people. Chapters 57-81 of the Dao De Ching all deal with government, ruling, and appeasing the people.
Taoist thought partly inspired Legalist philosophers, whose theories were used by Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Chinese Empire. The junction point can be found in the work of Hanfeizi, a prominent Legalist thinker who commented on the Tao Te Ching. Hanfeizi used some chapters of the book to justify a structured society based on law and punishment and on the undiscussed power of the Emperor.
The entry of Buddhism into China was via its dialectic with later Taoism which transformed them both. Over the centuries of Chinese interactions, Buddhism gradually found itself transformed from a competitor of Taoism, to a fellow inhabitant of the Chinese cultural ecosystem. Originally seen as a kind of foreign Taoism, its scriptures were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism in particular is inspired by crucial elements of philosophical Taoism, ranging from distrust of scripture, text and language to its more positive view of "this life", practice, skill and the absorption in "every-moment". In the Tang period Taoism incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the celibacy of the clergy, the doctrine of emptiness, and the amassing of a vast collection of scripture into tripartite organisation.
Ideological and political rivals in ancient times, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have inevitably deeply influenced one another, and eventually achieved a kind of modus vivendi in which each has its own particular ecological niche within Chinese society. With time, most Chinese people likewise came to identify to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. This became institutionalised by the time of the Song Dynasty, when aspects of the three schools were consciously synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes.
The Vinegar Tasters (sometimes called Three Vinegar Tasters) is a popular painting (usually in scroll format) that explained Taoist ideals in relation to the Neo-Confucian school which began in the 10th century and gained prominence in the 12th century. It is not available nowadays except in specialty stores like Taoist Art. The image depicts Laozi together with The Buddha, and Confucius. In these paintings the three are gathered around a vat of vinegar and the motto associated with the grouping is "the three teachings are one." (However, see The Vinegar Tasters for an alternate interpretation.)
In spreading Catholic Christianity to China, Jesuit Matteo Ricci sought to ally the Church with Confucianism. In so doing the Jesuits encouraged the view that China lacked a high religion of its own (since Confucianism was not regarded as such). Until well into the twentieth century, Christians have tended to view religious Taoism as a hodgepodge of primitive superstitions, or even as a form of demonolatry due to insufficient understanding.
In the last century or so, Taoism (along with Confucianism and Buddhism) has become incorporated into the theology of the Way of Former Heaven sects, notably Yiguandao. The same could be said with respect to Vietnam's religion of Caodaism.
Taoism has also been a resource for those in environmental philosophy, who see the non-anthropocentric nature of Taoism as a guide for new ways of thinking about nature and environmental ethics. Some consider Taoism to fit naturally with the radical environmental philosophy of deep ecology. Daoism and Ecology: Ways Within A Cosmic Landscape edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan is currently the most thorough introduction to studies done on concepts of nature and ecology within Taoism.
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