What is Taoism?
Taoism (, ) or Daoism (), is a religious or philosophical tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (Chinese: 道; pinyin: Dào; literally: "the Way", also romanized as Dao). The Tao is a fundamental idea in most Chinese philosophical schools; in Taoism, however, it denotes the principle that is the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists. Taoism differs from Confucianism by not emphasizing rigid rituals and social order, but is similar in the sense that it is a teaching about the various disciplines for achieving "perfection" by becoming one with the unplanned rhythms of the universe called "the way" or "dao". Taoist ethics vary depending on the particular school, but in general tend to emphasize wu wei (action without intention), "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: 慈 "compassion", 儉 "frugality", and 不敢為天下先 "humility".
The roots of Taoism go back at least to the 4th century BCE. Early Taoism drew its cosmological notions from the School of Yinyang (Naturalists), and was deeply influenced by one of the oldest texts of Chinese culture, the I Ching, which expounds a philosophical system about how to keep human behavior in accordance with the alternating cycles of nature. The "Legalist" Shen Buhai (c. 400 – c. 337 BCE) may also have been a major influence, expounding a realpolitik of wu wei. The Tao Te Ching, a compact book containing teachings attributed to Laozi (Chinese: 老子; pinyin: Lǎozǐ; Wade–Giles: Lao³ Tzŭ³), is widely considered the keystone work of the Taoist tradition, together with the later writings of Zhuangzi.
By the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the various sources of Taoism had coalesced into a coherent tradition of religious organizations and orders of ritualists in the state of Shu (modern Sichuan). In earlier ancient China, Taoists were thought of as hermits or recluses who did not participate in political life. Zhuangzi was the best known of these, and it is significant that he lived in the south, where he was part of local Chinese shamanic traditions.
Female shamans played an important role in this tradition, which was particularly strong in the southern state of Chu. Early Taoist movements developed their own institution in contrast to shamanism, but absorbed basic shamanic elements. Shamans revealed basic texts of Taoism from early times down to at least the 20th century. Institutional orders of Taoism evolved in various strains that in more recent times are conventionally grouped into two main branches: Quanzhen Taoism and Zhengyi Taoism. After Laozi and Zhuangzi, the literature of Taoism grew steadily and was compiled in form of a canon—the Daozang—which was published at the behest of the emperor. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was nominated several times as a state religion. After the 17th century, however, it fell from favor.
Taoism has had a profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and Taoists (Chinese: 道士; pinyin: dàoshi, "masters of the Tao"), a title traditionally attributed only to the clergy and not to their lay followers, usually take care to note distinction between their ritual tradition and the practices of Chinese folk religion and non-Taoist vernacular ritual orders, which are often mistakenly identified as pertaining to Taoism. Chinese alchemy (especially neidan), Chinese astrology, Chan (Zen) Buddhism, several martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history. Beyond China, Taoism also had influence on surrounding societies in Asia.
Today, the Taoist tradition is one of the five religious doctrines officially recognized in the People's Republic of China (PRC) as well as the Republic of China (ROC), and although it does not travel readily from its East Asian roots, it claims adherents in a number of societies, in particular in Hong Kong, Macau, and in Southeast Asia.
The Three Pure Ones (Chinese: 三清; pinyin: Sānqīng) are the three highest Taoist deities, representing the three levels of manifestation of the Tao, the origin of all being. They are:
From the Tao Te Ching, it is held that «the Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced all things». It is generally agreed that:
Tao produced One—Wuji produced Taiji; One produced Two—Taiji produced yin and yang [or Liangyi (兩儀) in scholastic term]. However, the subject of how Two produced Three has remained a popular debate among Taoist scholars. Most scholars believe that it refers to the Interaction between yin and yang, with the presence of qi, or life force.
The Tao, or the source of the universe, is itself personified in some theologies as Hongjun Laozu (鸿钧老祖, "Ancestor of the Great Balance"). In other theologies it is the Taiyi Tianzun (太乙天尊, "Heavenly Lord of the Great Oneness"), or simply Taiyi ("Great Oneness"), represented as a lord riding a lion. In its pre-creating, pre-ordering phase it is the Hundun Wuji Yuanshi Tianwang (混沌無極元始天王, the "Heavenly Ruler of the Indeterminate Chaos", or "Great One of the Infinite Chaos").
1770 Wang Bi
edition of the Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching, Daodejing, or Dao De Jing (simplified Chinese: 道德经; traditional Chinese: 道德經; pinyin: Dàodéjīng), also simply referred to as the Laozi, is a Chinese classic text.
According to tradition, it was written around 6th century BC by the sage Laozi (or Lao Tzu, "Old Master"), a record-keeper at the Zhou dynasty court, by whose name the text is known in China. The text's true authorship and date of composition or compilation are still debated, although the oldest excavated text dates back to the late 4th century BC.
The text is fundamental to both philosophical and religious Taoism and strongly influenced other schools, such as Legalism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, which when first introduced into China was largely interpreted through the use of Daoist words and concepts.
Many Chinese artists, including poets, painters, calligraphers, and even gardeners have used the Daodejing as a source of inspiration. Its influence has also spread widely outside East Asia, and is amongst the most translated works in world literature.
The Wade–Giles romanization "Tao Te Ching" dates back to early English transliterations in the late 19th century; its influence can be seen in words and phrases that have become well-established in English. "Daodejing" is the pinyin romanization.
Tao Hongjing, responsible for the compilation of Shangqing texts.
The Shangqing (Chinese: 上清; pinyin: Shàngqīng; literally: "Highest Clarity") school of Taoism began during the aristocracy of the Western Jin dynasty. The first leader of the school was Wei Huacun (251-334), but Tao Hongjing (456-536), who structured the theory and practice and compiled the canon, is often considered to be its true founder.
His prestige greatly contributed to the development of the school that took place near the end of the 5th century. The mountain near Nanjing where Tao Hongjing had his retreat, Maoshan (茅山), today remains the principal seat of the school.
Shangqing practice values meditation techniques of visualization and breathing, as well as physical exercises, as opposed to the use of alchemy and talismans. The recitation of the sacred canon plays an equally important role.
The practice was essentially individualistic, contrary to the collective practices in the Way of the Celestial Masters or in Lingbao Taoism.
Recruiting from high social classes, during the Tang dynasty, Shangqing was the dominant school of Daoism, and its influence is found in literature of the time period. The importance of the school only began to diminish beginning from the second half of the Song dynasty. Under the Yuan dynasty, the movement was known by the name Maoshan and the focus changed from meditation to rituals and talismans.
In the 21st century, Maoshan Taoism is still practiced but its current techniques are very different from the original techniques by the school.
Chinese Taoist Association (Chinese: 中国道教协会), founded in April 1957, is the main association of Taoism in the People's Republic of China. It is recognized as one of the main religious associations in the People's Republic of China, and is overseen by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Dozens of regional and local daoist associations are included in this overarching group, which is encouraged by the government to be a bridge between Chinese Taoists and the government, to encourage a patriotic merger between Taoism and government initiatives.
The group also disseminates information on traditional Taoist topics, including forums and conferences. The association was a major sponsor of the 2007 International Forum on the Tao Te Ching. The Chinese Taoist Association advocates the recompensation of losses inflicted on Taoism by the Cultural Revolution. Taoism was banned for several years in the People's Republic of China during that period.
The Chinese Taoist Association advocates ecology. This can be explained by the fact that Taoism places a special significance to nature. As they put it, people should live in harmony with nature instead of trying to conquer it.
Taoism has many schools or denominations, of which none occupies a position of orthodoxy.
Taoist branches usually build their identity around a set of scriptures, that are manuals of ritual practices. Scriptures are considered "breathwork", that is "configurations of energy" (qi), embodiments of "celestial patterns" (tianwen), or "revelations of structures" (li).
Among the major ones are the Quanzhen, the Zhengyi, the Maoshan and the Lingbao school.
Daoshi (道士, "master of the Tao") refers to a priest in Taoism. In some schools they practice asceticism in the mountains and alchemy, with the aim of becoming xian, "mountain men" or "holy men".
The activities of the daoshi tend to be informed by materials which may be found in the Daozang, or Daoist canon; however, daoshi generally choose, or inherit, specific texts which have been passed down for generations from teacher to student, rather than consulting published versions of these works. They can perform a variety of ceremonies and practices, depending on the school they belong.
Today there are two dominant priesthoods. That of Quanzhen Taoism, which is dominant in the northern half of China, which masters are monks, in that they are celibate, vegetarian, and live in monasteries. One of the most known ones is the White Cloud Temple in Beijing.
The other main priesthood is that of Zhengyi Taoism, in which the priests can marry, eat meat, and live in their own homes. They are mostly priests part-time and can hold other jobs. They are dominant in southern China.
Wu wei (simplified Chinese: 无为; traditional Chinese: 無為; pinyin: wúwéi) is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Tao Te Ching, Laozi explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way.
As the planets revolve around the sun, they "do" this revolving, but without "doing" it. As trees grow, they simply grow without trying to grow. Thus knowing how and when to act is not knowledge in the sense that one would think, "now I should do this", but rather just doing it, doing the natural thing. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Laozi, the attainment of this natural way of behaving.
In the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to erode solid stone and move mountains. Water is without will (that is, the will for a shape), though it may be understood to be opposing wood, stone, or any solid aggregated material that can be broken into pieces.
Due to its nature and propensity, water may potentially fill any container, assume any shape; given the water cycle water may potentially go "anywhere", even into the minutest holes, both metaphorical and actual. Droplets of water, when falling as rain, gather in watersheds, flowing into and forming rivers of water, joining the sea: this is the nature of water.
Taoist meditation refers to the traditional meditative practices associated with the Chinese philosophy and religion of Taoism, including concentration, mindfulness, contemplation, and visualization.
Techniques of Taoist meditation are historically interrelated with Buddhist meditation, for instance, 6th-century Taoists developed guan 觀 "observation" insight meditation from Tiantai Buddhist anapanasati "mindfulness of breath" practices.
Traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese martial arts have adapted certain Taoist meditative techniques. Some examples are daoyin "guide and pull" breathing exercises, neidan "internal alchemy" techniques, neigong "internal skill" practices, qigong breathing exercises, zhan zhuang "standing like a post", and taijiquan "great ultimate fist" techniques.
The demographic diffusion of Taoism according to the most recent statistical data.