Taoism Definition, History, Beliefs, & Lifestyle (08.06.2018)
Tao (which is pronounced “dow”) means “the path” or “the way,” roughly translated. It is essentially indescribable but something that is to be experienced.
Taoism’s founder is thought by a majority to be Lao Tzu, who is believed to have lived around the same time as Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, in the sixth century C.E. Modern scholars posit that he lived during the fourth century, producing the Tao Te Ching during the Warring States and Hundred Schools of Thought eras. Others, however, believe him to be a mythical character, although he is a favorite deity of the Taoist pantheon.
Lao Tzu was looking for a path that would steer clear of the continual feudal conflicts and other clashes that typified Chinese society at the time. The result of his search was the Tao Te Ching (also called Daodejing), which means “the book of the way” or “the way of power.” It is the most documented text of Taoism. Though the book is widely believed to be Lao Tzu’s work, there is some controversy surrounding its authorship.
Modern scholars contend that the Tao Te Ching was not written until sometime between 300 and 250 B.C.E. Recent research even hints that the text could have been written by a group of learned men.
The Tao Te Ching describes the state and nature of life, the path to peace, and the way a ruler should live his life. The book is rather short, with about 1,000 words spread over 81 chapters and divided into two sections, the Te Ching and the Tao Ching.
Since the Tao tradition is so old and is strongly connected with Confucianism, it is hard to distinguish among individual beliefs. Many consider themselves both Taoists and Confucians. The only clear principle of Taoism is belief in the tao.
Depending on the individual, however, this word can have different meanings. Scholars use the word tao in widely divergent contexts. It is also difficult to explain the word tao in English. The result is difficulty identifying precisely the beliefs of Taoists.
Generally, tao is interpreted as “the way” or “the path,” the course that one should take in life, suggesting that it is primarily a code of behavior.
The tao is also said to be the natural arrangement of everything; central to this conceptualization are the values of yin and yang.
Above all Taoism is seen as the fundamental nature or the universal life force of everything in the world. Yin and yang are considered to be complementary features of the tao, always in flux, never static. Westerners might be tempted to treat these elements as absolutes, but one cannot exist without the other. Yin and yang create the world’s natural order. Yin means “shady,” and corresponds to the night and less active functions. It is said to be the breath that created the Earth. Yang is thought of as the more masculine, “sunny” functions. It is believed to be the breath that created the heavens.
Yang is characterized by warmth, light, good, and positive values. Everything in nature has, and is, both yin and yang.
Yin and yang can be characterized as a process of transformation, expressions of the changes between the phases of a cycle. In order to understand how yin and yang are complementary functions, each is always in the process of becoming the other without being it at any point. Consider the movement of time. Noon is momentarily all yang but moving toward sunset, which is yang becoming yin; midnight is at one moment all yin but then already becoming yang, and sunrise is yin becoming yang. At another level, time’s motion can be seen in seasonal changes. Summer is full yang; autumn is yang becoming yin; winter is full yin, and spring is yin becoming yang.
That opposites are always becoming the other is the philosophical base of Lao Tzu’s methods. It is also an aspect of wu wei (nonaction). The notion of nonaction as the natural course of life is a basic belief of Taoism. Nonaction does not mean that Taoists believe in passivity. Nonaction is not inaction.
The highest moral of Taoism states that one should not ever act but leave nothing undone. Wu wei is one of the major precepts of Taoism. It means to do things in a way that makes it look as though accomplishing one’s goal involves no expended effort. By sticking to the code of wu wei, the individual is seen as ardently following “the way.” People living by the concept of wu wei are deemed to be in their original nature, before they were spoiled by knowledge.
This state is compared to an uncarved block and is called pu. Lao Tzu believed that wu wei could lead to a society that is harmonious and peaceful. People, according to Taoism, are a microcosm of the universe.
Taoists believe that the human body corresponds to the universe’s plan. The human body’s five organs correspond to the five holy mountains, the five directions, the seasons, the sections of the sky, and the elements of nature. Taoists think that through an understanding of what humanity is, one can appreciate the definitive structure of this universe.
Also, Taoists believe in the necessity of having the three jewels in their lives. The Tao Te Ching defines the three jewels as kindness, moderation, and humility. Kindness eventually leads to bravery, moderation leads to munificence, and humility to leadership.
Taoists strive to be one with the tao, which means living a simple and natural life. Thoughts from outside obstruct a person’s ability to perceive the tao. If people live in harmony with the tao, they can return to their original state and become the tao. Taoism’s cycle is that of being born, then maturing, and then decaying and eventually returning to the tao. Everything passes though this cycle.
Taoism teaches that all things have their own destiny, or te. When there is no opposition to this te, it manifests itself naturally in life. The Tao Te Ching says that the major problem that a human being faces is not knowing who he or she truly is. Taoism teaches that each one of us is a part of a cosmic course called the tao. One’s basic choice lies in accepting this reality and becoming one with the tao or trying to oppose one’s true being and setting up one’s individual identity outside the tao, which is clearly impossible.
Taoism is polytheistic in nature; its followers believe in the existence of multiple gods. Each god is held to be a manifestation of a feature of the tao.
Taoists do not pray to these gods, nor do they do think any god can solve their problems. In fact, Taoists look for solutions to life’s challenges in individual meditation and observation. Most major Taoist religious festivals commemorate the birth of gods or the solstices.
The Chinese New Year is the first significant festival in the Taoist year, celebrated on the first day of the first lunar month, corresponding to February in the Gregorian calendar. Rituals in temples and in homes worship the Three Pure Ones with sweet offerings, a feast, and exchanging gifts with friends and family. On the festival’s first day, the Dragon (Lion) Dance is carried out to celebrate immortality, long life, and union with spirits. Firecrackers are set off to scare evil forces away.
For followers of Taoism Lao Tzu’s birthday is the most important festival. It is observed on the 15th day of the second lunar month. Other festival days celebrate the birth of the Three Officials: the Water Official (Xia Yuan), the Earth Official (Zhong Yuan), and the Heavenly Official (the mortal Shang Yuan). Of these festivals, Zhong Yuan is probably the most popular and is celebrated as Ghost Day. On this day the Earth Official is believed to pardon the transgressions of the dead.
Departed souls can gain redemption through the kind and charitable actions of the living.
Before the beginning of a new year, the Kitchen God, Zao Jun (literally, “stove master”), symbolized by paper hung on the wall of the kitchen, is speedily sent to heaven to report on the behavior of the household to the jade emperor. At the start of the New Year, the Kitchen God is welcomed back into the home.
Taoism does have monks and nuns who prefer to live their lives in seclusion rather than in the open. They are well known for bringing the martial arts culture to China, tai chi, perhaps, being the most famous.
Origins and History
The religious and philosophical origins can be found deep in China’s past, in pantheism, shamanism, and observation of the regularity of seasonal cycles. Early Taoism, like Confucianism, developed during the Warring States and Hundred Schools of Thought periods, when Chinese civil society went through one of its extremely turbulent periods, and it developed as a workable response to the bitter philosophical debates that raged.
Taoism began as a combination of philosophy and psychology, but over time it developed into a religion. During the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) Taoism gained a wider audience among the Chinese people, finding converts as well as defenders, and from the general ferment many sects arose, with hierarchies of gods and established rituals. By the fifth century Taoism had become a successful and popular religious system, including elements it had incorporated from Mahayana Buddhism. It established an extensive pantheon of deities, many of them probably local gods from various regions of China, diverse monastic orders, and lay masters. In 440 C.E. it became a state religion. During that period Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism) was popularly recognized as a divinity. Taoism, together with Confucianism and Buddhism, became one of China’s three chief spiritual practices. Following the Han dynasty Confucianism became the official doctrine of the state. Some rulers of the Tang dynasty (618–907), a period thought by many to be the “golden age” of Chinese art and literature, declared Taoism the state religion, while others preferred Buddhism.
The Chuang-tzu (named after its author), after the Tao Te Ching, is the next most documented text in Taoism. The Chuang-tzu contains additional teachings relevant to Taoism. In addition to passing on stories of Taoism’s masters and followers, its 33 chapters describe the mystical philosophy of Taoism in greater detail and provides information crucial to right living such as a proper diet, efficient breathing, meditation, and sexual activity. It has three separate sections. Though it is not clear when the text was produced-it was written after the Tao Te Ching-it is thought to have been somewhere around the middle of the fourth century B.C.E. The Pao Pu Tzu (or Master Embracing Simplicity) and the Tai-Ping Ching (Classic of the Great Peace) are two other texts closely associated with Taoist philosophy: The Pao Pu Tzu was written by Ko Hung (288–343 C.E), while Tai-Ping Ching was probably written sometime during the Han dynasty.
When the Ching dynasty collapsed in 1911 government support for Taoism also ceased. A lot of Taoism’s legacy was destroyed in the subsequent period of the warlords. After the Communists came to power in 1949 religious freedom was strictly limited.
It is said that by 1960 monks were forced to perform manual labor, temples were seized, and the population of monks drastically reduced. In the period of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, a great portion of the surviving Taoist heritage in China was destroyed. There has been some religious forbearance since 1982, however.
Taoism adherents number about 20 million, most of whom live in Taiwan. There has been some Tao influence in the West, and a small number of Taoists are to be found in North America and Canada.
Holidays and Religious Observances
The Taoist religious pantheon has so many gods that some have likened it to a hierarchical “bureaucracy” that consists of numerous gods, immortals, and ancestors. For every occasion and every purpose there are probably several gods or ancestors to be called on for help. The jiao, making an offering for a specific reason, is central to Taoist ritual. Early in its history, the jiao required a priest, or “libationer,” who decided which deities should be summoned to accomplish the petitioner’s purpose. After the priest had made the offering, the community shared a meal. Although Taoist temples and shrines are still available for such rituals, nowadays, many Taoists have shrines in their homes and perform their own rituals seeking the help of ancestors and deities.
Most major Taoist religious festivals commemorate the birth of gods or the solstices. The Chinese New Year, celebrated on the first day of the first lunar month (February in the Gregorian calendar), is the earliest festival of the Taoist year. Before the beginning of the new year, the Kitchen God, Zao Jun (literally, “stove master”), symbolized by paper hung on the wall of the kitchen, is speedily sent to heaven to report on the behavior of the household to the Jade Emperor. When the New Year begins, the Kitchen God is welcomed back into the home.
Rituals in temples and in homes worship the Three Pure Ones with sweet offerings, a feast, and exchanging gifts with friends and family. On the festival’s first day, the Dragon (Lion) Dance is performed to celebrate immortality, long life, and union with spirits, and fireworks are set off to drive evil away.
For followers of Taoism Lao Tzu’s birthday is the most important festival. It is observed on the 15th day of the second lunar month. Other festival days celebrate the birth of the Three Officials: the Water Official (Xia Yuan), the Earth Official (Zhong Yuan), and the Heavenly Official (the mortal Shang Yuan). Of these festivals, Zhong Yuan is probably the most popular and is celebrated as Ghost Day. On this day, the Earth Official is believed to pardon the transgressions of the dead.
Departed souls can gain redemption through the kind and charitable actions of the living.