Marshall Wen The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse.
Taoists stress the importance of harmonizing with nature by balancing yin and yang, and developing chi through meditation and disengagement. The human body is regarded as a source of chi-derived energy, which some people have the power to concentrate and congeal into an essence. Chi (also spelled ch'i or qi) is variously known as the "breath of heaven," “mystical breath,” the "breath of nature" and the "quality of spirit"
In classic Taoist cosmology, matter and energy are thought to be governed by five basic movements. The strength and influence of these movements wax and wane over the course of a year; with wood peaking during spring, fire during summer, metal in autumn and water in winter. The remaining movement, earth, asserts its presence most powerfully during the periods before the start of each season.
Taoists advocate a life of simplicity, and encourage their followers to perform good deeds not bad ones, and seek inner peace through the cultivation of optimism, passivity, and inner calm. "The simple, natural life is the ideal one, the wise person seeks to conform to the slow gentle rhythm of the universe."
Going with the flow rather and accepting things as they happen rather than pursuing power and wealth are important concepts in Taoism. Unlike the Confucians, who emphasize ritual, rigidity and surrender to authority, Taoists emphasize naturalness, personnel freedom and happiness. Taoists believe that sickness is often caused by sin and bad deeds that disrupt the healthy flow of chi. Taoism morality is based on the Three Treasures of Taoism: 1) be charitable; 2) be thrifty; 3) do not push ahead of others.
Confucian and Taoism basically contradict and are in conflict with one another. Confucianism, emphasizes achievement and propriety while Taoism stresses unseen strengths in being humble and in some cases, being perceived as average.
Good Websites and Sources: Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Education plato.stanford.edu ; ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism chebucto.ns.ca ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy hku.hk/philodep ; Taoism Virtual Library vl-site.org ; Links in this Website: TAOISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; ORGANIZED TAOISM Factsanddetails.com/China
Links in this Website to Different Religions in China: RELIGION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOLK RELIGION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONFUCIANISM AND CONFUCIUS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONFUCIAN BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;HISTORY OF BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSLIMS AND JEWS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MYSTICISM AND SUPERSTITION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; FENG SHUI AND QI QONG Factsanddetails.com/China ; IDEAS ABOUT DEATH IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
The Taoist canon is huge. Even in its reduced form it contains 1,120 volumes. The most important Taoist text is Tao De Jing (“The Way and Its Power”), a 5000-character synopsis of Taoist beliefs reportedly written by Lao-tzu shortly before he died. This short book was the inspiration for a primarily philosophical form of Taoism. Two other important Tao texts are the Tao The King (a series of wise sayings) and the Writings of Chuang Tzu (a discourse written by the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu), which appeared a few centuries after Lao-tze's reported death. These two texts are more mystical and religious in nature.
Chuang Tzu voiced ideas that later were made fashionable in the West by philosophers like Descartes and Sartre. In the forth century B.C., he wrote: "Once I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there; in all ways a butterfly. I enjoyed my freedom as a butterfly, not knowing that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke and was surprised to be myself again. Now, how can I tell whether I was man who dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly who dreams that he is a man?...This is called the interfusion of things."
The oldest version of the Taoist canon, the Laozi, and a group of early Confucian texts, were found in a 2300-year-old tomb in Guodian, Jingmen, Hubei Province. Copied onto chop-stick-like bamboo slips in the 4th century B.C., these manuscripts have been described as China's Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the texts were found by archaeologists after graverobbers were discovered looting the tomb. Others were found in antique shops around Hollywood Road in Hong Kong.
Concepts of Tao and Tê
Tao and tê are central concepts of Taoism. Tao (meaning “The Way”) has been described as “the divine way of the universe” and the “unproduced producer of all that is.” Tê is the power of Tao and the power to bring Tao into realization. It incorporates the belief that human interference is damaging.
Tao is invisible, unnameable, impalpable, unknowable and imitable. Taoists believe that nothing exists before something, inaction exists before action and rest exists before motion. Thus nothingness is the fundamental state and qualities inherent to this state include tranquility, silence and humility and associations with femanine yin rather than masculine yang. Motion and change are important concepts, because from the state of inaction every kind of action is possible, and is why the term “Way” (Tao) is used.
The famous Taoist philosopher Liu Ling said, “I take the whole universe as my house and my own room as my clothing...Tao invariably does nothing, yet there is nothing Tao can not be perceived with the five senses, thoughts or imagination and it can not be expressed in words. It can only perceived though mystical insight. Tao is the power behind nature and the force that creates order.” Taoists encourage people to organize their lives around Tao so they are in harmony with nature, heaven and the universe.
Tê is sort of like virtue viewed as a kind of force behind nothingness that provides a basis for nothing to exist thus unifies things that do exist. The notion of tê has been expressed in three different ways: 1) a philosophical "power" reached though reflection and insight that provides a method to organize one's life; 2) a psychic power attained though yoga-like exercises that can be used for healing and psychic activities; and 3) a magical power associated with alchemy and the use of the power of the universe to perform magic, sorcery and other mystical deeds.
Chi, See Superstitions
Taoist Creation Theory
According to the Taoist creation theory (which is similar to the Chinese Creation Theory): "In the beginning of the universe there was only material-force consisting of yin and yang. This force moved and circulated, turning this way and that. As this movement gained speed, a mass of sediment was pushed together and, since there was no outlet for this, it consolidated to form the earth in the center of the universe...How was the first man created?...through the transformation of the material force. When the essence of yin and yang and the five agents are united, man's corporeal form is established. This is what the Buddhist call production by transformation. There are many such productions today, such as lice."
According to the Taoist text Tso Chuan, written in the early Han era: "Heaven and earth gave rise to yin and yang, wind and rain and dark and light, and from these are born the Five Elements [Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth]. Out of man's use comes the Five Flavors [sour, salty, acrid, bitter, sweet], the Five Colors [green, yellow, scarlet, white, black] and the Five Modes [in music]. But when these are indulged to excess, confusion arises and in the end man loses sight of his original nature."
The key to keeping the universe going was harmony. "In the order of their succession they gave birth to one another, while in a different order they overcome each other. Therefore in ruling, if one violates this order, there will be chaos, but if one follows it, all will be well governed."
Reflections on Taoist Creation Theory
Many of the key concepts of Taoism are incorporated into the Taoist Creation Theory. One of the most important is summed up in the following passage: "The creator of things is not among things. If we examine the Great Beginning of antiquity we find that man was born out of nonbeing to assume form in being. Having form, he is governed by things. But he who can return to that form which he was born and become as though formless is called a "true man." The true man is he who has never become separated from the Great Oneness. [Source: Huai-nan Tzu, reprinted in the People's Almanac]
In his explanation of the universe Lao-tzu wrote:
There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth,
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change
Goes round and does not weary,
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it "the way."
Man models himself on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.
Addressing the beginning of the universe, Taoist philosopher Kuo Hsiang wrote in A.D. 312, "If I say yin and yang came first...then since yin and yang are themselves, what came before them?...There must be another thing, and so ad infinitum. We must understand that things are what they are spontaneously and not caused by something else."
When asked about the existence of God, Kuo Hsiang said, "But let us ask whether there is a Creator or not. If not, how can he create things? If there is he is capable of materializing all forms. Therefore, before we can talk about creation, we must understand the fact that all forms materialize by themselves. Hence everything creates itself without the direction of any Creator. Since things create themselves, the are unconditioned. This is the norm of the universe."
Mountains of immortals
Taoist Beliefs and Nature
Rather than stressing human salvation with the help of a transcendent beings as is often the case with Western religions, Taoism stresses that meaning and energy are found in all natural things and that reality unfolds with its own rhyme and reason impervious to human intervention. Lao-tze wrote: “The real is originally there in things, and the sufficient is originally there in things. There’s nothing that is not real and nothing that is insufficient. Hence, the blade of grass and the pillar, the leper and the ravishing beauty, the noble, the sniveling, the disingenuous, the strange—in Tao they all move as one and the same.”
Unlike Confucianism and traditional Western religions, which portrays nature as something evil or immortal which man has to overcome, Taoism encourages its followers to act in "harmony with the order of nature" and view life as a "series of transformations, procreation and re-creations." In Taoist thought the path to heaven is through nature and the terms "heaven” and "nature" are often used interchangeably.
In pursuit of naturalism some Taoists in the old days let their hair grow as long as possible, refused to talk and expressed themselves by whistling. Others took off their clothes and lay on the ground and drank large amounts of wine, in part to thumb their noses at Confucian manners and codes Some of China’s greatest poets and artists tapped into this interpretation of Taoism.
Taoism often argues against human action, saying it is better to do nothing and let nature take its course than do something that could have terrible, unforseen consequences.
Taoism, Life, Death and the Afterlife
At the beginning of time, some Taoists believe, nine vapors were created. The purest vapors formed the heavens and the coarser ones made up the human body. Life, they assert, begins when one of these primordial vapors enters the body at birth and mixes with essence to form spirit. Death occurs when the vapor and essence go their separate ways once again. Taoists believe that immortality is possible if essence and vapor can be kept together. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
Some Taoist believe the dead are sent to one of the Buddhist paradises or end up ina mountain occupied by the immortals. The concept of a hell is largely absent. Taoists have traditionally believed in the existence of earthly paradises such as the blessed islands of Peng-lai, Ying-chou and Fusang that exist off the coast of Shandong and are said to have been reached by the immortals. On these islands everyone is immortal; all the birds and animals are pure white; and palaces are made of gold and silver.
Another paradise, in the Kunlun mountain in western China, is presided over by the “Western Royal Mother,” a diety with a panther tail, tiger teats and unruly hair. The Taoist paradises are characterized as places where everyone lives in harmony; marriage and poor treatment of women are unknown; and there are no princes or feudal lords.
When Chuang Tzu was asked by a friend why he was singing and drumming and not grieving after his wife died, he said: "When she died, how could I help being affected? But as I think the matter over, I realize that originally she had no life and not only no life, she had no form; not only no form, she had no material force (ch'i). In the limbo of existence and non-existence, there was transformation and the material force was evolved. The material force was transformed to be form, form was transformed to become life, and now birth has transformed to become death. This is like the rotation of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall and winter. Now she lies asleep in the great house [the universe]. For me to go about weeping and wailing would be to show my ignorance of destiny. Therefore I desist."
Taoism and Immortality
Taoist immortal Immortality is an important idea in Taoism. Because all nature is united by Tao, Taoists believe, immortality can be attained. Taoists also believe that immortality it not something that can be achieved by separating oneself from nature, like with a soul, but rather is something achieved by directing natural forces through the body, creating more durable body materials, using techniques such as breathing, focusing sexual energy and alchemy.
The immortality referred to in Taoism is physical immortality. The highest goal of many devotees of Taoism is the attainment of immortality through a total channeling of energies to reach harmony with Tao. Immortality can be viewed literally or as a symbol of spiritual liberation. The idea of a spiritual immortality like that of Christianity was alien to the Chinese until Buddhism was introduced to China.
Numerous Taoist prayers are dedicated to the spirits of immortality. Taoist painters have traditionally chosen immortally as one of their central themes. Famous Taoist painting dealing with immortality include Immortal Ascending on a Dragon, Riding a Dragon, Fungus of Immortality, Picking Herbs, and Preparing Elixirs.
In the old days, many Taoists spent their whole lives looking for elixirs of immortality. The Emperor Shi went through great lengths to try and achieve immortality. See History
Methods for Achieving Immortality
Methods to achieve immortality fall into two basic categories: 1) religious—prayers, moral conduct, rituals and observances of commandments; and 2) physical—diets, medicines, breathing methods, chemicals and exercises. Living alone in a cave like hermits combined the two and was often see as the ideal.
The basic idea behind the Taoist diet is to nourish the body and deny food to the "three worms"—disease, old age, and death. Immortality can be achieved, Taoists have traditionally believed, by following this diet, by nourishing the enigmatic "embryonic body" force within the body and by avoiding ejaculation during sex which preserves the life-giving semen which in turn mixes with breath and nourishes the body and the brain.
The aim of the Taoist diet is to change the composition of the body from flesh into durable airy material associated with long life. In the old days, this diet often included things like jade, gold, cinnabar (ore from mercury is derived) and certain flowers. Special elixirs sometimes contained arsenic and mercury. The inventors of many potions died prematurely from taking their attempts to prolong their life.
Many Taoist believed that the best material for prolonging life was air and aimed to take in a variety of different kinds of air—from the four season, from the sea and from the mountains—often accompanied by breathing exercises. “Air eating” was believed to make people able to ride the clouds and use dragons for horses. Among the other methods that were tried were throwing oneself into a fire and attempting to achieve immortality as a flame.
A great deal of time and energy was put into concocting elixirs of immortality and finding ingredients for them. One passage on the subject from an ancient text read: “For transforming gold, melting jade, using talismans, and preparing water, efficacious recipes and marvelous formulas exist by thousands and tens of thousands, The best are said to produce feathers for flying to heaven; the next best are said to dissipate calamity and exterminate disaster”
Pure Taoism doesn't dwell on an all-knowing, all-powerful God, or even nature spirits, rather it deals with "nonbeing," the "unity of experience," and "oneness" with chi. Taoism's association with gods is mainly the result of its associations with Chinese folk religions.
There are thousands of Taoist gods. Some are holy men. Others occupy rivers, streams and mountains. Most have individual responsibilities and specific powers and abilities to grant wishes in particular areas of expertise. Taoists who need something pray to the appropriate deity in special shrines called departments or halls in Taoist temples.
Most Taoist gods are associated with a spot in the external world and a corresponding spot on the inside of man and often have a role in preventing disease. The position of Taoist deities in a large pantheon often mirrors those of secular officials in a bureaucracy. Many Chinese cities to this day have a temple dedicated to the City God, the heavenly equivalent of a mayor.
Important Taoist Deities and Immortals
God of Wealth Most Taoist gods originated as local folk gods. Important ones include Shou Hsing (God of Longevity), Fu Hsing (God of Happiness), Lu Hsing (God of High Rank), Tsai She (God of Wealth), Pao Sheng (God of Medicine), Ju Lai Of (God of Luck), Chu Sheng Niang (Goddess of Birth and Fertility), Kuan Kung (God of War), and a variety of local underworld magistrates. Tsao Chun (the Kitchen God) controls each persons lifespan and destiny. He and his wife observe everybody during the year and issue reports to the Jade Emperor at New Year.
Goddesses, female saints, manifestations of yin play an important role in Taoism. The five legendary emperors, including the great Yellow Emperor, are given prominent roles too. At the top of heap is the all powerful “Greatest One”—described as the “Celestial Venerable of the Mysterious Origin” of the Taoist trinity. The other two members of the trinity are the “August Ruler of the Tao” and the “August Old Ruler.” Lao-tze is regarded as the incarnation of the “August Old Ruler.”
The Eight Immortals are key figures in Taoism. They include 1) Chung Li Chu, a figure from the Han dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220), who helped feed thousands of people; 2) Lun Tung-pin, an official who traveled widely and helped the poor and exorcized evil demons; 3) Lan Tsa-ho, a poet and singer who sang about life and giving money to the poor; 4) Tsao Kuo-chi; 5) The aforementioned Western Royal Mother, or Heavenly Empress who possessed the peach of immortality, which all the immortals need to retain their immortality.
Many Taoist gods have bushy eyebrows. The Sun, the Moon, and the stars in the Great Bear, are also important.
Hermits and Chinese Religion
Demon and victim
in a Taoist Temple Hermits have lived in the mountains since ancient times. There are Taoist and Buddhist ones as well as one ones with closer affiliations to traditional Chinese folk religion. But they are not limited to Taoists or Buddhists. Poets, political figures and average people have also been hermits. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
Hermits are "unique images that ancient Chinese culture has nurtured. [They] represent Chinese people's pursuit of an ideal way of life," the writer Zhou Yu told the Global Times. "Their lifestyle is completely self-supporting, without demanding too much from the outside world....For hermits, to live a secluded life and practice Daoism or Buddhism is not solely about 'benevolence,' but living a real, simple life…What they do is to make their heart bright, clear and natural," explained Zhou, who is also editor of Wendao (Seeking Way), a magazine dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture. [Ibid]
In recent years, more and more people have become interested in the exclusive life led by the hermits in Zhongnan Mountain, especially following the publication of books such as Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by American author and translator Bill Porter in 1993. [Ibid]
Attraction of the Hermit Lifestyle and Zhongnan Mountain
Jiang Yuxia wrote in the Global Times: “Cherishing his reverence and curiosity for Chinese hermits, writer Zhou Yu was eager to change his fast-paced urban life. He thus embarked on a journey, in the spring of 2010, to seek hermits in the legendary Zhongnan Mountain, one of the birthplaces of Taoism, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Also known as Taiyi or Difei Mountain, Zhongnan Mountain is a section of the Qinling Mountains with the reputation of "Fairyland," "the first paradise under heaven" and a home to hermits for over 3,000 years. Legend has it that Taoism founder Laozipreached scriptures and nurtured the idea for his classic work Tao the Ching here. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
"Everyone wishes that he or she has the chance to get to know about his or her own life again and the lifestyle of hermits provides us another picture. . . When they realize that they need to make adjustments to their lives, they go to the mountains to seek them," Zhou said. However, he added, real hermits don't have to live in mountains. "If you don't have peace and quiet in your heart, you cannot have tranquility even if you live deep in the mountains...Start with the simplest practice: To get to know your needs and desires, and find a proper position for yourself. If you can do that, you can find peace and quiet even if you live in the city."
Demon in a Taoist Temple After traveling to Zhongan Mountain Zhou came across "Hermit Ming," who has resided in a thatched valley cottage for a decade, living an ascetic and self-sufficient life. Although Ming does not meet the typical image of ancient hermits, his unique lifestyle, both traditional and modern, and charisma aroused Zhou's interest enough for him to stay and turn the story of his solitary life into his latest book, Bai Yun Shen Chu (“Deep in the Clouds”). [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
"Hermit Ming lives in the mountain not only to practice Taoism, but to have a place where he can live a life in which he can face disputes peacefully," Zhou wrote in the book. "Only in this way are his mind and body able to grow like trees and flowers to show their natural side." Ming's daily routine, according to Jiang, consists of: “an early morning start to do chores including hoeing weeds, tilling land and picking herbs; two meals a day, snack and tea at lunchtime, dinner at four; then a walk before settling down to read sutras or do other chores.” By sunset he returned home, “falling asleep to the sounds of springs, wind and birds.” [Ibid]
“Born into a wealthy South China family of Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for generations,” Jiang wrote, “ Ming was beset with strict rules, complex relationships and feuds among family members from a young age. After witnessing a series of mishaps and the death of his mother at eight, Ming left his family at 17 and began his long-cherished dream of traveling around the country to seek answers to the many questions that had bothered him, including life and death. With only an aluminum mug and two lighters, Ming traveled all the way to Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hubei and other provinces before he finally settled down at Zhongnan Mountain.” [Ibid]
“In the valley, he built his own cottage with help from other hermits and villagers living at the foot of the mountain, spending time growing vegetables, practicing Taosim and doing his chores. Unlike those secluded hermits recorded in old books, Ming is unconventional: He does not reject the outside world or its civilization. He has a telephone at his place to keep contact with other hermit friends while they travel around and is skilled at riding a motorbike. He has shared quarters with a female hermit for a decade. Ming has explored as far as Nepal to have a look of the outside world and is friendly to unexpected, curious visitors.” [Ibid]
According to Ming, "the major reason that we have too many agonies is because we receive too much information and we are not good at dealing with it properly. Then you become unhappy... When you live in the mountain, you have time to think about problems." Ming's lifestyle has also evoked Zhou to ponder modern urban life and even seek a way out. "In our life, most of the time we are asking for things from others to satisfy our endless demands. Hermits, however, are the other way round," Zhou said. “I found the possibility of a [new] lifestyle. When we feel bothered, we begin to examine our lives and ask ourselves if there are chances to change it. To some extend, many hermits in Zhongnan Mountain can be called seekers of a new lifestyle."
Image Sources: 1) Marshall Wen, Chicago Art Museum; 2) Texts, Daoist Center; 3) Mountains of Immortals, Chicago Art Museum; 4) Immotra, University of Washington; 5) God of Wealth. Brooklyn College; Asia Obscura http://asiaobscura.com/ ;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2012