20080221-Marshal Wen Chicago.jpg
Marshall Wen, a Taoist god
Taoism — loosely based on the writings of a mythical figure named Laozi who lived some 2,500 years ago — calls for an adherence to "the way", which practitioners have long interpreted as a return to the natural world. The core of the basic belief and doctrine of Taoism is that "Tao" is the origin and law of all things in the universe. Taoists believes that people can become deities or live forever through practicing certain rituals and austerities.

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 and 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.

Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religion Facts Religion Facts 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

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Tao and Tê

Tao (dao) and tê (de) 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.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: The term “de” refers to a type of charismatic virtue or earned social leverage that individuals were thought sometimes to possess. An early use of the word denoted the prestige of a patrician whose wealth and accomplishments had created in others a sense of awe or genuine debt, such that they served him willingly. Confucians used the term to denote the sort of inner moral virtue that they believed spontaneously attracted people and led them towards ethical improvement. In certain religious contexts, de referred to mysterious powers that individuals might possess, and various types of self-cultivation schools referred to accomplishments engendered by their training regimens as de. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu]

Chi, See Superstitions

Taoist Texts

left The Taoist canon is huge. Even in its reduced form it contains 1,120 volumes. The most important Taoist text is the “Dao de jing” (“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 Zhuangzi (a discourse written by the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi), which appeared a few centuries after Lao-tze's reported death. These two texts are more mystical and religious in nature.

Zhuangzi 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.

Over the course of its development, Taoism has produced and accumulated a great amount of philosophy, literature, art, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, and geography. Taoism also formed a unique religious cultural system, which has contributed to Chinese civilization and influenced ethnic groups such as the Yao, Achang, Bai, Maonan, Gelao, Tujia, Zhuang, Buyi.

Dao de jing

The most important Taoist text is the “Dao de jing” (“Tao te ching”, “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 divided into eighty-one chapters in the traditional edition ad was the inspiration for a primarily philosophical form of Taoism. It is very different from the Confucian Analects.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The Daodejing (“The Classic of the Way and Its Power”) is a compilation reflecting a particular strain of thought from around 300 B.C. It is traditionally attributed to a mysterious character known as Laozi (“the old master”). There is no evidence that such a person existed at all. As best as we can tell, the text was written by several authors over a period of time roughly around the third century B.C. The Daodejing has been tremendously popular. It exists in several different versions and became one of the bases of both the philosophy of Daoism and the related but distinct Daoist religion. Like the Confucian Analects, the Mencius, the Han Feizi, and others, the Daodejing is the product of that period in Chinese history when the kings of the Zhou dynasty had lost all real authority and their kingdom had disintegrated into a coterie of feudal states that squabbled and fought with one another in evershifting arrangements of alliances and enmities.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The “Dao de jing” (often called the Laozi) as we have it today appears to be a composite text which reached something like its final form during the third century B.C., but much of which existed perhaps a century earlier. Its author is said to have been a man named Laozi, or the “Old Master.” Despite the fact that we have a great deal of very specific biographical information about Laozi, including accounts of how Confucius studied with him, it is very unlikely that there ever was any one person known by such a name or title who authored the book we now possess. Instead, the power of the book itself has attracted a collection of legends which coalesced into the image of the Old Master, an elusive and transcendent sage of the greatest mystery. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The text takes its name from two key concepts within it. In Confucianism, the “Dao” (or the “Way”) refers to the teachings and institutions of sages from the past. In the “Dao de jing” it refers to a cosmic force governing all Nature. The essence of this force cannot be captured in words; in fact, human language, with its narrow definitions, hides rather than reveals the Truth of the universe..therefore, Daoism tends to see speech as the enemy of knowledge. Because the word dao also means “to speak,” Daoists sometimes refer to the Dao as a Word beyond the realm of human words.

The term “de” refers to a type of charismatic virtue or earned social leverage that individuals were thought sometimes to possess. An early use of the word denoted the prestige of a patrician whose wealth and accomplishments had created in others a sense of awe or genuine debt, such that they served him willingly. Confucians used the term to denote the sort of inner moral virtue that they believed spontaneously attracted people and led them towards ethical improvement. In certain religious contexts, de referred to mysterious powers that individuals might possess, and various types of self-cultivation schools referred to accomplishments engendered by their training regimens as de. /+/

“There are innumerable translations of the “Dao de jing”. Among the most reliable is D.C. Lau’s (Penguin Books, 1963; rev. ed. Hong Kong: 1989). We now have recovered partial or nearly complete manuscript versions of the “Dao de jing” from the late fourth and mid-second centuries B.C., and scholars’ views of the text are continually evolving.” /+/

Taoist text

Contents of the Dao de jing

“The “Dao de jing” is unlike most other early texts. Its authorial voice is haunting, detached, impersonal. The rhetoric of the text resembles that of Biblical prophecy. It is grandiose and obscure. The tone of the text itself feels authoritative beyond any other Chinese text; perhaps that is why several new English translations are published – and sell out – each year or two. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The mystery that flows from the “Dao de jing”’s mix of poetry and prose probably arises from two sources. The more intellectually genuine of these is the sincere sense of awe that individuals who broke with their lives of social engagement discovered when they retreated to a world of forests and waterfalls, birds and stars. But also, once the marketability of eremitic sagehood had been established, it is likely that the oracular tone of the “Dao de jing” became the rhetorical stance of the Daoist persuader, the recluse who made celebrated and well rewarded appearances at court to share with rulers secrets learned in the cliffs and caves but applicable to the art of statecraft. These two voices correspond to two very different doctrinal directions that appear in the “Dao de jing”. As we read the text, we cannot help but be struck by the awe-inspiring isolation of the secluded hermit and the intimate and original vision of nature that he presents. /+/

“The “Dao,” which in these portions of the text seems to be something close to the inexplicable rhythms of the natural world perceived through wordless experience, is a compelling concept. It combines religious awe, philosophical sophistication, and a deep sense of aesthetic fulfillment. The text links this understanding of nature to an absolute valuation of selflessness and the renunciation of all goal.directed action. Man’s project becomes the emulation of nature’s spontaneous operation, a return to spontaneous action from instinct alone. This is referred to in the text by the term wuwei, which is often translated “non-action,” but really means non- striving: the absence of all motivation in one’s action, apart from the satisfaction of those needs which humans possess in their most basic, pre-verbal stages. /+/

“At the same time, it is disconcerting to find this call for non-striving and renunciation of the self linked to the crassest of political motives: the attainment of the highest political position – to rule the empire. The attraction of the selfless Way turns out to be its potential to satisfy a lust for power. While those devoted to the “Dao de jing” sometimes approach this from a salvationist angle – the desire to be king merely reflects the wish to release the world from the chains of false values – it is hard to escape the impression that the motives of the authors of the book were, perhaps, mixed.” /+/

Beginning of the Dao de jing

ancient bamboo slips with the Dao de jing

According to the Dao de jing: “A Dao that may be spoken is not the enduring Dao. A name that may be named is not an enduring name. No names – this is the beginning of Heaven and earth. Having names – this is the mother of the things of the world. Make freedom from desire your constant norm; thereby you will see what is subtle. Make having desires your constant norm; thereby you will see what is manifest. These two arise from the same source but have different names. Together they may be termed ‘the mysterious’. Mystery and more mystery: the gate of all that is subtle.” (ch. 1) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “The first sentence is the most famous pun in Chinese. The word dao possesses a variety of early meanings, and among them are the verb meaning “to speak,” and two nominal meanings: “a teaching,” and “the transcendent order of the universe.” The initial six characters of the “Dao de jing” include three daos (in Chinese it reads: “Dao ke dao fei chang dao”). They may be taken to mean, respectively, “teaching,” “to speak,” and “transcendent order.”“/+/

The Dao de jing continues: When everyone in the world knows beauty as beauty ugliness appears. When everyone knows good as good not-good arrives. Therefore being and non-being give birth to one another; Difficult and easy give completion to one another; Long and short form one another; High and low fill one another; Sound and voice harmonize with one another; Ahead and behind follow after one another. Therefore the sage accomplishes things by doing nothing (wuwei) Furthering a teaching that is without words. All things arise, and he does not leave them. He gives them life but without possessing them. He acts but without relying on his own ability. He succeeds but without dwelling on his success. And because he does not dwell on it, it does not leave him. [Ch. 2] [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 79-94; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

“Do not exalt the worthy and the people will not compete. Do not value goods that are hard to come by and the people will not steal. Do not display objects of desire and the people’s minds will not be disturbed. Therefore the ordering of the sage empties their minds fills their bellies weakens their ambitions strengthens their bones. He always causes the people to be without knowledge without desire And causes the wise ones not to dare to act. He does nothing (wuwei), and there is nothing that is not brought to order. [Ch 3] <|>

“The Way is empty. It may be used without ever being exhausted. Fathomless, it seems to be the ancestor of all things. Blunting the sharpness Untying the tangles Subduing the light. Merging with the dust. Profound, it appears to exist forever. Whose child it is I do not know. It seems to have existed before the Lord. The sage is not humane Regarding the people as straw dogs. Between Heaven and Earth.. how like a bellows! Vacuous but inexhaustible Moving and producing ever more. An excess of words ends in impoverishment. It is better to hold to the center. [Ch. 4] <|>

Heaven and earth are not ren [virtuous] they treat the things of the world as straw dogs. The sage is not ren: he treats the people as straw dogs. All between heaven and earth is like a great bellows –, Empty, yet it does not collapse, Breathing out more with every move. Many words are much exhausted;, Better to cleave to the center. (ch. 5) [Dr. Eno notes: “Straw dog” refers to a ritual object which, prior to its use in sacrificial ceremony, was treated with reverence, and afterwards was ceremonially trampled.] /+/

Dao de jing on the Dao

Another passage from the the Dao de jing reads: “The Dao is empty yet you may draw upon it; you will never be filled. It is an abyss, like the ancestor of all things. Blunt the point, Undo the tangle, Soften the glare, Join the dust. Dim, it seems almost to exist. I know not whose child it may be. It seems the forerunner of the Lord.” (ch. 4) According to Dr. Eno: “There is a thing formed from confusion and born before heaven and earth. Silent, solitary, alone and unchanging. It revolves everywhere and is never in danger. It can be the mother of all under heaven. I do not know its name, but I style it “the Dao.”“ /+/

Dao de jing in lesser seal script

The Dao de jing reads: “There is a thing formed from confusion and born before heaven and earth. Silent, solitary, alone and unchanging. It revolves everywhere and is never in danger. It can be the mother of all under heaven. I do not know its name, but I style it “the Dao.” If forced to give it a name, I call it “the Great.” The Great I call “Receding.” Receding I call “Distant.” Distant I call “Reversing.” Thus the Dao is great, heaven is great, earth is great, and the king is great as well. Within the realm there are four great ones, and the king sits as one among them. Men emulate earth; earth emulates heaven; heaven emulates the Dao; the Dao emulates spontaneity.” (ch. 25) According to Dr. Eno: “The term “spontaneity” translates a key Daoist term which at root means “self-so,” signifying that something is a certain way by virtue of its own properties or spontaneous action. The term comes to mean “Nature,” in the Western sense of that part of the universe that governs itself without interference by man. The relation between man and Nature, or man and spontaneity, is a central issue for Daoism.” /+/

“Devotion to learning means increasing day by day; Devotion to the Way means decreasing day by day. [ch. 48] The Dao is ever non-acting, yet nothing is undone. If a lord or king can preserve this the things of the world will of themselves be transformed. Transformed, should desire arise, I will press it down with the uncarved block of namelessness. The uncarved block of namelessness – surely then they shall be without desire. Without desire and thus still, so will all under heaven be spontaneously settled. (ch. 37) [The uncarved block is a key symbol in the text. It is paired with “undyed cloth,” and contrasted to pattern (wen) and Li] /+/

“Reversal is the motion of the Dao. Weakness is the method of the Dao. The things of the world are born from being, and being is born of nothing. (ch. 40)...The Dao of Heaven is like the stretching of a bow: the high is brought down and the low is raised up; it takes from what has abundance and supplies what is wanting. The Dao of Heaven takes from what has abundance and supplies what is wanting, but the Dao of man is not thus. It takes from what is wanting in order to supply what has abundance. Who can serve Heaven by means of abundance? Only one who possesses the Dao. Hence the sage acts but relies on nothing. His task accomplished, he does not take the credit: he does not wish to manifest his worth. (ch. 77) /+/

“The Dao gives birth to one; one gives birth to two; two gives birth to three; three gives birth to the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things bear Yin on their backs and embrace the Yang. They exhaust their qi in harmony. People detest being orphaned or widowed or unemployed, yet these are the terms kings and lords use to refer to themselves. One may detract from a thing and it is enhanced thereby, or enhance it and so detract from it.” (ch. 42). Dr Eno notes: The “Dao de jing” does not focus on the concept of qi, but it is mentioned often enough to assure us that if there was a regimen of self-cultivation that lay behind the origin of this text, it probably involved training of the bodily qi, although likely through methods very different from those we see in the “Mencius”.” /+/

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."

Primordial Chaos by Yuan artist Zhu Derun

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. In ''Tao-te-ching'', Lao-tze wrote: “How did the great rivers and seas gain dominion over the hundred lesser streams? By being lower than they."

Dao de jing: On Nature and Nothingness

According to the Dao de jing: “Reaching the ultimate of emptiness, deeply guarding stillness, the things of the world arise together; thereby do I watch their return. The things of the world burst out everywhere, and each returns to its own root. Returning to the root is called stillness; this is called returning to destiny; returning to destiny is called constant; knowing the constant is called enlightenment. Not knowing the constant one acts blindly and ill-omened. Knowing the constant one can accommodate; accommodation leads to impartiality; impartiality leads to kingliness; kingliness leads to Heaven; Heaven leads to the Dao. With the Dao one may endure, and to the end of life one will not be in danger. (ch. 16) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Nothing in the world is more weak and soft than water, yet nothing surpasses it in conquering the hard and strong. All know that the weak conquers the strong and the soft conquers the hard. But none are able to act on this. Thus the sage says: Who receives the derision of the state, is the lord of the state altars;, Who receives the misfortune of the state, is the king of all under heaven. Straight words seem to reverse themselves. (ch. 78) /+/

“What is softest in the world Overcomes what is hardest in the world. No-thing penetrates where there is no space. Thus I know that in doing nothing there is advantage. The wordless teaching and the advantage of doing nothing. There are few in the world who understand them. [Ch. 43] [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 79-94; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]

“Thirty spokes share a single hub; grasp the nothingness at its center to get the use of the wheel. Clay is fashioned to make a vessel; grasp the nothingness at the center to get the use of the vessel. Bore windows and doors to create a room; grasp the nothingness of the interior to get the use of the room. Thus that which is constitutes what is valuable, but that which is not constitutes what is of use. (ch. 11)

Dao De Jing: Concerning the World of Human Values

According to the Dao de jing: “All in the world deem the beautiful to be beautiful; it is ugly. All deem the good to be good; it is bad. It is thus that what is and what is not give birth to one another, what is difficult and what is easy complete one another, long and short complement one another, high and low incline towards one another, note and noise harmonize with one another, before and after follow one another. Hence the sage dwells in the midst of non-action ( wuwei) and practices the teaching that has no words. Herein arise the things of the world, it does not turn from them;, What it gives birth to it does not possess; What it does it does not retain. The achievements complete, it makes no claim to them. Because it makes no claim to them, They never leave it. (ch. 2) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“When the Great Dao was discarded, then came ren and right. When wisdom and insight emerged, then came the Great Artifice. When the six kinship classes fell out of harmony, then came filiality and parental kindness. When the state is darkened with chaos, then the loyal ministers appear. (ch. 18) [Dr. Eno notes: The word for “artifice” in ancient Chinese was written identically with the verb “to act” or “to do” (the wei in wuwei). The “Dao de jing” is, in a sense, viewing all goal-directed action as artifice, or artificial.

Images in a Taoist Temple in Brisbane, Australia

“When the Dao prevails in the world, fast horses are corralled for manure; when the Dao does not prevail in the world, steeds of war are born in the city pastures. There is no calamity greater than not knowing what is sufficient; there is no fault greater than wishing to acquire. Thus the sufficiency of knowing what is sufficient is eternal sufficiency. (ch. 46) [Eno: It is interesting to compare the opening formula to the Confucian formula of timeliness: “When the Dao prevails in the world, appear; when it does not, hide.”]

“The five colors blind men’s eyes, The five tones deafen men’s ears, The five flavors numb men’s mouths, Racing at a gallop in pursuit of the hunt, maddens men’s minds. Rare objects obstruct men’s conduct. Therefore the sage is for the belly and not for the eye. Therefore he discards the one and selects the other. (Chap 12)

Taoist Morality and Beliefs About Life

"Morals" is another side of the doctrine of the Taoism. It refers to the special rules or characteristics obtained by "Tao" from concrete things. It advocates that everyone should practice the morals, which can make the country prosperous and people live in peace. In Taoism there is also the concept of "Xuan", referring to the mental universe. Taoists believes that "Xuan" is the first-cause of the universe and a spiritual body beyond the material. Taoism also advocates the art of "Wu Wei" and "Qing Jiang", which is the life philosophy of the religion and its basic attitude towards the social politics. It believes that let the society take its natural course when administering a country. As for the personal life philosophy, people should not be tempted by their desires, and should not be perplexed by the affairs of human life. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

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.

Taoism, Life, Death and the Afterlife

20080221-Taoist immortal u wash.jpg
Taoist immortal
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 Zhuangzi 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

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God of Wealth
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."

Taoist Deities

Taoism is a polytheist religion. Taoists believes that the universe can be divided into two parts, human being and gods. The latter can also be further divided into smaller groups, such as gods and ghosts. Each kind of god has its highest commander. The highest revered god is personalized into "San Qiang" gods, i.e. Yu Qing, Shang Qing, and Tai Qing. Tai Qing is Laozi.

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.

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Mountains of immortals

Important Taoist Deities and Immortals

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.

Dao de jing on Government

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The authors of the Daodejing lived at a time when China consisted of a number of feudal states nominally under the leadership of the Zhou Dynasty kings, but actually independent. The feudal states fought with each other regularly and engaged in shifting patterns of alliances. When addressing issues of government, the authors of the Daodejing were concerned with the problem of how to restore peace, order, and tranquility to the world.” [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

“Selections from the Laozi (Daodejing) on Government: “Do not exalt the worthy and the people will not compete. Do not value goods that are hard to come by and the people will not steal. Do not display objects of desire And the people’s minds will not be disturbed. Therefore the ordering of the sage empties their minds fills their bellies weakens their ambitions strengthens their bones. He always causes the people to be without knowledge without desire And causes the wise ones not to dare to act. He does nothing (wuwei), and there is nothing that is not brought to order. (Ch. 3) [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 80-81, 90-91, 94; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

“Govern the state by correctness; Deploy the army by deception; Acquire the empire by taking no action (wushi). How do I know this is so? By this [Through looking within oneself]. The more prohibitions there are in the world The poorer are the people. The more sharp weapons the people have The more disorder is fomented in the family and state. The more adroit and clever men are The more deceptive things are brought forth. The more laws and ordinances are promulgated The more thieves and robbers there are. Therefore the sage says: I do nothing (wuwei) And the people are transformed by themselves. I value tranquility And the people become correct by themselves. I take no action (wushi) And the people become prosperous by themselves. I have no desires And the people of themselves become like uncarved wood. (Ch. 57) <|>

“The best: those below are aware that he is there. Next best: they love and praise him. Next best, they fear him. Insufficient faith above, unfaithfulness below. Far off, he speaks but rarely. When the work is accomplished and the task is complete, the people all say, “We did it spontaneously.” (ch.17) Cut off sagehood! Cast out wisdom! The people will benefit a hundredfold. Cut off ren! Cast out right! The people will return to filiality and parental kindness. Cut off cleverness! Cast out profit! Brigands and thieves will nowhere be found. As patterns, these three are insufficient and only make the people seek to add to them. Exhibit the plainness of undyed cloth; embrace the uncarved block. Be little self-regarding and make your desires few. (ch. 19) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Make the state small and the people few. Let there be arms for troops in tens and hundreds, but unused. Make the people treat death seriously and not move to distant places. Though there be boats and carriages, they shall not be ridden. Though there be armor and weaponry, they shall not be deployed. Let the people return to keeping records by knotted rope. Their food sweet to them, their clothes beautiful to them, their homes comfortable to them, their customs joyful to them. Though neighboring states be in sight of one another and the sounds of the cocks and dogs heard from one to the other, the people of one will never visit the other, even as they grow old and die. (ch. 80) [Dr. Eno: This may be the most straightforward presentation of the Daoist political ideal.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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