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A Study on Taoism
This is a basic guide to Taoism requested by Anonymous. I am no expert, but through a lot of research, I have combined some of the most important facets and concepts of this theology/religion. It is quite a long guide because I did try to cover all the basics, but hopefully easy enough to understand.
What is Taoism?
At its most basic level Taoism is about theology, but is also a religion that is derived from the philosophical works of Lao-Tze. It is important to note the two differences. Philosophical Taoism is based on texts, whereas Religious Taiosm is a family of organized religious movements sharing concepts or terminology derived from Philosophical Taoism.
The term Taoism refers to the Tao, which is translated into the Way. A great way of describing this is “Taoist theology is based on a holistic view of the universe with religious tenets underlying a system of practical concepts.”
It combines both reason and faith together, believing that the Tao (the Way) acts in the Heavens as well as the Earth. These two realms are connected and indivisibly coupled, aiding us in understanding how we live our lives. This grounded attitude can be traced back to the times of when Taoism was crafted. Religious purposes in this ideology contain concrete goals that were essential for living a simple life in harsh times.
The main practice of Taoism is allowing oneself to build a bridge between one’s earthly human form and the heavens. It is about living a peaceful and harmonious relationship with nature as a human being, where you become one with the universe. This may be through methods such as Tai Chi and Feng-Shui.
People also pray to the Gods. Prayers are often viewed as a two-way communication method to talk to the Gods. With an appropriate message sent, there will be a concrete answer back.
Balance is a key concept in Taoism. However, the idea of the way of the universe cannot be defined by language or even grasped by thought. In fact, it is not for us to understand how it works, but to just live a life connecting the self with the universe: simply, spontaneously, and intuitively.
The writings compiled into a book by Laozi, Tao Te Ching, provide principles and lessons to help us with our mortal reality. Thus, when we successfully achieve balance in our verse, the surviving entity- the soul, is more likely to be accepted into the Great Ultimate. A better life on earth equals a better afterlife. It is important to note here that there are no sacrifices, but simply by living by the Tao (the way), we are more likely to be happier in the afterlife.
Taoism originates mainly from the philosopher, Laozi. He is thought to have lived between 6th and 3rd century BCE. According to the myth, he was conceived by a shooting star and was born as an eighty-two year old scholar. He taught at the Yin-Yang School of Philosophy and after retirement wanted to live a simple life on top of the mountains. But, he was forced by a guard to write down his wisdom. After two days, he gave the guard the manuscript for Tao Te Ching. We do not know whether this is true, but we do know that other philosophers also combined their wisdom into this book.
Zhuangzi is also a famous philosopher who wrote the self-titled book Zhuangzi. However, many scholars believe that this scholar never knew he was a Taoist, for he never really talked about the Tao. Yet in his inner chapters (written by himself), he talked about similar concepts.
Obviously, there are a lot more scholars who have contributed to the entire conception of Taoism. Some examples are: Tsou-yuen, Kweiku-tze, Ho-kwan-tze, Chwang-tze, Shi-tze, and Kang-sang-tze.
Tao, as I have mentioned before means “way”. It is “the One, which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course.” It is the flow of the universe that connects each and everyone. It is nature, something that we can find in ourselves. Tao is a metaphysical concept, also explored by Confucianism and Zen Buddhism. The active expression of Tao is Te, which means virtue. Te is what results when someone lives and practices under the Tao.
Wu-wei is also an ambiguous ethical concept in Taoism. Wu means lacking or without, wei means deliberate action. Together it translates to “nonaction”. This is a paradox, especially when used in an expression “wei wu wei”, the action of nonaction. These kinds of paradoxes continue in Taoism, “the morality of no morality”, and “the knowledge of no knowledge”. It is a hard concept to follow but we can try to grasp it by breaking it down. The first interpretation of “wei wu wei” is doing nothing, or at least as little as possible. It can be understood in a political concept: if a government leaves the people alone, social problems will solve themselves out.” It can also be understood at a personal level: eliminating the sense-of-self that is inclined to criticize or interfere with your work. So in fact, it’s not doing nothing, but knowing when to stop. Lao Tze thus explains this perfectly with an allegory to a bow: “That which is at the top is pulled down; that which is at the bottom is brought up. That which is overfull is reduced; that which is deficient is supplemented.” Knowing “wei wu wei” means that you know where the extreme is, thus freeing oneself from danger. This is later elaborated in the concept of “Yin and Yang”. Another interpretation of “wei wu wei” is action that does not force but yields, “the action of passivity”. A beautiful allegory that is used is a pine branch in winter. When the snow falls on the pine branch, it does not break, but bends. This action allows it to drop its burden, but spring up again. Obviously, these are just some interpretations of this complicated concept. If you’re interested in knowing more, here are some great links for further reading: [x], [x], [x].
The three treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility. Arthur Waley describes it as “abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment”, “absolute simplicity of living”, and “refusal to assert active authority.”
Taoist belief redefines the important concept of the “self”. They believe in a sense of selflessness, the idea of stepping outside of ourselves in attempt of self-observation. It is an incredible paradox in which to stop seeing ourselves as separate, we must see ourselves as separate. Confusing? Definitely. A great quote from this website simplifies it by saying “The goal instead is to keep our attention on the greater whole, the process to which there is a pattern, which is known to always return to the source.”
Qi is the life-force, life energy, energy flow, of the world. It underlies traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. Taoists believes that qi constantly transforms between its condensed and diluted state. These two different states are the embodiments of yin and yang, they play against each other but cannot exist without the other. The human body is born with “yuan qi”, the original qi. The “hou tain qi” is the qi that we acquire during our lives from food, water, air, and qigong practice. “Wei qi” is a protective field that flows at the surface of our bodies. Each internal organ has its own type of qi. The “yin-qi” is the primordial feminine energy, and the “yang-qi” is the masculine energy. Qigong practices also uses the qi from the Heaven as well as the Earth.
Feng Shui is an important concept that utilizes Qi. It’s an art of geomancy, a method of divination that utilizes geological space. It is about balancing the flow of energy by placing certain objects in an environment in order to support health, happiness, and good fortune of those who reside or work in this environment. It is used therapeutically as well as divining the future.
Qigong is another practice meaning “Life Energy Cultivation”. It’s not just for martial arts, but for the everyday person as well. It’s a series of exercises that aligns your breath with movement and mind. It’s a very meditative practice, and from the philosophical perspective qigong helps develop human potential, allowing access to higher realms of awareness and awakening one’s “true nature”. Health effects are endless as well. Although clinical studies have inconclusive data, these trials are poorly designed. It is not possible to confirm the long term effects of practicing qigong, but it is still firmly believed that it may help increase fluid movement (blood, synovial, and lymph), strengthen body, and build an awareness of self. Taoists believe that qigong is a way to achieve longevity and spiritual enlightenment.
Pantheon of Gods
Because Religious Taoism relies on teachings from various sources, different branches differ in beliefs, especially with deities. However, there are some common threads that linger amongst these sects. For example, the Jade Emperor “yu-huang” is believed to be the great High God of the Taoists. He rules the Heavens, and all the other gods report to him. He distributes justice through the court system of Hell, where evil deeds and thoughts are punished. He is the Lord of the living and the dead, as well as all of the Buddhas, gods, specters, and demons.
However, there are other Gods above the Jade Emperor. The First Principal “Yuan-shih Tien-tsun” is an abstract deity who simply exists and instructs, whereas the Jade Emperor rules.
Then there are the three pure ones, who are believed to be manifestations of Lao Tze. They are Jade Pure “yu-ching”, Upper Pure “shang-ching”, and Great Pure “tai-ching”. They save mankind by teaching benevolently.
For a full list of deities, visit this page: [x].
It’s important to note that each Taoist god represents a specific principle or an important life lesson. Their images are crafted with specific conventions. For example the God of Health and Longevity is always depicted with a domed head, holding a dragon staff in one hand and a peach in the other.
Traditional Taoists believe that the spirits represented through images in the temple are beings that have achieved their position in one of three ways: mortal heroes who died a violent death (“saints”), celestial creatures who were careless or cocky in their prior mortal state but learned from their mistakes (“lessons”), or those born directly as a celestial creature into the celestial world (ideal prayer mediums).
Here is a link to a virtual tour of the Pantheon Gods: [x].
- Food sacrifices (to the deceased or the Gods often during the Qingming Festival)
- Burning of Joss Paper (“Hell Bank Notes” that will reappear in the spirit world, thus available for the deceased)
- Vegan diet or full fast
- Street parades (with lion dances, dragon dances, puppet shows, firecrackers, flower-covered floats, traditional music)
Connected Religions and Philosophies
- Confucianism (Early Taoism rejects basic assumptions, but supports the ideas of “wild” nature and individualism)