- For other uses of the words "tao" and "dao", see Dao (disambiguation).
Most accounts describe Taoism or Daoism as an Asian philosophy and religion, although some regard it as neither of these but rather as an aspect of Chinese wisdom. Taoism has Tao as its basis. One may speak of the Tao ("the way of the universe"), or of a Tao ("a way" -- see next section). Taoism sees importance in both these senses.
The Tao of Taoism
In Chinese thought, a Tao (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Tao) equates to a way -- a space-time sequence. There is the way you walk and the way your village does, and a way the country walks. Ways can be summed so we can speak of the ultimate way as the way the world goes--the sum total of space-time history of particles and waves from the big bang to . . . In Taoism this is known as the "Great Tao." It is obvious, as Shen Dao argued, that everyone and everything "follows" the Great Tao. We can also speak of Natural (sometimes "Heavenly") tao. That would roughly resemble any course of history that conforms to the laws of nature -- with the same consequence. No one needs to try to follow it -- you cannot fail. Both 'nature's way' and 'great way' can inspire the stereotypical Taoist detachment from moral or normative doctrines. Since it is thought of as the course by which everything comes to be what it is (the "Mother of everything"), it seems hard to imagine that we have to select from among accounts of its normative content. It thus can be seen as an efficient principle of "emptiness" that reliably underlies the operation of the universe.
Other ways we can call possible ways or ways that actually do guide (tao used as a verb) us. These, however, according to the Tao Te Ching are not constant. That is, we can choose different guiding taos and we may interpret them differently so we disagree about what they tell us to do. We can attempt to follow them and fail. These are prescriptive ways such as the moral way of Confucius or Lao Zi or Jesus. Nevertheless, the Tao Te Ching makes the point that everything's nature is beholden to the Tao, suggesting that even these paths will serve this ultimate principle.
Taoism as a tradition has, along with its traditional counterpart Confucianism, shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. Taoism places emphasis upon spontaneity and teaches that natural kinds follow ways appropriate to themselves. As humans are a natural kind, Taoism emphasises natural societies with no artificial institutions. Often skeptical and ironic on human values such as morality, benevolence and proper behavior, many Taoist writers do not share the Confucian belief in civilization as a way to build a better society. Rather, they share the will to live alone in the mountains or as simple peasants in small autarchic villages.
For many educated Chinese people, (the Literati), life divided into a social part, where Confucian doctrine prevailed, and into a private part, with Taoist aspirations. Home, night-time, exile or retirement provided good occasions to cultivate Taoism and, say, re-read Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. The Literati often dedicated this period of life to arts like calligraphy, painting, poetry or personal researches on antiquities, medicine, folklore and so on.
Sources of Taoism
Tradition attributes Taoism to three sources:
- The oldest, the mythical "Yellow Emperor"
- the most famous, the book of mystical aphorisms, the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), allegedly written by Lao Zi (Lao Tse), who legend depicts as an older contemporary of Confucius
- the third, the works of the philosopher Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tse)
- Other books have developed Taoism, such as the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness, by Lie Zi; and the Huainanzi compilation
- Additionally, many regard the ancient I Ching (The Book Of Changes) or related divinatory practices of prehistoric China as an original source of Taoism
The Dao De Jing
Main article: Dao De Jing
The Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and its Power) emerged as a written text in a time of seemingly endless feudal warfare and constant conflict. According to tradition (largely rejected by modern scholars), the book's author, Lao Zi, served an emperor of the Zhou dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC) as a minor court official. He became disgusted with the petty intrigues of court life, and set off alone to travel the vast western wastelands. As he reached the point of passing through the gate at the last western outpost, a guard, having heard of his wisdom, asked Lao Zi to write down his philosophy, and the Dao De Jing resulted. Lao Zi reflected on a way for humanity to follow which would put an end to conflicts and strife. This became the original book of Taoism. The scholarly evidence (buttressed by a cluster of recent archeological finds of versions of the text) suggests that the text took shape over a long period of time in pre-Han China (before the 3rd century BCE) and circulated in many versions and edited collections until standardized shortly after the Han Dynasty.
Taoist philosophy teaches the following central precepts:
- From the Way arises one (one unified force or path), from which in turn arises the concept of two (yin and yang), which implies the number three (heaven, earth and humanity); finally producing by extension the entirety of the world as we know it, the myriad things, through the harmony of the Wuxing. The Way as it cycles through the five elements of the Wuxing is also said to be circular, acting upon itself through change to affect a cycle of life and death in the ten thousand things of the phenomenal universe.
- Act in accordance with nature, and with finesse rather than force.
- One should find the correct perspective for one's mental activities until one finds a deeper source for guiding one's interaction with the universe (see 'wu wei' below). Desire hinders one's ability to understand The Way (see also karma), and tempering desire breeds contentment. Taoists believe that satisfying one desire simply allows another, more ambitious desire to spring up to replace it. In essence, most Taoists feel that life should be appreciated as it is, rather than forced to be something it is not. Ideally, one should not desire anything, not even non-desire.
- Oneness: By realizing that all things (including ourselves) are interdependent and constantly redefined as circumstances change, we come to see all things as they are, and ourselves as a simple part of the current moment. This understanding of oneness leads us to an appreciation of life's events and our place within them as simple miraculous moments which "simply are".
- Dualism, the opposition and combination of the Universe's two basic principles of Yin and Yang forms a large part of the basic philosophy. Some common associations with Yang and Yin, respectively, include: male and female; light and dark; active and passive and motion and stillness.
Taoists believe that neither side is more important or better than the other; indeed, neither can exist without the other, as they form equal aspects of the whole. They ultimately provide an artificial distinction based on our perceptions of the ten thousand things, so only our perception of them really changes. See taiji.
- According to the Tao Te Ching, the "great secret" lies in seeing the teacher-like role of "good men" over "bad men". The sage can then protect the good man as he undertakes his teaching task. Han Fei Tzu took this vision a step further and listed all the responsibilities of the sage in protecting the emperor from his own peccadillos. Dancing-girls headed the list.
Much of the essence of Tao lies in the art of wu wei (action through inaction; the uncarved block). However, this does not mean "sit doing nothing and wait for everything to fall into your lap". It describes a practice of accomplishing things through minimal action. By studying the nature of life, you can affect it in the easiest and least disruptive way (using finesse rather than force). The practice of working with the stream rather than against it offers an illustration: one progresses the most not by struggling against the stream and thrashing about, but by remaining still and letting the stream do all the work.
Wu Wei works once we trust our human "design", which perfectly suits our place within nature. In other words, by trusting our nature rather than our mental contrivances, we can find contentment without a life of constant striving against forces real and imagined.
One could apply this to political activism. Rather than appeal to others to take action for a certain cause -- regardless of its importance or validity -- one would instead understand that simply by believing in the cause, and letting one's belief manifest itself in one's actions, one bears one's share of the burden of social movement. Going with the flow, so to speak, with the river (which in this case represents a societal mindset).
How to practice Wu Wei: Understand that all actions have consequences. So does non-action. Therefore, in this regard action and non-action are one.
The Taoist religion
Though the Dao De Jing or Zhuang Zi do not mention specific religious aspects, as Taoism spread through the population of China it became mixed with other, pre-existing beliefs, such as the Five Elements theory, alchemy, ancestor worship, and magic spells. Taoist philosophies also directly influenced Chinese Chan Buddhism. Eventually elements of Taoism combined with elements of Buddhism and Confucianism in the form of Neo-Confucianism. Attempts to procure greater longevity formed a frequent theme in Taoist alchemy and magic, with many extant spells and potions for that purpose. Many early versions of Chinese medicine had roots in Taoist thought, and modern Chinese medicine as well as Chinese martial arts still in many ways deal with Taoist concepts such as Tao, Qi, and the balance of Yin and Yang.
In addition, an organized Taoist community formed, originally established in the Eastern Han dynasty by Zhang Daoling. Many sects evolved over the years, but most trace their authority to Zhang Daoling, and most modern Taoist temples belong to one or another of these sects. The Taoist churches incorporated entire pantheons of deities, including Lao Zi, Zhang Daoling, the Yellow Emperor, the Jade Emperor, Lei Gong (The God of Thunder) and others. Two major Taoist churches function today: the Zhengyi Sect (evolved from a sect founded by Zhang Daoling) and Quanzhen Taoism (founded by Wang Chongyang).
Taoism outside China
People in countries other than China practise the Taoist philosophy in various forms, especially in Vietnam and in Korea. Kouk Sun Do in Korea exemplifies one such variation.
Taoist philosophy has found a large following throughout the world, and several traditional Taoist lineages have set up teaching centers in countries outside China.
- Taoism Directory (http://www.taoism-directory.org) Directory of sites with content related to Taoism and Taoist issues.
- Taoism.net (http://www.taoism.net) (Site features information on Taoism and offers original Taoist philosophic stories and writings.)
- Translation of the Tao te Ching (http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/taote.htm)