What is Taoism?

Though most may not know it, Taoism is one of the main systems of thought underpinning traditional Chinese religion, philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics. The historical importance of Taoism in China cannot be understated, even though the current communist rulers are loath to admit it. "Tao" is quite a difficult term to translate, and is usually rendered as either "way" or "path." Defining the Tao is made even more vexing by it’s own literature which states that, "the Tao that can be defined in not the eternal Tao…" For our needs here, let’s think of the Tao as the flow and force of the universe, and, more than just "the Way", the Tao is also the source of the universe and all within it.

The main goal of ancient Taoist practitioners is to cultivate both their bodies and their minds in a way that will allow them to live in complete harmony with the Tao. One of the ways of doing this was to become deeply attuned to nature. Now, what is important to understand is that within Taoism, mankind, humanity, and all humanity creates, is part of nature (unlike the Western view that humanity is somehow sperate from nature). To a Taoist, understanding nature is to understand people, society. A modern Taoist might say the reason people often seem so lost is because they suffer the illusion they are some place else (and not part of nature, and the universe).

A Brief History of Taoism

Little is known about the origins of Taoism, also known as Daoism, though it is popularly considered to have arisen within the 3rd or 4th century BC. The first form of Taoism to develop is often termed "philosophical Taoism," which was centered on the two main Taoist texts: The Tao Te Ching and The Book of Chuang Tzu. Philosophical Taoism was later followed by an esoteric form of Taoism which was more focused on techniques for achieving ecstasy and immortality.

Taoism originated as a sort of reactionary movement against Confucianism, which had arisen in China in the 5th century BC and was the dominant religious and philosophical system of the day. Confucianism was, and is, all about rules and the importance of learning and adhering to the rules to maintain order and morality (see modern China under communist rule). Taoist texts spoke out against the perceived artificial morality and stringent codes of conduct of Confucianism, arguing instead for a more natural and immediate way of relating to the world that wasn’t based on codified rules.

Lao Tsu and the Tao Te Ching

The legendary figure known as Lao Tsu is traditionally believed to be the founder of Taoism, though scholars are divided on whether he was a real, historical figure or not. Lao Tsu is attributed with authorship of the Tao Te Ching, the earliest and perhaps most important Taoist text. The legend says Lao Tsu was an impressive scholar, a librarian, who became disillusioned with how ‘petty’ people had become. He wrote the Tao Te Ching, perhaps as a gift to humanity, and then walked into the wilderness never to be seen again.

Composed in the late 4th century BC, the Tao Te Ching, translated variously as "The Way and Its Power," "The Classic of the Way," and even "Making This Life Significant," contains a masterful, poetic, summation of Taoist. Some of the themes running throughout the text include: the importance of the feminine component of creation; the ineffability of the Tao; the importance of the concept of emptiness; and the proper attainment of knowledge. The Tao Te Ching also devotes considerable time to describing the proper mindset and actions of a true Taoist sage.

(To read a bit of the Tao Te Ching, go HERE). Link will launch a new browser.

Chuang Tzu and the Book of Chuang Tzu

Next to Lao Tsu, Chuang Tzu is the second most important figure in Taoism. Unlike Lao Tsu, most scholars agree that Chuang Tzu likely lived and wrote during the 4th century BC. Chuang Tzu, who lived in the town of Meng and worked as a minor official, was well read and reportedly took to the philosophical outlook that he found in the Tao Te Ching.

Most scholars agree that at least part of The Book of Chuang Tzu was written by Chuang Tzu himself. The Book of Chuang Tzu is considerably longer than the Tao Te Ching, and consists almost entirely of short stories which are intended to present to the reader the ideal nature of the Taoist sage. The sage, according to The Book of Chuang Tzu, is carefree and aware of the limited nature of human knowledge. Recognizing the futility of the relentless pursuit of knowledge, the sage chooses instead of enjoy life, particularly out in the natural world.

(To read a bit of Chuang Tzu’s works, go HERE). Link will launch a new browser.

Taoism in Modern China

Taoism enjoyed relative popularity in China up until the Cultural Revolution, when the officially atheist Communist Party of China (CPC) took over. Like communist parties around the world, the CPC repressed all and any religious thought, including Taoism. Many Taoist practitioners were sentenced to labor camps while Taoist temples were systematically destroyed.

Though religious persecution came to an end in 1979, the revival of Chinese religious traditions has been a slow and uphill process, with many Chinese people still identifying as atheist today. Nevertheless, Taoism, Confucianism, and traditional religious practices such as ancestor worship, have seen somewhat of a revival in modern times, as people seek to get back to the traditional Chinese philosophical roots which the Cultural Revolution sought to bury.

Taoism and Buddhism

Taoism shares some similarities with Buddhism, particularly Mahayana forms of Chinese Buddhism, but there are ample differences between the two which must be recognized if either is to be seen as a unique tradition in its own right.

Though both religions seek a type of enlightenment, the way this enlightenment is envisioned and the way it is sought are very different. Buddhists seek Nirvana while Taoists, on the other hand, are much more focused on seeing the current world clearly for what it is, and on achieving a harmony with nature. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and in the eventual release from the cycle of rebirth when one attains Nirvana, while Taoists, though many believe in some notion of a soul that survives death, do not have a very developed system of thought regarding the afterlife. Perhaps because, for a Taoist, thinking about one’s afterlife takes away from focusing on the path in this life.

Taoism in the West

Taoism was introduced to the West in the early 20th century by Henri Maspero, a French sinologist who wrote many books on Chinese mythology, religion, and history. It was further popularized by Michael Saso, a professor of Religion at the University of Hawaii who translated many Chinese texts and was even ordained as a Taoist priest.

Taoism has been subsumed into the Western New Age movement, and is usually practiced synchronistically alongside beliefs and practices from a variety of other religions, particularly those originating in the East. Westerners generally focus on the Taoist ideas of Ying and Yang, on the importance of the balance and harmony of opposites. These ideas are then applied to various areas of one’s life, such as romantic relationships and career performance.

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One of the most interesting and unique approaches to Taoism was put forth in William Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book is as difficult to classify as the Tao. Though the book begins as a personal journey, venturing into Zen and Western philosophy, it concludes with how the western word ‘Quality’ is closely related to the word ‘Tao’. Both take infinite forms, both stand between the observer and the observed, neither can be quantified. There is not piece of ‘quality’ we can take to a laboratory and analyze, just like the Tao. Yet, we know ‘Quality’ is real, though it has no material form, and it continues to be manifested generation after generation.

Aside from an awareness of the interplay of opposites, Taoism is still poorly understood in the West. Especially the ancient Taoism of Lao Tsu and Chuang Tzu. Though many people find the ideas compelling, few have taken to serious study of Taoist texts and ideas. The good news, however, is that many fantastic translations of important Taoist texts are becoming available for those who take a genuine interest in the topic.

If you are looking for a psychic with an appreciation for many forms of spirituality, give Psychic Libby a call at 1-866-407-7164. Libby has studies a number of different spiritual disciplines and is a gifted medium.

Resources You May Appreciate:

A Taoist in China

Taoism Overview

Taoism verses Buddhism