The foundation of Taoism, the second of the great Chinese traditions, is attributed partially to Laozi (Lao Tzu) and his written material called the Dao De Ding or Tao Te Ching (“The Way and its Power”). He advocates the philosophy of disharmony or harmony of opposites, meaning there is no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female — in short, yin and yang. Collectively, the writings called Tao Tsang are concerned with the ritual meditations of the Tao. Adherents of the philosophy are called Taoists.
Little is known about the life dates of Lao Tzu; he is sometimes placed in the sixth century and sometimes in the fourth. What is beyond doubt is that the book attributed to him, the Tao Te Ching, is a work held in the highest regard not only in China but in many parts of the world.
Taoism is generally seen as a balance to Confucianism, rather than in opposition to it. Taoism seeks harmony with the nature of things through a humble submission to the Way Tao, which for Taoists is the ultimate metaphysical principle of being. In its way, Confucianism also seeks a harmony with nature, but with Confucianism this is achieved by enacting rituals and ceremonies deemed conducive to it. Where Confucianism is ceremonial, Taoism is intuitive and meandering.
Taoist thought permeated the Chinese culture the same way Confucianism did, and the two are often linked. Taoism became more popular than Confucianism, even though Confucianism enjoyed state patronage. Taoism was based on the individual and tended to reject the organized society of Confucianism. The traditions became so well entrenched within China that many people accepted both of them, although they applied the concepts to their lives in different ways.
Taoism wasn’t a religious faith when it began; it was conceived as a philosophy and evolved into a religion that has a number of deities. Lao Tzu, who many credit as the founder of Taoism, was so revered he was often thought of as a deity or a mystical character.
A key Taoist concept is that of nonaction or the natural course of things. It is a direct link to yin and yang. Yin (dark/female) represents cold, feminine, and negative principles. The yang (light/male) represents warmth, masculine, and positive principles. Yin (the dark side) is the breath that formed the earth. Yang (the light side) is the breath that formed the heavens. When civilization gets in the way, the balance of yin and yang is upset. A western person might remark that one needs to get out of one’s own way to get anywhere. However, yin and yang are not polar opposites; they are values in people that depend on individual circumstances. What is cold for one person may be warm for another. Yin and yang are identical aspects of the same reality.
The study, practice, and readings of yin and yang have become a school of philosophy in its own right. The idea is for the student to find balance in life where yin represents inactivity, rest, and reflection and yang represents activity and creativity. The basic feature of Taoism is restoring balance. Extremes produce a swinging back to the opposite. Therefore, there is a constant movement from activity to inactivity and back again.
Buddhism was the other religion close to Taoism, and it held sway with people in the same way that Confucianism did. However, Buddhist notions of the nonexistence of the individual ego and the illusory nature of the physical world didn’t square with Taoism; in fact, Taoists were opposed to them. Taoism and Buddhism did share common ground, however, as with the practice of Zen.
It’s not easy to define Taoism in any formal way because its philosophy doesn’t have a concrete system. While it shares many of the same ideas about man, society, and the universe as Confucianism, its attitude tends to be more personal and metaphysical. Taoism must be experienced, and thus words like “power” and “energy” are frequently used to describe what actually can’t be measured in any scientific form. That said, it’s interesting that Taoism had a bent toward science, especially medicine. Taoist faith healers contributed to medical knowledge and literature with the production of the medical book The Yellow Emperor’s Esoteric Classic, which included experiments with natural ingredients such as plants and minerals.
Interest in science reflected the Taoist emphasis on direct observation and experience of the nature of things. But there is a sort of contradiction of terms because a tremendous amount of the work was based not on scientific discovery but intuitive thought and experience. It is said that much of the knowledge died with the men who discovered it, for they did not share it with future generations.
The Taoist philosophy is at once oblique and difficult, poetic and aphoristic. The Taoists rejected the Confucian idea of regulating life and society, saying it’s better to be concerned with a contemplationof nature. They believed that by doing nothing they could accomplish everything and harness the powers of the universe. Here is another passage from the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquility.
In this way all things would be at peace.
The Taoist sage has no ambitions so he cannot fail.
Those who never fail always succeed.
And those who succeed are all-powerful.
The Tao has been described as the origin and mother of the Ten Thousand Things — a standard phrase to show that everything exists. One achieves without force. One gives life without possessing the things one has created. This is the essence of naturalness. One cannot grasp this philosophy with the intellect. One becomes aware, but unable to define.
At the main entrance of many Taoist temples is an elaborately colored container. It is for joss sticks (incense sticks), which are placed there to be lit. The rising incense symbolizes prayers offered to heaven. On either side of the container will be carved dragons; similarly, there will be dragons on the roof of the temple. These symbolize strength, energy, and life force.
The idea of a personal deity is foreign to Taoism, as is the concept of the creation of the universe. The Tao — a natural force — constrains the universe to act as it does. Yet nature is full of deities; the most familiar are those connected with childbirth, wealth, and health. But a Taoist does not pray as the Christians do, for they believe there is no god to hear the prayers or act upon them. On the contrary, the way to seek answers is through inner meditation and outer observation. Their beliefs can be summed up thus: The Tao surrounds everyone and everything so everyone must listen to find enlightenment.
Taoists have an affinity for promoting good health. They believe that there are five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. Everything outside of and inside of your body belongs to one of these elements. When the five elements are balanced within your body, you are healthy, if they out of balance you will experience disease of some kind. Each person should nurture the chi (breath) that refers to the spirit, energy, or life force within everything. There are Yoga-style and Tai Chi exercises to help accomplish this.
The art of wu wei — action through no action or do without doing — should be practiced. One way of looking at this is to imagine standing still in a flowing river and letting what is opposing do all the work. By standing still, you appear to move against the current by not moving against it. To an outsider, it would appear that you were taking no action, but in fact, you have taken action before others have foreseen such a need. It follows that you should plan in advance and consider what to do before doing it.
The essential belief of Taoism is that the only permanent thing in life is change. Taoism says that because everything is changing, people are tempted to look ahead to find something that is permanent. Once they do that, a person ceases to be aware of the present. When that happens, the tendency is for the present to be interpreted in terms of the past. Taoism says a person should be in the reality of the now — the present moment.
Traditional Chinese medicine believes that illness is caused by blockages or lack of balance of the body’s chi. The practice of Tai Chi balances this energy flow. Through the gradual building of your inner energy you can discover how soft overcomes hard. Tai Chi is known as an internal art because of its emphasis on internal Chi power rather than on external physical power that helps restore balance.
The world is as it is. If it is perfect, then that is what is, not what people imagine it should be. That being so, any change will make things less than perfect. The enemy of human perfection is the unnatural, which includes the forced, premeditated, and socially prescribed.
Rituals and Customs
The religious aspects of Taoism are related more to shamanism than typical worship. In fact, Taoism shares strong elements of shamanism in its belief in the existence of two worlds: the physical and thespiritual. Taoist priests usually look after temples in urban areas. Monks and nuns live in temples located in sacred mountains. In general, monks and nuns are permitted to marry. Their work ensures the worship of the sacred texts, of which there are some 1,440 books.
In Taoism, there is a strong element of the ways and means of achieving immortality. Throughout life, adherents study and practice exercises designed to increase the flow of chi energy. The search is concerned with chi and its supply, meaning a need to create a greater reservoir of breath (chi). The essence of this is not that you would get younger but would live longer. Some adherents will become experts in meditation to the point where they become one with the Tao. A quote from the Chuang Tzu provides a good clue to the Taoist attitude toward life and death:
Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting point.
Existence without limitation is space. Continuity without a starting point is time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form is the Portal of God.
Birth and Death
Birth is a time for casting horoscopes. A month after the birth a naming ceremony is held. Death combines elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism regarding life after death. Funeral rites have to be performed correctly for the dead to join the family ancestors. There is a belief that the soul is judged by the King of Hell. After the body is buried, paper models of money, houses, and cars are burnt to help the soul in the afterlife, perhaps by paying for a release from the King of Hell. After about ten years, the body is dug up. The bones are cleaned and reburied, often at a site chosen by a Feng Shui expert.
Taoists and Buddhists share four major Chinese festivals. In addition, the Taoists celebrate many others throughout the year including the Taoist vegetarian and fasting days.
Chinese New Year is the major festival, also known as the Spring Festival. It is a time of great excitement and joy, not to mention abundant food and gifts and roving bands of musicians that parade through the streets. Families reunite and give lavish gifts to children. Traditionally, it is the time when new paper statues of the kitchen god are put up in houses. The door gods, who defend the house against evil spirits, are also replaced with new ones and good-luck sayings are hung over the doorways.
The high point of the season is New Year’s Eve, when every member of every family returns home. A sumptuous dinner is served and children receive gifts of red envelopes containing lucky money. Firecrackers and whistles go off everywhere.
In preparation for the events, every house is thoroughly cleaned so the New Year will start off fresh and clean. Hair must be cleaned and set prior to the holiday; otherwise, a financial setback would be invited. Debts should also be settled so that the coming year can start off with a clean slate.
Following various religious ceremonies, the eleventh day is a time for inviting in-laws to dine. The Lantern Festival, on the fifteenth day after New Year, marks the end of the New Year season.
The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated with boats in the shape of dragons. Competing teams row their boats forward to a drumbeat in an effort to win the race. Celebrated in June, the festival has two stories about the history of its meaning. The first one is about the watery suicide of an honest young official who tried to shock the emperor into being kinder to the poor. The race commemorates the people’s attempt to rescue the boy in the lake from the dragons who rose to eat him. It is viewed as a celebration of honest government and physical strength.
How did the Taoists and Confucians get along together?
Confucians looked at Taoism as emotional, irrational, and magical. The Taoists looked at the Confucians as bureaucratic and imperialistic. But, it was the Confucian system that shaped China for over 2,000 years.
The third great festival is the Hungry Ghosts Festival. Taoists and Buddhists believe that the souls of the dead imprisoned in hell are freed during the seventh month, when the gates of hell are opened. The released souls are permitted to enjoy feasts prepared for them so they will be pacified and do no harm. Offerings and devotions, too, are made to please these ghosts and even musical events are staged to entertain them.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is also called the Moon Festival because of the bright harvest moon, which appears on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. The round shape of the moon means family reunion, so, naturally, the holiday is particularly important for members of a family.