Taoism The Way or Path
Taoism or the School of Tao refers to a set of philosophical teachings and religious practices rooted in a specific metaphysical understanding of the Chinese character Tao. For Taoists, Tao could be described as the continuity principle behind the whole processes of the constantly changing Universe.
Taoism is rooted in the oldest belief systems of China, dating from a time when shamanism and pantheism were prevalent. Elements of primitive Taoist thought include the cyclic progression of seasons, growth and death of sentient beings and their endless generation and questions about the origin of life. Observation of natural processes lead to divination practices where the operator tries to detect opportunities in natural phenomenon like crackles made in bones.
Taoism has had a deep and long-lasting influence in many domains of Chinese culture, including philosophy, arts, literature, medicine, cuisine, and has spread widely throughout East Asia. Taoism emphasizes freedom, nature, cosmology, self-cultivation, retirement from social life and even the search for immortality.
Some accounts prefer to separate two Taoisms: One being mostly philosophical, metaphysical and aesthetic, The other focused on religious practices, encompassing exorcism, alchemy and a wide set of popular beliefs. Often considered as the counterpart of mainstream Confucianism and challenged by Buddhism, Taoism is more accurately seen as an integral element of the vast and diverse Chinese experience.
Taoism is not a religion, nor a philosophy. It is a "Way" of life. It is a River. The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living and sentient object, as well as through the entire universe. When the Tao is in balance it is possible to find perfect happiness.
The primary religious figures in Taoism are Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, two scholars who dedicated their lives two balancing their inner spirits.
The most common graphic representation of Taoist theology is the circular Yin Yang figure. It represents the balance of opposites in the universe. When they are equally present, all is calm. When one is outweighed by the other, there is confusion and disarray. The Yin and Yang are a model that the faithful follow, an aid that allows each person to contemplate the state of his or her lives.
More a mode of living than an actual theology, Taoism asks that each person focuses on the world around him or her in order to understand the inner harmonies of the universe. It is a kind of religious system heavily focused on meditation and contemplation. The Tao surrounds everyone and one must listen to find enlightenment.
The oldest Chinese scripture is said to be the I Ching, a compilation of readings based on sixty-four hexagrams. The hexagrams are combinations of eight tri-grams or gua, (collectively called bagua), resulting in sixty-four possible combinations. Each hexagram has six Yin or Yang lines. When cast, each gives a reading with an image, a judgement and commentaries on the lines.
Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of wu wei, action through inaction. This does not mean, sit on your butt and wait for everything to fall into your lap.
The essential message of Taoism is that life constitutes an organic, interconnected whole which undergoes constant transformation.
This unceasing flow of change manifests itself as a natural order governed by unalterable, yet perceivable laws. Paradoxically, it is the constancy of these governing principles (like the rising and setting of the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons) that allows people to recognise and utilise them in their own process of transformation.
Gaining an awareness of life's essential unity and learning to cooperate with its natural flow and order enables people to attain a state of being that is both fully free and independent and at the same time fully connected to the life flow of the Universe - being at one with the Tao. From the Taoist viewpoint this represents the ultimate stage of human existence.
A key principle in realizing our oneness with the Tao is that of wu-wei, or "non-doing." Wu-wei refers to behaviour that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless.
At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, "going with the flow," is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behaviour occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.
Tao Te Ching The 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, the book's author, Lao Tzu, served an emperor of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE - 256 BCE) 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 Tzu to write down his philosophy, and the Tao Te Ching resulted. The western gate may refer to the death of Lao Tzu.
Taoism and Confucianism Taoism as a tradition has, along with its traditional counterpart Confucianism, shaped Chinese culture 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 emphasizes natural societies with no artificial institutions.
Taoism and Buddhism The relationships between Taoism and Buddhism are complex, as they influenced each other in many ways while often competing for influence. The arrival of Buddhism forced Taoism to renew and restructure itself and address mystical questioning raised by Buddhism. Buddhism was seen as a kind of foreign Taoism and its texts were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary.
Chuang Tzu's philosophy especially influenced the Chinese form of Buddhism known as Ch'an, which later developed into the Japanese form of Zen. The Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin was important for both Buddhists and Taoists.
From the 1940s to 1982, Taoism was suppressed along with other religions in accordance with Marxist theory. Much of the Taoist infrastructure was destroyed, monks and priests were sent to labour camps. This intensified during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, nearly eradicating most Taoist sites.