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Taoism: A philosophy, a Religion, and a Way of Life

1. An Introduction to Taoism

As a philosophy of life, Lao Tzu (?604-484 BC) and Chuang Tzu (?369-286 BC) were traditionally recognized as the founders. Its origin goes back to the time when Chinese civilization began to emerge. Thus a sub-school of Taoist philosophy takes the name Huang Lao referring to the Yellow Emperor, the common ancestor to all Chinese, and Lao Tzu. After Buddhism spread into China during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD), Taoism developed into an organized religion.

Daoist culture has long permeated the everyday life of ordinary Chinese people since it exerted great influences on social customs and national consciousness. One of the greatest writer and thinker, Lu Xun (1881-1936), once said, “China is totally rooted in Daoism.” As the result, Taoism is the key to a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture. Today, as a major religion in China, there are more than 1,600 temples and more than 25,000 Daoist priests of the Quanzhen and the Zhengyi Sect, though the number of ordinary believers is impossible to assess.

The highest ideal of a Taoist is to acquire immortality. To achieve this goal, one must practice Taoism both inside and outside one's physical existence. Inner practice involves physical and breathing exercises, concentrated contemplation, and the taking of elixirs. Later, this type of practice gradually came down to refining the interior elixirs ( neidan ). The basic principle of this practice is still to cultivate the self both spiritually and physically. External practice involves doing good deeds and helping others.

(1) The Concept of Tao

According to Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and other authors, Tao has the following features:

1) Tao created the world and everything in the world.

2) Tao is present in everything and it is the Tao that makes everything the way it is. The functioning of the Tao in a particular existence is called the virtue or the obtainment of Tao. Tao is immanent.

3). Tao is ineffable. Tao is also referred to as One, Non-Being since there is really no name for Tao. Tao is beyond words. Words are part of our world but Tao is not. We can intuit Tao but we cannot describe it. Tao is transcendent.

4). Tao is also the law every existence has to follow. It is the underlying, ordering, structuring force prevailing in everything and every space in the universe. Man is the only known creature that can depart from Tao.

(2) Taoism as an Organized Religion inside China

Since some Taoists organized themselves into a religion in the second century, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were the three main religions in Chinese history. Chinese people usually visited their temples to worship but did not officially join any of those religions. They could go to a Buddhist temple one day, and a Taoist temple next day. Taoism as a religion showed some striking features in Chinese history:

1. The fundamental belief of Taoist religion is that you do not have to die physically, which is essentially what behind modern medicine and science.

2. Taoist religion is based on the ancient Taoist philosophy, which was famous for its atheistic view against Mohism and Confucianism during the Axial Age (770-221 BCE).

3. The birth of Taoist religion in the second and third centuries was associated with a massive uprising of peasants.

4. One of the major parts of religious practice of Taoism is sex.

5. After Buddhism entered China, the hybridization of Buddhism and Taoism produced a more secular and practical form of Buddhism, Chan or Zen, which is well known in the West.

(3) The Taoist Deity

It is clear that the early Taoist philosophers such as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu did not pay particular attention to any god except Tao. They only used the word gods occasionally in a casual manner. Chuang Tzu says: “In the ancient time, yin and yang were in harmony; gods and spirits were quiet and did not interfere with people.” Such a description about gods fits well with the primitive primary society and the Taoist philosophy.

The Taoist religion that developed later introduced a large number of deities for worshippers, though some of those deities came from folk cults and Chinese traditions. Those deities were organised in a way that reflected the secular history of the Chinese empire.

The Book of Changes mentioned, “Observing that the four seasons rotate in order, Sage used the religious gods to educate the people. All people under heaven obeyed him willingly.” Thus Chinese rulers had long known the effectiveness of religious gods as a means to control the thought of the people. Unlike in the West, religion shared power with the monarchy, Chinese rulers used religions to control their people. Chinese emperors had the power to close down any religions and, in fact, both Buddhism and Taoism were banned sometimes but released later. Christianity was established in China during the

Re: Taoism: A philosophy, a Religion, and a Way of Life

The full version of this essay can be read at the following website:

Taoism: A philosophy, a Religion, and a Way of Life

Re: Taoism: A philosophy, a Religion, and a Way of Life

For the first time, we feel that we, ordinary readers, have a much more clearer view about such an old topic after reading this short essay.

Re: Taoism: A philosophy, a Religion, and a Way of Life

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Re: Taoism: A philosophy, a Religion, and a Way of Life

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