Throughout history, Taoism has been one of the most influential
religions of Eastern culture. This is certainly one of the most unique
of all religions. Many Taoists, in fact, do not even consider it a
religion; and in many ways it is not. Taoists make no claim that the
Tao exists.1 That is what essentially separates Taoism from the rest of
the world religions: there is no heated debate or battle over Taoist
doctrine; there have been no crusades to spread the religion. The very
essence of Taoism is quite the opposite. Taoism’s uniqueness and
open-endedness have allowed the religion to flourish almost undisturbed
and unchanged for over two thousand years.
The founder of Taoism was a man named Lao Tzu, who lived around the
year 604 B.C.E. According to Chinese legend, Lao Tzu was an archivist
in the imperial library at Lo Yang was known for his knowledge, although
he never taught.2 When Lao Tzu left his position at the library, he
went to the Chinese province of Chou. At the border, however, he was
stopped and forced to write down his teachings. During this time, he
wrote the Tao Te Ching, the major scripture of Taoism.3
After Lao Tzu’s death, a man named Yang Chu (440-366 B.C.E.) took up
his teachings.4 A naturalist and philosopher, Yang Chu believed highly
in self-regard and survival as the core of human nature and direction.
His ideals were personal integrity and self-protection, and said that he
was unwilling to pluck one hair from his head even if all humanity were
to benefit from it.5
The next influential Taoist philosopher was Chang Tzu, who lived from
350-275 B.C.E. He defined existence using Lao Tzu’s teachings.6 He
wrote fifty-two books in response to the Tao Te Ching, thirty-three of
which still survive today.7 Using exaggeration and fantasy, he
illustrated Lao Tzu’s teachings and how the Tao acted in nature. His
theories spoke of a cosmic unity which encompasses all reality and
guides it naturally, without force, to its proper end.8
The Yin and Yang theory became part of Taoist philosophy around 300
B.C.E. when they were mentioned in the Hsi tz’u, an appendix to the I
Ching.9 Yin and Yang are defined as the two forces in nature. They are
often called the two “breaths” or ch’i.10 Yin is the feminine
principle, representing darkness, coolness, and dampness; Yang is the
masculine principle, representing brightness, warmth, and dryness.11
Neither principle is good or bad; they are not opposites, but each is
needed to maintain stability in the universe.12 This belief holds that
everything is defined through opposition; consequently, the virtues of
balance and understanding are highly valued.13
Taoism became an official religion between 100 and 200 C.E.14 Due to
competition from Buddhism, Taoists adopted many Buddhist beliefs.
During this pivotal point in the religion’s history, searching for
self-knowledge and wisdom were replaced by searching for solutions to
sorrows and other physical problems.15 Alchemy and superstition became
highly popular during this period of time, as Taoists tried to escape
reality rather than to control the artificial and unnatural. Many
Taoists used magic and the concept of Tao to try to extend the physical
life rather than to focus on the afterlife.16 Gradually the religion
becomes more complicated, with a wide pantheon of gods and a ruling
The leader Chang Ling took the title “Heavenly Teacher” in 200 C.E. He
created a dynasty of high priests who manipulated Taoism to support a
superstitious doctrine of magic and mysticism.18 Seizing higher power
as a religious leader, he pioneered a merging of Taoism and
Zoroastrianism into a system called Five Bushels of Rice Taoism.
Eventually this developed into a society based on Mazdaism, a
Zoroastrian sect, where every believer was charged five bushels of
rice.19 Although the believers followed the basic Zoroastrian worship
format, they worshipped different gods: the Tao instead of Ahura-Mazda,
and the various Chinese folk gods in place of the Persian Angels.20
Three hundred years later, the philosopher Honen moved away from
Mazdaism and combined Taoism with Buddhism. This simplified religion he
created became known as the Pure Land School, or Amidaism. Gradually,
however, Taoism again became tied to magic, and it failed as a
religion.21 Today, only its original philosophies survive and there are
very few followers of Taoism, mostly found in Taiwan.22 Although
Taoism’s religious practices deteriorated with advancing Western
influence, its philosophical aspects have outlasted those of
Confucianism and Zen Buddhism.23
For centuries, Taoism has been known as the Way of Harmony.24 This is
because Taoists believe that the Tao leads all nature toward a natural
balance. The Tao, however, is not considered to be a deity or a ruler:
it may reign but it does not rule.25 This is reflected in seven basic
statements.26 The first states that the Tao is nature. This means that
the Tao is the way of everything, the movement of everything in nature,
and all existence. The second statement is that the Tao is knowledge,
meaning that the Tao is the utmost form of understanding and wisdom and
that to understand it means to understand all. The third statement says
that the Tao is Goodness. This indicates that the Tao is the path
toward virtue, and the highest virtue of these is conforming to the
Tao. The fourth statement is that the Tao is imminent. This means that
the Tao is the source of all reality and that the Tao is inseparable.
The fifth statement tells that the Tao is “being”, or the process of
becoming, which characterizes reality. The sixth holds that the Tao is
felt in passiveness, not in activity. The final statement asserts that
the Tao is individual and unique for every person. Therefore, no person
can truly know the Tao outside themselves. As the Tao Te Ching states:
The ways that can be walked are not the eternal way.
The names that can be named are not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures.
The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.
Always be without desire
in order to observe its wondrous subtleties;
Always have desire
so that you may observe its manifestations.27
In essence, the universe is a pattern which cannot exist without any
part of it. Therefore, trying to alter the Tao through action is
essentially trying to destroy the balance of the universe.28
Taoists have a very simple definition of virtue, called Teh. For a
Taoist, the only virtue is to find unity with the Tao.29 This
contradicts Western religious thought because Westerners believe in
peace and salvation through action. Taoists, however, believe that
unity with the Tao requires no effort but rather passive existence
without work; by finding unity with the Tao, one can therefore find
heaven. This is explained in Lao Tzu’s doctrine of the three treasures,
those being love, balance, and humility.30 Love stems from and results
in kindness and consideration for others. Balance can be found through
self-control and moderation. Humility results from self-esteem and
happiness in one’s status.
The Taoist path to salvation is called Wu Wei, meaning “the principle
of non-action.31 The way to attain unity with the Tao involves no
effort, ambition, discipline, or education. Therefore, each person has
an equal opportunity to attain balance. It involves a surrender to
nature: since every person is by definition part of the Tao, there is no
need or reason to seek it elsewhere. Furthermore, everyone has direct
access to the Tao because the Tao is connected to reality, and everyone
is a part of reality.32 In summary, there is no need to seek answers
outside of oneself. Through non-action the answer is revealed through
ones own existence.
Taoism is different from any other Eastern religion. According to
Lawrence Durrell, “Taoism is such a privileged brand of eastern
philosophy that one would be right to regard it as an aesthetic view of
the universe rather than a purely institutional one.”33 Thus, as Taoism
is a religion of non-action, Lao Tzu and his followers discouraged the
practice of rituals. As a result, Taoism has no tangible rituals.
Early Taoists, in fact, were far more concerned with everyday life than
with celebrations or worship.34 Taoists prefer to leave the question of
Taoist rituals did flourish, however, around and during the 900s.36
During this time lavish temples were built, complex rituals were
practiced, and colorful festivals were celebrated.37 The closest
lasting action in Taoism to rituals is the idea of wu-hsing.38 This is
the set of notions called the “five phases” (wu-hsing) or “powers”
(wu-te): water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.39 This concept help
philosophers build a system of correspondences and participations which
link all macrocosmic and microcosmic phenomena. Thus all seasons,
colors, directions, musical tones, animals, and other aspects of nature
correspond to the five major inner organs of the human body.40 Because
of this, many Taoists believed that the essences relating to their
respective phases nourished the organs of the body; this supposedly led
Several sects of Taoism emerged during the eleventh and twelfth
centuries. Among them were: the T’ai-i (Supreme Unity) sect, founded by
Hsiao Pao-chen in approximately 1140; the Chenta Tao (Perfect and Great
Tao) sect, founded by Liu Te-jen in 1142; and the Ch’üan-chen (Perfect
Realization) sect, founded in 1163 by Wang Che.41 The Ch’üan-chen
became very popular, and small groups of monks from this sect survived
until the twentieth century.42
Taoism has been affected largely by Confucianism, and vice versa. The
two religions grew up together and compose a Yin-Yang themselves.
Confucianism works for the public welfare, Taoism concerns the
individual.43 Confucianism emphasized sensibility and gentility, while
the latter encouraged spontaneity.44 While the two religions are
fundamentally different, they rely upon each other to create a balance
of their differences. Because of this, many people believe in and
practice both Confucianism and Taoism. Neither probably would have
survived if the other had never existed.
Taoism is in itself a very difficult religion to define. Little is
known of its founder or its origins, and it has no clear doctrine or
method of worship.45 The whole concept of Tao is extremely abstract and
therefore cannot be fully explained, only understood. The religion may
hold a completely different meaning for each person--it may be a form of
philosophy, religion, or magic.46 The religion has guided countless
individuals through life and toward union with the Tao. As it has
influenced the past through its writings, Taoism may influence the world
for generations more with its wisdom.
1. Bettencourt, Jerome: Comparative World Religions: Notes. Oxnard:
2. Durrell, Lawrence: A Smile in the Mind’s Eye. New York: Universe
3. Goetz, Philip (Ed.): Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Vol. 28.
“Taoism.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991.
4. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
5. Pastva, Loretta: Great Religions of the World. Winona, Minnesota:
Mary’s Press, 1986.
6. Smullyan, Raymond: The Tao Is Silent. San Francisco: HarperCollins
7. Watts, Alan: Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books,
1 Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books,
1975), p. 5.
2 Jerome Bettencourt, Comparative World Religions: Notes (Oxnard: Fall
9 Philip Goetz, Ed., Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th Edition, Vol. 28:
“Taoism” (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991), p. 399
10 Ibid., p. 398
12 Goetz, p. 398.
15 Loretta Pastva, Great Religions of the World (Winona, Minnesota:
Saint Mary’s Press, 1986), p. 117.
22 Goetz, p. 407
25 Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books,
1975), p. 51.
27 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers,
1977), p. 59.
28 Watts, p. 51.
33 Lawrence Durrell, A Smile in the Mind’s Eye (New York: Universe
Books, 1982), p. 18.
34 Pastva, p. 117.
35 Durrell, p. 19.
36 Pastva, p. 117.
38 Goetz, p. 399.
41 Ibid., p. 404.
43 Pastva, p. 115
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