|Links: Pages on Taoism, Other Religions|
|Texts||Tao Te Ching|
|Area of Origin||China|
|When||3rd century BCE1|
|Founder||Based on teachings attributed to Lao Tzu|
|Numbers in the UK (Census results)|
|2001||3 532||2011||4 144|
|Taoists Worldwide (Pew & WM)|
|World: 0.0411%. Taiwan (10.1%), Hong Kong (4.29%), China (0.00932%), Laos (0.00449%), USA (0.004%), Vietnam (0.000183%) 2|
Taoism, or Daoism, is an atheist (non-theist)3,4,5,6 religion based on "The Way" - an all-pervading natural force and controlling principal of the Universe7,8, the source of all existence9. To live in accordance with The Dao one has to be at peace, to accept the events of life10, to be at one with nature, to 'go with the flow'.9,11. Although some Westerners accuse Taoism of being a "philosophy" instead of a religion, sociologists count it as a religion12 and Taoism is counted as one of the great world religions13,14,15 and is becoming increasingly popular outside of China8, where it first developed out of a mix of traditional Chinese beliefs.
Chinese words can often be spelt in various "romanized" ways. In general the 'tao' is simply an older way of writing the same Chinese word that is often now spelt in Western alphabets as 'dao'. Dao & Tao are the same, and Daoism & Taoism are the same.
The Dao is an all-pervading natural force and controlling principal of the Universe7. It is not properly comprehensible and there is often an element of mysticism about it - the first chapter of the Tao De Ching opens with "Existence is beyond the power of words to define" (Witter Bynner translation, 1944) - two other translations of the same verse read "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao"16
“The Dao, although meaning simply 'the way [...] has another more profound meaning. It is the cosmic and controlling principal, according to which all nature functions. Things operate as they do because of the Dao. Indeed, it is the source of existence. Julia Ching, a scholar of Chinese religions [says] 'the Tao is thus described as existing before the universe came to be, an unchanging first principle, even as the ancestor of all things, that by which all things come to be'. [The Way] is the way of self-control, a way that leads to harmony with others and harmony with nature. Indeed, one should simply go with the flow, so to speak, and live passively. [...] Consequently, Daoism, is known for its emphasis on peacefulness, stillness and emphasis on oneness with the natural world. Indeed, Daoism cultivated a mystical, quietist form of religion in which an individual gains control of the body's appetites, longings and desires, stills the spirit, and seeks an inner union with the Dao.”
Taoism is like other religions in that the cosmos is understood using pithy sayings imbued with cosmic meaning; the concepts of Yin and Yang (light and dark, good and bad, this and that) became popular in the same century that Taoism arose17. The Tao De Ching reads:
“The Tao begets one;
The one begets two; (yin and yang)18,19;
The two begets three (three heavenly beings in charge of heaven, earth and water20);
The three begets the myriad creatures;
The myriad creates carry on their backs the yin and embrace in their arms the yang and are the blending of the generative forces of the two.”
Tao De Ching 4221
The traditional Chinese belief is that the two forces (yin and yang) "create the energy of life through their interaction, but they are not deities, nor do they have divine power. Their interaction is seen in the changing of the seasons or in the health of the individual"22. It is humankind's job to keep the balance through proper conduct and avoiding wicked behaviour19.
Practices and beliefs that involve "Chi" are based on the I Ching and gradually became popular in Taoism from the 10th century onwards and involved "breath control, physical and sexual exercises, and meditation" for the purposes of becoming one with the Tao and for attaining immortality11.
“All life is made possible by ch'i, which is the life breath and energy of the universe. Taoists believe that this life breath is in everyone and everything. When people are born, they have within them all the breath that they will ever have. All things die when their original breath expires. Thus Taoism has developed breathing exercises and meditations, designed to help people preserve their ch'i. This is part of the quest for immortality.”
“... if the qi, jing (life force) and shen (spirit) are in perfect balance, the body could be preserved indefinitely. Tai chi chuan (taijiquan) originated during this period as well; the martial arts practice was seen as cultivating both body and mind, balancing the energies of heaven and earth, and promoting the flow of qi.”
The problem is that modern biology has granted us great knowledge of the processes of life, of aging, and of the causes of death. None of it actually has anything to do with ch'i (nor a balancing of two opposing forces), and so many of the fundamental principles of Taoism can only be understood as surreal abstractions which do not truly reflect reality.
Like other religions, it is often the case that superstitious folk practices soak into the religion, especially at the informal local level23. Feng Shui, Shamanistic relations with powerful spirits, divination (fortune-telling) and other superstitious practices can be held within Taoist temples and by Taoist priests.23
“In interaction with the folk religion, Taoism developed as a way of trying to achieve immortality or paranormal powers through alchemy, magical incantations or exercises [and] incorporated a number of other systems of thought.”
Here's a description of how this process works in general:
“Religions are combinations of two elements. Firstly, the grassroots practices and cultural norms of the lay believers. And secondly, the high-brow theologizing and intellectualization of the religious professionals. When academics try to categorize and define religion, they often get caught up arbitrarily with just one type24. The two forms of a religion often struggle against each other. Folk practices are resilient to top-down declarations of what is or isn't supposed to be part of a religion, and often reforming popular beliefs results only in name-changes and other surface changes, leaving underlying practices more or less as they were. When academics codify the religion they often fail to account for - or completely ignore - the practices of the laypeople. When documenting a religion we cannot rely only on the testimonies of the masses, who might en masse be taken in by fads, nor rely only on the definitions of the professionals, academics and clerics, who only represent a small portion of believers. Therefore the only pragmatic route is to consider religions to be pluralities and umbrella terms.
The grassroots of a religion is nearly always a combination of beliefs and practices from multiple historical sources. Magical thinking, ritualistic habits and popular beliefs all tend to survive within a culture even though its official religion may change. On the other hand, the formal and scholarly religion of clerics and religious professionals is complex, more complete and resilient to change. Theology is demanding to study and is frequently very convoluted because the religion's scholars debate the weakspots and difficult spots of the tenets and work out complex philosophies to circumvent them. The more difficult the area of study of a religion, the more maze-making its scholars will do in attempts to explain irrationality. But the more complex and difficult the intellectual aspect of a religion, the more the lowly masses will fail to comprehend or implement it, and the bigger the divide will be between the cultural and scholarly versions of the religion. A religion is always a contradictory mix of both what the leaders say the religion is, plus what the mass of the actual followers do and believe.”
Today, after a period of oppression under communism, tribal and local spirits are resurgent, with the most popular being those of "childbirth, wealth and health"19. "Hungry ghosts" are spirits of the dead who have not been buried properly25, but it is quite confusing to think that this occurs in Taoist countries but doesn't occur in Europe, where cremation is in many places more popular than burial.
The search for immortality has resulted in stories of the eight immortals - humans who have indeed achieved this ultimate aim. Some of these get called deities - for example Tai-Shang Laojun, which is actually the deified name of Lao Tzu himself11 (other deities are personifications of the three realms, etc). Although it is possible to translate some of these spirits and beings as "gods", they're more akin to animistic forces of nature than eternal gods (especially as in Taoism there were no conscious beings until after yin and yang interacted, created the three domains, and then those realms together produced the myriad creatures of the world).
Taoism competed with Confucianism, and the Confucians accused Taoism of being emotional and irrational and too involved with magic26. In Taoism there seems to be very little quality-control over what beliefs and practices are engaged in and as such, is in practice often just a series of specialist terms used to describe meandering freelance religion with no true substance holding it together. This is why it merges so readily with so many other belief systems and practices.
The creation of Taoism is attributed to Lao Tzu, but so little is known about him1,26 that it is difficult to ascertain basic facts about him. Some authors say he lived in the sixth century BCE27, others say the 3rd century BCE1. A difference of 300 years is not trivial. His name merely means "Old Master"26 and historical analysis has shown that he probably didn't write the Tao De Ching "but various sayings became associated with him"26.
By the 3rd century CE many Taoists were "circulating ever more fantastic stories about his birth, life, death, and reincarnation"27, and in "the transformations of Lao Tzi" he was described as the first conscious being who had witnessed "the great beginning"28. In the 7th century CE he was "officially deified"28.
Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion are the four main forms of religion in China; their beliefs and practices have intermingled and interchanged over thousands of years, and most local communities combine parts of all of them30,31,32,33,19. China's earliest dynasties continued folk practices that have existed since pre-history, with religious leaders being shamans and guides speaking on behalf of the spirit world34 and a multitude of local gods and practices, and some of those ancient practices persist today in rural areas. Despite liberalisation over the past several decades, large numbers of Chinese - two thirds - do not consider themselves religious at all35 and most new religious movements are suppressed36,37.
A new, more assertive form of organized religious Daoism arose in the Yellow Turban movement of the 3rd century CE as the Han dynasty fell amidst conflict and famine. They restored the influence of Daoism38.
For more, see: