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|Traditional Chinese||道 教 or 家|
|Simplified Chinese||道 教 or 家|
Taoism (modernly: Daoism) is a philosophical and religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (modernly romanized as "Dao"). The term Tao means "way", "path" or "principle", and can also be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism. In Taoism, however, Tao denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. It is ultimately ineffable: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."
The keystone work of literature in Taoism is the Tao Te Ching, a concise and ambiguous book containing teachings attributed to Laozi (Chinese: 老子; pinyin: Lǎozi; Wade–Giles: Lao Tzu). Together with the writings of Zhuangzi, these texts build the philosophical foundation of Taoism. This philosophical Taoism, individualistic by nature, is not institutionalized. Institutionalized forms, however, evolved over time in the shape of a number of different schools, often integrating beliefs and practices that even pre-dated the keystone texts – as, for example, the theories of the School of Naturalists, which synthesized the concepts of yin-yang and the Five Elements. Taoist schools traditionally feature reverence for Laozi, immortals or ancestors, along with a variety of divination and exorcism rituals, and practices for achieving ecstasy, longevity or immortality.
Taoist propriety and ethics may vary depending on the particular school, but in general tends to emphasize wu-wei (action through non-action), "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.
Taoism has had profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and clerics of institutionalised Taoism (Chinese: 道士; pinyin: dàoshi) usually take care to note distinction between their ritual tradition and the customs and practices found in Chinese folk religion as these distinctions sometimes appear blurred. Chinese alchemy (especially neidan), Chinese astrology, Zen Buddhism, several martial arts, Traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history. Beyond China, Taoism also had influence on surrounding societies in Asia.
After Laozi and Zhuangzi the literature of Taoism grew steadily and used to be compiled in form of a canon – the Daozang, which was at times published at the behest of the emperor. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was several times nominated as state religion. After the 17th century, however, it fell much from favour. Like all other religious activity, Taoism was suppressed in the first decades of the People's Republic of China (and even persecuted during the Cultural Revolution), but continued to be practised in Taiwan. Today, it is one of five religions recognized in the PRC, and although it does not travel readily from its Asian roots, claims adherents in a number of societies.
Spelling and pronunciation
English-speakers continue to debate the preferred romanization of the words "Daoism" and "Taoism". The root Chinese word 道 "way, path" is romanized tao in the older Wade–Giles system and dào in the modern Pinyin system. In linguistic terminology, English Taoism/Daoism is formed from the Chinese loanword tao/dao 道 "way; route; principle" and the native suffix -ism. The debate over Taoism vs. Daoism involve sinology, phonemes, loanwords, and politics – not to mention whether Taoism should be pronounced / / or / /.
Daoism is pronounced / /, but English speakers disagree whether Taoism should be / / or / /. In theory, both Wade–Giles tao and Pinyin dao are articulated identically, as are Taoism and Daoism. An investment book titled The Tao Jones Averages (a pun on the Dow Jones Indexes) illustrates this /daʊ/ pronunciation's widespread familiarity. In speech, Tao and Taoism are often pronounced /ˈtaʊ/ and ˈtaʊ.ɪzəm/, reading the Chinese unaspirated lenis ("weak") /t/ as the English voiceless stop consonant /t/. Lexicography shows American and British English differences in pronouncing Taoism. A study of major English dictionaries published in Great Britain and the United States found the most common Taoism glosses were /taʊ.ɪzəm/ in British sources and /daʊ.ɪzəm, taʊ.ɪzəm/ in American ones.
There is debate over how, and whether, Taoism should be categorized. Traditionally, it is divided into two categories:
- Philosophical Taoism (Daojia, Chinese: 道家; pinyin: dàojiā; lit. "school of Dao") – The philosophy based on the texts of the Daodejing (道德經) and the Zhuangzi (莊子). These texts were linked together under the term of Daojia during the early Han Dynasty, but notably not before. It is unlikely that Zhuangzi was familiar with the text of the Daodejing, and Zhuangzi would not have identified himself as a Taoist as this classification did not arise until well after his death.
- Religious Taoism (Daojiao, Chinese: 道敎; pinyin: dàojiào; lit. "teachings of Dao") – A family of organized religious movements sharing concepts or terminology derived from Daojia; the first of these is recognized as the Celestial Masters school.
However, the distinction between Daojia and Daojiao is rejected by the majority of modern scholars (at least in Japan and the West). It is, among others, contested by hermeneutic (interpretive) difficulties in the categorization of the different Taoist schools, sects and movements. Taoism does not fall under an umbrella or a definition of a single organized religion like the Abrahamic traditions; nor can it be studied as the originator or a variant of Chinese folk religion, as although the two share some similar concepts, much of Chinese folk religion is outside of the tenets and core teachings of Taoism. Sinologists Isabelle Robinet and Livia Kohn agree that "Taoism has never been a unified religion, and has constantly consisted of a combination of teachings based on a variety of original revelations."
Origins and development
Laozi is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism and is closely associated in this context with "original", or "primordial", Taoism. Whether he actually existed is commonly disputed; however, the work attributed to him – the Daodejing – is dated to the late 4th century BC.
Taoism draws its cosmological foundations from the School of Yin-Yang (in form of its main elements – yin and yang and the Five Phases), which developed during the Warring States period (4th to 3rd centuries BC).
Robinet identifies four components in the emergence of Taoism:
- Philosophical Taoism, i.e. the Daodejing and Zhuangzi
- techniques for achieving ecstasy
- practices for achieving longevity or immortality
Some elements of Taoism may be traced to prehistoric folk religions in China that later coalesced into a Taoist tradition. In particular, many Taoist practices drew from the Warring-States-era phenomena of the wu (connected to the "shamanism" of Southern China) and the fangshi (which probably derived from the "archivist-soothsayers of antiquity, one of whom supposedly was Laozi himself"), even though later Taoists insisted that this was not the case. Both terms were used to designate individuals dedicated to "... magic, medicine, divination,... methods of longevity and to ecstatic wanderings" as well as exorcism; in the case of the wu, "shamans" or "sorcerers" is often used as a translation. The fangshi were philosophically close to the School of Yin-Yang, and relied much on astrological and calendrical speculations in their divinatory activities.
The first organized form of Taoism, the Tianshi (Celestial Masters') school (later known as Zhengyi school), developed from the Five Pecks of Rice movement at the end of the 2nd century AD; the latter had been founded by Zhang Daoling, who claimed that Laozi appeared to him in the year 142. The Tianshi school was officially recognized by ruler Cao Cao in 215, legitimizing Cao Cao's rise to power in return. Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid-2nd century BCE.
Taoism, in form of the Shangqing school, gained official status in China again during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. The Shangqing movement, however, had developed much earlier, in the 4th century, on the basis of a series of revelations by gods and spirits to a certain Yang Xi in the years between 364 to 370.
Between 397 and 402, Ge Chaofu compiled a series of scriptures which later served as the foundation of the Lingbao school, which unfolded its greatest influence during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.
In the 12th century, the Quanzhen School was founded in Shandong. It flourished during the 13th and 14th century and during the Yuan dynasty became the largest and most important Taoist school in Northern China. The school's most revered master, Qiu Chuji, met with Genghis Khan in 1222 and was successful in influencing the Khan towards exerting more restraint during his brutal conquests. By the Khan's decree, the school also was exempt from taxation.
Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes under the Ming (1368–1644). The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), however, much favored Confucian classics over Taoist works. During the 18th century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Taoist books. By the beginning of the 20th century, Taoism had fallen much from favour (for example, only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing).
Today, Taoism is one of five religions recognized by the People's Republic of China. The government regulates its activities through the Chinese Taoist Association. Taoism is freely practiced in Taiwan, where it claims millions of adherents.
Taoism tends to emphasize various themes of the Daodejing and Zhuangzi, such as naturalness, spontaneity, simplicity, detachment from desires, and most important of all, wu wei. However, the concepts of those keystone texts can not be equated with Taoism as a whole.
Tao and Te
Tao (Chinese: 道; pinyin: dào) literally means "way", but can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line. In Taoism, it is "the One, which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course." It has variously been denoted as the "flow of the universe", a "conceptually necessary ontological ground", or a demonstration of nature. The Tao also is something that individuals can find immanent in themselves.
The active expression of Tao is called Te (also spelled – and pronounced – De, or even Teh; often translated with Virtue or Power; Chinese: 德; pinyin: dé), in a sense that Te results from an individual living and cultivating the Tao.
The ambiguous term wu-wei ( simplified Chinese: 无为; traditional Chinese: 無爲; pinyin: wú wéi) constitutes the leading ethical concept in Taoism. Wei refers to any intentional or deliberated action, while wu carries the meaning of "there is no ..." or "lacking, without". Common translations are "nonaction", "effortless action" or "action without intent". The meaning is sometimes emphasized by using the paradox expression "wei wu wei": "action without action".
In ancient Taoist texts, wu-wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts their will against the world, they disrupt that harmony. Taoism does not identify one's will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that one must place their will in harmony with the natural universe. Thus, a potentially harmful interference is to be avoided, and in this way, goals can be achieved effortlessly. "By wu-wei, the sage seeks to come into harmony with the great Tao, which itself accomplishes by nonaction."
Naturalness (Chinese: 自然; pinyin: zìrán; Wade–Giles: tzu-jan; lit. "self-such") is regarded as a central value in Taoism. It describes the "primordial state" of all things as well as a basic character of the Tao, and is usually associated with spontaneity and creativity. To attain naturalness, one has to identify with the Tao; this involves freeing oneself from selfishness and desire, and appreciating simplicity.
An often cited metaphor for naturalness is pu ( simplified Chinese: 朴; traditional Chinese: 樸; pinyin: pǔ, pú; Wade–Giles: p'u; lit. "uncut wood"), the "uncarved block", which represents the "original nature... prior to the imprint of culture" of an individual. It is usually referred to as a state one returns to.
The Three Treasures or Three Jewels ( simplified Chinese: 三宝; traditional Chinese: 三寶; pinyin: sānbǎo) are basic virtues in Taoism comprising Compassion, Moderation, and Humility. They are also translated as kindness, simplicity (or the absence of excess), and modesty. Arthur Waley describes them as "[t]he three rules that formed the practical, political side of the author's teaching". He correlated the Three Treasures with "abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment", "absolute simplicity of living", and "refusal to assert active authority".
Taoist cosmology is based on the beliefs of the School of Naturalists. In this spirit, the universe is seen as being in a constant process of re-creating itself, as everything that exists is a mere aspect of qi, which, "condensed, becomes life; diluted, it is indefinite potential". Qi is in a perpetual transformation between its condensed and diluted state. These two different states of qi, on the other hand, are embodiments of the abstract entities of yin and yang, two complementary extremes that constantly play against and with each other and can not exist without the other.
Human beings are seen as a microcosm of the universe, and for example comprise the Five Elements in form of the zang-fu organs. As a consequence, it is believed that deeper understanding of the universe can be achieved by understanding oneself.
A recurrent and important element of Taoism are rituals, exercises and substances aiming at aligning oneself spiritually with cosmic forces, at undertaking ecstatic spiritual journeys, or at improving physical health and thereby extending one's life, ideally to the point of immortality. Probably the most characteristic among these methods is Taoist alchemy. Already in very early Taoist scriptures - like the Taiping Jing and the Baopuzi - alchemical formulas for achieving immortality were outlined. Enlightened and immortal beings are referred to as xian.
A number of martial arts traditions, particularly the ones falling under the category of Neijia (like T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Bagua Zhang and Xing Yi Quan) embody Taoist principles to a significant extent, and some practitioners consider their art to be a means of practicing Taoism.
Taoist beliefs include teachings based on revelations from various sources. Therefore, different branches of Taoism often have differing beliefs, especially concerning deities and the proper composition of the pantheon. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that nearly all the sects share.
Popular Taoism typically presents the Jade Emperor as the official head deity. Intellectual ("elite") Taoists, such as the Celestial Masters sect, usually present Laozi (Laojun, "Lord Lao") and the Three Pure Ones at the top of the pantheon of deities. The pantheon tends to mirror the bureaucracy of Imperial China; deities also may be promoted or demoted for their actions.
While a number of immortals or other mysterious figures appear in the Zhuangzi, and to a lesser extent in the Tao Te Ching, these have generally not become the objects of worship. Traditional conceptions of Tao are not to be confused with the Western concepts of theism. Being one with the Tao does not indicate a union with an eternal spirit in, for example, the Hindu sense.
Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching or Daodejing, also often called Laozi, is widely regarded to be the most influential Taoist text. According to legend, it was written by Laozi. However, authorship, precise date of origin, and even unity of the text are still subject of debate, and will probably never be known with certainty. The earliest texts of the Tao Te Ching that have been excavated - the Guodian bamboo slips - date back to the late 4th century BC. Throughout the history of religious Taoism, the Tao Te Ching has been used as a ritual text.
The famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching are:
There is significant, at times acrimonious debate regarding which English translation of the Tao Te Ching is to be preferred, and which particular translation methodology is best.
The Tao Te Ching is not thematically ordered. However, the main themes of the text are repeatedly expressed using variant formulations, often with only a slight difference. The leading themes revolve around the nature of Tao and how to attain it. Tao is said to be ineffable, and accomplishing great things through small means.
Ancient commentaries on the Tao Te Ching are important texts in their own right. Perhaps the oldest one, the Heshang Gong commentary, was most likely written in the 2nd century CE. Other important commentaries include the one from Wang Bi and the Xiang'er.
The Daozang (道藏, Treasury of Tao) is also referred to as the Taoist canon. It was originally compiled during the Jin, Tang, and Song dynasties. The version surviving today was published during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Daozang includes almost 1500 texts. Following the example of the Buddhist Tripiṭaka, it is divided into three dong (洞, "caves", "grottoes"). They are arranged from "highest" to "lowest":
- The Zhen ("real" or "truth" 眞) grotto. Includes the Shangqing texts.
- The Xuan ("mystery" 玄) grotto. Includes the Lingbao scriptures.
- The Shen ("divine" 神) grotto. Includes texts predating the Maoshan （茅山） revelations.
Daoshi generally do not consult published versions of the Daozang, but individually choose, or inherit, texts included in the Daozang. These texts have been passed down for generations from teacher to student.
The Shangqing school has a tradition of approaching Taoism through scriptural study. It is believed that by reciting certain texts often enough one will be rewarded with immortality.
While the Tao Te Ching is most famous, there are many other important texts in traditional Taoism including Mohism. Taishang Ganying Pian ("Treatise of the Exalted One on Response and Retribution") discusses sin and ethics, and has become a popular morality tract in the last few centuries. It asserts that those in harmony with Tao will live long and fruitful lives. The wicked, and their descendants, will suffer and have shortened lives.
Symbols and images
The Taijitu (" yin and yang") symbol 太極圖 as well as the Ba gua 八卦 ("Eight Trigrams") are associated with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organizations make use of the yin and yang symbol, one could also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. The yin and yang make an "S" shape, with yin (Black or Red) on the right. One is likely to see this symbol as decorations on Taoist organization flags and logos, temple floors, or stitched into clerical robes. According to Song Dynasty sources, it originated around the 10th century. Previously, yin and yang were symbolized by a tiger and dragon.
Taoist temples may fly square or triangular flags. They typically feature mystical writing or diagrams and are intended to fulfill various functions including providing guidance for the spirits of the dead, to bring good fortune, increase life span, etc. Other flags and banners may be those of the gods or immortals themselves.
A zigzag with seven stars is sometimes displayed, representing the Big Dipper (or the Bushel, the Chinese equivalent). In the Shang Dynasty the Big Dipper was considered a deity, while during the Han Dynasty, it was considered a qi path of the circumpolar god, Taiyi.
Taoist temples in southern China and Taiwan may often be identified by their roofs, which feature Chinese dragons and phoenix made from multi-colored ceramic tiles. They also stand for the harmony of yin and yang (with the phoenix being yin). A related symbol is the flaming pearl which may be seen on such roofs between two dragons, as well as on the hairpin of a Celestial Master. In general though, Chinese Taoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it from other structures.
The number of Taoists is difficult to estimate, due to a variety of factors including defining Taoism. The number of people practicing Chinese folk religion is estimated to be just under four hundred million. Most Chinese people and many others have been influenced in some way by Taoist tradition. Estimates for the number of Taoists worldwide range from twenty million and possibly to as many as 400 million in China alone.
Recently, there have been some efforts to revive the practice of Taoist religion. In 1956, the Chinese Taoist Association was formed, and received official approval in 1957. It was disbanded during the Cultural Revolution under Mao, but re-established in 1980. The headquarters of the Association are at Baiyun guan, or White Cloud Temple, of the Longmen branch of Quanzhen.
Since 1980, many Taoist monasteries and temples have been reopened or rebuilt, most of them belonging to the Zhengyi or Quanzhen school. For these two schools, ordination has been officially allowed again. However, "the Chinese government prefers the celibate model of ... Quanzhen clergy", while "Zhengyi clergy are often married, and often reside at home."
Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people: mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and various Chinese diaspora communities. Taoist literature and art has influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Organized Taoism seems not to have attracted a large non-Chinese following, except in Korea and Vietnam, until modern times. In Taiwan 7.5 million people (33% of the population) identify themselves as Taoists. In Singapore, 8.5% of the population identify themselves as Taoist. There are also small numbers of Taoists in the Western world.
At certain dates, food may be set out as a sacrifice to the spirits of the deceased or the gods, such as during the Qingming Festival. This may include slaughtered animals, such as pigs and ducks, or fruit. Another form of sacrifice involves the burning of Joss paper, or Hell Bank Notes, on the assumption that images thus consumed by the fire will reappear—not as a mere image, but as the actual item—in the spirit world, making them available for revered ancestors and departed loved ones. At other points, a vegan diet or full fast may be observed.
Also on particular holidays, street parades take place. These are lively affairs which invariably involve firecrackers and flower-covered floats broadcasting traditional music. They also variously include lion dances and dragon dances; human-occupied puppets (often of the " Seventh Lord" and " Eighth Lord"); tongji (童乩 "spirit-medium; shaman") who cut their skin with knives; Bajiajiang, which are Kungfu-practicing honour guards in demonic makeup; and palanquins carrying god-images. The various participants are not considered performers, but rather possessed by the gods and spirits in question.
Fortune-telling—including astrology, I Ching, and other forms of divination—has long been considered a traditional Taoist pursuit. Mediumship is also widely encountered in some sects. There is an academic and social distinction between martial forms of mediumship (such as tongji) and the spirit-writing that is typically practiced through planchette writing.
Unlike Confucianism, Taoism favors philosophical anarchism, pluralism and laissez-faire-government. According to Laozi, the best way to govern is not to govern (cf. wu-wei). He has been considered as one of the first classical liberals, as he wrote in the Daodejing: "The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become." Also Zhuangzi was along the same lines. On the other hand, politics never have been a main issue in Taoism.
Relations with other religions and philosophies
The terms Tao and De are religious and philosophical terms shared between Taoism and Confucianism. The authorship of the Tao Te Ching is assigned to Laozi, who is traditionally held to have been a teacher of Confucius. However, some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching arose as a reaction to Confucianism. Zhuangzi, reacting to the Confucian- Mohist ethical disputes in his "history of thought", casts Laozi as a prior step to the Mohists by name and the Confucians by implication.
Early Taoist texts reject the basic assumptions of Confucianism which relied on rituals and order, in favour of the examples of "wild" nature and individualism. Historical Taoists challenged conventional morality, while Confucians considered society debased and in need of strong ethical guidance.
The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction and syncretism, with Taoism in particular. Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism was particularly modified by Taoism, integrating distrust of scripture, text and even language, as well as the Taoist views of embracing "this life", dedicated practice and the "every-moment". Taoism incorporated Buddhist elements during the Tang period, such as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the doctrine of emptiness, and collecting scripture in tripartite organisation. During the same time, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism. Christine Mollier concluded that a number of Buddhist sutras found in medieval East Asia and Central Asia adopted many materials from earlier Taoist scriptures.
Ideological and political rivals for centuries, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism deeply influenced one another. For example, Wang Bi, one of the most influential philosophical commentators on the Laozi (and Yijing), was a Confucian. The three rivals also share some similar values, with all three embracing a humanist philosophy emphasizing moral behaviour and human perfection. In time, most Chinese people identified to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. This became institutionalised when aspects of the three schools were synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school.