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2.1.6 Taoism

Taoism is a religious-philosophical tradition that has shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. In the broadest sense, the Taoist attitude toward life can be seen in the accepting and yielding, the joyful and carefree sides of the Chinese character, an attitude that offsets and complements the moral and duty-conscious, austere, and purposeful character ascribed to Confucianism. Taoism is also characterized by a positive, active attitude toward the occult and the metaphysical, whereas the agnostic, pragmatic Confucian tradition considers these issues of only marginal importance. Taoist thought permeates Chinese culture, including many aspects not usually considered Taoist. Taoist philosophy and religion have found their way into all Asian cultures influenced by China, especially those of Vietnam, Japan, and Korea. The mystics should be viewed against the background of the religious practices existing in their own times. As there has been a nearly continuous mutual influence between Taoists of different social classes, philosophers, ascetics, alchemists, and the priests of popular cults, the distinction between philosophical and religious Taoism is made simply for the sake of descriptive convenience. Taoism and Confucianism traditions share many of the same ideas about man, society, the ruler, Heaven, and the universe; either school did not create these ideas but they came from a tradition that existed prior to either Confucius or Lao-tzu. Taoist and Buddhist elements have coexisted without clear distinctions in the minds of the worshippers.

General characteristics

Behind all forms of Taoism stands the figure of Lao-tzu, traditionally regarded as the author of the classic text known as the Lao-tzu, or the Tao-te Ching (“Classic of the Way of Power”). The first mention of Lao-tzu is found in another early classic of Taoist speculation, the Chuang-tzu (4th-3rd century BC). In this work, Lao-tzu is described as being one of Chuang-tzu’s own teachers, and the same book contains many of the Master’s (Lao-tzu’s) discourses. In this early source, Lao-tzu appears as a senior contemporary of Confucius (6th-5th century BC) and as a renowned Taoist master. The first consistent biographical account of Lao-tzu is found in the “Historical Records” of Ssu-ma Ch’ien. The Tao-te Ching was meant as a handbook for the ruler who should be a sage whose actions pass so unnoticed that his very existence remains unknown. He imposes no restrictions or prohibitions on his subjects. Therefore the Holy Man rules by emptying the hearts (minds) and filling the bellies of his subjects, weakening their wills and strengthening their bones, ever striving to make the people knowledge less and desire less. War is condemned but not entirely excluded and the leader does not glory in victory. The sacred aura-surrounding kingship is rationalized and expressed as “inaction” (wu-wei), demanding of the sovereign no more than right cosmological orientation at the centre of an obedient universe. All schools of thought employed the term Tao. The universe has its Tao; there is a Tao of the sovereign, his royal mode of being; the Tao of man comprises continuity through procreation. Each of the schools, too, had its own Tao, its way or doctrine. But in the Tao-te Ching, the ultimate unity of the universal Tao itself is being proposed as a social ideal. It is this idealistic peculiarity that seems to justify later historians and bibliographers in their assignment of the term Taoist to the Tao-te Ching and its successors.

Taoism and Other Asian religions

The affinities of Taoism with other Asian religions are numerous. If one distinguishes between universal religions of salvation, such as Buddhism and Islam, and the older, more culture-bound religions, such as Japanese Shinto and Hinduism, Taoism undoubtedly belongs to the second category. Like Taoism, Shinto is the religion of the village community. Records from the early 7th century contain traces of Taoism in Japan, which was appreciated chiefly for its magical claims. The “masters of Yin and Yang” (ommyo-ji), a caste of diviners learned in the I Ching, Chinese astrology, and occult sciences who assumed importance at court in the Heian period (8th-12thcentury), probably were responsible for the introduction of Taoist practices. Buddhist ascetics, wandering healers, and mountain hermits known as yamabushi probably came closest to Taoism in their techniques for prolonging life (abstinence from grains, etc.) and their magical arts (exorcisms, sword dance) and objects (mirrors, charms).

Taoism emphasizes nature and what is natural, and spontaneousness in man. This definition neglects the social thought of the Taoist philosophers and the political aspects of Taoist religion. The first mention of Buddhism in China (AD 65) occurred in a Taoist context at the court of a member of the Imperial family known for his devotion to the doctrines of Huang-Lao. Early translators employed Taoist expressions as equivalents for Buddhist technical terms. A theory claimed that Buddhism was a debased form of Taoism designed by Lao-tzu as a curb on the violent natures and vicious habits of the “western barbarians”. A variant theory even suggested that, by imposing celibacy on Buddhist monks, Lao-tzu intended the foreigners’ extinction. Although there is no evidence that the earliest Taoist organization, literature, or ceremonies were in any way indebted to Buddhism, by the 4th century there was a distinct Buddhist influence upon the literary form of Taoist scriptures and the philosophical expression of the Taoist masters. The process of interaction, however, was a mutual one. The ultimate synthesis of Taoism and Buddhism was realized in the Ch’an (Japanese Zen) tradition (from the 7th century on), into which the paradoxes of the ancient Taoist mystics were integrated. Neo-Confucian thought often seems as much Taoist as the so-called Neo-Taoist philosophy and literature seem Confucian. A mixture of Confucian ethics, the Taoist system of merits, and the Buddhist concept of reincarnation produced such “books on goodness” (shan-shu) as the Kan ying p’ien (“Tract on Actions and Retributions”).

Taoism, a Chinese religion based on folk religion with Buddhist influences, holds an in-between position with respect to monastic ventures. It lies somewhere between the powerfully anti-monastic Confucian schools that always represented the official culture and mainstream of sophisticated Chinese opinion, and the radically monastic Buddhists. The chief object of Taoism, however, is not the redemptive, salvation purpose found in other scriptural based religions, Eastern and Western. The ultimate aim of the Taoist sage was longevity, or ultimate physical immortality, rather than salvation from this world or the self.

Taoism Priesthood in China

In China, the Taoist “priesthood” emerged as an organized institution at the beginning of the Christian era. Some were celibates while others were married, living ordinary domestic lives. A number were mendicants and some engaged in alchemy and astrology; others were illiterate. There were also those who assisted in ceremonies collecting. In the 6th century AD, in imitation of Buddhism, the Taoist celibates lived in monasteries with a patriarch as the head and interchanged facilities with their Buddhist counterparts.

Philosophy of Taoist

Prior to the introduction of Buddhism into China in the 1st century AD, Confucianism and Taoism represented the two main branches of religious thought in that country. Taoism claims that the wise man will constantly seek harmony and a good rapport with Tao (the Way) which is the way for men to follow if they want to reach blessedness; it is also the principle that underlies and sustains the world. As a concept that is both moral and cosmological, Tao has a logical status similar to that of the Logos (or Word) in Christian philosophy. The Taoist thinks little of the ways of the world; his outlook rather encourages a laissez-faire policy toward the world and even withdrawal from its affairs. The immediate mystical experience of Taoism can easily blend with Buddhism.

Taoism in modern times

The principal Taoist country in the 20th century is Taiwan. Its establishment on the island is contemporary with the great emigration from the mainland province of Fukien in the 17th and 18th centuries. On Taiwan, Taoism may still be observed in its traditional setting. Hereditary Taoist priests, called “blackheads” (wu t’ou) from their headgear, are clearly set off from the exorcists (fa-shih)or “redheads” (hung-t’ou) of the ecstatic cults.

Symbolism and mythology

Taoists prefer to convey their ecstatic insights in images and parables. The Tao is low and receiving as a valley, soft and life giving as water, and it is the “mysterious female,” the source of all life, the Mother of the Ten Thousand Beings. Man should become weak and yielding as water that overcomes the hard and the strong, and always takes the low ground; he should develop his male and female sides but “prefer femininity,” “feed on the mother,” and find within himself the well that never runs dry. A frequent metaphor for the working of the Tao is the incommunicable ability to be skilful at a craft. The artisan, in union with his Tao, does his work reflexively and without conscious intent.

Western mysticism and religions

The similarity of mysticism in all religions points to the fact that there is only one Inner Way, the experience of which is expressed differently in the respective cultural and religious environments. Lao-tzu’s notion of “the One” is not only primordial unity, but also the oneness underlying all phenomena, the point in which all contraries are reconciled. Taoism, like all other forms of Eastern mysticism, distinguishes itself from Western mysticism by its conscious techniques of mind and body designed to induce trance, and to give access to mystical experience.

Secret societies

Politically dissident messianic movements have existed and developed separately from the established Taoist church from the very beginning (2nd century AD). Their leaders were priest-shamans. Their followers were the semiliterate or illiterate classes, socially below the tradition of orthodox Taoism. Although the secret societies have had no organizational contact with the Taoist tradition for centuries, their religious beliefs, practices, and symbols contain some Taoist elements, such as initiation rites, worship of Taoist deities, and the use of charms and amulets for invulnerability.

Alchemical developments

While learned specialists continued to refine alchemical theory, the period witnessed an increasing interest in internal alchemy (nei tan), in which the language of the laboratory was used to describe operations realized within the body. By Sung times, however, the systematic interiorisation and sublimation of alchemy had become so widespread that all earlier texts of operative, external alchemy (wai tan) were henceforth supposed to have really been written about nei tan, and the attempt to compound a tangible chemical elixir was thought to have been no more than a hoax

Communal ceremonies

Among the most important ceremonial occasions were the communal feasts (ch’u) offered at certain specific times throughout the year (during the first, seventh, and 10th months) as well as on other important occasions, such as initiation into the hierarchy, advancement in rank or function, or the consecration of an oratory. These feasts were of varying degrees of elaborateness, depending on the circumstances. The common essential element, however, was the sharing of certain foods, in prescribed quantities, among masters and disciples. This was envisaged as a communion with the Tao, attesting the close relation with the celestial powers enjoyed by the members of the parish and reinforcing their own sense of cohesion as a group.

Taoist contributions to Chinese science

Taoist physiological techniques have no devotional character. They have the same preoccupations as physicians: to preserve health and to prolong physical life. Medicine developed independently from about the 1st century AD, but many Taoist faith healers and hygienists added to medical knowledge. This interest in science is considered a reflection of the Taoist emphasis on direct observation and experience of the nature of things.

The social ideal of primitivism

Any human intervention is believed to ruin the harmony of the natural transformation process. The spontaneous rhythm of the primitive agrarian community, and its un-self-conscious symbiosis with nature’s cycles, is the Taoist ideal of society. The people of that time are “dull and unwitting, they have no desire; this is called uncarved simplicity. In uncarved simplicity the people attain their true nature. Man should equally renounce all concepts of measure, law, and virtue.

Concepts of man and society

The “superior virtue” of Taoism is a latent power that never lays claim to its achievements; it is the “mysterious power” (hsüan te) of Tao presents in the heart of the sage: “the man of superior virtue never acts (wu-wei), and yet there is nothing he leaves undone. “Perfect activity leaves no track behind it; perfect speech is like a jade worker whose tool leaves no mark.” It is the Tao that “never acts, yet there is nothing it does not do.”

Celibacy in Taoism

Chinese Taoism has monastic and celibate adepts. Originally the tradition was probably derived from shamanism, but now the Taoist monasticism and priesthood is modelled on Buddhism.