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Taoism Essay, Research Paper


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

God unanswered.35

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

to longevity.41

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??an-chen (Perfect

Realization) sect, founded in 1163 by Wang Che.41 The Ch??an-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:


Semester 1994-95.

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

Publishers, 1977.

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

Semester 1994-95).

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Philip Goetz, Ed., Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th Edition, Vol. 28:

?Taoism? (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991), p. 399

10 Ibid., p. 398

11 Bettencourt.

12 Goetz, p. 398.

13 Bettencourt.

14 Ibid.

15 Loretta Pastva, Great Religions of the World (Winona, Minnesota:

Saint Mary?s Press, 1986), p. 117.

16 Ibid.

17 Bettencourt.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Goetz, p. 407

23 Bettencourt.

24 Ibid.

25 Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way (New York: Pantheon Books,

1975), p. 51.

26 Bettencourt.7

27 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers,

1977), p. 59.

28 Watts, p. 51.

29 Bettencourt.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

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.

37 Ibid.

38 Goetz, p. 399.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., p. 404.

42 Ibid.

43 Pastva, p. 115

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

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