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The Concept of Taoism

Taoism, (pronounced Daoism) is a way of life that embraces living in harmony with one’s natural surroundings or Tao. Tao is best translated as “way” or “path”, and is said to be both the source and driving force behind everything that exists within the universe. The true Tao is said to be indescribable and cannot be expressed in words. It can only be seen and expressed through the natural world, and experienced or ‘lived’ by individuals who maintain a natural way of life through living in accordance with the principles of the Tao. This ‘state of being’ can be acheived through the continued practice of certain practices such as Tai Chi Chuan and living within the natural laws of the principle teachings of the Tao. Taoists believe the Tao is ultimate reality and Taoism is the true and natural way of life that humans should follow.

Taoism involves a clean and natural way of life. It embodies naturalness and health and promotes longevity through the practice of Chi Kung breathing exercises, Tai’Chi, natural healthy eating, herbalism, meditation, contemplation and non-action. Taoism also promotes simplicity, moderation, compassion, balance, and harmony, and sees death as a natural return to the Tao.

The Origin of Taoism

The first dynasty in China to be described in ancient historical chronicles is the Xia Dynasty. The Xia Dynasty reigned between 2070 BC and 1600 BC and was formed by Yu The Great (2200 BC – 2100 BC), a legendary ruler of ancient China. The Shang Dynasty or Yin Dynasty succeded the Xia Dynasty and reigned in the valley of the Yellow River during the second millennium BC. The famous story of the Shang comes from texts such as the Records of the Grand Historian, Bamboo Annals and Classic of History.

There are several references as to the exact time that the Shang Dynasty reigned. According to the traditional chronology from calculations made by Liu Xin (50 BC –  AD 23), an astromoner, historian, and editor during the Xin Dynasty (9–23), the Shang Dynasty reigned between 1766 BC and 1122 BC. According to the chronology of the Bamboo Annals, they regned between 1556 BC and 1046 BC. The results of the Xia Shang Zhou Chronology Project, commissioned by the People’s Republic of China in 1996 to accurately determine the time and location of the Xia Dynasty, the Shang Dynasty and the Zhou Dynasty which involved around 200 experts, placed them between 1600 BC and 1046 BC.

Early Shang Dynasty thought was centered around cycles. This idea came from what the Shang Dynasty people observed within their natural surroundings. Day became night and returned to day again, the seasons came and went only to return again, over and over. They also observed the continual waxing and waning of the moon. These observations reflected the order of nature and the universe, and remained relevant throughout the history of Chinese culture right up until the present day.

The Zhou Dynasty succeeded the Shang Dynasty and reigned from 1046 BC – 256 BC. Archaeological evidence found from this period shows an increase in literacy and a slight movement away from faith in Shangdi, the Supreme Being in traditional Chinese religion, with a more worldly emphasis coming to the forefront, and ancestor worship becoming more common.

During the time known as the Spring and Autumn Period from 771 BC – 475 BC, and the Warring States period of 475 BC – 221 BC, philosophers and schools flourished. This was an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China. Although this period was troubled with conflict and bloody battles, it is also known as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy due to a wide range of thoughts and ideas that developed freely. This is known as the Hundred Schools of Thougth and has been called the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought. Of the many schools founded at this time, the four most influential ones were Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism and Legalism. It is interesting to note, that this period was around the same time that the first Greek philosophers emerged.

Laozi (Lao Tzu)

Laozi  (Lao Tzu, Lao TseLao TuLao-TsuLaotzeLaosiLaocius) was a philosopher in ancient China and best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching, and as such, is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism.  According to tradition, Laozi lived in the 6th century BC though some historians maintain that he lived in the 5th-4th century BC during the warring states period.

The name Laozi is in fact a title. Lao means “old” or worthy of respect as a result of great age, wisdom, or remarkable achievements, and/or similar qualities. Zi was an honorific suffix used in ancient China meaning “Master”, or “Sir”. He is considered a God-like figure in most religious forms of Taoist philosophy, and is often referred to as one of ‘The Three Pure Ones’.

Lao Tzu, it is said, spent most of his life as an archivist in the library of the Zhou Dynasty court. This gave him lots of time on his hands, and lots of time to think. He saw things were becoming increasingly corrupt, and decided to go into exile. Disturbed by this corruption all around him, he eventually left the country. It is said, he traveled west on a water buffalo to reach the great desert. At the westernmost gate, a guard recognized him and requested that he should write down his teachings and philosophy, that were un-recorded at that time. The texts became the famous Tao Te Ching. The guard was so impressed by the writngs, that he followed him, never to be seen again.

Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching, (Dao De Jing, or Daodejing) literally means “way”(Tao) “virtue”(Te) Classic or book (jīng). It is a fundamental text on Taoism which strongly influenced other schools of thought such as Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism. These other schools often clarified their principles with the use of Taoist words and concepts. The true authorship and date of compilation of the text are still uncertain. However, the oldest excavated text dates back to the late 4th century BC.

The Tao Te Ching has been a powerful source of inspiration for many Chinese painters, poets, calligraphers and gardeners. The Tao Te Ching’s influence has also spread far and wide outside of East Asia. It is among the most translated works of literature in the world and has been translated more than 250 times into Western languages such as English, German, and French.

Zhuangzi (Zhuāng Zǐ)

Zhuangzi (Zhuāng Zǐ) was another influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

His name Zhuangzi (English “Master Zhuang”, with Zi being an honorific) is sometimes spelled Zhuang Tze, Zhuang Zhou, Chuang Tsu, Chuang Tzu, Chouang-Dsi, Chuang Tse, or Chuangtze.

Zhuangzi is credited as the author of the book entitled of the same name – Zhuangzi. The text is a composition of writings from various sources. The traditional view is that Zhuangzi wrote the first seven, fundamental chapters, and his students and close thinkers were responsible for the remainder of the text.

The Development of Taoism

Taoism draws its foundations from the principles of Yin and Yang and the Five Phases, more commonly referred to as the Five Elements. These fundamental principles are said to have developed during the warring states period of the 4th-3rd centuries BC from The School of Yin-Yang.

Zhou Yan is recognized as the founder of The School of Yin-Yang. His theory explained the natural phenomena of the universe as two opposing yet complementary forces of Yin; night, dark, cold, empty, female, negative etc. and Yang; day, light, hot, full, male etc. His philosophy and teachings blended the concepts of Yin and Yang and the Five Phases of wood, fire, earth, metal and water together.

The first organized school of Taoism was the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice, so called because each person wanting to join had to donate five pecks of rice. Zhang Daoling was the founder of this Taoist movement after he claimed that Laozi appeared before him in the year 142. The Way of the Five Pecks of Rice was commonly abbreviated to Way of the Celestial Master and then simply to The Celestial Masters (Tianshi) towards the end of the 2nd century.

In the year 215, the Tianshi school was officially recognized by Cao Cao (155 – March 15, 220). Cao Cao was the Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He rose to great power during the dynasty’s later years and was a central figure of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280).

The Shangqing School was a Taoist movement that began during the Western Jin dynasty (265-316). Shangqing can be translated as either ‘Supreme Clarity’ or ‘Highest Clarity.’ The first leader of the school was Wei Huacun (251-334). However, it was Tao Hongjing who is generally considered to be its true founder, as it was he who structured the theory and practice, as well as compiling the “Taoist Canon”, consisting of around 1400 texts collected after the Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi which are the main texts on Taoism. Tao Hongjing’s prominence contributed significantly to the development of the school towards the end of the 5th century.

The Lingbao School, (School of the Sacred Jewel or the School of Numinous Treasure), was an important school for Taoism. It began around the begining of the fifth century, between the Jin Dynasty (265 – 420) and the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479). The Lingbao School lasted for around two hundred years before blending into the Shangqing School during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). The Lingbao School was a combination of religious ideas based on Shangqing texts, rituals of the Celestial Masters, and Buddhist practices.

Ge Chaofu lived during the 4th and 5th centuries and is primarily recognised for writing the scripture known as The Five Talismans (Wufujing). This scripture formed the foundation for the beliefs of the Lingbao School of Taoism. Around the year 390, Ge Chaofu researched books in his family library as well as Buddhist and Shangqing texts to expand the five talismans in Ge Hong’s book the Baopuzi. He created a new text known as The Five Talismans (Wufujing). Around the year 400, Ge Chaofu passed this text to Xu Lingqi and Ren Yanqing who were two of his disciples, shortly after which, the texts became very popular.

It was during the Tang Dynasty between 618–907, that Taoism gained official status in China, as it was during this time that its emperors claimed they were related to Laozi. The movement of Taoism at this time was directed by the Shangqing school.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), several emperors, particulary Huizong, actively promoted Taoism. Ge Chaofu’s compilation of scriptures which formed the foundation of the teachings for the Lingbao school of the fifth century, had its greatest influence at this time.

The Quanzhen School was founded in Shandong in the 12th century during the rise of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 by the Taoist, Wang Chongyang (1113 – 1170).  It continued to grow, and during the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368), became the biggest and most important school of Taoism in Northern China. The school’s most respected master, Qiu Chuji (1148 – 1227), met with Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227),  in 1222. During this time, Qiu Chuji was successful in influencing Genghis Khan to exercise more restraint during his ruthless invasions. Later, the Khan declared the school was to be exempt from taxation.

The Quanzhen Taoists, among others, employed much effort in trying to influence the Mongolians to exercise more restraint during the invasion of the Song Dynasty in 1254. This influence helped to save thousands of lives, especially those from a Han Chinese descent.

Quanzhen literally translates to “All True” and for this reason, it is often called the “All Truth Religion” or the “Way of Completeness and Truth.” In some texts, it is also referred to as the “Way of Complete Perfection.

Various aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, were integrated within the Neo-Confucian School during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), but the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) preferred Confucian works over Taoist teachings. The imperial library was established during the 18th century, but excluded nearly all Taoist books, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Taoism had fallen so much from popularity, that only one entire copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing.

Today, The People’s Republic of China recognizes five main religions; Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism.  Although it is almost impossible to estimate the total number of followers of Taoism in China, there are over 1,600 Taoist temples and 25,000 Taoist priests of the Quanzhen Taoism and Zhengyi Sect, and several hundred local Taoist associations. The general headquarters of these associations are based in Beijing, at the White Cloud Temple (see picture above). The Chinese government regulates Taoist activities through the Chinese Taoist Association (CTA). In Taiwan, there are millions of devotees of Taoism where it is practiced freely.

Taoism is becoming more and more recognised throughout the Western World, with various Taoist Organisations emerging as the practice of Tai Chi, Chi Kung and Taoist Yoga become ever more popular.

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