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- For other uses of the words "tao" and "dao", see Dao (disambiguation).
Taoism (sometimes written as Daoism) is the English name for:
- (a) a philosophical school based on the texts the Tao Te Ching (ascribed to Laozi and alternately spelled Dào Dé Jīng) and the Zhuangzi.
- (b) a family of organized Chinese religious movements such as the Zhengyi ("Orthodoxy") or Quanzhen ("complete reality") sects, which collectively trace back to Zhang Daoling in the late Han Dynasty;
- (c) a Chinese folk religion.
The English word "Taoism" is used to translate the Chinese terms Daojiao (道教) and Daojia (道家). The character Tao 道 (or Dao, depending on the Romanisation scheme one prefers) literally means "path" or "way", but in Chinese religion and philosophy has taken on more abstract meanings. The compound Daojiao refers to Daoism as a religion; Daojia refers to the activity of scholars in their studies. It must be noted that this distinction is itself controversial and fraught with hermeneutic difficulty.
Much uncertainty exists over the meaning of "Taoism," not least because of its often being confused with such seemingly similar disciplines such as Zen. In some countries and contexts (for example, the national "Taoism" organisations of China and Taiwan), the label has come to be applied to the Chinese folk religion, which would otherwise not have a readily recognisable English name. However many, if not most, of its practitioners would not recognise "Taoism" (in any language) as the name of their religion. Moreover, the several forms of what we might call "elite" or "organised" Taoism often distinguish their ritual activities from those of the folk religion, which some professional "Taoists" (Daoshi) tend to view as debased.
Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines have some relationship with Taoism.
Depending on how it is defined, Taoism's origins may be traced to the prehistoric Chinese religion; to the composition of the Tao Te Ching" (3rd or 4th century BCE); or to the activity of Zhang Daoling (2nd century CE). Alternatively, one could argue that "Taoism" as a religious identity only arose later, by way of contrast with the newly-arrived religion of Buddhism, or with the fourth-century codification of the Shangching and Lingbao texts.
Other accounts credit Laozi (reputed author of the Tao Te Ching/Dao de Jing) as the teacher of both Buddha, and Confucius. They describe early Taoism (Daoism) to ancient picture writing, mysticism, and indigenous Ancestor worship. Symbology on tortoise shells predates early Chinese calligraphy and is the basis of written Chinese from artifacts dated from prior to 1600 BCE.
Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE)
By the early Han, Laozi came to be worshipped as divine—either in association with or conflated with the Yellow Emperor. A major text from this "Huang-Lao" movement would be the Huainanzi, which interprets earlier Taoist teachings in light of the quest for immortality (including drugs, sexual practices, and breathing techniques).
Zhang Daoling claimed to have begun receiving new revelations from Laozi in 142 CE, and founded the Tianshi ("Celestial Masters") sect around them. He performed spiritual healing, and collected dues of "five pecks of rice" from his followers (thus providing an alternative name for his movement). Zhang Daoling's major message was that the world-order as his followers knew it would soon come to an end, and be succeeded by an era of "Great Peace" (Taiping). In fact their activities did hasten the downfall of the Han dynasty. The same could be said of their contemporaries and fellow Taoists, the Yellow Turban sect. Zhang's grandson set up a theocratic state into what is now Sichuan province. Today's Zhengyi sect claims continuity with Zhang Daoling.
Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in 166 CE. The Yin and Yang and "five elements" theories date from this time, but were not yet integrated into Taoism.
The name Daojia comes from the Han Dynasty. In Sima Qian's history (chapter 63) it refers to immortals; in Liu Xiang it refers to Laozi and Zhuangzi. Daojiao came to be applied to the religious movements mentioned above. The two terms were used interchangeably until modern times. (We owe the distinction to Confucian writers.) The earliest Han commentary on the Dao De Jing is actually that of Heshang Gong (the "Riverside Master"), a religious Taoist.
Three Kingdoms Period (220–265)
The Xuanxue ("Mysterious Wisdom") school, including Wang Bi, focuses on the texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi but not necessarily on the organised religion.
Six Dynasties (316–589)
Taoist alchemist Ge Hong, also known as Baopuzi (抱扑子 The "Master Embracing Simplicity") was active in the third and fourth centuries CE and had great influence on later Taoism. Major scriptures were produced during this time period, including The Shangqing (上清 "Highest Purity") (365–370) and Lingbao (靈寶 "Sacred Treasure") scriptures (397–402) received at Maoshan. The Shangqing revelations were received by Yang Xi, a relative of Ge Hong's; the revelations emphasised meditative visualisation (內觀 neiguan). They spoke of the Shangqing heaven, which stood above what had been previously considered the highest heaven by Celestial Master Taoists. Yang Xi's revelations consisted of visitations from the residents of this heaven (the "Zhen Ren") many of whom were ancestors of a circle of aristocrats from southern China. These Zhen Ren spoke of an apocalypse which was to arrive in 384, and claimed that only certain people from this aristocratic circle had been chosen to be saved. For the first century of its existence, Shangqing Taoism was isolated to this aristocratic circle. However, Tao Hongjing (456–536) codified and wrote commentaries on Yang Xi's writings and allowed for the creation of Shangching Taoism as a popular religion. The Lingbao scriptures added some Buddhist elements such as chanted rituals, and an emphasis on universal salvation.
The Huahujing (化胡經 "Scripture of Conversion of Barbarians") claimed that Laozi went to India, where he taught less advanced doctrines under the name of Buddha. Buddhists found this claim objectionable, and emperors regularly condemned it. A similar claim is made in the Xishengjing (西升經 the "Scripture of Western Ascension").
Tang Dynasty (618–907)
Taoism gained official status in China during the Tang dynasty, whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. However, it was forced to compete with Confucianism and Buddhism, its major rivals, for patronage and rank. Emperor Xuanzong (685–762), who ruled at the height of the Tang, wrote commentaries on texts from all three of these traditions, which exemplifies the fact that in many people's lives they were not mutually exclusive. This marks the beginning of a long-lived tendency within imperial China, in which the government supported (and simultaneously regulated) all three movements.
Emperor Tang Gaozong added the Dao De Jing to the list of "classics" (jing, 經) to be studied for the imperial examinations; hence the appearance of -jing in its title.
Song Dynasty (960–1279)
Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.
The Quanzhen school of Taoism was founded during this period, and together with the Zhengyi Celestial Masters is one of the two schools of Taoism that have survived to the present.
The Song Dynasty saw an increasingly complex interaction between the elite traditions of organised Taoism as practised by ordained Taoist ministers (daoshi) and the local traditions of folk religion as practised by spirit mediums (wu) and a new class of non-ordained ritual experts known as fashi. This interaction manifested itself in the integration of 'converted' local deities into the bureaucratically organised Taoist pantheon and the emergence of new exorcistic rituals, including the Celestial Heart Rites and the Thunder Rites.
Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes.
Yuan Dynasty (1279–1367)
White Cloud Monastery, Beijing
Neidan ("Interior Alchemy") became a major emphasis of the Quanzhen sect, whose practitioners followed a monastic model inspired by Buddhism. One of its leaders, Qiu Chuji became a teacher of Genghis Khan (and used his influence to save millions of lives). Originally from Shanxi and Shandong, the sect established its main center in Beijing's Baiyunguan ("White Cloud Monastery"). Before the end of the dynasty, the Celestial Masters sect (and Buddhism) again gained preeminence.
Nationalist Period (1912–1949)
Guomindang (China Nationalist Party) leaders embrace science, modernity, and Western culture, including (to some extent) Christianity. Viewing the popular religion as reactionary and parasitic, they confiscated some temples for public buildings, and otherwise attempted to control traditional religious activity.
People's Republic of China (1949–present)
The Communist Party of China, officially atheistic, initially suppressed Taoism along with other religions. Much of the Taoist infrastructure was destroyed. Monks and priests were sent to labor camps. This practice intensified during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, nearly eradicating most Taoist sites.
Deng Xiaoping eventually restored some religious tolerance beginning in 1982. Subsequently, communist leaders have recognised Taoism as an important traditional religion of China and also as a potential lucrative focus for tourism, so many of the more scenic temples and monasteries have been repaired and reopened.
Taoism is one of five religions recognised by the PRC, which insists on controlling its activities through a state bureaucracy (the China Taoist Association). Sensitive areas include the relationship of the Zhengyi Taoists with their sect's lineage-holder (he lives in Taiwan); and the status of various traditional temple activities (astrology, shamanism) which have been criticised as "superstitious" or "feudal".
The number of "Taoists" is difficult to estimate, partly for definitional reasons (who counts as a Taoist?), and partly for practical ones (it is illegal for private parties to conduct surveys in China). The number of people practicing some aspect of the Chinese folk religion might number in the hundreds of millions. (Adherents.com estimates "Traditional Chinese religion" at nearly four hundred million). The number of people patronising Daoshi (Taoist "priests" or masters) would be smaller by several orders of magnitude, while the number of literary Daojia would be smaller yet. At the same time, most Chinese people and many others have been influenced in some way by Taoist tradition.
Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people: inland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and various Chinese diaspora communities. Taoist literature and art has influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and these countries' folk religions have many common elements. "Organized" Taoism seems not to have attracted a non-Chinese following until modern times.
Religious Taoism (Daojiao)
A Taoist Temple in Taiwan. The religious practice of incense burning as well as images of the Fu Dog
guardian spirits can be seen.
Taoism is not a belief-centered religion, and there are no known Taoist creeds. At the same time, certain characteristic beliefs or assumptions can be identified. (See Taoist doctrine.)
Beyond the Chinese folk religion, various rituals, exercises, or substances are said to positively affect one's physical health (even to the point of immortality); align oneself spiritually with cosmic forces; or enable ecstatic spiritual journeys. These concepts seem basic to Taoism in its elite forms.
Philosophical Taoism (Daojia)
Philosophical Taoism does not refer to one Taoist school or group of philosophers. Philosophical Taoism is a part of Xuanxue and other lineages. Ultimately the distinction between "philosophical" and "religious" Taoism is as difficult to define as Taoism itself. "Religious" Taoists may never have read Laozi or Zhuangzi or any of the Daozang, and being called a Taoist may even seem unfamiliar or artificial.
Philosophical Taoism emphasizes various themes found in the Dao De Jing such as "nonaction" (wu wei), emptiness, detachment, the strength of softness (or flexibility), and The Zhuangzi such as receptiveness, spontaneity, the relativism of human ways of life, ways of speaking and guiding behavior. Most philosophical debate concerns dao--what way we should follow, but Taoists more directly question what a dao is, how or if we can know it and emphasize more than other schools the ways social daos depend on and presuppose natural daos. Their more detached discussion and their reluctance to formulate or advocate a social dao of their own means their discussions tend to be more playful and paradoxical than dogmatic. This makes their tone strikingly different from Confucian and Mohist texts.
Taoist commentators have been puzzled by the opening lines of the Dao De Jing, which has usually been translated:
- The way which can be uttered, is not the eternal Way.
- The name which can be named, is not the eternal Name.
(The original words are
- 道可道，非常道。 (dao (ways) can be spoken, not usual ways)
- 名可名，非常名。 (names can be named, not usual names))
In Chinese, "道" or "Dao" is used both as a noun and verb. 'Way' works well for the noun, but the translation for the verb "to speak" seems unmatched in meaning, unless we think in terms of "to advocate, to preach, to formulate etc." Notice in the second line, the noun and verb use of '名' seem closer in meaning, "names" and "to name". Concretely, a road is a dao--a guide for where to go or how to get where we want to go. However, daos can be marked in other ways--e.g. simply by pointing or putting signs "along the way" etc. Daoists are intrigued both by how daos are made by our walking (wearing a path) and by how we can read what way to go from natural signals (animal paths). The verb probably would be something like pointing, marking, setting an example or otherwise signaling which way to go.
It should also be noted that while the above has become a standard translation, scholars have noted it is grammatically and conceptually problematic. Grammatically, it has no article so could be read "a/any dao can be dao-ed, (but) this is not the constant dao-ing. A name can be named, (but) this is not the constant naming". Conceptually, the character for "constant"(常) is used philosophically to describe a dao that does not need to change in different times or societies and reliably guides behavior. Laozi later describes a dao as "reversing" and the texts emphasises opposites, i.e.: high and low, hard and soft, etc. The Mawangdui version of the text contains similar passages, vide: ch.1, 3, 40).
Thus, any terms we use to advocate a dao can be reversed and still guide behavior. The other term in the title (which, compounded with 'dao', formed the Chinese term for 'ethics') is 'de' (or 'te'). It is "the dao within" which may comprise the capacity we have to learn a way of life and the result of learning/practicing it. De should interpret the learned "way of life" into a correct pattern of behavior--hence its usual translation as "virtue" or "excellence." Other terms were later integrated into philosophical Taoism including yin and yang (closely related to Dialectical monism) and five elements (五行, wuxing) theories, and the concept of qi. Originally belonging to rival philosophical schools, these themes entered Taoism by way of Han Confucianism which focused on cosmic cycles and portents to guide the ruler's deportment dress, and so forth. They blend into Daoism as examples of "natural" dao with which any viable human dao must harmonise.
- The way which can be uttered, is not the eternal Way.
While academic deconstructions of this phrase result in much confusion, there is also a much simpler interpretation by metaphor: The Way is like dancing. You can talk about dancing, but your talk about dancing isn't the dance itself. Nor does your description really teach someone else how to dance unless they figure it out how to apply it for themselves. No matter how complicated the description (words, sketches even video) it always lacks the entirety of what is.
This interpretation shares Korzybski's observation that "the map is not the territory".
Traditional Chinese religion is determinedly polytheistic. Its deities are arranged into a heavenly civil service that mirrors the bureaucracy of imperial China. Deities may be promoted or demoted. Many are said to have once been virtuous humans. The particular deities worshipped vary somewhat according to geography, and much more according to historical period (though the general pattern of worship is more constant).
There is also something of a disconnection between the set of gods which currently receive popular worship, and those which are the focus of elite Taoist texts and rituals. For example, the Jade Emperor is at the head of the popular pantheon, while the Celestial Masters' altar recognizes the deified Laozi (Laojun, "Lord Lao") and the Three Pure Ones in that position. Some texts explain that Laozi has sponsored the apotheosis of various other gods.
While a number of immortals or other mysterious figures appear in the Zhuangzi, and to a lesser extent in the Dao De Jing (e.g., the "mysterious female" in chapter 6), these have generally not become the objects of cultic worship. Academic commentators on Taoism are rather more likely to focus on the divinity of the Dao itself, which might be fruitfully compared to (and contrasted with) Western conceptions of God. Early texts describe Tao not as equal to "the One," but as a principle underlying both the One and the Many. One revealing phrase used to describe it is huntun (roughly, "chaotic mixture"). In the wake of Wang Bi, philosophical Taoists have tended to describe it as "nothingness," which is the origin of "being." (Cf. the apophatic tendencies of theism, including negative theology.)
Taoist charm from Tien Hau
Temple in San Francisco.