Chinese Religion: Taoism

You are no doubt familiar with the harmonizing symbol of yin and yang: the mystical circle encasing rolling waves of black and white. Within the black wave rides a white dot, and conversely, a black dot is seen in the white wave. This ancient Chinese symbol has become popular as East opens up to West, and can be seen on billboards, signs, T-shirts, and jewelry around the world. Most know its connection to the idea of yin and yang, but few know the origin of yin and yang, or anything more of Taoist thought.

Taoism, as both philosophy and religion, was founded 2500 years ago in China, by Lao Tzu. According to legend, Lao Tzu (born Li Erh) worked in the imperial capital as a record keeper. At 160 years of age he became disgusted with society and vowed to leave. As he approached the gate to the city, Guan Yin Zi, the keeper of the pass, begged him to write his teachings before he left. This Lao Tzu agreed to do, and in one night he wrote the Tao Te Ching, forming the basis of Taoism. Leaving his writing behind him, Lao Tzu was never seen again.

The Tao Te Ching is one of the most infuential books in Chinese literature, and is among the top three books translated into English, along with the Bible and the Bhagavad Ghita. It is composed of 5,000 characters divided into 81 chapters, originally written on strips of bamboo tied together with string. In these writings, Lao Tzu described the Tao: a flow which was unknowable in essence, but observable in manifestations. To find true peace, one must develop a mystical relationship with the Tao.

The Tao, literally translated “The Way,” exists in both a philosophical and religious form. Both paths teach of yin and yang, or the opposing forces by which the universe is governed. Yin is negative, female, dark, and earthly; while yang is the corresponding qualities of positive, male, light, and heavenly. Neither is better than the other; just as neither can exist without the other. (It might be noted that while there are some contradictions within the philosophical and religious forms of Taoism, one might consider them manifestations of yin and yang, with the pure philosophy being the reflective yin side of Taoism, and the religion being the active yang.)

Within the Tao Te Ching is a call to passive action, or wu-wei, for in doing nothing all is accomplished. According to the principles of wu-wei one should not defy, confront, nor resist. Experience teaches that ambition, excessive desire, and pride always produce the opposite of what is expected. Therefore it is better to live like birds, who use currents of air to support them as they glide, rather than fight the drafts. In like manner, philosophical Taoists seek to find their own niche in the scheme of things.

Religious Taoism departs slightly from this path of inaction. Approximately 200 years after the death of Lao Tzu, an encyclopedic Taoist scholar by the name of Ko Hung taught that instead of practicing pure inaction, one could force open the path of long life and immortality through one’s own acts. He believed that just as the interaction of the five elements (earth, wood, metal, fire, and water) produced a balanced universe, so could they be used to achieve physical immortality. This resulted in the practice of herbal medicines, rituals, magic potions, physical exercises, and dietary practices. Long life and good health were viewed as a reward for good moral conduct, as disease, death and suffering were evidence of the contrary.

Within China today there are 25,000 Taoist monks and nuns at over 1,500 temples. It is impossible to report the number of adherents to the faith, as Taoism is often intertwined with Buddhism and traditional folk religions. There is no doubt that the effects of Taoism can be felt around the world today.