A series of weak emperors in China from 500 to 600 BCE left the previously powerful empire in state of war and chaos. The Chinese people were desperate for an escape from the pandemonium. One solution came in the form of a new religion: Taoism. Popular belief amongst followers is that Taoism was founded by a man named Lau Tzu, which translates to “old man”. It is said that he lived during the time of Confucianism, which was another religion that sprout up in response to the conditions in China at the time.
Lau Tzu was actually a librarian who lived a simple life in accordance with nature. He was discouraged by the non naturalistic attitudes of the people around him and therefore decided to ride away on a water buffalo toward Tibet. According to the story, he was stopped at one point by a man who tried to persuade him to stay. When Lau Tzu refused he asked him to at least leave the people with a record of his ideas. He agreed to this request and the Tao Te Ching was produced (Smith). The lifestyle and attitude that has evolved from the philosophy of this text are extraordinarily interesting and admirable.
Tao Te Ching translates into English as “The Way and It’s Power”. It is a compilation of “poetry, philosophical reflection and mystical speculation” (Zhao). Taoists follow this text as “a testament to humanity’s at-home-ness in the universe” (Smith). This book is one of the most translated texts of all time, second only to the Bible but it is also said that it is translated differently each time (Zhao). While scholars also believe that it was most likely not written by just one person and that a large portion of it came from older texts, the story of Lau Tzu is the popular and accepted origin of the sacred text by Taoist believers (Smith).
The Tao Te Ching and the Taoist philosophy center on a sort of energy referred to as, of course, Tao. Philosophical Taoism is less of a religion but instead an attitude toward life. Tao literally means “path” or “way” and can be interpreted a few different ways. One potential
meaning is “the way of ultimate reality”. This Tao is too great to be comprehended by the human mind but basically encompasses every single thing around us. The next form of Tao is “the way of the universe” and it is the energy within and throughout nature that keeps the universe going. Finally, “the way of human life” is the Tao that applies to the energy of human life interacting with nature and the universe (Smith). It is believed that every person is a child of the Tao and must strive to return to their natural, childhood state (Zhao). A common symbol is an uncarved block that is meant to represent the person that existed before societal influence and the importance of returning to this pure form. Another goal in philosophical Taoist is to live each day according to the flow of the Tao, essentially according to the natural flow of nature.
This idea is often associated with running water in that water is “unobtrusive and adaptive” and flows “effortlessly” (Smith). Furthermore, although water flows peacefully down the path of least resistance it also has the strength and ability to support other items and carve and shape its surrounding banks. It is in this effortless but effective way that all Taoists strive to live. Finally, another important characteristic of water that applies to the attitude of a philosophical Taoist can be explained by the image of a container of dirty water. Over time the dirt in the water will settle to the bottom and the majority of water will be clear. This idea of “clarity [being] attained through calmness” (Smith) is crucial to the philosophical Taoist objective of simplicity and balance.
Another belief prevalent in philosophical Taoism is the doctrine of relative opposites. The idea of yin and yang, two energies that are opposites yet complements, sums up this doctrine. Everything in life has a necessary opposite and keeping each in the right balance is essential to living the life of a Taoist. Philosophical Taoism has no concept of heaven, hell, or
afterlife but believes that death is the natural complement to life. Philosophical Taoism recognizes that “cyclical change” is normal and that one energy cannot overpower its complement forever and that nothing is permanent (Zhao). This idea is also the basis for their creation theory. They believe that the earth was originally just a ball of mass and began to form only when yin and yang emerged and began to create the world as we know it today (Zhao).
Finally, another important belief already alluded to is that of naturalism. In this philosophy it is believed that nature should not be exploited or destroyed but instead “befriended” (Smith). The concept of Tao states that people are at their very highest when they can harmonize with nature and the ways of the earth. By living with and amongst the earth instead of on it an important balance is achieved.
When it comes to the issue of how to become the ideal Taoist there is a focus on the concept of Wu Wei. The goal of a philosophical Taoist is to preserve Tao by using it up in the most efficient way. Wu Wei is ideal because it is “pure effectiveness”. It is spontaneous action in accordance to the course of nature. In order to achieve this it is important not to waste any energy on things like bickering or conflict because ultimately the course of the universe cannot be changed anyway.
It is important to simply flow with nature by escaping from the conscious mind and returning to the true, subliminal mind. To do this it is crucial to live without excessive desire, competition or tension. By living this way no energy is wasted on “outward show” and the Tao is conserved. It cannot be obstructed by societal or political issues (Zhao). Being that philosophical Taoism is directly opposed to conflict and transgression from nature it tends to be more inclined toward pacifism.
Since living a simple life in accordance to the flow of nature and the universe, Pu (simplicity of life) is the “gateway to sage hood” (Zhao). A sage is a holy person known as a shengren in Chinese culture. This is a person who perfectly flows with the Tao and takes no action that goes against the course of nature. Even though the Tao is not thought of as a person, it is revered as the highest entity within the whole philosophy. Therefore, mastering the balance of the Tao and learning to flow freely with it could be compared to establishing a connection with God in the Christian religion. The ideal Taoist is a sage living in nature or an artist or poet who is inspired by nature. It is someone who is in control of his instincts and desires and can overcome them by focusing on the course of the Tao and the balance of the universe.
The official administrative group that advises religious Taoist practice in China today is known as the China Taoist Association. It was founded in 1956 and became official one year later. Its purpose is to “coordinate practices and control the initiation of priests and nuns” (Bokenkamp) from the headquarters in Beijing. However, since philosophical Taoism is not a religion it is “relatively unorganized” and has no real institution (Smith). Also, because of this absence of institution philosophical Taoists are without ritual. The closest thing they have to a god is the energy of Tao and they “worship” it by trying to understand it and live according to its path as closely as they can. Despite the lack of organization and ritual, philosophical Taoism is still an extremely present lifestyle in any area that has a large Chinese population (Bokenkamp).
Philosophical Taoism was an attractive lifestyle to the desperate citizens of a warring China in the 600’s BCE because of its focus on simplicity and calmness. By yielding to the Tao and recognizing that there is a certain notion of predestination and fate, philosophical Taoists are able to alleviate from themselves some of the pressures that they face in everyday life. At the
beginning of this movement and at any time of war or conflict really, this is an extremely appealing and comforting concept. It is believed within the philosophical community that a Taoist sage would be an ideal ruler because there is a sort of detachment that comes with achieving wu wei. This detachment allows the ruler to ignore competition and focus on simply ruling in accordance to the Tao (Zhao). These relaxed, laid back ideas of non action and “going with the flow” are what continue to attract followers to the lifestyle that follows the philosophical side of Taoism. However, although it may appear effortless and easy to achieve wu wei and to lead a completely balanced life it is in fact extremely challenging, which makes it all the more admirable.
I personally believe that this lifestyle is extraordinary. To live with such ease and calmness must be extremely invigorating and clear. However, I do not think that it would be entirely possible to achieve this lifestyle living in most places in the United States. Since so much emphasis is placed on the appreciation and nurturing of nature it seems unlikely that there are many places in this county that would be conducive to this lifestyle. Also, being able to overcome the influences and pressures that we are faced with each day would be an astonishing feat. I feel that the only way to do that would be to completely remove yourself from society.
However, each of my sources mentioned at least once that it was important to not do that. The truly admirable quality, in my eyes, of those who choose to follow this lifestyle is their strength and ability to maintain this philosophy and attitude regardless of their surroundings. Of course, some surroundings are more favorable than others and that is why Taoism is mainly only in China, a place where nature is all around and appreciated much more than it is here.
Bokenkamp, Stephen R. “Daoism: An Overview.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones.Vol. 4. 2nd ed. 2005.
Smith, Huston. The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.
Zhao, Zhiming. “Daoism.” Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Ed. H. James Birx. Vol. 2. 2006.