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Taoism: The Philosophy of Lao Tzu, Yin & Yang, and the Dao

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

"The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth." ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

In this exploration of Taoism, we will define what the pseudo-philosophy or religion is, some core concepts of the belief system, detail a brief history, and develop some core takeaways you can apply in your own life. There will also be more resources along with our sources to explore Taoist beliefs further at the end of the post.

What is Taoism?

Taoism, also known as Daoism, is both a religion and a philosophy that originated in ancient China. This belief system is thought to have been founded by the philosopher Lao Tzu who wrote the book Tao De Ching which holds many of the core tenets of the philosophy. In basic, the belief system of Taoism calls for all living things to live in harmony with the universe, which is called the Tao. Taoists also believe in the idea of immortality after death and those who die are believed to become one with the universe and its flow.

The Tao and QI

The idea of the Tao (or Dao) is quite convoluted, but often it is referred to as the way of the universe or the foundation of all things. Ch’i or qi is the energy that guides this flow and how it works according to Taoist philosophy. Much of the founding documents about Taoism speak of ways to become more one with this energy and discuss behaviors that reinforce this connection. These teachings are often presented in poems or stories and emulate the concept first started by Confucianism called Wu-Wei, directly translated as doing nothing. However, more accurately the term means to effortlessly follow the Tao, which if achieved is believed to allow the highest state of focus and efficiency.

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang, or the balancing forces of life, are a core part of Taoist belief. The pair is a representation of the duality of things which includes good and evil, love and hatred, as well as light and dark. The main idea expressed by this concept is that nothing is separate in the world and instead is always interconnected. As depicted above, even though the wisps are mainly black and white, each housing its opposite color and coming together to form a circle, showing they can never be apart. Yin and Yang also often serve as the symbol of Taoism and it has been used in film and other media depicting Chinese culture and traditions.

Taoism as a Religion

Taoism is also a core polytheistic religion in China that has gods drawn from many different cultures within the country. For Taoists, there are no personal gods and they cannot be related to as if they were people. Gods are also no exception to the interconnectedness of things and are also one with the Dao of the universe. For those that follow the Taoist religion, there are many temples and monasteries throughout China for worship, meditation, rituals, and offerings. Many believers embark on pilgrimages to the five holy mountain temples, one being in Mount Laojun (pictured above) in the Henan Province in China, to pray and engage in other traditional practices.

Taoism vs. Confucianism

The fundamental difference between Taoism and Confucianism is that the focus of Taoism is becoming one with nature while Confucianism is more of to be a guide to moral being and fulfilling social obligations. Where Confucianists view their practices as necessary for self-improvement through creating order, Taoists reject them as imposing such regulation will merely disrupt people’s harmony with nature. However, Taoism’s development into a religious system has led to the development of more complex rituals similar to those practiced by Confucianists.

Taoism vs. Buddhism

While Taoism and Buddhism started around the same time and are interconnected in many ways, they are different from one another. Taoism’s ultimate goal is to reach oneness with the universe while Buddhism’s focus is on attaining Nirvana. Buddhism also does not have any gods since it rejects theism altogether and instead acts more as a philosophy with the Buddha as a figurehead.

A Brief History of Taoism

The core philosophy of Taoism grew up from the peasant class during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). During the Shang era, the practice of divination became popular through the reading of oracle bones which would tell one's future. This led to a written text called the I-Ching (c. 1250-1150 BCE), the Book of Changes, which provides the reader with interpretations for certain hexagrams said to tell the future. Taoism philosophy soon began to develop into a religion amongst the peasant classes. Their observations of the natural world influenced their philosophy, and one of the things they incorporated was the concept of eternity. Based on seemingly dead trees and grass coming back to life in spring, they concluded that when people died they went somewhere else where they continued to live, rather than just disappearing.

This philosophical development is said to have been heavily influenced by a natural philosopher named Lao-Tzu, whose name literally translates to either “Old Master” or “Old Boy”. The historian Sima Qian (145-86 BCE) tells the story of Lao-Tzu, a curator at the Royal Library in the state of Chu. Lao-Tzu believed in the harmony of all things and that people could live easily together if they considered each other's feelings and recognized that their self-interest did not necessarily align with that of others. Frustrated by his inability to change people's behavior, Lao-Tzu decided to go into exile.

As he was leaving China through the western pass, the gatekeeper Yin Hsi stopped him because he recognized him as a philosopher. Yin Hsi asked Lao-Tzu to write a book for him before he left civilization forever and Lao-Tzu agreed. He then sat down and wrote the Tao-Te-Ching (The Book of the Way). Upon finishing, he handed the book to Yin Hsi, and walked through the western pass to never be seen again. Sima Qian does not continue the story after this but, presumably (if the story is true) Yin Hsi proceeded to copy and distribute the Tao-Te-Ching. However, many of the writings attributed to Lao-Tzu can be traced back to ancient poetry from before he was even born.

The folk religion of Taoism became popular after its adoption by China as the state religion in 440 C.E.. This fueled the development of a cult in which sought immortality through magic and the use of various elixirs. This gave way to the development of various hygiene cults that sought to prolong life. These developed into a general hygiene system, still practiced, that stresses regular breathing and concentration to prevent disease and promote longevity. About the 2nd century AD, popular Taoist religious organizations concerned with faith healing began to appear. Subsequently, influences by Buddhism led Taoist religious groups to adopt institutional monasticism and a concern for spiritual afterlife rather than bodily immortality.

Taoism became well-known in the eighth century C.E. as the religion of the Tang dynasty. In the following centuries, it existed alongside Buddhism and Confucianism. Influences by these philosophies led to marked changes in how Taoist rituals are conducted. While the practices are in accordance with the Taoist understanding, they have become quite elaborate. Every prayer and spell which makes up a Taoist ritual or festival must be spoken precisely and every step of the ritual observed perfectly. This is an interesting departure from the usual Taoist understanding of "going with the flow" and not worrying about external rules or elaborate religious practices.

Taoism’s Effect on the World

Taoism, while mostly an eastern belief system, has had a distinct influence on the world. It is a major religion in the east and is mostly centered in China and Taiwan. Much of Eastern history has been shaped by people with Taoist beliefs such as Zhang Jiao, the leader of the yellow turban rebellion in China who was a proponent of the philosophy during the 300-year war. As Taoism grew over time it began to influence the western hemisphere, most notably with appearances in movies like Kung Fu Panda, shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, and through famous public figures like Alan Watts. Much of the idea of going with the flow comes from Taoist belief as well and the idea and symbol of Yin and Yang are also well-known around the world. While the belief system and its followers are relatively small, it has made its mark on world culture.

Taoism: Key Takeaways

While Taoism can be a difficult belief system to pin down and understand with detail, its core ideas can serve as practical wisdom. Below are some key takeaways you can apply from the Taoist philosophy and religion:

  • Everything is Connected: We don’t exist in a vacuum nor has the world ever been simple. Instead, we are all connected to nature around us, each other, and the universe itself as small parts of a greater whole. So, we can take solace in the fact that we are all connected to one another and so we can see that we are not alone in the world.

  • There is Always Duality to Things: Where there is dark there is light and in science, for every action, there is an opposite reaction. So, when we look at the good and bad things within our lives we must understand that it is all a part of life and necessary for it to function properly. This idea also helps ground how things work and helps us as people understand the why of the world to help navigate the unknown.

  • Purpose Does Not Need a God: While many religious institutions may want to convince you otherwise, people can find purpose outside of religion. Taoism may have gods but the philosophy still exists without them as well. In that same vein, how you find purpose in the world is your choice and can be found in any number of ways. While that may be scary, finding what you believe in, experiencing life’s offerings, and developing yourself into your best version can help you build a greater sense of identity and purpose.

Taoism: Additional Resources

In the below sections are some resources including books, videos, and articles detailing the ideas of Taoism as a philosophy and religion.

Books on Taoism

Below are some recommended books for learning more about Taoism:

  • Tao De Ching” by Lao Tzu

  • Tao: The Water Course Way” by Alan Watts

  • Awakening to the Tao” by Liu E Ming

  • The Taoist Experience” by Livia Kohn

  • 365 Tao” by Ming-Dao Deng

Videos on Taoism

Articles on Taoism (Including Sources)

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