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Taoism Essay

  • Taoism

    Taoism

    Throughout history, Taoism has been one of the most influential
    religions of Eastern culture. This is certainly one of the most unique
    of all religions. Many Taoists, in fact, do not even consider it a
    religion; and in many ways it is not. Taoists make no claim that the
    Tao exists.1 That is what essentially separates Taoism from the rest of
    the world religions: there is no heated debate or battle over Taoist
    doctrine; there have been no crusades to spread the religion. The very
    essence of Taoism is quite the opposite. Taoism?s uniqueness and
    open-endedness have allowed the religion to flourish almost undisturbed
    and unchanged for over two thousand years.

    The founder of Taoism was a man named Lao Tzu, who lived around the
    year 604 B.C.E. According to Chinese legend, Lao Tzu was an archivist
    in the imperial library at Lo Yang was known for his knowledge, although
    he never taught.2 When Lao Tzu left his position at the library, he
    went to the Chinese province of Chou. At the border, however, he was
    stopped and forced to write down his teachings. During this time, he
    wrote the Tao Te Ching, the major scripture of Taoism.3

  • After Lao Tzu?s death, a man named Yang Chu (440-366 B.C.E.) took up
    his teachings.4 A naturalist and philosopher, Yang Chu believed highly
    in self-regard and survival as the core of human nature and direction.
    His ideals were personal integrity and self-protection, and said that he
    was unwilling to pluck one hair from his head even if all humanity were
    to benefit from it.5

    The next influential Taoist philosopher was Chang Tzu, who lived from
    350-275 B.C.E. He defined existence using Lao Tzu?s teachings.6 He
    wrote fifty-two books in response to the Tao Te Ching, thirty-three of
    which still survive today.7 Using exaggeration and fantasy, he
    illustrated Lao Tzu?s teachings and how the Tao acted in nature. His
    theories spoke of a cosmic unity which encompasses all reality and
    guides it naturally, without force, to its proper end.8

    The Yin and Yang theory became part of Taoist philosophy around 300
    B.C.E. when they were mentioned in the Hsi tz?u, an appendix to the I
    Ching.9 Yin and Yang are defined as the two forces in nature. They are
    often called the two ?breaths? or ch?i.10 Yin is the feminine
    principle, representing darkness, coolness, and dampness; Yang is the
    masculine principle, representing brightness, warmth, and dryness.11
    Neither principle is good or bad; they are not opposites, but each is
  • needed to maintain stability in the universe.12 This belief holds that
    everything is defined through opposition; consequently, the virtues of
    balance and understanding are highly valued.13

    Taoism became an official religion between 100 and 200 C.E.14 Due to
    competition from Buddhism, Taoists adopted many Buddhist beliefs.
    During this pivotal point in the religion?s history, searching for
    self-knowledge and wisdom were replaced by searching for solutions to
    sorrows and other physical problems.15 Alchemy and superstition became
    highly popular during this period of time, as Taoists tried to escape
    reality rather than to control the artificial and unnatural. Many
    Taoists used magic and the concept of Tao to try to extend the physical
    life rather than to focus on the afterlife.16 Gradually the religion
    becomes more complicated, with a wide pantheon of gods and a ruling
    hierarchy.17

    The leader Chang Ling took the title ?Heavenly Teacher? in 200 C.E. He
    created a dynasty of high priests who manipulated Taoism to support a
    superstitious doctrine of magic and mysticism.18 Seizing higher power
    as a religious leader, he pioneered a merging of Taoism and
    Zoroastrianism into a system called Five Bushels of Rice Taoism.
    Eventually this developed into a society based on Mazdaism, a
  • Zoroastrian sect, where every believer was charged five bushels of
    rice.19 Although the believers followed the basic Zoroastrian worship
    format, they worshipped different gods: the Tao instead of Ahura-Mazda,
    and the various Chinese folk gods in place of the Persian Angels.20

    Three hundred years later, the philosopher Honen moved away from
    Mazdaism and combined Taoism with Buddhism. This simplified religion he
    created became known as the Pure Land School, or Amidaism. Gradually,
    however, Taoism again became tied to magic, and it failed as a
    religion.21 Today, only its original philosophies survive and there are
    very few followers of Taoism, mostly found in Taiwan.22 Although
    Taoism?s religious practices deteriorated with advancing Western
    influence, its philosophical aspects have outlasted those of
    Confucianism and Zen Buddhism.23

    For centuries, Taoism has been known as the Way of Harmony.24 This is
    because Taoists believe that the Tao leads all nature toward a natural
    balance. The Tao, however, is not considered to be a deity or a ruler:
    it may reign but it does not rule.25 This is reflected in seven basic
    statements.26 The first states that the Tao is nature. This means that
    the Tao is the way of everything, the movement of everything in nature,
    and all existence. The second statement is that the Tao is knowledge,
  • meaning that the Tao is the utmost form of understanding and wisdom and
    that to understand it means to understand all. The third statement says
    that the Tao is Goodness. This indicates that the Tao is the path
    toward virtue, and the highest virtue of these is conforming to the
    Tao. The fourth statement is that the Tao is imminent. This means that
    the Tao is the source of all reality and that the Tao is inseparable.
    The fifth statement tells that the Tao is ?being?, or the process of
    becoming, which characterizes reality. The sixth holds that the Tao is
    felt in passiveness, not in activity. The final statement asserts that
    the Tao is individual and unique for every person. Therefore, no person
    can truly know the Tao outside themselves. As the Tao Te Ching states:

    The ways that can be walked are not the eternal way.
    The names that can be named are not the eternal name.
    The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures.
    The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.

    Therefore,
    Always be without desire
    in order to observe its wondrous subtleties;
    Always have desire
    so that you may observe its manifestations.27

  • In essence, the universe is a pattern which cannot exist without any
    part of it. Therefore, trying to alter the Tao through action is
    essentially trying to destroy the balance of the universe.28

    Taoists have a very simple definition of virtue, called Teh. For a
    Taoist, the only virtue is to find unity with the Tao.29 This
    contradicts Western religious thought because Westerners believe in
    peace and salvation through action. Taoists, however, believe that
    unity with the Tao requires no effort but rather passive existence
    without work; by finding unity with the Tao, one can therefore find
    heaven. This is explained in Lao Tzu?s doctrine of the three treasures,
    those being love, balance, and humility.30 Love stems from and results
    in kindness and consideration for others. Balance can be found through
    self-control and moderation. Humility results from self-esteem and
    happiness in one?s status.

    The Taoist path to salvation is called Wu Wei, meaning ?the principle
    of non-action."31 The way to attain unity with the Tao involves no
    effort, ambition, discipline, or education. Therefore, each person has
    an equal opportunity to attain balance. It involves a surrender to
    nature: since every person is by definition part of the Tao, there is no
  • need or reason to seek it elsewhere. Furthermore, everyone has direct
    access to the Tao because the Tao is connected to reality, and everyone
    is a part of reality.32 In summary, there is no need to seek answers
    outside of oneself. Through non-action the answer is revealed through
    ones own existence.

    Taoism is different from any other Eastern religion. According to
    Lawrence Durrell, ?Taoism is such a privileged brand of eastern
    philosophy that one would be right to regard it as an aesthetic view of
    the universe rather than a purely institutional one.?33 Thus, as Taoism
    is a religion of non-action, Lao Tzu and his followers discouraged the
    practice of rituals. As a result, Taoism has no tangible rituals.
    Early Taoists, in fact, were far more concerned with everyday life than
    with celebrations or worship.34 Taoists prefer to leave the question of
    God unanswered.35

    Taoist rituals did flourish, however, around and during the 900s.36
    During this time lavish temples were built, complex rituals were
    practiced, and colorful festivals were celebrated.37 The closest
    lasting action in Taoism to rituals is the idea of wu-hsing.38 This is
    the set of notions called the ?five phases? (wu-hsing) or ?powers?
    (wu-te): water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.39 This concept help

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