An Introduction to Taoism

Dr. Meredith Sprunger

Taoism: The Religion of the Divine Way

 

The religions of China are rooted in ancient religious concepts. The Chinese people recognized many gods and spirits. The good spirits were known as Shen and the evil spirits were called Kwei. The common people performed sacrifices and rituals. They believed the universe was composed of the negative force of nature, Yin, and the positive force of nature, Yang. Filial piety and ancestor worship were practiced. They predicted the future by divination through the methodology of I Ching. Following the eleventh century the Chou rulers for political reasons promoted a belief in Shang Ti, the one supreme God who controlled the destiny of men and rulers.

The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. It is said that he was the keeper of the royal archives but tired of the artificial court life and retired. Lao-tzu traveled west into the mountains and sought to leave the country at the Hankao Pass. The guard at the gate recognized the wise old man and refused to allow him to leave until he had committed to writing the sum of his wisdom. He retired for three days and returned with a slim manuscript entitled Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power). After leaving he was never seen again.

Except for the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Chin is the most influential book in Chinese literature. It has been the object of at least a thousand commentaries and has been translated into English more than forty times. The book was probably developed over the centuries and evolved into its present form around the fourth century B. C.

The chief religious teaching of the Tao Te Ching is concerning one eternal Supreme Being: "Original, primeval, the Ultimate... sustaining source of all things ... an All-Father ... Makes its knower fearless, invulnerable, immortal." The ethical ideal of the Tao Te Ching is to recompense injury with kindness and achieve a quiet, restful, humble simplicity in living. The teachings of early Taoism center around the following themes:

1. The basic unity behind the universe is a mysterious and undefinable force called the Tao. Tao produces all things and all things go back to their common origin and blend into one. Absolute truth and absolute good are unknowable.

2. Life is the greatest of all possessions. The chief aim of human existence is to attain fullness of life by attunement with the Tao. When man seeks his own plan rather than the eternal plan of the great Tao, he precipates ills, suffering, and evil.

3. Live in primitive simplicity. Leave all things take their natural course. Education, wealth, power, and family ties are worthless impediments to living. The sage can know the whole world without going out of his door. The further one travels, the less one knows. The Tao is characterized by its quietude of power, its production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination. "Aim at extreme disinterestedness and maintain the utmost possible calm ... There is no guilt greater than to sanction ambition ... Only quiet non-striving is successful." Kindness, sincerity, and humility should be cultivated.

4. Pomp and glory are to be despised. The tree which stands higher than its neighbors is the first to be felled by the woodsman. The weak and humble overcome the strong and proud. The highest goodness is like water, it seeks the lower levels; therefore it is near to Tao. The least government is the best government. Weapons are instruments of ill omen; he who has Tao will have nothing to do with them.

This early Taoism was more a philosophy than a religion. it was concerned about the quality of life and had little interest in the heavens, gods, rituals, or life after death. During the fourth and third centuries B.C., in addition to Taoism, three major schools of thought struggled for dominance in China.- The Confucians believed in an idealized feudal system characterized by social propriety. The Legalists were tough-minded realists who believed human nature is wicked and lazy and must be ruled with a strong hand. The Mohists taught the values of the traditional religions, especially that men should love one another. They were pacifists who recognized the necessity of self defense.

Later Taosim became a religion of the masses and deteriorated into polytheism, demonology, witchcraft, magic, and occultism. It borrowed from Mahayana Buddhism and its teaching of an afterlife with heavens, hells, and judgment and developed a monasticism after the Buddhist pattern. The upper classes and intellectuals of twentieth century China continued reading the classics of philosophical Taoism but regarded the religion as only fit for the ignorant masses. The current Chinese government look upon it, and all forms of religion, as superstition.


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