Religion of invention and stillness – Taoism
Taoism, also known as “Daonism” is the Chinese school of thought and religion, today popular for its focus on nature as well as nature preservation and its peaceful ways to settle problems, even if they are simply loitering and doing nothing. This is the core of Taoism – avoid the solving of issues and let them resolve by themselves, without human intervention. This was contrary to the other schools of thought like Confucianism and Legalism for example, that advocated political and social change where needed. There were times when Taoism spurned these voices for reform, shrugged them off with gloating even, but then again, it was in accordance with their teaching of “doing nothing”, and waiting for things to settle down.
Taoism emerged somewhere in the 7th century BC and it is even practiced today. Taoism is divided into three parts, that sometimes intertwined and sometimes developed apart one another. The first is its philosophical facet so to speak, called “Dao Jia”. It is the cradle of Taoist teachings, pertaining various concepts and practices. Its primary concern is the one’s unification with “Tao” or “the way” – the “Tao” is, simply put, the source of all things and people should strive to unite with it. The stance of Taoism sometimes mimics the stance of anarchism and humanism to a certain degree, believing that all rules, codified laws and imposed social norms hinder the development of humanity. So, according to Taoism, a man should discard them and try to achieve “true” humanity.
The essential question for all schools of thought at the time, was the question regarding the human survival in the cruel and unjust world, where all humans suffer inevitably. The Taoists defined the “Tao” principle and encouraged everyone to return to their genuineness, free of moral norms that are impossible to acquire by their words. All rulers also need to cease the alternation and changing of their environment, letting the nature go its course and mend all things in time. Good luck doing that. However, Taoism managed to reach the “state patronage” level during the Wei and Jin dynasties in ancient China in a form of “neo Taoism” that represents a merge with Confucian ideals. Also, like a conduit, Taoism was used to “settle in” Buddhism in a way, paving the road to the Chan school of Buddhism that is known in Japan as the both enigmatic and elusive, Zen school. With its reliance on nature, peace and love towards one’s environs, Taoist touch is also felt in Chinese poetry and painting.
To summarize, the basic principle of philosophy is “balance”, between humanity and nature. The second part of Taoism is religion (Dao-Jiao) that concerns itself with the attainment of immortality. The semi-autonomous part of the religious Taoism is alchemy, often considered as the third part of Taoism. Both the religious and the alchemical facet of Taoism seek immortality through physical practice, potion brewing and meditation. In religious Taoism, there were practices of cleansing and confession as well as mass rites and service. In this concept, Taoism differs little from other religions. Alchemy is a fascinating part of Taoism that ranged from the displays of shining successes to the displays of flamboyant failures. The discoveries such as compass, gunpowder and paper are attributed to Taoist alchemists, but also there is a staggering body count made by mercury poisoning. The central belief in alchemical Taoism is that all humans have a source of cosmical energy in common, called the yin-yang (yes, the famous one) and when this energy is depleted, humans die. So, alchemists stepped up to patch the problem, but failed in repeated attempts. The most important ingredients are vermilion (mercury sulphate) and gold, both essential for their color and symbolism. Despite its faults, alchemy contributed a lot to Chinese medicine, especially in the fields of acupuncture and muscle control.
Lao Tzu (老子) is a man that is more legend than an actual person. He is considered as the focal point of Taoist philosophy and is believed by the Taoists even today to had been Buddha’s teacher. He was born in Honan and had many names out of which Lao Dan is believed to be his real name. He was ,according to evidence, an archiver of the Chou king and during that time it is said that he had frequent meetings with Confucius, but it is an unverified claim. He is the author of Tao-te Ching and he is even deified.
Chuang Tzu (莊周) is known as the co-founder of Taoist philosophy and one of the most influential and greatest Taoist philosophers. His greatest work bears his name, although known also as the “The Butterfly Dream”. Chuang Tzu is interesting since he advocates the destruction of anthropocentrism and the emergence of ecocentrism that should replace it, claiming that the man is only a part of the greater whole, nature. Chuang’s life remains unknown – we know that he was married, born in today’s Hunan province and lived in poverty. Out of his intellectual ventures, we know that he was a big opponent of Confucianism and had criticized the virtues of Confucianism as artificial and prone to alternation at anyone’s whim. He also talked about the concept of good and evil as well as the presence of various contradictions within nature that are indispensable. Chuang Tzu is remembered as a man who advocated indirect action as well as respect for nature that is regrettably in decline today.
Tao-te Ching (道德经) means literally “The Book about the Road and its Power” that numbers 5000 ideograms. This book is significant both to the religious and philosophical aspect of Taoism. This book was written somewhere in the 3rd or 4th century BC by Lao Tzu before his departure to the West and the most reliable example is from 206. century BC and 195 BC. This book is made out of 81 short chapters, out of which the first 37 chapters belong to the “Book about the Road” and the rest concerns itself with the symbol of virtue. This book is both holy and central to Taoism, since it discusses many things, such as the elaboration of the Tao principle, code of behavior and the ying-yang principle. In essence, it contains the heart of Taoism.
There you have it – Taoism. Today often associated with various witch practices and ouija boards, but it’s an established system and school of thought. Many people, including me, have issues with its overwhelming tendency for passive action and letting everything to flow its course, but it is a doctrine that shaped Chinese culture and does so even today.