What is Taoism ?
Taoism "teaching of the way" is both a philosophy and a Chinese religion. Diving its roots in ancient culture, this current is based on texts, including the Tao Te King of Lao Tseu, and is expressed through practices, which influenced the entire Far East. It brings among others:
- A quietist mysticism, taken up by Chan Buddhism (ancestor of Japanese Zen).
- A libertarian ethic that inspired literature above all.
- A sense of Yin Yang balance pursued by Chinese medicine and personal development.
- A visible naturalism in calligraphy and art.
These and other influences encourage an understanding of what this teaching may have been like in its most flourishing times.
What Is The Symbol of Taoism ?
☯ Taijitu or named symbol of Yin and Yang is a Chinese symbol associated with Taoism and neo-confucianism. It is the thinkers of this last current, especially Zhu Xi, who popularized it from the Song.
Other forms exist used for the practice of internal Taoist neidan alchemy or surrounded by the eight trigrams (bagua).
Taoism Beliefs and Practices
According to the Taoists, Tao is the absolute principle at the base of the universe. It combines the principles of Yin and Yang and means "The Way" or "The Code of Conduct". The power of this way is called Te.
According to the Taoists, Tao flows through all forms of life and the believer must strive to harmonize his life with this force. The Taoists believe that the Supreme Being or ultimate truth is beyond words and is impossible to conceptualize. This idea of God is similar to that of other religions, but Taoists hardly ever use the word "god".
Originally, Taoism did not include belief in a creator in its philosophy. It was clearly non-theistic and the teachings of Lao Tzu never implied that the Tao (The Way) was linked to any deity. There is no concept of good versus evil in Taoism; rather, it affirms the interdependence of all dualities, hence the concept of the opposites of Yin and Yang.
Every action has a negative (Yin) and a positive (Yang) component. Thus, when a person describes something as good, it automatically creates evil. Taoists also do not accept the idea of salvation versus damnation. There is therefore no concept of heaven or hell, the ultimate goal being to return to the Tao, i.e. to the universal life force.
Living simply and in harmony with the Tao, as well as avoiding excessive materialism and the quest for prestige will lead to a satisfying life. Taoists believe that there are "three jewels" upon which they should live their lives: compassion, moderation and humility.
Taoism is a polytheistic religion because it believes in a number of deities, each of which is a manifestation of one of the aspects of Tao. Taoists do not, however, worship these deities, nor are they personified. Nor do they use them to solve their problems; rather, they tend to solve their problems through meditation and reflection.
The heart of the Taoist ritual is the concept of bringing order and harmony to the cosmos. Taoist rituals include purification, meditation and offerings to the deities. The details of these rituals are often complex and technical and therefore only priests perform them.
These rituals include singing, dancing, and the use of musical instruments by priests and their assistants. Taoism also includes various physical practices such as breathing exercises, massage, martial arts, yoga and meditation 🧘♂️. These exercises aim to transform people both mentally and physically and to make them live in harmony with Tao.
Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are the three dominant religions in China. They all have long and original histories and have all, at some point in their history, been considered philosophies rather than religions.
Only Taoism was initially a philosophy that later integrated religious aspects derived from Chinese folklore in order to satisfy all believers and potential believers.
The quest for immortality is an organizing principle of the multiple practices of Taoism.
Taoism manifests a plethoric religious genius so much so that the first task of the follower is to travel throughout China, to find the master who is suitable for his path and his advancement, beware of impostors or practices too dangerous for his rank. Still, modern criticism makes it possible to classify specificities.
- Feeding the body: dietetics, alchemy, breathing, gymnastics, sexuality, medicine, etc.
- Feeding the spirit: morals, pantheon, exorcism, divination, ceremonies
Tai Chi Chuan
🥋 The Tai Chi Chuan (Tai Chi) or Taijiquan is a Chinese martial art, known as "internal", of Taoist inspiration. Minimized in the West as a kind of gymnastics, appreciated especially by the elderly for its role in strengthening the body and ensuring health.
- The movements have both a martial connotation (dodges, parries, strikes, seizures ...) and energetic.
- They were created and are worked by Taoist warrior monks.
- Tai Chi Chuan is practiced with bare hands but is associated with arts using weapons (fan, sword...).
The sinograms of Tai Chi Chuan are composed of the elements; tàijí, "supreme" and quán, "fist, boxing" and translated literally by "boxing of the supreme fist", or "boxing with the shadow", because the observer has the impression that the practitioner is fighting with a shadow.
Another common translation is "the boxing of eternal youth", the supreme peak being less literally translated as "immortality" (the supreme goal among Taoists).
Three Treasures of Taoism
Compassion, moderation and humility; these are the three jewels or attributes that form the philosophy of life of the Taoists.
- The first of the three jewel is "Ci", which literally means compassion, tenderness, love, indulgence, kindness, goodness or benevolence. It is also a classic Chinese term for "mother.
- The second is "Jian", literally moderation, economy, restraint.
- The third is a Chinese sentence: "Bugan wei tianxia xian", which is translated as humility, but has a deeper meaning. According to Taoist wisdom, it is the way to avoid an untimely death.
To be constantly in the spotlight is to make oneself vulnerable and exposed to the destructive forces of the world, while to remain in the shadows and remain humble is to give oneself time to mature fully and bear fruit.
Follow the Way
The search for wisdom in China is essentially based on harmony. Harmony, for Taoists, is found by placing one's heart and mind (the Chinese character for heart is used to designate both entities) in the Way (the Tao), that is, in the same path as nature.
By returning to essential and natural authenticity, by imitating the fertile passivity of nature which spontaneously produces the "ten thousand beings", man can free himself from constraints and his mind can "ride the clouds". Pronouncing a kind of naturalist quietism, Taoism is a perfect example of recklessness, spontaneity, individual freedom, refusal of the rigors of social life and ecstatic communion with cosmic forces.
This Taoism of the great mystical rides has served as a refuge for scholars marginalized, or marginalized by banishment on the steps of the Empire, forgotten poets, reclusive painters ... and today fascinates many Westerners. To free himself from social constraints, the Taoist can flee the city and retire to the mountains, or live like a peasant.
In the Confucius Interviews, we already find this opposition between those who assume life in society and seek to perfect it (the Confucianists) and, on the other hand, those who consider it impossible and dangerous to perfect society, which is only an artificial framework preventing the natural from expressing itself (the Taoists), a dialectic perhaps analogous to the question of the commitment of the intellectual.
Zhuangzi has striking images: A twisted tree, whose carpenter cannot make planks, will live a good life by the roadside, while a straight tree will be cut into planks and sold by the lumberjack 🌳. Uselessness is a guarantee of serenity and long life.
Similarly, the occupant of a boat will be copiously insulted if he comes to hinder a big boat, but if the boat is empty, the big boat will simply manage to avoid it. One must therefore be useless, empty, without qualities, transparent, "vomit his intelligence", have no preconceived ideas and as few opinions as possible.
Having made the void in himself, the wise man is fully available and lets himself be carried like a dead leaf in the stream of life, that is to say: "frolic freely on the Path".
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Paradoxes in Taoism
The fullness of emptiness could pass for a purely formal paradox, a pure play on words. Chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing brings more enlightening similarities:
"the wheel turns in the emptiness of the hub, the jar contains all the more as it is hollow, without the holes of doors and windows, what is the use of a house?"
The page ends with a formula that can be translated: "full, the middle; empty, the effect". This deliberately abstract interpretation finds universal application, for example, in military strategy.
Sun Tzu; Art of War has a chapter on "the full and the empty" in which he explains in a particularly concrete way how a general must have the place of combat (the full) as well as a potential (the medium), passages or entrances (the empty) where he voluntarily attracts the adversary to defeat him at the slightest effort (the effect).
The fable of Zhuangzi's fighting rooster who will win without a fight is another illustration of the supposed virtue of inner emptiness 🐓. The social uselessness, the absence of effective qualities which is the potential presence of all conceivable qualities, the emptiness of a heart free of all worldly cares, are the most common aspirations of the Taoist way.
One can withdraw from the world in order to get closer to it, but this is neither indispensable nor sufficient. To achieve this liberation, to "find the Way", one of the possible means is the use of paradoxes.
They are numerous in the Dao De Jing: it is without leaving home that one knows the world, it is by not knowing that one knows, it is when one acts the least that action is most effective, weakness is stronger than strength, stupidity marks supreme intelligence, or civilization is decadence.
The purpose of these paradoxes seems first to break conventional thinking, to break the logical chains and to break the meaning of words, as Chan Buddhism will later cultivate it. It is also a weapon of polemic against the doctrines that are being established, for example Confucianism.
WuWei The Non-Action
One of the great principles of Taoism is that of non-action (wu wei, wuwei or wou wei), which does not mean "doing nothing", but rather acting in the order of things, being aware that it is Life that directs each action.
Trust in nature is at the heart of non-action, just as the water of a river follows its course without question. The doctrine of non-action, very close to Greek and Roman stoicism, invites us not to undertake actions that are contrary to nature.
In a certain way, it means accepting one's destiny, it means stopping believing that we can influence everything, it means putting ourselves in our right place.
Civilization As A Disease
While the majority of characters in Chinese mythology are civilizing heroes, who gave men the inventions (agriculture, irrigation, medicine or writing), Taoism asserts itself against technique.
To illustrate this, a parable by Zhuang Zi depicts a Taoist peasant who, although he knows the use of chadouf (is a tilting device used to draw water from a well 💧; which would save him a lot of time and energy to water his fields), would be "ashamed to use it" because this artificial technique goes against nature. In a similar vein, paragraph 80 of Dao De Jing proposes a "return to knotted strings" (ancestors of writing devices).
This same text goes further: villagers do not meet the villagers of the hamlet that is within sight of them for the rest of their lives. If we follow this teaching, the society proposed by Lao Zi as a perfect simplicity is a constellation of autonomous villages with no links between them and humans with no curiosity either for the tools used to help them live, or even for the outside world.
We do not know what in the intention comes from the paradox to the calculated provocation, from an individual choice, or really from a political project. Thus paragraph 3 in the European translations invites one to read "Empty heads, fill bellies" as advice to the prince according to the purest reactionary ideology, since the return to the invoked past is that of a myth.
The ignorance of the people would ensure an invisible and active power without doing anything. But translating from such ancient poetic Chinese is often a matter of interpretation, influenced by the heritage of a tradition, here Confucian. The complete sentence has also been read in Taoist circles as a mystical technique:
"The saint acts by emptying his heart, nourishing the navel; he abandons the will, to strengthen his bones".
Heart and head are one and the same character, abdominal breathing is supposed to nourish the navel, a practice that is then clearly accepted as contributing to longevity: the persistence of the bones.
This small example indicates the limits of a closed interpretation of the Taoist texts, and that it is necessary to accept its polysemy, first of all in European languages, but also for Chinese 🇨🇳.
Taoist Sacred Texts
The surest references are the "Taoist Canon", usually three books written around the fourth century B.C. and compiled under the Han: the Dao De Jing, the Zhuangzi and the Lie Zi. (With modern criticism the latter, or True Classic of the Perfect Void, will be discarded, as this later compilation brings little to the other two).
The Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching or The Dao De Jing (Book of the Way and its Virtue) is a short collection of obscure and poetic aphorisms attributed to the founding and even divinized father of Taoism: Laozi (Lao Tseu). Taoists have not stopped reading it, interpreting it in a particularly diverse way over the centuries.
For several currents, it was at the center of ceremonies, not precisely as a sacred book, but rather as a prayer text. Other cultures are discovering it, its translation is a challenge in all languages, seeking meaning in it inspires many authors. The divergence of interpretations illustrates the fluid and fertile richness of the Tao; a major text of humanity.
The I Ching
The I Ching or Yi King is a Chinese textbook whose title can be translated as "Book of Changes" or "Classic of Changes". It is a device of binary signs used to make divinations. Chinese tradition traces the Book of Changes back to the invention of trigrams by Fuxi.
The Zhuangzi (Tchouang-tseu), named after its author, is a collection of fables in dialogue, lively and deeply teaching. The form, apparently more direct, pleasant and full of humor, deals in depth with philosophical themes rigorously felt.
Generations of mandarins have found consolation for the worries of their office in the figure of a saint without ambition, free from social constraints. Some moderns seek in the heart of the character or in the rhythm of a story, a Chinese wisdom that is always up to date.
The Taoist Canon
📚 The Taoist Canon or Daozan "Treasure of the Dao", has been published several times. The first was composed in the 5th century by Lu Xiujing.
The current version, based on the Ming edition, includes more than 5000 texts and preserves the original structure in three dong caves, designed to imitate the three baskets of the Buddhist Canon, each divided into twelve Lei categories and followed by four complementary sections called Fu.
These texts allow us to identify some Taoist themes, but we should warn that for the history of Chinese ideas, these are places as common as reason or culture for Western philosophy. The contemporaries of Laozi and Zhuangzi also used them, although interpreted differently and without the same importance.
Our understanding of them now depends very much on the centuries of interpretation that followed, especially in the neo-confucianism of the Song dynasty (10th and 11th centuries).
That is to say, we must start there, but avoid deducing from it too strict categories between what would be Taoist and what would not.
Origin of Taoism
The origins of Taoism are obscure. Its first teachings date back to Lao Tzu who, in the 5th century B.C., wrote the influential Taoist work Dao De Jing.
While the only other Chinese popular philosophy of the time, Confucianism, emphasized ethical action, Taoism encouraged the virtue of Wu Wei (non-action, or taking things as they come).
The power of emptiness, detachment, receptivity and spontaneity, the power of gentleness, the relativism of human values and the quest for long life are values of Taoism. At that time, the Taoist was mainly concerned with achieving immortality and this led to the development of alchemy and meditation methods.
☯ Taoism provided an alternative to the Confucianist tradition in China, and the two traditions often coexisted in individuals. Over time, however, Taoism increasingly found itself in direct competition with Buddhism.
In order to survive, it was forced to integrate Buddhist and ancient Chinese folk practices into its midst in order to meet the demands of the teachers of the time. This more philosophical Taoism inspired several Chinese painters and poets through the centuries...
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