Chinese philosophy: Taoism or Daoism

Updated:Sun, Jun 24, 2012 03:55 AM    Related:Taoism


Chinese philosophy Taoism (also spelled Daoism) refers to a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions. Lao-Tzu (Laozi) and Zhuangzi are traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism.


Taoism (also spelled Daoism; see below) refers to a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions that have influenced the people of Eastern Asia for more than two millennia. They also notably influenced the Western world, particularly since the 19th century. The word 道, Tao (or Dao, depending on the romanization scheme), roughly translates as "path" or "way". It carries more abstract, spiritual meanings in folk religion and Chinese philosophy.

Taoist propriety and ethics emphasize the Three Jewels of the Tao: compassion, moderation, and humility, while Taoist thought generally focuses on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos (天人相应); health and longevity; and wu wei (action through inaction). Harmony with the Universe, or the source thereof (Tao), is the intended result of many Taoist rules and practices.

Reverence for ancestor spirits and immortals is common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists (Dàoshi) view as debased. Chinese alchemy (including Neidan), astrology, cuisine, Zen Buddhism, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history.

History of Taoism

Some forms of Taoism may be traced to prehistoric folk religions in China that later coalesced into a Taoist tradition. Lao-Tzu (Laozi) is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism and is closely associated in this context with "original", or "primordial", Taoism. Lao-Tzu received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid-2nd century BCE. Taoism gained official status in China during the Tang Dynasty, whose emperors claimed Lao-Tzu as their relative. Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang. Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes. The Qing Dynasty, however, much favored Confucian classics and rejected Taoist works. During the 18th century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Taoist books. By the beginning of the 20th century, Taoism had fallen so much from favor, that only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. Taoism is one of five religions recognized by the People's Republic of China and regulates its activities through a state bureaucracy (the China Taoist Association).

Zhuangzi, (Chinese: 庄子) is also considered most significant of China’s early interpreters of Taoism, whose work (Zhuangzi) is considered one of the definitive texts of Daoism and is thought to be more comprehensive than the Daodejing, which is attributed to Laozi, the first philosopher of Daoism. Zhuangzi’s teachings also exerted a great influence on the development of Chinese Buddhism and had considerable effect on Chinese landscape painting and poetry.

Taoist Beliefs and Principles

Taoist beliefs include teachings based on revelations from various sources. Therefore, different branches of Taoism often have differing beliefs, especially concerning nature. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that nearly all the sects share. These relate to the symbology of the Tai-Chi, or Ying Yang symbol, and the notion of wu-wei (action through inaction) which seek to counterbalance Yin with Yang at every opportunity. Generally speaking, Taoists believe in embodiment and pragmatism, engaging practice to actualize the natural order within themselves.also, they believe that life should be peaceful and filled with joy.

Taoist theology emphasizes various themes found in the Daodejing and Zhuangzi, such as naturalness, vitality, peace, "non-action" (wu wei, or "effortless effort"—see below), emptiness (refinement), detachment, flexibility, receptiveness, spontaneity, the relativism of human ways of life, ways of speaking and guiding behavior.

Taoist Ethics

The Three Jewels, or Three Treasures, (Chinese: 三寶; pinyin: sānbǎo; Wade-Giles: san-pao) are basic virtues in Taoism. The Three Jewels are compassion, moderation, and humility. They are also translated as kindness, simplicity (or the absence of excess), and modesty. Arthur Waley describes them as "[t]he three rules that formed the practical, political side of the author's teaching". He correlated the Three Treasures with "abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment", "absolute simplicity of living", and "refusal to assert active authority".

Taoist symbols and images

The Taijitu ("yin and yang") symbol 太極圖 as well as the Ba gua 八卦 ("Eight Trigrams") are associated with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organizations make use of the yin and yang symbol, one could also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. The yin and yang make an "S" shape, with yin (black or red) on the right. One is likely to see this symbol as decorations on Taoist organization flags and logos, temple floors, or stitched into clerical robes. According to Song Dynasty sources, it originated around the 10th century. Previously, yin and yang were symbolized by a tiger and dragon.

Taoist temples may fly square or triangular flags. They typically feature mystical writing or diagrams and are intended to fulfill various functions including providing guidance for the spirits of the dead, to bring good fortune, increase life span, etc. Other flags and banners may be those of the gods or immortals themselves.

A zigzag with seven stars is sometimes displayed, representing the Big Dipper (or the Bushel, the Chinese equivalent). In the Shang dynasty the Big Dipper was considered a deity, while during the Han dynasty, it was considered a qi path of the circumpolar god, Taiyi.

Taoist temples in southern China and Taiwan may often be identified by their roofs, which feature Chinese dragons and phoenix made from multi-colored ceramic tiles. They also stand for the harmony of yin and yang (with the phoenix being yin). A related symbol is the flaming pearl which may be seen on such roofs between two dragons, as well as on the hairpin of a Celestial Master. In general though, Chinese Taoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it from other structures.

Daoism and Buddhism

Buddhism came to China at a time when the intellectuals were hungry for fresh ideas, but it arrived with massive handicaps. It was saddled with the Indo-European focus on an appearance-reality metaphysics and epistemology, with with approximations to concepts of 'truth', sense-data experience, mind as a container of a subjective world populated by counterparts of sensible objects, propositional knowledge, representational belief, a belief-desire psychology together with a logic-informed concept of 'reason' as both a human faculty and a property of beliefs and concepts. The highly developed Buddhist arguments had little purchase on Chinese intellectuals and the only available common form of discourse that could “domesticate” this alien system was Neo-Daoist “abstruse learning” which focused on the metaphysical notions of being and non-being. That issue resonated superficially with a Buddhist puzzle about the nature of Nirvana. If Nirvana was the opposite of Samsara (the eternal cycle of rebirth or reincarnation) then was it a state of being or of non-being? Nirvana is the achievement of the Buddha — the expression of Buddha-nature. So the cosmology of this version of Buddhism, like that of the Neo-Daoists, aided achievement of some goal. Realization of the puzzling nature of this state led to Buddhahood.

Meantime, Buddhism came armed with a paradox that would delight thinkers of a Daoist turn of mind — the fabled paradox of desire. Rebirth was caused by desire and Nirvana could be achieved only by the cessation of desire. That meant that in order to achieve Nirvana, one had to cease to want to achieve it. This argument informs the Mahayana notion of a Boddhisattva, who qualifies for Nirvana but voluntarily stays behind in the cycle of rebirth to help the rest of us. Enlightenment could only be achieved all at once. (This conclusion was also a consequence of the Buddhist view that the ego is an illusion.) The Mahayana wing of Buddhism was the more successful in China because this implicit egalitarianism — everyone could be Buddha, just as everyone can be a Daoist or Confucian Sage.

The other Buddhist philosophy that had the greatest appeal in China was Madyamika, which answered the question of the nature of Nirvana or the Buddha nature by not answering it—Neo-Daoist quietism. The realization of this emptiness was a kind of non-realization, a giving up, or an inexpressible, mystical, prajna-knowledge which contrasts with “ordinary” knowledge. This helped blend discussion of dao and Buddha-nature even more and fueled the eventually widespread Confucian bias that they were the same basic religion.

Meantime, the introduction of a more “Western” religious model (monasticism) to China and coincided with the launch of organized “Daoist” religions. Modeled thus in style and progressively in content, Daoist religion, the quasi-religious Neo-Daoist stoical quietism began to blend with Buddhism.

In China, the two dominant theoretical Buddhist sects reflect the cosmological structures of the two Neo-Daoists. Tian-tai is “center dominated” with a single thought (the inexpressible Madyamika Buddha-nature) determining everything. Hua-yan shifts emphasis to the inter-relations of all “dharmas.” It's a cosmos of interaction that constitutes the expression of Buddha nature.

The most Daoist of Chinese sects is famously the Chan (Japanese 'Zen') sect. We can understand its Daoist character by returning to the paradox of desire. Laozi's analysis says artificial desires are those created by learned distinctions. If we are to eliminate the desire for Nirvana, it must be by “forgetting” the dichotomy of Nirvana-Samsara. This realization is both the inner reality of enlightenment and corresponds to a mystical answer to the being/non-being of Nirvana. It underwrites the Chan/Zen emphasis on practice, the here and now — “every moment Zen” — and the signature “realization” that we are already Buddha. The Buddha nature is your self-nature—again exemplifying the Neo-Daoist “Sage within, King without” spirit.

Daoist simplicity stimulated Chan's abandonment of Buddhist theory and was accompanied by another traditional Daoist feature — the emphasis on total absorption in practice of a highly cultivated skill. Chinese Zen was dominated by the notion of “sudden enlightenment” which consists of the denial that any process leads anyone closer to the Buddha-nature. You can't get any closer — you're just there. Pay attention!




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