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The Meaning, History, and Main Concepts of Taoism

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Taoism, pronounced Daoism, is an indigenous religion that has a philosophical structure. It has traditionally shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. It all began with one man who believed in the harmony within an individual. His name was Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu was born about 604 B.C and within Taoism he is seen as a shadowy figure because not much is known about the man. His name Lao Tzu can be translated as “The Old Man”, “The Old fellow”, or “The Grand Old Master”. Legend says he was conceived by a shooting star, carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years, and born a wise old man with white hair. Although the legend might be fiction, he did exist and created this religion based on his beliefs found in ‘Taoism Te Ching’, the religion’s basic text, which can be translated as ‘The Way and Its Power’. It has been said that Lao Tzu retired for only three days and came back with the basic text. Taoism has three schools which are Taoist Yoga, Philosophical Taoism and Religion Taoism, choosing a school depends on a person’s stance on Tao power. Lao Tzu never preached, nor did he organize, or promote. Nonetheless, he advocated for people to seek greater personal solitude, but most importantly being humble and living a simple life.

The meaning of Tao is the “way” or “path” but has many different associations. In Taoism, Tao means one of three things: ultimate reality, the way of the universe, and the way to human life. These different meanings each have a temple where they can practice what they believe the Tao power is. The first approach to power is the one of effective power, called Philosophical Taoism. They studied texts that were associated with the names of Lao Tzu, Chuang, and Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power). Taoists wanted to repair life but not by being involved like Confucianism was during this time. Taoists wanted to perfect life by practicing Wu Wei, which means inaction but in Taoism, it means pure effectiveness, in other words letting nature take its course. The second approach to power is vicarious power, known as Religious Taoism believes in faith healing, can import or release emergies as does faith itself, including faith in oneself . This practice believes that it sends the energy to them and heals them. Lastly, the approach of augmented power is Taoist Yoga. Also known as Taoist “adepts”, this temple’s main focus is to feel ch’i which means vital energy. Taoists used it to explain the power of Tao they felt coursing through them, or if the power was not coursing through them. To experiencing maximum ch’i Taoists worked on three different things: matter which can be practiced by eating things to see if ch’i can be augmented nutritionally, movement is shown by practicing yoga, and their minds the way they would do this is by meditating. Not only did China have one form of Taoism but three. No matter how different each one is from another they do have some of the same beliefs – because when it comes down to it Taoism is Taoism just in different forms.

Despite the three Taoism that seem completely different, the three have some of the same beliefs when it comes to their religion. Lao Tzu once said the best way to describe Tao was through a natural element, water. In the book, The Natural Way of Lao Tzu by Wing-Tsit Chan; there was a poem that states “The best (man) is like water. Water is good; it benefits all things and does not compete with them. It dwells in (lowly) places that all disdain. This is why it is so near to Tao. [The best way] in his own dwelling loves the earth. In his heart, he loves what is profound. In his associations, he loves humanity. In his words, he loves faithfulness. In government, he loves order. In handling affairs, he loves competence. In his activities, he loves timeliness. It is because he does not compete that he is without reproach.” What the poem is saying is that Taoists reject all forms of self-assertiveness and competition, not only towards people but also towards nature. The natural element water can adapt itself wherever it might be and seeks out its course. With that in mind, Taoism has the same concept: it practices ‘Wu Wei’, it is simplicity and freedom. Rather than trying to make sense of things Taoism embraces the way things are, to simply just be. Life is not meant to compete with each other as well as to be overly confident in yourself. Life is meant to be cherished, it is meant to help other people in need, it is not meant to be worshiping one or multiple gods. Our purpose is to enjoy nature and be at peace with ourselves. Because in this life we choose humanity, we choose humanity, to live a humble and simple life. In every one of Tao’s power approaches, one is meant to help each individual heal in whichever “way” or “path” the person has chosen to practice.

Nature is to be befriended. In the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, a second poem states, “Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will. Never, I noticed, succeed. The earth is like a vessel so sacred that at the mere approach of the profane it is mere. And when they reach out their fingers it is gone.” In the eye of a Taoist, nature is supposed to be a friend, not something you can dominate. It is something we have to cherish because humanity is a part of the beauty of nature just as much as the weeds in a patch of grass. Why build extravagant temples, when nature is the greatest gift of them all. Taoism temples do not stand out from where it’s located, the temple blends in between the mountains or behind the trees. We do not feel the need to stand out against the greatest of them all. If there was a God and he created the earth – he would want to take care of his creation as much as we could. But since Taoism does not believe in a God in the way Abrahamic religions do; Taoism believes that God is an energy around the universe. If we take care of the earth, the earth will take care of us. A new beauty would take over the world, the air would be cleaner, the skies would be brighter, and living a humble and peaceful life would be possible. With this, we would not only put our differences aside but we would take care of one another when one is sick or in poverty out of the goodness of our hearts not because we think it’d make us a good person.

The identity of opposites is like yin and yang. Taoism is tied with the infamous traditional Chinese yin/yang symbol that is also known all around the world as balancing each other out, no matter how different one may be from one another. This can go from good/evil, active/passive, positive/negative, summer/winter, and male/female. Despite the differences all of the examples complement each other, they make each other whole. Let’s just say good existed and evil did not – we would never know the true beauty of the good in the world. Without the hard times, the good times would seem empty, we could simply truly appreciate it. Without people being different then multiple religions would have never been created. No matter how different each religion is, it has in some way made people want to become a better version of themselves. This is why Lao Tzu never wanted to walk for 45 years as the young Budda one did. He felt no need to prove a point. This can also be seen as a yin and yang relationship because even if Buddhism and Taoism are opposite, they never mix but still complete each other by helping other people find peace with themselves.

It is clear that Taoism is all about living a simple and humble life, by rejecting competition, and self-association to prove that one is better than another. As a result of this, we will show compassion towards other people rather than putting them down for being sick or poor. The religion understands people are different, we accept the differentness of every individual that wants to practice Taoism. It not only advocates for people to choose peace within themselves but because of this it will lead to a peaceful community. If one thing can be taken out of all of this, its Taoism can bring people together to live in harmony. 

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