One of the three major religious systems of ancient China,
together with Confucianism and Buddhism. Early Taoism derives
from the Tao (‘‘the road’’ or ‘‘the way’’) teachings of Lao
Tzu. The origins and background of Lao Tzu is uncertain; in
fact, most details of his life are legendary. Some sources claim
Lao Tzu was said born of poor parents in Tau (Honan) under
the Emperor Ting of the Kau dynasty (ca. 605 B.C.E.). Others
believe he was a philosopher who became disgusted with the
world and became a pessimist, later resigning his position in
the Record Department and retiring to a monastery. He also
allegedly met and was taught by Gautama Buddha, and held
discussions with Confucius. The name, Lao Tzu (meaning ‘‘Old
Master’’), may not be an actual persons name but a pseudonym
for the philosophers and teachers who developed Taoism as it
is known today.
Lao Tzu’s book Tao-te-Ching was regarded as a sacred work
in North and Central China, but was burned with other writings
in 220 B.C.E. It reappeared under the Han dynasty and was reinforced
by the teachings of Chuang Tzu, another Taoist classic.
It is believed to have been the work of a philosopher of the
same name. Lao Tzu was the first to formalize Taoism while
Chuang-Tzu developed a more philosophical system, metaphysics,
and epistemology. Chuang Tzu’s teachings of the Tao
is considered to be transcendental, while Lao-Tzu’s is considered
to be a natural form.
Taoism was originally an esoteric philosophy, concerned
with the unity underlying the opposites and diversity of the
phenomenal world. Taoism taught union with the law of the
universe through wisdom and detached action. The union of
cosmic and individual energies is reminiscent of the Vedanta
teachings of India.
As central to the Taoist tradition as the concepts of yin and
yang are the ideas of Tao and Te (‘‘the power’’). Like yin, Tao
is often identified with the passive (or wu wei); because the way
is often given preeminence over the power. It is said a real seeker
of wisdom knows the power (Te) but seeks the way (Tao).
One should not strive for wealth or prestige and that aggression
is to be avoided.
As part of the Taoists’ practice, followers have incorporated
lifestyle rituals, such as vegetarianism, herbal and tactile medicinal
approaches, good moral conduct, and the use of appropriate
incantations, amulets, and charms. T’ai Chi Ch’uan, with its
fusion of energetic and relaxed exercise, has provided a means
of increasing and enhancing ch’i (or Qi), the vital force of life.
The overall goal of Taoists’ life is to attain harmony with the
Tao. This means one must desire nothing, live simply, and act
by not acting. It is a practice where solitude and individualism
is cherished and where the ‘‘upper classes’’ of social standing
are rejected.
Taoism has also developed its own yoga techniques, which
parallel the ancient Hindu system of kundalini yoga. These involved
control of ch’i, the force believed to stand behind sexual
activity, but which could also be diverted into different channels
in the body for blissful expansion of consciousness. The
circulation of this generative force in the body, aided by breathing
techniques, corresponds with Indian yoga techniques involving
pranayama breathing, and the ascent of kundalini energy
through the chakras or vital centers of the body. This
individual alchemy was variously known as k’ai men (open
door), ho ping (unity), or ho hsieh (harmony).
The extraordinary parallels between ancient Indian and
Chinese Taoism in its various forms and Hinduism (Vedanta
and yoga) do not appear to have been documented by historians.
The yoga teachings of China descended from teacher to
pupil; it is only in recent times that basic texts have been translated
into English. There are now teachers of Chinese yoga in
Western countries and centers for instruction. There are also
many translations with commentaries of the earlier Tao teachings
in the Tao-te-Ching.
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Chang, Chung-Yuan. Tao A New Way of Thinking. New York
Harper & Row, 1975.
Feng, Gia-Fu and English, Jane. Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching. New
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Hendricks, Robert G. Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching. New York
The Modern Library, 1993.
Hughes, E. R., ed. and trans. Chinese Philosophy in Classical
Times. London J. M. Dent; New York E. P. Dutton, 1942.
Lu Kuan Yü. Taoist Yoga Alchemy and Immortality. London
Rider & Co., 1970.
Soo, Chee. The Chinese Art of K’ai Men. London Gordon &
Cremonesi, 1977.
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