General Essay on Taoism

The boundaries between religion and philosophy are not clearly defined in Chinese religious practice. There is no character in Chinese that correlates to the word "religion" as it is conventionally used in the West, and if the term "religion" is used in conjunction with Taoism confusion may arise since religion in China was not distinguished from social conduct in general.

The Taoist tradition can be recognised as being historically divided into a philosophical and a religious dimension and there has both been interdependence and dissension between the two branches. It should be remembered that there are many forms and a network of doctrines contained in the term "Taoism". These different forms of Taoism both waxed and waned and may have both had an influence on and been influenced by other strands of Chinese religious tradition in their turn.

The term "Taoism" (Tao Chia) only appeared in Chinese texts around 100 BCE, and at first this term was used to describe the philosophical school of Lao Tzu and his followers. The term also included references to earlier beliefs and practices which went back to the origins of Chinese civilisation. These practices included esoteric methods to achieve long life and immortality, meditation techniques to enable the practitioner to return to the source of existence and to be at one with the Tao, and alchemical research that attempted to produce the elixir of immortality.

The intertwined strands of the tradition include the mystical philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu the revelations of the first Heavenly Master, Chang Tao-Ling and Yu Chi (2nd Century CE).

Themes from the Taoist religious dimension blended with themes both from Taoist philosophical thought and with ideas from Confucianism and Buddhism.

Two streams of Taoism may be distinguished. These are philosophical Taoism (Tao Chia) reflected mainly in the writings of Lao Tzu, Chang Tzu, Lieh Tzu and the Neo-Taoists, and religious Taoism (Tao Chiao). Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu tried to give an account of the human condition, and to re-orientate human consciousness to identify with the Tao. Religious Taoism is reflected in the many sects who sought immortality and the distinction between philosophical Taoism (Tao Chia), and Religious Taoism (Tao Chiao) should be considered as one of emphasis only rather than showing any clear lines of separation. Taoism fundamentally expressed in its time, not only religious and philosophical ideas, but ethical and political convictions. Unlike Confucianism which was mostly confined to the educated and upper classes of Chinese society, Taoism permeated the whole structure of Chinese life, but never had, in its religious and liturgical modes, any consistent governing body, agreed doctrines or fixed dogma.

The chart of the outline of Taoist History has been divided into five parts.

  1. The origins of Taoist religious and philosophical ideas,
  2. Early Age of Revelation
  3. Later Age of Revelation
  4. Period of Development
  5. Present day Taoism.

1 The Origins of Taoism

1.1 Early Philosophical Sources in Taoism

The classic text of Taoism is Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Virtue), which probably came into its modern form in the 4th century BCE. Other important Taoist classics are the Chuang Tzu, and Lieh Tzu texts. The existence of Lao Tzu himself is questioned by modern scholars.

1.2 Early Religious Sources in Taoism

Religious Taoism may have been the result of a reaction against the religion of ancient Chinese feudal society with its sacrificial altars of soil and grain. Although the term "Taoist" (Tao Chia) itself only dates from about the 1st Century BCE, the main strands which led into the religious tradition centred on the Tao started in the mists of antiquity. The quest for immortality (Hsien), the traditions of the masters of the occult (Fang-Shih), and the quest for the Isles of the Blest (Pengl'ai) together with the ideas from the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements school (which expressed the inter-dependence between all phenomena by defining the principal cosmic forces of the universe and their relationships) blended with the early Taoist philosophical ideas to move forward into what can be broadly called the early Taoist period. The rites and myths of shamanism became mystery cults and led to Taoist liturgy and theology . Immortality, which to the ancient Chinese meant physical immortality (the notion of spiritual immortality being unknown before the arrival of Buddhism), led to the development of alchemical research and medical skill.

Like all other great religious traditions Taoism has been affected by political events, some to its advantage, and some to its detriment. The popularity of Taoist ideas and practices during the Ch'in-Han (221 BCE - 220 CE) period enabled it to grow rapidly even when Confucianism was declared the state ideology. Taoism had gradually penetrated the life of ordinary people, and from this point on various messianic and revelationary sects arose which were the first expressions of Taoism as a religion.

2 The Early Age of Revelation

Religious Taoism emerged in two distinct messianic movements towards the end of the Han dynasty (206 - 220 CE). The first and enduring movement was that of The Way of the Heavenly Master also known as Wu-Tou-Mi-Tao or Five Pecks of Rice. This was based on the revelations to Chang Tao-Ling (142 CE) and offered a way of salvation through repentance, healing and spells. The Chang family lineage did much to make Taoism an organised religion. In 165 CE official imperial sacrifices were offered for the first time to Lao Tzu. The second major religious movement during this period was the organisation (which welled up from the lowest levels of Chinese society) known as Great Peace or Tai Ping Tao. Based on a prophetic text (The Classic of Great Peace - 2nd Century CE) and led by Chang Chio. A rebellion known as The Yellow Turban Revolt (1 84 CE.) took place, prompting the final collapse of the Han dynasty.

The philosophical dimension of Taoism further developed the mysticism of the philosophical thought from the Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu during this period. This was known as Hsuan Hsueh or "Dark Learning', and also known in the West as Neo-Taoism.

This period witnessed both the mutual influences between Taoist philosophy and Taoist religion and the independent development of these two forms of Taoism which is shown in the Neo-Taoism and the spread of religious Taoism. Both dimensions existed independently but, at the same time, greatly influenced each other. Also during this period Feng-Shui (or geomancy) developed as a ritual expression of Yin-Yang and the five Elements concepts which became a very important part of Taoist religious practices.

These three main strands of thought, The Way of the Heavenly Master, Hsuan Hsueh (Neo-Taoism) and T'ai Ping led into the next period.

3 The Later Age of Revelation

During the Period of Disunity (220-618 CE) the influence of Buddhism grew in China, and as well as resisting the Buddhist metaphysical ideas the syncretic nature of the Chinese philosophical and religious character also found ways to adapt and incorporate the new beliefs. New ways were determined of interpreting the I Ching, which created a link with Confucianism, and new interpretations arose of Wu-Wei (non-activity). During this period Taoism developed the conception of an afterlife and the organisation of monastic lifestyle.

Ling Pao Ching (Numinous Treasure) in 390 CE began with revelations of texts and developed rites of cosmic renewal, and ritual methods of controlling spirits. This sect also influenced the Heavenly Master schools and later sects. Shang-Ching (High Purity) was based on the visions received by Yang Hsi whose teachings sought to control spirits through meditation rather than rituals.

Mao Shan (4-5th Centuries CE) - From Shang-Ching evolved the Mao Shan sect, which was initiated by Tao Hung Ching (456-536 CE). Tao claimed that he had received Taoist secrets in visions from the early Taoist practitioners themselves.

During this period Northern China was under the control of the Tartars and the Chinese government fled south. The Heavenly Master of the North was brought into contact with the old traditions and practices of southern China. This led to the formation of two separate schools of the Heavenly Master tradition which, after the re-unification of China, were re-united.

Northern Heavenly Master

The first reform of the Heavenly Master tradition was initiated in the north by Kou Chien-Chih (3 73 -448 CE) who sought to bring Taoist ecclesiastical and monastic life up to the levels maintained by Buddhism and to make Taoism acceptable to the higher classes of Chinese Society. The movement stressed moral conduct and opposed uprisings and esoteric sexual rites.

Southern Heavenly Master

Lu Hsiu-Ching (406-477 CE) helped develop the institutional character of Taoism by combining the ceremonies of the Chinese court with practices of both the earlier Heavenly Master sect and those of the southern Taoist tradition.

4 The Period of Development

During the T'ang dynasty (618-907), which saw the a growth and refinement in Chinese culture, Taoism was encouraged by the Royal House and there was a great development of Taoist monastic life. Taoist monasticism was in some part modelled on the Buddhist monastic practices of this period, but the influence should be acknowledged of the hermit philosophers of the early-Warring States period. During the T'ang period there was also doctrinal and liturgical synthesis between Taoism and Buddhism and Confucianism.

In the Sung dynasty (960-1279 CE) many other new Taoist sects appeared. Among the most important of these were Ta'i-l (Supreme Unity), based on magical techniques to fight disease, and ethical rules of conduct; Chen-Ta Tao (Perfect and Great Way), known for its teachings on ethics and practical morality; and Chuan-Chen (Complete Perfection) which became of the most influential progressions of Taoism emphasising meditation, simplifying rituals and encouraging non-reliance on scriptures. This Taoist school advocated asceticism and rejection of magical routines, but at the same time continued and adopted some of the practices of the Shag-Ching and Mao Shan tradition.

Cheng-I (Orthodox Unity) was the second major current of this time, a direct successor of the Heavenly Master sect, which also interpreted the theories and practices of the Mao Shan and Ling Pao sects, as all three emphasised the value of charms, spells and rituals. Cheng-I or Heavenly Master and Chuan-Chen became the major Taoist traditions after the end of the thirteenth century, However, Taoist religious impetus was already waning and the main trends of Taoist philosophical thought were being absorbed into "Neo-Confucianism", whilst the greater part of religious Taoism was absorbed into popular religion. At the top levels of philosophical and religious thought in China these two traditions continued to have influence on the highest Confucian and philosophical thought, and at the common level on the religious faith and practice of popular custom.

Twentieth Century Nation Taoist Associations

All modern Taoist schools acknowledge the supremacy of the first Tien Shih or Heavenly Master Chang Tao-Ling (126-145 CE) and the revelations received by him, even if they do not revere the present Heavenly Master. There are National Taoist Associations both in mainland China and Taiwan, although-h it is not possible to estimate the number of followers of Taoism.


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