V. Taoism
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
No civilization is monochrome. In China the classical tones of Confucianism have been balanced not only by the spiritual shades of Buddhism but also by the romantic hues of Taoism.

The Old Master

According to tradition Taoism (pronounced Dowism) originated with a man named Lao Tzu, said to have been born about 604 B.C. He is a shadowy figure. We know nothing for certain about him and scholars wonder if there ever was such a man. We do not even know his name, for Lao Tzu— which can be translated “the Old Boy,” “the Old Fellow,” or “the Grand Old Master”— is obviously a title of endearment and respect. All we really have is a mosaic of legends. Some of these are fantastic: that he was conceived by a shooting star, carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years, and born already a wise old man with white hair.

He retired for three days and returned with a slim volume of five thousand characters titled Tao Te Ching, or The Way and Its Power. A testament to humanity’s at-home-ness in the universe, it can be read in half an hour or a lifetime, and remains to this day the basic text of Taoist thought.

The Three Meanings of Tao

On opening Taoism’s bible, the Tao Te Ching, we sense at once that everything revolves around the pivotal concept of Tao itself. Literally, this word means path, or way. There are three senses, however, in which this “way” can be understood.
First, Tao is the
way of ultimate reality. The Tao Te Ching announces in its opening line that words are not equal to it: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.”  Nevertheless , this ineffable and transcendent Tao is the ground of all that follows. “Of all great things, surely Tao is the greatest.” But its ineffability cannot be denied, so we are taunted, time and again, by Taoism’s teasing epigram:

“Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’t know.”

Though Tao is ultimately transcendent, it is also immanent. In this secondary sense it is the way of the universe, the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for when Tao enters this second mode it “assumes flesh” and informs all things.
In its third sense Tao refers to the
way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe as just described.

Three Approaches to Power and the Taoisms That Follow

Tao Te Ching,  the title of Taoism’s basic text,  has been translated The Way and Its Power. We have seen that the first of these substantive terms, the Way, can be taken in three senses. Now we must add that this is also true of the second substantive term, power. Corresponding to the three ways te or power can be approached, there have arisen in China three species of Taoism so dissimilar that initially they seem to have no more in common than homonyms, like blew/ blue or sun/ son, that sound alike but have different meanings.

Two have standard designations,
Philosophical Taoism and Religious Taoism respectively. The third school  is too heterogeneous to have acquired a single title.

Efficient Power: Philosophical Taoism

Unlike Religious Taoism , which became a full-fledged church, Philosophical Taoism and the “vitalizing Taoisms,” as we shall clumsily refer to the second group, remain relatively unorganized. In decided contrast to Religious Taoists, those in these first two camps work primarily on themselves. To put the difference pointedly, Philosophical Taoists try to conserve their te by expending it efficiently, whereas “vitality” Taoists work to increase its available supply.

Because Philosophical Taoism is essentially an attitude toward life, it is the most “exportable” Taoism of the three, the one that has the most to say to the world at large.

Knowledge that empowers life we call wisdom; and to live wisely, the Taoist philosophers argued, is to live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not expending it in useless, draining ways, the chief of which are friction and conflict.

Their recommendations revolve around the concept of wu wei, a phrase that translates literally as inaction but in Taoism means pure effectiveness. Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction— in interpersonal relationships, in intrapsychic conflict, and in relation to nature— is reduced to the minimum.

Augmented Power:

Taoist Hygiene and Yoga Taoist “adepts” were not willing to settle for the philosophers’ goal of managing their allotments of the Tao efficiently. They wanted to go beyond conserving to increasing the quota of the Tao they had to work with . The word  ch’i  cries out to be recognized as the rightful entry to this second school, for though it literally means breath, it actually means vital energy. The Taoists used it to refer to the power of the Tao that they experienced coursing through them— or not coursing because it was blocked— and their main object was to further its flow. (Kindle Locations 4199-4202)

To be alive is good; to be more alive is better; to be always alive is best, hence the Taoist immortality cults.

To accomplish their end of maximizing ch’i, these Taoists worked with three things: matter, movement, and their minds.

Respecting matter, they tried eating things— virtually everything, it would seem— to see if ch’i could be augmented nutritionally. Sexual experiments were also performed. In one such experiment men hypothesized that if they retained their semen during intercourse by pressing the ball of the thumb against the base of the penis at the moment of ejaculation, thereby diverting the semen into their own bodies,  they would absorb the yin of their female partners without dissipating their own yang energy.

These efforts to extract ch’i from matter in its solid, liquid, and gaseous forms were supplemented by programs of
bodily movement such as t’ai chi chuan, which gathers calisthenics, dance, meditation, yin/ yang philosophy, and martial art into a synthesis that in this case was designed to draw ch’i from the cosmos and dislodge blocks to its internal flow. This last was the object of acupuncture as well.

Finally, turning to the
mind itself, contemplatives, many of them hermits, developed Taoist meditation. Whether or not China borrowed from India on this score, the physical postures and concentration techniques of Taoist meditation are so reminiscent of raja yoga that sinologists import the Sanskrit term and call it Taoist yoga. Successive deposits of worry and distraction so silted the soul that their deposits had to be removed until “the self as it was meant to be” could surface. Selflessness, cleanliness, and emotional calm are the preliminaries to arriving at full self-knowledge, but they must be climaxed by deep meditation. The result will be a condition of alert waiting known as “sitting with a blank mind.”

We find even Chuang Tzu burlesquing their breathing exercises, reporting that these people “expel the used air with great energy and inhale the fresh air. Like bears, they climb trees in order to breathe with greater ease.” Mencius joined in the fun. He likened those who sought psychic shortcuts to social harmony to impatient farmers who tug gently on their crops each night to speed their growth. Despite such satire Taoist yoga had an appreciable core of practitioners.

Vicarious Power: Religious Taoism

Philosophical Taoism sought to manage life’s normal quotient of the Tao efficiently, and energizing Taoism sought to boost its base supply, but something was lacking.

Influenced by Buddhism, which entered China around the time of Christ, the Taoist church— in Chinese the Tao Chiao, “Church Taoism” or “Taoist Teachings”— took shape in the second century A.D. It was anchored in a pantheon whose three originating deities included Lao Tzu.

Wu wei is the supreme action, the precious suppleness, simplicity, and freedom that flows from us, or rather through us, when our private egos and conscious efforts yield to a power not their own. In a way it is virtue approached from a direction diametrically opposite to that of Confucius.
The Tao Te Ching puts this point without wasting a word. “The way to do,” it says, “is to be.”

The natural phenomenon that the Taoists saw as bearing the closest resemblance to Tao was water. They were struck by the way it would support objects and carry them effortlessly on its tide. Water, then, was the closest parallel to the Tao in the natural world. But it was also the prototype of wu wei. They noticed the way water adapts itself to its surroundings and seeks out the lowest places.

Infinitely supple, yet incomparably strong— these virtues of water are precisely those of wu wei as well. The person who embodies this condition, says the Tao Te Ching, “works without working.” Such a one acts without strain, persuades without argument, is eloquent without flourish, and achieves results without violence, coercion, or pressure. Though the agent may be scarcely noticed, his or her influence is in fact decisive.

A final characteristic of water that makes it an appropriate analogue to wu wei is the clarity it attains through being still. “Muddy water let stand,” says the Tao Te Ching, “will clear.”

Other Taoist Values

Still following the analogy of water, the Taoists rejected all forms of self-assertiveness and competition. The world is full of people who are determined to be somebody or give trouble. They want to get ahead, to stand out. Taoism has little use for such ambitions. “The ax falls first on the tallest tree.”

Their almost reverential attitude toward humility led the Taoists to honor hunchbacks and cripples because of the way they typified meekness and self-effacement. They were fond of pointing out that the value of cups, windows, and doorways lies in the parts of them that are not there. “Selfless as melting ice” is one of their descriptive figures. The Taoists’ refusal to clamber for position sprang from a profound disinterest in the things the world prizes.

Another feature of Taoism is its notion of the relativity of all values and, as its correlative, the identity of opposites. Here Taoism tied in with the traditional Chinese yin/ yang symbol. Those who meditate on this profound symbol, Taoists maintain, will find that it affords better access to the world’s secrets than any length of words and discussion.

Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, and during the dream had no notion that he had ever been anything else. When he awoke, however, he was astonished to find that he was Chuang Tzu. But this left him with a question. Was he really Chuang Tzu who had dreamed that he was a butterfly, or was he a butterfly that was now dreaming that it was Chuang Tzu?

If this all sounds very much like Zen, it should;
for Buddhism processed through Taoism became Zen.

It is no surprise to find an outlook as averse to violence as Taoism verging on pacifism. There are passages in the Tao Te Ching that read almost like the Sermon on the Mount.

That in China the scholar ranked at the top of the social scale may have been Confucius’ doing, but Taoism is fully as responsible for placing the soldier at the bottom.


Circling around each other like yin and yang themselves, Taoism and Confucianism represent the two indigenous poles of the Chinese character. Confucius represents the classical, Lao Tzu the romantic. Confucius stresses social responsibility, Lao Tzu praises spontaneity and naturalness. Confucius’ focus is on the human, Lao Tzu’s on what transcends the human.