Taoism is an oriental philosophy. It is
not an organized religion. One of the teachings of Tao is that
Tao cannot be defined. Any definitions would detract from a true
understanding of Tao.
Perhaps the best explanation is that Tao
is the way of nature, or the way of the heavens. Taoism is concerned
with the sublime patterns of nature. A person can achieve peace
and enlightment by harmonizing his or herself with the course
of nature. A person does not need to become a hermit, but he
or she must become free from worldy desires.
The Tao Te Ching is the fundamental book
of Taosim. It reported author was Lao Tzu (also spelled Lao Tse)
who lived in China sometime around 600 B.C. There is some controversy
among scholars as to whether Lao Tzu actually ever existed. This
book is concerned with both personal conduct and government.
An example of its teachings is "The submissive and weak
will overcome the hard and strong."
The second book of Taosim is Chuang Tzu.
This book was inspired by the teachings of Chuang Tzu who live
around 400 B.C., although this philosopher apparently did not
write the book that bears his name. The format of this book is
a collection of short parables, filled with wit, paradox, and
"Life the Dream" is one of his
"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu,
dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all
intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following
my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality
as a man. Suddenly, I awoke, and there I lay, myself again. Now
I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly,
or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming that I am now a man."
Wu wei is an important Taoist teaching.
This phrase means "non-doing," or "non-action."
This literal translation, however, is misleading. This concept
means that heaven will manifest its will for us in a spontaneous
manner if we allow it to. We can thereby attain a much more sublime
level of peace and happiness than by following a deliberate set
of virtuous actions.
TAOISM AND CONFUCIUS
Taoist authors often poke fun at Confucius.
Confucius valued duty and morality. Confucius
was concerned with a very deliberate effort to attain virtue,
particularly by following rituals and by obedience to parents
and authority figures.
On the other hand, Taoist believed that
people who sought virtue through outwardly duty would do so to
earn the praise of men. This desire for praise would turn virtue
A Taoist's quest for enlightment was a
personal, inward process. Again, Confucius was concerned with
outwardly duty and loyalty to authority figures.
Taoists also distrusted political authority.
Basically, they believed that power corrupts. Chuang Tzu wrote
a parable in which a prince appointed him as prime minister.
Chuang Tzu rejected the appointment by saying that he would rather
be a "turtle dragging its tail in the mud."
TAOIST BELIEF IN THE AFTERLIFE
The Taoist belief in the afterlife is
perhaps best represented by the following quotes from Chuang
"How then do I know but that the
dead repent of having previously clung to life?"
"How do I know that the love of life
is not a delusion? That the dislike of death is not like a young
person losing his way and not knowing that he is going home?"
TAOIST BELIEF IN GOD
Taoists teachings seem to make only a
passing reference to the existence of God. A verse in the Tao
Te Ching, chapter 4, states that Tao "images the forefather
of God." On the other hand, The Taoists' extensive belief
in heaven suggest an underlying belief in God. This Taoist God,
however, does not demand to be worshipped, in contrast to the
worship practices of Christians, Jews, and Moslems.
Again, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are the principal teachers of Taoism.
Many other Chinese authors and poets, however, have expressed
Taoist ideas in their works. A few examples are given in this
In front of my bed the moonlight shone.
For a moment I took it for frost on the floor.
When I lifted my head, I saw that it was the Moon.
When I bent my head, I dreamt of my far-away home.
- Li P'o
I gather chrysanthemums at the eastern hedgerow
And silently gaze at the southern mountains.
The mountain air is beautiful in the sunset,
And the birds flocking together return home.
Among all these things is a real meaning,
Yet when I try to express it, I become lost in "no-words."
Yu travelled south inspecting the Empire,
and when crossing the river a yellow dragon shouldered the boat.
The boatmen changed color, but Yu, smiling genially said, "I'm
doing my utmost in the interest of the people, discharging my
duties in obedience to Heaven. Living, I'm but a guest, dying
I return home. Why should we be disturbed in our peace? The sight
of a dragon is no more than a lizard."
Since he didn't turn color, the dragon pressed his ears and dropping
his tail departed. Yu thought it a little matter to see monstrous
- Huai-Nan Tzu
Please check libraries and bookstores
for translations of the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu.
I particularly recommend:
Thomas Merton, The
Way of Chuang Tzu, New Directions, New York, 1965.
Merton wrote that Taoism "transformed
highly speculative Indian Buddhism into the humorous, iconoclastic,
and totally practical kind of Buddhism that was to flourish in
China and in Japan in the various schools of Zen."