What is Daoism?

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Image: Asia Society, Judith Berling, Daoism: The Way

Daoism (also referred to as Taoism) is a Chinese philosophy credited to the legendary figure Laozi (also referred to as Lao Tzu) who historians think might have lived either in the 6th century or 4th century BC.

According to traditional accounts and the Shiji (penned in large part by 1st century historian Sima Qian), Laozi attracted followers and disciples, and was a contemporary of the philosopher Confucius, the founder of Confucianism. Although Daoism begun as a philosophy and later developed into a religion, it is important to see both these features together, rather than the latter constituting a degradation or distortion of the former. It is also relevant to note that what is referred to as Daoism by the historian Sima Qian constituted ideas and writings in existence before ever being given the name. In his historical account, Qian lists the Daoists as one of the six schools during the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy.

The Legendary Founder of Daoism/Taoism, Laozi

Laozi was purportedly concerned with the moral decline of his day in Chengzhou which led him to pursue exile. It is said that as he was leaving he was requested by a gatekeeper to write a text. Laozi agreed and penned the Daodejing (also referred to as the Tao Te Ching). However, this text evidences multiple authors and additions from later periods, and is unlikely to have been authored by Laozi himself. The Daodejing urges people to be humble, avoid pride, and also live alongside others, oneself, and the world in peace. It wishes to have people realize their connection to their fellow human beings as well as the Earth. Laozi’s life would eventually be invested with religious significance. He was soon deemed to be the perfect Daoist master, portrayed as the Dao personified, and also be worshipped as a god. Whether or not Laozi existed, and independent of when he may have lived, Laozi has undoubtedly had a huge influence on Chinese politics and culture. For example, Zhang Ling (d. 156 AD), a Taoist partisan, is credited as the founder of the first religious sect of Taoism: the Way of the Celestial Masters (in 142 AD), which presents Laozi as being at the top of a pantheon of deities. Daoism would also become the official religion of China under the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).

The Dao

Daoism has its origins in earlier Chinese beliefs and traditions concerning nature and harmony, and speaks of the Dao, a principle or power that underlies and sustains all things, and around which life flows. The Dao is an invisible (although not transcendent), mysterious cosmic force which flows through all things, and is the source, pattern and substance of the universe. According to the Daodejing, the Dao, through “unnatural” human acts within human society and culture, can be unbalanced, which is why the Daodejing attempts to teach people to a “return” to their natural state, and therefore be in harmony with the Dao. Being in harmony through following the Dao not only helps to ensure cosmic balance, but also leads to personal spiritual flourishing, and a virtuous, fulfilled, and possibly longer life. Also stressed is a practice known as wuwei, a Chinese term meaning “non-action,” and thus the virtue of avoiding acting in ways not in accord with nature. There are various ways Daoists believe harmony can be sustained or obtained, and the virtues of compassion, frugality, and humility (known as the Three Treasures) are perhaps the most important. It is thus important for the Daoist to detach himself from material concerns and disruptive emotions such as ambition and anger. Many Daoists believe that there are three (highest) Gods, referred to as the Three Pure Ones, at the top of the Daoist pantheon emanating from the Dao.

Ying and Yang

An important feature within Laozi’s teachings is what he referred to as yin and yang, which, emanating from the Dao, is believed to constitute all phenomena in life. Yin comprises all that is dark, moist, soft, cold, and feminine, whereas yang includes all those things that are light, dry, hard, warm, and masculine. Daoists believe that everything is made of yin and yang and that harmony in the world is achieved when the two are kept in balance. Balance requires the mind, spirit, and body, all of which should be engaged in the practices of meditation and tai chi. These physical, mental, and spiritual exercises are believed to balance the flow of qi (life-force) through the body.

Daoism and Confucianism

Daoism was one of several philosophical schools to flourish during the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy. Confucianism was another, and both schools have participated in shaping Chinese religious, political, and philosophical belief. Daoism shares similarities with Confucianism given that both schools imbibed earlier traditions concerning humanity, the state, rulership, and the universe. However, they are distinctive given the essentials they stress as important to human flourishing and moral excellence. Confucianism, following from where Confucius placed his ideas and concerns (particularly on morality, virtue, and the political realm) focuses primarily on moral, political, and state systems. Daoism, however, is concerned with living in harmony with the Dao, and thus on how people embrace nature and what is natural and spontaneous in human experience. Daoists are resolute on this point even if it disagrees with the philosophical thought and convictions of other Chinese philosophers on culture, education, rulership, and morality. As such, Daoists disagree with Confucianism holding that the areas in which Confucians intend human beings to flourish (morality, law, and aesthetics) constitute humane-made distinctions which create problems human beings experience rather than solving them. These distinctions are attempts to control reality and will lead to frustration and disharmony.

2 responses to “What is Daoism?

  1. Pingback: Daoism – Deconstructionally Insane·

  2. Pingback: What are New Religious Movements and Modern Religions? | Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy·

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