Basic Fundamentals of 'The Way'  

By Julia Hundoble





                     Tai'Chi pose of the Adepts.

                 The Thunder God of religious Taoism

                     Kuan, female Goddess of mercy
*Two above images-http://www.taorestore.org/worship.html 


The Yellow Emperor of China: Supported the Yin and Yang  Doctrine of Taoist belief.

Related Links:








     Eastern Philosophy is becoming more and more a part of the mainstream in the United States.   Like most Americans I  have  come across various significant aspects of the Chinese philosophy; Taoism. Among these are Yin and Yang, T’ai-Chi and Feng-Shui.  Feng-Shui is a balancing of energy by arranging your living space a certain way, it is found in the pop-culture of young teen stores to books on ‘how you can Feng-Shui your home to change your life.’   The art of T’ai Chi has become more popular in the west.  Recently, I have seen people in a local park exercising the balancing of their energy by using the Chinese art.  Most Americans have also heard of, or seen the symbol of Yin and Yang.  As a child I remember it being used as the icon for a popular clothing brand, Ocean Pacific (OP.) It wasn’t until the latter part of my adolescence when I learned its generic meaning and where it came from.  China is the source of this symbol and the religious philosophy it is derived from; Taoism.

     Taoism originated in China and though many people do not know this they often have an idea of its various elements. The Yin and Yang symbol, also referred  to as the Tai Chi disk,  is expressed as everything consisting of a balance, it constitutes reality.  This is the main theme of Taoism.  The root of Tao is defined as the way of the universe, nature, balance, it is a reality that can not be grasped in language, or thought.  The goal of life is to conform human lives in the way of the universe, “being itself is a state of being” (Ni).   Taoism is also known as the nameless philosophy.  Its main themes are intuition, simplicity, spontaneity, and the way of nature.  The Tao-Te Ching or The Way and its Power,  is the doctrine of Taoism that is thought to be  written by Lao-Tzu.  The key concepts of Taoism are:  Wu Wei- action-less action, Te the flowing power, living simply, Ch’i, cosmic energy, and finally, Feng-Shui, winds and waters (Sprunger).
     Taoism is one of the most important “strains” of Chinese thought through time.  Taoism, unlike other religious traditions has no single origin, like Christianity or Islam.  There are two distinct sources for Taoism: One, the philosophers of the Civil War period (403-221 BCE) who followed a Tao or way of nature instead of following the Tao of society.  Second, The shamans and magicians who, since the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 BCE) played a significant role in the life of the ordinary Chinese population (Hubbard 25).

     There are two main philosophers associated with the creation of Taoism.  The first is Lao Tzu, who is thought to have lived between the sixth and third century BCE.  He is regarded as the creator for the foundation of the Taoist philosophy.  According  to a Chinese legend Lao Tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star and born as an eighty-two year old man.  He lived as a scholar of the Yin-Yang school of philosophy (Rosenthal).  It is believed that after his retirement he wanted to live the rest of his days living out a simple life in the mountains, but was forced by a guard to write down his life’s wisdom.  After two days he returned to the gaurd with a short manuscript; the Tao Te Ching (Sprunger).   In the Tao Te Ching  Lao Tzu stated that  “people should return to the original condition of nature…complete personal tranquillity” (Chang).  Unfortunately, there is not much known of his life or if he was actually responsible for writing the Tao Te Ching.  It is believed that he was not the only writer of the book, but rather several teachers wrote it together.  However, it remains to this day as the basic text of Taoist thought and credit is generally given to him. The second philosopher is Chuang Tzu who lived from 369-286 BCE.  He wrote a self titled book that reflects the same teaching of the Tao Te Ching, however it is more mystical and complex in its outlook (Hubbard 24).
      Shamanism is another important root of Taoism.  It has many unknown contributors, but is important non-the less.   Shamans are religious persons who perform a number of different services.  The Taoist Shaman was associated with the spiritual world, they were healers and destroyers of evil spirits.  Both men and women were shamans.  Women were more dominantly shamans, they performed exorcisms at certain times of the year, usually in times of trouble, like drought for example.  The association of women is significant because the Taoist’s ideal society is deeply connected with  matriarchy and femininity, this is obvious as women represent the yin element of nature.  It was the Shamans that made Taoism more of a religious thought than a philosophical one (Hubbard 24-26)

     In China there are three variations of Taoism that center around the Te or power. The first is philosophical Taoism, also known as schooled Taoism. They take a reflective and active approach in their quest to conserve the allotment of the Te they have.  Self-help is the foundation of their work.  There are teachers but, they act more like coaches, by training the students,  more over they work primarily on themselves.  They tried to conserve their Te by expending it efficiently which is the essential attitude toward life.  They sought the knowledge that empowered life.  They called it wisdom, and argued that in order to live wisely is to live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not expending it in useless ways like friction and conflict.  The main way they avoided such uselessness was through the concept we wei, which to Taoists means pure effectiveness (Smith 128-29).
     The second of the sects is the Taoist Adepts who are all engaged in training programs.  Their main goal is to increase the allotment of Te.  Ch’i is the foundation of their training.  Ch’i literally means breath, but to the Taoist Adepts it means vital energy.  Taoists used it to refer to the power of the Tao, which they experienced flowing through them.  The main objective was to remove any obstacle that prevented the energy to flow freely.  To accomplish ch’i maximization they worked with three things: matter, movement, and their minds.  To maximize these things they used various actions.  With matter they tried eating things to get ch’i nutritionally.  Then produced medicinal herbs.  The idea to get ch’i from matter was supplemented by programs of bodily movement.  It was this movement that the martial art T’ai-chi was introduced.  The purpose for T’ai-chi is to invite ch’i from the cosmos and remove any blockage of its internal flow.  The mind is where Taoist meditation was developed.  This meditation allowed the Taoist to be in direct view of the sources of their awareness.  It allowed them to see “the self as it was meant to be.”  Entering the inner self allowed new exploration.  Many consider Taoist yoga to be the basic perspective from which the Tao Te Ching was written (Smith 130-31).
     The final sect is religious Taoism, the vicarious power.  Religious Taoism was created in the second century CE when it became institutionalized and brought together the actions of the psychics, shamans, faith healers and soothers.  The establishment of the Church allowed “the Taoist priesthood to make cosmic life-power available for ordinary villagers.” The church is very ritualistic and has gods and deities but they are not purely worshipped.  Magic is the key to religious Taoism.  The church, by bringing together the mystics devised ways to harness higher powers for human ends (Smith 132-33).
     When the three branches are looked at and compared the differences are not that great.  The important thing to realize is that they are all centered around the concept of maximizing Te.  The philosophical Taoists interest is how to conserve their Te.  Taoist Adepts attempt to increase their Te.  Finally the religious Taoists try to gather the cosmic energy and give it to those who could not get it for themselves (Smith 1994:134.)

Three Senses of Tao
     The Tao Te Ching is more or less the “bible” of Taoism.  The basis for following the Tao or  “way” is given in three senses of the Tao.  The first is the way of ultimate reality. Tao in this sense can not be defined, perceived, or clearly conceived.  Tao is the root of all things, but all things are not Tao.  To be Tao is to be unlimited, undefined or unformed.  Tao is all the same, the ground of everything that follows.  The Tao is also transcendent and immanent.  In the second sense it is the way of the universe; the norm, the rhythm, and the force behind and in all of nature.  It is spirit not matter.  It is inexhaustible energy that flows stronger the more it is drawn upon.  It is good and gives life to all things, it is the “Mother of the World.”   Finally, in the third sense, Tao is the way of human life as it meshes with the Tao of the universe (Smith 126).
      The goal of Taoists is to attain harmony with the Tao.  This attainment of harmony with the Tao is also seen as living in accord with nature.  Taoism is profound in its naturalism.  Nature is something that should not be exploited and abused, it should be befriended not conquered (Smith 138).   The ideal man in Taoism is one who through the naturalness of his existence became self-sufficient and not dependent upon wealth or social realms.  It was this way that true happiness could be found (Smart 158-59).   To achieve mental discipline, all thoughts must respond only to Tao, the openness of the universe.  The method behind achieving lasting peace and harmony in life is waking with persistence to reach the spiritual level.   Tao is the potency of the universe, it includes all gods, deities, divine beings, spirits and souls.  The deep root of all things has Tao.  To embrace Tao is to become Tao.  Tao is the source of everything, but everything is not Tao.  Spontaneity is the way of living things and rigidity is the way of death.  (Ni 1-3).

     The yin-yang doctrine is based on the concept that there are continuous transformations within the Tao, the principle that embraces nature.  The yin-yang had always been a foundation of Chinese thought and cosmology (Smart 160).  Yin-yang is based on the essential that the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate.  This principle is divided into two opposites, or two principles that oppose one another in their actions, yin and yang.  The yin and yang represent all the opposite principles one finds in the universe.  The principles of yang are light, heat, Heaven, male, sun, etc.  The principles of the yin are darkness, cool, earth, female, moon, etc.  Everything consists of this balance, it is what constitutes reality.  Each of these opposites produce the other: Heaven creates the ideas of things under yang, the earth produces their material forms under yin, and vice versa.  This production of yin from yang and yang from yin occurs in a cyclical motion and is continuous.  This constant balancing happens so that at no time one principle dominates the other (Ebrey). There is no factor of life to which the activities of yin and yang do not apply.  Yin and Yang express the contrasting aspects and interrelationships of everything that exists in the universe.  They have no fixed definition, which makes the terms virtually untranslatable (Ni 13-17).

     For a Taoist, the objective of their human existence is to reach and maintain harmony with the Tao (Chang). When this harmony is reached enlightenment has been achieved.   Enlightenment is when they accept the plainness of their life.  It can not be found in a doctrine, rather it is found when one’s energy is balanced and one’s mind is clear.  When spirit is the directing energy in life, then the desires and impulses are balanced and harmonious and fulfill their natural function as expressions of the positive, creative, and constructive nature of the universe (Ni 20-43).   Taoism is the romantic philosophy of China.  It praises spontaneity and naturalness and connects the human to what transcends it.   Taoism in its purest definition promotes simplicity, openness, and wisdom (Smith 143).
     One who has reached the enlightenment of the Tao is referred to as a sage.  A sage is said to have the following characteristics:  an openness to life, tranquillity, simplicity, geniuses and reserve.  They lack arrogance, do not discriminate between opposites and are indifferent to worldly affairs (Chang).

     Taoism has spread throughout the globe, currently there are over thirty-one million followers (Sprunger).  In Taiwan it remains a prominent philosophy and has recently moved west into the United States where we see the symbol of yin and yang, the mainstreaming of Feng-Shui, and the ever growing art of T’ai-chi.   Like many eastern religions Taoism is seen as a mystical religion.  As more and more people open their minds to a more peaceful harmonious relationship with nature in the crazy world we live in today, these philosophies become more popular.  Taoism is a complex and intriguing philosophy that has many branches and colors that define what has been accumulating for centuries.  Taoism is much like the history and culture of China.  There is so much to it because it has endured the changes that come with time.  Yet it remains strong and pertinent to the world today.  Without the existence of Taoism, Chinese history would have been altered significantly and in turn so would have the history of the world.

                                   Work Cited

Chang, Raylene, and Page, Richard.  “Characteristics of the Self-Actualized
      Person: Visions From the East.”  Counciling Values.  Oct. 1991: v.36 Is.1
      p.2(9).  Academic Search Elite.

Ebrey, Patricia.  Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook.  2nd ed. New York: Free
     Press, 1993.

 Hubbard, Benjamin, J. Hatfield, John, T. and  Santucci, James, A.
      America’s Religions: An Educator’s Guide to Beliefs and Practices.
      Englewood, CO: Teachers Ideas Press Libraries Unlimited Inc. 1997.

Ni, Hua-Ching.  Entering the Tao.   Boston:  Shambhala Publications Inc.

Rosenthal, Stanley.  “Introduction to the Translation of the Tao Te Ching.”
     British School of Zen Taoism.  Cardiff, Sept. 1994.  Internet:  Explorer:

Smart, Ninian.  The Religious Experience of Mankind.  New York: Charles
      Scriber’s Sons, 1969.

Smith, Huston.  The Illustrated World’s Religion’s: A Guide to Our Wisdom
      Traditions.  San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1994.

Sprunger, Meredith.  “An Introduction to Taoism.”  The Utopia Book
     Fellowship, 1955-1999.  Internet.  Explorer:  http://www.ubfellowship.org