Stresses the Tao - prounced 'dow' to rhyme with cow - the Way or Nature. Started approximately 1000 BC, the first text (The Tao Te Ching, see below) appeared in 600 BC. There are at least three branches of Taoism: the philosopical, the folk-religious, and vitalising.
Varieties of Taoism
"Philosophical Taoism," which is reflected in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, the writings of Chuang-Tzu, and Lieh-Tzu. Philosophical Taoism is reflective, usually meditative, and involves some vitalizing programs to conserve Tao's power as it flows through human beings. In the philosophical Taoism of the Tao Te Ching, and Chuang-Tzu, the emphasis is on conserving te by using it efficiently.
It stresses unknowability, the limits of knowledge and achievement, the value of emptiness, and the virtue of the natural order. Its highest advice is wei wu wei -- "doing not doing," which is not to say "do nothing," but rather to do effortlessly and to place no importance on outcomes. Furthermore, it suggests that our context is so limited as to make our judgement useless - but that uselessness is, in fact, quite useful. Philosophic Taoism is a subtle and beautiful paradigm, and the above doesn't do it justice.
Vitalising Taoism (Esoteric Taoism)
Practices such as Gong Fu (Kung Fu), Chi Gung, T'ai Chi all developed from this practice of Taoism, as well as Accupuncture, Homeopathy and Chinese Medicine in general.
It is suggested that it is called "vitalizing Taoism" because it seeks to increase or augment the supply of the Tao's power which it finds in the life-force, or chi, through three means: movement, matter, and mind. In this stream you will find chi increasing training programs based on movement (Tai Chi Chuan, Kung-Fu exercises, etc.) which also worked as chi unblocking practices. Acupuncture was developed for the same reasons. Matter has vital energy as well, so Taoists developed the pharmacopoeia of the use of herbs to increase this vital power bodily, and experimented (sometimes fatally!) to find elixirs of immortality. Air is the most rarified matter and thus we find the famous Taoist breathing techniques to rejuvenate health and energize the body. Thirdly, the mind itself becomes important for the free flow of Tao's power. Here we find the contemplatives and hermits who developed Taoist meditation. Huston Smith summarizes well: "This practice involved shutting out distractions and emptying the mind to the point where the power of the Tao might bypass bodily filters and enter the self directly." Some call the practice Taoist yoga because of its similarity to the raja yoga of India. The Taoist yogis had a peculiar point of departure from their Indian counterparts: they believed that the yogi could accumulate enough chi through meditation that it could be "transmitted psychically to a community to enhance its vitality and harmonize its affairs" (Smith).
Folk-religious Taoism is largely the countryside animism of China, along with a pantheon of enlightened beings who became immortal. This approach to Taoism is based on the lay-folk but is often seen as an unsuccessful attempt to institutionalise the uninstitutionalisable.
The Taoist Concepts
Wei Wu Wei
Yang and Yang
The classics of Taoism are widely available in a plethora of translations. The main ones include the Tao Te Ching, the book of Chuang Tzu and the I-Ching.
The Tao Te Ching
The main classic is the Tao Te Ching, which was the original book of Taoism, written by Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is very simple in form, consisting simply of ideas and sometimes poems.
If you're looking to read the Tao Te Ching, the best renditions into English are those of LeGuin, and Feng/English. Under no circumstance settle for the popular Mitchell translation, which is a fine Zen Buddhist interpretation of what he thinks Lao Tzu meant, rather than an overly bookish word for word translation.
After that is the book of Chuang Tzu written by Chuang Tzu, a comtempory of Lao Tzu. This book contains stories as well as just pure ideas.
If you're looking to read the Chuang Tzu, my favorite translation is the Hamill/Seaton version; the Watson version is quite solid as well, and the Feng/English translation has a lot to recommend it, too. It seems that to settle for the "Inner Chapters" is the done thing these days, and with fairly good reason.
Another classic of Taoism is the I Ching, the Book of Changes. This classic describes the nature of yin and yang and the interplay between the two forces. It explores all natural phenomena as consequences of the waxing and waning of yin and yang. As a divination tool, it has been consulted for centuries. I have found Richard Wilhelm's translation to be most useful, as it contains not only the text of the I Ching, but detailed notes and commentary as well.
Owing to the particular difficulty in accurately and effectively translating Chinese, it is recommended that anyone with a serious interest in Taoism read several different translations.
- Tao Te Ching - LeGuin, Feng/English, Mitchell.
- Chuang Tzu - Watson
- I Ching - Richard Wilhem
- Thomas Cleary has many translations of many Eastern works widely available. Included in this expansive list is a series of Taoist classics which compiles the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Wen Tzu, and others into a handy volume.
Tao (Dao) is the name given to the symbol of Taoism, but it also refers to a very broad philosophical notion.
Tao has been thought to mean:
- Cosmic (mystical Tao)
- Union of Good and Evil
- The Absolute (compare: God)
- The First cause (compare: Prima materia from Alchemy)
- Some form of Nonduality (Advaita) or the opposite of Dualism, compare with Advaita Vedanta
- Chi or some form of Energy. (Esoteric Tao). Related: Esoteric Taoism.
The literal translation from the Chinese means "way" or "path." To talk about the tao of this or the tao of that is not particularly inaccurate, though certainly cliche. For the Chinese, there are many Taos. Taoism is only one of many paths.
What Tao really is
Tao is everything. Everything is Tao. Tao is nothing. Nothing is Tao. But above all else, Tao is a name. A word or name which we apply to anything is not the thing in ipso, but only a verbal representation of that thing. As the famous Buddhist teaching says, it is only a finger pointing to the Moon. The "Tao" we describe cannot fully be described.
Lao Tzu says that the way that can be discussed is (by definition) not the true way. Everything we say, do, or think, is one action or product of our lives, which are in turn only a few of the infinite processes of the underlying reality, Tao. What is Tao? Tao is all around you. It is inside you. There is nothing that is not Tao, but Tao can never be summed up or examined. If you understand it as the Way, the Source, or Reality, you can understand part of Tao, but you will not have apprehended it fully. Any attempt to quantify Tao, to examine it, define it, and understand it, will never be 100% successful, because all those actions are part of Tao.
Consider the concept of taiji (the yin yang diagram). Taiji represents duality; however, the duality is only apparent. In truth, yin and yang are both part of Tao, and the difference only arises from our minds. In truth there is no good or evil; but good and evil exist. They do not exist, and yet they do. Logical paradox and confusion are inevitable when considering the Tao. For logic and nonsense are another duality, but they arise from the same source: Tao. Action and thought, internal and external, matter and energy, light and dark these only exist because of Tao. Fundamentally they are the same; fundamentally, a mountain and the river are one. But there is snow on the mountain and fish in the river. Where is the Source?
Is Zen a form of Tao?
Zen Buddhism originated in China as Ch'an; the Japanese, when they acquired this, translated it as Zen. While Taoism combined with Buddhism to become Zen Buddhism, Zen has acquired meanings all its own.
Tao or Dao?
The correct pronounciation sounds, to Western ears, a lot like "Dao." Chinese is a very different language from English, and no transliteration will capture the exact nuances of the Chinese word; "Tao" is an older transliteration, and most people still use it for convenience, as it is well-understood by the greatest number of people.
- For secondary reading on philosophic taoism, Alan Watts' Tao: The Watercourse Way is quite fine. Alan Watts has written a variety of fine books on Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These are all excellent, and one particular book entitled simply The Book is also quite good.
- The Handbook for the Urban Warrior by the Barefoot Doctor - a manual of practice for the modern Taoist.
- The Tao Paths series by Solala Towler - a collection of quotes (including some originals) in a small book. Tao Paths: Long Life is very good, especially if you want to look into vitalising Taoism. I haven't read the others.
- The Tao of Pooh and the update The Tao of Pooh (and the Te of Piglet) by Benjamin Hoff - very popular explainations of Taoism using Winnie The Pooh as an example.