07 January 2009

Taoism – The Way: China’s home grown religion

道可道非常道 – Dào kĕ dào fēi cháng dào

The Tao that can be expressed is not the true Tao.

These are the opening words of the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing – 道德经 – Dàodéjīng), the key text of Taoism. Many say Taoism is the most important Chinese religion because Buddhism was not originally Chinese and Confucianism prefers to be called a philosophy.

Seeing as the Tao that can be expressed is not the true Tao, explanation of what it is seems rather futile, but we’ll have a go nevertheless. Tao translates roughly to ‘The Way’ and is a force which runs through and gives life and force to all things. The Tao is subtle but powerful. Some express it as the way of nature, the bond between man and nature. Taoism teaches that everything in the world is connected, but we just can’t see it because of our self centred viewpoint. The aim of the Taoist is to align himself with the Tao.

The only way to obtain the Tao is through contemplation and meditation and thus the Taoist rejects worldly affairs, material goods, ambition and luxury because all of these things interfere with the more important business of meditation. One enjoyable side effect of complete alignment with the Tao is immortality -something which made Taoism rather popular with Chinese Emperors. Taoism doesn’t really concern itself with morality, but it does say that wrongdoing is a consequence of losing sight of the Tao.

Taoism traces its roots back to Lao Tzu (or Lao Zi – 老子 – Lăozĭ). The name ‘Lao Tzu’ literally means ‘old boy’ supposedly because Lao Tzu was carried in the womb for 80 years before being born with white hair. Near the end of his life Lao Tzu decided to travel to the West in search of solitude, but before he left a gatekeeper asked him to write down the wisdom he had accumulated. Lao Tzu promptly whisked off the 5,000 word Tao Te Ching (also called ‘The Classic of the Way and its Power’, ‘Ethics’ or the ‘Dao De Jing‘) which became one of the classics of Chinese literature. Then he got on a water buffalo and rode off never to be seen again.

The Chinese Emperors of the Tang dynasty promoted Daoism and used claims of descendancy from Lao Tzu to justify their rule. Some Chinese fables claim that Lao Tzu and Confucius met but there’s no absolute evidence to support this idea.

Chuang Tzu (Zhuāngzi – 庄子) picked up where Lao Tzu left off, providing further illumination of the mysterious Tao through insightful and often amusing parables. The parables were collected together in a book which was named after him. The parable of the butterfly illustrates the Taoist views on the perception of reality:

One day Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly, forgetting he was Chuang Tzu at all. Later, he remembered that he was only Chuang Tzu dreaming of being a butterfly. But how could he know whether it was Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming it was Chuang Tzu?

Chuang Tzu was acknowledged as a great sage during his lifetime but rejected all offers of government office, preferring to spend his life in solitary contemplation.

In the tortoise parable, two envoys from the Kingdom of Chu approach Chuang Tzu while he is fishing and ask him to come and advise the King. Chuang Tzu says he has heard of a tortoise which lived for 3,000 years, and is now kept in a box in the palace and worshipped. Then he asked where did they think the tortoise would rather be, dead in a box but worshipped, or crawling around in the mud? They replied that the tortoise would rather be crawling around in the mud, so Chuang Tzu said he would stay by the river and fish.

The complicated philosophy of Taoism had great appeal to the scholarly class, but it was rather too inornate and remote for the majority. Consequently Taoism changed over time and acquired new features which added to its original incarnation as the no-frills, contemplative religion of the recluse. Among these features were a whole range of Gods and a system of priesthood. After the arrival of Buddhism in China, the Taoists established a pope-like position to vie for political influence. Taoism also became associated with exorcism, fortune telling and magic potions. Form its beginnings as a passive philosophy developed by a couple of hermits, Taoism developed into an organised religion.

Taoist sex practices have proved rather popular both in and outside of China. Taoists researched various sexual practices over many generations, supposedly with the aim of promoting longevity. According to Taoist beliefs, jīng (which is a form of qi) is dissipated by excessive ejaculation, so they developed various ways of controlling the amount they ejaculate. Another belief is that immortality can be attained through intercourse with virgins – something which countless Chinese Emperors tried to achieve over the ages. According to the autobiography of his doctor Li Zhisui, Chairman Mao Zedong also did his best to achieve immortality this way.
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