Depending upon the source of information, Taoism is described as a religion, as not a religion, as a philosophy and as not a philosophy.  For something that is meant to be simple and within everyone’s grasp, the concepts of Taoism can be difficult to define.

Despite the disagreement among scholars, some of them divide Taoism, or Daoism, into three categories, Philosophical Taoism, Religious Taoism and Folk Taoism.  It bears remembering, however, that many of the people who practice what Westerners call Taoism would not even recognise the name Taoism in any language. Taosim is not a unified religion (if it is one at all) and different branches of Taoism believe quite different things from each other. There are, however, some basic beliefs that they hold in common.

Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism
One of the Taoist beliefs is that nothing exists alone; everything is interdependent.  So is it with Taoism itself; it did not spring up from nothing but incorporates many ideas common in Chinese culture, some dating as far back as thousands of years when ancient China priests carved bones to find divine messages. Ancestor worship, nature worship, alchemy, astrology, martial arts, qigong breath training disciplines, traditional medicine, feng shui and other traditions have been long intertwined with Taoism 

Lao Tzu, of Laozi, might be regarded as the father of Taoism, since he is credited with writing the central Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, also known as the Deodejing.  The name Lao Tzu (also seens in other variations like Lao Tse, Lao Zi and Laotze) simply means Old Master and is a title of honour.   According to Chinese tradition, his real name was Er Li and he lived in the 6th century BC.  Historians, however, argue that he lived in the 4th century BC, a turbulent time during the Hundred Schools of Thought and Warring States Period.

It’s almost fitting that the father of Taoism is almost as slippery a subject as Taoism itself.  There is even dispute as to whether Lao Tzu actually ever existed, and there isn’t a great deal that can be believed from some of the legends surrounding his life.  For example, he is reputed to have been conceived by his mother when she gazed upon a falling star and he remained in the womb for 62 years.  The newborn – a full-grown man - had, then, a full grey beard and long earlobes, which are respectively signs of wisdom and longevity.

According to popular biographies, Lao Tzu worked for the royal court of Chou as the Keeper of the Archives, which gave him access to classic books.  In time, he himself attracted numerous students, although he never officially opened up a school.  An often-told story tells of Confucius seeking out Lao Tzu for advice concerning rituals. Lao Tzu married and had a son, Tsung, who became a celebrated soldier.  Even though he had only one child, many people trace their lineage back to Lao Tzu, the majority of them without claim.  The fact that so many people want to be his descendents, however, speaks volumes about his impact on Chinese culture and the high regard in which the Chinese hold Lao Tzu. 

Again according to popular biography that requires a bit of a stretch of the imagination, Lao Tzu decided to leave the city and become a hermit at the age of 160, when he got fed up with the moral decline around him at court. As he passed the western gate of the city, a guard asked him to set his wisdom down so that others could benefit from it, and the resulting book is the Tao Te Ching.   Some versions of the story have the guard so moved by Lao Tzu’s writing that he leaves the city with the old master and is never seen again. Then again, some legends say that this old master was Buddha, or the teacher of Buddha.

The Tao Te Ching and basic Taoist concepts
Regardless of when it was written, under what circumstances and even by whom it was written, the Tao Te Ching is without a doubt one of the most significant treatises in Chinese philosophy.  For the sake of simplification, we will credit it to Lao Tzu, and it is indeed considered to be his magnum opus, covering everything from individual spirituality to inter-personal dynamics and political conduct.  Moreover, it is said to contain information hidden in metaphors and only recognised by Taoist adepts which concerns meditation and breathing techniques.

In the Tao Te China, Lao Tzu explains the concept of the Tao, which is roughly translated as ‘the Way’, or the flow of the universe. Nature is said to demonstrate Tao, and Tao is considered to be the source of everything that is and everything that is not. of existence and non existence.  Tao is also associated with morality and virtue, or Te.  Virtue, or Te is in fact regarded as actively living in accordance with the Tao or the way.

Another aspect of living in alignment with the Tao is Wu Wei.  Literally, it means ‘without action’ but it is usually translated as the paradoxical phrase ‘action without action’ or ‘effortless doing’. Wu Wei is fundamental in Chinese thought but is particularly emphasised in Taosim. It doesn’t mean just sitting around doing nothing, but rather it means being flexible and not imposing your will on the world around you.  The Wu Wei is associated with water in ancient Taoist texts; water is weak and soft, and yet it can carve stone and shift earth.  Man’s will is not, however, viewed as evil; it is simply supposed to be placed in harmony with the natural universe.

Other basic beliefs espoused by Lao Tzu were that violence should be avoided, that military victory should not be triumphantly celebrated but rather mourned, and that codifying laws and rules often just made governing more difficult and unnecessarily complex.

The Tao Te Ching is often dense and poetic and Lao Tzu uses paradoxes and analogies to illustrate his ideas and employs rhyme, rhythm, repetition, symmetry to help make his point.  It isn’t always that easy to understand, but there is one source that makes it child’s play to grasp the meaning of Taoism and that is Benjamin Hoff’s classic The Tao of Pooh. 

In one section the book discusses the Vinegar Tasters, an allegorical painting of three men who are supposed to represent Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu tasting vinegar.  Confucius has a sour expression because he believes that the present was out of step with the past, that the government on earth was out of harmony with the Way of Heaven.  Buddha had a bitter expression because he felt that life on earth was bitter and that only by not having attachments or desires could you avoid suffering.  To the Buddhist, happiness is achieved by reaching Nirvana, literally a state of ‘no wind’. Lao Tzu wears a happy expression because he believed that the harmony that naturally exists could be found by anyone at anytime.  He believed that earth was a reflection of heaven and that they were both governed by universal laws.  Only when abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed did life become sour or bitter. (Note, however, that the motto associated wit this painting is “the three teachings are one”.)

Hoff compares Winnie the Pooh to the ‘Uncarved Block’, a being who enjoys simple, quiet, natural and plain living.  “While Eeyore frets . . . and Piglet hesitates . . . and Rabbit calculates . . and Owl pontificates . . . Pooh just is.”  In one dialogue, Pooh says that “Rabbit’s clever”, to which Piglet agrees.  “And he has Brain,” adds Pooh.  Again, Piglet agrees.  There was a long silence, after which Pooh says “I suppose that that’s why he never understands anything.”

Chauang Tzu and the I Ching
Of course The Tao of Pooh isn’t one of the three Taoist classics; the classics are the Tao Te Ching, the writings often called by their author’s name, the Chang Tzu and the most famous Taoist text of all, the I Ching. The writings of Chang Tzu, who shared the same beliefs as Laotze but expressed them in a different way, help clarify Taoist ideas, often in an entertaining and humourous way.  His writings, known collectively as the Chang Tzu, perfectly complement the Tao Te Ching and the stories he tells show how to apply Taoism to everyday life.

The I Ching, or book of changes, is believed by some to be the oldest book in existence. It is a manual of the changes of the Tao, and describes the movements of yin and yang (the balance of opposites in the universe) through a  system of figures composed of three lines.  Since everything in the universe is thought to be connected, the I Ching is supposed to shed light on any problem by randomly generating one of 64 hexagrams to indicate the nature of the situation in question.  Since this is the oldest book of the three, and perhaps the oldest book of all, the I Ching certainly influenced Lao Tzu and all subsequent Taoist beliefs.

Taoist influences
Taoist ideas helped inspire a love of nature among the Chinese and the need to retreat to nature to rest and heal.  It also is a powerful influence in encouraging people to maintain their physical health by living in harmony with nature and the Tao.  In modern times, Taoist ideas have influenced environmental philosophers who share the view that nature is not centred on mankind (non-anthropocentric).  Some feel that Taoism fits with the radical environmental philosophy of ‘deep ecology’.

Throughout Chinese history, people have drawn on the authority of Lao Tzu and Chang Tzu, to deny serving any given ruler at any time. Chang Tzu (or Chang Tzu), Lao Tzu’s most famous follower, greatly influenced Chinese literati and culture. Chang Tzu is a central authority regarding eremitism, a variation of monasticism. (It might be simplified as a hermit living in society but withdrawing within his own mind.) Chang Tzu thought that eremitism was the highest ideal, if it was properly understood.  

Politicians and political theorists influenced by Lao Tzu value humility and humbleness and a restrained approach, either for ethical and pacifist reasons, or for tactical ends. In a different context, various anti-authoritarian movements have embraced the Lao Tzu teachings on the power of the weak.

Lao Tzu has even been called the first libertarian, with his ideas on government likened to the theory of spontaneous order. Philosopher Roderick Long, however, argues that libertarian themes in Taoist thought are actually borrowed from earlier Confucian writers.

Western New Ages have embraced parts of Taoism, the name and concept of Tao, the names and concepts of yin and yang and a respect for other aspects of Taoist tradition.

Some quotes from Lao Tzu

  • A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
  • He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.
  • I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.  These three are your greatest treasures.
  • Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  • Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish.  Do no overdo it.
  • Great acts are made up of small deeds. 
  • If you realise that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothng you cannot achieve.
  • Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
  • Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realise there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
  • Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.
  • Born to be wild – live to outgrow it.
  • How could man rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men?
  • I do not concern myself with gods and spirits either good or evil, nor do I serve any.
  • At the centre of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

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