Daoism is a Chinese way of thinking that is best under-stood as being composed of two traditions, philosophical Daoism and religious Daoism. Both traditions are primarily derived from texts of archaic antiquity. Among them are the Dao De Jing (Classic of the Dao and Its Power) and the Zhuang Zi (Master Zhuang).
As the major inspiration and authoritative source of Daoism, the Dao De Jing is a combination of poetry, philosophical reflection, and mystical speculation that is composed of some 5,200 words. Given its present form, this classic was probably completed in the third or fourth century BC. However, its original title is Lao Zi (“Old Master”), which attributes the authorship to a legendary figure who was born around 602 BC. It is likely that a good part of the book was edited from much older texts at the time of rendition and put in the mouth of Lao Zi. Profound and abstruse, this philosophical treatise is the most translated of all classics, next to the Bible.
Central to Daoism is the notion of Dao (Tao as in non-pinyin romanization, which also yields Taoism). The profound revelation that grew out of Daoist elaboration on the Dao or “the Way” is the key to a real appreciation of the Chinese worldview on the universe, society, and life. It impacted all other Chinese belief systems, including Confucianism. In expounding the meaning of the Dao, Daoism and Confucianism ran through Chinese thought like two powerful streams side by side until modern times. If Confucianism concentrates on social order and active duties, Daoism focuses on individual life and tranquility. While the former preaches conformity to a man-made social order, the latter emphasizes conformity to natural order. Daoism contrasts Confucian worldliness with a transcendental spirit that is by no means escapist. Not only does Daoism have a social, political ideology that rivals that of Confucianism, but its discourse also goes much deeper into the Way of life.
Two themes stand out in the Dao De Jing—life and government. Philosophical Daoism is concerned with how to live a meaningful life and institute a sage rulership. In addressing the issues that arise from these two questions, Daoism subscribes to a philosophical approach that puts more faith in nature than in humanity. This naturalism finds expression in a number of principles whereby the Dao is to be discovered, appreciated, and followed.
Simplicity of Life
To live simply and plainly is to exist close to nature, where the Dao rules without any interference from man-made social, moral, and political orders. It is a state in which people have direct access to the observation of the Way. Simplicity of life, or pu, also purifies the mind so that it becomes a clean mirror to capture everything clearly and enhance the reflection of the Dao in human awareness. For the mind to be purified, however, it must be emptied of social self, traditional wisdom, and mundane desires. Therefore, the Dao De Jing urges people to “return to the state of childhood,” “discard wisdom,” and be “free of desires.”
Lao Zi is literally “old child” in Chinese. In fact, all humans are believed to be the children of the Dao. To discover the Dao, people should return to their natural conditions as found in infancy or childhood. The journey is not going to be easy. It involves self-effacement and the practice of asceticism before a state of tranquility that is free from desires, passions, and moral distortions can be restored. The Dao De Jing condemns all learning that leads people to become self-important and impose their will on nature; the only learning encouraged is of the laws of nature.
Simplicity of life is the gateway to sagehood. A sage is a Holy Person (shengren) who identifies with the Dao, knows its principles, respects its power, and behaves accordingly. The liberation gained from such union with the Dao caught the seminal imagination of Zhuang Zi (ca. 369-286 BC), another major founder of philosophical Daoism. The opening chapter of the Zhuang Zi exalts the ecstasies of transcending the limited experience of man, the narrow bounds of conventional knowledge, the fragility of man-made standards, and the artificiality of logic to roam freely across the universe with the Creator. Notwithstanding the poetic license of the Zhuang Zi to fantasies, Daoist sagehood is naturalistic, stressing Dao-centered ethics. The Dao De Jing is scornful of the human-centered Confucian ethics, such as humanity or benevolence. Human behavior becomes moral if and only if it acts in harmony with the will of nature. Humanity has no place in Daoist morality, as natural operations are not meant to feel benevolent or show preference for humans.
The Relativity of Opposites
How does Dao operate? Attention is called to the workings of yin and yang, which generate everything in the universe. This process is known as the “Dao with name,” meaning the Dao manifested in operation. It is important to note that as two material forces, yin and yang are polar opposites. The former is typically feminine, dark, cold, and debilitating, whereas the latter is typically masculine, bright, warm, and invigorating. Their opposition is self-evident. But in Chapter 2 of the Dao De Jing, it is stressed that no opposition is absolute and that invariably, opposites are complementary:
Difficult and easy complete each other;
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low distinguish each other;
Sound and voice harmonize with each other;
Front and back follow each other.
Much as the opposites contrast categorically, they also are in a symbiotic relationship. What is difficult is meaningful only relative to what is easy, and vice versa. By the same token, front and back have meaning only in relation to each other. Semantically, there is mutual causality between two opposites. One cannot exist meaningfully without the other. It is in this sense that the opposites “complete” and “follow” each other as much as they “contrast” and “distinguish” each other.
From the mutual causality of opposites, the doctrine “relativity of opposites” is inferred. Each state of being is relative in the sense that it will change to its opposite in due time, just as day is bound to become night and the young are bound to grow old. Because everything in the universe eventually produces its opposite, cyclic change is characteristic of the way that Dao operates. Furthermore, opposites coexist rather than exclude each other during cyclic change. To bring about prosperity in life or society is not a nonstop drive to replace yin with yang. Rather, it involves achieving a combination of yangand yin in their right proportions so that harmony will prevail. Then again, there are elements or seeds of discordance in harmony, and sooner or later they will grow, causing harmony to change to its opposite: dissonance.
With the doctrine known as the “relativity of opposites,” Daoism entertains a dynamic worldview, recognizing that nothing stands still and that the whole universe is in a constant flux of change. The relativity doctrine is also incorporated into the Daoist cosmogony. It is assumed that the universe began as a primordial mass and took shape only after the two material forces yin and yang were born and started to interact in the presence of qi, or “cosmic energy,” to generate everything in the universe. As the evolution of the universe followed the laws of a natural Dao, it had nothing to do with divine creation. Were it not for the Daoist belief of cyclic change that creates an impasse for the metamorphosis of species, this cosmogony would be more in tune with evolutionary thinking.
Being and Non-Being
The Dao is knowable by the human mind. But it exists in two forms: the Dao that can be named and the Dao that is nameless. The former is being, and the latter is non-being. As being, the Dao with name is phenomenal, gives form to everything, and lends itself to observation and naming. As non-being, the Dao without name is obscure to observation and defies naming and description. In the opening chapter, the Dao De Jing remarks:
The Dao that can be told of is not the eternal Dao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name;
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all things.
Therefore let there always be non-being, so we may perceive its subtlety,
And let there always be being, so we can observe its outcomes.
Everything under Heaven is born of being, and being is born of non-being.
Attainment of the Dao boils down to grasping the principles and laws of non-being that accompanied the beginning of time and are eternal. In non-being lies the ultimate reality, which resembles a void, seemingly empty but replete with contents and potentials. The principles and laws of non-being are deeply embedded in the products of being. This is why the Dao De Jing goes on to note, “Being and non-being produce each other.”
The dichotomy of being and non-being became a focal point when scholars pored over philosophical Daoism to look for its “affinity” with Confucianism during the Period of Disunity (221-589). In an influential commentary, Wang Pi (226-249) argued that non-being was actually pure or imperceptible being. Known as “Mystery Learning,” such revisionist attempts are held to be beside the point by some contemporary scholars. Confucianism seeks to find a constant dao that guides social behavior infallibly. But in Daoist thought, a constant dao requires constant naming. Since there are many possible standards, it is arbitrary to pick out one of them as the constant guide to naming. The Daoist notion of non-being is not necessarily asocial. Rather, it rejects any arbitrary dao in favor of a natural dao that is truly profound.
The Dao is to be translated into behavior through the sage, who makes an ideal ruler and practices nonaction (wuwei). Nonaction means taking no action against the flow of Nature. Almost a third of the Dao De Jing is devoted to the art of government and sage rulership. Repeatedly, the role of nonaction in statesmanship is defined as “acting without competing (against the will of nature),” and the text of the Dao De Jing also ends its last chapter on this note. If Daoist nonaction is meant to refrain from interference in the operations of nature, it does not mean withdrawal from society.
In practice, nonaction is symbolized by the flow of water, which takes the path of least resistance. Meddlesome behavior is pointless in the sense that other than endangering oneself, it achieves nothing in its attempt to change the natural law. Therefore, the sage ruler “governs without governing” and delegates the duties to his ministers, who are expected to do the governing by rejecting arbitrary and calculated decisions in favor of spontaneity (ziran). Under this laissez faire approach, decision making is made in harmony with the Dao, interference in the natural course of things is minimized, and the government is kept lean.
The Daoist advocacy of nonaction had its precursor in the political ideology attributed to the mythical Huangdi (Yellow Emperor). In recognition of contributions from both Huang Di and Lao Zi, the doctrine of nonaction is known as the Huang-Lao art of government. It was adopted by the early rulers of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and had a considerable impact on the Legalists, who, in arguing for the rule of law, agreed that the ruler should be detached, but remain perfectly aware and responsive.
As an indigenous religion, Daoism has its roots in the classical religion of the Zhou period (1122-221 BC), which featured popular practices of shamanism, ancestor worship, occult arts, magical cults, and the veneration of Heaven as the supreme power commanding a pantheon of deities.
However, Daoism did not emerge as a voluntary and organized religion until the 2nd century, when it received formative impact from two peasant uprisings. One was the rebellion of “Great Peace Daoism” (Taiping Dao), which broke out in AD 184 in what is now Hopei Province of northern China. It united a large number of communities under a Daoist hierarchy of governance. This politico-religious movement quickly spread to a large part of the country under the leadership of its founder Zhang Jue (ca. AD140-188). Known as the “Yellow Turbans” because of its distinguishing headdress, the rebel army was eventually crushed. The year AD 189 saw another rebellion erupt under Zhang Daoling or Zhang Ling (34-156), who had founded the Five-Bushel Sect of Daoism in Sichuan. This movement soon came to be known as “Celestial Masters Daoism” (Tianshi Dao) and was able to establish a local rule that would last over two decades.
The Rise of an Organized Religion
Unlike the classic religion that was communal, Daoism was a voluntary religion. Its membership was no longer ascribed by inherited affiliation with a community, but based on voluntary conversion of the individual believer. In the midst of the two aforementioned rebellions, Daoism was transformed into an organized religion complete with a system of theology, a set of teachings and rituals of its own, and a hierarchical priesthood.
The “Yellow Turbans” were inspired by the theology of the Taiping Jing (Scripture of Great Peace), which prophesized a messianic and millenarian restoration of the utopian reign of Great Peace. “Celestial Masters Daoism” developed its theology based on the Dao De Jingand a revelation from Lao Zi that preached universal brotherhood in opposition to the existent social order. Its local rule was administered by a hierarchy of priest-officials. As they regularly held masses for spiritual purification, faith healing, and the redemption of sin, a liturgical tradition of the community was initiated. Individual ritualistic practices included the performance of magic cults that promised invincibility in the battlefield and the exercises of dietary and sexual hygiene that promised to deliver meritorious men from the finality of death to immortality. When “Celestial Masters Daoism” surrendered its local rule in AD 215, it was allowed to disseminate its teachings peacefully, and its hierarchy of Daoist priesthood was officially recognized in China.
With the rise of Daoism as an organized religion, its philosophical stock was profoundly changed. Different magical, religious, and philosophical traditions were grafted to it. This process featured two strategies: a syncretism with borrowings from rival belief systems and a continual accommodation of indigenous practices. After all the dust had settled, religious Daoism came to possess three distinct dimensions: mystical, liturgical, and canonical.
Religious Daoism claims efficacy in providing direct connection with the supernatural beings or cosmic forces. Technically, its practices can be divinatory, respiratory, gymnastic, meditative, hygienic, sexual, or alchemical. Functionally, its aim is either to enact communication with the supernatural or to nourish life. A repertoire of mystical practices was developed to cater to the desire to have one’s life energy preserved and nourished. These practices, in turn, are attributable to two beliefs.
One relates to the Daoist philosophy that urges a return to the state of childlike simplicity and the land of the Dao. But this spiritual quest is reinterpreted as a way to recover life energy. Using meditative or other means, Daoist adepts envisage the process of their gestation as a new embryo to their rebirth as an infant. By so doing, it is believed, one’s lost energy would be recovered. A second belief relates the human body as microcosm to the universe as macrocosm. Since one is the replica of the other, the human body can rejuvenate itself as nature does. In both cases, life thrives on the concentration of qi, or cosmic energy. Mystical Daoist practices are supposed to provide a way of enriching life-rejuvenating qi and helping the human body to tap into its sources.
The quest for immortality is an epitome of Daoist mysticism. In Chinese, an immortal is called xian or xianren (divine-human), who could choose to remain invisible to the human eye or appear in mortal form to enlighten the virtuous and punish the wicked. There were two approaches to the attainment of immortality, external alchemy and internal alchemy. The end product of external alchemy was an elixir made primarily from gold and cinnabar. External alchemy gave way to internal alchemy during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279). An internal elixir was to be generated by the inner circulation of qi according to the Daoist microcosmology of the body. In a meditative mood, one circulated one’s qi in such a way that it went through channels supposed to connect the vital parts of the body. This would enhance one’s Essence (jing) and Spirit (shen) to bring about longevity of life. To enrich one’s qi, the observance of calisthenic exercises and dietary practices must also be included.
Daoist meditation is typically employed to achieve a mystic union with one’s true Self: the inner child who has direct access to the Dao and cosmic forces. The skill is passed on from master to disciple through an apprenticeship that is based on teaching without words. The transmission of instructions is intuitive, going from mind to mind without the intervention of rational argumentation in conceptual terms. This antilanguage teaching is thought to have inspired the Chan (Zen) tradition, a religious school that shuns scripture learning and subscribes to intuitive meditation as a principal means to attain enlightenment. Chan is a transliteration of the Sanskrit dhydna, but its tradition is distinctively Chinese. Drawing on Daoist mysticism, this religious school emerged as a reaction to the scholastic and formalistic preoccupations of Mahayana Buddhism and contributed to the rise of Chan Buddhism subsequently.
The two main functions of the Daoist master are the protection of the mundane world against the attacks of evil spirits and the performance of rituals on behalf of individuals, families, and communities. Both functions are liturgical. They turn religious Daoism into the liturgical organization of the country and make its rituals and rites most visible at the grassroots level of society.
In the Daoist theology and liturgy, the highest divinity consists of five gods: the “Three Pure Ones” (a triad of the Heavenly Venerables of the Primordial Origin, the Numinous Treasure, and the Dao and its Power), Jade Emperor (who is the Supreme Celestial Sovereign), and his deputy, Purple Empyrean Emperor. The basis for the Daoist priest’s control over these gods and a pantheon of deities is a form of “name magic.” Assisted with a performance of ritualistic chanting and dancing, he can summon and dismiss the divinities by virtue of his knowledge of their names, descriptions, and functions.
Symbolism is an integral part of the Daoist liturgy. One most important symbol is fu, the talisman or
magical charm that is enacted into efficacy by cabalistic writing. A sort of moral contract is implied with the writing of fu. People pledge not to sin in return for the assurance that they would never become ill or fall victim to evil spirits. Another important symbol is dou, meaning “bushel” or “container,” which symbolizes the Big Dipper constellation and, by extension, the Great Ultimate (taiji). As the Dipper is a heavenly clock marking the cycle of days, seasons, and major turning points in life, it is ritualistically potent and often invoked symbolically in Daoist dancing. Representing the Great Ultimate, the symbol is present everywhere, on the Daoist’s sword and crown and in the naming of vital bodily parts. Turning to the Daoist dou, it is a receptacle in which ritual instruments are purified, and votive oil and rice are consecrated. Then there is the “Step of Yu.” Legend has it that this dance enabled Yu the Great, a legendary hero, to gain command over spirits of nature when he was out there saving his people from the Deluge. Through this dance, the Daoist outlines a celestial constellation to take possession of its power.
The Daoist liturgy offers two major services, zhai (fasts) and jiao (offerings). Each may last 3 days or longer, and both have four components: rituals for the consecration of ritual space, rituals for obtaining merits through penitence (rites of fasting), rituals of communion and covenant (rites of offering), and rituals for the dispersal of sacred space. The rituals involved may differ in contents from zhai to jiao. The zhai service is more somber, for it is designed to cleanse the living of their sins or to deliver the souls of the dead and bring them salvation as a part of the funerary rite. The jiao service is always communal and designed to petition for favors, such as, rainfall in time of drought, or offer thanksgiving for favors received. Invariably, it also performs rituals to appease lonely spirits and hungry ghosts lest they harass the living.
It is small wonder that exorcism has a role in both zhai and jiao services. The priest who officiates at this rite undergoes self-transformation to become one with the Dao. Then, he takes a symbolic journey to the heavens for an audience with the gods. To overpower demons, he summons the assistance of deities and dances the “Step of Yu,” in synch with the counting of his thumb on finger joints, and brandishes his sword to make the decisive strike. When embedded in zhai and jiao, all this is done to the accompaniment of acolytes burning incense, chanting hymns, and playing instruments.
Religious Daoism has a classical canon that provides a standard of orthodoxy and a basis for Daoist religious practices. The Daoist Canon is immense, containing 5,385 volumes under about 1,500 titles. Only three complete sets of the 1445 edition of this Canon appear to have survived the vicissitudes of time and the anti-Daoist rule of the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911). Each set has an addendum that was published in 1607. The Canon is entitled Daozang, in emulation of the Buddhist Tripitaka Sanzang. First compiled by Lu Xiujing (AD 406-477) in AD 471, it was the response of Daoism to the growing challenge and competition of Buddhism. The corpora of the Daoist Canon are divided into “Three Grottoes” and “Four Supplements.”
The first Grotto is based on texts of the Mao Shan School or Shangqing (Supreme Purity) tradition, and the most significant of these texts is the visionary experiences revealed to and transcribed by Yang Xi between AD 364 and AD 370. The second Grotto features scriptures of the Lingbao tradition, Lingbao (Sacred Treasure) being the Daoist name of “holy books.” This school incorporated the psalmody of holy books into the liturgical ritual in the belief that deities, who were not pure enough to behold holy books, had heard them recited by the Heavenly Venerable of the Primordial Origin, the highest anthropomorphic emanation of the Dao. The third Vault is built around scriptures of the Sanhuang tradition, Sanhuang (Three Sovereigns) being the cosmic lords of heaven, earth, and humans. The Three Grottos are taken to represent different stages of initiation that form a progression of increasing spiritual purity from the Sanhuang to the Shangqing.
Each Grotto of the Canon is divided into 12 sections so that the basic texts, such as talismans, commentaries, diagrams, genealogies, and rituals, are grouped under separate categories. But over the centuries, there were substantial departures from this ideal arrangement. The confusion worsened when more texts were included, and the catalogue was edited and reedited, not to mention the vicissitudes that the Canon went through in the course of history. It gave rise to the well-known lack of organization in the Daoist Canon.
The Four Supplements were added in the 6th century, containing works related to the established traditions, except for the last Supplement. At the core of each of the first three Supplements are the Dao De Jing, the Taiping Jing, and alchemical texts, respectively. The fourth Supplement is devoted to scriptures of the Zhengyi (Orthodox One) school, which is the oldest Daoist religious tradition dating back to Celestial Masters Daoism of the 2nd century. However, a large amount of materials collected in the Daoist Canon are neither spiritual nor religious. Their inclusion merely underscored Daoism as an indigenous religion vis-à-vis Buddhism as an alien one. Among these materials is the Bencao Gangmu (Pharmacopoeia of the Flora), attributed to the mythical ruler Shen Nong (Divine Farmer). Such materials are highly valuable for research into the history of Chinese natural sciences and philosophies.
Religious Daoism and Popular Religion
Religious Daoism is often regarded as a degenerate form of philosophical Daoism. Confucian scholar-officials not only tended to equate religious Daoism with superstition but also thought that it was politically dangerous. After Daoism spread to Korea and Japan between the 4th and 7th centuries, its religious practices were put under government control. The early Daoist temples in Korea and the bureau of Daoist divination in Japan were state sponsored. Daoism never established itself as an organized religion in Korea or Japan, and its impact found expression mostly in their folk beliefs and popular religions.
Religious Daoism has a much closer tie with Chinese popular religion. Its liturgy plays an important role in the religious life of the community and in more recent decades has provided the framework that enables local cults to expand and develop in Mainland China. Through the shared use of indigenous divinatory arts, such as the yin-yang cosmology, the hexagrams, and the Five Elements ideology, religious Daoism has an affinity with fortune-telling, physiognomy, and geomancy. Daoist masters, for instance, are likely to be skillful geomancers. Furthermore, they readily perform rites and rituals to assist in individuals’ quest of fortune, wealth, and longevity of life in this world. Nevertheless, Daoist masters seek to transcend the mundane desires themselves, and they are members of a religion that is organized and other-worldly oriented.
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