by Peter Occhiogrosso
“We believe in the formless and eternal Tao, and we recognize all personified deities as being mere human constructs. We reject hatred, intolerance, and unnecessary violence, and embrace harmony, love and learning, as we are taught by Nature. We place our trust and our lives in the Tao, that we may live in peace and balance with the Universe, both in this mortal life and beyond.”
For most Westerners who are aware of Taoism at all, the tradition is epitomized by the generic wisdom embodied in the Tao Te Ching, the famously succinct book of wisdom written about 2,500 years ago. This book of 81 brief, poetic chapters has probably been translated more often than any other book of Eastern thought, but although its subtle philosophy is at the heart of Taoism, it is not by any means the whole story. Taoism also has a dimension of religious ritual, although there is no character in Chinese equivalent to “religion” in the Western sense of the word. Philosophical concepts and religious rites coexist in the Chinese tradition with a wide range of physical exercises and yogic practices designed to enhance vitality, stamina, flexibility, and sexual enjoyment; to develop martial arts skills; and to utilize medical practices, from qigong to acupuncture, to relieve pain and increase health and longevity.
Alongside all this practical, earth-oriented wisdom and health-enhancing knowledge and practices, however, the Taoist tradition is also rife with fantastic stories of hundred-year-old adepts who fly on dragons and create elixirs of immortality. To the Western mind these sets of teachings seem utterly incompatible, if not incomprehensible. And yet, as we find the deeper we look into Taoism as it has been practiced in China for over 2000 years, believers and practitioners themselves are comfortable with the intermingling of religious rituals, philosophical beliefs, and physical practices.
On one level, Taoism developed as a response to the problem of human suffering, although out of a set of circumstances that were somewhat different from those in which Buddhism arose to address the same dilemma. Nonetheless the earliest Taoist teachings were a response to the rampant violence and disorder that plagued much of the Asian world in those years. The principles of Taoism are traditionally said to have sprung initially from the writings of the man called Lao-tzu--a name that simply means “Old Master.” Although Lao is presumed to have lived in the 6th-5th century BCE, at roughly the same time as the Buddha taught in India, many scholars doubt his historical authenticity, believing him to be a convenient personalized figure representing the collective wisdom of the early Chinese sages.
China had been so ravaged by continual warfare and inhuman cruelty that the stability of the natural order of life had been seriously undermined. So Lao-tzu, or perhaps a tradition of anonymous sages, sought a more reliable basis for order in their lives to counter the chaotic physical circumstances. They drew on what was undoubtedly an older tradition of nature worship, divination, and shamanism, in which the underlying cycles of the natural world; the harmonious flow of the seasons; the alternation of day and night and the counterbalancing forces represented by sun and moon, hot and cold, male and female energies provided a greater sense of order than military power or the political institutions that attempted to manage the world. These philosophical principles blended with ideas from the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements schools of belief, which expressed the relationships between all phenomena in terms of the principal cosmic forces of the universe: the polarity of yin-yang and the five natural elements of earth, water, fire, wood, and metal.
For Lao-tzu, the underlying order of the world was a mysterious but utterly reliable force he called Tao, which may be translated as the Way or Path. As that name implies, the Tao is conceived of not as an omnipotent Supreme Being in the personalized Western sense but as a universal energetic intelligence that informs and directs all life. Nonetheless, Chinese folk religion is rife with colorful gods and goddesses, such as Ssu-ming, the Lord of Fate, who later became popular as Tsao-chun, the Kitchen God, today the most significant folk deity of Chinese culture. (Said to have originated as early as 800 BCE, Ssu-ming keeps a record of each individual's sins and failings, which he presents to the chief deity, known as Taiyi, each New Year's day, along with his recommendation for extending or shortening that person's life. The parallels between the essentially Christian figure of Santa Claus and the Jewish concept of the Book of Life are intriguing, although no direct relationship has been historically established.) Taoist temples venerate several other deities, including Lao-tzu himself, but these are all seen to be under the direction of the Tao, which is not personified or worshiped in any theistic sense.
It has been said that Chinese religion views these many deities as celestial bureaucrats who keep track of affairs on earth and mete out rewards and punishments. The celestial bureaucracy is arrayed against the forces of evil and disorder, especially ghostlike demons called kuei, who cause pain, illness, natural calamities, and death. And so the minor gods are not worshiped so much as entreated for aid in specific situations, much the way pious Christians call on St. Anthony to help them find a lost object, or St. Christopher (before he was de-canonized) to guard them while traveling.
Probably influenced by Buddhist ideas of a subterranean hell with different levels of punishments, the Chinese came to believe in an afterlife and specifically in a period of time spent in hell. Unlike the Western version, though, the Chinese hell is not a place of eternal damnation, except perhaps for certain demons and politicians. For everyone else it resembles the Catholic purgatory; after alchemical fires of the cosmos purify the spirit in the yin underworld, the soul ascends into the pure yang of heaven. To help speed up this process of refinement and assist the souls of the dead on their journey from hell to heaven, the Chinese employ Taoist and Buddhist funeral ceremonies and memorial services; in recent years, Christian funeral rites have been added, and are often performed in tandem with Buddhist services.
Taoism teaches a complex mixture of philosophical principles and physical exercises, meditations, and breathing techniques with the practical goal of improving health and extending life. Although the ancient Taoists spoke at length of achieving immortality, the aim of their practices was longevity of the body rather than an immortal soul. Not until the arrival of Buddhist missionaries did the idea of an afterlife of the soul enter the Chinese consciousness.
The Old Tao
Lao-tzu's understanding of the Tao as harmonizing force of the universe harks back to a much earlier time when the roles of men and women are said to have been more equitably apportioned, and when spiritual practice centered around the birth of all creation from the Divine Mother. Lao-tzu wrote of an ancient time when the feminine principle was not yet dominated by the masculine:
There was something complete and nebulous
Which existed before Heaven and Earth,
Unchanging, standing as One,
Able to be the Mother of the World.
I do not know its name and I call it Tao.
Tao Te Ching, 25
Although the essence of the Tao is ancient and unknowable, it could be witnessed in its manifestations, and the literature of Taoism glitters with closely observed references to the actions of birds, animals, and the entire natural world. Lao-tzu noted, for example, that water, the softest of substances, can wear away the hardest rock, or that an apparently empty bellows is never depleted of air: “Move it and more always comes out.” He turned these simple observations into profound wisdom meant to be used in everyday life.
This reliance on a deep understanding of the natural rhythms and principles of life led to a reliance on techniques to improve and maintain health and to promote longevity. And so the Taoist masters developed a firsthand knowledge of herbal medicine and pharmacology; nutrition, including principles of macrobiotic cooking and other healthful diets; systems of physical exercise to keep the body strong and youthful; and the use of massage and needles to release the blocked flow of energy that they believed accounted for disease.
Philosophical and Religious Taoism
Although the Tao Te Ching is dated at several centuries before the Common or Christian Era, Taoism as a religious practice did not develop until the second or third century of that era. These philosophical, physical, and medical applications of the principles of Taoism make up the face of the religion best known to the West. Asian practitioners of Taoism, of whom there are many millions in Asia but only a few thousand in the West, also follow a related but rather different set of practices and beliefs known collectively as Religious Taoism, to distinguish it from Philosophical Taoism, which is called Tao-chia in Chinese. This “other” Taoism, also called “Church Taoism,” or Tao-chiao, is somewhat mystifying to Westerners, and tends to be of far less interest. It is, however, of great significance to its Asian adherents. Further, it cannot be easily separated from the underlying philosophy of Taoism drawn from the Tao Te Ching and the later work of Chuang-tzu. The various sects of Religious Taoism, such as the Five Pecks of Rice school, also use the Tao Te Ching as their main study text and revere Lao-tzu as their symbolic leader. Lieh-tzu, whose authorship of a book named after him is disputed, comes to us with no biographical details. But he is said to have pursued themes common to philosophical Taoism, such as the direct experience of the Tao and the pointlessness of personal striving or intervention in human affairs.
Toward the end of the Han Dynasties (220 CE), Taoism began to outstrip Confucianism as the philosophy of choice of the intellectual elite, especially as Confucianism became reduced to little more than ritualized codes of conduct -- a kind of handbook for civil servants. Confronted with the same disordered society, in which the race was so clearly not always to the swift, Taoists chose to base their behavior on inclinations that came to them in their meditative trances, preferring to be true to their own natures rather than to established conventions.
Over time, Taoists began to combine yogic and mystical practices with self- hypnosis, restrictive diets, and drugs, not only to induce transcendent states but also in the hope of achieving physical immortality. More and more, Taoism came to be associated with ways of prolonging life; fantastic stories about masters who lived very long lives, exercised magical powers, and ascended into Heaven in broad daylight became commonplace. Once again, some observers claim the import of these elements have been exaggerated by Western popularizers, and do not make up a significant portion of current Taoist beliefs. And yet, although Tao-chiao as a whole system has never had the sweeping appeal of Philosophical Taoism, it remains part of the complex fabric of religious life in China, even after the Communist and Maoist revolutions. Some of the yogic practices that have developed through the various schools of Religious Taoism have also found an increasingly avid following in the West, and those are worth looking at in greater detail.
The concept of an afterlife characterized by rewards and punishments did not take a prominent place in Chinese belief until the arrival of Buddhist missionaries from India, probably well after the beginning of the Christian or Common Era (CE). Until that time, the understanding of immortality was based primarily on survival of the body; one's good or bad actions, as carefully noted by the Kitchen God, could lead to the lengthening or shortening of one's life on earth.
The system of enhancing life energy through physical exercises, meditation and breath developed in China is known today by the overall title qigong (pronounced chee-GUNG), a word that means “working with life energy.” Qi, or ch'i, is the Chinese equivalent of prana, the Sanskrit term for the vital energy that flows through the human body. According to the Chinese system, the life force is absorbed into our bodies through entry portals in the skin known as acupuncture points. The subtle energy of qi then circulates along 12 pairs of invisible pathways called meridians or channels, linking the inner organs and other parts of the body and nervous system into a unified whole. Qi is believed to flow freely in healthy individuals; any blockage or imbalance in the flow of qi is said to result in disease and weakness; blockage in a specific channel can lead to a localized ailment.
Related systems of movement, breathing, and meditation that have been devised to maximize the flow of qi throughout the body are known by various names, including taijiquan (t'ai chi chuan, in the old spelling), kung-fu, and medical qigong. Based on traditional Chinese medicine, medical qigong offers preventive, healing, and strengthening exercises designed to regulate the health of the internal organs such as the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, and spleen. Other forms of qigong focus on developing sexual energy, either alone or in conjunction with a partner; learning to use qi energy to heal oneself or others from a variety of ailments; and the application of principles of qi in the martial arts.
Perhaps the best-known application of qigong principles in healing is the ancient science of acupuncture, which aims at releasing blockages of energy flow by the insertion of needles into the skin at one or more of the approximately 365 acupuncture points located along the meridians. Although acupuncture fell out of favor in China in the late 19th century, Mao Tse-tung returned it to prominence. In the 1970s, American journalists witnessed surgery being performed in China for which the only anesthetic was acupuncture. With Richard Nixon's reopening of ties with China, the knowledge began to flow more freely to the West, and today major insurance companies such as Mutual of Omaha pay for acupuncture for pain management and other therapeutic uses.
The Chinese also developed treatments which use the application of heat to the acupuncture points to achieve similar results. In moxibustion, the heat comes from smoldering balls or sticks of compressed wormwood leaves, called moxa; in cupping, small heated jars are held in place over the acupuncture points through vacuum suction. And in acupressure, the acupuncture points are massaged by the practitioner's fingertips.
Church Taoism as practiced primarily in Mainland China and Taiwan can be divided into two main branches. The Way of Right Unity, or Cheng-i Tao, encompasses those schools that use magical practices such as amulets, talismans, and exorcisms. This branch was begun by the long-lived Chang Tao-ling (34-156), who healed people in Szechuan province with magical cures. The price for a cure was five pecks of rice, the name that was later applied to the pivotal school he founded. The Five Pecks of Rice School, or Wu-tou-mi Tao, based on teachings found in the Tao Te Ching and aimed at healing maladies caused by evil deeds, remained active through the 15th century. Members indulged in mass confessions, fasts, and orgiastic feasts. It was also known as the School of the Celestial Masters, since Chang was later venerated as a celestial master, or t'ien-shih, a title that was inherited by each of his successors down to the present day. (When this lineage of “Taoist popes,” as they are sometimes called, was kicked off the mainland by the Communists in 1949, they continued on Taiwan.) Chang's descendants were largely responsible for making Taoism an organized religion. In 165, for instance, official imperial sacrifices were offered for the first time to Lao-tzu.
During the second century, famine and plagues caused enormous turmoil and led hundreds of thousands of Chinese to embrace Taoism, which offered a more personal and emotionally appealing form of religion than state Confucianism. The Han Dynasty's oppressive rule added to the peasants' suffering and helped to accelerate the swing. One sect that especially profited from this development was the Way of Supreme Peace (T'ai-p'ing Tao), founded by Chang Chueh, a follower of Huang-Lao Chun, who pursued conversion through the use of missionaries. Like the Five Pecks school, Chang believed that public confession of sins was an important step toward healing illness, and encouraged fasting rituals called chai.
In 184, the government took steps to stem the flood of conversions, which led to a reaction among the Taoists. Some 360,000 of them put yellow cloth on their heads on the same day as a show of solidarity (and in honor of the Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti, a legendary ruler of the 3rd millennium BCE). The rebellion, which became known as the Rising of the Yellow Turbans, was suppressed and Chang Chueh executed, but the Taoist Church had been established and continued to function alongside the other currents of philosophical Taoism and individual Taoist magicians and sorcerers. Although it made ample use of magical elements including talismans, amulets, holy water, and incantations, the focus of the early Church was more on healing, especially faith healing, than on the elusive search for physical immortality. In this sense, it laid the groundwork for what is today one of the major contributions of Chinese medicine -- healing through herbal remedies, acupuncture, and qigong.
Buddhist teachers had already begun to trickle into China as early as the time of Christ. They were successful in passing on the dharma for several reasons, not least because Mahayana Buddhism, at least, offered a plan of general salvation for the masses, while the complex Buddhist metaphysical system and scriptures appealed to the intellectual elite. Meanwhile, Buddhist monasteries and rituals for the dead provided physical and spiritual solace in times of stress. The monks taught Buddhist practices and doctrines and translated Buddhist texts into Chinese, and by the 11th century, Taoist and Buddhist ideas had merged with folk practices to create a popular religion that survives to this day.
Between the 2nd and 6th centuries, a movement arose within Church Taoism of the Cheng-i Tao branch that came to be known as the Inner Gods Hygiene School. According to this school, the body is a microcosm of the universe, with three energy centers called Fields of Cinnabar (tan t'ien), and is inhabited by 36,000 gods. These gods correspond to the 36,000 in the outer pantheon, where they serve as heavenly bureaucrats, running the physical universe in much the way earthly bureaucrats administer government. Hell also has a bureaucratic structure, divided into ten sections dedicated to punishing different kinds of sins, similar to the nine circles of Dante's Inferno.
Alongside the 36,000 gods live the Three Worms (San-ch'ung), which also dwell in the Cinnabar Fields and cause illness, aging, and death. They report on the sins of their host in an effort to shorten his or her life and thereby set themselves free. Since the Three Worms live on a diet of five grains (wheat, barley, millet, rice, and beans), true adepts must avoid grains, reducing their diets until they have eliminated all solid foods, not unlike certain raw juice advocates today. Under no circumstances are they ever to partake of meat or wine, because the inner gods dislike their smell. Adepts must regularly cleanse their colons and perform exercises based on animal movements to prepare their inner bodies for Embryonic Respiration. This requires lying down in quiet, holding one's breath for anywhere from 12 to 1,000 heartbeats and learning to circulate it throughout the body, moving through all the internal organs as a way of stimulating and healing them. The adept then swallows the saliva that has accumulated in the mouth. The Inner Deity school also required charitable works, such as building roads and bridges and contributing to orphanages, not for any moral or ethical reasons but because good deeds helped accumulate credits toward personal immortality.
During the 6th century, the School of the Magic Jewel (Ling-pao P'ai), which had begun to develop during the two previous centuries, displaced the Inner Gods Hygiene School. The Magic Jewel sect taught that individual liberation was dependent on outside help from the Celestial Honored Beings. The highest gods of the Taoist Church, their title came into use during the 3rd century, just as Buddhism was gaining a foothold in China. The T'ien Tsun are led by Yuan-shih T'ien Tsun (“Celestial Venerable of the Primordial Beginning”), pictured as the pre-existing Creator and Ruler of Heaven and Earth, who spontaneously sprang into existence before the rest of the world. Others include the equally important Tao-te T'ien Tsun (“Celestial Venerable of the Tao and its Power”), and the Jade Emperor (Yu-Huang). After the 3rd century, Taoist priests who lived in monasteries began to practice celibacy, and Taoist women religious entered convents. Both developments reflected the influence of Buddhism, and the Five Pecks of Rice tradition began to fade from common practice.
The other principal branch of Church Taoism, at least since the religious reformation of the Sung Dynasty, is the School of Perfect Realization, or Ch'uan-chen Tao. Founded by Wang Ch'un-yang (1112-1170), who reputedly received a secret transmission from a passing hermit, the aim of the school was total asceticism. Reflecting the influences of both Buddhism and Confucianism with their emphasis on strong codes of personal ethics and moral living, members of Perfect Realization abstained from alcohol, sex, and other pleasures of the senses, refused sleep whenever possible, and practiced Zen-style meditation. One story goes that Wang had himself buried under ten feet of earth and remained there for two years, emerging unscathed. Perfect Realization was dualistic in its attempt to place yang (heaven or spirit) over yin (earth or matter). The focus was on inner alchemy (hygiene and meditation), and did not require monastic life, although their tao-shih were supposed to be celibate.
The Perfect Realization school quickly generated branch sects, starting with those created by seven of Wang's own disciples. The most significant, though, came to be identified as the Northern and Southern Schools. The Northern School, also known as Lung-men (“Dragon Gate”), was led by Wang and his successor, Ch'ang Ch'un, who used the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing as his base beginning in 1224. The Southern School was founded earlier than the Northern, during the 10th century, by Liu Hai-ch'an, who claimed spiritual transmission from Hui Neng, the Ch'an Buddhist master.
Over the centuries, the Inner Gods Hygiene School practice of exterior breath circulation (hsing-ch'i) fell out of favor and was replaced during the T'ang dynasty by the practice of circulating the “interior breath” (nei-ch'i). This procedure didn't require holding one's breath for dangerously long periods of time (although that technique did have the added advantage of hallucinations induced by carbon dioxide intoxication). Similarly, the alchemy of creating an elixir of immortality from lead or mercury was gradually replaced by the search for an inner elixir (nei-tan), beginning during the Sung Dynasty, especially in the sects of the Ch'uan-chen Tao, and came to be known as the Inner Elixir School. The aim of nei-tan is to create within the adept a new being called the sacred embryo (sheng t'ai), which will depart the body at the instant of death and ascend to Heaven, much like the concept of the immortal soul in Western religion. The embryo was sometimes called the golden flower, lending its name to one of the school's key texts, The Secret of the Golden Flower. The best known proponents of the inner elixir were Chen T'uan (906-989) and Chang Po-tuan (984-1082).
The inner elixir was one manifestation of a religious reformation that swept China during the Sung Dynasty. Somewhat paralleling the Protestant Reformation in Europe, the Chinese laity began to take on itself the expression of religious fervor without the intervention of priests and monks, whether Taoist or Buddhist. The clergy retained their function during funeral services, but the people took over officiating at birth, marriage, and healing rituals, among others.
Through yogas pertaining to the inner alchemy, some adepts claimed to be able to use the sacred embryo as an astral body, a subtle configuration that contains the soul but is usually invisible. This allowed them to leave the physical body while alive and travel on the astral plane.
The Three Teachings
Although Eastern religions have had their share of fanaticism and fundamentalism, they have tended to be far more tolerant of other religions than have the Western monotheistic traditions. From at least the first century CE, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were all considered sacred by the vast majority of Chinese, and by the 11th century, Chinese religious culture was thoroughly steeped in a synthesis of the three. It wasn't just that believers of one tradition accepted the others as valid, but that they actually practiced elements of all three. Referred to as San-chiao kuei-i, or “Three religions, one culture,” this openness reflects the sharing of the basic principles of yin-yang cosmology in popular religion. Despite the occasional attempts by certain emperors to counteract, persecute, or stamp out one or another of these traditions, most Chinese assimilated the Three Teachings in different proportions in their own belief systems, so that in general a Taoist could feel comfortable worshiping in a Buddhist temple, and vice versa. A Buddhist might have an image of the Kitchen God or K'ung-tzu (Confucius) alongside various buddhas and bodhisattvas in the home. One current saying goes, “Confucian head, Buddhist heart, Taoist belly,” implying that even today, at least among those Chinese who are not doctrinaire Marxists, elements of Confucian ethics and morality; Buddhist funeral rituals and prayers for the dead; and Taoist philosophical attitudes toward nature all form a part of their lives. Along with that, they are likely to incorporate elements of folk religion and the ancient cult of ancestor worship, making the Chinese perhaps the most religiously pluralistic people on earth.
Nevertheless, the Taoist Church was responsible for occasional persecutions of Buddhists during the first millennium, when they feared that their hierarchical power was being threatened. Major persecutions took place in 446 and again in 845, when a Taoist emperor moved to counter Buddhism's growing popularity by closing thousands of Buddhist monasteries and defrocking their monks and nuns, leading to the eventual decline, but not disappearance, of Buddhism in China.
Today there are at least 86 sects of Taoism, including many lay societies that, apart from their religious beliefs, have a history of opposing autocratic or tyrannical rule. A prominent non-Taoist sect called the I Kuan Tao (“The Great Way”) embraces Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu traditions, including their gods and prophets. Its main deity is the Mother of No-Birth, the creator of the world. Members abstain from meat, alcohol, and tobacco, and focus on controlling the mind by lessening desire. Founded in 1930 by Shi Zueng and Shi Mu in Chi Nan City, I Kuan Tao became well established on the mainland by 1946. But following the Civil War in 1949, many I-Kuan Tao followers in China found their beliefs incompatible with Communist doctrines and so emigrated to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. They claim about 6,500,000 followers in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and South East Asia, and the World I Kuan Tao headquarters are now located in California.
Peter is the author of The Joy of Sects and lives and works in Woodstock, NY