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What is Taoism?

There are several kinds of Taoism.

The most known is the religious branch. It has gods, and rituals like any other religious system. It includes many mystical schools and esoteric disciplines searching for longevity and immortality, most of them dealing with alchemical recipes, sexual and breathing techniques.

Lao-tzu, father of Taoism picture
Lao-tzu, the father of Taoism - author of Tao-te ching - heading West

There's also a branch called tao-chia - the school of Tao or of unity with the Tao - developed by the famous Taoist Master Lao-tzu .

In short, tao-chia Taoism is a way of life.

Trying to define it, Alan Watts, perhaps the most important western author who wrote about Taoism, says:

    Taoism [is] the way of man's cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world, whose principles we discover in the flow patterns of water, gas, an fire, which are subsequently memorialized or sculptured in those of stone and wood, and, later, in many forms of human art. (From Tao: The Watercourse Way).

The specificity of this way of life is the need to adapt to the natural tendencies. But this approach is not a mere return to Mother Nature so familiar to our New Age ideology. Rather it is a wisdom acquired by simply observing the flow of the natural phenomena. 

Tao-te ching

Everything we know about tao-chia Taoism - its concepts and practice - come from Tao-te ching (The Classic of Tao and Te) ascribed to Lao-tzu.

This book explains what is Tao - the basic concept of Taoism - and how the Taoist disciples must behave to emulate it in his/her own life.

Chuang-tzu further developed the ideas of Tao-te ching by means of short stories, most of them fictitious, parables and metaphors.

There's also the Lieh-tzu's book including the texts ascribed to Yang-tzu which ads more to the oldest basic stratum of the Taoist teachings.

Tao-te ching page in Chinese
Tao-te ching page written in Chinese

We may also count among the Taoist sources the well-known I-ching (Book of Changes) used as a divinatory means since the ancient times of Chou dynasty.

Taoism vs Confucianism

Confucianism is interested in public life and insists on the transformation of the individual through culture and education. Future political leaders must be formed according to the principles dear to Confucius of humanism and rightness. The structure of the state is inspired by family relationships, and the conventions associated with them.

Lao-tzu's Taoism is interested in what is natural, raw, in human innate constitution. In this sense he rejects the political ideas of Confucius who is often criticized and ironized in Taoist works, including the Tao-te ching.

A proof of the irreconcilable character of the two doctrines is the famous dialogue between Lao-tzu and Confucius related by Ssu-ma Ch'ien.

Confucius is corrected by Lao-tzu who warns him that his intellectual pedantry may cost him his life. Rather, he must adopt a modest and reserved demeanor.

Taoism and the Western World

The religious Taoism resembles the Christian and other such religious systems. But tao-chia is not equaled by any known Western system.

Western people don't seem to understand the meaning and usefulness of a spiritual discipline which has no gods or saints but focuses on a way of life inspired by the Tao, seen as the origin and end of everything in the universe.

The misunderstanding of the spiritual Taoism explains why it is presented like a historical movement rather than a living tradition.

iconThe Taoist teachings may be applied even today, on a day to day basis, in order to improve our capability to cope with our ever changing world.

Still Taoism is not outdated. One can follow this path today to find the cure for the insurmountable problems of the modern world.

There's no need of retreat, seclusion, worship and special diet receipts. One starts simply from here and now and acquires a new understanding of the world as it is, and the remedy for its pitfalls.


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