The Golden Elixir ▶ Taoism
(painting by Fachang Muchi,
early thirteenth century)
Taoism is a traditional form of thought and religion, based on several central notions, cults, and practices, but never subject to systematization as a whole. It is syncretic but at the same time self-contained: while it integrates many elements from other traditions, it frequently emphasizes its distinction from them. These basic features underlie different formulations of doctrinal notions, and a large variety of practices ranging from self-cultivation to communal rituals.
The foundational text of Taoism is the Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and its Virtue), a short work consisting of aphorisms attributed to Laozi (the Old Master, or Old Child). Although some scholars have suggested that other sources might be slightly earlier, virtually all movements and lineages within Taoism consider this as the founding scripture of the entire tradition, even though they may venerate their own texts and their own founders. Another early work, the Zhuangzi (Book of Master Zhuang Zhou), has provided Taoism with doctrines, notions, and technical vocabulary throughout its history. Despite differences in emphasis, the two texts present the same view of the Dao and its relation to the world.
See also a longer Introduction to Taoism:
The word dao has two main meanings: "way" and "method." The early Taoist texts are the first ones to use this word to mean the Absolute. For the Daode jing, the Dao has no name and is beyond any description or definition; the word dao itself is used only because one "is forced" to refer to it. The Dao is unknowable, has no form, and is "constant" (i.e., it does not undergo change); it is is "invisible, inaudible, and imperceptible." The two principles of Non-being (wu) and Being (you) are contained within it. Yet the Dao, in spite of its being "indistinct and vague" (huanghu), contains an "essence" (jing) that is the seed of the world of multiplicity. Under this second aspectwhich can be distinguished from the previous one only from the perspective of the domain of relativitythe Dao is the "beginning" of the world, and its "mother."
The person who has "returned to the Dao" is called in the Daode jing the shengren, a term that in a Taoist context may be translated as "saint" to distinguish him from the Confucian "sage." As the highest realized human being who has achieved liberation in life, the Taoist saint has transcended the limitations of individuality and form; he continues to remain in the world of multiplicity until he has completely fulfilled his function in it, but from an absolute point of view, which is the one in which he constantly dwells, his self-identity is already null, for he is identified with the absolute Principle. In the human world, he "practices the teaching without words" and "makes it possible for the ten thousand things to function, but does not start them."
Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?
Zhuangzi, chapter 26
(B. Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang-tzu, 302)
To a significant extent, the history of Taoism may be seen as a continuous restatement of the principles enunciated in the early founding texts. To an equally significant extent, its development has been marked by the adaptation to varying historical circumstances, the response to the needs and demands of different social groups, and the incorporation of notions, beliefs, cults, and practices derived from other trends of thought and religion.
At the beginning of this process is the deification of Laozi, now represented not only as the sage who expounds the metaphysical doctrines of the Daode jing, but also as a messiah who embodies the Dao and reappears at different times either as a sage counselor of political rulers, or as the inspirer of religious leaders. In one of his transformations, Lord Lao appeared (in 142 CE, according to the traditional date) to a healer, Zhang Daoling, in the southwestern region of Sichuan. Lord Lao established a covenant (meng) with Zhang Daoling, revealing to him the teaching of Orthodox Unity (zhengyi) and bestowing upon him the title of Celestial Master (tianshi). This revelation is at the origin of the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao), the main Taoist priestly lineage, which continues to exist in the present day.
The diaspora of the Celestial Masters' communities after the end of the Han (early third century) resulted in the expansion of the new religion to other parts of China. Its spread in Jiangnan, the region south of the lower Yangzi River, was one of the prerequisites for the formation of two other major corpora of Taoist doctrines, texts, and practices in the second half of the fourth century. The first corpus, known as Shangqing (Highest Clarity), derived from revelations that occurred from 364 to 370 and was centered on meditation practices. The second corpus, known as Lingbao (Numinous Treasure), derived from revelations that occurred between ca. 395 and 405 and was based on communal ritual. These two codifications clearly define, for the first time, the two main poles of Taoism as a whole, namely inner, individual practices on the one hand, and collective practices for the community of the faithful, or for the dead, on the other.
The relations among these traditions were formally codified in the early fifth century in the system of the Three Caverns (sandong). Its main purpose was to hierarchically arrange the different legacies of Jiangnan, assigning the higher rank to Shangqing, the intermediate one to Lingbao, and the lower one to other local traditions. Around 500 CE, the corpora associated with the Daode jing, the Taiping jing (Scripture of Great Peace), alchemy, and the Way of the Celestial Masters were incorporated into this system, and were assigned to the so-called Four Supplements (sifu). The Three Caverns also provided the formal schema for other important aspects of Taoist doctrine and practice, including the ordination stages of the Taoist priests (daoshi) and the arrangement of scriptural and other writings in the collections of Taoist texts (Daozang) that began to take shape from the early fifth century.
This model continued to perform this function even after the contours of Taoist religion were reshaped by several new revelations and codifications during the Song period (960-1279) and later, and by the creation in the early thirteenth century of Quanzhen (Complete Reality, or Complete Perfection), a monastic order that is, with the Way of the Celestial Masters, the main branch of present-day Taoism.