What is Taoism?
To many people, a confusing aspect of Taoism is its very definition. Many religions will happily push judgment and dogma which in reflection defines a person. Taoism flips this around. It starts by teaching a truth; “The Tao” is indefinable. It then follows up by teaching that each person can discover the Tao on their terms. A teaching like this can be very hard to grasp when most people desire very concrete definitions in their own life.
A simple way to start learning the definition of Taoism is to start within yourself.
Here are three easy starting steps to learning Taoism:
- Don’t concentrate on the meaning of Tao (this will come later naturally)
- Understand what Taoism is. Taoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a “religion”. Taoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes, and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s nature.
- The path of understanding Taoism is simply accepting oneself. This leads to inner peace. Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn acceptance of your nature.
Taoism teaches a person to flow with life. Over the years Taoism has become many things to many people. Hundreds of variations in Taoist practice exist. Some of these practices are philosophical, and others are religious. Taoism makes no distinction in applying labels to its nature because to do so would limit a person. We are each a blend of many truths. The truth taught in Taoism is to embrace life in actions that support you as a person.
Taoism teaches a person to live in their heart.
Here are some simple starting tips to help a person live as a Taoist.
Having a set of basic guidelines can be helpful. However realistically, guidelines don’t determine how to live; instead, Taoism teaches by living you will express your nature.
My guidelines are the following:
- With care, I aid those who are extended expressions of my nature.
- Be true to me
- Connect to the world as I want to be treated.
- Connect to those outside my nature with decisive action.
- To those unwilling to accept me for my true nature, no action is required: Just silently let them be themselves as I remain myself.
- I own nothing; I am merely a passing custodian of items outside of my nature.
- Discover a set of practices to aid keeping the mind, body and spirit engaged and strong. Remember practices should support your essence with the activities fitting the needs of the moment. Your life practices will end up being an ever-shifting mix of activities relative to your needs. For example, I practice martial arts to keep my body strong, yoga to make my body subtle, meditation to clear my mind, bike around simply to fly and poetry as a lens of examination. All these and more are my shifting practices to support my essence, and in doing each, each helps me learn more about myself and the world.
- Take time, relax and just explore and poke around. Taoism has no plans. Taoism is based on following your gut feelings and trusting your instincts.
- It’s the pause in a breath… that each step of living becomes visible for your larger life to improve and follow upon. Smile, when needing to pick a possible next step. To smile is to open possibilities. Breathe when needing a break. Since to breathe is to be at one with yourself. Alternate the two, and your path will become free and clear for an entire lifetime of wonder to explore.
While simple, you would be surprised how many people cannot embrace this most basic aspect of Taoist practice! People think it cannot be that simple! Taoism indeed is this simple. If you follow and practice step four, not only is that all one needs to embrace Taoism thoroughly, but also anything becomes possible within this simple practice.
However, most people need time letting go of expectations. So it’s also ok to dig deeper into Taoism. Taoism has many many levels of teachings on purpose to help people from all perspectives move smoothly in life.
Practical Taoist Advice
- At times the process of learning Taoism is also a process of healing. Take time to heal (don’t rush and hurt yourself more in the rushing). Taoism teaches to embrace your body with patience.
- There are over 7 billion people in the world. So there are over 7 billion paths to Taoism! Every person can teach us something.
- Sometimes you need quietness; it’s ok to take time off to only hear yourself and not the noise of civilization at times.
- People expect and think that the goal of life is perfection, it’s not. Work both at being good at something while also embracing the various little faults in life. Imperfections end up being critical defining characteristics of each of us. The little bits of imperfection we each have are elements of chaos that give each person individuality and distinction! Without our small flaws, we wouldn’t be individuals at all! Taoism teaches us how to accept both the best and worse parts of our life.
- Taoism teaches a person to release expectations. The more expectations you have for your life, the less you will become. A Taoist lives life without expectations, living in the here and now fully. People also need a few expectations as it’s part of navigating their story. Here is a trick. Create only a single expectation at a time for that future experience. For example, an expectation you will smile or have some fun. That’s it! Don’t place any learning or changing into your expectation. If you do, this plants the seed for the opposite to occur, By creating a single simple expectation such as smiling, this then becomes something you can always fulfill since you can empower that action to happen. Any expectation more complicated or relying on something outside of yourself just sets up the future to not meeting your needs. Dropping expectation is very very important within Taoism.
- Lather, Rinse and Repeat, and then toss the instructions away to do what is right for yourself. Welcome to Taoism at the very elemental level, so be open, experiment and embrace what works for you. Taoism as a tradition has teachers who work with students on an individual basis. In the end, no guide or Master can be right for everyone. For this reason, we are always our own best teacher. Give yourself credit and patience to be such a teacher to your personal life.
History of Taoism
Most sites will teach you the terms and history of Taoism. That might be nice for academics: but it does nothing for teaching you how to live as a Taoist. Taoism is about embracing life in the now and not in being stuck in history or terms.
Originally Taoism can be considered to be a shamanic practice. However, Taoism is so old; the complete history of Taoism cannot be traced through written records. Taoism is very much a tradition that is transmitted verbally from master to student over the generations. Because of this, some of the shamanic roots of Taoism still survive today. Taoism historically is also a very flexible practice which includes traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), spiritual healing and Qi Gong exercise practices. Taoism is a practice of change, and it always changes to meet the needs of the times. Even as you read this, Taoism is evolving to keep pace with modern culture. Constant evolution is one reason Taoism has survived for so long; it always adapts with the time while holding onto a few key concepts to keep the practice true to the Tao.
An early surviving text to describe the Tao is the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao-Tzu (The old master). The Tao Te Ching is a series of poems that can be considered to be a work of philosophy, a treatise on how to run a government, a how-to book for achieving a balanced life and grow beyond midlife crisis, or a sage’s reflection of humanity and the universe. It is known to have been written over 2400 years ago, but not much else is retained about the origins. Many fun stories abound about these origins; however, these are just that, stories. What is important is that the Tao Te Ching and its poetry survive, having had an impact on the course of human events over the past 2400 years. It’s an interesting book, worth skimming. I say “skim” because it is written in a light-hearted manner. If a reader stares too hard or takes the Tao Te Ching too literally, the multiple intentions within the poetry will be lost.
Many many stories and tales exist about the History of Taoism. Some of these stories could be true, and some could be fables. As a Taoist, the point is to learn from the mixing of our reactions to the tales. Veracity is best left to history; time will always change “truth” for each generation.
Tao and Chinese Culture
Tao is a word. It translates roughly as the way. When as a Taoist we talk about the Tao, we are talking about the central aspect of our practice. However, it’s important to keep in mind, as a word, the word Tao is used for a lot more than just Taoism. Every religion has its way. Every person has their way. Every practice has their way. There is a Tao for everything. This doesn’t directly mean it’s the same Tao as what we speak about in Taoism. While from a Taoist viewpoint it’s all the same, from a human literary perspective it’s not. So it’s important to always take the word Tao within the context of the statement being made.
For instance: a Confucian will use the term Tao to cover how they believe and act. On paper, the Tao of Confucianism is quite a bit different than the Tao of Taoism. A Confucian embraces order while a Taoist will dance to chaos. The Tao that a Confucian teaches is a rigid logical complex system of behavior. The Tao of Taoism is freedom to embrace all the whimsy of life. The same Tao both times: in the using the Tao to refer to a way of life, but the actual results, the teachings practiced are quite a bit different. A path is a path, but not everyone on that path will experience it in the same way.
Of course, to a Taoist, all paths do lead to the same place. It’s just the journey might seem longer to some than others.
So please keep this in mind if you see the word Tao being used in a slightly different context than what you were expecting.
Advanced Taoism: Tao and God
This last section is for the brave of heart, for those wanting a few more advanced answers.
First and foremost: Taoism respects the concept of God. Initially one might think a discussion of God would be an impersonal topic. It isn’t. Each person has a very deep and connected relationship in what they view God may or may not be. A person’s view of God is a statement and reflection of the way a person also views their own life. As a result, when discussing differences in God, it’s best to respect it as also being a highly personal and sensitive topic.
When exploring Taoism, eventually a person compares the terms, God and Tao. I would suggest first reading this chapter of A Personal Tao on Religion.
From this chapter:
Taoism offers the option to skip the comparison. This question is irrelevant. God could or could not exist, and either state doesn’t change the way we lead our lives. Our lives are expressions of action between ourselves and the universe. To respect our surrounding environment is a furthering of respect to ourselves. This manner of living doesn’t change regardless of the nature of God or the Tao.
However, most people insist upon definition and seeking deeper answers. So let’s expand upon God and Tao. God as a term is often “defined” as being an ultimate creator or universal power. The various aspects of God have been fought over as long as humans have written and used words. All definitions are based on perception. From a Taoist perspective: human-based definitions are both right and wrong: as all meanings are relative to humanity’s state of mind. A Taoist stays out of arguments of definition. It’s not productive arguing over something relative to each person. Instead, Taoism accepts each person’s view of God as being personal.
A Taoist doesn’t think the Tao is before, after or is even equal to God. The Tao is a concept to describe something that goes beyond our capability to define. Taoism leaves the Tao undefined, and a Taoist happily explores the wonder that opens up as a result.
All Taoist’s will agree: The Tao is indefinable…
Something which is indefinable: is outside of human definition by default. However, we can still accept it as indefinable. The Tao by being indefinable removes all issues of perception in its definition since perception cannot directly reveal the Tao which is undefined. It’s just simply and utterly is: undefined!
Tao and God merge towards the same concept when the definition of God is indefinable. Once a person accepts the definition of the Tao as being indefinable, that person by definition has to leave it as undefined. Once you place any definition over such a term, it takes a person further away from the whole concept of the Tao.
In some of the Taoist religions, Taoism does have gods, but Taoist gods typically are very tangible beings. They walk beside us, share tea with us, laugh, play and can alter reality. A Taoist god represents an enlightened immortal that helps other conscious beings work towards grace. In Taoism, gods are shown as soul guides and inspiration towards how to find enlightenment.
(Please keep in mind: this paragraph is an extreme simplification of how Taoism views Gods.)
We do say in Taoism: We are of the Tao, or God is the Tao. Taoist’s say this because we also are undefined. We only define ourselves as we live. While living, we are still moving through life, a large part of our nature is indefinable until the end of Living. As a result: we are of the Tao. A Taoist can see the Tao within everything, a very delicate logical truth and often confuses non-Taoists. We know the Tao by witnessing our own life, and that is why I wrote A Personal Tao. We have just come full circle in the Tao’s definition. The Tao is indefinable, and yet we are complete with the Tao.
A Taoist knows to leave the Tao as is, to grasp the Tao within the chase of living fully. It’s a wonderful contradiction to embrace, and it does completely full-fill one’s life within that acceptance. For a Taoist, this is all about living and exploring our possibilities, for we each are undefined and of the Tao. Trying to define ourselves just limits one’s nature and what can be done. So a Taoist instead embraces the Tao, to discover and open up all possibilities instead.
From here each person is free to draw their conclusions. Conclusions will always shift to the winds of perception.
If this confuses you, then please go back and repeat these three steps:
- Don’t concentrate on the definition of the Tao (this will come later naturally)
- Understand what Taoism is: Taoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a “religion”. Taoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes, and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s nature.
- The path of understanding the Tao is simply accepting you.