Taoism is an ancient philosophical religion that originated in China 2000 years ago. Its origin and beliefs can be found in various periods and social circles throughout China between the 4th century BCE and until it gains popularity during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Tao or Dao translated to English is “the way,” which refers to the way of life or the way of the universe. Like the definition of life, Tao will mean something different to different people. The fabric of what makes up the universe we live in is intricate, chaotic, and unexplainable. Since Taoism is essentially becoming one with all that makes up the entire universe, it is also difficult to explain.
“My teachings are easy to understand
And easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.
My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?
If you want to know me,
Look inside your heart.”– Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way)
Today, the religion or tradition of Taoism has even spread into the western world. No matter where you are or what other religion you practice, you can always adopt Taoism philosophies into your life. If you do decide to take in Taoist beliefs and practices, you may find your relationship with your other views deepen.
Origins of Taoism
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu is the go-to Taoist text. Tao Te Ching translated is “The Book of the Way” and Lao Tzu translated is “Old Master.” The earliest version of Tao Te Ching dated back to the beginning of Taoism about 2000 years ago in the late 4th Century BCE and was initially written onto bamboo tablets.
The way Lao Tzu wrote The Book of the Way is very poetic; therefore, it is very open to different interpretations and challenging to translate between different languages. The romantic style and seemingly purposeful contradictions emphasize the most definable part of Taoism, which is that you cannot define it.
It is said that Lao Tzu was a philosopher who grew tired of the greedy and injustice he had to witness going on in his homeland. One day he decided to go to live in exile and leave everything behind. He was stopped on his way to leave and asked to write down everything Lao Tzu knew.
Most of what he knew was through histories and teachings that were passed down to him orally. Once he wrote everything he knew he handed it over to the young man and left on his journey to exile, the young man then went to spread it through the land.
Though no one can prove the exact origin and credibility behind Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, also referred to as Laozi, many Taoists do agree that his book does represent and “define” the beliefs of Taoism and even refer to it and use it as a ritual text. The book relays topics centered around how to live within the natural flow of the universe, deep wisdom, the meaning of Tao, and how to attain Tao.
The roots of Taoism, much like its definition, are difficult to pinpoint, primarily because of the wide variety of teachings, texts, and Taoist teachers.
One thing that is for sure is this is the way Taoism is supposed to be; otherwise, it would be difficult for followers to find their own personal way, Tao, or Dao.
Taoist Beliefs and Traditions
People who practice Taoism were not always called Taoists. Taoist use to be a term reserved for teachers, Taoist hermits, and the high-ranking philosophers of Taoism. People who follow or practice Tao are now referred to as Taoist by most followers of Taoism.
Taoist believe in the power of what governs the universe, also known as “Te” and becoming one with that power. There are no deities, no salvation, and no hell, only “the way.”
The way also known as “Tao” is different for everyone since everyone is destined to lead different lives, and this is what makes “The way” impossible to define. The path and wisdom one person may need to be attuned to may be different for someone else living a completely different experience.
One thing that is the same for everyone’s experience with finding “The Way” is it will naturally come from being present in each moment while finding harmony with the universe. The universe was made for all living creatures to flow with it effortlessly, but many insist on resisting by staying stuck in the past or worried about the future.
The quote above relays the basic fundamentals of what it means to practice Taoism. Though some other principles, teachings, and traditions influence Taoists being present and one with the cosmic divine is the heart of it all.
The Duality of the Universe
In most religions, you have a heaven and hell, sometimes even multiple hells, but in Taoism, this is not the case. The concept of heaven and hell or good and evil are part of a much bigger picture in Taoism, which is the duality of everything in the universe or Yin and Yang.
An excellent example of why heaven and hell or good and evil are not concepts in Taoism is because there is always a balance not just in the universe but also in every person, action, and thing. So no action, person, or place can be 100% good because there must always be that balance.
It must also be noted that Taoists do not believe in good and evil because these are concepts or laws created by humans that the universe does not recongnize. Duality in the universe, according to Taoism, is always in harmony.
Yin and Yang
Taoism is often represented by the Yin and Yang symbol, which is a circle equally divided into two opposite symbols, one side is dark and represents darkness and femininity, and the other side is light and represents light and masculinity.
These two forces flow with each other, and there are even parts of the other within each one, both in the symbol and within our universe. Darkness and light, day and night, action and inaction, chaos and peace, and so on have been and will be entwined for the rest of eternity.
Taoist believe we must all become one with this duality within us, which will put us in the Tao of the universe. You can balance yin and yang within you through practicing inaction by meditating, breathwork, and disengaging.
Chi in Taoism
Chi, also called qi, in Taoism, refers to the force that drives all forms of life, including humans. Chi or qi is what keeps us alive and thriving, and is also the energy that sparked life here on earth and makes up everything in the universe.
To become one with chi and balance the energy within you, Taoists believe you can practice Tai Chi, qigong, yoga, meditation, Reiki, focusing on your breathing daily, or anything that connects the body and mind will strengthen your chi.
Death in Taoism
Taoism does not teach the existence of heaven, hell, or any form of an afterlife though there are many follows who do believe in an afterlife or reincarnation. All Taoist believe death is a natural part of living and should not be feared, but embraced like all of the Tao.
The Three Treasures of Tao
The three treasures of Tao are three traits that are highly valued in Taoism. These traits will come to you once you begin living in the present and becoming attuned to Tao, and they do not need to be mastered in order.
Compassion means kindness, empathy, and non-violence or cruelty. This is the first of the three treasures and is associated with love and mothering.
Frugality, the second treasure, put emphasis on not focusing on material wealth or fame but instead focusing on just living life. Frugality is associated with being grounded and being grateful.
Humility is the third and final treasure of Tao and means being humble. One should never think of themselves as better or superior to others. This is associated with ego and respecting those around you.
Becoming a Taoist
After reading everything, you should have a general idea of what it means to practice Taoism and attain Tao. A general approach is all you need to begin your path to find the way that leads you to flow effortlessly with all of life like you were born to do.
Just like with the currents in the ocean, you wouldn’t attempt to will it to your command and swim against it. The same goes for the current of the flow of your life; instead of fighting the forces around you, let yourself be carried to somewhere new.
Taoism isn’t focused on just being present, but if you master that, everything else will fall into place. You also want to practice kindness, frugality, humility and achieving Chi, in order to become even more attuned with your Tao.
Forget about the past and don’t worry about the future, instead focus on what really matters, which is what you are doing right now. Remember, everyone’s journey is different and to enjoy yours while you live it.