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Jun 14 2007

Taoism

The final religion that rounds out the major eastern religions is Taoism. Like Confucianism, it too is a rough contemporary of Buddhism. Its founder is named as Lao Tzu who is said to have been born around 604 BCE, which makes him the earliest of the three founders, but it is not clear if there ever really was such a person, or whether he was a later recreation to provide a single author for the book Tao Te Ching which translates as The Way and its Power and lays out the basic philosophy of Taoism. Huston Smith in his book The World’s Religions says that scholars do not think that the book was written by a single person although the coherence of the book suggests at least a strong single influence in shaping it. It is believed that the book took its final form around 250 BCE.

Taoism is far more mystical and enigmatic than Confucianism or Buddhism. The word Tao (pronounced ‘dow’) means ‘way’ or ‘path’ and refers to the way of ultimate reality. Taoism states flatly that this is too vast for human rationality to fathom and that words are not adequate to describe it.

Three forms of Taoism have evolved, Philosophical Taoism, Religious Taoism, and a cluster of beliefs that Smith calls Vitalizing Taoism. All of them deal with increasing and harnessing the power (te) of energy (ch’i) to maximize its effectiveness in an individual. This is attempted via diet and exercise and meditation and yoga.

Taoism seeks complete self-knowledge that, if achieved, leads to extraordinary power over people and things. This power is not overt but subtle. It manifests itself in the ability to get things done without seeming to actually do anything, especially avoiding recourse to violence, coercion, or pressure. Its mode of operation can summed up in the following verse:

A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.”

Taoists do not see opposites (such as good/evil, light/dark, active/passive) as in conflict or contradictory with each other but as somehow one.

In its rejection of the ability of words to capture its deep ideas and its embrace of contradictions, Taoism is somewhat Zen-like. It is opposed to violence to the point of pacifism. Confucianism elevated the status of the scholar in society and Taoism placed the soldier at the bottom. Whereas Confucianism is deeply concerned with the role of the individual in society and how to make society function better, Taoism is more Buddhist-like in turning away from the material world and seeking to understand oneself.

As Huston Smith says:

Taoism and Confucianism represent the two indigenous poles of the Chinese character. Confucius represents the classical, Lao Tzu the romantic. Confucius stresses social responsibility, Lao Tzu praises spontaneity and naturalness. Confucius’s focus is on the human, Lao Tzu’s on what transcends the human. As the Chinese themselves say, Confucius roams within society, Lao Tzu wanders beyond. (Smith, p. 218)

Taoism, while focusing on the transcendental, does not seem to have the concept of a personal god. It recognizes, however, the existence of otherworldly entities like ghosts and spirits, and it has a pantheon of deities which include the founders of the philosophy. Taoists resort to soothsaying, faith healing and the like, and has rituals that are claimed to have magical effects if done correctly. Taoists also created a church and a sort of ‘papal succession’ that still exists. So unlike Buddhism and Confucianism, there is plenty of stuff in Taoism that would be beyond the pale of science.

Of the three Eastern religions that I have recently profiled, Confucianism, with its emphasis on creating a sense of propriety that is designed to create a social system without coercion, is the one that appeals to me most. Its only supernatural elements lie in the idea of our ancestors watching over us and sending coded messages which can be divined using various techniques, and us sending messages to them via sacrifices. But this feature seems incidental and almost superfluous, and can probably be eliminated without any loss to the philosophy. (In a future posting, I will look at arguments made by some that suggest that this ubiquitous belief in the continuing life of dead people has probably evolved in our brains due to the pressure of natural selection and has thus become ubiquitous. Confucius may have had little choice but to include it as part of his philosophy because the idea seems so ‘natural’ and practices based on this belief were widespread in his time.)

Taoism is the one I like least. It has too many vague mystical elements, with ‘life forces’ and the like that course around and supposedly can be guided.

At the great risk of oversimplifying these highly sophisticated religious systems, it seems to me that both Buddhism and Taoism are inward looking, seeking enlightenment and self-improvement as the ultimate goal, with correct interactions with others serving as a means to achieving this self-fulfillment.

But Confucianism is the opposite. It is outward looking, with the goal being to create a society of peace and justice, with self-improvement of individuals being the means to achieving that end. I like that.

POST SCRIPT: Bob Woolmer ‘murder’ shocker

You may recall my writing about the death of the Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer during the Cricket World Cup.

After first saying he died of natural causes, it was later alleged by the authorities that he was murdered, with specific details such as that he had been strangled after first being drugged to make him immobilized.

In a stunning second about-face, the official conclusion is that his death was due to natural causes after all, and the case has been closed.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Norm Nason

    Your current series on Eastern religions is excellent, Mano. I too have admired Confucianism for many years — for the same reasons you mention.

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    Mano,

    I do love the idea of Lao Tzu, understanding Confucianism and would like to know more about this way and if you could share any stories about Lao Tzu’s life I’d be just delighted.

    best

  3. 3
    geoff

    I am not sure that taoism seeks anything and that is its great gift. It tries to allow us to set free the intuituve part of our minds and to have confidence in this part of the mind. Relieved of the belief that we need to anylise the flow of our existence with our conscious thought, we are set free to be in harmony with all. We can then use thinking more clearly and powerfully, but only when we need or want to. No longer slaves to pointles rumination.

  4. 4
    Mike Rambling

    Mano,

    I would humbly point out that the Tao Te Ching (the earliest Taoist text) does not have any references to the “life forces” and other mystical elements that you refer to.

    These are accretions that are added by the religious and vitalizing schools of Taoism.

    Westerners who wish to dispense with the mysticism can read the Tao Te Ching as a strictly philosophical text.

    I’ve made two translations available here:

      http://tinyurl.com/yo247k

    Cheers,
    Mike Rambling

  5. 5
    Mano

    Thanks, Mike!

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