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alt.philosophy.taoism FAQ

Subject: alt.philosophy.taoism FAQ Editor: Steven Ericsson Zenith

  1. Introduction
  2. TAOISM is Many Things.
  3. What is a TAOIST?
  4. What about Yin-Yang?
  5. What is Wu-Wei?
  6. Is TAOISM a Religion or Philosophy?
  7. What is Western TAOISM?
  8. What is Westernized TAOISM?
  9. What do we know about Lao Tzu's life?
  10. What about God?
  11. What are the forms of Chinese TAOIST Religion in China?
  12. What are TAOIST Sexual Practices all about?
  13. Where do TAOISTS go when they die?


The purpose of the FAQ is to provide short and concise answers to Frequently Asked Questions in the alt.philosophy.taoism newsgroup. The questions are simple as are the answers. To find further confusion refer to the APT FAQ Bibliography.

This FAQ comes in three parts:

  1. The FAQ Proper - This document.
  2. The following parts will be developed later:

  3. The FAQ Bibliography - A list of known publications - which in time will carry reviews.
  4. The FAQ Links - The definitive collection of Web Links. Anything and everything that claims to be TAOISM on the Web.


TAOISM is Many Things.

  1. TAOISM (DAOISM) is the philosophy of Lao Tzu (Laozi) that advocates the simplicity of existence, that teaches non-interference with natural events and the leaving of nothing undone.
  2. It is also the philosophy of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) which emphasizes the relative nature of what we "know".
  3. TAOISM is the application of TAOIST philosophy to a model for living.
  4. TAOISM is a system of Chinese Religion founded on the teaching of Lao Tzu and many other Chinese TAOIST teachers.


What is a TAOIST?

Tao (or Dao) literally means "The Way." It is a term used to refer to a dynamic and interactive way of being whereby one acts and lives in harmony with nature and change. A person following the Tao does not try to obstruct natural processes taking place. This kind of action, and stillness - being - requires great clarity of vision and strength of mind.

To seek and follow the Tao is, then, a difficult but venerable task. The literal impossibility of expressing clearly and completely in words the perceived subtleties and pervasive nature of the Tao, or any human condition, underscores the value placed by Taoists on any individual's unique experience in the world, while also making clear the responsibility each individual has to engage the world in sincere interplay.

The great teachers of Taoism, such as Lao Tzu, often met this challenge in communication with abstract yet profound verse, which tends to convey a vast sense of openness.


A TAOIST is a person who attempts to live in harmony with the world and to apply the principles of TAOISM to their behavior. Those who succeed find it easy, those who fail work hard at it.


What about Yin and Yang?

Taoists believe that the natural forces of this world are the product of tension-- namely, the ongoing tension between yin and yang. Nothing in the world is seen strictly as yin or strictly as yang, though one force may be slightly dominant in a given place, for a time. Things which do not embody both forces relatively evenly have been observed to not endure; out of their imbalance and lack of flexibility in their surroundings, they perish.

Yin is describable with words like feminine, flexible, yielding, flowing, poised, compromising, soft, weak, and patience.

Yang is described as masculine, decisive, rigid, piercing, reversing, hard, strong, and overcoming.

Fundamental to a realistic understanding of these forces is the notion of transformation, of change. No one object can embody a single force for a remarkable period of time-- the farther it strays from being balanced, the sooner it will have to "change its way" (or else destruct).

To use the example of a jogger, the harder (s)he runs, the sooner (s)he will need to stop, rest, and relax. This change is predictable, as are many others, to the astute Taoist.

In the end, walking the distance may have been more efficient.


What is Wu-Wei?

Wu-wei means having no deliberate (intentional) purpose and implies non-interference in the natural order. Frequently it is misinterpreted to mean doing nothing which can be wrongly mapped to the Western idiom of a "carelessness" or an indifferent "laissez-faire" attitude.


In Cantonese we pronounce [wu-wei] Mow why (both starting as low as your voice will go and then going lower). It means "No why." (not "No, why?") No answers to why questions.

In either dialect it is possible to read the wei in a different tone and treat it as something like "purpose" or "end."

Actually it means acting without assigning things to conventional categories used in society's guidance schemes--no naming and acting in virtue of a thing's name. The relevant meaning of "wei" is "deem, regard."


Is TAOISM a Religion or Philosophy?

TAOISM is both a Religion and a Philosophy. It is a philosophy when it is discussed as such, it is a religion when it's teachings are adopted as a way to live.


Scholars divide TAOISM into philosophical and religious systems. "Philosophical TAOISM" refers to the writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the "Religious TAOISM" to a vast range of "popular" religious traditions in China. Religious Taoism is historically related (mainly as an ancestor) to Chinese [Chan] Zen Buddhism.


I have a very technical answer for you.

Religion is the set of behavior manifest by people based on the things they believe to be true. This set of beliefs may be conditioned or rationally founded but not superficial. For example, people frequently act in ways that are contrary to the things they profess - and this is because even though they profess a thing their belief in it may only be superficial. By this definition "socialism" and "capitalism" are both religions and this is a little controversial. However, I prefer this definition to the popular one because it is far less vague.

Philosophy is rather more detached - an intellectual exercise. TAOIST Philosophy is what you might find enumerated in a philosophical encyclopedia or text book and would, in general, be that set of premises put forward by Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. There is nothing in Philosophy which dictates that a person act upon it. When the behavior of a person is directly influenced by a belief in a philosophical premise then that behavior is religious.

The Western TAOIST begins by acknowledging their Western nature, influences and history yet is inspired by the philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. The Western TAOIST witnesses the truth of the non-theistic TAO vision and the other insights of TAOIST Philosophy and believes them to be eternal truths beyond culture. So, a person does not need to be Chinese or even pay any attention to Chinese Religious Taoism or Chinese Culture to be a TAOIST. The Western TAOIST goes further and asks an important question. In the light of the TAOIST enlightenment what are the implications on how we now behave? With that question Western TAOISM becomes a religion which at times challenges established Western behavior and at times affirms it.

You'll note that my definition of religion does not require the notion of "God" - we frequently mistake Theism for Religion - they are not one and the same thing. Religious Chinese Taoism has all the trappings that we would popularly associate with "religion" in the West.


What is Western TAOISM?

As it generally appears in the discussion forum of alt.philosophy.taoism "Western TAOISM" is the application of TAOIST philosophy in the Western context.


What is Westernized TAOISM?

Westernized TAOISM is the modification of Chinese Religious TAOISM for a Western audience.


What do we know about Lao Tzu's life?

All about Lao Tzu's life is mystery and legend, some even doubt his actual existence saying he was invented as the stuff of Myth. Also, depending on which school of TAOISM you look at there are different stories - some of those even go so far as to deify him. I'll give you my personal perspective and view from a Western point of view.

Lao Tzu is a historical figure, a simple unassuming man who was a librarian during the Han Dynasty. His understanding of the TAO was such that by nothing other than his example he became widely respected as an enlightened authority and practitioner of the philosophy we now know as TAOISM. When he decided to leave the nation it was because he was tired of the imbalance of the society. As he left the nation legend recounts several stops en route.

The most famous of these stops known in the Western world is the stop he made overnight at the gates of the empire where he was asked to write down his teachings and overnight he wrote the 5000 characters that make up the TAO TE CHING. In this account he is never seen again.

Legend also has it that he stopped at the Dragon Gate (Lungmen) Caves where he stayed for awhile and provided the foundations of one of the primary Taoist Monastaries. In another account he is said to travel to India where he met a young Prince and taught him all that he knew. This latter story is recounted in the Hua Hu Ching - and though it never explicitly says that the young Prince would become the Buddha it is widely regarded as an invention of subsequent Taoist church to show that Buddhist enlightenment came from Taoist sources.

Little else is known of Lao Tzu life and I'm sure that this is as he would have it.


What about God?

TAOISM is non-theistic. That is, TAOISM postulates or recognizes the existence of a supreme ultimate force that, for want of a better word, is called TAO. TAOISM is a Mystical philosophy. That is, it accepts the direct experience of the supreme ultimate by individuals. There is no personification of a supreme deity in TAOISM except for the pantheistic forms in some versions of the Chinese religion.


TAOISM is non-dualistic. Where Western religions postulate a supernatural explanation of the wonders of natural existence, TAOISM rests in awe of natural existence itself. It takes its guidance from the ways or paths in nature -- TAO. It is a mystical religion in contrast to (a) prophetic religions which prescribe certain beliefs and to (b) ritual religions that prescribe fixed routines of religious activity. Lao Tzu declares that no TAO in language is absolute and ridicules Confucian preoccupation with traditional rituals. Sublime religiosity in TAOISM is an attitude of focus and absorption we bring to anything we do. A large part of that attitude is an ironic sense that while acting we do not suppose there is any cosmic plan or purpose justifies what we do (wu-wei = no purpose). TAOISM's implicit nature-worship may be regarded as pantheism and its emphasis on total absorption in one's activities is sometimes confused with Western "mystical experiences." However, TAOISTS seldom cite the resulting heightened state of awareness as proof of any religious doctrine or being.


What are the forms of Chinese TAOIST Religion in China?

Before the cultural revolution shook that continent there were three primary forms of TAOIST religion in China. The Monastic TAOISM known as the "Lungmen (Dragon Gate) TAOISTS," the "Chengyi TAOISTS" and the "Changtienssu TAOISTS."


What are TAOIST Sexual Practices all about?

In a word, TAOIST sexual practices are about "immortality," dealing with the circulation and preservation of essential energies (including the retention of semen). The practice improves health, provides longevity, and enables the development of an internal spiritual strength that survives physical death.

The practice may be implied from the TAOIST teaching of "returning"; found in both Lao Tzu and the I Ching (Ye Jing).

Not all forms of TAOISM adhere to these practices.


Where do TAOISTS go when they die?

TAOISTS do not believe in the Wheel of Life of the Buddhists nor in the Heaven or Hell of Christianity. "TAOISTS view existence as glorious. The whole Universe, they teach, is a marvelous, vibrant Unity wherein everything, visible and invisible, pulses with energy and changes. As being develops through the experience of existence, its vessels ... are swept onwards by the mighty stream of the eternal TAO to other forms of expression and activity. Man does not die; he merely extends into new fields . ... TAOISTS teach that the end of a person is the return to the Ultimate Reality."


"Huh???" or "Away! (i.e. Adao!)


Editor: Steven Ericsson Zenith.
Written contributions by:
[sez] Steven Ericsson Zenith:
[os] Oliver Sterczyk:
[ch] Chad Hansen:

Sources and Quotes from:
Peter Goullart's "The Monastery of Jade Mountain"
The Shrine of Wisdom

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