Daoism (or Taoism) refers to a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions that have influenced Eastern Asia for more than two millennia, and have had a notable influence on the western world since the 19th century. The word Dao literally translates as “path” or “way” (of life), although in Chinese folk religion and philosophy it carries more abstract meanings. Daoist propriety and ethics emphasize the Three Jewels of the Dao: compassion, moderation , and humility, while Daoist thought generally focuses on nature, the relationship between humanity and the cosmos, health and longevity, and wu wei (action through inaction), which is thought to produce harmony with the universe.
Reverence for ancestor spirits and immortals are also common in popular Daoism. Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditions medicine, feng shui, immortality, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines have been intertwine with Daoism throughout history.
Daoism has never been a unified religion, but has rather consisted of numerous teachings based on various revelations. Therefore, different branches of Daoism often have very distinct beliefs. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that nearly all sects share. Daoism does not fall strictly under an umbrella or a definition of an organized religion, nor can it purely be studied as the originator or a variant of Chinese folk religion, as much of the traditional religion is outside of the tenets and core teachings of Daoism. Daoism is better understood as a way of life than as a religion, and that its adherents do not approach or view Daoism the way non-Daoist historians have done.
Daoist theology emphasizes various themes such as naturalness, vitality, peace, “non-action” (wu wei, or ‘effortless effort’), emptiness (refinement), detachment, flexibility, receptiveness, spontaneity, the relativism of human ways of life, ways of speaking and guiding behavior.
“Dao” literally means “the way,” but can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line. Dao can be roughly stated to be the flow of the universe, or the force behind the natural order, equating it with the influence that keeps the universe balanced and ordered. The flow of qi, as the essential energy of action and existence, is often compared to the universal order of Dao. It is often considered to be the source of both existence and non-existence. Dao is rarely an object of worship, being treated more like the Indian concepts of atman and dharma.
Dao is also associated with the complex concept of De “power; virtue; integrity”, that is, the active expression of Dao. De is the active living, or cultivation, of that “way”.
Wu wei is a central concept in Daoism. The literal meaning of wu wei is “without action”. It is often expressed by the paradox wei wu wei, meaning “action without action” or “effortless doing”. The practice and efficacy of wu wei is fundamental in Daoist thought, most prominently emphasized in Daoism. The goal of wu wei is alignment with Dao, revealing the soft and invisible power within all things. It is believed by Daoists that masters of wu wei can observe and follow this invisible potential, the innate in-action of the Way.
In ancient Daoist texts, wu wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Water is soft and weak, but it can move earth and carve stone. Daoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts his will against the world, he disrupts that harmony. Daoism does not identify man’s will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that man must place his will in harmony with the natural universe.
P’u ( lit. “uncut wood”) is translated “uncarved block”, “unhewn log”, or “simplicity”. It is a metaphor for the state of wu wei and the principle of jian. It represents a passive state of receptiveness. P’u is a symbol for a state of pure potential and perception without prejudice. In this state, Daoists believe everything is seen as it is, without preconceptions or illusion.
P’u is usually seen as keeping oneself in the primordial state of dao. It is believed to be the true nature of the mind, unburdened by knowledge or experiences. In the state of p’u, there is no right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. There is only pure experience, or awareness, free from learned labels and definitions. It is this state of being that is the goal of following wu wei.
Daoists believe that man is a microcosm for the universe. The body ties directly into the Chinese five elements. The five organs correlate with the five elements, the five directions and the seasons. Akin to the Hermetic maxim of “as above, so below”, Daoism posits that man may gain knowledge of the universe by understanding himself.
In Daoism, even beyond Chinese folk religion, various rituals, exercises, and substances are said to positively affect one’s physical and mental health. They are also intended to align one self spiritually with cosmic forces, or enable ecstatic spiritual journeys. These concepts seem basic to Daoism in its elite forms. Internal alchemy and various spiritual practices are used by some Daoists to improve health and extend life, theoretically even to the point of physical immortality.
Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching, or Daodejing, is widely regarded to be the most influential Daoist text. It is a foundational scripture of central importance in Daoism purportedly written by Lao Tzu sometime in the 3rd or 4th centuries BC. However, the precise date that it was written is still the subject of debate: there are those who put it anywhere from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC. It has been used as a ritual text throughout the history of religious Daoism.
Daoist commentators have deeply considered the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching. They are widely discussed in both academic and mainstream literature. The opening lines, with common translation, are “The Way that can be described is not the true Way” or “The Name that can be named is not the constant Name.”
Dao literally means “path” or “way” and can figuratively mean “essential nature”, “destiny”, “principle”, or “true path”. The philosophical and religious “Dao” is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Dao. Dao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form. Hence, it cannot be named or categorized. Even the word “Dao” can be considered a dangerous temptation to make Dao a limiting “name”.
The Tao Te Ching is not thematically ordered. However, the main themes of the text are repeatedly expressed using variant formulations, often with only a slight difference. The leading themes revolve around the nature of Dao and how to attain it. Dao is said to be unnamable and accomplishing great things through small means.
Some forms of Daoism may be traced to prehistoric folk religions in China that later coalesced into a Daoist tradition. Laozi is traditionally regarded as the founder of Daoism and is closely associated in this context with “original”, or “primordial”, Taoism. Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid second century B.C.E. Daoism gained official status in China during the Tang Dynasty, whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Daoism, collecting Daoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.
Aspects of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes. The Qing Dynasty, however, much favored Confucian classics and rejected Daoist works. During the eighteenth century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Daoist books. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Daoism had fallen so much from favor that only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. Daoism is one of five religions recognized by the PRC, and regulates its activities through a state bureaucracy (the China Taoist Association).
Taoism in popular culture
Some characters in the U.S. TV series “Kung Fu” often quoted Daoist sayings.
The “Force” of the “Star Wars” movies is loosely based on Daoist concepts.
Ref: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism