Taoism: A philosophy, a Religion, and a Way of Life


By You-Sheng Li


(website: http://taoism21cen.com)



1. An Introduction to Taoism


As a philosophy of life, Lao Tzu (?604-484 BC) and Chuang Tzu (?369-286 BC) were traditionally recognized as the founders. Its origin goes back to the time when Chinese civilization began to emerge. Thus a sub-school of Taoist philosophy takes the name Huang Lao referring to the Yellow Emperor, the common ancestor to all Chinese, and Lao Tzu. After Buddhism spread into China during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD), Taoism developed into an organized religion.

Daoist culture has long permeated the everyday life of ordinary Chinese people since it exerted great influences on social customs and national consciousness. One of the greatest writer and thinker, Lu Xun (1881-1936), once said, “China is totally rooted in Daoism.” As the result, Taoism is the key to a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture. Today, as a major religion in China, there are more than 1,600 temples and more than 25,000 Daoist priests of the Quanzhen and the Zhengyi Sect, though the number of ordinary believers is impossible to assess.

The highest ideal of a Taoist is to acquire immortality. To achieve this goal, one must practice Taoism both inside and outside one's physical existence. Inner practice involves physical and breathing exercises, concentrated contemplation, and the taking of elixirs. Later, this type of practice gradually came down to refining the interior elixirs ( neidan ). The basic principle of this practice is still to cultivate the self both spiritually and physically. External practice involves doing good deeds and helping others.

(1) The Concept of Tao

According to Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and other authors, Tao has the following features:

1) Tao created the world and everything in the world.

2) Tao is present in everything and it is the Tao that makes everything the way it is. The functioning of the Tao in a particular existence is called the virtue or the obtainment of Tao. Tao is immanent.

3). Tao is ineffable. Tao is also referred to as One, Non-Being since there is really no name for Tao. Tao is beyond words. Words are part of our world but Tao is not. We can intuit Tao but we cannot describe it. Tao is transcendent.

4). Tao is also the law every existence has to follow. It is the underlying, ordering, structuring force prevailing in everything and every space in the universe. Man is the only known creature that can depart from Tao.

 (2) Taoism as an Organized Religion inside China

Since some Taoists organized themselves into a religion in the second century, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were the three main religions in Chinese history. Chinese people usually visited their temples to worship but did not officially join any of those religions. They could go to a Buddhist temple one day, and a Taoist temple next day. Taoism as a religion showed some striking features in Chinese history:

1.     The fundamental belief of Taoist religion is that you do not have to die physically, which is essentially what behind modern medicine and science.

2.     Taoist religion is based on the ancient Taoist philosophy, which was famous for its atheistic view against Mohism and Confucianism during the Axial Age (770-221 BCE).

3.     The birth of Taoist religion in the second and third centuries was associated with a massive uprising of peasants.

4.     One of the major parts of religious practice of Taoism is sex.

5.     After Buddhism entered China, the hybridization of Buddhism and Taoism produced a more secular and practical form of Buddhism, Chan or Zen, which is well known in the West.

 (3) The Taoist Deity


It is clear that the early Taoist philosophers such as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu did not pay particular attention to any god except Tao. They only used the word gods occasionally in a casual manner. Chuang Tzu says: “In the ancient time, yin and yang were in harmony; gods and spirits were quiet and did not interfere with people.” Such a description about gods fits well with the primitive primary society and the Taoist philosophy.

The Taoist religion that developed later introduced a large number of deities for worshippers, though some of those deities came from folk cults and Chinese traditions. Those deities were organised in a way that reflected the secular history of the Chinese empire.

The Book of Changes mentioned, “Observing that the four seasons rotate in order, Sage used the religious gods to educate the people. All people under heaven obeyed him willingly.” Thus Chinese rulers had long known the effectiveness of religious gods as a means to control the thought of the people. Unlike in the West, religion shared power with the monarchy, Chinese rulers used religions to control their people. Chinese emperors had the power to close down any religions and, in fact, both Buddhism and Taoism were banned sometimes but released later. Christianity was established in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907) but vanished later because of an official ban from the empress.

Under such political circumstances it was understandable that the Taoist religion introduced deities to attract believers and please the emperor. Without those deities, Taoism as a religion might not have been able to survive to today.

The first three Taoist deities are called the Three Pure Ones, and the major deity is the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning. The next level is the Jade Emperor. There are disagreements regarding the proper composition of this pantheon. Popular Taoism typically presents the Jade Emperor as the official head deity. Intellectual Taoists, such as the Celestial Masters sect, usually present Lao Tzu and the Three Pure Ones at the top of the pantheon of deities.


(4) Taoist Influence on Chinese Medicine


Chinese traditional medicine has been developed under the influence of Taoist philosophy and this association of Taoist religion with medicine has been regarded as its major attraction to the people. In Chinese history, a popular folk saying goes, “Nine out of ten Taoists are physicians.”  The difference between Chinese and Western medicine is mainly the part that grew out of Taoist philosophy.

Chinese medicine considers the patient as a whole while Western medicine considers the disease only. A major treatment in Chinese medicine is to help the patient’s adjustment and strengthen the patient’s defense against the disease. Chinese medicine sees the lack of harmony with nature as a major reason why disorders develop.

Chinese medicine advocates moderation when fulfilling one’s physical desires. Excess pleasure will weaken or damage our health. The Taoist theories of yin yang and the five elements are the fundamental theories of Chinese medicine.

Taoist breathing practices and Chinese acupuncture share the same theory: Energy circulates along more than a dozen routs inside the body. Because of the Taoist pursuit of longevity and immortality, tonic medicine and hygiene are a major part of Chinese medicine. In other words Chinese medicine emphasizes prevention.

2. Taoism in the Modern Western Perspective

(1) Introduction: The West and the East


In the West, God, the world, and I are three entities. Therefore you have a God to please, a world to conquer, and most of all you have many peers to compete with through your whole life. Even your pets have to compete with other pets once a year at dog shows or cat shows. If you find this tiring or even depressing, then you may well try oriental philosophy for a change. In the East, God, the world, and I are all rolled together into one --- the big One. Taoism seems to be the only philosophy and religion that encourages the believers to live a prolonged, healthy, and happy life. They stress the present life rather than the next one. They emphasize human nature rather than asceticism. In Chinese history it was not Confucianism but Taoism that led the way for Chinese medicine and science.

If we consider God, the world, and I as religion, science, and philosophy respectively, Chinese culture was inclined toward the philosophical or I side, while Indian culture was inclined toward the religious or God side. In the ideal realm or heaven after death, Taoists have both their individual souls and bodies, Christians have souls but Hindu-Buddhists have neither. Hindu-Buddhists lose their individual identities to join the cosmic pool of soul. Chinese people worshiped their ancestors who functioned as messengers or mediators between men and God. Since the ancestors they worshiped included their dead parents or grandparents and they had a strong emotional bond with them, their concept of God remained more vague and remote. It is like church goers in the West who are totally focused on pastors or angels but never care much about God himself.

Ancient Chinese philosophy developed in pursuit of an ideal way of secular life. Ancient Indian philosophy developed in pursuit of an ideal way of religious life. Ancient Greek philosophy developed as a way to deal with both God and the world. The main origin of violence in history was also different: Invasion from outside for India, expansion of the present powers for the West, and uprising from within for China. The Chinese peasant uprisings were common but only reached a large scale occasionally. Chinese peasant uprisings often took Taoism for their aspiration. Taoism is a secularized and philosophized religion.


(2) The Vinegar Tasters


The three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, another reacts with a bitter expression, and the third reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, respectively. Each man's expression represents the attitude of his religion: Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state. (from the wikipedia )



(3)  Moses vs Pan-Geng and Their Different Social Environments


With a super state functioning like the United Nations in today’s world, the ancient Chinese people still lived in the genetically coded primary society while the West started with secondary society.(see below for more explanation) Moses led the Israeli people moved out of Egypt in the thirteenth and early part of the twelfth century, B. C. Around the same time, King Pan-Geng of the Chinese Shang dynasty moved the capital including its residents. Pan-Geng’s move was much simpler and easier than Moses’ move but both met similar resistance from their people.

Pan-Geng did not punish anyone in the end. What happened to those who resisted Moses' leadership? They were much less lucky than the ones who resisted Pan-Geng, since they were in a secondary society where the cohesive force was generated by reward and punishment expressed as divine will. According to the Bible (Numbers 16:2, 20, 21, 32, 35), “Two hundred and fifty men of the son of Israel, chieftains of the assembly, summoned ones of the meeting, men of fame. So they congregated against Moses…Jehovah now spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying ‘Separate yourselves from the midst of the assembly, that I may exterminate them in an instant'…And the earth proceeded to open its mouth and to swallow up them…And a fire came out from Jehovah and proceeded to consume the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.”

3. Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century

Unlike the West, Chinese civilization started with a super state functioning as police to keep peace in their isolated world just like the United Nations in today’s world. If we divide all human societies into two types: genetically coded primary society and man-made secondary society, this relatively peaceful social environment allowed the ancient Chinese people to still live in the primary society.

In primary society, human nature and instinct are enough to keep the society harmonious and functional. Members are linked together emotionally and psychologically, since their social interaction was face to face. The ideal number of people in a primary society is believed to be around 150. Bands and tribes are regarded as primary societies. Bands or tribes were headed by headmen who had no power to force their will on others. Their leadership was based on persuasion and consensus.

Secondary society is created by man, and so it has an ideology and a corresponding social structure to support the ideology. As a creation by man, it has limitless possible types with different value systems, different directions, and different structures while primary society, dictated by genetics, has only one type. Social stratification and institutionalized violence such as police and army are often necessary to keep a secondary society stable in its present type and restrain its members from seeking other types of society. (http://taoism21cen.com,  You-Sheng Li: A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, Taoist Recovery Centre, 2005)

William Eckhardt found a close correlation between war measured in the frequency of battles, empire measured in the total area of empires, and civilization measured in numbers of geniuses whose superiority was established by the consensus of encyclopedia and textbook authors. While the whole world tended to spiral upward, as a general rule during the last 5,000 years of human civilization, regional areas had their ups and downs, rises and falls. When expenditures exceeded incomes in the evolutionary process, then came the falls, which were characterized by decentralization, feudalization, or foreign conquest. In all cases, the way up not only increased the quantity of civilization, empire, and war, but also changed the social structure to one of greater inequality, indicated by slavery, caste, class, social stratification, and so forth. It is justified to call our civilization the civilization of war.(William Eckhardt: A dialectical evolutionary theory of civilizations, empires, and wars. In: Civilizations world systems studying world-historical change, ed by S. K. Sanderson. Walnut Creek, USA: AltaMira Press. 1995, p75-108.)

It is more than obvious that Eckhardt’s theory of warrig civilizations does not fit in today’s world after the United Nations was set up. Nor does it apply to ancient Chinese history (2200-476 BC) when human nature was highly respected and Taoist lifestyle was popular. We have apparently entered a new era that humans have never experienced before, and we need a new way of life. The ancient wisdom of Chinese Taoist philosophy provides a good choice. At least, it is worthwhile to learn a little bit more about this ancient way of life. Taoist philosophy emphasizes the value of naturalness and simplicity, which are well complementary to the Western philosophy of materialism. Some emerging trends indicate that the world is coming closer to Taoist ideology.

 The Universal Evolutional Pathways

The Universal Evolutional Pathways


1. Physical World

2.  Life

3. Culture

4. Conscious

Level 1





Level 2





Level 3





Level 4

Atoms and




Level 5

Molecules and
the three phases of

DNA or
deoxyribonucleic acids



Level 6





Level 7

Planets and stars




Level 8


Organs or functional
body parts



Level 9


Individual organism



Level 10


Primary society



Level 11


Secondary society



Level 12




Rational thinking

Level 13





A statue of Lao Tzu in the Pure Origin Mountains in Fujian Province, China.


A Taoist Priest, Macau, 2006.


The Three Pure Ones Mountains in Jiangxi Province, China that are named after the Taoist highest deities, the Three Pure Ones. In Chinese history, Taoists often chose the beautiful and remote mountains as their homes to build temples. It reflects the fact that Taoists kept a distance from the current secondary society, since Taoism derived from the ancient primary society.




The Hua Mountains, a famous site of Taoist temples and monasteries in Chinese history.

More Photos of Famous Chinese Mountains From the Internet

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