Taoism as a Religion: Spiritual Pursuit in Modern Life

By You-Sheng Li

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(1) Taoism as an Organized Religion inside China

Taoist philosophy, as a school of thought or a way of life, was established during the Axial era of China, 770-221 BCE. After organized religion, Buddhism, spread to China, Some Taoists organized themselves into a religion in the second century CE. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were the three main religions in Chinese history ever since. Chinese people usually visited their temples to worship but did not officially joined 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. (A long healthy life is our secular desire even at the unconscious level)
  2. Taoist religion is based on the ancient Taoist philosophy, which was famous for their atheistic view against Mohism and Confucianism during the Axial era (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.

(2) Religious View of Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century

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.

The Taoist theory about the origin of the universe remains correct in the light of modern science while many other philosophical speculations are not.

There are billions of galaxies yet they are all moving away from us with the most distant one moving the fastest. In 1929, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) found that the velocity of a galaxy receding from Earth is directly proportional to its distance from Earth. This is the Hubble law and the ratio of velocity to distance is the Hubble constant, about 21.5 kilometres per second per million light years. We are at the center of the universe after all, the center of the Big Bang, in spite of centuries of dispute between the Church and scientists. What is the size of this known universe of ours? Some say it is 40 billion light years in diameter. Any galaxies beyond this range would run away from us at a speed more than that of light and would therefore remain invisible to us since the age of our universe is less than 15 billion years.

Lao Tzu says, ďTao generated one, one generated two, two generated three, and three generated the whole world.Ē  (Tao Te Ching ,Chapter 42) Many scholars found it hard to understand why Lao Tzu charted this dynamic from one, to two, to three. Some later Taoist thinkers interpreted one as being Tao and two and three as yin and yang that give birth to the world. One recent author even interpreted one, two, three as sensation, memory, and abstraction, appearing in a sequence following the birth of the world.

In fact Lao Tzu merely described the universal phenomenon of growth or evolution. From one, two to three is only a symbolic description of the process of growth itself. It is consistent with the view that evolution is a universal process that includes the universe itself. From one, two, three to the world merely indicates the process that growth starts slowly and accelerates later on. Life remained at the single cell level of bacteria and algae for billions of years and then, with the first multi-celled organisms appearing 700 million years ago, developed into thousands of complex forms including human beings. The Stone Age lasted millions of year but suddenly accelerated around ten thousand years ago. Chinese civilization also started slowly but accelerated suddenly during the late Axial Era when Tao Te Ching took its final shape. With such fascinating life experiences, it was no wonder the authors used such vivid descriptions to define the process of growth. The Big Bang theory of the universe is like any other explosion that builds slowly but reaches the stage of explosion in the split of a second.

In Einsteinís relativity theory, the measurement of time and space becomes relative. A moving space is smaller than it is stationary, and, similarly, a moving clock runs slower. It is almost easier to suppose that time, space, and the universe all started from the Big Bang. There was no time and space and no existence, physical or metaphysical, before the Big Bang. It is consistent with the Taoist theory that Tao created everything including time and space.

In the study of subatomic particles, atoms are found to be 99.9999 percent empty space with the remaining occupied by ghosts of vibrating bundles. According to the recent superstring theory, all elementary particles are really mini strings that have no area and no thickness but only a length. There are many dimensions in the universe but those dimensions can fold up. In the quantum theory, the elementary particles are only points without any dimension. Therefore space-taking particles or solid things, in the conventional notion, cease to exist. If the universe can shrink to nothing, it is logical to suppose there was nothing before the Big Bang. Some scientists say the universe before the Big Bang was so tiny that it was far too small for our naked eyes to see. It is consistent with the Taoist theory that Tao created the universe from nothing. To be exact, the Tao generated one or the tiny dot in the scientistsí term. The tiny dot was homogenous and undivided in any sense, and therefore, was consistent with the one generated by Tao. You should not mix up the little one with the big One which is another name for Tao. Since scientists can investigate only the time close to the starting point of the Big Bang but not the starting point itself, they cannot rule out that the first change was a split into yin and yang, two opposite and complimentary parts.

 Therefore there was the most powerful Tao with all information and intelligence to create the universe yet the Tao itself is Non-Being. Non-Being is still Nothing. It is, however, too hard to imagine that the whole universe, including our civilized world, grew out of nothing. Thus, this Nothing is not an ordinary nothing but an omnipotent, omniscient Nothing.

We have explained the multiple level operation of our world in the section What is Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century?  I list all the different levels and their different pathways as follows:   

The Universal Evolutional Pathways

Content 1. Physical World 2.  Life 3. Culture 4. Conscious
Level 1 Non-being
Level 2 Being
Level 3 Elementary
particles
Level 4 Atoms and
electrons
Level 5 Molecules and
the three phases of
matter
DNA or
deoxyribonucleic acids
Level 6ObjectsCells
Level 7 Planets and stars Tissues
Level 8 Galaxies Organs or functional
body parts
Level 9 Universe Individual organism
Level 10 Primary society Culture Unconscious
Level 11 Secondary society Civilization Conscious
Level 12 Transcendence
culture
Rational thinking
systems
Level 13 Spirituality






























It is up to philosophical speculation whether the universe existed before the Big Band or it started with the Bid Band from non-being. But the Taoist philosophy clearly stated more than two thousand years ago that the world has started from non-being, which seems to more plausible. As shown in the above table, non-being and being are only two different levels. Beings can have many but non-being has only one since it is ultimate non-being. The Non-being is no ordinary non-being, and it is omnipotent. The omnipotence of non-being is the quality of Tao or God.

When life appeared on earth, it was only an ordinary molecule, which can duplicate itself using smaller molecules surrounding it. There seemed nothing miraculous about such a molecule. But this molecule had the potential to develop into the biological world today including humans. It is equally difficult to understand if we addict to rational thinking. When conscious appeared, it had too the potential to create a total new world on earth. Such potentials that made the universe from a tiny dot, made the biological world from a simple molecule, made the human world of information and technology from a simple conscious are the quality of Tao or God. Such potentials felt or reflected on our conscious are Tao or God in our minds. Miraculous future and uncertainty stimulate us to pursue aesthetic value or spiritual value at higher levels.

 

   

(3) The Taoist Goal of Self Cultivation

 

In modern society what do you have to do if you want to pursue Taoist life cultivation and, for practical reasons, do not want to join a monastery? Since Taoist monasteries are few and may not suit us all, it is most practical to pursue Taoist life cultivation yourself.

There are five ways we can pursue life cultivation on our own:

1. Pursue a simple and happy life: If life is simple there is nothing left to worry about except happiness. Enjoy what you have and do not pursue what you cannot get. I have a book by Robert Taylor et al, titled Simple Pleasures, Soothing Suggestions and Small Comforts for Living Well Year Round.  I am sure you can find similar books in libraries and book stores. Such books open our eyes to new horizons where happiness attainable from your own setting and with limited facilities. Do not try to make a hundred dollars more than your wifeís sisterís husband, but try to make yourself happier in ways that a hundred dollars cannot buy. As to simplifying of life, there is no fixed rule, just do those things which you find simple and which bring happiness to you.

2. Keep in touch with nature: There are numerous ways to keep in touch with nature. You can travel to the mountains and waters to see Godís creation but you can also submerge yourself in the nearby woods or even lie down in the tall grass and weeds. I prefer visiting somewhere where I cannot see anything civilization has left us but only see Godís creation, trees, rivers, birds, and butterflies. Of course you can work in your garden or on your windowsill plants. You may indulge in a book dedicated to nature with vivid descriptions and colourful photographs. You may also sit down to meditate in an ideal natural setting. When you have a feeling that you are part of nature and the natural process, and are at one with the growing and blooming plants, you will feel much healthier and happier.

3. Transcendence of the Negative Effects of Life: I always prefer reading Chuang Tzu as a way to unlash my imagination into endless space to enrich my life. You may prefer other methods but the study of Taoist philosophy or any other similar theories is essential.

4. Meditation: You can follow any techniques but you have to spend time keeping your attention inside your body. Thatís what animals and our ancestors did but we have forgotten how because of the pressures of modern civilization. Your body needs your attention to balance itself and to fight diseases. The breathing practice Chi Kong is designed for this purpose though other techniques may work as well.

5. Try to Harmonize Your Social Circle According to Taoist Principles: Simplicity, equality, and Oneness. It is impossible to establish an isolated Taoist primary society for us to live in but we can at least try to improve our social environment. The influence and distractions of modern society surround us and pressure us. It is a most tiring task if we keep fighting against them and neglect to enlighten our mind.

The ultimate goal of Taoist life cultivation is the obtainment of Tao and to transform ourselves from a secular man to a real man. Buddhism emphasizes that everybody has a Buddha nature and can suddenly come to enlightenment. If we can come back to our born nature and block away the influences and attractions of secondary society, we will have the Tao with us and become real persons.

 







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