Return to the main gate




University Of Virginia's
Religious Movements

Return To The UVa Menu


| Profile | History | Beliefs | Deities | Influence In The West | Links | Bibliography |

I. Group Profile

    1. Name : Taoism
    2. Founder : Lao-tzu
    3. Date of Birth : 551 B.C.E.
    4. Birth Place : China
    5. Year Founded : 440 C.E.
    6. Sacred or Revered Texts :The most recognized Taoist text is the Tao Te Ching, "The Way of Power," or "The Book of the Way." It is believed to have been written by Lao-Tse but there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the authorship. Most scholars today believe that the Tao Te Ching wasn't written until about 300 to 250 B.C.E. Recent studies even suggest that the Tao Te Ching may have actually been written within a circle of scholarly men. 1 The Tao Te Ching describes the nature of life, the way to peace, and how a ruler should lead his life. The book itself is very short. It is only 5000 characters contained in 81 chapters. The Tao Te Ching is divided into two parts: the Tao-ching and the Te-ching. Very early in history it is possible that these two texts existed individually, however, at some time they were translated together and remain this way today.

      Chuang-tzu (named after its author) is the second most recognized Taoist text. The Chuang-tzu contains additional teachings relevent to Taoism. It describes Taoist philosophy in greater detail as well as relays stories of Taoist masters and disciples. The Chuang-tzu highlights techniques that focus on breathing, meditation, sexual activity, and diet. The Chuang-tzu is organized into three sections. It is not clear as to when this text was written however estimates are that it was written, sometime in the fourth century B.C.E. 2

      Two other texts, the T'ai-p'ing Ching, "Classic of the Great Peace," and the Pao P'u Tzu, "Master Embracing Simplicity," are also recognized as part of the Taoist canon. Both of these texts were written in the third and fourth centuries. These texts elaborate ways for Taoists to obtain immortality by concocting magical potions, adhe ring to special diets, engaging in sexual activity, and by studying alchemical substances. 3

    7. Cult or Sect : Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.
    8. Size of Group : 20 million world wide 4

II. History

    The history of the Taoist tradition is both ancient and rich. The first records of Taoism can be traced back to the Warring States of China (481-221 B.C.E.). 5 During this time Taoism was considered to be a combination of philosophy and psychology. 6 This philosophy grew out of several different philosophies that were also developing during this time, one being Confucianism. Lao Tzu, "Old Master," the founder of Taoism, is considered to be the author of the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu based all of his teachings on this book. It is believed that in his creation of the Taoist philosophy, Lao Tzu hoped to put an end to the feudal warfare and other conflicts that were present in China at the time. The writings in the Tao Te Ching focus mainly on the nature of life, the path to peace, and the ways that a ruler should lead his life.

    The Tao Te Ching and later the Chaung tzu laid the ground work for philosophical Taoism. This philosophy came to dominate the imperial courts throughout most parts of China until about the second century when a religious form of Taoism appeared in the province of Szechuan.

    Religious Taoism was started when Chiang Ling claimed that he had received a revelation from Lao Tzu which instructed him to implement Lao Tzu's "orthodox and sole doctrine of the authority of the covenant." Upon his death, it is said that Chiang Ling ascended to Heaven where he earned the title Heavenly Master. After he obtained this title, a succession of followers who were also called Heavenly Masters founded an independent organization to instruct the faithful on the works of Lao Tzu. The main tenets of their teachings were on the right actions and good works. 7 In about 215 C.E. Chiang Ling's grandson was the first to have Taoism recognized as an organized religion.

    Often, Heavenly Masters were able to acquire persuasive roles within the Chinese court system. They acted as intermediaries between the ruler and the people. 8 By 300 C.E. most of the powerful families in northern China had become adherents to religious Taoism.

    As religious Taoism spread, the Heavenly Masters began practicing increasingly diverse and elaborate ceremonies and rituals. Despite religious Taoism's widespread success it failed to establish a central authority. As a result, religious Taoism broke into many sects. While all of the sects looked back to Lao Tzu, they all placed a different emphasis on the scriptures and observed independent ritualistic ceremonies. As a result of the number of sects, religious Taoism has experienced a large loss of followers. 9

    The end of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1911 brought about the end of state support for Taoism. During this time a great deal of the Taoist heritage was destroyed as a result of warlordism that was going on. "The new government put monks to manual labor, confiscated temples, and plundered treasure. Several million monks were reduced to fewer than 50,000" by 1960. 10

    When the Communist Party gained control of China in 1949 religious freedom again was severely hampered. The Taoist tradition was further challenged during the cultural revolution in China from 1966 to 1976. During the revolution much of the remaining Taoist heritage that had been saved during the first battle was destroyed. During his reign, Deng Xiao-ping (China's head of state) was able to restore some religious tolerance in China. These efforts are continued today by the current President of China, Jiang Zemin. 11

    Today Taoism has approximately 20 million followers around the world. Scholars believe that about 30,000 Taoists live in North America. 12 In the United States the impact of Taoism is significant in the fields of acupuncture, holistic medicine, herbalism, meditation, and the martial arts.

    Taoism became one of the three great religions of China along with Buddhism and Confucianism. The Taoist philosophy continues to have a major influence in the daily lives of people throughout Asia. Religious Taoism, however, is not nearly as widespread as it once was. Only in Taiwan where in recent years Religious Taoism has experienced a renaissance, is it still widely practiced. 13

III. Beliefs of the Group

    The term Taoism refers to the school that focuses on the significance of the Tao. Most scholars, however, use the word Tao in different contexts. Even individual Taoists are likely to define the Tao in different terms. 14 As a result, one of the most difficult tasks is determining the specific beliefs of Taoists. Because the tradition is so ancient, and is linked so closely with Confucianism, it can be difficult to distinguish the individual beliefs. Often a person is likely to consider themselves a Taoist and a Confucian. 15

    It is clear, however, that the main tenet of Taoism is the belief in Tao. It is difficult to translate the exact meaning of Tao into English. In the most general terms it can be translated as the path or the way. The Tao is the path that one must follow in life. From this perspective it is a code of behavior. The Tao is the natural order of all things and is based on the principles of Yin and Yang. Primarily speaking, however, Taoists believe that Tao is the universal life force or the underlying nature of all things that exist in the world. 16

    Taoism is a polytheistic religion. Each of the gods is believed to be a manifestation of some aspect of the Tao. Taoists, however, do not pray to any of these gods. Unlike Christianity, for example, Taoist gods are not personified. There is no god that can solve any of life's problems. Rather, Taoists seek the solutions to life's problems through personal meditation and observation.

    According to the Tao Te Ching the basic problem that we all face is that we do not know who we truly are. According to Taosim we humans are part of a cosmic process known as the Tao. In life our fundamental choice is to either acknowledge this reality and let ourselves become one with the Tao, or to resist what we are and attempt to establish our own separate identities outside of the Tao. 17

    Taoists believe that the world that we experience is the manifestation of the unmanifest Tao. The pattern of the Tao is one of return. In other words, it is a process of coming into being, maturing, and then decaying and returning to the Tao. Everyting in the world is a part of this constant cycle. All things possess their own te or destiny. When this te is not opposed it will naturally manifest itself in the process of life. 18

    The idea of nonaction as representing the natural course of things is a fundamental belief of Taoism. 19 Nonaction is not to say that Taoists subscribe to passive activities. This idea of nonaction refers mainly to the constant interaction of Yin and Yang which are believed to govern the behavior of all things. Yin and Yang are considered to be complimentary aspects of the Tao that create natural order in the world. Yin is a feminine energy. It is thought of as the breath that formed the earth. It is represented by cold, evil, dark, and negative principles. Yang is masculine energy. It is thought of as the breath that formed the heavens. It is characterized by warmth, good, light, and positive principles. It is important to note that without Yin there is no Yang and without Yang there is no Yin. Everything in nature must have both Yin and Yang. These two are not polar opposites but identical aspects of the same idea. 20

    The idea that opposite sides always transform into each other is the philosophical foundation of Lao Tzu's methodology. It is also an aspect of Wu Wei. 21 The highest virtue of Taoism is to never act but to leave nothing undone. The concept of nonaction, or Wu Wei is another of the main concepts of Taoism. It refers to doing things so that it appears that a person is making no effort to accomplish the goal. By adhering to the principle of Wu Wei, a person is thought to be closely following the way. A person who lives by Wu Wei has returned to his or her original nature, before he or she was tampered with by knowledge. This state is likened to that of an uncarved block and is referred to as Pu. 22 Lao Tzu believed that Wu Wei would lead to a peaceful and harmonious society. 23

    Taoists believe that man is a microcosm for the universe. They believe that the body corresponds with the plan of the universe. The five organs of the body correspond to the five directions, the five holy mountains, the sections of the sky, the seasons, and the elements. Taoists believe that by understanding man a person can comprehend the ultimate structure of the universe. 24

    Taoists believe that there are three jewels, or characteristics, that all Taoists should live by. These jewels are stated in the Tao Te Ching. The three jewels are compassion, moderation and humility. This compassion ultimately leads to courage, moderation leads to generosity, and humility leads to leadership. All these are necessary to return to the Tao.

    The ultimate goal of Taoism is to become one with the Tao. For humans, this means leading a natural and simple life. 25 Clutter from outside is thought to influence and obstruct a person's understanding of the Tao. However, being in harmony with the Tao allows the person to return to the original state of all things and become the Tao. 26

IV. Deities

    Because Taoism is a polytheistic religion there is not one single god to worship or honor. Religious adherents often choose one of many gods that is especially useful at a particular time. I have chosen some of the main deities worshipped in Taoist temples by the various Taoist sects. Each of these deities represents different qualities. They all have different attributes and are worshiped at various ceremonies throughout the year.

    Yu-huang -- Jade Emperor Yu-huang is considered the foremost deity of popular Taoism. He is the ruler of Heaven. He is also considered to be the ruler of all the other gods who in turn must report to him. His main purpose is to monitor the heavenly administration. Every year he observes the performance of all the gods. Based on their performance Yu-huang gives out rewards or promotions, and punishments or demotions. 27

    Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun -- The First Principle is believed that Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun existed before the creation of the universe. In contrast to the universe which is in a constantly changing state of creation and destruction, Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun is eternal and imperishable. When a new creation of the universe occurs, he descends to earth letting mankind know about the secrets of the Tao. He is never worshipped in solitude, but always as the central member of the trinity. 28

    San-ch'ing -- Three Pure Ones. These are the highest deities of Taoism. Pure is referring to the three heavens in which they are believed to live. The Three Pure Ones are said to be different manifestations of Lao-tzu. Their main goal is to save mankind by teaching kindness. The Three Pure Ones are: Yu-ching -- The Jade Pure Shang-ch'ing - - The Higher Pure T'ai-ch'ing -- The Grand Pure. 29

    San-kuan -- Three Officials. The Three Officials are in charge of the three offices of heaven, earth, and the waters under the earth. 30

    San-yuan -- Three Primordials. These are the three supreme deities that "created" the cosmos. 31

    Pa-hsien -- Eight Immortals. The Eight Immortals are a group of legendary figures that are prominent in Taoism. According to popular Taoist lore, the Eight Immortals were selected as distinguished exemplars of world-transcendent, freely wandering sages who had reached their state of human perfection through various practices such as meditation and ascetic life. 32 The Eight Immortals are Chung-li Ch'uan, Ho Hsien-ku, Chang Kou-lao, Lu Tung-pin, Han Hsiang-tzu, Ts'ao Kuo-chiu, Li T'ieh-kuai, and Lan Ts'ai-ho.

V. Influence In The West

    Taoism has influenced people around the world. Today, it is believed that there are 30,000 practicing Taoists in North America. The effects of Taoism can be seen in American culture in various holistic approaches to medicine such as acupuncture and herbalism, certain exercises and martial arts such as Tai-chi, and other art forms such as feng-shui. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism by Fritjof Capra is perhaps one of the most frequently cited texts. Additionally, there has also been a great movement of self improvement and self help books that use Taoism as their main philosophies. Books such as "The Tao of Pooh" and "The Te of Piglet" by Benjamin Hoff have also helped to popularize the main tenets of Taoism and apply them to a western style of living.


VI. Links to Taoist Web Sites

Taoism Information Page
University of Florida scholar Gene Thursby provides access to an abundance of Taoism resources from this page.

Taoism--History, Beliefs, and Practices
This link provides a concise summary of the main beliefs and history of Taoism.

The Taoist Restoration Society
"The Taoist Restoration Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation and rebirth of China's Taoist tradition." This site provides a thoughtful look at the Taoist tradition and provides many other resources.

Encyclopedia Britannica
The online version of Encyclopedia Britannica provides an brief overview of many of the main tenants of the Taoist tradition.,5716,108170%2B1,00.html

Tao Te Ching
An attractive introduction to the core beliefs by Tao by Jeff Rasmussen, author of The Spirit of Tao Te Ching .

Daoism Depot
Daoism Depot gives an overview of the Taoist tradition. This site also discusses some related topics such as Feng Shui and Tai Ji Quan.

This site provides a translation of the Tao Te Ching as well as the Chuang Tzu. It also provides links to other web sites with information about Taoism and Tai Chi.

Taoism and the Philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan
The basic ideas of Tai Chi are explained by way of understanding Taoist basic principles. It briefly explains history, practices, and beliefs. This site also includes links to additional books and web resources.

Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for A Modern World
This site aims to give the reader some basic information about the history of Taoism and explain its appeal to the Western world.

Belief Net
Beliefnet is a for-profit organization that aims to "provide a safe and exciting place to explore your own spiritual path." This site provides basic information as well as other features such as columns, message boards, and audio clips.

Tao Te Ching
Translation of the Tao Te Ching by Charles Muler, a Professor in the Humanities Department at Toyo Gakuen University in Chiba, Japan.

Yin and Yang
This site provides some basic information about the concept of Yin and Yang.

The Major World Religions
This site provides a brief over view of the major world religions. Taoism is included.

Sinophilia Homepage - Religion
This home page is dedicated to various Chinese traditions including religion, art, history, language, and culture.

Taoist Studies in the World Wide Web
This site thoughtfully organizes links to many different web sites regarding Taoist studies.

Center for Traditional Taoist Studies
The focus of this site is to provide the public with "authentic Taoist teachings." It is an online temple that people can join. A person, however, may use the site without becoming a member.

  • VII. Bibliography

    Chan, Wing-tsit. 1963.
    "The Way of Lao Tzu, a Translation and Study of the Tao Te Ching." Indianapolis, New York: Bobbs-merrill.
    Ch'u, Ta-Kao. 1937.
    "Tao Te Ching: A New Translation." London, New York: The Buddhist Lodge.
    Cooper, J.C. 1981.
    "Yin and Yang: The Taoist Harmony of Opposites." Wellingborough: Aquarian Press.
    Clarke, J.J. 2000.
    "The Tao of the West." New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.
    Graham, A.C. 1981.
    "Chuang-Tzu: The Seven Inner Chapters." London: George Allen & Unwin.
    Hoff, Benjamin. 1983.
    "The Tao of Pooh." New York: Penguin Books.
    Kaltenmark, Max. 1969.
    "Lao Tzu and Taoism." Stanford: Stanford University Press.
    Kohn, Livia. 1998.
    "God of the Dao: Lord Lao in History and Myth." Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.
    Levinson, David. 1996.
    "Religion A Cross Cultural Encyclopedia." New York: Oxford University Press.
    Occhiogrosso, Peter. 1991.
    "The Joy of Sects." New York: Doubleday. Young, William A.
    Pas, Julian F. 1998.
    "Historical Dictionary of Taoism." Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
    Sharma, Arbind. 1993.
    "Our Religions." San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
    Smith, Huston. 1991.
    "The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions." San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
    Young, William A. 1995.
    "The World's Religions." Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

    • Footnotes
    1. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p195.
    2. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 87-89.
    3. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 141-143.
    5. Levinson, David. Religion A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia p 245.
    6. Taoism
    7. Levinson, David. Religion A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia p 245.
    8. Levinson, David. Religion A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia p 245.
    9. Levinson, David. Religion A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia p 245.
    10. Taoism
    11. Taoism
    12. Taoism
    13. Levinson, David. Religion A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia p 245.
    14. Sharma, Arvind. Our Religions p 231.
    15. Taoism
    16. Kaltenmark, Max. Lao Tzu and Taoism p 22.
    17. Young, William A. The World's Religions p 188.
    18. Young, William A. The World's Religions p 189.
    19. Young, William A. The World's Religions p 189.
    21. Sharma, Arvind. Our Religions p 231.
    23. Sharma, Arvind. Our Religions p 231.
    25. Young, William A. The World's Religions p 190.
    26. Young, William A. The World's Religions p 190.
    27. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 184-185.
    28. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 373-374.
    29. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 117-119.
    30. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 338-339.
    31. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 117-119.
    32. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 334-335.
    33. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 117-119.
    34. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 337-338.
    35. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 117-119.
    36. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 117-119.
    37. Pas, Julian F. Historical Dictionary Of Taoism p 117-119.

    Created by Lindsey Desmond
    For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
    University Of Virginia
    Fall Term, 2000
    Last modified: 03/19/01
  •  .