{dow' - izm}

(6th Century BC)

General Information

Tao means 'the Way' or 'Way of Life.'

Lao - Tse is the supposed author of the Tao Te Ching, a small book containing the main tenets of Taoism. The book is divided into two parts, the Tao and the Tek, and is subdivided into 81 chapters. He was a contemporary of Confucius, who visited him several times and who was deeply impressed by the spirituality and humility of Lao - Tse.

'All things originate from Tao, conform to Tao, and to Tao they at last return.'

Lao - Tse taught a belief in transmigration of souls, which got absorbed into Taoism, Confucianism and the other Eastern religions as reincarnation.

Where Confucianism is rather practical, Taoism is largely negative in its teachings and emphasizes pacifism, mysticism, and the importance of non - activity.

Taoism taught its believers to cast aside worldly pleasures, honors, and glory and to be content with their lot. Later on, Taoism came to be a religion of spirits and ancestor worship far removed from the original simple teachings. A priesthood arose, shrines and temples were erected, and an elaborate system composed of magic, charms, and spells was developed.

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In principle, Taoism suggests not striving for 'the best', which theoretically is never attainable. Just accept 'good enough' and be contented and happy. Taoism teaches simplicity, frugality and love of the soil. Extensive education was not sought in Taoism as in Confucianism.

Three stages of religious growth occurred. The first, eremital, involved abstention from too much food, deep breathing, and learning rules for longevity. (up to about 200 BC)

The second, the magical, lasted from 200 BC to 200 AD. Taoists developed fortunetelling and exorcism.

The third, the ecclesiastical, is a church - like phase up to today. Taoism took over many of the gods of Buddhism over the years as well as other conventions. Lao Tse was deified along with Pan Ku and Yu Huang Shanti who became the Trinity that corresponds to the Three Jewels of Buddhism.


{dow' - izm}

Advanced Information

The term Taoism refers both to the philosophy outlined in the Tao Te Ching (identified with Lao - Tzu) and to China's ancient Taoist religion. Next to Confucianism, it ranks as the second major belief system in traditional Chinese thought.

Taoist Philosophy

The formulation of Taoist philosophy is attributed to Lao - Tzu (fl. 6th or 4th century BC) and Chuang - Tzu (c. 369 - c. 286 BC) as well as the Lieh - tzu (compiled during the Han dynasty, 202 BC - 220 AD). Three doctrines are particularly important: Tao (way) is nonbeing (wu), the creative - destructive force that brings everything into being and dissolves everything into nonbeing; return (fu) is the destiny of everything - that is, everything, after completing its cycle, returns to nonbeing; and nonaction (wu wei), or action in harmony with nature, is the best way of life. Chuang - tzu taught that, from a purely objective viewpoint, all oppositions are merely the creations of conceptual thought and imply no judgments of intrinsic value (one pole is no more preferable than its opposite). Hence the wise person accepts life's inevitable changes. The Lieh - tzu said that the cultivation of Tao would enable a person to live for several hundred years. Taoism teaches the devotee to lead a long and tranquil life through the elimination of one's desires and aggressive impulses.

Taoist Religion

Often regarded as a corruption of Taoist philosophy, the Taoist religion began in the 3d century BC with such practices as Alchemy (the mixing of elixirs designed to ensure the immortality of the body). The alchemy was carried out by Taoist priest - magicians at the court of Shih Huang - ti of the Ch'in dynasty (221 - 207 BC). These magicians were also acclaimed as spirit mediums and experts in levitation. They were the heirs of the archaic folk religion of China, which had been rejected by the early Confucianists. Among the prominent features of Taoist religion are belief in physical immortality, alchemy, breath control and hygiene (internal alchemy), a pantheon of deities (including Lao - tzu as one of the three Supreme Ones), monasticism and the ritual of community renewal, and revealed scriptures. The Taoist liturgy and theology were influenced by Buddhism. Its scriptures, the Tao - tsang, consist of hundreds of separate works totaling more than 5,000 chapters.

Among the principal Taoist sects to emerge was the Heavenly Master sect, founded in West China in the 2d century AD. It advocated faith healing through the confession of sin and at one time recruited members as soldiers and engaged in war against the government. The Supreme Peace sect, also founded in the 2d century, adopted practices much like those of the Heavenly Master sect and launched a great rebellion that went on for several years before ending in 205 AD. The Mao - shan (Mount Mao) sect, founded in the 4th century, introduced rituals involving both external and internal alchemies, mediumistic practice, and visionary communication with divinities.

The Ling - pao (Marvelous Treasure) sect, also founded in the 4th century, introduced the worship of divinities called T'ien - tsun (Heavenly Lords). The Ch'uan - chen (Completely Real) sect was founded in the 12th century as a Taoist monastic movement. Eventually the Heavenly Master sect absorbed most of the beliefs and practices of the other sects and, in the 20th century, became the most popular Taoist group.

David C Yu

M Chiu, The Tao of the Chinese Religion (1985); G Geng and J English, Lao Tzu: The Tao Te Ching (1979); A C Graham, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters (1981); M Kaltenmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism (1969); S Little, Realm of the Immortals: Daoism in the Arts of China (1988); M Saso, Taoism and the Rite of Cosmic Renewal (1972); R M Smullyan, The Tao Is Silent (1977); A Waley, The Way and Its Power (1958); H Welch, Taoism (1957).

Lao - tzu (Laozi)

{low' - dzu}

General Information

Lao - tzu, or Master Lao, is the name of the supposed author of the Taoist classic Tao - te Ching. According to Taoist legend, Lao - tzu, the founder of Taoism, was named Li Erh and had the courtesy name Lao Tan. An older contemporary of Confucius (551 - 479 BC), he was keeper of the archives at the imperial court. In his 80th year he set out for the western border of China, toward what is now Tibet, saddened and disillusioned that men were unwilling to follow his path to natural goodness. At the border (Hank Pass), however, the guard Yin Hsi requested that Lao - tzu record his teachings before he left, whereupon he composed in 5,000 characters the famous Tao - te Ching (The Way and Its Power).

The essential teaching of Lao - tzu is the Tao, or Way, to ultimate reality - the way of the universe exemplified in nature. The harmony of opposites (T'ai Ch'ai) is achieved through a blend of the yin (feminine force) and the yang (masculine force); this harmony can be cultivated through creative quietude (wu wei), an effortless action whose power (te) maintains equanimity and balance.

W T Chan, trans., The Way of Lao Tsu (Tao te Ching) (1963); H Welch, The Parting of the Way (1957); M Kaltenmark, Lao - Tzu and Taoism (1969).

Tao Te Ching (Daode Jing)

{dow duh jing}

General Information

A philosophical classic by Lao - Tzu, the Tao Te Ching is the single most important text of Chinese Taoism. According to tradition, the sage composed its approximately 5,000 words in the 6th century BC at the request of a gatekeeper who wanted a record of his teachings. The book is now considered to date from the 4th century BC. Laced with richly poetic imagery, it counsels balance, restraint, simplicity, and the avoidance of activity and desire as the means of achieving harmony with the natural currents of the Tao, or universal way. In ancient China Lao - tzu's thoughts rivaled those of Confucius in popularity, and his book has elicited hundreds of commentaries and translations.

Lao - tzu, Tao Te Ching (1964); B B Sims, Lao - tzu and the 'Te Ching' (1971).


Catholic Information


Taoism is the second of the three state religions (San-kiao) of China. This religion is derived from the philosophical doctrines of Lao-tze. "Lao-tze's Taoism", says Legge (Religions of China, 229), "is the exhibition of a way or method of living which men should cultivate as the highest and purest development of their nature". According to De Groot (Religious System of China, IV, p. 66): "Taoism, as the word indicates, is the Religion of the Tao, a term meaning Path or Way, but denoting in this peculiar case the way, course or movement of the Universe, her processes and methods. In other words, Taoism is the Religion of Heaven and Earth, of the Cosmos, of the World or Nature in the broadest sense of these words. Hence we may call it Naturism".

Lao-tze, the equivalent to "the Old or Venerable Philosopher" (if taken as a title of respect), or to "Old Boy" (if literally translated), was born in the third year of Ting Wang, Prince of Chou, i.e. in 604, at K'io-jin, in the Kingdom of Ts'u, today Ho-nan Province. The legend given by Ko Hung in his "Record of Spirits and Immortals" (written in the fourth century A.D.), says that "he was not born till his mother had carried him in her womb seventy-two years or, according to some accounts, eighty-one years". "No wonder", adds Legge (1. c., pp. 203-4) "that the child should have had white hair, - an 'old boy' of about fourscore years!" This date of 604, in accordance with historical tradition, is not given by Sze-ma Ts'ien in the biography which he devoted to the philosopher in his "She-ki" (Historical Memoirs); if this date be accepted, it is difficult to admit of the authenticity of the meeting between Lao-tze and Confucius, 500 B.C.; if the latter was then fifty-one years old according to Chwang-tze, Lao-tze was then one hundred and four years old.

The family name of Lao-tze was Li, his name Eul (meaning "Ear"), his honorary title Pe-yang, and his posthumous name Tan (meaning "Flat-eared"). He was one of the "Sze", recorders, historiographers, keepers of the archives of Lo, the Court of the princes of the Chou dynasty. Foreseeing the decay of this dynasty, he gave up his office, and undertook a journey; at the Han-kou Pass, Ho-nan Province, the watchman, Yin Hi, begged him to write his thoughts for his own instruction before he retired from the world; consequently, Lao-tze wrote his work in two parts in the Tao and the Te, and having entrusted it to Yin Hi, he disappeared; the time of the death of the philosopher is not known. Lao-tze had a son Called Tsung who was a general of the Kingdom of Wei and who obtained the grant of land at Twan-kan. His son named Chu had himself a child Kung; Hia, grandson of Kung, was an official under Emperor Hiao-wen-ti, of the Han dynasty. Kiai, son of Hia, became a minister of K'iang, King of kiao-si, and, owing to this circumstance, settled with his family in the Kingdom of Ts'i.

This story is too matter of fact and lacks the marvellous legend which should surround the person of the chief of a new religion. Legend was provided for. Ko Hung, already mentioned, had placed the legend of Lao-tze at the beginning of the "Shon-sion-ch'-wan" (Records of Spirits and Immortals), and he says: "His mother carried him after the emotion she felt in seeing a large shooting star. He received from Heaven the vital breath; as he was born in a house whose proprietor was called Li (Pear tree), so he was named Li". Some authors say that Lao-tze was born before heaven and earth. According to others, he possessed a pure soul emanated from heaven, He belonged to the Class of spirits and gods. The chief work of Lao-tze, in fact the only one which has been ascribed to him with some probability, is the "Tao-teh-king". In the "China Review" (March-April, 1886), Dr. Herbert A. Giles wrote a sensational article, "The Remains of Lao Tzu", to show by various arguments that the "Tao-teh-king" is a spurious work and that its now spurious portions have been mostly mistranslated. It was the starting-point of a controversy in which Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Legge, Dr. Edkins, and some other sinologues took part. The authenticity of the work has been admitted by most of them. Wylie says (Notes on Chinese Literature, new ed., p. 216): "The only work which is known to be truly the production of Lao Keun is the 'Taòu tih king', which has maintained its reputation and secured a popularity to a certain extent among reading men generally of every denomination." Legge writes (Religions of China, p. 203): "No other writing has come down to us from the pencil of Lâo-tsze, its author", and (Brit. Quart. Rev., July, 1883, p. 9): "We know that Lao Tzu wrote the 'Tao Tê Ching'", and (p. 11): "The 'Tao Tê Ching' is a genuine relic of one of the most original minds of the Chinese race, putting his thoughts on record 2400 years ago." The German E. Faber (China Rev., XIII, 241) says that "there is little room left for doubts regarding the authenticity of our Canon."

Besides the "Tao-teh-king" a good many works treat of Taoism: the "Yin-fu-king-kiai" which professes to be an exposition of the oldest Taoist record in existence; "Ts'ing-tsing-king" (The Book of Purity and Rest); the "T'ai-hsi-king" (Respiration of the Embryo); the "T'ai-shang-Kan-ying-pien" (Tractate of Actions and their Retributions).

The chief Taoist philosophers are: Tsou-yuen (400 B. C.), author of a work on the influences of the five ruling elements, influenced by Buddhist doctrines; Kweiku-tze (380 B. C.), a mystic, astrologer, and fortune-teller; Ho-kwan-tze (325-298 B.C.), an orthodox Confucianist when writing on jurisprudence, a Taoist in other writings; Chwang-tze (330 B. C.), the author of the "Nan-hua" classic, the adversary to Mencius, and according to Eitel "the most original thinker China ever produced"; Shi-tze (280 B. C.), a Taoist writer, influenced by the heterodox philosopher, Yang-chu (450 B. C.), the Apostle of Selfishness; the statesman Han-feitze (250 B. C.); Liu-ngan or Hwai-nan-tze (died 112 B. C.), a cosmogonist. But the first disciples of Lao-tze were Kang-sang-tze (570-543 B. C.), the first expositor of Taoism as a distinct system, the sceptic Li-tze (500 B. C.), and Wen-tze (500 B. C.). The historian Sze-ma-ts'ien speaking of Chwang-tze says: "He wrote with a view to asperse the Confucian school and to glorify the mysteries of Lao Tze. . . His teachings are like an overwhelming flood, which spreads at its own sweet will. Consequently, from rulers and ministers downwards, none could apply them to any definite use." Giles (Chinese Literature, 60) concludes from this passage: "Here we have the key to the triumph of the Tao of Confucius over the Tao of Lao Tze. The latter was idealistic, the former a practical system for every-day use."

As De Groot observes (l. s. c., IV, 67): "Taoism being fundamentally a religion of the Cosmos and its subdivisions, old Chinese Cosmogony is its Theogony. It conceives the Universe as one large organism of powers and influences, a living machine, the core of which is the Great Ultimate Principle or T'ai-kih, comprising the two cosmic Breaths or Souls, known as the Yang and the Yin, of which, respectively, Heaven and Earth are the chief depositories. These two souls produce the four seasons, and the phenomena of Nature represented by the lineal figures called kwa". In fact the Yang and the Yin produce by the power of their co-operation all that exists, man included. Ancient Chinese philosophy attributes to man two souls:

The shen, or immaterial soul, emanates from the ethereal, celestial part of the Cosmos, and consists of yang substance. When operating actively in the living human body, it is called k'i or 'breath', and kwun; when separated from it after death, it lives as a refulgent spirit, styled ming.

The kwei, the material, substantial soul, emanates from the terrestrial part of the Universe, and is formed of yin substance. In living man it operates under the name of p'oh and on his death it returns to the Earth" (De Groot, IV, p. 5).

Thus the kwei is buried with the man and the shen lingers about the tomb. Marking the distinction between the two souls, there existed in the legendary period, according to the "Li-ki", a sacrificial worship to each soul separately: the hwun or k'i returns to heaven, the p'oh returns to earth. These two souls are composite; in fact all the viscera have a particular shen. "There are medical authors who ascribe to man an indefinite number of souls or soul-parts, or, as they express. it, a hundred shen. Those souls, they say, shift in the body according to the age of the owner; so, e.g. when he is 25, 31, 68 or 74, and older they dwell in his forehead, so that it is then very dangerous to have boils or ulcers there, because effusion of the blood would entail death. At other times of life they nestle under the feet or in other parts and limbs, and only in the 21st, 38th, 41st, and 50th years of life they are distributed equally through the body, so that open abscesses, wherever they appear, do not heal then at all. Such pathologic nonsense regulates, of course, medical practice to a high degree" (De Groot, IV, p. 75). The liver, the lungs, and the kidneys correspond to the spring, to the autumn, to the winter, as well as to the east, the west, and the north. The soul may be extracted from a living man; the body may still live when left by the soul, for instance during sleep; the soul of a dead man may be reborn into other bodies. Ghosts may enter into relation with the living, not only in dreams, but they may take revenge on their enemies.

At the head of the Taoist Pantheon is a trinity of persons:

Yuen-shi-t'ien-tsun, "the honoured one of heaven, first in time", residing in "the jade-stone region", who created the three worlds;

Ling-pan-t'ien-tsun, "the honored one of heaven who is valued and powerful", residing in the "upper pure region", collector of the sacred books, calculator of the succession of time, and the regulator of the two principles yin and yang;

Lao-tze himself, who exposed to mankind the doctrines uttered by the first person in the trinity and collected in the form of books by the second.

Next come: Yuh-hwang-ta-ti, "the great jade-stone emperor", who governs the physical universe; Hen-t'u-hwang-ti-k'i, "Spirit of imperial earth, ruler of the soil"; the star gods, whose lord (sing-chu) resides in a star near the pole; T'ien-hwang-ta-ti, who lives in the pole star, etc.; Liu-tsu, the "father of thunder". "While he discourses on doctrine, his foot rests on nine beautiful birds. He has under him thirty-six generals, t'ien tsiang" (Edkins, "Journ. North China Br. Roy. Asiat. Soc.," III, Dec., 1859, p. 311); the sun and moon; the San-yuen or San-kwan, "the three rulers" who preside over three departments of physical nature, heaven, earth, and water; Hiuen-kien-shang-ti, "high emperor of the dark heaven", who is described as the model of the true ascetic. He has transformed himself eighty-two times to become the instructor of men in the three national religions (Edkins, l. c., p. 312). A number of personages were worshipped under the name of tsu, patriarchs. Confucius himself has a place assigned him among the deities of this religion, and he is addressed as "the honoured one of heaven who causes literature to flourish and the world to prosper" (Edkins). Some men have been worshipped as gods after their death: Kwan-ti, the god of war; Hu-tsu, a physician; a medical divinity, Ko-tsu Sa-tsu ; etc.

One may well ask how the pure abstract doctrine of Lao-tze was turned into a medley of alchemical researches, a practice of witchcraft, with the addition of Buddhist superstitions, which constitute today what is called Tao-kiao, the religion or the teaching of Tao. This was the work of a legendary being, Chang Tao-ling, a descendant of the eighth generation of Chang Leang, a celebrated advisor of Liu-pang, founder of the Han dynasty. He was born in the tenth year of the Emperor Kwang Wu-ti (A. D. 34) in a cottage of a small village of the Che-kiang Province, at the foot of the T'ien-mu-Shan, in the Hang-chou Prefecture. At an early age Chang studied the works of Lao-tze to which he added researches of alchemy, a science aiming at "prolonging life beyond the limits assigned by nature". He found the drug of immortality, and by order of Lao-tze he destroyed the six great demons of the province; Lao-tze gave him also two books, two swords, one male, one female, a seal Called Tu-kung, etc. Chang gave his swords and books to his son Heng, bidding him to continue his pontificate from generation to generation. At noon on the seventh day of the first moon of the second year Yung-shou of the Han Emperor Heng (A. D. 157), Tao-ling ascended the Cloudy Mountain (Yun-shan) with his wife and two disciples, and with them disappeared into heaven. Chang Heng, son of Chang Tao-ling, continued his father's tradition both in spiritual and alchemical researches, and Chang Lu the grandson, played an important part in the Yellow Cap Rebellion at the beginning of the Han dynasty. During the fifth century A. D., when the Wei dynasty was ruling in Northern China, a certain K'iu Kien-che tried to substitute himself to the Chang family and received in 423 from the emperor the title of T'ien-shi, "Preceptor of Heaven", which formerly belonged to Tao-ling. In 748 the T'ang Emperor Hiuen-Tsung conferred this title upon the heirs of the latter, and a grant of a large property near Lung-hu Shan was made to them in 1016 by the Sung Emperor Chen-Tsung. Heredity in the charge of high priest of the cult was secured to the descendants of Chang by the transmigration of the soul of Tao-ling's successor, at the time of his demise, to the body of a junior member of the family, whose selection is indicated by a supernatural phenomenon.

To-day, at the head of the Taoist hierarchy is the Cheng-i-sze-kiao-chen-jen, "Heir to the founder of the Taoist sect"; this title was conferred by the Ming dynasty upon Chang Cheng-shang, descendant from Chang Tao-ling of the thirty-ninth generation. This title "belongs, by an hereditary privilege, to the firstborn descending in a direct line from Chang Tao-ling. He lives upon the Lung-hu Mountain, in the Kiang-si Province. His office consists in using his magical art to frighten demons away, to baffle diabolical influence, and to refrain the evil-doing souls of the dead. He names the new Ch'eng-hwang, 'tutelary deities of the cities', and for a fee, he gives to Taoists titles permitting them to celebrate the ceremonies with more solemnity" (P. Hoang, "Mélanges sur l'Administration", 34). In the capital of the empire the Taoist priesthood includes: two Tao-lu-sze, superiors, a title corresponding with that of the Buddhists, seng-lu-sze; two Cheng-i, Taoists of right simplicity; two Yen-fa, ritual Taoists; two Che-ling, Taoists of great excellence, thaumaturgus; and two Che-i, Taoists of great probity, an inferior class of priests. In the provinces at the head of the priesthood are: Tao-ki-sze Ton-ki, superior of the Taoists of a fu (prefectute), and Tao-ki-sze Fou Ton-ki, vice-superior of the Taoists of a fu; Tao-cheng, superior of the Taoists of a chou or a t'ing; Tao-hwei, superior of the Taoists of a hien. The superiors are appointed by the governors-general (tsung-tu), or by the governors (fu-t'ai), on the presentation of the prefect of sub-prefect of the chou, t'ing, or hien.

Publication information Written by Henri Cordier. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

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