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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 7

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


Taoism, which literally means the religion of the “Way” (Tao), has had the most chequered career of the three main religious cultures of China. According to its own historians, it once commanded respect from the nation’s leaders, until Confucianism replaced it as the guardian of the State. For a time, too, it appealed to the simple and uncultured people, but then Buddhism came along to win the alliance of the masses. Its final and present stage is an elaborate complex of polytheism, whose priests are regarded as the most expert magicians and exorcists, yet whose philosophy has won the admiration of Western scholars.

Historians of China regard Taoism as perhaps the most characteristic of the Chinese people. In its fundamental concept, Taoism has always been a worship of nature inside and outside of man, and an attempted harmony between the two. The perfect man, in Taoist language, is not the person who obstructs nature, but who gives himself completely over to nature, thereby producing what some have called the highest ethical standards of the Chinese character, and others a repudiation of all objective law.

Since Taoism has never been independent of Confucian and Buddhist influences, it is more accurate to speak of a Taoist emphasis than of a particular set of doctrines and practices. Nevertheless certain features of faith and worship are sufficiently distinctive to qualify one out of ten native Chinese as a professed Taoist, with the other nine also deeply affected by the same philosophy of life.

Origins and Development

The historical beginnings of Taoism are obscure. Its reputed founder was Li-poy-yang, which his followers changed to Lao-Tze (Old Master) as a title of respect. His birth is assigned to 604 B.C., or fifty-three years before Confucius. If this were correct, the tradition about Confucius rebuking him “for his proud airs and many desires” should be discarded.

More significant, however, is the claim that Lao-Tze wrote the bible of Taoism, the Tao Teh Ching (Classic of the Way and Virtue), which modern writers normally assign to a much later date and trace to a gradual development by way of reaction or counterpoised to early Confucianism. Actually three men are held to be responsible for the rise of Taoism: the legendary compiler of the Tao Teh Ching, a naturalist philosopher, Yang Chu (440-366 B.C.), and the “Chinese Nietzche,” Chuang Tzu, who died about 295 B.C.

Yang Chu was neither a hedonist nor a pure subjectivist, as orthodox Confucianists later dubbed him. Yet, unlike Confucius, who stressed devotion to one’s ancestors and society as the ideal of human conduct, Yang was an individualist who was unwilling “to pluck out a single hair even if it might have benefited the whole world.” Personal integrity and self-protection, “to live as long as possible,” were the main tenets of his school.

Chuang Tzu operated on a different level. His concern was mainly speculative, to develop a theory of existence that might explain all reality. According to Chuang, the Tao produced all things and is, in fact, the ground of all things and in all things. He advocated man’s unity with the universe as the answer to life’s problems. A contemporary of Mencius, the great interpreter of Confucianism, Chuang opposed the latter for accentuating statecraft and ethics, and creating what later became the social construct of a state religion.

Still another ingredient entered the final composite of Taoism. From the late third century B.C. arose the Yin Yang theory, which held that all beings are made of two universal energies: Yin (dark, evil, female) and Yang (light, good, male), which unite in varying combinations to produce the noxious and beneficial substances of the world. The secret is to discover which have Yin and which Yang, and to use them accordingly.

Under pressure from a competitive Buddhism, the followers of Tao towards the end of the second century A.D. began copying Buddhist methods and policy. They gradually built up a strong ecclesiastical cultus, with a ruling hierarchy, a pantheon of gods and lesser spirits, and an elaborate ritual. By the fifth century, two Taoist leaders, Tao Sheng and Hui Yuan, revolted against the ritualistic Buddhism of their day and contributed to the emergence of a sect that had much in common with the Quakers, professing belief in an Inner Light and advocating the practice of sustained contemplation.

Hui Yuan is likewise credited with developing the Pure Land or Amida sect, in which merit is gained by the simple repetition of faith in Amida, one of the Buddhist deities worshiped by the Mahayana. This easy practice opened the prospects of a future happy life to the Chinese coolie and the peasant, as much as to the learned philosopher. Centuries later the cultus of Amidaism penetrated into Japan and, along with Zen, swept away many of the older and more formal sects.

A popular Taoist movement known as “Five Bushel Rice Taoism” arose some time during the second century after Christ. The acknowledged leader was Chang Ling, a follower of Zoroastrianism, who organized his co-religionists into a well-knit society, modeled on Mazdaism. Believers were taxed five bushels of rice, they worshiped Tao in place of Ahura Mazda, and Chinese folk gods instead of the Persian angels. At first the movement served only to consolidate disparate political units in China, but later (184 A. D.) the new Taoists rebelled against the government, and eventually grew into one of the major forces that challenged Confucian bureaucracy. In the fifth century the followers of Chang Ling and the older Taoists merged into an amalgam that survives to the present day.

Basic Principles

The spirit of Taoism is best described in the pages of Lao-Tze’s Book of Tao, which more than almost any other single work of literature can claim to interpret the Orient and epitomize all that is necessary to understand the Chinese religious character. It has been called the first enunciated philosophy of camouflage in the world, teaching the wisdom of appearing foolish, the success of appearing to fail, the strength of weakness and the advantage of lying low, the value of yielding to an adversary and the futility of striving for power.

Concept of Tao

Central to Lao-Tze’s classic is the idea of Tao, a term familiar from pre-Confucian days as meaning the “way,” or “method,” a “course” and “order” or “norm.” To Confucianists it meant the way to heaven, and therefore represented the moral ideal by which a person should guide his life.

While retaining this elementary notion, Taoism invests the term with much deeper significance. The Tao for them has become a symbol for the ineffable first principle of being, at once eternal, immaterial, and all-present, which guides the destinies of men and rules even over the gods.

Tao is all-pervading, and its use is inexhaustible.
Fathomless, like the fountainhead of all things,
Its sharp edges rounded off, its tangles untied,
Its light tempered, its turmoil submerged.
Yet crystal clear like still water it seems to remain.
I do not know whose Son it is,
An image of what existed before God
. [1]

Nothing higher can be known than Tao, and no greater virtue is possible than to live according to the same. “The works of great Virtue follow alone from Tao; “yet for all its indispensability, “the thing that is called Tao is elusive, evasive.” But latent in it are forms and objects, “dark and dim,” and a life-force that is very true. “From the days of old till now, its manifested forms have never ceased, by which we may view the Father of All Things,” whose image the phenomenal world reveals. [2]

Tao is superior to all things, and before all things. “Before the Heaven and Earth existed there was something nebulous: silent, isolated, standing alone, changing not, eternally revolving without fail, worthy to be the Mother of All Things. I do not know its name and address it as Tao. If forced to give it a name, I shall call it ‘Great.’” If other things are also great, like heaven, earth, and the king, their greatness is only borrowed. “Man models himself on the earth, the earth models itself after heaven, the heaven models itself after Tao, But Tao models itself by that which is so by itself.” [3]

Although great beyond compare, Tao is not really transcendent. It is at the same time primordial matter, formative principle, the self-existing, self-acting, homogeneous, omnipresent, boundless and inscrutable, the Real One, beside which the “many” are phenomenal and unreal.

Lao-Tze’s Tao was inherent in the Universal, not in the particular. What is real is the whole and not its parts. As the One, the Tao is not merely the sum total of the Many, but more. “The several parts of the carriage are not the carriage,” which reminds us of the Buddhist speculations in the Hinayana tradition. While producing all things, the Tao is greater than all its products, and is also independent of them. At the same time it is in all and through all and, as some Taoists believe, it is all or is becoming all.

The Great Tao flows everywhere. Like a flood it may go left or right.
All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to them, not one refusing obedience to it. When its work is accomplished, it does not claim the name of having done it.
It clothes all things as with a garment, and makes no assumption of being their lord; it may be named in the smallest things.
Being the home of all things, yet claiming them not, it may be considered great. Because to the end it does not claim greatness, its greatness is achieved. [4]

Meaning of Virtue

Correlative with Tao (way) is Teh (virtue), which derives from the former. In general terms, the whole process of morality and, indeed, all nature, depends on acquiring the One (Tao), each according to its needs. “Through possession of the One, the Heaven is made bright and pure, the earth is made firm and sure, spirits are supplied with powers, valleys are made full, all things live and grow, princes and kings get the model which they give to others. All these are the results of the One (Tao).” [5]

In Taoist language, Teh is the moral expression of the philosophic Tao. It stands as a symbol for the will (or heart) caught in a net and advancing gradually to perfection, where the net means the finite world into which Teh enters as a manifestation of the infinite Tao.

A synthesis of Taoist ethics is found in The Three Treasures, under which title Chinese Buddhism is also known. Lao-Tze admits that “while my Tao is great, everyone says it yet appears to be inferior to other systems of teaching.” Paradoxically, “it is just its greatness that makes it seem to be inferior,” because of the character of the things it calls great.

I have three treasures which I prize and hold fast: the first is Love. The second is, Never too much. The third is, Never be the first in the world.
Through Love, one has no fear; through not doing too much one has enough of reserve power; through not presuming to be the first in the world, one can develop one’s talent and let it mature.
If one forsakes love (gentleness) to become bold, restraint to waste reserve power, and following behind to rush in front, he is dead.
For love is victorious even under attack, and invulnerable in defense. Heaven arms with love those it would not see destroyed. [6]

Kindness and gentleness, therefore, are the first qualities of superior virtue, coupled with humility which does not honor itself, which avoids display and is not self-seeking. Its motto is: If you wish to conquer, be conquered. “There is nothing weaker than water, but none is superior to it in overcoming the hard, for which there is no substitute. Everyone knows that weakness overcomes strength, and gentleness conquers harshness, but no one can put it into practice.” [7]

This gentleness is more than a philosophic mean. It is the virtue of inactivity, the ideal of laissez-faire, as appears from a comparison between two devotees, the one of ordinary learning and the other of Tao. The former aims to increase his knowledge day by day, the latter “seeks from day to day to diminish his doing. He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing on purpose. Have arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing which he does not do.” [8]

There are strong reminiscences in Taoism of Buddha’s moral ideal by canonizing the negation of appetite, while yet promising this-worldly recompense for a man’s self-obscuration.

To yield is to be preserved whole. To be bent is to become straight. To be hollow is to be filled. To be tattered is to be renewed. To be in want is to possess. To have plenty is to be confused.
Therefore the Sage embraces the one thing of humility, and manifests it to all the world. His is free from self-display, and therefore he shines. He does not justify himself, and is therefore far-famed. He does not boast of himself, and therefore people give him credit. He does not pride himself, and is therefore the ruler of men. It is because he does not contend that no one in the world can contend against him. [9]

Of rewards and punishments, Taoism knows little, except in the vaguest terms. If virtue is possessed by the peaceable, since “he who argues Is not a good man,” and wisdom by the ignorant, since “he who knows many things is not wise” --- by the same token the Sage does not accumulate for himself, “he lives for others, and grows richer as a result.” He gives to other people and has greater abundance in return.

Anticipating the later stress on magic and the preternatural, the followers of Tao are promised marvelous gifts, similar to those of children. “Who is rich in virtue is like a child. No poisonous insects sting him, no wild beasts attack him, and no birds of prey pounce upon him. His bones are soft, his sinews tender, yet his grip is strong.” And negatively, “he who is against Tao perishes young.” [10] Centuries of interpretation have elaborated on these sanctions and invested them with graphic meaning that was quite alien to primitive Taoism.

On the walls of the famous Taoist temple at Anking, on the Yang-tze river above Nanking, are numerous inscriptions that hark back to the “Tao of Heaven,” to which Lao-Tze refers only once in his sacred book. “The shelter is wide and large,” one inscription reads, “dreadful, famous, clear and effective, shines upon the hearts of men. The Tao of Heaven both rewards and punishes.” The presiding deity is made to say, “You must know that I am a just god who rewards and punishes.” So “when you look upon the rewards of the chaste and the punishments of adulterers, you will wash your face and clean your heart. You will believe in Tao and turning your boat will reach safe harbor,” by reforming a life of misdeeds. [11]

Taoist philosophy of achievement by inaction is synthesized in its code on the art of government, which bids the ruler abstain from legislating at the risk of making the people lawless. The code distinguishes between governing people by cheng (normal, straight-forward means) and winning a war by ch’i (abnormal and deceitful strategy).

Rule a Kingdom by the Normal.
Fight a battle by abnormal tactics of surprise.
Win the world by doing nothing.
How do I know it is so?
Through this: the more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become.
The more sharp weapons there are, the more prevailing chaos in the state.
The more skills in technique, the more cunning things are produced.
The greater the number of statutes, the greater the number of thieves and brigands.
Therefore the sage says: I do nothing and the people are reformed of themselves.
I love quietude and the people are righteous of themselves.
I deal in no business and the people grow rich of themselves.
I have no desires and the people are simple and honest of themselves.

Underlying what seems to be naïve simplicity is a theory of knowledge that identifies true wisdom with a mystical intuition that eschews if it does not despise human erudition and cunning. “The Ancients,” according to Lao-Tze, “who knew how to follow the Tao aimed not to enlighten the people, but to keep them ignorant.” If there is a conflict among citizens, the reason is that they have been taught too much. “Those who seek to rule a country by knowledge are the nation’s curse. Those who seek not to rule a country by knowledge are the nation’s blessing.” Anyone who knows these two principles, understands the Ancient Standard, “and to know always the Ancient Standard is called the Mystic Virtue. When the Mystic Virtue becomes clear, far-reaching, and things revert back to their course, then and then only emerges the Grand Harmony.” [13]

Practice and Present Status

Since the second century A.D., a segment of Taoism has been organized as a complex of religion and magic, with a supreme Master of Heaven at the head. Chang Tao Ling was founder of this priestly dynasty, whose members until recently had their seat of authority on Dragon Tiger mountain in the province of Kiang-si. Legend had it that each successive ruler received from his predecessor a sacred sword, that was at once a symbol of his office and an instrument of miracle.

The Celestial Master on Dragon Tiger mountain was leader only of the “Principle One” sect, whose belief was centered in the ability of their high priest to transmit to others his own hidden powers over nature. His disciples were furnished with diplomas in the magical arts: making charms against rain, drought and devils, exorcizing evil spirits, and acting as mediums for the souls of the dead. They lived for the most part as married laymen among the people, and differed from the Taoist monks who were celibates in monastic communities, dedicated to meditation ascetical discipline. Often in the history of China, these master sorcerers were summoned by the court to check natural calamities or divine the future prospects of war and political enterprise.

Less notorious but more important was the “Perfecting the True” sect, founded in 1280 by Chiu Chang Chun, who was invited by the emperor to reside with his disciples in the White Cloud temple near Peking. Later this temple became the center of the sect whose teaching follows Lao-Tze very closely by stressing the need for being in harmony with Nature. To become calm and simple, the sect advocates ascetical practices that are quite Manichean in their rigor. Members of the group are all priests who left their homes and adapted a strictly vegetarian diet in monasteries. The “Perfecting the True” sect is the most syncretistic. It seeks to combine Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism into one religion.

Since the beginning of the present century and up to the Communist invasion, Taoist beliefs and practices were also carried on by numerous and mostly secret societies. Among these, the principles of the “Pervading-Unity Tao” sect most closely resemble the Hegelian concept of a dialectic conflict which issues in a new cosmic state. The universe, they believe, will pass through a number of catastrophes marking the end of revolutionary changes. We are at present in the midst of the third catastrophe, but will be saved by the “Old Mother transcending Life,” whose worship began already in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Practitioners of this cult are given to using charms, magical phrases and incantations. They also use the planchette, a small board (often symbolically designed) which is supported on casters at two points and a vertical pencil at a third point, supposed to move of itself when lightly touched by the fingers and the pencil, thereby tracing mysterious word messages.

Like the monastic groups, “Pervading-Unity Tao” also forbids the use of meat, tobacco and alcohol. Images of all religions, including the Christian, are worshiped, and the ritual indiscriminately includes prayers from Buddhist and Taoist sources.

Another sect that did excellent social work during the second World War was the “Hall of the Tao,” a twentieth-century creation that came into existence as a result of new revelations from the planchette. While concentrating its worship on the ancient Taoist deity, the “Greatest One,” it gave place of honor also to Confucius and the Buddha, and used symbols from Christianity and Islam in its liturgy. With a stress on the spirit of world brotherhood, works of charity have been a prominent feature of this group.

There was a secret society in Shantung, which professed to give up all private property and hold everything in common. Its communal character is a familiar pattern in pre-Communist Taoism, and its ancestry has been traced to the pre-Christian era.

After the 1911 Chinese revolution, which ended the reign of the Manchu emperors, there began a wild growth of secret Taoist inspired societies. When Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, one of his first acts was to dissolve these secret organizations. Leaders of the “Pervading-Unity Tao” were arrested, and by 1951 the survivors had practically all apostatized. The last head of the “Principal One” sect, the sixty-third Celestial Master, fled to Formosa, and with him passed out of corporate existence the most ritual (and magic) minded of the Taoist denominations.

However, Taoism is by no means defunct in China. It is more alive than ever before, and has been encouraged, if not actually promoted, by the new Communist regime. In 1957 the China Taoist Association was formed at Peking, at the closing session of a congress attended by Taoist monks and nuns from every province. Suggestive of the future course of Taoist ideology, the first head of the association was abbot of the Shengant monastery and a member of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The published aims of the new federation are to unite Taoists throughout the Chinese mainland, to promote the traditions of ancient Taoism, to support the Socialist reconstruction of the country, and, unexpectedly, to assist the political authorities implement a policy of religious freedom.

Chapter 7 - Taoism


[1] Tao Teh Ching, I, 4.

[2] Ibid., I, 21.

[3] Ibid., I, 25.

[4] Ibid., I, 34.

[5] Ibid., II, 39.

[6] Ibid., II, 67.

[7] Ibid., II, 78.

[8] Ibid., II, 48.

[9] Ibid., II, 22.

[10] Ibid., II, 55.

[11] Passim in J. Shyock, The Temples of Anking, Paris, 1931.

[12] Tao Teh Ching, LVII.

[13] Ibid., LXV.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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