Introduction to Terms and Concepts of Taoism: The origins of Taoism are explained in the book, The Taoist Vision (William McNaughton, 1-5): of the main Chinese religions, Buddhism originated in India but Confucianism and Taoism were both from China originally. Taoism, McNaughton explains, is the philosophy "of the Tao," or "Lao-Chuang philosophy." It's called Lao-Chuang because the two most important philosophers in the Tao faith were Chuang Tzu (from the fourth century B.C.) and Lao Tzu (from the sixth century B.C.). Hence, Lao-Chuang.
A few of the basic concepts of Taoism (also known as Daoism), which are not always easy to understand, and need careful, thoughtful examination, are found in McNaughton's book, and presented as follows: a) "Tao" means that knowing you don't know is a superior realization (10) (the sage "takes his flaws to be flaws, and that's how he lacks flaws"); b) "darkness of the Tao" ["Hsuan"] is that something was produced before heaven and earth called "Tao"; man's rule "is earth," earth's rule "is heaven," and heaven's rule "is Tao"); c) water is "the highest good" and "approaches the Tao"); d) nothing under heaven can govern "the uncarved block"; e) the "emptiness of the Tao" (Hsu) means the space between Heaven and Earth is like "a bellows: it's empty and inexhaustible, it moves and continues to emerge ... "; "Heaven extends. Earth endures."
Continuing McNaughton's descriptions of Taoism: f) "darker energy" means to not posses what you produce, and "don't covet what you create"; g) "anti-action" means "what there is comes from what there isn't" and "what you want to shrink, you first must stretch" and "what you want to grab, you first must give"; h) "higher energy never seeks, and never lacks, effect" and " ... lower energy seeks it and always lacks it"; i) "manners" are defined: the use of "manners and mode of conduct ... [is the] attenuation of loyalty and of credibility"; j) "self-like-ness" means that "The Tao does not begin, the Tao does not end" and things have no permanence.
Probably the most well-known of symbols of Taoism are the "Yin and Yang," which are the "dynamic force of the Tao, constantly interacting with one another," according to the Web site www.thetao.info/tao/yinyang.htm. The characteristics of the Yin are: "feminine, passive, receives, soft, dark." The characteristics of the Yang: "masculine, active, creates, hard, bright." The symbols identified with the Yin are the moon, tiger, north, while the Yang's symbols are sun, dragon, and south. The original meaning for Yin was "north side of a hill (away from the sun)," while the Yang's original meaning, the Web site explains, was "south side of a hill (facing the sun)."
A very relevant and exciting discovery was made in China in 1973 when archaeologists discovered two copies of the "Lao-Tzu," the ancient silk manuscripts from a Han Dynasty tomb in southern China, according to an article in Contemporary Review (Mackintosh, 1992). The essence of the manuscripts is "how to find and keep to the way"; the "way" was the goal of all Chinese philosophical enquiry, which was, "what is the way a man should live?" The article's author explains that Lao Tzu was "a semi-mythical sage" who "reportedly" instructed Confucius. But other books indicate that Lao Tzu was a co-founder of Taoism, so there is confusion there.
The Many Faces and Aspects of Taoism: One of the mistakes that researchers have made over the years when studying the origins and development of Taoism is that too much of Taoism has been "ignored or misinterpreted," according to Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Russell Kirkland, 1-3). The reason for the misinterpretation of Taoism, Kirkland writes, is that there are "diverse but interrelated forms of Taoism" and none of the "interpretive models" that scholars have studied assure a full understanding of Taoism. In other words, Kirkland is saying that there is no single correct and exact form of Taoism (2), but rather there are "mystical" models and "liturgical" models; and there are three types of Taoist traditions: literati (educated and elite believers who subscribe to Taoist ideas from ancient thinkers); communal (they come from many levels of society and are members of "organized Daoist groups [who] have priestly hierarchies, formal initiations, regular rituals) ... "; and the third is self-cultivation, also from all walks of life but their main priority is not communal rites but rather personal health, spiritual immortality and peace of mind, Kirkland explains.
Another misunderstanding about Taoism, Kirkland writes (5), is that Taoism is not a tradition " ... practiced by people who stood outside the normal social order" and launched attacks on that social order; nor was it practiced by (as some religious scholars have erroneously taught) "hermits, misfits, members of rebel movements, or critics of conventional values." Taoism is not, Kirkland asserts on paged 6-7, a set of values that (a) " ... compliment and/or correct our own cultural/religious heritage, yet (b) do not require us to learn anything that we do not already believe ... "
On page 76, Kirkland writes that "many elements of what would later become Taoism could reasonably be traced to ... " the religious, political, and social currents of the Han Dynasty; in fact, it was the Han imperial government that deified Lao Tzu, the author explains. The Han Dynasty, according to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia (Smith, 70), ruled from 202 B.C. To A.D. 220, and for the most part, practiced "fair Confucian principles of law and administration." The Han dynasty was "as large and developed as the extensive Roman Empire," and clearly, Taoism had its origins at a time when Confucianism is very strong, but people were in the midst of a period of the "flowering of culture, wealth, and learning."
While on the subject of misunderstandings of Taoism, which was brought to light by Kirkland, it is worth noting that in many Taoist texts there is mention of the importance of avoiding "grains," according to the book, Asceticism in Early Taoist Religion (Eskildsen, 43). That early Taoist emphasis on avoiding "grains" has led "many modern scholars" to assume that somehow Taoists had a particular taboo against consuming the "five grains" (rice, glutinous millet, panicled millet, wheat, and soybeans).
However, Eskildsen writes, the word "grains" in terms of what to avoid simply meant to "cut down drastically on the amount" of food taken in by believers. Yes, it meant a reduction in the amount of grain, but it meant fasting from time to time; it meant the avoidance of all foods. In the actual Taoist fast -- based on Zhonghuang jing's ancient writings from roughly 700 C.E. -- (44-45) the Taoist believer quits eating all solid foods and attempts to avoid liquids as well. To help deal with hunger cravings, the believer "frequently swallows air through his mouth and into his esophagus," which supposedly also nourishes his body with "the 'primal qi' of the cosmos," Eskildsen explains.
Many days later, the body is purged of ordinary foods and of "internal demons." "Breath-holding" is practiced from this point on, which "miraculously" creates an "immortal body" which carries out visualizations which allow the believer to see himself ascending to "the heavenly realms of the Great Ultimate (taiji) and the Great Sublimity (taiwei)"; by seeing these realms, he appreciates, according to the teaching of this form of fasting, what he "hopes to some day inhabit."
Meantime, in his book, Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism, author N.J. Girardot reviews a poem about how the time of "chaos" ("hun-tun") in early Taoism was defined not in the terms that "chaos" is thought of in 2005, but as "an unfrenzied paradise." The poem begins, "How pleasant were our bodies in the days of Chaos [hun-tun], needing neither to eat or piss!" But then the reality came along "with his drill" and put nine holes through the poet. Following the appearance of those holes it is repetition and frustration, since now the poet must "dress and eat" and "fret over taxes" and there are "a thousand of us scrambling for a penny."
'We knock our heads together and yell for deal life," the poem ends (21), and it certainly sounds like the frenzy of life in 2005, because it alludes to the things about the human condition that chain people to repetition and competition in a never-ending cycle of treading water so to speak; and yet it is ancient, and notwithstanding it's origins and the time frame, the author writes that this poem helps illustrate the philosophy of early Taoist texts.
The hun-tun theme of chaos, Girardot writes, is based on Emperor Hun-tun and based on the theory of earth's creation (mythological theory); the Chinese used the symbolism of the death of Emperor Hun-tun -- and the "ritual shooting of arrows at a blood-filled sack" (22) that was called hun-tun -- to make an association with the wicked sons of a king or of ministers. They also used that same hun-tun symbolism in their classic literature to depict two differing political alliances trying…