Introduction to Taoism

Chief monk chanting prayers
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Taoism/Daoism* is an organized religious tradition which has been unfolding its various forms in China, and elsewhere, for upwards of 2,000 years. Its roots in China are believed to lie in Shamanic traditions which predate even the Hsia Dynasty (2205-1765 BCE). Today Taoism can rightly be called a world religion, with followers from a whole range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Some of these practitioners choose to affiliate with Taoist temples or monasteries, i.e. the formal, organized, institutional aspects of the faith. Others walk a hermit’s path of solitary cultivation, and still, others adopt aspects of a Taoist worldview and/or practices while maintaining a more formal connection to another religion.

The Taoist Worldview

The Taoist worldview is rooted in a close observation of the patterns of change that exist within the natural world. The Taoist practitioner notices how these patterns manifest as both our internal and external terrains: as our human body, as well as mountains and rivers and forests. Taoist practice is based on coming into harmonious alignment with these elemental patterns of change. As you accomplish such an alignment, you gain experiential access, also, to the source of these patterns: the primordial unity out of which they arose, named as the Tao. At this point, your thoughts, words, and actions will tend, quite spontaneously, to produce health and happiness, for yourself as well as your family, society, world and beyond.

Laozi and the Daode Jing

The most famous figure of Taoism is the historical and/or legendary Laozi (Lao Tzu), whose Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching) is its most famous scripture. Legend has it that Laozi, whose name means “ancient child,” dictated the verses of the Daode Jing to a gatekeeper on China’s western frontier, before disappearing forever into the land of the Immortals. The Daode Jing (translated here by Stephen Mitchell) opens with the following lines:

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.

True to this beginning, the Daode Jing, like many Taoist scriptures, is rendered in a language rich with metaphor, paradox, and poetry: literary devices which allow the text to be something like the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon.” In other words, it is a vehicle for transmitting to us - its readers - something which ultimately cannot be spoken, cannot be known by the conceptual mind, but can only be experienced intuitively. This emphasis within Taoism of cultivating intuitive, non-conceptual forms of knowledge is seen also in its abundance of meditation and qigong forms – practices which focus our awareness on our breath and the flow of qi (life-force) through our bodies. It's also exemplified in the Taoist practice of “aimless wandering” through the natural world – a practice that teaches us how to communicate with the spirits of trees, rocks, mountains, and flowers.

Ritual, Divination, Art & Medicine

Along with its institutional practices -- the rituals, ceremonies, and festivals enacted within temples and monasteries -- and the internal alchemy practices of its yogis and yoginis, the Taoist traditions have also produced a number of divination systems, including Yijing (I-ching), feng-shui, and astrology; a rich artistic heritage, e.g. poetry, painting, calligraphy and music; as well as an entire medical system. Not surprising, then, that there are at least 10,000 ways of “being a Taoist”! Yet within them, all one can find aspects of the Taoist worldview – a deep respect for the natural world, a sensitivity to and celebration of its patterns of change, and an intuitive opening to the unspeakable Tao.

*A note on transliteration: There are two systems currently in use for Romanizing Chinese characters: the older Wade-Giles system (e.g. “Taoism” and “chi”) and the newer pinyin system (e.g. “Daoism” and “qi”). On this website, you’ll see primarily the newer pinyin versions. The one notable exception is "Tao" and "Taoism," which are still much more commonly recognized than "Dao" and "Daoism."

Suggested Reading: Opening The Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard by Chen Kaiguo & Zheng Shunchao (translated by Thomas Cleary) tells the life-story of Wang Liping, the 18th-generation lineage-holder of the Dragon Gate sect of the Complete Reality school of Taoism, offering a fascinating and inspiring glimpse of a traditional Taoist apprenticeship.

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Your Citation
Reninger, Elizabeth. "Introduction to Taoism." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Reninger, Elizabeth. (2020, August 27). Introduction to Taoism. Retrieved from Reninger, Elizabeth. "Introduction to Taoism." Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).