The Way of the Universe

By TC Media

Taoism is variously a philosophy, a religion and a science. Concerning itself with the natural forces of the universe, the essential meaning of life, and a mystical belief in immortality, Taoism stands as a counterpoint to Confucian pragmatism and rigid structure. Classical Taoism, Taojia, appealed to the educated elite whose leisure and money gave them the opportunity to pursue an individualistic philosophy of life. Religious, or popular Taoism, Taojiao, alternately had a larger mass appeal.
From the end of the Han Dynasty on through the Six Kingdoms, Taoism was at its height. Achieving immortality was one of its highest principles; diet restrictions and breathing exercises were taught to prolong life. Mysticism flourished in the religion, as priests held elaborate and complex ceremonies where countless spirits and gods were worshipped.

Tao and the Universe
Tao, or the Way, is the ultimate principle of the universe, and life is cyclical, a procession of birth, life, death, the four seasons, the five elements and the Yin and the Yang. To strive for Tao is to strive for harmony, which will result in longevity and immortality.
The Taoist ethic is embodied by non-action, wu-wei, because nature is best left alone. Harmony with nature reaches toward a mystical relationship with the elements, and empathy for all living and growing things reflects a harmony with one's own inner nature. Intuition is closer to the natural universe, and so superior to knowledge gleaned from books since the "empty" mind becomes more receptive to the energy and rhythm of nature.
Finally, Taoism thrives on paradox and the relativity of all things. Ideas, values and institutions are particularly subject to Taoist skepticism, questioning, if not mocking, the set and rigid order of Confucian society. Indeed, logic must be suspended to enter the mystic consciousness that is union with Tao, a union profoundly at the heart of the Taoist classics like the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu.

Deities and Immortals
As the Tao was so impersonal, it seems inevitable that the popular form of the religion and folklore would create human deities like Lord Huang-Lao, a combination of Tao Te Ching author Lao Tzu and the Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti. Taoist deities were called Immortals, beings who had found eternal life and whose job it was to instruct and help others. As Taoism matured, so did the gods that played an important role in Taojiao, the most important and celebrated of whom are known as the Eight Immortals.
Mythologization of The Eight Immortals was mature by the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368 C.E.). Lu Tung Pin remains the most popular, as he is associated with healing and immortality. He is usually depicted carrying a sword with which he slays devils, and the sword is also a strong Taoist charm or symbol used to ward off evil. Ti Kuai Li is another popular immortal associated with medicine, depicted with an iron crutch often found outside apothecaries. Chang Kuo Lau is portrayed on a donkey, carrying a bamboo musical instrument, and he is the bringer of children. Ts'ao Kuo Chiu was a reformed murderer made immortal by the other seven in the group who wanted an eighth; understandably, he is not much of a popular figure, unlike Han Hsiang Tzu, the patron of musicians, whose symbol is a jade flute. Han Chung Li, originally an historical high imperial official, is celebrated for inventing the pill of immortality. Lan Ts'ai Ho is the lunatic Immortal, sometimes male, sometimes female, usually depicted holding a basket of flowers. And finally, the last Immortal is a woman, Ho Hsien Ku, granted immortality for her asceticism. Symbolizing openness and wisdom, she holds a lotus flower.

Religion, Health and Magic
Taoism became the first large-scale, organized religion in China. Its rise parallels that of the Yellow Turbans, a Taoist-led secret society which initiated a popular rebellion in 184 C.E. that helped weaken the Han dynasty. The Yellow Turbans did much to organize the Taoist church, a body made up of parishes supported by members' contributions. The head of the parish was the Instructor, who conducted religious services and proscribed diet and meditation regimens. The church was open to both men and women. Many festivals emerged out of organized Taoism, influenced also by Buddhist rites and rituals as that religion grew simultaneously. Taoist temples, monastaries and convents appeared around the country, and Taoist texts multiplied as the religion spread. Magic and myth illuminated the mystical side of this popular religious Taoism, which promised its followers vitality, spiritual harmony and immortality. Chang Tao Ling founded one sect called the Five Bushels group (their faithful paid in rice), which issued charms and talismans and practiced magical healing. Taoism appealed to people because it offered freedom; socially it stressed the importance of the individual, and physically it promised literal immortality. Though Buddhism sees the body and soul as separate entities, and teaches reincarnation, Taoism approaches the flesh and the spirit more holistically. The link between the body and soul is explained in an essay from philosopher Hui-yuan (344 - 416 C.E.) in his writings from the Hung Ming Chi:

The endowment of the vital force (ch'i) is confined to a
single life...Thus soul (shen), though a mysterious thing, is a product of the evolutions of the yin and yang: evolving, they
produce life, and again evolving, they produce death...By
extending this principle we may know that body and soul evolve
together, so that from their origin onward they do not
constitute separate sequences....

The Taoist explanation for death is that a person does not live in harmony with the way of the universe. The ultimate goal was to escape spiritual and physical death; this led to a long and fascinating focus on health and physical well being, and here we also find the early beginnings of qigong and taijiquan. One of the most famous texts of early Chinese medicine is attributed to the mythologized Yellow Emperor Huang-ti, called Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen, or The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. Composed around 300 C.E., it deals with all sorts of illnesses and cures, but focuses in the first chapter on longevity and immortality, ultimately achieved through harmony with Tao. Huang-ti writes of Spiritual Men:

They breathed the essence of life, they were independent in preserving their spirit, and the muscles and flesh remained unchanged. Therefore they could enjoy a long life, just as there is no end for Heaven and earth. All this was a result of their life in accordance with Tao, the Right Way.

Taoist qigong is the most famous technique for achieving health and immortality. Dozens of manuals on breathing techniques were written, and many interesting breathing exercises were developed and studied. Retaining breath was a popular method, because the idea of keeping breath in the body, as opposed to losing it, was the source of life. Many of the texts examine breathing circulation through various parts of the body, like the heart, stomach and lower abdomen, or dantien. Gymnastic exercises were created to aid the flow of the breath, which often had to be performed at certain times of the day and facing certain directions. Exercise aided the breath to pass evenly through the body, balancing the yin and the yang, but it was also used as time to reflect on Taoist teachings. The burning of incense and prayer sometimes preceeded the breathing and physical exercises, thus creating a harmony between mind, spirit and body.
The more conservative Taoist practitioners approached health and longevity in a scientific way, much as today's physiologists research the positive effects of qigong and taijiquan on the body. Their emphasis was on health and healing.The breathing exercises and internal forms of exercise that developed with Taoism formed a continuum that led to Zhang Sanfeng and Wang Zongyue's works hundreds of years later later at Wudang mountain.

Alchemy and the Occult
On the other end of the spectrum, the search for immortality also took on occult forms. Alchemy and magic were two of the major esoteric practices through which some Taoist sages believed they could produce the Pill of Immortality. Tortoises and cranes, butterflies and cicadas were only a few ingredients used to make the magic elixir, but gold and cinnabar were the most popular. Alchemists sought to turn base metals into gold, paralleling the metaphor of immortality. If the body could be turned to gold, as it were, and purified, then it would never rust, deteriorate or die.
Sexual techniques for gaining immortality were also popular among certain esoteric Taoist sects, and from the Han Dynasty onwards books and manuals on sexual practices contributed to the Taoist canon. As opposed to Christian concepts of sexual purity through abstinence, the Taoist belief was that sexuality is part of nature and the universe; however, the emission of semen drained the vital life power from men, so sex must be engaged without ejaculation. This of course ran against Confucian ideals of family, only one of the reasons that the Taoist sexual practices were considered disreputable; by the time the Mongols invaded in the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368 C.E.) Taoist texts on sexual practices were officially suppressed.

Taoism's esoteric schools of alchemy, magic, superstition and sexology led to official disapproval in the Chinese court, and it also attracted criticism from the intellectual elite. The Six Dynasties Period which followed the Han Dynasty gave rise to a rejuvenation of philosophical Taoism, sometimes referred to as Neo-Taoism. Rather than a church, this was an intellectual movement among the upper classes. Organized groups came together to form discussions known as ch'ing-t'an, or "purity debates" - untouched by the mundane world. They read the Tao Te Ching, the Chuang Tzu and the I Ching, or the Book of Changes. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove included several poets in its group, and other scholars began investigations into science and the physical nature of the universe.
The Tao Te Ching is both a literary and a philosophical classic. Probably written in the third or second century B.C.E., by a man or several men known only as Lao Tzu, the book explores the nature of the universe, the search for truth, and the essence of human nature in eighty-one stanzas. Metaphysical in imagery and idea, the text seeks to open the way to transformative experience. As Jacob Needleman has written, the Tao Te Ching "helps us to see how the fundamental forces of the cosmos itself are mirrored in our own, individual, inner structure. And it invites us to try and live in direct relationship to all these forces. To see and truly live fully: this is what it means to be authentically human."
The Tao Te Ching works on metaphorical and symbolic levels as a philosophical treatise. Verse seventy-six, for example, uses paradox to redefine, rather than define, the ideas of weakness and strength:

A man is born gentle and weak
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

Taoism began to decline after the Six Dynasties period due to a number of factors. The magic and superstition of popular religious Taoism began to alienate the educated upper class intellectuals who preferred the philosophical Taoist tradition. Many people who had sought religious order and faith were also turning to Buddhism, which was developing rapidly through China. Yet, Taoism remains an integral, essential part of Chinese character, with strong influences on art and poetry and popular belief. Taoist priests continued to teach men and women to strive for transcendence, and even Emperors were not immune to the great promise of immortality. As historian William H. McNeill remarks, "Amid the complex demands of Confucian society with its elaborate ritual prescriptions, Taoist philosophy provided a welcome refuge where the individual could call his soul his own."

Recommended sources:
Classical China, ed. William H. McNeill
The Eight Immortals of Taoism, ed. Kwok Man Ho
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu, trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
Chuang Tzu, trans. Martin Palmer

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1998 .

Written by TC Media for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

Print Friendly VersionPrint Friendly Version of This Article