Taoism is a system of Chinese philosophy and religious practices which extol the virtues of living in harmony with nature. It has roots in China that reach back several thousand years. The earliest Taoists were shamans who lived in harmony with their natural environment. They developed the natural sciences such as astronomy. Shamans served their communities by reading omens, predicting yearly cycles of the weather and serving as a spiritual link between the people and the invisible worlds. According to legend, the shaman could control the weather, the rivers and other forces of nature. In addition to mythic abilities, the shamans who sought hermitage in the mountains developed meditation systems and energy circulation exercises known as qigong that later became part of Taoist mysticism.
During the Chou Dynasty around 700 B.C.E. one of China’s greatest philosophers roamed the earth with the presence of a dragon. His name was Li Erh, commonly known as Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu was a royal librarian. After years of study he became enlightened and decided to retreat from society, traveling far to the West on a waterbuffalo. Upon reaching a distant mountain pass Lao Tzu met the Keeper of the Pass, Wen-Shih. Wen-Shih convinced Lao Tzu to write down his insights and thus was born the Tao Te Ching, a book of philosophy and profound manual of meditation and self-transformation.
Later, other influential philosophers such as Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu wrote philosophy that helped define Taoist thought. Around the same time other great schools of Chinese philosophy, such as Confucianism and Legalism, made their appearance. Eventually Buddhism, an Indian religion, also gained widespread popularity amoung both Chinese nobility and commoners. Gradually Taoism grew out of its animistic origins and developed a sophisticated system of religious and philosophical thought.
At the beginning of the Sung Dynasty (960-1368 CE) a man named Lu Tung-Pin (Lu Dongbin) learned the arts of immortality from the immortal Chung-li Ch’uan. The arts of immortality, known as Inner Alchemy, had been practiced since the dawn of Chinese history (even Lao Tzu was said to have achieved immortality). However, Lu synthesized Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies into a new Taoist conciousness, thus many consider him the father of Inner Alchemy.
Over the years Taoism grew in China, dividing into many schools of thought. At this point it is impossible to separate Taoism from Chinese philosophy, medicine, history, culture, etc.
TYPES OF TAOISM
Philosophical Taoism is a philosophy, a way of looking at the universe as described by works such as the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu or the Chuang Tzu. Taoism is the way of living naturally and simply with oneself. It is a way of returning to simplicity, to the childlike state (referred to by Taoists as the uncarved block).
Devotional Taoism is the folk religious tradition of China. Devotional Taoism has a varied pantheon of Gods headed by T’ai-Shang Lao-Chun, Lao Tzu diefied. Under him are a score of celestial Emperors, Empresses, Lords and Immortals in a complex hierarchy. Dieties, Immortals and ancestral spirits are objects of worship and teach people to lead virtuous lives. Some schools of devotional Taoism stress ceremony and ritual for clergy and others stress meditation. Some of the contemporary schools still active in China include the Shang Ching, Heavenly Master, and other orders. In Taiwan the two major sects are called the Redheads and Blackheads, named after the color of their headwear.
Magical Taoism inhabits the world of spirits and incantations, demons and exorcisms, talismans and spells. Magicians derive spiritual power from everything around them. They engage in rainmaking, casting protection spells, leading the spirits of the dead onto the next world, divination and exorcising malevolent spirits. Magical practices have their roots in ancient shamanistic traditions of China and are to this day often very secretive. One of the most influential sects of magicians is the Mao Shan school.
While there have been schools of scientific alchemy that sought material formulas to attain immortality, the true teachings of immortality from the earliest hermit shamans and meditators have been those of Inner Alchemy. This is mystic Taoism. Inner Alchemy teaches that all the elements of immortality are found within the body as the body is a microcosmic reflection of the universe. The microcosm is the same as the macrocosm. Taoists believe meditation and energy exercises (such as Chi Kung, also spelled Qigong) are the way to transform the physical body into an immortal energy body that transcends this world and reunites with the universe. Inner Alchemy also contains the teachings of Sexual Yoga, where males and females cultivate energy together. There are numerous schools of Inner Alchemy. Some schools grew up in very strict monastic environments and other schools came from mountain hermits.
There are currently many strains of Taoism in the West. The most popular is Philosophical Taoism; numerous translations of the Tao Te Ching are readily available in most book stores. There are also teachers now openly teaching Taoist meditation and other ancient traditions in the West. Some monastic traditions have even been transplanted here. Classes on Tai Chi and Chi Kung (qigong) are also now widespread and have gained popularity as exercises for health and longevity. Acupuncture and other healing arts of Taoist origin are becomming well known as part of western medical culture.