Response to Readings about Taoism

Written for my second DMin degree begun at Dayton, OH: “Spirituality, Sustainability & Interreligious Dialogue,” May 2005 with Professors Paul Knitter and Jay McDaniel.

Having purchased the definitive edition of Tao Te Ching, I decided to supplement that resource with chapters on Taoism that appear in several books that I already own.1 Not all books on world religions include chapters on philosophies and religions from China. As China becomes increasingly central to world issues, westerners need to be better informed of the religious heritage of that vast country. This being my first serious encounter with Taoism, I first needed exposure to its history and thought.

History reports that ancestral shrines existed already during the Shang Dynasty (1776-1122 B.C.E.). A primitive folk religion underlay the three key components that shaped later thought: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Some writers consider the first to be more of an ethical system than a religion. From India, Mahayana Buddhism arrived during the first century C.E. to challenge Taoism, until then a philosophy. Borrowing from its philosophy and Confucian or Buddhist ideas, Taoism then became a religion.2 It decries simple definition. Shifting from a folk religion, two main sects of religious Taoism exist: Orthodox Unity Sect (more in Taiwan) and, in China, the Complete Purity Sect.

In contrast to “Taoist philosophy which concentrates on spiritual transcendence, religious Taoists seek physical immortality.” Their key doctrine is that “the Tao is the unique source of the universe and determines all things.”3 The semi-legendary, mystical philosopher Lao Tzu (from the sixth century BCE, as were the more pragmatic Confucious and religion founder Buddha) is credited with creating the chapters/verses of the Tao Te Ching—The Way, or the Book of the Supreme Way/Tao and its Expression/Te

Pronounced ‘Dow-duh-Ching,’ the philosophy of 81 Verses was composed in a short time, nudged by a gatekeeper who begged Lao Tzu to stay to write when en route to a mountain retreat. Intrigued with paradox, he expects readers to discover lessons within, the truth beyond words. A bit of a hodgepodge, the collection of “seed-like verses” challenges each translator, and in turn reader, to find the view of reality inherent. Translations vary a lot; a text created by Wang Pi (just before 250 C.E.) became a standard version often used by current scholars. Perhaps because the number nine meant completion in ancient Chinese numerology, this compilation of 81 statements about the nameless, formless, attribute-less Tao was empowered by a 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 scheme or 9 x 9. Commentaries, including commentaries of commentaries, have been added.

The first few lines of Verse # 1 provide a window into the spirit that pervades. Jonathan Star seems intent to hear that spirit, to faithfully preserve the teachings and poetic origins.

A way that can be walked / is not The Way
A name that can be named / is not The Name
Tao is both Named and Nameless.
As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
As Named, it is the mother of all things4

A translation from nearly fifty years earlier appears in The World’s Great Religions, the translator not named.

The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao
The Names that can be given are not Absolute Names.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The Named is the Mother of all Things.5

Lao Tzu believed that everything has its opposite side (seventy pairs like light and dark, movement and stillness). Sides depend on each other; in order to achieve anything, a person starts by seeking the opposite of what is desired. Yin and yang reflect one such pair. According to Huston Smith, the symbol known for this pair, “t’ai-chi,” reflects one of the two realms of the Great Infinite, the realm of interpenetration and interdependence.6 Nothing exists of itself; multiplicity is a unity. The black and white halves of the circular symbol mentioned are divided by a line that “meanders,” and a dot of the opposite color lies embedded deep within the other’s half. As all pairs bond, each half carries within or radiates a portion of the other’s being.7

Needing to comply with this assignment’s five-page limit, I would have wished to discuss important ideas like wu-wei (nonaction); ecology; feminist strengths of Taoism: diversity, revision of history, critique of traditional female roles, and countering female/male opposition8; figures like Chuang Tzu and Ko Hung; Taoist movements like the Way of Five Pecks of Rice; gods worshipped by Taoist religion (Tao Chiao); longevity and immortality. I briefly note links to “Spirituality and Interreligious Dialogue.”

That Taoism borrowed from Buddhism and Confucian thought (seeing the three as strong branches of a tree) suggests that it might welcome insight from other living faiths for its own enrichment. T’aoHung-ching identified the three as all good and worthy of harmony.9 Differences also exist. Star’s commentary of Verse # 18 observes how Chuang-Tsu noted the Confucian view that “virtues must be cultivated” while Lao-Tzu held that they appear naturally when “a person gets in touch with his [sic] own perfect nature.”10

Hindu concepts clearly enter Taoist thought. 1. The nonduality of total detachment from the world merged with experience of the Tao reflects Atman fused into Brahman. 2. The influence of the Gita story recurs (Verses 31 and 69). Lord Krishna advises Arjuna, the warrior who despairs of killing his cousins and teachers, that duty (dharma) requires one of the Kshatriya caste to perform “God’s will” through the action of natural law. His “Therefore, fight” suggests the path to a desired Taoist result. Star concludes # 31 with: “One who is bound to action, proud of victory, and delights in the misfortune of others will never gain a thing from this world below Heaven.” And # 69 ends: “Thus, when two opponents meet, the one without an enemy will surely triumph.”11

Language issues surface. Examples of exclusivist ‘only’ language appear: # 41 “it alone,” # 46 “no greater loss,” # 52 “only inner light,” and # 63 “Taoism alone becomes.” As with all interreligious dialogue, words are crucial. Language reflects both bonding and disconnection, disjointed or perhaps evasive response. Christians engaging Taoists about texts might note diversity of style—story, wisdom, history, psalm, and doctrine—rather than predominantly the poetic.

Spirit (shen) energy relates to consciousness. To purify, still, or harmonize one’s thoughts, a person might meditate upon gods, perform liturgies, recite scripture, or simply “be at rest” on the way to merging with the Tao. Intent to keep the mind tranquil, the practitioner strives to be empty of thoughts and feelings. True ‘sitting’ means to not allow external things to invade the inner being. “Rooted in compassion, the path or way of the Tao leads to transformation of both self and others (society).”12 It promotes a simple life and communion with nature.


Bryant, M. Darrol, ed. “Tao Now: An Ecological Testament,” in Huston Smith Essays on World Religion. NY: Paragon House, 1992, 71-92.

Eliade, Mircea. “Tao, the Ultimate Reality,” in Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World. San Francisco: Harper, 1967, 594-606.

Hertig, Young Lee. “The Asian-American Alternative to Feminism: A Yinist Paradigm,” Missiology, Jan. 1998, 15-22.

Laughlin, Karen & Eva Wong. “Feminism and/in Taoism,” in Feminism and World Religions. Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young, eds. NY: State Univ of NY Pr., 1999, 148-78.

Martin, William C. The Art of Pastoring Contemplative Reflections. Pittsburgh: Vital Faith Resources, 1994.

Thompson, Edward K., ed. “The Philosophy of China,” in The World’s Great Religions. NY: Time Incorporated, 1957, 73-81, 84-87, 96-98.

Tzu, Lao. Tao Te Ching The Definitive Edition. Translation and Commentary by Jonathan Star. NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2001.

Xiaogan, Liu. “Taoism,” in Our Religions The Seven World Religions Introduced. Arvind Sharma, ed., San Francisco: Harper Collins Pub.s, 1993, 231-89.