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The Fundamentals of Daoism

China, the giant country, consists of numerous cultural subgroups and ethnic minorities, many of whom carry on traditions of various religions of primarily local significance. Among those are the folk religions of many of the country people, observing a local ritual of ancestor worship without following intellectualized religious teachings. There are, in addition, millions of followers of world religions, also Christians and Muslims who, as we have seen above, are counted among the members of the Chinese people as well. But what is so special about Daoism?

In this section I will disregard the diversity of religious orientations and instead concentrate on the oldest religious phenomena and on the origins of the indigenous – or home-made – religion that was not imported by missionaries from other countries: The native religion of China is Daoism.1 For more than two thousand years the philosophical tradition of Daoism, its visions of the beyond, its cosmology and its principles of ethic have contributed to the evolution of Chinese culture. Daoism is discussed here from the perspective of comparative cultures without explicitly pointing to parallel concepts familiar to the Western reader from the bible such as ascension, creation, and the deluge.

The fundamentals of Daoism following Lagerwey, are these (Lagerwey 1987: Introduction):

  1. Classical texts of Daoism (in comparative analogy to the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Greek poetry of Homer). Those are the Lao-tze (or Laozi, which can mean the book as well as its author). That book is also referred to as the Tao-Te Ching or the “Classic of the Way of Power.” Other texts of fundamental significance are the Chuang-Tze, the Lim-Tze, the Huai-nan Tze, and additional text which are related to these.

  2. Daoist religion in a narrower sense, including the vast collection of texts called the Tao Tsang. The primary subject matter here is the performance of the ritual and of meditation.

  3. The persons who live the lives of Daoists as members of a monastic community, as priests in the service of that religion, or simply as followers of Daoism.

Up until the present the entire culture of China was permeated by Daoism. Therefore, without at least some familiarity with that religion it is not possible to understand China. One might want to look at Daoism as the bridge between the learned Confucianism of the intellectuals on the one hand, and the folk religion of simple people on the other: Daoism is more attractive to the latter group because of its more spontaneous emotionality in comparison to the official Confucian rituals of the past imperial culture. Daoism may also be attractive to some people because it is not as vague and diffuse as traditional folk religion.

The philosophical and religious concepts of Daoism have spread far beyond the borders of China, where they originated: They have thus become influential as well in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In recent decades, variants of Daoism have also been adapted to the life style of Western people resulting in the formation of small groups of Daoists in Europe and North America.

Lagerwey points out that in the context of the academic field of sinology in China as well as in the West the distinction between Daoism as a philosophy and Daoism as a religion has been widely spread, however this approach belongs to the scholarly past. According to that dated point of view the early texts, supposedly written by the great sages, particularly by Lao-tze (who lived during the sixth century bce and was elevated by his admirers to being a deity) as well as texts by the great mystics and commentators following him were considered as philosophical Daoism. This scholarly approach may be seen in analogy to the study of the Hebrew Bible, and of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other founders of early Western philosophy.

Religious Daoism on the other hand, was erroneously considered to be a later development in the form of a neo-Daoist superstition. The research of recent decades, however, has been able to show convincingly that the ancient Daoist texts can only be understood against the background of religious practices that were current during the life time of Lao-tze and the other authors of the classical texts of Daoism. The ancient scriptures contain reports of ecstatic states of sages, of travels into the beyond similar to that of Elija,2 and of experiences that came to the respective author while under conditions of trance.

These reports place the earliest Daoist experience on the same level of religious revelation as those in the context of shamanism that have been reported from various cultures in different parts of the world. It is therefore erroneous to present Daoism as if its founders had been sober philosophers, and as if their doctrines have later been used, or abused, for superstitious religious purposes. Since that has become understood to be unacceptable it would instead seem appropriate to link Daoism to very ancient sources of revelation, and to credit Lao-tze and his followers with having been the first ones to convert their mystical experiences into lasting texts.

In addition, recent research by sinologists has suggested that there is not even a sharp line separating Daoism from Confucianism. Both teachings agree in many details, as on the image of humans, on society, on the ruler, on heaven as the beyond, and with regard to their cosmology. These ideas have developed as it were in dialogue between Daoism and Confucianism. The thesis of a similarly creative exchange between Daoism and Buddhism, however, could not be sustained, because both teachings competed with each other for gaining influence on the ordinary people practicing a folk religion.

Such competition of course also resulted in copying certain traits from the other side with the effect that Chinese Buddhism, as I mentioned above, adopted characteristics which cannot be found in the Buddhism of other countries in Asia. This resulted for instance in the formation of Ch’an Buddhism, better known in Western countries as the Japanese variant, called Zen-Buddhism.

In China, competition resulted in a form of coexistence and since the Song dynasty (960–1279 ce) Daoists and Buddhist components of folk religion have become so closely aligned that it is hardly possible to identify their origins and separate them from each other. In general Buddhism tended to be wide open to whoever showed an interest, whereas Daoists were more demanding upon their members’ intelligence and level of education, particularly their knowledge of ancient texts.

Among the famous founders of Daoism it is primarily Lao-tze (or Laozi) who is known worldwide. His family name was Li (李). The book Tao-te ching, attributed to him, is – from today’s research perspective – a collection of texts authored by various persons. It developed over time until during the third century bce the final version evolved. The book had an effect on the evolution of government and law in China because it is designed to guide the behavior of a ruler. The king or emperor is advised in the text to govern in a way that makes his rule as unnoticeable as possible.

That ruler was encompassed with an aura that imposed upon the king or emperor abstinence from action. At the same time, it nourished the expectation that the man in charge of the country, by mastering the correct cosmology, could act as a high priest, guaranteeing harmony in nature and society. This emphasized the religious overtones of government: The ruler’s adherence to the instructions and admonitions of the Tao-te ching had the potential of making him the guardian of the equilibrium of the universe which was to subject itself in obedience to his priestly person.

There are countless translations of the Tao-te ching. They differ in many details because the ancient Chinese original text is often dark in its meaning and shares its ambiguity with most ancient texts of other cultures. As a sample for the reader who is unfamiliar with it I insert here Section 32 in a translation that tries to combine the various versions available in English and in German:

The Dao is eternal and without a name.

It is original state it is inconspicuous,

Still the world cannot subdue it.

If princes and kings could keep up with it,

All things would come on their own to obey them.

Heaven and earth together would donate sweet dew,

And peoples would agree to live together in peace.-

At the beginning of creation names were assigned,

Once those exist one should acknowledge their limits

He who sees those limits is without danger.

The being of the Dao in the world is like rivers and creeks flowing into larger rivers and into the ocean.

True to the Daoist idea of the ruler, as I mentioned before, until almost a century ago the king of Korea was expected to provide his people with favorable weather conditions. He was expected to avoid a draught and guarantee a generous harvest. Should nature not produce those effects, it was obvious to the king’s subjects that he lacked the mandate of heaven. This of course made his status as ruler highly questionable: It rested on a religious position vaguely described as that of a high-priest and more adequately comparable to the highest ranking shaman in a society, often with the aspiration to monopolize shamanistic activities.

The high-priest or supreme shaman was, as it were, the Daoist aspect of the ruler. Over time, an additional component was added: The principle of a blessing passivity. It implied powerful inaction or wu-wei (无为 = no action). This notion can hardly be adequately described with the word do-nothing-ness. It rested (and rests till today) on a deep trust in nature’s intrinsic qualities of harmony and development (similar to the belief in a presumed self-correcting tendencies in the markets, on which liberal economists used to build their trust). The Confucian partners of the Daoists who together with the latter were trying to improve the ruler’s conduct, introduced the ritual worship of the cosmos by the king or emperor as celebrating priest: The eternal order of the universe was to be recognized by ritual subjection of the ruler’s cosmological liturgy.

Nature and Life Everlasting in Daoism

Daoism had the effect of modifying the belief of the common people: It contained the faith that selected persons would not necessarily have to subject themselves to normal death. Instead it appeared possible to follow a path which would inhibit the separation of body and soul, and eventually result in the promise that life everlasting could be attained without having to die first (Miller 2008: 29). In the sacred texts of the Western religious tradition too there are reports suggesting that access to the beyond could be attained without leaving a body behind: Nobody knows about a grave of Moses3 and Elija went up to heaven in a miraculous way.4

In China belief in life everlasting evolved in the following stages. It had been established faith according to Chinese concepts of the beyond to consider one’s deceased ancestors as immortals who lived on eternally. Ancient folk religion had reserved heaven above for deceased dignitaries, including “emperors, noble ancestors, and worthies” (ibid: 29). The dead loved ones of the common people, on the other hand, were believed to rest peacefully in the underworld. As I mentioned above, the three levels of reality, heaven, this world, and the underworld, are represented in the Chinese word for king (王 = wang). The king was seen as the sacred person who had the priestly power to connect the three levels with each other. The horrible concept of a hell did not arrive in China until Buddhism was preached by missionaries from India.

Compared to this traditional faith of the three levels, in Daoism heaven above was awarded some innovative aspects. This was the case because intensive religious activities toward the beyond were initiated and motivated. Accordingly, Daoist immortals who arrived in the beyond having circumvented death were believed to be a spiritual being of a different and very special kind. Thus, the Daoist effect on ancient faith encouraged a revision of the images of the beyond.

There was no longer the same living and dying for everybody, but rather by following certain ritual and dietary rules, the Daoist could make himself or herself qualified to bypass physical death and ascend to heaven like Elija. In addition, certain religious activities of a devoted Daoist could even deliver the dead members of his or her own clan from the realm of shadows in the underworld and enable them to ascend to heaven as well, even after having resided below for some considerable time,

As a result, heaven ceased to be strictly a location for the mighty ones who during their lifetime had excelled in political and military power. Instead heaven increasingly became a gathering place for religious virtuosos of Daoist persuasion. But Chinese heaven, no matter which version we consider, is quite different from the heaven of Western religions. Neither vision of Chinese heaven was to be understood as founded on the dualism of good and evil. There were clearly “bad people” in heaven as there were on earth. Thus inhabitants there did not share any particular level of goodness, rather what they shared was merely immortality, for better or for worse. Something similar must have been the case in the Western heaven prior to the eviction of the devil.

In order to live long and to possibly avoid physical death entirely, the followers of Daoism needed to be as healthy as possible. Health is not seen simply as part of individual experience and fate. Instead the personal body is considered to be integrated into the “body” of the cosmos and designed to participate in the life of the universe. Accordingly, the actions performed in the service of health and longevity are embodied in the interactions between the individual and nature. The person’s body is alive and engaged in interaction with the cosmos: “Where there is solicitation (kan), there is response (ying)” (Lagerwey 1987: 6).

That principle is at the basis of texts explaining the genesis of holy personages: A woman is overshadowed by a cloud of red color, or she swallows a rice corn, and in both cases the outer solicitation causes an inner response: She will be pregnant and upon additional praying she will later give birth to a hero who enters this world to create a new order. Her getting pregnant is not something that happens to her individual body alone, the entire cosmos proceeds in perfect solidarity with her; the Daoist cosmos is compared to a gigantic uterus (ibid: 6).

Inside the “uterus of nature” too, manifestations of good and of evil grow side by side. It is up to the human being to provoke, to solicitate, to induce those developments which he or she hopes will occur. This is typically achieved by means of the ritual with the help of the Daoist priest. The ritual is designed to assure the maintenance of the proper order of things. The cosmos resembles human beings in that it cannot avoid responding. Because among all the beings populating the earth, humans are endowed with the most powerful potency, they are also the bearers of enormous responsibility.

This is a force they received from the beyond. Because of this power that was laid into their hands, the human beings are themselves masters of their fate. According to Daoist belief the individual does not depend on personages in heaven, not on gods, saints, or even ancestors, but rather his fate is in his or her own hands, because the powers in the beyond gave him the might to solicitate the proper responses himself. He must thus learn how to make good use of the potential awarded him. In the case of failure, he or she has nobody to blame but themselves.

Thus, the human being is seen as empowered, and Daoism is the religion teaching him or her to strengthen his potency and to lead it to perfection. The truly complete and rounded person embodies potency that solicitates responses by merely being there. The classical text describes it thus: He “accomplishes without having to act” (Lao-tze 47, quoted in: Lagerwey, 1987: 6). The fact alone that such a person is present in a given location is sufficient to result in benign weather conditions and in a good harvest. That person’s mere presence increases the fertility of the soil and causes the fields to respond to him by producing generously. As a consequence there is something sacred about that individual.

Such a person has ordered the energies of his or her body, and the harmony which is thus arrived at, will then cause the energies of nature to be balanced in efficiency and harmony also. According to Lao-tze the maximum of potency can be found in a newborn male baby (Lao-tze 45). The ancient sage sees proof of that in the fact that the infant’s penis can become erect without provocation. It would be erroneous to conclude from this illustration of the Daoist notion of potency that it only concerns human sexuality. A newly born is of course not cable of engaging in any sexual act. Just as obvious is the Daoist insight, that potency is not a power limited to male humans, nor, as we have seen, is it limited to sexual activity.

Potency is of course correctly associated with fertility. According to Daoist teaching the person is confronted with the alternative of either converting the nature-given energies to a large number of offspring or – and this is strictly the male perspective – to “return the semen to repair the brain” (Lagerwey 1987: 7). This means that retaining male sexual fluids inside the body rather than letting them escape during orgasm, contributes toward improving the respective man’s mental potentials as well as toward extending the duration of his life here on earth.

Although of course modern science has shown that to be groundless, the belief in this causal connection persists in Daoist circles. It was sometimes quoted as an explanation for the often short lives of Chinese emperors who were privileged to have numerous concubines and who were assumed as a consequence to ejaculate excessive quantities of semen during their adult lives.

On the other hand, it is assumed that a man who consistently has followed the practice of “return(ing) the semen to repair the brain” (ibid: 7) can be recognized by the outer form of his head: His forehead will be round, thereby leaving more space for the brain inside. This shape of the forehead indicates that the bearer of such a head can direct his mental energies anywhere he wants to. It further indicates that he has the ability to extend his consciousness to include heavenly spheres. There he has the shamanistic power to summon spirits into his presence above the clouds in order to present his wishes before them.

Thus, keeping the semen inside the male body and as it were channeling those fluids to bodily areas where they serve other purposes results in pontifical powers. The potential of sexual behavior resulting in becoming a biological father has then been converted to the empowerment needed for shamanistic interaction with the beyond.

The result is the notion of a Daoist priest who due to his controlled behavior has become the most powerful being in the universe by realizing the potential given to him by nature. As a result, the winds in the sky and the waves of the oceans obey his will. His solicitation causes the response of nature, because he has transformed his bodily potency into mental powers.

It is because of this that the empowered priest of Daoism is of immeasurable worth for the region in which he appears. He has the might to withhold rain like Elija,5 to let it rain, or to order the sun to shine. He demonstrates the human potential to be the mightiest of all beings on earth, because the less powerful ones, the lord of rain or the ruler of the winds must give in to the wishes of the empowered human person. Whenever he solicitates nature will respond to him. As early as the 3rd century bce this type of person is described in the classical text Chuang-tzu. He, the Daoist priest, is also the link in the evolution of religion connecting shamanism to Daoism.

In order to better understand the significance of this pontifical position it is important to consider the cosmology of ancient China. Daoism did perhaps not create, but certainly accepted as given the view according to which the universe is a giant uterus within a larger body to which that uterus belongs. It is pregnant with living beings as well as with events. Its content can be compared to the Tohuwabohu of the Hebrew Bible, describing the chaos that prevailed prior to creation.

Just as the empowered human can take the initiative to make the sun shine or to start and stop the rain, a comparable, but even more powerful energy at the beginning of time resulted in shining a spark of light into the darkness of the chaos. That solicitation made it possible to enter into an incessant dialogue between light and darkness rather than merely initiating a spark that would soon disappear in darkness again without leaving a trace of its short-lived existence.

As a result of such a dialogue, cosmic energies could be channeled into a circular motion of light and darkness, into an equilibrium in which energies could be sustained and harmonized rather than lost in unchecked confrontation: A useless explosion causing excessive brightness of light and then collapsing into darkness could be replaced by the harmonious exchange of day and night. These Daoist notions are more complicated, but also more descriptive than the simple divine command “Let there be light!”

The darkness, prior to being hit by the first spark of light, is chaos, is negative, and is female. Daoism identifies what is meant here by the word yin. Only after light appears can there even be the knowledge that darkness existed. The spark of light that sets everything in motion is the male principle, called yang. It is quite obvious in Daoist contexts that yang cannot exist without yin, just as yin cannot exist without yang.

Once the first spark of light has initiated the process of creation, it continues according to its own inner necessities like a pregnancy: Light rises up into the sky, darkness settles down below the earth “Henceforth, the universe has become di-verse (sic!): a composite of heaven (t’ien) and earth (ti) – giving tien-ti, the Chinese word for universe – of good and bad” (ibid: 9).

The di-verse universe is from then on the cosmos placed into human hands. Given the potency which humans are endowed with they bear the responsibility to maintain equilibrium and harmony and to restore those if needed. If they fail to live up to this sacred task, but follow their base inclinations like power and lust instead, the waters of chaos become the deluge: It will swallow up the earth. Thus, infractions against the order of nature will be punished, not by an angry god via nature, but by nature itself directly. These are Daoist teachings that could deeply impact the contemporary concern about the environment.

Daoism as Seen by Confucians and Buddhists

How did Confucians look at Daoism in general, apart from the fact that frequently both, Confucians and Daoists, were co-creators of religious ritual? The followers of Confucius were the scribes, or in Max Weber’s terminology, the Literati. As such they respected the classical texts of the Daoists and shared the veneration of their presumed authors: Lao-tze und Chuang-tze. Those texts revealed what, in the context of Daoism, could be counted as philosophy. They also contained a cosmology that was not controversial in Daoist dialogues with Confucians.

Accordingly, this aspect of Daoism, i.e. the messages contained in its classical texts, was recognized by the Confucians as part of a learned tradition. But folk Daoism as it was practiced in the small temples of the villages and carried on inside peoples’ homes by a Daoism priest as a ritual at the bed-side of a terminally ill person, was rejected by the Confucians. Many of them considered that the superstitious result of a process of degeneration during which Daoist philosophy had been leveled down to primitive folk religion (ibid: ix). To the extent to which this had happened the Confucians held that the Tao-Te Ching, also referred to as the “Classic of the Way of Power,” could no longer be considered a guide for the behavior of a ruler.

The rejection of Daoism by the Buddhist camp turned out to be even more severe than the Confucian critique. As we have seen, both Daoism and Buddhist teachings competed for the attention and adherence of the illiterate majority of the people. Daoism had been the traditional form of religious observance among those, until during the 8th century ce a new wave of missionaries from India spread Buddhism in China as a religious alternative. Buddhism presented itself as more enlightened, more rational. Its advocates tended to cast Daoist priests in the light of evil magicians using their powers to spread threat and fear. Daoists rituals and knowledge of plants and minerals was cited as source of potential dangers if provided by malicious priests.

Under such attack, Daoists learned much from the Buddhists. The former incorporated into their own Daoist tradition much of the Buddhist ritual as well as the Buddhist notion of salvation that went with it. As a result, Buddhism could not replace Daoism. But Buddhism introduced into Chinese culture a concept not familiar to it in the past: It succeeded in importing into China the belief in reincarnation, totally alien to the shamanistic tradition. Bokenkamp has shown in detail the process by which that occurred (Bokenkamp 2007).

In contrast to the idea of reincarnation Daoism teaches that immortality can be attained via a long life in this world and thus, as I explained above, by eventually avoiding physical death entirely. The various means to be applied toward that goal include ritualized sexual intercourse. This aspect of Daoism invigorated the critique from the Confucian camp, culminating in the attack that Daoism is a mixture of irrational magic practices and superstition capable of seducing the people and even the emperor himself (ibid: ix).

Missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church in China as well as many sinologists following their lead took over this Confucian view of Daoism. It was used for the purpose of debunking Daoism as superstitious and for constructing a contrast between it and Confucianism. The latter was presented as sober philosophy with no religious components. The missionaries did that hoping to convince their superiors in Rome, that by adapting to Confucianism they simply became experts in Chinese philosophy rather than forming an alliance with a pagan religious orientation. As we have seen above, the Jesuit Christian mission failed due to problems within the Catholic Church.

Lagerwey explains the long lasting silence on Daoism in Western sinological research with this misrepresentation as superstition. It was virtually forgotten and has not been rediscovered as a topic of interest until the sixties of the 20th century. He cites the First International Conference on Taoism of 1968 as turning point. During those meetings Kristofer Schipper presented his paper on “Taoism: the Liturgical Tradition” which helped initiate a new movement of empirical research. Data collection on Daoist ritual in the context of folk religion was started with video cameras and other techniques of photography. At the same time research on the classical texts was resumed to find out more about the relationships between ancient texts and contemporary ritual.

Lagerwey quotes Joseph Needham and Kristofer Schipper (ibid: xii) who have shown that the various scientific achievements of early China have been due not to Confucian but instead to Daoist influences. Experimenting with various minerals and other substances in order to invent new “medicines” hopefully leading toward immortality was a characteristically Daoist activity.

One of the early experimenters accidentally created gunpowder: He was surprised and frightened to find his small laboratory suddenly explode on him. Alarmed by what happened he made a detailed description of the event in order to warn other adapts and to keep them from being exposed to the same danger. But alas, his warning words become the blue print for the production of gunpowder. It was of course used for making the famous Chinese firecrackers, but also to facilitate more effective killing in warfare. It has long been academic consensus that gunpowder was invented in the 9th century ce in China.

Today an uninterrupted tradition of Daoist religious practices exists only in Taiwan because the island was saved from the anti-religious excesses of the Cultural Revolution 1966–1976. It is difficult to judge if what we can observe in Taiwan can be assumed to be characteristic for China as a whole. During the thousands of years of religious evolution in China obviously the forms of Daoist activities have also changed and have likely been different from region to region.

In the long history of this Chinese religion there has been the monk who shares his journeying as well as his secluded life in the monastery with other Daoist priests. Next to him there has been the married village pastor who trained his son to become a Daoist priest as well. In all these varieties of Daoist life there seems to have been the goal to contact persons in the beyond in the shamanistic tradition via a combination of meditation and ritual. However, the most immediate purpose of employing the services of a priest have been and still are to achieve tangible effects in this world: “…the goal of Taoist ritual is health, wealth, and longevity” (ibid: xiii).

Taoism, in: Marriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, Wendy Doninger, consulting editor, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1999. pp. 1061–1075.

Bible, 2nd Book of Kings, 2nd chapter, verse 11.

Bible, Deuteronomy, 34th chapter, verse 6.

Bible, 2nd Book of Kings, 2nd chapter, verse 11.

Bible, 1. Judges, 17:1.

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A Comparison of Cultures