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An Introduction to Taoism

In the Chinese language the word tao means "way", indicating a way of thought or life. There have been several such ways in China's long history, including Confucianism and Buddhism. In about the 6th century BC, under the influence of ideas credited to a man named Lao-tzu, Taoism became "the way". like Confucianism, it has influenced every aspect of Chinese culture.

Taoism began as a complex system of philosophical thought that could be indulged in by only a few individuals. In later centuries it emerged, perhaps under the influence of Buddhism, as a communal religion. It later evolved as a popular folk religion.

Philosophical Taoism speaks of a permanent Tao in the way that some Western religions speak of God. The Tao is considered unnamed and unknowable, the essential unifying element of all that is. Everything is basically one despite the appearance of differences. Because all is one, matters of good and evil and of true or false, as well as differing opinions, can only arise when people lose sight of the oneness and think that their private beliefs are absolutely true. This can be likened to a person looking out a small window and thinking he sees the whole world, when all he sees is one small portion of it. Because all is one, life and death merge into each other as do the seasons of the year. They are not in opposition to one another but are only two aspects of a single reality. The life of the individual comes from the one and goes back into it.

The goal of life for a Taoist is to cultivate a mystical relationship to the Tao. Adherents therefore avoid dispersing their energies through the pursuit of wealth, power, or knowledge. By shunning every earthly distraction, the Taoist is able to concentrate on life itself. The longer the adherent's life, the more saintly the person is presumed to have become. Eventually the hope is to become immortal.

LAO-TZU (604-531 BC).
Some people believe that only one man, Lao-tzu, wrote the most translated work in all the literature of China, the `Lao-Tzu' (also called `Tao-te Ching'). The book is the earliest document in the history of Taoism ("the Way"), one of the major philosophical-religious traditions that, along with Confucianism, has shaped Chinese life and thought for more than 2,000 years. It is a viewpoint that emphasizes individuality, freedom, simplicity, mysticism, and naturalness. (See Confucius)

Knowledge of Lao-tzu is so scarce that only legends remain. His earliest biographer, who wrote in about 100 BC, relates that Lao-tzu lived in the district of Hu in present-day Henan Province during the Chou Dynasty (1122-221 BC). Presumably he worked in astrology and divination at the court of the emperor. The biographer tells of a meeting of Lao-tzu with the younger Confucius, which would mean Lao-tzu lived in about 500 BC. Another story says that he left China during the decline of the Chou Dynasty, and on his way west wrote the `Tao-te Ching', after which he disappeared. He was worshipped as an Imperial ancestor during the T'ang Dynasty (618-907). Scholars today believe that the book cannot have been written by one man. Some of the sayings in it may date from the time of Confucius, while others are from a later period. It is possible that the name Lao-tzu represents a type of scholar and wise man, rather than one individual.

'Tao-te Ching' The 'Tao-te Ching', meaning "Classic of the Way of Power," is one of the great works of ancient China not included among the Confucian Classics. The presumed author, Lao-tzu, is considered to be the founder of Taoism. He may have been alive at the same time as Confucius but older. The book is not only significant philosophically, but it is also one of the most sacred scriptures of the Taoist religion.

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