In rural areas of China, many people developed folk religions. This eventually developed into a story about the philosophical ideas of Lao-Tzu in 500 BCE. Lao-Tzu was frustrated by government corruption and human actions within his nation, so he left China. At the nation’s gates, a man named Yin Hsi asked him to write a book before leaving civilization. He ended up writing the Tao-Te-Ching (The Book of the Way), and gave the book to Yin Hsi before disappearing.
Although it is presumed that Lao-Tzu didn’t exist due to historical contradictions, this book ended up being distributed and gained a following amongst the people. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), the emperor Xuanzong decreed it a state religion. People were required to keep Taoist scriptures within their homes, and it became the official religion of China. As time progressed, Taoism became less popular and is now replaced in prevalence by Confucianism and Buddhism.
Taoists believe that following the “Tao” is a natural action, while resistance to it is unnatural and causes friction within the universe. They believe that they must submit to the universe and be flexible with change and adversity. They say that adaptability is what will lead to happiness, and resistance to adaptation will bring unhappiness. Their overall goal is to live at peace with the way of the Tao and recognize that all actions and reactions are a part of an eternal force that unites all things.
It is similar to ideas of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius regarding logos. They believed that logos created reason and that nothing that happened under its forces were bad, but rather only people’s perceptions of the effects of it could seem bad. Taoism believes the same: nothing and nobody is inherently bad, but rather that it is simply human perception that deems it to be so. They believe that everything happens for a natural reason.
One example of this is their belief of eternity. In watching nature die and reemerge each season, they determined that humans were the same when they died. They believe that after death, people don’t cease to exist, but rather continue living elsewhere in an unknown realm. They believe that ancestors are just living elsewhere in the universe.
Because of this, these beliefs have greatly impacted Chinese culture and their understanding of the universe. This has usually worked in conjunction with the philosophy of Confucianism to align their beliefs of innate goodness and humanity, while differing in their approaches to lead unselfish lives.
Taoism is now associated with the yin-yang symbols, although this was not originally the case. This is because Taoism embodies the principles of yin-yang through balance and harmony in the universe.
Many Taoists practice ancestor worship, though this is not stated within the Tao-Te-Ching. This practice shows reverence to nature and spirits, like Shintoism does in Japan. Apart from this practice, Taoism is known for not having strict rituals dictated like many other world religions do. They are viewed as being unnatural and artificial. They were said to be regulations of perfection, therefore destroying any innate perfection that might’ve been present. It is said that Lao-Tzu claimed that the relaxation of artificial regulations that are meant to improve lives results in life naturally regulating itself.
With that being said, many Taoists still practice very strictly, though they are not forced to. This is due to influence from Buddhism and Confucianism over time, which has led to several very elaborate rituals. At Taoist festivals, prayers and spells are precise and every ritual step is perfectly observed. Many rituals regard honoring ancestors of a community, and a Grand Master (similar to a high priest) officiates the ceremonies. These festivals last either a few days, or over a week. A Grand Master will perform every recitation in accordance with tradition, and will invoke the spirits of these ancestors while incense burns.
Taoists believe that spaces in everyday life should be transformed to sacred spaces in order to invite the spirits and gods, so they put an emphasis on purification. A Grand Master might have assistants, such as musicians, dancers, or readers. The Grand Master might act out the text while it is being read, and it usually concerns the ascent of the soul. Sometimes this ritual is performed on a staircase leading to an altar.
The altar is an important object in Taoist rituals. Many families who practice Taoism have private altars in their homes to pray and honor their ancestors. It is seen as a place where the earthly realm meets the divine. There isn’t the idea of a church like many other religions have, but rather, people practice in their individual homes or at community festivals to bring other people together. Many people attend festivals, although they aren’t required to. Sometimes festivals are performed in times of need, like during a financial struggle, to invoke spirits. They believe that this drives away dark spirits that cause the problems.
Taoism followers read the Tao-Te-Ching. It isn’t a work of scriptures like other religions might have. Instead, the book contains poetry and ideals about living in peace and how to remain tranquil through adversity. It influences readers to live simpler lives with verses such as, “Yield and overcome/Empty and become full/Bend and become straight.” It also advises people to refrain from fighting against life, but rather accepting change and working with it, refusing to always insist that one is correct, and rather learn from others. It reminds people to be mindful of their actions and how they affect the world.
Since scholars have determined that Lao-Tzu is likely a fictional character, they believe that this is a compilation of sayings written by an unknown scribe. This controversy arises since many Taoist beliefs emerged during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), which was long before Lao-Tzu is claimed to have existed.
Although the Tao-Te-Ching is the primary Taoist book, other books, such as the Chuang-Tzu, written by Zhaung Zhou, and the Daozang, written during the Tang Dynasty, all share similar ideas to Taoist principles. They all contain stark observations about the natural world and the belief that humans are innately good. They believe that there are no bad people, but rather those who behave badly, and that people simply need to be reminded of their inner nature in order to pursue virtue. They state that with knowledge of the universe, anybody can live in harmony with the earth.