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What is Taoism

Taoism, also known as Daoism, is an indigenous Chinese religion often associated with the Daode jing (Tao Te Ching), a philosophical and political text purportedly written by Laozi (Lao Tzu) sometime in the 3rd or 4th centuries B.C.E. The Daode jing focuses on dao as a “way” or “path” — that is, the appropriate way to behave and to lead others — but the Daode jing also refers to Tao as something that existed “before Heaven and Earth,” a primal and chaotic matrix from which all forms emerged. Taoism did not exist as an organized religion until the Way of the Celestial Masters sect was founded in 142 C.E. by Zhang Daoling, who based the sect on spiritual communications from the deified Laozi. The Way of the Celestial Masters and other later sects of Taoism engaged in complex ritual practices, including devotion to a wide range of celestial divinities and immortals, and thousands of Taoist religious texts were produced over the centuries. Taoists also engaged with Chinese politics in a variety of ways throughout Chinese history.

While the “Tao Te Ching” is considered Taoist scripture, it is not venerated to the extent that holy books in Western religions are. The book opens with an admonition that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao,” meaning that the wisdom described in the book is only a pale shadow of the true path. The text is filled with duality and paradox, and the classical Chinese in which the original text is written is notoriously difficult to translate. With no punctuation marks, the meanings of specific passages can be altered by the translator, leading to many different versions of the text.

Westerners who study Taoism are sometimes surprised to discover that Taoists venerate gods, 91038as there doesn’t seem to be a place for deities in Taoist thinking. Taoism does not have a God in the way that the Abrahamic religions do. There is no omnipotent being beyond the cosmos, who created and controls the universe


Related: Taoist Principle of Wu Wei