Taoism is the method of studying and bringing ourselves into harmony with the Tao – or, still further, it is the procedure for uniting with the Tao itself. The sages say, “Tao is forever, and he that possesses it, though his body ceases, is not destroyed.” However, there is no one simple method. People are different, and the Tao is never static. Different ways of life must be tailored according to the needs and destinies of individuals. This is why The Seven Bamboo Tablets catalogue three hundred sixty ways of self-cultivation.
Taoism is a spiritual system of many levels. Where other religions strive to totally define their beliefs to the exclusion of all others, the vast, sprawling range of Taoism embraces the whole universe. One of its most fundamental points of philosophical origin is to accept humanity and the world as they are.
Starting with humanity itself, the Taoists appreciated its intrinsic characteristics of sin and aspiration, wretchedness and nobility, savagery and artfulness, emotion and intelligence, perversity and purity, sadism and compassion, violence and pacifism, egotism and transcendence. Unlike other sages, the Taoists chose not to reject humanity’s evil impulses. The duality had to be accepted and worked with.
Once both sides of dualism were accepted, the Taoists clearly saw that individuals combined good and evil in varying proportions. Taoism therefore evolved into a system large enough to satisfy the needs of all the different people. Taoists gave morality and piety to the common man; faith and loyality to the hero; martial arts and sorcery to the power-hungry man; knowledge to the intellectual; and, for the rare few looking for even more, they gave meditation and the secret to transcendence. Then they turned everything inside out and said, “Not only are these segments of the world’s people, but by the principle of microcosm and macrocosm, they are also inner realities of every individual.”
The Taoist is always a pragmatist, not an idealist. His interest is always to deal with what is there before him, rather than to impose his will upon reality. Perhaps it is for this reason that Taoism is sometimes accused of being too slippery and elusive to define. Some might even say it is an opportunist’s doctrine. But actually, all Taoism cares about is dealing with the situation before it, the one that always changes, the Tao.
Historically, there are five major antecedents to Taoism. Shamanism, philosophy, hygiene, alchemy, and the school of Peng-Lai were the components of what would develop into a massive spiritual movement.
Shamanism was Taoism’s earliest beginning. The primitive peoples believed in a world of gods, demons, ancestral spirits, and an all-powerful Nature that was mysterious and even unresponsive to humanity. They turned to their leaders, shaman priests who used magic to cure the sick, divine the hidden, and control events. The priests intervened through their personal power between their constituents ans a hostile world.
Cults of divine beings sprang up to further make life understandable. Chief among these cults were the worship of ancestors – for the joint work of agriculture made the family unit essential – and the worship of nature gods of the earth, mountain, lake, trees, harvest, and so on. Indeed, every conceivable feature of the landscape and agricultural life was believed to have its divinity. The Yellow River, for example, was called the Count of the River, and he was believed to ride a chariot drawn by tortoises. The people sought to placate his cruel and temperamental flooding by human sacrifices equally as terrible. It was only through the intervention of enlightened sages that the people gradually progressed in their consciousness. Emperor Huang-Di was known for his discourse on medicine. Emperor Fu Xi taught divination and formulated the Eight Trigrams. Emperor Shen Nong experimented with herbs upon his own body. Emperor Yu tamed the floods. These emperors of prehistory shaped shamanism and originated elements of Taoism that still persist today. Many of our traditions of nature worship, divination, geomancy, talismanic art, exorcism, and spirit oracles harken back to the centuries that preceded recorded history.
The philosophical school of Taoism, the pure Conversation School, can be held to have originated during the Zhou dynasty. Lao Tzu was such a Taoist. When he left Luoyang to renounce the world, he came for a time to Huashan. But because of his discourses in the court with Confucius, his philosophy took a twin course: It became part of Taoism, and it gradually became a somewhat secular philosophy for the literati. In the third century A.D. schools of thought, centered around such thinkers as Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, advocated a Taoism that propounded non-contention, theories of government by virtue, relativity of opposites, and the search for the Tao through meditation. The schools that arose from this period may therefore be considered to have advocated an intellectual class of Taoism that paid little attention to divinities, shamanism, or physical practice.
Physical practice arose from hygiene school. The essential premises of this lineage are that both the physical body and the mind must be disciplined and cultivated as means to spiritual attainment. From the first to fourth centuries A.D., the school’s teachings were codified first in the Jade Classic of the Yellow Chamber and then the True Classic of the Great Mystery. It was in these early centuries doctrines arose of the three dan tian vital centers: breath circulation, diet, meditation, martial arts. All this was united in a principle postulating the existence of thirty-six thousand gods within the human body. Given the assumption of the person as divine receptacle, it is easy to see how they believed that the body should be kept pure and strong – for it was believed that the gods would abandon an unfit body. There was a strong leaning toward asceticism. Wine, drugs, and all external means were rejected, since they could potentially offend one’s resident gods.
The goal of the hygiene school was initially physical immortality. But they gradually became aware of the doctrine of reincarnation, and their priorities shifted to the creation of an immortal soul within the earthly shell that could transcend death.
The alchemists, by contrast, continued to believe in physical immortality. Their origins were in the Five Element School of Tsou Yen, who came into prominence about 325 B.C. It was from this lineage that the fang shih originated. The Fang shih – Formula Masters – were so called because they experimented constantly to find the formula for immortality. They engaged in endless combining of herbs, minerals, and chemicals, and all sorts of smelting processes. Unfortunately for their health, most of their early efforts concentrated on such minerals as mercury, sulfur, and lead. Eventually, they adjusted their research – if only in the interests of self-preservation – toward the use of herbs, ritual, sexual alchemy, meditation and magic. It is this division of Taoism that inherited the early shamanistic concerns of demon enslavement and sorcery.
We come finally to the cult of Peng-Lai, the school that is most unabashedly concerned with simple physical immortality. Sometime around the fourth century B.C., a legend arose about magic islands somewhere in the Pacific where the Mushroom of Immortality grew. Expedition after expedition was launched to find the islands. By the time of Emperor Qin Shi, who united China in 221 B.C. and ruled a mere sixty miles from Huashan, the cult of Peng-Lai combined with the alchemist-magicians. Along with their arts of spirit possession and witchcraft, they advocated the cult of Peng-Lai. Emperor Qin Shi wanted to live forever, and the man who ordered the Great Wall built became a fanatic about Peng-Lai and alchemy. The Emperor sent ten thousand girls and boys to search for Peng-Lai, with orders to succeed or be punished with execution. The ten thousand found the islands of Japan, but no Mushrooms of Immortality, and opted to stay rather than be executed. The Emperor’s efforts at alchemical preservation of his own Imperial person were no more successful. In fact, it is rumored that the illness that killed him was brought on by ingesting some poisonous formula.
From the fourth century A.D. to the present, there has been enormously complex cross-pollination of these five basic aspects. Sixteen centuries of the Taoist movement have generated endless combinations and recombinations. All the thousands of later sects and forms of Taoism can be distinguished as either left- or right-handed Taoism. On the left are sorcery, alchemy, sexual practice and demon enslavement. Roughly, it is a path that believes in external methods. The right-handed path advocates asceticism, celibacy, and meditation. Roughly, it is an internal path. Somewhat common to both are studies in scriptures, worship, meditation, divination, chanting, pursuit of immortality, geomancy, talismanic art, vision quests, and so on. All ostensibly seek union with the Tao; they only differ in their methodology and interpretation of Taoist principles. All are considered valid and orthodox methods. All yield results, and high masters of any sect can demonstrate supernatural power and manifest great spiritual insight.
But I am rigorously opposed to the left-handed path. There is too much temptation. Admittedly, one can practice asceticism sincerely and honestly and gain only contentment, tranquility, and piety. One is not necessarily freed from tribulation. The left-hand path grants great power with a simple incantation or ingestion of pills. But the results are not honestly gained, and the adept, not having undergone the struggle to gain his position with a sound set of values, finds it too tempting to abuse his power. Levitation, transformation, seeing into the future, and controlling demons are all instantly available on the left-hand path. But nothing is free in life. Consorting with the dark side requires payment, and one’s only form of barter is the human soul. Each time the force of dark Tao is tapped, it feeds upon a small bit of the human essence. The whole person is eventually transformed into an agent for the dark Tao. Immortality and power are yours for eternity, but you have sacrificed your soul for it.
In conclusion, I say that the Tao is awesome and transcends human conception. Taoism, with its centuries of great minds seeking to know the Tao, has expanded into a labyrinthine sprawl of different doctrines and schools. There are Taoists for every facet of the Tao – even if it is Tao’s evil side. But I say to you that in spite of this staggering amount of human effort, the Tao remains an enigma and mystery that nevertheless inexorably surrounds our lives and destinies.
Source: Deng Ming-Dao – Chronicles of Tao