Traditional Chinese religion, Taoism is based on concepts similar to those of Confucianism, such as the yin-yang duality and the Tao unifying principle . Complex and little known in the West, it has a large amount of writings, among which Tao-te Ching, the most translated Chinese work.
Taoism: a mystical and complex religion
Taoism is a traditional religion in China, which is based on very old concepts, common to Confucianism. The most prominent are the yin-yang alternation, which may have originated in the daily, monthly and annual rhythms, and the unifying principle, the tao, which synthesizes the diversity of opposites.
The time in Taoism is obscured by a whole mystique that denies the limits of human life to proclaim the possibility of physical immortality. As this idea goes against common sense, the study of Taoism enters a world that demands the abandonment of certain certainties and in which historical landmarks are diluted, generating a timeless message.
Taoists say that their teachings come from Huang-ti, the yellow emperor, dated legendarily from the XXVII-XXVI century BC, considered the prototype of the Taoist sage. At the age of 100, he was able to create the “golden elixir”, chin-tan, which converted him into an immortal being, which is why he was elevated to the heavens and converted into a mythical emperor of the center of the world, which corresponds to the earth element . Huang-ti attributed himself to the paternity of a first Taoist treatise, quintessence of wisdom, which was lost.
Taoism is difficult to define and understand, even in its origins, as there are scholars who give some credibility to legendary traditions and postulate a very archaic Taoism, while others argue that it is only from the 4th century BC that one can speak of authentic reliable documentation of that religion.
Taoism is a religion of the first order, endowed with a large number of imposing writings, which were not known and valued objectively by non-Chinese scholars since the 1930s.
About the sage Lao-tzu is known a series of biographical data that seems more legendary than verisimel. Legend has it that he was bigger than Confucius and that he had a debate with him that he largely won.
He was responsible for the court files of one of the Chou emperors, but after a series of disagreements with the monarch he headed for the West, where, at the limit of Hsien-ku and at the request of the border guard, he left written the compendium of his wisdom in five thousand characters, then disappear.
A late mythical tradition makes him the master of Buddha. Tao-te Ching writing is attributed to him. In it, Tzu proposes that the personal wisdom and harmony of society can be achieved by following the tao. This is a personal way to adapt to the natural order without acting ”.
Main Taoist currents
Due to its complexity, it has been tried to explain Taoism through systematizations. A distinction is generally proposed between philosophical Taoism (tao-chia) and religious Taoism (tao-chiao).
The philosophical Taoism (tao-chia) has been considered as the most pure by a number of Sinologists imbued with prejudices religiocêntricos and ethnocentric. It has its main representatives in the IV-III centuries BC
The religious Taoism (tao-chiao) generated a very complex theology from the ll-lll centuries with cult very different models and a primary interest in acquiring physical immortality.
The distinction between these two schools, however, lacks real interest, since much of Tao-chiao is clearly based on the previous one, while some Taoist “philosophers” insist on the pursuit of immortality. Nor does it seem that Tao-chia, let alone Tao-chiao, have real cohesion, since the subschools are very numerous, with teachings of a very varied nature.
It is more convenient to approach the study of Taoism with different criteria than those of greater or lesser purity of the religious message and understand that there were different ways of understanding religion, according to the times and social groups. There was an individual and aristocratic Taoism developed by small groups of scholars, very distant from the popular Taoism that centered its interest in the cohesion rites and also in a practical magic that favored the making of talismans and the use of recipes. There was also a mass Taoism that was unified around a millennial message, groups of discontented against imperial power, against which a State Taoism developed by some monarchs, as in the Wei kingdom, contrasts, or a monastic Taoism, which organizes the practice in the style of Buddhist monasteries.
The diversity of Taoism is perhaps best exemplified by the complexity of its written tradition, which is very abundant and varied and only partially known in the West.
Taoism is known in the West for three main works: Tao-te Ching, Chuang-tzu and Lieh-tzu. The Tao-te Ching, “Book of life (tao) and virtue (te)”, is attributed to Lao-tzu. This booklet is the most well-known and translated Chinese work, despite being extraordinarily enigmatic and having been mistreated by legions of translators who presented such disparate versions that in many cases they are irreconcilable.
This disparity in translations is due to the enormous difficulty inherent in the task of pouring into complex languages the complex concepts that are expressed in signs loaded with multipurpose meanings that combine to form this classic of literature.
Chuang-tzu, presumably indebted to the homonymous sage who lived between 369 and 286 BCE, is less enigmatic. Lieh-tzu (“True book of perfect emptiness”), attributed to the sage of that name, dating from the 4th century BC, is a compilation of Taoist writings by different authors, dating between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC.
In addition to these three works, probably dating from the pre-Buddhist era or the early moments of the Buddhist impact, there is an extraordinary number of writings gathered in the so-called Taoist canon (Tao-tsang).