Lao Zi and Taoism

Lao Tzu

Lao Zi's Life Story

Lao Zi, a sage, was born in the Spring and Autumn Period. According to tradition he was an adult from birth, from which his name of Lao Zi, or "old boy" is derived. He taught contemplation and retirement as means of spiritual purification and the attainment of the dao, or "correct road," a word which he used to signify the highest spiritual ideals of mankind.

What is "Tao"

Tao, in Dao de jing, means the way of ultimate reality, which exists beyond the physical sense of men. Tao is also the way of the universe. It moves in endless cycles and never changes. All life comes from it, but nothing produced by tao lasts forever. Tao also refers to the way man should order his life to keep it in line with the natural order of the universe.

Taoists reject self-assertiveness, competition, and ambition. They are indifferent to things like rank, profuse luxury, and vulgar show. They strive to make friends with nature rather than conquer or dominate it.

Taoism in Brief

Taoism was indigenous to the Han nationality, originating around the 2nd century AD. Zhang Daoling is credited as its founder, Lao Zi is regarded as its master and his work, and Dao de jing (Classic of the Way of Power) is its main doctrine. By the 14th century, Taoism had been divided into many sects. From the 14th century it developed into two main philosophies: Quanzhen Tao, emphasizing self-cultivation to attain immortality; and Zhengyi Tao, involving belief in charms and spells. It began to decline in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), and by 1949 there were about 20,000 Taoist temples with 40,000 believers.

Taoism and Chinese Culture

Taoism has gods of the Town, Land, Kitchen, Door, and Wealth. The leaders of these gods are the Supreme Patriarch Lao Zi and the Jade Emperor. These gods are enshrined in Taoist monasteries and temples. The God of Wealth, called Marshal Zhao, is believed to bring people a big fortune. The God of the Door, on the other hand, is supposed to keep away demons, while the God of the Kitchen is in charge of every household's fortune and misfortune. Taoists expect to gain longevity or even immortality through ascetic practices, such as meditation and self-cultivation. The popular fairy tale "The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea" has its origin in Daoism.

Many of the Han nationality used to worship both Buddha and the Taoist gods. Therefore, among the ordinary Han people, it was very difficult to distinguish the Taoists from the Buddhists. In ancient China, both Buddhism and Taoism had a deep effect on the development of ideas, culture and popular customs. Many famous Buddhist buildings are now protected by the People's Government as treasures of China's cultural and artistic history. Examples of these are the White Horse Monastery in Luoyang (built in 68 AD), Henan Province and the Dunhuang Grottoes (carved in 4th century) in Gansu Province, the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, Shanxi Province (built in 5th century), and Longmen (Dragon Gate) Grottoes (built in the 6th and succeeding centuries) in Luoyang, Henan Province, the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet (first built in the 7th century and reconstructed in the 17th century), Dazu sculptures in Sichuan Province carved during the late period of the Tang Dynasty and concluded by the end of the Southern Song (1115-1234 AD), the Stupa (built for the Tooth-Relics) in Beijing and the Lingyin (Soul's Retreat) Temple in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province (13th century AD).

The most important Taoist temples in China are the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, the one in the Qingcheng Mountains of Sichuan Province and the one in the Wudang Mountains of Hubei Province.

Revised June 13, 2011