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Taoism Beliefs

taoismby Jeff Rasmussen, PhD

Taoism is a 2,500+ year old spiritual practice. The main texts of Taoism are the "Tao Te Ching" (the Book of the Way and its Power) by Lao Tzu and "Inner Chapters" by Chuang Tzu. Similar to Zen, Taoism is like a "finger pointing at the moon". That is, Taoism states that words are just a sign to point to the non-conceptual ultimate reality. It is of value to not obsess over the conceptual pointer but to clearly see the ultimate reality. The current write-up focuses on the so-called Philosophical-Spiritual Taoism. There is also an indigenous variety, which has incorporated divination and alchemy, which would differ in some respects from the Philosophical-Spiritual Taoism.

Belief in Ultimate Reality

The supreme being or ultimate truth is beyond words or any conceptual understanding. When asked to name it, it is referred to as Tao or the Way. The Power of the Way is referred to as Te. Although Tao and Te are similar to other practices ideas of God, Taoists seldom use those terms; as such the Tao that defies conceptualization can be understood as similar to the use of Yaweh as "I am what I am" in the Bible.

Origins of the Universe

All matter is a manifestation of the Ultimate Reality. Generally Taoist beliefs correctly predicted modern scientific discoveries in quantum physics; hence Fritjof Capra's "The Tao of Physics" is aptly named.

Good and Evil

To understand the Taoist notion of Good and Evil, it is important to distinguish between the concept of evil versus the reality of evil.

As a concept, Taoists do not hold the position of Good against Evil; rather they see the interdependence of all dualities. So when one labels something as a Good, one automatically creates Evil. That is, all concepts necessarily are based on one aspect co-producing another; if a concept were to have only one aspect it would be nonsensical. Similar to the Buddhist concept of Sunyata "the void", good and evil are just empty conceptual abstractions that have no permanent independent existence.

The reality of Good and Evil is that all actions contain some aspect of each. This is represented in the t'ai chi, more commonly referred to as the yin-yang symbol. Any action would have some negative (yin) and some positive (yang) aspect to it. Taoists believe that nature is a continual balance between yin and yang, and that any attempt to go towards one extreme or the other will be ineffective, self-defeating and short-lived. When people interfere with the natural balance by trying to impose their egoistic plans, they will not succeed; rather, the non-egoistic person allows nature to unfold watching it ebb and flow from good to bad and back again.

Another way of understanding this is that the sage person knows the reality of Good and Evil, whereas the fool concentrates on the concept of good and evil. The sage knows that any evil will soon be replaced by good, the fool is forever fruitlessly trying to eliminate evil. If action is necessary, the wise person follows Wu Wei (sometimes translated as "effortless action") which is in harmony with the Tao.

The semanticist Alfred Korzybski expressed this distinction between the concept and the reality with the saying, "The map is not the territory." Alan Watts concurred with "The menu is not the meal."

Salvation

Taoism is not a salvific practice. There is nothing that one needs to be saved from and belief in Salvation would lead to belief in Damnation in the same manner as belief in Good leads to belief in Evil. Although they do not accept the false duality of Salvation vs Damnation, living simply in harmony with Te and Tao and not excessively pursing material wealth, stature or prestige will lead to a joyful life.

Contemporary Issues

Stances on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, nonviolence and social betterment programs are not unambiguously stated in the ancient texts. One might be able to derive a position on these issues, but any such stance would be attenuated by the recognition that any stance is just a conceptual abstraction that has little usefulness. Taoism would see expressing traditionally male and female roles for both men and women as being more harmonious than artificial societal roles. Protecting nature is favoured, though not by laws or injunction.

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