Taoism began in China with the only book ever written by a quiet country dweller, Lao Tzu. His masterpiece, the Tao Te Ching, introduced the world to “The Way and Its Power.” In it he described “the Way” – the Tao, as such:
“There is a being, wonderful, perfect;
It existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is!
How spiritual it is!
It stands alone and it does not change.
It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.
All life comes from it.
It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and yet it claims no honor, it does not demand to be Lord.
I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao, the Way, and I rejoice in its power.”
The Tao Te Ching is brimming with such poetic phrases. Before examining what this Tao really is, however, I must present a fact that, for me, came as a bit of a shock: “Taoism” is pronounced “Dow-ism.” You have no idea how difficult it was for me to make that enunciatory switch. Even more challenging is saying “Dow” instead of “Tay-oh.” With that settled, however, the three major meanings of this term may be elucidated.
Tao can be taken as Ultimate Reality, the Way of the Universe, or the Way of Human Life.
Lao Tzu worships the Way of Ultimate Reality by writing, “Of all great things, surely Tao is the greatest,” and asserts rather proverbially that “Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’ know.” Accordingly, it “cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom” (Smith, 198).
As the Way of the Universe, the Tao is “the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life” (198). It gives infinite blessings and is immaterial in nature. Lao Tzu wrote that it “adapts its vivid essence, clarifies its manifold fullness, subdues its resplendent luster, and assumes the likeness of dust.”
Finally, “In its third sense,” writes Smith, author of The World’s Religions (the book I am reviewing/studying/critiquing in a series of essays of which this is a fourth), “Tao refers to the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe” (199). This is the Tao referred to in the three Powers – “te”, in the Tao Te Ching.
It is te that divides the three major schools of Taoism. They are Philosophical Taoism, Vitalizing Taoism, and the Taoist Church, or Religious Taoism, and “All have the same concern – how to maximize the Tao’s animating te” (206-207).
The Taoist Church consists of those practicing a rather cult-like blend of Taoism and, ostensibly, Christianity. Philosophical and Vitalizing Taoism are less structured in their beliefs, the former encouraging a Hindu jnana-like reflective nature and the latter a Hindu karma-style activeness. Philosophical Taoists aim towards conserving their te while Vitalizing Taoists try to increase it as much as possible, but both Ways encourage individual soul-seeking under the coaching of a skilled teacher. Religious Taoism is also known as Popular Taoism, Vitalizing Taoism is the most similar to Hinduism, particularly raja yoga, and Philosophical Taoism is the te that has had the greatest influence in China and around the world today.