January 13, 2006 at 8:52 am #9857
This is a short summary of Taoist history by Stuart Alve Olsen that focuses on the one unifying theme behind the diverse strands of Taoism – the quest for immortality. What he doesn’t mention is that Taoists “effortlessly strive” (how is that for a nice paradox?) to attain immortality in the present moment, not in a some future heaven.
Brief Overview of Taoist History
Excerpted from The Jade Emperors Mind Seal Classic
The origination of what we have come to know as Taoism is as elusive and obscure as the experience of Tao itself. There is no single event, creator, or text that gives us a precise knowledge of when Taoism began. Nor is there one text within Taoism that tells us precisely what Tao is or how to attain it. For Lao Tzu himself, the attributed founder and sage of Taoism, tells us in his work the Tao Te Ching, The Tao that can be explained is not the true Tao. Yet, despite all this elusiveness and obscurity, Taoism has maintained a very long history in both popularity and practice. It is one of the two indigenous religious-philosophical traditions of China, and of these two it was the first.
In attempting to find an origin we must begin with Emperor Huang Ti (The Yellow Emperor), who desperately sought the means to immortality. Within his attributed work, the Nei Ching (Inner Classic), we find many references that go back further than his time. One of these references is to the Western Royal Mother (Hsi Wang Mu), who through her three female attendants (Multihued Girl, Mysterious Girl, and Plain Girl) gives the Yellow Emperor instructions on sexuality for the attainment of immortality. We also find his physician, Chi Po, giving him advice as well, which have become the basis for acupuncture, qigong, yin-yang and Five Element (Wu Hsing) theory, and preventative Chinese medicine. Despite this work, it is still not the origination of Taoist ideas and philosophy.
A text called the Yin Convergence Classic (on the attainment of Tao) is thought to predate the Nei Ching, but this is uncertain. This small writing occupies the first text presented in the Tao Tsang (Taoist Canon), and many of the ideas and terms expressed in this work greatly influenced later Taoists writings. The popular divination process, later to become the I Ching (Book of Changes) also supposedly predated the Yellow Emperor. Going further back still there is Fu Hsi, the first emperor of China, who supposedly invented the Eight Diagrams of the I Ching, and is therefore considered the founder of Taoism. But all of this is conjecture; it is all clouded in wild history, and further confused by the Great Book Burning of another emperor called Huang Ti of the Chin dynasty (he was responsible for constructing the Great Wall of China). Much of Chinese history was lost under his tyrannical rule.
Taoism itself is primarily a philosophy of living naturally within the world, neither contending with nor altering nature. But behind this ideal of nature living, Taoism is infused with the attainment of immortality. The more one examines Taoism it becomes abundantly clear that living naturally is inclusive to immortality, being the very purpose. Indeed, the mysticism of immortality is Taoism at its heart. The very reason for living naturally within nature is for the purpose of attaining immortality, and over the last 3,000 years of Taoist history we can scarcely find anything within it that is not directed towards this ideal.
Moving on in history we find Lao Tzu of the Chou dynasty, who left behind what has come to be the main text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (The Classic on Tao and Virtue). From this work we see the inspiration for Chuang Chou, one of Chinas preeminent Taoist philosophers and surely one of its greatest writers who produced the Chuang Tzu, and then the Lieh Tzu by Lieh Yu-Kuowhich have become the three main philosophical works of Taoism. Chang Tao-Ling (146 A.D.) was the first who organized Taoism as a religion. There was also Ko Hung, the Sung dynasty Taoist, who wrote the first personal examination of Taoism and immortality called the Pao Pu Tzu. From here we come to such Taoist greats as Lu Tung Pin and his fellow band of the Eight Immortals.
In looking much closer at the history of Taoism, we find that each Taoist gave us something in particular that continues to color and flavor all of Taoism. Even though the following descriptions of a number of influential and famous Taoists are brief and serve little justice to these noble and gifted men, they provide an overview of how Taoism and its ideologies were formed.
Famous Taoists, Their Works, and Important Events
Fu Hsi gave Taoism the first sense of human spirituality and the possibility of immortality through his divine vision of the Eight Diagrams.
Huang Ti gave Taoism the primary theory of the Three Treasures, sexual yogas, and Chinese medicine.
Lao Tzu gave Taoism the philosophy of wei wu wei (active non-aggression) and the very notion of this enigma called Tao.
Chuang Tzu gave Taoism the premise of the naturally just-so and the illusionary aspects of the mind.
Lieh Tzu gave Taoism a better and broader sense of both immortals and immortality.
Chang Tao Ling gave Taoism its first established religious organization under the name of the Celestial Masters sect.
Chung-Li Chuan gave Taoism the first established practices of Tao Yin in the form of the Eight Brocade exercises.
Lu Tung Pin gave Taoism the ideal of the wandering Taoist, poet, and martial artist. Along with Chung-Li Chuan and others, the Eight Immortals were formed, becoming the most popular of all Taoist folk legends.
Ko Hung gave Taoism its first personal record of a search for the alchemical solution to immortality.
Wang Che gave Taoism its first monastic approach to practice with his sect of Complete Reality.
Liu Hai Chan preserved many of Taoisms more traditional teachings and is considered the founder of the Southern Cheng I sect.
Chui Chang-Chun, the disciple of Wang Che, formed the Dragon Gate sect.
Chang Po Tuan, the disciple of Liu Hai-Chan, was first to instill the teachings of the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, Hui Neng, into the teachings.
Although these classic writers of Taoism professed a philosophy, aired political and social problems, and countered the misinterpretations of rival doctrines, their writings always hold immortality at their core.
When reading these texts it is evident that the philosophy is about attaining the Way (actual attainment of immortality), about how the imperials and politics of the day that prevented men from living naturally so they might achieve immortality, about how popular doctrine of the day, namely Confucianism, prevented men from living naturally as well.
So, to approach Taoism correctly there must be this understanding of its undercurrent of immortality and immortals. Just as Buddhism is about the attainment of Buddhahood, or Christianity about entering Heaven, Taoism is about immortality. Buddhist and Christian ideals are also based on this achievement; whether through the immortality of nirvana or the immortality of eternal life in Heaven.
Even though I mention but a handful of great Taoists of Chinas incredibly long history, there are countless others, an entire host of mortal men and women, immortals, spirits, and gods who make up the Taoist pantheon. All these cumulative efforts over many centuries have given mankind one of its greatest and most enduring philosophies about personal freedom, humanity, nature, and spirituality.
As the least dogmatic of all spiritual traditions, Taoism focuses on the development and freedom of the individual, seeing non-conformity, non-aggression, and non-interference in the workins of others as the ideal conducts of a human being. Furthermore, the activities of frugality, mindfulness, and compassion as the ideal for human behavior. Taoism is simple and only relies on a person being what Chuang Tzu called, naturally-just-so and the uncarved block. Mortals injure themselves spiritually through all their scheming for position, shorten their lives with all their desires for fame and profit, and harm their True Nature by clinging to the red-dust world.
Taoism professes that everything a person needs for this ideal and natural way of living and achieving immortality is no further out of reach than ones own body and is within nature itself. We need not, as Lao Tzu clarifies, leave our own backyard. All the minerals and herbs lay before us, and all the internal and spiritual energies lay within us. Immortality to the Taoist is not necessarily a secret rite of passage, rather a natural spiritual quest of every individual from the moment of birth.
As these great sages of old clearly understood, within every person lies a primal need for freedom of body and spirit, to live in joy and contentment with nature, to live forever in peace and harmony, and to always maintain youthfulness even within old age. With these beliefs at its core, it is little wonder that Taoism has attracted so much attention throughout Chinas history.
Stuart Alve Olson
See The Jade Emperors Mind Seal Classic for more information about Taoism and its history
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