Lao Tzu is the ancient founder of Taoist thought.
Lao Tzu is the ancient founder of Taoist thought.

Taoism is a complex blend of religion, philosophy, and folk tradition that originated in China in the fourth century B.C.E. Taoist practice varies widely, depending on the school of thought in question. As such, Taoist beliefs about sacred sites and places of worship may vary as well.

Taoism in Summary

Chinese sage Lao Tzu is believed to be the originator of Taoism, which is drawn from his work "Tao Te Ching." The title defies easy translation; the best rendering would perhaps be "The Classic of the Way and the Power." It outlines the fundamentals of Taoist thought: a focus on harmony, natural behavior and simplicity; the importance of balance in all things, and the power of "wu-wei." Another term which defies easy translation, it may translate as "not doing" or "effortless effort." "Wu wei" is a philosophy of yielding, the way that water may yield around the stone but will eventual wear the stone away. All of this is a way of reaching the Tao -- literally, the way--of perfect harmony and enlightenment.

The Shape of Taoist Worship

Although its foundation is philosophical, some Taoist traditions are more religious in focus. Borrowing heavily from traditional Chinese religion and Shamanic animism, religious Taoism, an outgrowth of philosophical Taoism, is a complex and shifting blend of theological ideas. Ancestor worship, the traditional Chinese pantheon, and nature worship all combine in this faith. Religious Taoists have a complex and often fluidly defined concept of divinity. Traditional Chinese gods and goddesses, prominent Taoist sages, and nature spirits may all be the objects of worship, along with the philosophical concept of the Tao itself.

A Taoist sacred site may reflect any or all of this diverse heritage of thought and practice. Formalized worship may take place in any of the Taoist temples that abound across China and in Southeast Asia. While the shape and look of a Taoist temple may vary across time and space, the architecture of the of Chinese Taoist temples is generally reflective of Chinese tradition, though outside China local styles are used. Most Taoist temples are structured much like traditional Chinese or Buddhist temples, with shrines for various deities and sages. Offerings to the divine are often made, generally in the form of incense or joss paper. Some Taoist temples or priests with a more Shamanic focus may still perform animal sacrifices, though this practice is increasingly rare.

What Happens in a Temple?

Taoist rituals are carried out in places of worship, sometimes by Taoist priests but often by individual practitioners. The nature of these rituals will vary depending on the individual Taoist sect. Offerings may be given to a god, ancestors, or nature spirits, and the type of offering will vary. Animals, particularly pigs and chickens, may be sacrificed. Offerings may be fruit, incense, or joss paper.

At various festivals throughout the year, priests and practitioners may take part in different observations. The priest may bless the assembled, for instance. Traditional Chinese performances, such as the Lion Dance may take place. During the spring Qingming festival, the alters of the temples and the graves of theancestors are cleaned and decorated, with additional offerings and celebration.

The priest may perform additional rites for individual practitioners. Fortunetelling is a strong Taoist tradition, and the I-Ching, or Book of Changes, is often used toward that end. Taoist priests from more shamanic traditions may consult directly with the spirits or the ancestors. There is also a Taoist tradition of astrology, based on the Chinese model of the cosmos, that is used to tell fortunes for newborn children.

Taoist temples are some of the most important cultural and historical sites in China, in addition to their spiritual significance. One of the most prominent examples is the Eight Immortals Temple (Baxian Gong), in Xi'an, Shaanxi. Named for eight famous Taoist saints, it is also the founding place of the Quanzhen school of Taoist thought.

Qianyong Gate in Sichuan is a particularly interesting Taoist shrine. The Black Ram Gate is the site through which Lao Tzu passed while leaving China. Here, a border guard allegedly implored him to write down his wisdom before leaving, resulting in the Tao Te Ching. The site now contains a fully functional Taoist temple, include statues of some of the great sages of the past.

Natural Sites as Sacred Space

Taoism focuses on harmony, both internally and with the natural world. As such, some natural sites have become the focus of Taoist veneration. Mountains are considered especially sacred in Taoism, as they were traditionally the site of retreat and pilgrimage. Taoist sages would journey to the mountain for prolonged periods of fasting and contemplation. Taishan mountain in Shandong is the easternmost of China's five sacred mountains, and has long been a site of Taoist pilgrimage and meditation. Qingchen Shan is another holy mountain, located in Sichuan province. It is one of the best-preserved Taoist sites in China, home to both a temple and a series of caves used by past sages as retreats.

Water is also a potent symbol is the Taoist tradition, representing purity, flexibility and endlessness. Water in motion is particularly venerated, and many mountain springs and waterfalls have become sites of Taoist veneration. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Longtan Waterfall, located in the Wudong mountains. Legends abound about the religious heritage of the site, and its water is considered to be especially pure.