Depiction of Lao Tzu, author of the
Depiction of Lao Tzu, author of the "Tao te Ching," Taoism's foundational text.

Taoism is part religion and part philosophy, like most Eastern religions. Gods exist in Taoism, but Taoists do not worship any one god. Taoism contains beliefs about what happens after death, but the religion itself is focused almost exclusively on life and how to lead a good one -- or just as importantly, a long one. Taoist beliefs about the afterlife reflect the religion’s approach to life, rather than death.

A Brief History of Taoism

There is no identifiable time when Taoism began. The ideas that came to be known as Taoism were developed through ancient Chinese oral tradition. In the third century B.C., the philosopher Lao-tzu assembled these ideas, or his interpretation of them, in a volume titled “Tao te ching,” which became the fundamental text of Taoism, remaining so until this day. Lao Tzu became the religion’s first “Celestial Master.” There is doubt whether Lao Tzu wrote the book or if he existed at all. Some scholars believe the religion has roots in an earlier collection, “Songs of Chu,” which focused on diet and meditation as means to spiritual and physical health, leading to immortality, a major objective of Taoism.

Basic Principles of Taoist Belief

“Tao” means simply, “way.” While there are numerous other possible translations of the word, such as “course,” “method,” “practice” and so on, “way” is generally considered the best because of its multiple meanings. It can mean the “way” as in “the path,” prescribing a road which followers should take. It can also mean, “way” as in “the way to do something,” giving instructions for specific aspects of life. Simplicity is central to Taoism. People overcomplicate and overthink their lives, the Tao te Ching teaches. Taoism values intuition over logic, effortlessness over toil and most important, peace over conflict.

Taoist Beliefs on Death and the Afterlife

Taoist sages are depicted surrounded by symbols of long life.
Taoist sages are depicted surrounded by symbols of long life.

The Taoist view of death may confuse to those accustomed to the detailed, specific portraits the afterlife in Christianity and Islam (Judaism is less clear). There is no doctrine and in fact, what happens after death is not important to Taoists, whose ambition is immortality. Taoism stresses health and longevity through diet and meditation. Death is nothing but a return to the Tao. A practitioner of Taoism strives to render death meaningless by becoming one with the Tao. At that point, whether the person is alive or dead makes no difference.

Death Rites and Rituals in Early Taoist Practice

Taoists were traditionally not concerned about death because they expected to live forever. Inevitably, this proved not to be the case. So they developed elaborate rites to protect the spirit from evil. Taoists believed that the body was populated by many spirits. The idea of funeral rituals was to keep those spirits from straying too far from the deceased's body. Taoists envisioned a complex, bureaucratic hierarchy of spirits who must be petitioned and appeased in order to insure smooth passage to reincarnation. This structure was likely modeled after government bureaucracies of the era, which sound very similar to those that exist today.