The Tao, or the Way, defies easy description. Although it may be classified as a religion, it is as much a philosophy that contains simple but perplexing instructions about how to live. "Throw away holiness and wisdom," wrote the famous sage Lao Tse, "and people will be a hundred times happier." Practicing the Tao is primarily an inward journey, but the outer manifestation includes scripture, temples, prayer, a pantheon of local gods and rituals.
History of Taoism
Taoism's roots, like much of its visible manifestations, are buried in shamanic prehistoric China. Some time around 500 B.C.E., a shadowy figure who is called Lao Tse set down the philosophical principles of a Taoist way of life in a collection of teachings we know as the "Tao Te Ching." It has been pondered, studied and used as a guide for living ever since. Gradually, some of the trappings of religion grew around the essential philosophy. There are Taoist priests who perform the complex prayer rituals, temple protocol and scripture memorization, which functions as a kind of prayer. But Taoists do not pray in the way Christians do, for example. They regard gods as embodiments of the principles of the Tao. The essence of the Tao is a personal journey to "Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place."
Taoism has no central god but does admit a pantheon of local, modest deities who perform various functions to assist people in their daily lives. One example is a god still venerated during traditional Chinese New Year celebrations in an annual ritual. In the Tang dynasty, prosperous families who followed the Tao, would invite Taoist priests to read scriptures in their homes before a paper image of the Kitchen God. The Kitchen God, or the god of the stove, was believed to report the deeds -- or misdeeds -- of the family to the ancestors in heaven on the last day of each year. After scriptural recitations, carefully prepared food and ale were offered to the god and the ale was rubbed on the mouth of the departing god. The people believed this would make the god too drunk to report on them in the celestial realms and they might enter the New Year with a new paper image and their own reputations and good fortune intact. You can find paper Kitchen Gods to hang over your stove in many Chinatown shops today.
Prayer, Ritual and Symbol
Taoist temple rituals balance "qi" energy and yin and yang for participants and their communities. Priests recite complex prayers and scriptures, dance and play music as people make offerings, light incense and meditate. The Taoist Federation of Singapore sets out a primer of its practices which are formalized and include prayer postures. For prayer, both hands are balled into fists, left over right with thumbs tucked in to form a Yin-Yang symbol. Incense sticks are held up before the altar and offered with the left hand. The incense symbolizes a sacrifice to the ancestors and the gods. The supplicant bows before the altar as the ashes, standing for impurities, fall to the ground and the smoke -- signalling intentions -- rises, bridging the earth and sky.
The impersonal nature of the Tao resists personifying the gods, although Taoists borrow deities from everywhere. The temples are full of statues and embroidered hangings with images of gods but the images are really reminders of the goal of practice: to achieve the emptiness that comes with acceptance of what is and forfeit the illusion of control. These beliefs are so compatible with Buddhism that many people identify as Buddhists who also follow the way of the Tao. Lao Tse's epic work exhorts Taoists to "Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace." The ideal is a calm transparency, achieved through meditation, contemplation and an appeal to higher powers for the grace of wisdom. One Taoist invocation seems to redefine prayer as the effort to transform oneself into an experience of peace that would ripple outward to affect the world: Empty of all doctrines, the Tao is wisdom eternally inexhaustible ... The Tao that can be told ... If there is to be peace in the world ... I begin this thing called Prayer ...
- Blue Jean Images/Photodisc/Getty Images