Taoist Beliefs on End of Life Care

Taoists believe in universal harmony, which affects end of life decisions.
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Taoism is a Chinese religious tradition and spiritual philosophy that emphasizes harmony with the Tao, or Dao, in contemporary language. Tao is a Chinese expression meaning “way," "path" or “principle.” It signifies both the origin of the universe and the omnipotent force flowing through all life. A Taoist’s ultimate objective is to harmonize with the Tao, which is regarded as natural law. The desire to be in harmony with the Tao affects end of life concerns, such as palliative care, experimental treatments, life support, death and bereavement.

1 Palliative Care

Palliative care may be necessary for someone who is terminally ill. In some cases, families must make palliative care decisions on a patient’s behalf. People with terminal illnesses often prefer to be as comfortable as possible, even if it requires the use of toxic and addictive drugs. Pain management typically involves analgesics and sedative drugs, but also may include radiation treatments, massage, acupuncture, meditation and aromatherapy. For a Taoist patient, natural pain relief is the most acceptable choice. Drugs are not off-limits as long as the medication serves a purpose by restoring the body’s natural capacity to function. When treatment is no longer helpful, a Taoist will allow nature to take its course.

2 Self-Determination and Patients’ Rights

A patient’s right to self-determination has been an important legal and medical ethics issue in recent decades. In some countries, “right to die” activists have successfully pushed for legislation allowing euthanasia. Although patients' rights vary depending on jurisdiction and social customs, patients generally have the right to choose treatments, designate decision makers and exercise control over their care. Because of the emphasis on family in Asian cultures, a Taoist family plays a key role in making end of life decisions.

3 Experimental Treatments, Interventions and Life Support

Taoists believe that human beings are elements of a harmonious universe in which everything is interrelated. They also feel that health depends on letting the Tao flow freely and maintaining universal harmony, which includes harmony within the body. Medical interventions often conflict with Taoism by disrupting the Tao’s flow. When it is technologically possible to delay the death of a loved one, the Taoist custom of filial piety, or absolute devotion to family, can influence the decision to try experimental treatments, life support and other unnatural efforts to prolong life.

4 Death and the Afterlife

Like Buddhists, Taoists regard death as a natural part of life. As for those left behind, Taoists believe that death does not disconnect the living and the dead. There is no unified Taoist concept regarding the afterlife due to the influence of Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Confucianism and Chinese folk religion. In Chinese culture, most ideas concerning the afterlife are Buddhist and have been adopted by Taoism, including the concept of rebirth. It is commonplace for both Taoist and Buddhist priests to preside at a funeral service, and the organization of Taoist and Buddhist funerals are similar.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.