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Taoism Beliefs and its Philosophical Traditions

Gaynor Borade
Taoism is one of the prominent Chinese religious traditions that bears a long history. Today, it enjoys a newfound niche, mainly because of the clarity of thought that it displays, and its defined perspective that has global appeal.
China has contributed to the contemporary world in more ways than one. Beyond resilience and a genuine application of the principles of communism, it has also shared a lot of the ancient philosophy that has rippled down through the ages.
Despite the common claim that the religions of China are not organized in belief, a deeper insight sheds light on the subtle integrity in different parallelly existing religious traditions. The common thread between the ancient Chinese beliefs is that the practices extolled, do not require leadership, founders or hierarchy.
On the contrary, the whole belief structure is defined by various integrated interactions between the various philosophical traditions that have religion as an offshoot. Most of the Chinese people follow a combination of four belief systems and their respective practices.
These include Chinese folk religion, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. All of them highlight the moral and social life of man, focusing primarily on spiritual growth.
Taoism, as a religion, seems to have originated some 2,500 years ago in China. Also referred to as Daoism, this religious tradition revolves around and focuses on the Tao. The Tao, usually interpreted as 'the way' or 'the manner', is the singular and ultimate truth that governs the functioning of the entire universe.
It is the unknown, unseen, and formless, yet all-pervasive reality. It is not a tangible substance; rather it may be described as the emptiness that triggers the processes of creation and destruction. In human terms, the Tao may be referred to as 'an elaborate system guidance'.
It is a guiding force that unites the followers with the ultimate truth; in other words, it develops in them the capability to understand and live in complete conformity with its teachings.

Beliefs of the Taoists

Taoism celebrates man's association and interdependency with nature. Moving on to a wider plane, the relationship between religion and the universe takes the form of veneration that lies beyond the confines of time and space, ancestor worship, and belief in the sovereign. The concepts on which the system thrives even today, include the following:

The One

The One is the energy, the driving force that makes people and things, what they are. It is an indispensable quality that determines the character of the Tao. It makes an individual or an object, fit in accordance to the guidelines that the Tao is, thus facilitating their union. Some Taoist texts speak of the mother-son relationship between the Tao and the One.

Wu and Yu

Wu and Yu are two opposing concepts. They stand for 'not-having and having' or 'non-being and being', and exist alongside each other at any given point in time. This means that if we consider Wu as an intangible and formless entity, then Yu can be considered as a tangible entity, having a definite form. It has been suggested that Wu and Yu exist alongside each other and may replace each other at any point in time.


Te can be explained as a feeling of awareness that a person has about the Tao. In other words, an individual can realize about the existence of the Tao because of the Te. Te gives a person, the capability to understand the Self in relation to the Tao. It cultivates within an individual, an understanding about the teachings of the Tao and enables him to follow them with discipline, in order to live a good life.

Tzu Jan

One of the main Taoist beliefs lies in the naturalness and spontaneity of nature. They believe that all things and beings should exist and develop in their natural form, and any interruption in the natural processes may lead to disastrous effects. They deny the idea of interference and conflict with nature. Thus, development and fulfillment of everything that exists naturally, is important.

Wu Wei

Wu Wei, in simple terms, refers to 'going with the flow'. It is a method to be followed in order to reach the stage of communion with the Tao. Following the Wu Wei means following the true nature of the world, without interfering with the natural processes and letting the things follow their own natural cycles. An individual who follows the Wu Wei in a proper manner, reaches the Tao on his own, without any kind of help.
Yin and Yang
The Yin-Yang concept in the Tao religious philosophy signifies two completely opposite forces, simultaneously at work in nature. Though these forces have individual existence, yet they depend on each other for their smooth functioning.
In other words, one force is incomplete without the other. Thus, though opposite, they work in complete harmony with each other. These forces can be light and darkness, the masculine and the feminine, or even action and inaction.
The yin-yang symbol aptly depicts the interdependency between the two forces. The light spot on the dark area and vice versa, shows their interconnection. Further, a circle enclosing both the forces signifies their eternal nature. The curved line, where they both meet, indicates their fluctuating cycles.


Also pronounced and spelled as Qi, this concept fundamentally means 'breath'. However, Ch'i also refers to the flow of energy or life. The philosophy highlights the fact that there is a life force that fills the space and pervades everything around us. Ch'i is believed to be the womb of matter. A balance of its quality and quantity is considered very essential for health and wellness, the very reason why it is regarded as the animator of life.

The Body

The Taoists believe that every individual encompasses the universe within him. Hence, in Taoism, the human body is perceived as a miniature model of the universe. They believe that it is within the human body that the gods and the holy spirits reside and thus, it should be venerated. Some Taoist texts suggest that a human body is the visible and the most accessible manifestation of the Tao on earth.


The concept of immortality in Taoist beliefs is very different from the one in other religious traditions. Taoism believes in the achievement of spiritual immortality and not the physical one. The idea is that, in quest of the Tao, as a taoist draws more and more closer to nature, death is a final step leading to the oneness with the Tao.
The taoist concept of immortality pertains to the idea that when the physical body becomes free of all the bondages after death, the soul becomes one with the Tao and thus, achieves spiritual immortality.
All these fundamental concepts that the Taoists believe in, are ways to get closer and closer to the Tao and achieve, what may be called 'complete and true knowledge'. But, human knowledge can never be complete as it is always influenced by the thought process and perception of an individual, who claims it.
Owing to this, there can never be 'true knowledge', due to the fact that every individual has different standpoints and perceptions about the truth. Furthermore, because the universe is dynamic in nature, the knowledge about the universe is also equally dynamic and ever-changing.
Proper knowledge about the Tao may perhaps be the true knowledge; but again, the Tao is an abstract concept that is both, existent and non-existent. So, one may know and not know the Tao, at the same time. 'True knowledge', thus, may never be achieved, but may be realized during various stages of life.

The Tao Pantheon

Taoism has different branches, which have developed over past 2,500 years. Each of these branches have different belief patterns as far as the pantheon of deities is concerned. However, there are certain fundamental beliefs shared by all the Taoist sects.

Three Pure Ones

The Three Pure Ones, also known as the Three Pristine Ones, are the three purest beings and divine teachers of the taoists. They form the Tao Holy Trinity. They are considered as the pure and true embodiment of the Tao and the source of all the consciousness and sentience in the world.
The Three Pure Ones, according to the Tao mythology, are as under:
  • Yùqīng, the Universal Lord of Primordial beginning, also called the Jade Pure One;
  • Shàngqīng, the Universal Lord of Numinous Treasure, also called the Supreme Pure One; and
  • Tàiqīng, the Universal Lord of the Way and its Virtue, also called the Grand Pure One.
They are regarded as the topmost deities of the Taoist pantheon from whom, the other deities and the world emerged.

Jade Emperor

The Jade Emperor is a deity, borrowed by Taoism, from the Chinese folk religion. He occupies the second most important place in the Taoist pantheon. He is the king of the universe, governing heaven, earth and hell.

The Immortals

Taoism identifies eight ageless and very powerful beings, believed to have been born in the Tang dynasty. The Immortals have been depicted in ancient Chinese art and literature. Each one has his own attribute and a special power, and together, they are associated with good fortune.
The eight Immortals stand for age, youth, wealth, health, position, the feminine, the masculine, and the commoner.

The Tao pantheon is not very elaborate and there are a very limited number of deities for an individual to worship. Of course, the number varies from sect to sect. 
One of the interesting factors is that the Taoist pantheon follows a pattern of ancient Chinese imperial bureaucracy, in that there are the Celestial Masters at the top, followed by a king, and then by the Immortals, who pose as the king's ministers.
Taoist faith attempts to eliminate the rift between man and nature. With a number of monasteries and priests functioning all round the globe, and a host of ceremonies and rituals designed for the believers, Taoism seems like a complete culmination of all search and all duality.
It promotes the practices of meditation, reading, and chanting of scriptures, in order to achieve self-development and virtuous living, and finally, to reach the Tao.
Before the advent of communism, Taoism was one of the strongest and most influential religious traditions in China. However, since it came to be regarded as a non-communist religion, it lost a lot of followers. But, there are still hundreds and thousands of Taoists all across the globe, following the doctrines sincerely and making serious attempts to reach the Tao.