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Theosophical Encyclopedia


The Chinese system known as Taoism (written “Daoism” in modern pinyin) is divided into two branches or schools, philosophical Taoism called Tao Chia (the Taoist school) and religious Taoism called Tao Chiao (the Taoist sect). The former includes the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tzu, as well as writings attributed to Chuang Tzu (4th cent. BCE) and Lieh Tzu (3rd cent. BCE), along with numerous commentaries, especially on the former work, by Taoists of later centuries. Religious Taoism surfaces in Chinese history during the Later Han Dynasty with a man named Chang Ling or Chang Tao-ling (2nd cent. CE), but undoubtedly it has a more ancient origin. It is the former — especially the Tao Te Ching — which has attracted the most attention from Theosophists, but even that is minimal. There are, for example, only five references in Helena P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine and only two in Isis Unveiled to Lao Tzu or Taoism, none of which make any significant contribution to either work. Most later theosophical writers ignore Taoism completely, although both branches have much that ought to be of interest to theosophists.

The scripture of religious Taoism is the Tao Tsang, an enormous collection of some 1,120 volumes, few of which have been translated into any Western language. It seems to have at least two different layers: an ancient esoteric layer, which involved the search for physical immortality (or longevity) through meditation, breathing exercises, and alchemy (probably a form of kundalini yoga); and a more recent layer, compiled over a period of at least 15 centuries, derived largely from mediumistic “communications” from a variety of “gods.” This Canon includes the Tao Te Ching as one of its scriptures, but in actuality its doctrines are at complete variance with that little classic. Religious Taoism was very important in Chinese history, spawning a number of social and political reform movements, some of which raised armies and gave various dynasties considerable trouble before their rebellions were put down. It now exists in two principal sects, the more formal “black-clad” sect and the more informal barefoot “red-scarf” sect. Both hold religious ritual services, but the latter is perhaps most associated with divination, healing practices, and trance mediumship.

In H. P. Blavatsky’s one relatively extended discussion of Taoism in The Secret Doctrine, she mentions “the sacred scripture of the Tao-sse” — in all probability she means the Tao Tsang — which she says contains “nine hundred and thirty books on ethics and religions, and seventy on magic, one thousand in all.” She says that this massive work is attributed to Lao Tzu (although she makes no such claim herself), which clearly is incorrect. While much of the Tao Tsang is, like much mediumistic writing, unintelligible (some scholars say “written in an esoteric language”), which is of little interest to theosophists, most probably it was the more ancient layer of the Canon which interested H. P. Blavatsky and her Mahštma teachers. And it is conceivable, though there is no evidence for it one way or the other, that a sixth century BCE Taoist known to later generations as Lao Tzu would have been acquainted with its ideas. That may be what HPB is referring to when she speaks of “the esotericism of Lao-tse” which claims that “Spirit,” one of two aspects “which form our Illusory Universe” and “whose essence is eternal, one and self-existent,” emanates “a pure ethereal Light — a dual light not perceptible to the elementary senses . . .” (SD II:26-27). If there was a person called “Lao Tzu” who held that doctrine, it would have been in texts other than the Tao Te Ching, for there certainly is no such doctrine stated in it.

The ancient, esoteric layer of religious Taoism (as well as its later popular forms) accepted the ancient Chinese yin-yang cosmology and the wu-hsing (often translated “five element”) theory, and developed various techniques (meditation, breathing and gymnastic exercises, and dietary restrictions) to create within practitioners an elixir of immortality. Actually, the five hsing — water, wood, fire, earth, and metal — are not really elements in any meaningful sense of the word, but phases in a dynamic, constantly changing world. That is, water supports or nurtures wood, wood supports fire, fire supports earth (through ashes returning to it as well as through volcanos), earth supports or contains metal, and metal supports water (in bowls, etc.). Seen from a different perspective, water triumphs over (i.e., extinguishes) fire, fire triumphs over (melts) metal, metal triumphs over (cuts down, saws) wood, wood triumphs over (grows from) earth, and earth triumphs over (rises out of) water. Thus all are interdependent; none are primordial or basic.

The “elixir” had both an outer (wai-tan) and an inner or occult (nei-tan) aspect. The outer involved cinnabar (tan-sha) which was said to work with the five “elements” to overcome various “tigers” (classified as yin) and foster various “dragons” (classified as yang) in developing longevity or immortality; consuming it was supposed to transmute base metals into gold. Actually, cinnabar or mercurous sulfide (HgS) is a deadly poison causing a horribly painful death if ingested. Obviously, then, these are metaphors or blinds for the real, or inner, interpretation. The occult force known in Sanskrit as kundalini (lit. “serpentine”) is said to be fiery with flashes of silver and to take three circuits along the spine: left, right, and center. A symbolic representation of it is the caduceus, carried in the hand of the Greek god Hermes (Mercury in Roman mythology). Rousing it from the base of the spine is said to awaken one to one’s own spiritual Self (i.e., confer “immortality” to consciousness), enable one to prolong one’s physical life (i.e., confer longevity), and transmute one’s normally dull, leaden-looking psyche into one radiant with golden and silvery hues. Since cinnabar contains both silvery mercury and golden sulphur, but is itself red (i.e., fire-like), the connection with Kundalini Yoga seems hardly coincidental.

Furthermore, some of these practices led ultimately to the present, very popular, physical regimen know as t’ai-chi ch’uan or Taiji in Japanese. It is also obvious that the Taoist psychological technique of “yielding in order to overcome,” as the Tao Te Ching puts it (cf. ch. 22), led to the martial art of ju-tao (“the way of yielding”) or judo in Japanese.

Philosophical Taoism itself has several layers: one embodied in the Tao Te Ching, one found in the Chuang Tzu, and one contained in the Lieh Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is a serious, though often enigmatic, socio-political treatise with a metaphysical underpinning. Although its recommendations often seem contrary to common sense, it is not in any way “escapist.” The Chuang Tzu, named, like most early Chinese classics, after its reputed author, is written in prose and is full of delightful fantasy — often using puns and humor to expose the pompous, pretentious attitudes of those with whom it takes issue. It has 33 chapters, divided by its compiler, Kuo Hsiang (d. 312 CE), into three parts, seven of which are termed “inner chapters,” 15 “outer chapters,” and 11 “miscellaneous chapters.” Scholars generally agree that its “inner chapters” are the most authentic and comprise the heart of Chuang Tzu’s teaching. The Lieh Tzu, begun by Lieh Tzu during the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE), was added to over a period of 600 years until it contained 20 sections; these were later condensed into the eight sections of the text we have today. It is almost exclusively anecdotal in nature, often (though not always) humorous.

Later Taoist philosophers often incorporated Confucian ideas into their teachings, so that one sees a syncretism between Taoist metaphysics and Confucian socio-political philosophy in neo-Taoist writings. The most noted of these neo-Taoist philosophers were Wang Pi (226-249 CE), whose arrangement of the text of the Tao Te Ching is the one generally used by translators today, Ho Yen (d. 249), and Kuo Hsiang (d. 312). Still later, after Buddhism entered China early in the common era, its metaphysical and psychological ideas began to influence both Confucian and Taoist philosophers. The same syncretic tendency may be found in religious Taoism, so that there is hardly any trace left at present of a “pure” philosophical or “pure” sectarian Taoist school. The latter, especially, has now become intermixed with such “occult arts” as astrology, palmistry, phrenology, and numerology.


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