To many people, a confusing aspect of Taoism is its very definition. Many religions will happily teach a Philosophy/Dogma which in reflection defines a person. Taoism flips this around. It starts by teaching a truth; “The Tao” is indefinable. It then follows up by teaching that each person can discover the Tao in their own terms. A teaching like this can be very hard to grasp when most people desire very concrete definitions in their own life.
A simply way to start learning the definition of Taoism is to start within yourself. Here are three easy starting steps to learning Taoism:
- Don’t concentrate on the definition of the Tao (this will come later naturally)
- Understand what Taoism really is. Taoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a “religion”. Taoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s own nature.
- The path of understanding Taoism is simply accepting yourself. Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn acceptance of your nature.
Taoism teaches a person to flow with life. Over the years Taoism has become many things to many people. Hundreds of variations in Taoist practice exist. Some of these practices are philosophical in nature, others are religious. Taoism makes no distinction in applying labels to its own nature. This is important since as a person, we are each a blend of many truths. The truth taught in Taoism is to embrace life in actions that support you as a person.
Taoism teaches a person to live to their heart.
Here are some simple starting tips to help a person live as a Taoist.
- Having a set of basic guidelines can be helpful. However realistically, guidelines don’t determine how to live; Instead Taoism teaches by living you will express your nature.My personal guidelines are the following:
- With care, I aid those who are extended expressions of my nature.
- Be true to myself
- Connect to the world as I want to be treated.
- Connect to those outside my nature with decisive action.
- To those unwilling to accept me for my true nature, no action is required:
Just silently let them be themselves as I remain myself.
- I own nothing; I am merely a passing custodian of items outside of my nature.
- Discover a set of practices to aid keeping the mind, body and spirit engaged and strong. Remember practices should support your essence with the activities fitting the needs of the moment. Which means this is a shifting balance of activities relative to your needs. For example I practice martial arts to keep my body strong, yoga to make my body subtle, meditation to clear my mind, bike around simply to fly and lift my spirit. Poetry as a lens of examination. All these and more are my shifting practices to support my essence and in doing each, each helps me learn more about myself and the world.
- Take time, relax and just explore and poke around. Taoism has no plans. Taoism is based upon following your gut feelings and trusting your instincts.
- It’s within the pause of a breath… that each step of living becomes visible for your larger life to improve and follow upon.Smile, when needing to pick a possible next step. To smile is to open possibilities.Breathe when needing a break. Since to breathe is to be at one with yourself.Alternate the two and your path will become free and clear for an entire lifetime of wonder to explore.This may sound simple, but you would be surprise how many people cannot embrace this most basic aspect of Taoist practice! People think it cannot be that simple! Taoism truly is this simple. If you follow and practice step four, not only is that all one needs to fully embrace Taoism, but also anything becomes possible within this simple practice. However, most people need time letting go of expectations. So it’s also ok to dig deeper into Taoism. Taoism has many many levels of teachings on purpose to help people from all perspectives move smoothly in life.
I can summarize Taoism as simply as
Taoism is acceptance of your life.
Taoism is following your breath to find peace.
Taoism is opening up a smile to enable possibility.
If you embrace these three ideas, everything else follows in Taoism. Some people do start here. Others take a longer more colorful path. That’s fine also, since you get to experience more color in your life. No wrong path exists at the end, since it’s about experiencing life.
Practical Taoist Advice
- At times the process of learning Taoism is also a process of healing. Take time to heal (don’t rush and hurt yourself more in the rushing). Taoism teaches to embrace your body with patience.
- There are 6.5 billon people in the world , and so 6.5 billion paths to Taoism, every person can teach us something.
- Sometimes you need quietness; it’s ok to take time off to only hear yourself and not the noise of civilization at times.
- People expect and think that the goal of life is perfection… it’s not… you should desire for being good at something and to embrace the various little imperfections… that end up actually being defining characteristics of each of us.The little bits of imperfection we each have
are elements of chaos
that give each person individuality and distinction!Without our little flaws we wouldn’t be individuals at all! Taoism teaches us how to accept both the best and worse parts of our life.
- Taoism teaches a person to drop expectations. The more expectations you have for your life, the less you will become.A Taoist lives life without expectations, living in the here and now fully.Since most people need a few expectations especially when dealing with important future experiences. Here is a trick.Create only a single expectation at a time for that future experience. For example: An expectation you will smile or have some fun. Thats it! Don’t place any learning or changing into your expectation. If you do , this actually plants the seed for the opposite to occur, By creating a single simple expectation such as smiling, this then becomes something you can always fulfill since you can empower that action to happen. Any expectation more complicated or relying on something outside of yourself, just sets up the future to not meeting your needs.Dropping expectation is very very important within Taoism.
- Lather, Rinse and Repeat , and then toss the instructions away to do what is right for yourself… This is Taoism at the very elemental level, so be open, experiment and embrace what works for you.Taoism as a tradition has teachers who work with students on an individual basis. In the end no guide or Master can be right for everyone. For this reason , we are always our own best teacher. Give yourself credit and patience to be such a teacher to your own life.
- If you need a guide to Taoism, then first start with these three books:
- Tao Te Ching
- Chuang Tzu
- A Personal Tao
I recommend starting with A Personal Tao, as it’s specifically written with a modern perspective to help people discover their nature. Due to the nature of Taoist writings you can easily read all three at the same time and intermix the ideas.
- If you desire a person as a guide, you can find a Taoist temple, Zen Dojo or local sage to simply chat with occasionally. Taoism’s deepest truths must come from the inside, but at times it’s helpful to get an outside perspective to see your own nature.If you are in the Oakland area of California I highly recommend The Taoist Center. Dr Alex Feng is an incredibly open and sincere Taoist Master.I also offer personal Taoist Retreats and Taoism Classes.
- If you cannot find a local resource, then start keeping a journal and over time review it. A journal becomes a nice mirror to reflect upon our nature as we move through life.
History of Taoism
Most sites will teach you the terms and history of Taoism. That might be nice for academics: but it really does nothing for teaching you how to live as a Taoist. Taoism is about embracing life in the now and not in being stuck in history or terms.
Originally Taoism can be considered to be a shamanic practice. However, Taoism is so old; the complete history of Taoism cannot be traced through written records. Taoism is very much a tradition that is transmitted verbally from master to student over the generations. Because of this, some of the shamanic roots of Taoism still survive today. Taoism historically is also a very flexible practice. Taoism is a practice of change and it always changes to meet the needs of the times. This is still happening today and even as we speak Taoism is evolving to keep pace with modern culture. This is one reason Taoism has survived for so long, it always adapts with the time while holding onto a few key concepts to keep the practice true to the Tao.
An early surviving text to describe the Tao is the Tao-Te Ching, written by Lao-Tzu (The old master). The Tao-Te Ching is a series of poems that can be considered to be a work of philosophy, a treatise on how to run a government, a how-to book for achieving a balanced life, or a sage’s reflection of humanity and the universe. It is known to have been written over 2400 years ago but not much else is retained about the origins. Many fun stories abound about these origins; however, these are just that, stories. What is important is that the Tao-Te Ching and its poetry survive, having had an impact on the course of human events over the past 2400 years. It’s an interesting book, worth skimming. I say “skim” because it is written in a light-hearted manner. If a reader stares too hard or takes the Tao-Te Ching too literally, the multiple intentions within the poetry will be lost.
Many many stories, and tales exist about the History of Taoism. Some of these stories could be true, and some could be fables. As a Taoist, the point is to learn from the mixing of our reactions to the tales. Veracity is best left to history; time will always change “truth” for each generation.
Tao and Chinese Culture
Tao is a word. It translates roughly as: the way. When as a Taoist we talk about the Tao, we are talking about the central aspect of our practice. However, it’s important to keep in mind, as a word, the word Tao is used for a lot more than just Taoism. Every religion has its way. Every person has their way. Every practice has their way. There is a Tao for everything. This doesn’t directly mean it’s the same Tao as what we speak about in Taoism. While from a Taoist view point it’s all the same, from a human literary perspective it’s not. So it’s important to always take the word Tao within the context of the statement being made.
For instance: a Confucian will use of the term Tao to cover how they believe and act. On paper, the Tao of Confucianism is quite a bit different than the Tao of Taoism. A Confucian embraces order while a Taoist will dance to chaos. The Tao that a Confucian teaches is a rigid logical complex system of behavior. The Tao of Taoism is freedom to embrace all the whimsy of life. The same Tao both times: in the using the Tao to refer to a way of life, but the actual results, the path taken is quite a bit different. A path is a path but .not all paths lead to the same place while in the process of the journey itself.
Of course to a Taoist all paths do lead to the same place :). It’s just the journey might seem longer to some than others.
So please keep this in mind if you see the word Tao being used in a slightly different context than what you were expecting.
Advanced Taoism: Tao and God
This last section is for the brave of heart, for those wanting a few more advance answers.
First and foremost: Taoism respects the concept of God. Initially one might think a discussion of God would be an impersonal topic. It isn’t. Each person has a very deep and connected relationship in what they view God may or may not be. A person’s view on god is a statement and reflection upon the way a person also views their own life. As a result when discussing differences in God, it’s best to respect it as also being a highly personal and sensitive topic.
When exploring Taoism, eventually a person compares the terms God and Tao. I would suggest first reading this chapter of A Personal Tao on Religion.
From this chapter:
Taoism offers the option to skip the comparison. This question is irrelevant. God could or could not exist, and either state doesn’t change the way we lead our lives. Our lives are expressions of action between ourselves and the universe. To respect our surrounding environment is a furthering of respect to ourselves. This manner of living doesn’t change regardless of the nature of God or the Tao.
However, most people insist upon definition and seeking deeper answers. So lets expand upon God and Tao. God as a term is often “defined” as being an ultimate creator or universal power. The various aspects of God has been fought over as long as humans have written and used words. All definitions are based upon perception. From a Taoist perspective: human based definitions are both right and wrong: as all definitions are relative upon humanity’s state of mind. A Taoist stays out of arguments of definition. It’s not productive arguing over something relative to each person. Instead Taoism accepts each person’s view of God as being personal.
A Taoist doesn’t think the Tao is before, after or is even equal to God. The Tao is a concept to describe something that goes beyond our capability to define. Taoism leaves the Tao undefined and a Taoist happily explores the wonder that opens up as a result.
All Taoist’s will agree: The Tao is indefinable…
Something which is indefinable: is outside of human definition by default. However, we can still accept it as indefinable. The Tao by being indefinable… removes all issues of perception in its definition… since perception cannot directly reveal the Tao which is undefined. It’s just simply and utterly is: undefined…
If your personal definition of God is: God is indefinable… then the Tao and God at that point merge towards the same concept… Once a person accepts the definition of the Tao as being indefinable, that person by definition has to leave it as undefined… Once you place any definition over such a term… it takes a person further away from the whole concept of the Tao.
In some of the Taoist religions, Taoism does have gods, but Taoist gods typically are very tangible beings. They walk besides us, share tea with us, laugh, play and can alter reality. A Taoist god represents an enlightened immortal that helps other conscious beings work towards grace. In Taoism gods are shown as guides and inspriration towards how to find enlightenment. (Please keep in mind: this paragraph is an extreme simplification of how Taoism views Gods.)
We do say in Taoism: We are of the Tao, or God is of the Tao… but Taoist’s say this… since from our perception of living: we are each undefined. We only define ourselves as we live. While living, we are still moving through life, a large part of our nature is indefinable until the end of Living. As a result: we are of the Tao. A Taoist can see the Tao within everything… This can be a very delicate logical truth and often confuses non-Taoist’s. This is why I wrote A Personal Tao: being human we see the Tao in terms of our own life. This brings us full circle in the Tao’s definition. The Tao is indefinable and yet we are completely of the Tao.
A Taoist knows to leave the Tao as is, to grasp the Tao within the chase of living fully. It’s a wonderful contradiction to embrace and it actually does completely full-fill one’s life within that acceptance. For a Taoist this is all about living and exploring our possibilities, for we each are undefined and of the Tao. Trying to define ourselves just limits one’s nature and what can be done. So a Taoist instead embraces the Tao, to discover and open up all possibilities instead.
From here each person is free to draw their own conclusions… which will always shift to the winds of perception.
If this confuses you, then please go back and repeat these three steps:
- Don’t concentrate on the definition of the Tao (this will come later naturally)
- Understand what Taoism really is. Taoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a “religion”. Taoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s own nature.
- The path of understanding the Tao is simply accepting yourself.
Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn acceptance of your nature.
Taoism is not a religion, nor a philosophy. It is a “Way” of life. It is a River. The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living and sentient object, as well as through the entire universe. When the Tao is in balance it is possible to find perfect happiness.
The primary religious figures in Taoism are Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, two scholars who dedicated their lives two balancing their inner spirits.
The most common graphic representation of Taoist theology is the circular Yin Yang figure. It represents the balance of opposites in the universe. When they are equally present, all is calm. When one is outweighed by the other, there is confusion and disarray. The Yin and Yang are a model that the faithful follow, an aid that allows each person to contemplate the state of his or her lives.
More a mode of living than an actual theology, Taoism asks that each person focuses on the world around him or her in order to understand the inner harmonies of the universe. It is a kind of religious system heavily focused on meditation and contemplation. The Tao surrounds everyone and one must listen to find enlightenment.
Taoism is a religio-philosophical tradition that has, along with Confucianism, has shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. The Taoist heritage, with its emphasis on individual freedom and spontaneity, laissez-faire government and social primitivism, mystical experience, and techniques of self-transformation, represents in many ways the antithesis to Confucian concern with individual moral duties, community standards, and governmental responsibilities.
Taoism encompasses both a Taoist philosophical tradition (Tao-chia) associated with the Tao-te Ching (Lao-tzu), Chuang-tzu, Lieh-tzu, and other texts, and a Taoist religious tradition (Tao-chiao) with organized doctrine, formalized cultic activity, and institutional leadership. These two forms of Taoist expression are clearly interrelated, though at many points in tension. Aspects of both philosophical and religious Taoism were appropriated in East Asian cultures influenced by China, especially Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Traditionally, Taoism has been attributed to three sources, the oldest being the legendary ‘Yellow Emperor’, but the most famous is Lao Tse’s Tao Teh Ching. According to tradition, Lao Tse was an older contemporary of Kung Fu Tse (Confucius). The third source is Chuang Tse’s (untitled) work.
But the original source of Taoism is said to be the ancient I Ching, The Book Of Changes.
The Tao was written in a time of feudal warfare and constant conflict. Lao Tzu was reflecting on a way which would stop the warfare, a realistic path for humanity to follow which would end the conflict. And so he came up with a few pages of short verses, which became the Tao Te Ching. This is the original book of Tao.
It was shortly followed by a series of commentaries, and commentaries on the commentaries, and then hybridized with Confucianism, Buddhism, and a clutch of other Eastern religions. Books of Tao from around the time of Christ more closely resemble an unexpurgated 10 commandments than the poetic Tao Te Ching, carefully delineating everything from the proper system of greetings to the proper way to clean one’s house. Most modern Taoists consider this to be a radical departure from the true Tao, since Lao Tzu abhorred the caste systems of Confucianism that riddled the later Taoist books.
However, Lao Tzu did leave us a problem in translation. Ancient Chinese was extremely succinct, having no verb tense or other complex grammatical construction. The first sentence, for instance, of the Tao Te Ching, is usually translated as, “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.” Literally, that sentence reads, “The Tao that can be Tao’d is not the true Tao.”
Likewise, one of the better-known phrases from the Tao Te Ching is, “I am good to the man who is good to me, likewise, I am also good to the bad man.” Literally, this sentence would read, “The good man, I good him. The bad man, I good him too.”
Does this mean the Sage is good to him, as most translations suggest, or that he makes him good, or both? There’s as much room for interpretation in the Tao as in just about any text in existence.
Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of wu wei, action through inaction. This does not mean, “sit on your ass and wait for everything to fall into your lap.”
What it really means is a practice of minimal action, particularly violent action. It is the practice of going against the stream not by struggling against it and thrashing about, but by standing still and letting the stream do all the work.
Thus the sage knows that relative to the river, he still moves against the current. To the outside world the sage appears to take no action – but in fact he takes action long before others ever foresee the need for action. Thinking well about one’s actions before making them is another aspect of the Tao.
Likewise, the Taoist is not precisely a pacifist. He will take military action when he has not seen far enough ahead to prevent the need for violence in the first place. When violence is needed, the Taoist leader will fight until he has achieved his goal, and then stop, saddened at the need for bloodshed and with resolve to foresee better into the future.
Taoism can also be called “the other way,” for during its entire history, it has coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which served as the ethical and religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire.
Taoism, while not radically subversive, offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of choosing between Confucianism and Taoism. Except for a few straight-laced Confucians and a few pious Taoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both — either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and taste.
Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated by Laozi (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination.
Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism (see article on Confucianism), developed the notion of the Dao (Tao – way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force – unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations – that lies behind the functioning’s and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order?
The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao — nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei — lit. no-action), action modeled on nature.
Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise, learned and a moral paragon. Zhuangzi’s sages were often artisans, butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.
Throughout Chinese history, people weary of social activism and aware of the fragility of human achievements would retire from the world and turn to nature. They might retreat to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty.
They would compose or recite poetry about nature, or paint a picture of the scene, attempting to capture the creative forces at the center of nature’s vitality. They might share their outing with friends or more rarely — a spouse, drinking a bite of wine, and enjoying the autumn leaves or the moon.
Chinese utopian writings also often bore a Taoist stamp. Tao Qian’s (T’ao Ch’ien, 372? -427? A.D.) famous “Peach Blossom Spring” told the story of a fisherman who discovered by chance an idyllic community of Chinese who centuries earlier had fled a war-torn land, and had since lived in perfect simplicity, harmony, and peace, obliviously unaware of the turmoil of history beyond their grove.
Although these utopians urged him to stay, the fisherman left to share his discovery with friends and a local official. He could never find his way back. He did not understand that this ideal world was to be found not by following an external path, but a spiritual path. It was a state of mind, an attitude, that comprised the utopia.
If Taoist ideas and images inspired in the Chinese a love of nature and an occasional retreat to it from the cares of the world to rest and heal, it also inspired an intense affirmation of life: physical life — health, Well being, vitality, longevity, and even immortality.
Laozi and Zhuangzi had reinterpreted the ancient nature worship and esoteric arts, but they crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life.
Some Taoists searched for “isles of the immortals,” or for herbs or chemical compounds that could ensure immortality. More often, Taoists were interested in health and vitality; they experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, greatly advancing these arts; they developed principles of macrobiotic cooking and other healthy diets; they developed systems of gymnastics and massage to keep the body strong and youthful.
Taoists were supporters both of magic and of proto-science; they were the element of Chinese culture most interested in the study of and experiments with nature.
Some Taoists believed that spirits pervaded nature (both the natural world and the internal world within the human body). Theologically, these myriad spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, which could not be represented as an image or a particular thing.
As the Taoist pantheon developed, it came to mirror the imperial bureaucracy in heaven and hell. The head of the heavenly bureaucracy was the jade Emperor, who governed spirits assigned to oversee the workings of the natural world and the administration of moral justice.
The gods in heaven acted like and were treated like the officials in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal of attitudes toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell acted like and were treated like the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers in the real world; they were bribed by the people and were ritually arrested by the martial forces of the spirit officials. The common people, who after all had little influence with their earthly rulers, sought by worshipping spirits to keep troubles at bay and ensure the blessings of health, wealth, and longevity.
The initiated Taoist priest saw the many gods as manifestations of the one Dao. He had been ritually trained to know the names, ranks, and powers of important spirits, and to ritually direct them through meditation and visualization. In his meditations, he harmonized and reunited them into their unity with the one Dao. However, only the educated believers knew anything of the complex theological system of the priest.
Taoism encompasses both a Taoist philosophical tradition (Tao-chia) associated with the Tao-te Ching (Lao-tzu), Chuang-tzu, Lieh-tzu, and other texts, and a Taoist religious tradition (Tao-chiao) with organized doctrine, formalized cultic activity, and institutional leadership.
These two forms of Taoist expression are clearly interrelated, though at many points in tension. Aspects of both philosophical and religious Taoism were appropriated in East Asian cultures influenced by China, especially Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Tao is the Absolute, the “Uncarved Block” experienced only in mystical ecstasy.
Te is the manifestation of the Tao within all things. Thus, to possess the fullness of te means to be in perfect harmony with one’s original nature.According to Chuang-tzu (fl. 4th century BC), an individual in harmony with the Tao comprehends the course of Nature’s constant change and fears not the rhythm of life and death.
As is accomplished at death, so in life must the individual return to the original purity and simplicity of the Tao.
In contrast to the Confucian program of social reform through moral principle, ritual, and government regulation, the true way of restoration for the Taoists consisted in the banishment of learned sageliness and the discarding of wisdom. “Manifest the simple,” urged Lao-tzu, “embrace the primitive, reduce selfishness, have few desires.”
As the Tao operates impartially in the universe, so should mankind disavow assertive, purposive action. The Taoist life is not, however, a life of total inactivity. It is rather a life of nonpurposive action (wu-wei). Stated positively, it is a life expressing the essence of spontaneity (tzu-jan, “self-so”).
While the Chuang-tzu and Lieh-tzu are guides directing all persons in the realization of total freedom, the Tao-te Ching is addressed in particular to rulers. Great rulers, taught Lao-tzu, simply follow Nature and the people only know of their existence.
While in fundamental ways such a goal was incompatible with the aims of philosophical Taoism, there were hints in the texts of the philosophical tradition to the extension of life and the protection from harm possible for those in harmony with the Tao.
The lives of such ‘perfected ones’, or ‘hsien’ (Immortals) as they came to be called, became the central paradigms of religious Taoism.
Lao-tzu became deified as a revealer of sacred texts and a savior, and techniques of spiritual attainment became fully elaborated.
Techniques for achieving immortality included dietary regimens, breath control and meditation, sexual disciplines, alchemy, the use of magical talismans, and the search for the fabled Isle of Bliss. Dietary concerns focused on necessary nourishment while abstaining from foods that benefited the “three worms” in the body (which caused disease, old age, and death). In meditation, the Taoist adept visualized the thousands of gods that inhabited the human body (microcosm) as they inhabited the universe (macrocosm).
Through breath control and the movement of breath throughout the fields of the body, the individual both approached immortality in this life and achieved it finally through the nourishment within of a mysterious “embryonic body,” which became the immortal self after death.
By avoiding ejaculation during the sexual act, it was believed that semen could be mixed with breath to further nourish the embryonic body or be forced back through the spinal passage to repair the brain. In its search for an elixir of immortality, Taoist alchemy developed both chemical experimentation (wai-tan) and a theoretical internal alchemy (nei-tan).
Nei-tan sought to invert the normal aging processes by an energizing marriage of the cosmic Yin and Yang forces within the body. Talismans (fu) were used for healing, protection from demons, and communication with Taoist immortals.
Two late 4th-century movements were also very important: (1) the Shang-ch’ing (Supreme Purity) Mao Shan sect, and (2) the Ling Pao (Sacred Jewel) scriptural tradition. During the T’ang dynasty (618-907), Taoism received special favor at court and was characterized by doctrinal and liturgical syntheses. Despite attempts during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to curb a growing sectarianism, there remained in the late 20th century a polarization between classical orthodox tradition and heterodox traditions. On Taiwan, orders of the former tradition are referred to as “Blackheads” and those of the latter as “Redheads.”
While the future of Taoist practice on the mainland remains in question, there has been in recent decades some renewed interest in the religion on Taiwan. In addition, Western scholars have recently begun to investigate carefully the many contributions of Taoism to the development of Chinese culture.