Taoism is believed to have originated in China with a man named Lao Tzu at around 500 B.C. The legend says that Lao Tzu was so "saddened by his people's disinclination to cultivate the natural goodness he advocated" that he decided to abandon civilization. Before leaving, he wrote a brief work called Tao Te Ching, (The Classic of the Way and its Power) describing the meaning of the Tao (the way, or path) and how one should live according to the Tao.
The Tao is described in highly poetic allusions that are far from clear. The book directs its readers ‘to take no action contrary to nature’ and to ‘live in harmony with the Tao’.
A follower of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, further developed the Taoist philosophy, emphasising that the Tao cannot be taught or expressed in words. All things are reconciled in the Tao – there is no concept of good and evil. Only virtuous, non-violent, compassionate behaviour can take one closer to the meaning of the Tao.
Taoism becomes a religion
In the first century AD, Lao Tzu gradually became deified, thus enabling his followers to improve their chances of immortality through worship, complex rituals, good deeds and meditation. A pantheon of Gods and the panoply of religion, including magic, geomancy, astrology and communication with spirits developed.
Yin and Yang
Central to the Taoist philosophy is duality, a ‘oneness’ made of complementary opposites. Yang is male, associated with the sun, hot, active, rigid and conformist. Yin is female, associated with the earth, cool, passive, flexible and unorthodox. This principle applies to all elements of existence – from nature to a particular individual. Social disturbance, natural disasters, personal illness, unsettled family relationships and so on are all the result of an imbalance between the forces of Yin and Yang. Restoring harmony cures the ills and gives a sense of direction.
The implications of Yin and Yang
The tacit suggestion that there is a natural law governing all life and directing activity towards harmony prompts Taoists to behave in a way that least disturbs the balance of Yin and Yang. Lifestyles should therefore be based on regulated harmonious behaviour, and relationships between men and women, parents and children, rulers and subjects, should be carefully regulated in the interests of harmony and balance. Government should be minimal and forces for change avoided.
Taoism and other beliefs
The congruity of Taoism and Confucianism is immediately obvious. Confucianism is a means of regulating behavior without a spiritual dimension. Taoism is spirituality and mysticism lacking firm precepts. The association of Theravada Buddhism with Taoism also had synergies –the principles of Buddhism included non-violence, passivity and a path to enlightenment, but lacked ritual. Mahayana Buddhism adopted many of the Taoist Gods and practices.
Vietnam and Taoism
In Vietnam, Taoism is the linking mechanism for Buddhism, Confucianism, Ancestor worship and animism. Countless images of the Gods of Taoism are in temples and pagodas throughout the country. Most homes use their altar to worship the ‘Kitchen God’, the name for the triumvirate of Taoist deities that monitor the families’ behaviour. Many of Vietnam’s festivals, including Tet, have a Taoist tradition.
Fortune-telling, astrology and geomancy are an accepted part of everyday life. Ingredients for traditional medicine and foods are designated as ‘hot’ or 'cool’, and the principle of harmony and balance underpins healthcare.
Visitors to Vietnam will often be puzzled by a small mirrored octagonal disc, with the Yin Yang and other symbols, fixed above the door of most houses and small shops. It is to guard the house by barring wandering spirits, or ghosts.