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  Daoism (or Taoism) derives its name from the book Dao de jing (‘Classic of the Way and its Power’). This was formerly attributed to a sage of the 6th century  BCE, Lao-zi (‘the old philosopher’), but is now thought to have been compiled in the 3rd century  BCE. Nonetheless, tales of Lao\'s miraculous powers continued to circulate, at least at a popular level, for centuries. He was 62 years (or 82) years in the womb, and was born with snow-white hair and able to speak. When he was 160 years old (or 200), disgusted with the world, he mounted a chariot drawn by a black ox and galloped off to paradise. On the way, stopped by a toll-keeper and asked to leave some remnant of his wisdom to ordinary mortals, he sat down and wrote the Dao de jing.

Dao means ‘the way’, and Daoism began as a mystic religion practised by ascetics. It was not until the 1st century  CE that it was codified into a popular religion of practice, in a form which has lasted, practically unchanged, to the present day. Dao is the way of things, the primal force in the universe, omnipresent, all-controlling, unfathomable and indescribable. Our aim in life should be to become one with the dao, and this is done by living a harmonious life, by meditation, simple living and openness of spirit. There are close links with Confucian thought in all this, and the two systems have become inextricably linked in Chinese philosophical and religious practice.

The harmony of the dao depends, in part, on an exact balance of opposites: good and evil, light and dark, motion and stillness, negative and positive, feminine and masculine. This harmony is shown in the symbol of Yin and Yang: a circle formed by two intercoiled, tadpole-like shapes, one dark, one light. The Yin is dark, feminine and negative; the Yang is light, masculine and positive. Everything which exists is a balance of Yin and Yang, and only so long as that balance is maintained can there be universal harmony. Enlightenment involves both perception and acceptance of that balance. (In popular religion, the balance can be upset by hostile forces, natural or supernatural, and restored by prayer and sacrifice.)

In the Middle Ages, it was thought that oneness with the dao conferred immortality. This in turn led to the notion that our earthly bodies could be transmuted to their supernatural, immortal forms by alchemy, and alchemical research was a central interest of Daoists for centuries. Similarly, divination was considered a way to find out more about the inscrutable nature of dao, and to investigate those aspects of it which lay outside mortal time and space. A favourite form of divination was to consult the Yijing (or I ching, ‘book of changes’), a collection of oracular statements which you read in accordance with chance numerological patterns discovered by such means as tossing handfuls of sticks on the ground. Astrology became an inextricable part of Daoist practice, to the point where its true purpose (to explore the dao) was blurred into mundane futurology. The Dao de jing itself contains what is perhaps the definitive argument against all such foolishness. Chapter 40 begins ‘Reversal is the movement of the dao’—that is, whatever we perceive to be the dao, the opposite is true (and continues to be so even if we move to take the opposite view); truth and falsity are opposites, and the harmony between them is paradox.

If Confucianism was the practical aspect of Chinese philosophy and religion for two millennia, Daoism was its esoteric and mystical branch. A grossly simplified form of it became popular in the West in the 1960s, and still distorts the Western perspective of what it was, is, and means. Virtue (de), for the true Daoist, is a quality not of individuals but of the dao itself: we find ourselves by losing ourselves. With virtue, as the Dao de jing puts it, ‘everything returns to its original, natural state, and total harmony is reached’. KMcL

See also Buddhism.Further reading C.K. Chang, Religion in Chinese Society; , Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power (translation, with good notes and introduction, of the Dao de jing); , Richard Wilhelm and , Cary F. Baynes, The I Ching or Book of Changes (translation, with good notes and introduction).



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