Daoism

Taoism: An Essential Guide
by Eva Wong

Eva Wong on Mysticism

Contemporary scholars of religion have identified several features of mysticism:

1. The cognitive component: the belief system and worldview of mysticism. There are several beliefs that form the core of mysticism. First, mystics believe there is an underlying unity behind all things. This is commonly called the One and it is the true reality. Second, this One, or the underlying reality, cannot be perceived or known by ordinary experience. Third, this One is present in us, and by realizing it internally we can be united with everything around us. Finally, the goal of human life is to achieve unity with this One.

2. The emotional component: feelings that accompany the mystical experience. Bliss, joy, ecstasy, sexual excitement, and intoxication have all been used to describe the feelings of mystical experience.

3. The perceptive component: any visual, auditory, or other sensations that accompany the mystical experience. A heightened awareness of the surroundings and of auditory and visual images is experienced when the underlying reality of the One is directly perceived without the intrusion of rational thinking.

“4. The behavioral component: actions that induce the mystical experience or are the result of it. The mystical experience involves action. Some actions function to induce the experience (such as, Dervish dancing in Sufism, or Islamic mysticism; body postures in yoga; and the rituals of Shang-ch’ing Taoism); other actions result from the mystical experience (such as, walking through fire; speaking in special languages).

There are many similarities between mysticism and shamanism. Each involves an ecstatic experience, transformed perception, feats of power, and a union with a force that takes the individual to a more complete existence than the mundane self. But mysticism and shamanism are not identical. For a long time, it was believed that the difference between the shamanic and mystical experience was that the former required disciplined “cal experience or are the result of it. The mystical experience involves action. Some actions function to induce the experience (such as, Dervish dancing in Sufism, or Islamic mysticism; body postures in yoga; and the rituals of Shang-ch’ing Taoism); other actions result from the mystical experience (such as, walking through fire; speaking in special languages).

There are many similarities between mysticism and shamanism. Each involves an ecstatic experience, transformed perception, feats of power, and a union with a force that takes the individual to a more complete existence than the mundane self. But mysticism and shamanism are not identical. For a long time, it was believed that the difference between the shamanic and mystical experience was that the former required disciplined training and was induced by systematic procedures, whereas the latter was spontaneous. When it became known that Sufism and yoga both employ systematic techniques to induce mystical experience, this criterion no longer held. In fact, Shang-ch’ing Taoism is another case where the mystical experience is induced by systematic procedures that can be practiced only after rigorous training.”

Excerpt From: Eva Wong. “Taoism.” iBooks. 

Eva Wong on Nonaction


The Tao-te ching is the first text of Taoism, and it is certain that the book was written by more than one person. Most historians and scholars now agree that the Tao-te ching was a product of the Spring and Autumn Period. Like its contemporaries, the text discussed statecraft and offered political alternatives. It was only in the Taoism of the Chuang-tzu and the Lieh-tzu that noninvolvement was advocated. ”

Excerpt From: Eva Wong. “Taoism.” iBooks. 

“The Tao is the source of life of all things. It is nameless, invisible, and ungraspable by normal modes of perception. It is boundless and cannot be exhausted, although all things depend on it for existence. Hidden beneath transition and change, the Tao is the permanent underlying reality. These ideas will become the center of all future Taoist thinking.

Although the Tao is the source of all life, it is not a deity or spirit. This is quite different from the shaman’s animistic view of the universe. In the Tao-te ching, the sky, the earth, rivers, and mountains are part of a larger and unified power, known as Tao, which is an impersonal and unnamed force behind the workings of the universe.

However, in the Tao-te ching, this unnamed and unnameable power is not entirely neutral; it is benevolent: “The Celestial Way is to benefit others and not to cause harm” (chapter 81, Tao-te ching); and since the “Celestial Way follows the Way of the Tao” (chapter 25, Tao-te ching), we can assume that in the Tao-te ching, the Tao is a benevolent force.

“The Taoist sage was also a very involved member of the community; in fact, Taoist sages made ideal rulers. One of the most famous ideas of Taoism, and also the source of a lot of misunderstanding, is wu-wei. This word, used in describing the sage and often translated as nonaction, gives the impression that the Taoist sages “did nothing.” This is inaccurate, and could not be used to describe all Taoists. Wu-wei had different meanings for different Taoist philosophers. The wu-wei of the Tao-te ching is different from the wu-wei of Chuang-tzu, which is different again from the wu-wei of Lieh-tzu.

Wu-wei in the Tao-te ching is “going with the principles of the Tao,” and the path of the Tao is a benevolent one. Thus, wu-wei in the Tao-te ching is not “doing nothing”; it is not even the noninterference advocated in the Chuang-tzu. In the Tao-te ching, wu-wei means not using force. The sagely ruler who cares for his subjects in a nonintrusive way also practices wu-wei. Far from doing nothing, the Taoist sage of the Tao-te ching is an active member of society and is fit to be a king.

“On the matter of lifestyle and attitude, the Tao-te ching states that desire, attachment to material things, and activities that excite the mind, rouse the emotions, tire the body, and stimulate the senses, are all detrimental to health.

In the early form of Classical Taoism, it was possible to be active in politics and not sacrifice physical and mental health. The problem arises only when one gets attached to fame and fortune and does not know when to stop. The message in the Tao-te ching is: Cultivate the physical and mental qualities of the sage; get involved and help in a nonintrusive way; retire when the work is done.”

“In shedding the shamanic world of diverse spirits and retaining the personal power of the shaman, the Tao-te ching represents a transition from shamanic beliefs to a philosophical system with a unified view of the nature of reality (the Tao), the sage, and the cultivation of life.”

“In the Warring States, the Taoists of the Chuang-tzu and Lieh-tzu believed that political involvement and longevity were inherently incompatible. With this change in the image of sagehood, the meaning of wu-wei also changed. Wu-wei now meant noninvolvement, or letting things be. The sage was no longer involved with or concerned about the matters of the world. While other people trapped themselves in fame, fortune, and socially accepted behavior, the sage ignored them, and was completely free.”

“By the end of the Warring States Period, Classical Taoism became a voice speaking out against hypocrisy. Since society was corrupt, the only way not to be entangled in the web of truths and lies was to stay out. Thus, an alternative lifestyle, that of the hermit or recluse, emerged. Later, this lifestyle would be adopted not only by Taoists but by some of the greatest poets and artists of China. Far from being seen as escaping responsibility, hermits became the symbol of personal integrity, and their lifestyle an expression of individual freedom.”

Excerpt From: Eva Wong. “Taoism.” iBooks.  

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