The term dao (or tao) literally the “path,” or “way,” has been employed in Chinese religious and philosophical traditions, including Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. In general usage, the Tao refers to the proper way to act so as to fulfill one’s true role in the world. In Daoism, dao points to the ineffable creative process which gives birth to heaven, earth, and the myriad creatures. The Dao is invisible, inaudible, and subtle, though it is not separate from the sights, sounds and objects of this world. It is that which leads from nonexistence to the full flower of existence, and back again, a process which in later Daoist thought expressed in terms of yin and yang.
The Daodejing, literally “The Scripture of the Way and its Power,” has been influential in the philosophical and religious traditions of Daoism. It is traditionally dated to the 6th century BCE, although most scholars believe it was written several centuries later. The text is also known as the Laozi, after its purported author. The Daodejing has been rendered into English dozens of times, making it the most translated of any Chinese work.
The Daoist tradition incorporates a highly diverse range of philosophical, religious, and folk values and practices, all of which share a concern for realigning human life so that it is in better accord with the natural rhythms of the universe. Symbols of particular importance include the Way (Dao), the Great Ultimate (Taiji), yin and yang. The goals of practice are sagehood, immortality, and universal salvation. To attain these goals, Daoists have performed such activities as visualization meditation, forms of calisthenics, alchemical experiments, and elaborate communal rituals. Today, very few active Daoist temples may be found in China, although qigong and taijiquan, both of which are associated with Daoism, have gained popularity not only in China, but in Europe and North America as well.
There are two interrelated forms of Daoist meditation. In one, the practitioner visualizes the characteristics of various deities while reciting their esoteric names and attributes, thereby gaining immortality and acting as the mediator between heaven and earth. The other form is designed to maintain the body’s balanced circulation of qi (vital energy). The person does so by focusing his or her mental energy so that it directs the inner ch’i from one vital organ to another.
Since the Song dynasty (960-1279), the Baxian, or “Eight Immortals” have been a frequent subject of Daoist-inspired legend and artwork. They may be depicted separately, or as a group. The eight include: Zhongli Quan, depicted as a fat man with a bare belly holding a fan with which he can revive the dead; Zhang Guo Lao, a recluse who had numerous powers, such as rendering himself invisible; Lü Dongbin, who traveled the world for several centuries, using his sword to slay dragons and other demons; Cao Guojiu, the patron saint of actors; Li Tieguai, represented as a beggar with an iron staff; Han Xiang Zi, who can make flowers blossom instantaneously; Lan Caihe, the patron saint of florists, as is evident by the flower-basket she carries; and He Xiangu, who became immortal after eating a supernatural peach.
The Healing Tao organization is the largest Daoist organization in the United States with its network of Healing Tao centers. Since the early 1980s, the organization has been led by Mantak Chia, trained in both Daoist practice and Western medicine, who has trained hundreds of practitioners which have led to dozens of Healing Tao centers being established across the globe.
In the Lingbao Daoist tradition the Heavenly Worthy (Tianzun) and other celestial lords are entreated to gain salvation for all humankind.
Ge Hong (c.283-363 CE) was a Daoist alchemist that took the stance that a perfect alignment with the Way results in a person’s attaining immortality. The most direct means to achieve this goal is to ingest potable gold and other elixirs. Since most people are unable to obtain the secret recipe or ingredients for such potions, however, Ge also recommended a wide range of techniques designed to lengthen the lifespan.
Since the 12th century CE the Jade Emperor has been the head of the Daoist celestial pantheon. He presides over the councils of heaven and, on the last day of each year, he receives reports on the activities of all gods and humans so that he may mete out the appropriate reward or punishment.
It is unknown whether a historical Laozi ever existed. The name “Laozi” simply means “Old Master.” According to Daoist legend, in the 6th century BCE this mysterious sage authored the Daodejing, a text which assumed great importance in both philosophical and religious Taoist traditions.
The Lingbao Daoist tradition first arose in 4th century China to provide an indigenous alternative to Buddhism that was open to more general participation than was possible in the rigorous meditative tradition of Shangqing Daoism. To do so, Lingbao priests appropriated many of the scriptures and practices of the Shangqing tradition, but reinterpreted them so that they provided guidance not only for individual cultivation, but rather for universal salvation. Lingbao rituals continue to play an important role in Daoist practice to this day.
Lu Tung-pin is one of the Baxian (Eight Immortals), who are frequently depicted in Daoist artwork. He is said to have been a reclusive scholar in 8th century China who attained immortality at the age of 50. In his right hand he holds a Daoist fly-brush and across his back is usually slung a sword. Before ascending to heaven, he traveled the world for some four centuries, slaying dragons and aiding those in need.
Mazu has been a popular goddess offering protection to Chinese seafarers since at least the 10th century CE. Often, crews who have narrowly escaped sinking during a storm report that, when the tempest was at its most terrifying, Mazu’s spirit guided them to safety. Kublai Khan bestowed upon her the title of Tianhou, Queen of Heaven, in 1278, apparently in hopes of currying favor among the coastal population of Southeast China. As Queen of Heaven, she is subordinate only to the Jade Emperor in the Daoist pantheon.
According to modern Daoist practitioners, the goal of qigong is to enhance a person’s health by maintaining the proper balance of qi (vital energy) and enhancing its free circulation throughout the body. Techniques for accomplishing this include. meditation, taijiquan, massage, acupuncture, and eating a balanced diet.
Practitioners of the Shangqing tradition, which gained popularity in 4th-century China, strove to gain immortality through practicing meditation in a remote location. By visualizing the characteristics of various deities while reciting their esoteric names and attributes, the adept could simultaneously gain immortality and act as the mediator between heaven and earth. Shangqing visualization methods continue to play an important role in Daoist practice to this day.
In early Chinese cosmology, Taiyi, the “Supreme One,” was the god of the center of the universe. Since the advent of the Shangqing Daoist tradition in the 4th century, Taiyi has come to especially represent the universe’s primordial unity.
Taijiquan, literally “the fist of the great ultimate,” refers to a method of calisthenics with roots in ancient Daoist longevity techniques. By following a series of slow, graceful movements, the practitioner attempts to stimulate and harmonize the circulation of qi (vital energy).
Zhuangzi (c.369-286 BCE), second perhaps only to Laozi, is considered one of the main founders of the Daoist tradition. Unlike Laozi, scholars are more certain Zhuangzi was a real historical figure. While the Daodejing was composed in poetry, Zhuangzi’s work, simply called the Zhuangzi, offers much more prose and philosophical narrative advocating a simple, spiritual life far removed from intellectual and political disputes (although it appears that the work is a compilation produced by several offers, making it difficult to pinpoint what was written by the “real” Zhuangzi).