Outline of Taoism

Taoism / Daoism: Great review for students and other learners. Please see a Christian reaction at the end of the post.

Let’s get started first with the big picture of Chinese religious development, and then Taoism comes after.

Chinese Religious Development: The Big Picture



6000 BCE to 11th century BCE Earliest Records; polytheism; bone and shell divination; ancestor worship; tombs for powerful; Shang Dynasty (1500-1040 BCE)
11th century BCE to Begin. of CE Chou (Zhou) Dynasty (1040 to 256 BCE); “Decree of Heaven” is source for king’s authority; awareness of Supreme God: Shang Ti; emphasis on morality and right living: Confucius and Lao-tzu (Taoism) live
Begin. of CE to 11th century CE Buddhism and Religious Taoism
11th century CE to Present Eclecticism: synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

I. Basic Chinese Religious Concepts

A. Polytheism: many gods

1. Gods of Heaven and Earth

2. Local Deities

a. Shen: Beneficial spirits of lighted places

b. Kuei: Evil spirits of dark places

3. Sacrifices

B. Yin and Yang

1. Two Primal Forces, Rhythms

2. Opposites

3. Yin: Dark, Negative, Female, Cool, Damp, Earth, Moon, Shadows

4. Yang: Light, Positive, Male, Warm, Dry, Sun

5. All things are a combo of two forces, except Sun and Earth

6. Universe is a living being

7. Happiness results when Y/Y in harmony

C. Ancestor Worship

1. Elders venerated

2. Family Values

3. Forget ancestors? Disgrace!

4. Ancestors can help with spirit world

5. Sacrifices to ancestors essential

D. Shang Ti (a k a T’ien or Tian)

1. Supreme God—personal?

2. Chou Dynasty asserts right to rule

3. Decree or Mandate of Heaven: Morality sustains dynasty

4. S/T judges Good and Evil, esp. rulers

5. S/T prefers righteousness over sacrifices

6. Close to Hebrew ethical monotheism

E. Decline of Chou Feudal System

1. Dates: 8th down to 3rd century BCE

2. Rise of Warlords

3. Rise of Philosophical-Religious Schools to deal with chaos


I. Life of Lao-Tzu

A. Real Name: Li-poh-yang (little known of him)

B. Lives in 6th century BCE (500s)

C. Legend: flees China, but stopped by border guard and writes:

D. Book: Tao Te Ching (a k a Dao De Ching)

II. Tao Te Ching

A. “Classic [Ching] of the Way [Tao] and Its Virtue [Te] [or Power]”

B. 5,200 words in 80 chapters (stanzas)

C. Composed over century (to 4th cent. BCE)

D. Main Themes

1. Human Achievements Are Folly

2. Therefore, follow the Tao

3. Tao is not a personal God

III. Core Teachings of Early Taoists

A. Tao Is Fundamental, Impersonal Force

B. Basic unity behind universe

C. Way or way of nature

D. Impersonal Force

E. Like a river

F. Like an Uncaused First Cause

G. Through Understanding and Wisdom a human comes to know it; also thru simplicity

There is a thing confusedly formed,

Born before heaven and earth,

Silent and void.

It stands alone and does not change,

Goes around and does not weary

Know the male,

But keep to the role of the female

And be a ravine to the empire

The highest good is like that of water. The goodness of water is that it benefits ten thousand creatures, yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain. It is this that makes water so near the Way. And if men think the ground the best place for building a house upon, if among thoughts they value those that are profound, if in friendship they value gentleness; in words, truth; in government, good order; in deeds, effectiveness; in actions, timeliness—in each case it is because they prefer what does not lead to strife, and therefore does not go amiss.

There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,

Which existed before heaven and earth.

Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change.

It operates everywhere and is free from danger.

It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name, I call it Tao.

If forced to give it a name, I shall call it Great.

Now being great means functioning everywhere.

Functioning everywhere means far-reaching.

Being far-reaching means returning to the original point.

The Great Tao flows everywhere.

            It may go left or right.

All things depend on it for life,

            And it does not claim credit for it.

It clothes and feeds all things,

            But does not claim to be master over them.

Always without desires, it may be called The Small.

All things come to it and it does not master them;

            It may be called the Great.

Therefore, [the sage] never strives himself for the great,

And thereby the great is achieved.

B. Life is greatest of all possessions

1. Prolonging and enriching life, even by magic, becomes Taoist value

C. Life is to be lived simply

1. Question value of civilization, wealth, power, family ties, conventional morality

2. Innocence (of children) and detachment

3. Minimal government is ideal

4. Small village is ideal

5. Pacifism preferred

Without leaving his door

He [the Sage] knows everything under heaven.

Without looking out of his window

He knows all the ways of heaven.

For the further one travels,

The less one knows.

Therefore the Sage arrives without going,

Sees all without looking,

Does nothing, yet achieves everything

D. Pomp and glory to be despised

E. Non-theistic philosophy

1. Little mention of personal god

2. Don’t pray or sacrifice to Tao

3. Silent on afterlife (Today, Taoism has an afterlife, because it seems to have absorbed folk religion and later Buddhism)

IV. Schools that Rival Early Taoists

A. Decline of Chou dynasty

1. All rivals claim to know art of governing

B. Confucians

1. Renew Feudal system

2. Modest rituals for uniting society

3. Structured society

C. Legalists / Realists (3rd century BCE)

1. Strong leadership

2. Human nature is wicked, tends to laziness

3. Gov’t should have no pity or virtue

4. Minority (rulers) over Majority (people)

5. Religion is useless

For the tiger is able to subdue the dog because of its claws and fangs. If the tiger abandons its claws and fangs and lets the dog use them, it will be subdued by the dog. Similarly, the ruler controls his ministers through punishments and kindness [rewards]. If the ruler abandons his punishment and kindness and lets his ministers use them, he will be controlled by his ministers.

D. Mohists

1. Disciples of Mo-tzu (c. 468-390 BCE)

2. Government must follow traditional religion

3. Pacifism, but self-defense okay

4. Peace and love

            Mo Tzu said: What the man of humanity devotes himself to surely lies in the promotion of benefits for the world and the removal of harm from the world. This is what he devotes himself to.

            But what are the benefits and the harm of the world?

            Mo Tzu said: Take the present cases of mutual attacks among the states, mutual usurpation among families, and mutual injuries among individuals, or the lack of kindness and loyalty between ruler and minister, of parental affection and filial piety between father and son, and of harmony and peace among brothers. These are the harms of the world.

            But when we examine these harms, whence did they arise? Did they arise out of want [lack] of mutual love?

            Mo Tzu said: They arise out of want [lack] of mutual love. At present, feudal lords know only to love their own states and not those of others. Therefore, they do not hesitate to mobilize their states to attack others. Heads of families know only to love their own families and not those of others. Therefore, they do not hesitate to mobilize their families to usurp others. And individuals know only to love their own persons [selves] and not those of others. Therefore, they do not hesitate to mobilize their own persons [selves] to injure others.

V. Later Developments

A. Two Strands

1. Lao-tzu morality

2. Long life is a goal

a. Diet

b. Alchemy and magic

c. Stove god: Tsao ChuUn

B. Buddhism enters China and grows in rivalry in first millennium CE

C. Leaders organize rituals, priests, healing, temples

D. Taoism borrows afterlife from Mahayanists

Christian Reaction and Reply

We must distinguish between Christendom or Christian civilization on the one hand and a personal relationship with God in Christ in a community of believers who may live in (degraded) Christendom.

Let’s use bullet points to keep things clear and simple.

First, here’s what right about Taoism:

  • Taosim teaches moral law, which benefits society.
  • Moral law clarifies right and wrong and guides people.
  • Shang-Ti or Tian may have been considered a Supreme Being, so it’s an early form of monotheism, but it appears not to be a personal God who can know everyone intimately. Shang-Ti belongs to early Chinese religion, not Taoism.

Now it’s time to explain what Christ has to offer.

  • The Tao is not a personal God. In Christianity, God is personal. He is love. He is a Father who offers grace because humanity cannot keep the moral law. Moral law flows from his heart, not from an impersonal principle.
  • He is the loving Lawgiver, and we can rise above (not break) moral law to know him personally.
  • Magic is a way for humans to control impersonal forces and opens the door to evil spirits, but in Christ people can rest assured that he is in control of their lives and can receive protection from evil spirits. Religious magic and Christ don’t mix.
  • It is not clear how one enters an afterlife in Taoism. Is it by keeping moral law just enough to break into heaven? By magic and rituals? In Christ, the believer is assured of heaven because the Spirit of the living, loving Father resides in him. He is “sealed” in him until the Last Day or until he dies.
  • Biblical Christianity is grace-based; it is not mixed with law keeping or working our way up to God by piling up barely 50.001% of good works to be accepted.
  • Grace is seen most clearly when this loving, personal and merciful God forgives one’s disobedience to moral law.
  • It’s hard to love a principle more than a person, and for sure it is impossible for an impersonal principle to love a human. Jesus Christ is a person who loves us.

It is always right if a Taoist says yes to Jesus Christ invites Christ into his heart. All the Taoist needs to do is pray and say he’s sorry for his sins of his breaking moral law and believes in his heart that God has raised Christ from the dead and says with his mouth that Jesus is Lord.


Ten Big Differences between Christianity and Other Religions












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