6: Daoism


  • Major populations: China & Taiwan
  • Designated as a world “religion” in 1838
  • Adherents: Considered a Traditional Chinese Religion
    • 394 million (5th largest)

  • Key texts: Daodejing, Zhuangzi, I Ching
  • Places of worship: Chinese temple

  • Do They Proselytize? No.
  • Dogmatic? No.
  • Theistic? No.

  • Totems: nature, especially water and clouds, Yin Yang
  • Taboos: disharmony, working against the Dao

Daoist Temple
On Mount Tai, one of the holiest mountains in China.
Shangdong, China

Key Terms

  • The Dao
  • Daodejing
  • Zuangzi
  • Sunzi’s The Art of War
  • Yin Yang
  • Wu Wei
  • Tian (Heaven)
  • Feng Shui

Laozi and Daoism 101


I. Daoism in Historical Context

  • One of the Three Mountains
    Cultural Influences: Buddhism, Confucianism
    • Buddhism
    • Daoism
    • Confucianism

  • Daoism or Taoism
    • 道 was written as “Tao” 
    • This spelling comes from the way Christian missionaries had once translated Chinese sounds into English back in the 1800s 
    • New scholarly translation system called “pinyin” was universally adopted in 1979
    • The Chinese concept 道 has since been spelled Dao

  • The Daoists in History: Laozi
    • Founder: Laozi
    • Draws on an extensive oral tradition in his teachings and writings
    • Author of the Dao De Jing, sacred text of Daoism
    • Most important and famous philosopher of Daoism
    • Born around the 6th century BCE and worked for the government

II. Daoism as a World “Religion"

  • Alchemical Daoism developed around 100 BCE
  • Very popular in Tang Dynasty (c. 600-900 CE)
  • Focused on achieving immortality through the Dao
  • Most Daoists are not alchemical Daoists (seeking elixers)
    • They are philosophical Daoists, focusing more on the mental discipline of the Dao


First verse of the Daodejing

道可道 非常道
名可名 非常名

The Dao that can be named
is not the eternal Dao.
Just as an idea that can be
put into words cannot be
an infinite idea.

I. Daoist Texts

  • Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching)
    • Tradition says it was written by Laozi
    • 2nd most translated text of all time
    • 81 short chapters divided into two parts, the Dao (Way) and De (power)
    • Mysterious with a muddled purpose
    • People see what they want to see
    • Defining and categorizing the ultimate is impossible

  • Zhuangzi
    • Written by Zhuangzi, Laozi’s most famous disciple around 300 BCE
    • Expands the themes of the Dao De Jing
    • Avoids politics, focuses on spiritual world
    • Identifies desires that prevent one from thinking clearly

  • I Ching (Yi Jing): Book of Changes
    • Book of divination written around 1150 BCE
    • Adopted by both Daoism and Confucianism in the 6th century
    • In Daoist interpretation, study of how change occurs and how to manage Yin and Yang


Humanity follows Earth,
Earth follows Heaven (Tian),
Heaven follows Dao,
But Dao follows its own nature.

II. Key Teachings and Concepts in Daoist Texts

  • The Dao
    • The Way
    • The ultimate foundation of being
    • The principle order of the universe (c.f. Logos in Christian philosophy)
    • Unmanifested Dao - the unseen structure underlying everything
    • Manifested Dao - what we can see and touch, symbol: the river.
    • Balanced nature
    • The Dao explained, 0:48-3:11

  • The Dao in Action: Wu Wei
    • Non-action, no struggle 
    • Passive, flowing along a natural path without effort
    • Daoists live according to the philosophy of Wu Wei, responding to events in life as would occur in nature
    • Wu Wei explained, Clip 1, Clip 2

  • The Dao in Balance: Yin-Yang
    • NOT good versus evil
    • About balance of nature. Opposing but complementary and interpenetrating principles
    • Yin - black with white dot; feminine, earth, water, night, mysterious
    • Yang - white with black dot; masculine, sun, fire, day, aggression
    • Mentioned in the I Ching

III. Exegesis: Traditions of Daoist Interpretation

  • Philosophical and the Dao
    • Philosophical Daoism was the first to develop
    • Focused on understanding and acting according to the nature of the Dao

  • Alchemical Magic and the Dao
    • The Eight Immortals - achieved immortality and have special powers
    • Soul does not last forever
    • Daoist alchemy and yoga - purification of the Ching (physical essence of the body)
      into Chi (animating force of the body) into Shen (guiding force behind consciousness)

  • The Military and the Dao
    • Sunzi (Sun Tzu) wrote about the practical necessities of military strategy in The Art of War (Clip 7:30-19:24)
    • Lived during the Period of the Warring States — conflict unavoidable
    • “Which ruler has the Dao?” - Line 1
    • Applies to rulers and generals, who should have “wisdom, credibility, benevolence, courage, and discipline” 
    • The right thing to do in war is win quickly to minimize losses and sorrow
    • It is recommended that all U.S. Marine Corps officers study The Art of War 
    • Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell were aided in their victory in the Persian Gulf War by teachings from The Art of War
    • The Art of War is studied in American business and law colleges (Clip)
    • NFL Patriots coach Bill Belichick used lessons from The Art of War to prepare his team to win the Super Bowl in 2005

  • Hollywood and the Dao


I. Daoism and Empire

  • The Daoists in History: Institutionalizing Daoism
    Cultural Influences: Buddhism
    • Originally Daoists were wandering hermits
    • Influenced by Buddhism
    • Built temples, became priests, wrote scriptures
    • Incorporated religious beliefs of other groups
    • Turned heroes into ‘gods/spirits’

  • Daoism and Persecution
    Cultural Influences: Communist Party of China
    • 1912 the officially atheist policies of Communist China led to broad persecution
    • Temples confiscated for public use
    • During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) Daoist temples destroyed and monks sent to labor camps
    • Today, Daoism is recognized as one of five religions by the People’s Republic of China
      • Buddhism, Daoist, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity


Daoist devotional incense

I. Enacting Daoism

  • Nearly Universal Practices of Daoism
    • Tai Chi (Taiji) (Clip 1, Clip 2)
    • Chinese Homeopathic Medicine
    • Feng Shui

  • Pilgrimages
    • The Five Sacred Peaks
    • Daoist Temples
    • Celebrate birthdays of Chines folk deities

  • Feng Shui and Homeopathic Medicine
    • Feng Shui: Physically aligning with the flow of the Dao
    • Allow Chi (energy) to flow such that the Dao is more accessible

II. Becoming a Daoist

  • Visit a Daoist center in the United States
  • No ceremony or initiation to becoming a Daoist
  • Process of self-discovery
  • Actively engage with Daoism, exploring what Daoism means to you and how to live according to the Dao

III. General Guidelines for visiting a Chinese Temple

  • Q. How should I be dressed?
    • Dress casually but well-covered. Jeans are ok. Legs should be covered below the knee.
    • Remove head coverings
    • White is generally the preferred color to wear for funerals.
    • Red is for weddings

  • Q. What are the totems used in the service?
    • Guardian statues (e.g. a dragon and tiger) sit in front of the main gate
    • Architectural details contain Chinese calligraphy, representing peace and long life
    • Auspicious animal totems include the dragon, fish, lion, phoenix, tiger, and tortoise
    • Daoist decoration also includes many natural phenomena: sun, moon, stars, cypress trees, and bamboo
    • Incense is burned as a gesture of ancestor veneration
    • A gong or bell is used to mark auspicious times
    • Daoist temple ceremony in Malaysia

  • Q. Will contributions to the temple be collected?
    • Yes. In the People's Republic of China, you buy a ticket at the ticket window.
    • There will also be a donation box next to some food offerings. $1 donation is fine. Never touch the food.

  • Q. How should I behave in a Chinese temple?
    • In China, the entrance is on the south side. You exit through the north side.
    • You may enter if doors are open. If closed, do not open them.
      • Enter a temple with your left foot first. Exit with your right foot first.
    • You may buy incense outside the temple. Incense is lit and held in the temple while praying, then placed in a bowl.
    • Most temples require you to remove your shoes before entering. A collection of shoes at the front will indicate this.
    • Do not touch statues or people. The polite gesture is to bow with hands together.
      • Women guests are expected not to give food or otherwise communicate with monks.
      • Men may give food or donations to monks from the right hand.
    • If seated, stand when a monk or nun enters the room.
    • Do not speak, touch another person, or eat anything while in a Chinese temple.

  • Q. What are the death and mourning customs of China?
    • It is a Confucian practice to accompany the dying (c.f. filial piety).
      • The Chinese generally take shifts sitting at the deathbed of family members.
    • To announce a death, a white banner is placed over the doorframe of a house. (White signifies death.)
    • The funeral usually takes place on an auspicious day of the Chinese calendar.
    • The dead are cremated in cities, or buried in the countryside
    • Confucian funeral rituals include veneration of the ancestors and acts of filial piety
      • It is the duty of young people to venerate the (elder) dead
      • Child and bachelor funerals are sometimes held in silence for this reason
    • Offerings of food, incense, and "ghost money" can be offered to the dead
    • Buddhist and/or Daoist blessings may be recited by monks, so that the soul may find peace
    • Ancestor veneration takes the guise of tombstone clean-up on the anniversary of the deceased