5: Daoism


  • Adherents: Considered a Traditional Chinese Religion
    • 394 million (5th largest)
  • Do They Proselytize? No.
  • Dogmatic? No.
  • Theistic? No.
  • Major populations: China & Taiwan


I. Daoism & History

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

Key Terms

  • The Dao
  • Yin Yang
  • Wu Wei
  • Feng Shui
  • A. The Daoists in History: One of the Three Mountains
    Cultural Influences: Buddhism, Confucianism
    • Daoism
    • Buddhism
    • Confucianism

  • B. The Daoists in History: Lao Tzu
    Cultural Influences: x
    • Founder: Lao Tzu
    • 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

  • C. 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’


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.

II. The Texts of Daoism

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

  • B. Zhuangzi
    • Written by Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu’s most famous disciple around 300 BCE
    • Expands the themes of the Dao de Jing
    • Avoids politics, focuses on spiritual world
    • Identifies the Five Evils of Life
      • Likes and desires that prevent us from thinking clearly

  • C. The Art of War
    • Sunzi (Sun Tzu) wrote about the practical necessities of military strategy
    • 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

III. Key Concepts in Daoist Texts

  • A. 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

  • B. 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

  • C. 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

IV. Exegesis: Traditions of Daoist Interpretation

  • A. Philosophical Understanding of the Dao
    • Philosophical Daoism was the first to develop
    • Focused on the nature of the Dao

  • B. Religious Understanding of the Dao
    • Religious Daoism developed around 100 BCE
    • Very popular in T’ang Dynasty (c. 600-900 CE)
    • Focused on achieving immortality through 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)

  • Martial Understanding of the Dao


Daoist devotional incense

V. Enacting Daoism

  • A. Nearly Universal Practices of Daoism
    • Tai Chi
    • Chinese Homeopathic Medicine
    • Feng Shui

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

  • C. 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