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Taoism

Humans model themselves on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the Way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.
-- Laozi (Lao Tzu) Taodejing (Tao te ching)

Tao (pronounced "Dow") can be roughly translated into English as "Path", "The Flow of Things" or "the way". However, its true nature is basically indefinable; it cannot be described, it must be experienced. Tao refers to a power which envelops, surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living, regulating natural processes and nourishing balance in the Universe. It also embodies the harmony of opposites, as there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, or no male without female.

The philosophical school of Taoism has its roots in the fifth century B.C.E. The founder is believed by many to be Lao-Tzu (604-531 BCE), a contemporary of Confucius. (Alternate spellings include Lao Tze, Lao Tse, Lao Tzu, Laozi, Laotze, etc.). Lao Tse was a beaurocrat, who spurred the world to constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society, and instead to find bliss. According to legend, he was recognized as he left the kingdom, where the border guard requested Lao Tzu write down the essence of his wisdom. The resulting book is known as the Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way. While others believe that he is a mythical character, Tao Te Ching does remain the most revered document in the Taoist tradition, and the book is the second most translated publication in the world next to the Bible.

Tao is understood as the underlying pattern of the universe, which can neither be described in words nor conceived in thought. The goal of Taoism is to bring all elements of existence - heaven, earth, and man - into harmony. To be in accordance with the Tao, the individual must empty himself of doctrines and knowledge, act with simplicity and humility, and above all seek Nature. In essence, the knowable universe is composed of opposite components, whether physical (hard/soft; dark/light), moral (good/bad), or biological (male/female), which may be classed as either Yang (pronounced "yong") or Yin. Yin (dark side) is the breath that formed the earth. Yang (light side) is the breath that formed the heavens. When combined, existence is produced and is manifest as Tao. It is very important to note that neither yin nor yang can exist independently, thus giving rise to the famous "fish symbol" of Taoism, symbolizing dynamic interaction.

The Tao surrounds everyone and therefore everyone must listen to find enlightenment. Taoists generally have an interest in promoting health and vitality, especially through the nurturing of Ch'I (air, energy). To a devout Taoist, development of virtue is one's chief task. The Three Jewels to be sought are compassion, moderation and humility. Taoists follow the art of wu wei, which is to let nature take its course; a translation could be "without effort" or perhaps better stated as "without forcing." For example, one should allow a river to flow towards the sea unimpeded; do not erect a dam which would interfere with its natural flow. One should also plan in advance and consider carefully each action before making it. Taoists believe that "people are compassionate by nature...left to their own devices [they] will show this compassion without expecting a reward."

During its entire history, Taoism has coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which has served as the ethical and religious basis for many of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire. Taoism, while not radically subversive, offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of choosing between Confucianism and Taoism. Except for a few straightlaced Confucians and a few pious Taoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both -- either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and taste.

The Taoists had their own temples and had their own system of martial arts. Emphasis was on internal styles, styles that sought to link and unify the external movements of the body with the internal energies and linkages of the practitioner. T'ai Chi Ch'uan often has its roots attributed to Taoism.

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