The meaning of Taoism

Bernita asked:

If someone asked you what Taoism means, how would you explain?

Answer by Eric George

I would encourage you to study Taoism by not only reading material about Taoism, but also try and converse with any self-confessed Taoists living in your community if possible. It is always an advantage to read books about Taoism from a variety of different sources, and then to compare what you have read, with the information that you are told by an actual adherent of that particular belief system, in this case; Taoism. This way you ensure, that you are getting a very well rounded understanding of what that is you are studying. However, to answer your question, I personally would recommend that you be very quick to point out to the person inquiring about Taoism that there are some internal distinctions to be made when describing most religions and to this rule Taoism is not an exception.

Taoism, a religion native to China, could be viewed from a number of different perspectives and definitions due to its broad history and existence as a religion. In this context, Taoism in general is inclusive to three main interpretations of itself; first Taoism could be viewed as a purely philosophical religion based upon a somewhat secular interpretation of the many Taoist philosophers writings such as Lao zi (‘Tao Te Ching’) Zhuangzi and the likes, secondly Taoism could be understood as a theistic religion with deities, celestial masters, rituals and everything else commonly associated with theistic religions — this second definition of what Taoism is, could be termed as ‘organised Taoism’. Much like the second definition but contrasting in its approach to the theistic elements of Taoism, the third main perspective of Taoism is known as ‘popular Taoism’, which is rightly named so because it is a very popular expression of Taoism within China. Basically put, popular Taoism is a theological flurry of organised Taoism and many different forms of pre-Taoist Chinese ancestral worship and elemental polytheism.

Taoism therefore, could be defined as the following; philosophical Taoism, organised Taoism or popular Taoism — and/or a combination of all three. It is an understandable habit that we as mere external observers of religions such as Taoism — which is culturally, philosophically and historically rich, take for granted that a lot of the time on a superficial level we merely state and explain a belief system to someone else, from our own clear-cut ‘single angled’ definition. What is beautiful about studying religions like Taoism, is that when you take the time to learn more and more, you then come to comprehend that underneath a seemingly surface like simplicity, there exists a profound depth of complexity and intricate patterns of philosophical, theological and cultural threads. And it is your task to weave an image, which truly does justice to religion in discussion.

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