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Lao Tzu

Taoism is the child of Lao Tzu, who lived in China around 600 B.C. He is called Lao Tzu ("Old Boy"), because nothing is known of his youth or origins. He worked in the Chinese government, but soon became disenchanted with politics and the whole imperialistic regime. Legend has it that he mounted a black ox and journeyed into the countryside through the Han-ku Pass. Before he went through, the keeper of the pass asked him to write down his thoughts and ideas. Lao Tzu graciously obliged, and wrote 81 chapters which is today known as the Tao Te Ching. It contained his view and philosophy of life and politics and quickly became one of the most influential philosophies in the history of China. After completing his task, Lao Tzu crossed the pass and was never heard from again.

Taoism's Two Principles

The principles of Tao (or literally, "the Way") are based on the ancient theories of yin-yang and wu-wei. The idea of yin-yang is that there are two opposite forces, which, in their opposition and constant pull, actually keep the world and life in balance. This pair of complementary opposites creates the flow of nature, or the Way. Yin is the negative balance, and has qualities such as femininity, mystery, earth, moon, darkness, cold, weakness, lethargy and north. Yang is the positive balance, and is masculine, light, heat, dryness, aggressiveness, sky, heaven and south. Because these forces are always interplaying, they keep the universe vital and alive. In fact, they are the agents that actually produce the mysterious flow of life.

Wu-wei means, literally, "non-action," or the practice of doing nothing to accomplish everything. Someone who understands and adheres to wu-wei does not try to force things. In not forcing or even pursuing what they want, their desired goal is able to come to them, and their objective is met. Plans and rules and laws created to get results never accomplish the aims they were meant to obtain. The Way can only be found in humility, in serene acceptance of life and things as they are, and finding the flow of nature. Allowing things to be and do, rather than trying to produce and form people and situations to your own desires. The Tao Te Ching illustrates:

The more laws you make, the more thieves there will be. (Chapter 57)
The sage does not boast, therefore is given credit. (Chapter 22)
He who acts harms, he who grabs lets slip. (Chapter 64)

Followers of the Tao try to live in harmony with the order of the universe. They can often seem anarchical and vague, because they are intent on letting things happen, rather than making things happen.

Taoism as a Religion

Taoism was never meant to become a religion in itself. It originated as a philosophy, a worldview, and a way to look at things that happen in life. By the first century of the Christian era, however, Taoism had become something altogether different from Lao Tzu's philosophical ramblings. It had become a cult rife with exorcism, polytheism, mystical healing, and some bizarre practices. Rather than allow things to happen and life to take its course, adherents to the Taoist religion were virtually obsessed with finding happiness, seeking cures and relief in potions and magic. Taoists began to live in exact opposition to the original meaning of Tao, searching constantly and frantically for eternal life and earthly power. It was religious Taoists who began the work of alchemy, which started as a search for eternal life.

Religious Taoists became fanatical about the physical body, asserting that each person's body was comprised of three life centers, called "Fields of Cinnabar," and that each person was inhabited by 36,000 gods-the same gods who run the universe. Each person was believed to be, in effect, a tiny universe in himself. The gods kept the person alive, and the body only died when the gods would leave. Therefore, religious Taoists would spend hours maintaining the gods by entering a trancelike state, calling forth visions of each god. They would eat no meat and drink no wine, because this drove the gods away. Conversely, it was believed that each human body is also inhabited by three worms, which cause illness, decay and death. The worms feed on grain, so faithful Taoists also avoided eating any type of grain. These extreme diet restrictions often brought on disease and death themselves.

Exorcism was practiced constantly because evil spirits were everywhere. The evil spirits were frightened away by loud noises and fire, so firecrackers, bonfires, torches and lanterns always surrounded strict adherents of religious Taoism.