Essentially the Dao, or way, taught by Leo Tse is a road or way of life by which a man attains harmony with nature as well as with the mystical currents of the spiritual world. A Taoist accepts all things as they are and attempts to attune his thinking and actions to things as they are; never fighting against them.
Taoism (pronounced dowism) had its beginning in China. Lao Tse (the Old One) is generally credited with being its founder. Taoism ranks with Confucianism and Buddhism as the three great religions of China, which amount in practice to one religious compound, wherein Confucianism is politico-moral and ceremonial, Taoism is religious and magical, while Buddhism deals in the transmigration of the soul and the future life. Only the priests are exclusive followers of either Taoism or Buddhism. There are even "temples of the three doctrines," where idols of Buddha and Laotze stand on either side of Kongtze. The Chinese ask about a religion not, "Is it true?" but "Is it moral?" Tested thus, all their religions seemed to the Chinese acceptable.
Taoism is the folk-faith of the Chinese, primitive but receiving various accretions through the centuries, such as a corrupted form of Laotze [604-531 BC ??] doctrine of the Tao (from which Taoism takes its name) in the 6th century BC, a magician, deified as Yu Hwang in the 7th century AD and Kwanti a soldier deified as War-god only in 1828. Confucius tried to reform the empire by the imposition of forms and artificial rules, Laou-tseu tried to go back to the state of primitive society before forms were, and before regulations existed. He held fast to three precious things—compassion, economy, humility; and by these he taught the people that they might return home to Taou; that is, as it seems, the original and simplest principle of purity and wisdom. He was, strictly speaking, a reformer, not after the type of Confucius, who went back to the condition of things in times of Yaou and Shun, and took those times as the model for imitation; but he boldly recurred to the time when the sovereigns possessed Taou, and ruled over a peaceful and contented empire.
Especially in the three centuries BC, emperors and folk alike, under the leadership of Taoist priests, neglected labor to search for the elixir of life and for power to transmute base metals into gold. Thus Taoism came to include most of the national hero-worship and nature-worship (of a type lower than Confucianism) and most of the divination and magic, the latter including fangshui, the Chinese geomancy, according to which the location of a house or a grave depends on supposed magnetic currents, the azure dragon, the white tiger and the like. This folly was strong enough to form an obstacle to civil engineering in imperial China, as when a telegraph pole would disturb the fangshui of a region or a railway that of a cemetery.
The gods of Taoism furnish a good index to its heterogeneous origin. The San Ching, "Three Pure Ones," are simply a triplication of Laotze, done to correspond with a Buddhist triplet. But, since these are sunk in contemplation, the superintendence of mundane affairs falls to Yu Hwang Shang Ti, "Gemmcous Sovereign God." Taoists believe in one supreme being, the Emperor of Jade, and worship him, other deities who assist him, and ancestors. The two principal assistants to the Emperor of Jade are Nam Tao and Bac Dau, who keep the register of all beings in the universe. The first elements have souls which rose to become the five planets and thus divine. Many stars are deified. The Dragonking, a familiar feature of Chinese processions, seen even in America, represents water in its varied forms and, therefore, has numerous temples beside seas and rivers and is discerned among rain clouds. Sun cult survives in the bonfires of the spring festival. Licentious festivals were long ago suppressed in accord with the politico-ethical nature of the dominant Confucianism. Sacred animals are the fox, snake, hedgehog and weasel; sacred trees are the cassia, willow, banyan, pine and peach. To the ancestral tablets and an image or picture of the Kitchen-god (originally a Fire-god) found in every Chinese house the Taoist adds certain other figures according to locality, trade and preference.
Taoism worships also certain culture-gods who preside over various vocations. Thus, students revere Wan-chang (a deified scholar) as God of Letters, soldiers worship a deified soldier as Kwanti the God of War, and tradespeople worship Tsai-Shin, God of Riches. Besides such great gods there are innumerable shin "spirits," of whom Chinese live in dread by day and especially night.
The priests of Taoism are probably cognate with the shaman of Siberia, but its monks, nuns, pope, monasteries and temples were copied from Buddhism. These priests conduct the ritual for the city and State gods, purify streets, houses and persons from evil spirits, and prepare paper amulets for pasting on doorways to exclude spirits. Though Taoist priests marry, their vocation is not hereditary, they are recruited from the lowest classes, are ignorant and immoral, and are generally despised by the literati, the learned officials of China. From these priest-magicians one must distinguish the monks who observe Laotze's principles by celibacy, seclusion and mystical communing.
Most Taoist worship, rituals and ceremonies are attempts to assist man to attune himself to the universe. To the Western mind it would appear that Taoists use magic, witchcraft, fortune-telling and astrology in their worship. It may appear to one who adheres to one of the Western religions as mummery, but to the Taoist all his religious activities have a deep spiritual meaning. Taoists are not usually spirit worshippers although there is an animistic flavor to Taoism, and some beliefs may seem similar. Taoists believe that God's spirit can animate inanimate objects, while animists believe that these objects have spirits of their own.
The headship of Taoism has been hereditary in the Kang family since the first Christian century, with the exception of one not very long interruption. The family of One of the earliest members of it, Kang Liang, must have been born not long after the death of ATwang-jze, for he joined the party of Liu Pang, the founder of the dynasty of Han, in BC 208, and by his wisdom and bravery contributed greatly to his success over the adherents of Khm, and other contenders for the sovereignty of the empire. Abandoning then a political career, he spent the latter years of his life in a vain quest for the elixir of life.
Among Liang's descendants in the first century AD was a Kang Tao-ling, who, eschewing a career in the service of the state, devoted himself to the pursuits of alchemy, and at last succeeded in compounding the grand elixir or pill, and at the age of 123 was released from the trammels of the mortal body, and entered on the enjoyment of immortality, leaving to his descendants his books, talismans and charms, his sword, mighty against spirits, and his seal. Tao-ling stands out, in Taoist accounts, as the first patriarch of the system, with the title of Thien Shih, 'Master or Preceptor of Heaven.' Hsuan Sung of the Tang dynasty in 748, confirmed the dignity and title in the family; and in 1016 the Sung emperor Kan Sung invested its representative with large tracts of land near the Lung-hu mountain in Kiang-hsi. The succession is said to be perpetuated by the transmigration of the soul of Kang Taoling into some infant or youthful member of the family; whose heirship is supernaturally revealed as soon as the miracle is effected.
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