Is Taoism a Religion?
Is Taoism a Religion?
A frequently asked questions about Taoism is whether it is a religion. The answer you’d get depends on who you talk to, and can be in contrary to what you think.
A frequently asked questions about Taoism is whether it is a religion.
The answer you’d get depends on who you talk to.
Taoism has indeed been practiced as a religion. There is a good number of Taoists around. Many Chinese in South-East Asia, for example, are born Taoist – although not necessarily religious. I am one of them.
Since it has been practiced as a religion, the religious Taoist would give you an affirmative answer.
There is, nevertheless, something interesting about Taoism as a religion: Do not assume that when a Christian would know Jesus Christ and Bible, a Taoist would naturally know Lao Tzu — the founder of Taoism — and his most notable text Tao Te Ching.
The question “What do you do as a Taoist?” could generate a whole host of answers. Taoists go to temples to pray to gods. But they do not necessarily pray to Lao Tzu. They worship deities from religious figures like guanyin, historical figures like Guanyu, or legendary figures like monkeys – who are not necessarily related to Taoism. Lao Tzu – or better known more as Taishang Laojun, is only one of them. And the worshippers don’t really care.
In fact, you’ll be surprised to learn that many of the religious Taoists do not know Lao Tzu, not to mention citing verses from Tao Te Ching. They would probably tell you things like filial piety, personal integrity and uprightness, which are a fusion of the Chinese culture, rather than the thinking of Lao Tzu.
From this perspective, I’d see Taoism or as a reflection of the Chinese culture, rather than a religion.
Equally interesting is that many of those who read Lao Tzu and talk about Tao do not call themselves Taoists. They study Tao Te Ching to understand the universe, and practice Tao as a way of life. But they do it in a philosophical, rather than religious, manner. There are also those who practice Tao activities, from meditation, qigong to tai chi, and do not even know that the activities are Tao related.
If you asked these people, is Taoism a religion? They would say that it is not.
So, back to a question, is Taoism a religion?
What I may conclude is that there are two ways to pursue Taoism. One is religious, the other is not. The religious approach pursues Taoism through religious rituals such as the burning of joss sticks and presentation of offerings to deities. The non-religious see it as a philosophy, and learn the teaching of sages as a way of life.
Among the Chinese, those who see Taoism as a religion would describe Taoism as Dao Jiao (may be translated as Tao region); and those who see it as a philosophy describe it as Dao Jia (Tao School of Thought).
The answer to the question of whether Taoism is a religion is therefore ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
As an avid reader of Tao Te Ching, I do not find the book to be religious at all. In fact, it was not meant to be a religious text when it was first written. It was part of the rich intellectual heritage from the Warring States Period of China in around 4th century BC — an era of vibrant cultural and intellectual development in ancient China.