Updated: Aug 31, 2022
Daoism is a philosophy that originated in China during the life of its founder, Laozi, sometime during the 6th century B.C.E. The philosophy is largely based upon the Daoism "holy book," the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching). The beliefs of Daoism aren't rigid, but do emphasize certain values.
Is Daoism a philosophy or a religion?
Calling a belief system a philosophy versus a religion has generally been used as a way to disparage the beliefs of others. Religion is philosophy put into practice. Whether or not a set of beliefs rises to the level of a religion has more to do with the practitioner than the belief system. If someone reads Daoist books and studies its values and principles and tries to live them, then obviously Daoism is that person's religion. If someone is an academic studying Daoism as part of a course on Asian culture, then they may only see Daoism as a philosophy.
Who founded Daoism
While most people attribute authorship of the Daodejing to Laozi, many scholars debate his existence and whether or not one person truly wrote the book in its entirety. Laozi is believed to have lived at the same time as Confucius, the founder of Confucianism. There are several famous Laozi quotes that many aren't aware are from the Daodejing.
"Those who talk, do not know. Those who know, do not talk." - Laozi
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." - Laozi
Zhuangzi was one of Laozi's students. His writings are also a major source of Daoist philosophy. Where Laozi was deep and mystical, Zhuangzi tends to be snarkier, but still reflective. One of Zhuangzi's most popular sections find him pondering a dream, and the dreamlike nature of life itself.
"Once upon a time, I dreamed I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I woke up, and there I was, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man." - Zhuangzi
The Daoism "Holy Book," Daodejing (Tao Te Ching)
In Chinese, the Daodejing (道德经) means the classic text of the virtuous way. Dao (道) means “way,” or “path.” De (德) means "virtue." Jing (经) means "classic text." The Daodejing has 81 chapters which typically are not more than ten sentences in Chinese. There are several original sources used with slight variations. The first two sources were called Wang Bi and Heshanggong. Later, the Mawangdui manuscript was discovered until discovery of the latest source in Guodian.
The Daodejing is generally divided into two parts. The history of this goes back to an early Chinese dynasty called the Western Han in second century B.C.E.. The first half is sometimes called the Classic of Dao and consists of the first 37 chapters. The second half of the book is also know as the Classic of De and consists of chapters 38 – 81.
Chapter 67 of Daodejing
Everyone under heaven says my Tao is great and resembles nothing else. It is because it is great that it seems different. If it were like anything on earth it would have been small from the beginning.
I have three treasures that I cherish and hold fast. The first is gentleness, the second is simplicity, the third is daring not to be first among all things under heaven. Because of gentleness I am able to be courageous. Because of simplicity I am able to be generous. Because of daring not to be first I am able to lead.
If people forsake gentleness and attempt to be courageous, forsake simplicity and attempt to be generous, forsake the last place and attempt to get the first place, this is certain death.
Gentleness conquers in battle and protects in defense. What heaven guards, it arms with the gift of gentleness.
Daoist beliefs aren't codified like commandments. They are more like guiding principles. Laozi does specifically name compassion, moderation, and humility as the most important virtues.
Laozi also writes often using the metaphor of water. He encourages people to be like water by accepting everything and not rejecting just like the ocean receives every stream that pours into it. He also says that water doesn't exert itself, that it just goes to the low places no one else will go to.
How to live as a Daoist
Laozi's way is the way of spontaneity and intuition, humanness, but non-attachment. Laozi values being left alone and free over lofty positions in government or industry. Laozi says that weapons and too much knowledge create chaos and misery for the people and simple lives are much better.
Daoism, like most religions, has varying practices. Daoism was formalized in China and practiced as a religion, but not so much today. Those who consider themselves Daoist, tend to make their own rules and instead try to practice a way of being that is aligned with "The Way." The Way is mysterious and so it can't be prescribed. One has to embody Daoist principles to practice Daoism. Every day and every moment of the day, a Daoist can practice embodying compassion, moderation, and humility, being like water, and accepting of constant change.
Taiji (tai chi) is considered the martial art that embodies the Dao. Yin and yang are two concepts from the Daodejing that are the basis of taiji. The practitioner practices shifting yin and yang through his body and his opponent's body. When someone is practicing taiji, they are also practicing Dao.
Long ago, some Daoists developed elaborate rituals, prayers, and rites. Others explored sexual energy and sexual practices to try to create harmony or increase vitality. Many books are still written and available today that discuss various Daoist sexual arts. Just like every religion, ancient Daoist practices varied from place to place. Since modern Daoism isn't typically an organized religion, ancient Daoist practices are rarely still followed even in China.