[Note: Most of the graphics in this piece can be viewed in a larger format by clicking on the image.]
Taoism (三寶) is the oldest religion in the world, with records of its practices going back many thousands of years B.C. The main character from the T.V. series "Kung Fu" was supposed to be a Shoalin Priest, all of whom were practicing Taoists, and the flashbacks to events in his fictional childhood seem to be quite historically accurate. Young children with an obvious talent for and interest in spiritual things would move into one of the huge temples in northeastern China, usually built into the side of a huge mountain. Here, they would be schooled in classroom arts like Greek and Latin, math, science, and Taoist history.
They also learned meditation through hours of arduous practice, and practiced the martial arts daily, these were thought to perfect the body as the mind was being sharpened. They also were schooled in arts and crafts, such as calligraphy and drawing, making incense, and understanding and applying the concepts of Feng Shui (pronounced "fong shway", written in Chinese as 風水), which is the art of arranging buildings and their contents to be in line with the earth's lines of symmetry, to bring its inhabitants into better alignment with the Tao and thus lead better, more harmonious lives.
The basic core belief of Taoists is that the Universe and everything in it is comprised of the Tao (陶), which is a nameless ("Tao" is an interim name, and means "The Way"), formless, unknowable force that pervades all things and powers all things. It can be directed with only partial success. Taoists place great importance on non-resistance to nature's ways. If this reminds you of a certain wildly famous sci-fi movie whose first installment came out in 1977 and referred to "The Force", that's because George Lucas modeled the Jedi Knights and their complete allegiance to The Force on Shaolin Priests and their dedication to the Tao.
According to Taoist history, the religion was founded largely by Lao Zhu, a hermit-like Chinese wanderer - likenesses are shown in the woodcut to the left and in the painting to the right. As he wandered the countryside, spreading his ideas of the Tao, his following became vast. Ultimately, he authored what is considered to be the singular most authoritative book on Taoism, called the "Tao Te Ching" (pronounced "Dow duh Jiang", written in traditional Chinese as 道德經); literally, this means "The Book of the Way". It consists of a series of perhaps 80 short poems or stories that illustrate certain truisms or central messages of Taoism. It can be had very cheaply at any bookstore (or freely on the web); check it out!
Another priority for Taoists is the conservation of personal energy (氣, qi). They tend to walk slowly, without unnecessary movement, eat vegetarian meals - and not too much - and gain most of their internal energy, or qi ("chi"), via marathon meditation sessions. It is not uncommon for adepts to meditate non-stop for several weeks, broken only by very short breaks for biological necessities. Their temple histories document average lifespans for Grand Master priests to be over 130 years old.
A good reason for attaining such longevity was that the older a priest became, the more likely he would be to attain oneness with the Tao - that is, he would break free from the illusion that we are separate from the Tao and not comprised of it, and could join the Tao at will, participate in time travel, converse with deceased elders, fly to any place in the universe, and get a taste of the immortality awaiting the most accomplished adepts upon their mortal death. Those who are familiar with the Hindu religion will recognize this as quite parallel with the the goal of acquiring Moksha, which is the total recognition and acceptance of one's energy with that of the Supreme Being; this final step in one's spiritual development is freedom from Samsāra - the cycle of birth, life, death, and reincarnation.
Another central concept to Taoism is the paradoxical phrase wu wei, 無為, meaning "action without action", or "effortless doing". The goal of wu wei is total alignment with the Tao, revealing the soft and invisible power within all things. Many ancient Taoist texts discuss wu wei as a parallel concept with water - water is soft and yielding, yet it can carve stone and move mountains. It is thought that the Tao accomplishes things that are parallel to its intrinsic properties, while someone attempting to move against the will of the world disrupts the harmony of the Tao with the world. To be productive, then, man must place his will in harmony with the natural universe.
There are three basic virtues in Taoism (三寶), spelled out first in the Tao Te Ching (TTC), which are referred to as the Three Treasures or Three Jewels. The first is ci (慈), literally "compassion, tenderness, love, mercy, kindness, gentleness, benevolence", but earlier in the TTC, the character is used to represent maternal love. The second is jian (儉), literally "frugality, moderation, economy, restraint, sparing".
The third treasure is the most difficult idea to grasp, owing primarily to problems with the Chinese-to-English translation needed for non-Chinese persons to grasp it. It is actually a six-character phrase rather than a single word: 不敢為天下先. The literal translation is "not dare to be first/ahead in the world". The contextual meaning of this phrase is hard to ascertain, as the language of the Tao Te Ching is notoriously difficult to translate. In fact, one source contains a table of different translations, depending on the year and translator. A consensus translation of the Three Treasures might be: compassion or love, frugality or simplicity, and humility or modesty.
Very similar to current theories of the formation of our universe via the Big Bang, the Taoists believe that, in the beginning, there was only the Tao - undifferentiated, total, homogeneous, everywhere. Suddenly, a great split occurred, with a huge release of energy, and the universe became bipolar - there became two opposite states of every condition that existed; yin-yang (陰陽) is the most familiar example (as is its universal symbol, shown to the right), but so is hot-cold, good-bad, up-down, in-out, smart-dumb, etc. A very long time after this, the yin and yang Tao condensed and formed "the 10,000 things" (萬物), of which everything in the world today is comprised.
Few people truly understand the meaning of Yin and Yang, which are so critical to Taoism. The "Four Laws of Yin and Yang" are as follows:
In fact, for those who speak math, the Yin-Yang symbol is a graph described by the following equation:
The huge Shoalin temples which headquartered the Taoists were built in unbelievably precarious locations, nestled directly into the sides of cliffs where today's engineers would be loathe to undertake huge construction projects. These placements were built along the veins of the earth (in accordance with Feng-Shui), high enough to guarantee virtual immunity to the attacks which happened occasionally, and, at such heights, the air is thin and very pure. Two of these locations are shown in the photos to either side. You must look carefully, especially on the left photo, gazing through the clouds to see some of the tall, thin dark green buildings that blended in so well with the surrounding trees.
The Taoists believe that man is a microcosm of the universe; in fact, their description of this situation is "as above, so below". Just as the application of Feng-Shui is designed to align buildings and rooms with the energy lines of the world, a major goal of meditation is to circulate qi within the body in a circular path called the "Microcosmic Orbit" or the "Governor Vessel Meridian." This is diagrammed in the drawings to the left and lower right; click on each drawing for larger images. In fact, whereas many meditation techniques involve focusing the mind on a phrase, concept, etc., taoist meditation concentrates on freeing the mind of all distractions, ideas - anything. This "empty mind" meditation is very difficult, as the "playful monkey of the mind" is, at first, nearly impossible to ignore. However, the Taoists learned that maintaining the empty mind for long periods of time is the best tool for disciplining the mind to ignore the illusion that man and the Tao are distinct entities, separate and distinguishable from one another.
In the microcosmic orbit, the qi moves from the first chakra (the "root") up the spine to the base of the skull (the "Jade Pillow"), and around the top of the head to the sinuses. During meditation, the tip of the tongue is held touching the roof of the mouth to enable the qi to travel from the sinuses to the jaw (the "throat center" - Hsuan-Chi). The energy then travels down the meridians along the front of the body, through the pelvis, and back up the spine, completing the orbit.
A benefit of long periods of meditation, according to Taoism, is the process of "internal alchemy" (內丹術), a term used for the different esoteric disciplines focused on balancing internal and spiritual energies. Internal alchemy, like the general alchemy from which most of its terms were borrowed, is concerned with the transmutation of energies and Governor Vessel Meridian substances; the practices focus on restoring balance and elevating spiritual vitality. Other goals are improved health, longevity, and peacefulness. The substances and energies of the body are addressed in metaphor, and internal alchemists map the body (in the manner of acupuncturists), noting areas through which energy passes, and which are associated with particular "elements". Some of the objective signs that can be influenced by internal alchemists include peristalsis, circulation, muscular movement, skeletal alignment, balance, etc.