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Religion Library: Taoism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Julia Hardy

According to the earliest Taoist texts, when human nature is aligned with the rest of nature, order and harmony are the result.  From this perspective, the purpose of self-cultivation is to return to a mode of existence that is natural, but has been obscured by social conditioning.  Repeating certain actions, such as physical exercises, is a way of training the body so that it is free to react in a spontaneous, natural way.  It is similar to the experience of practicing one's shots in basketball and then making a clutch basket in the big game — the preparation through repetition makes it possible to act, at a certain moment, without thinking, in pure spontaneity (zi-ran).  That spontaneity is the mode of being that is experienced fully, at all times, only by the immortals.  For most people, however, including the laity and many of the Taoshi, the goal is less lofty: to experience a long and healthy life.

Humans can deviate from the natural order.  When they do so, they bring destruction upon themselves and those around them.  Confucian scholars were criticized in the Taode jing for imposing rules and social expectations.  According to the Taode jing, social mores and threats of punishment cause more harm than good, as they are methods of forcing appropriate behavior rather than allowing it to occur spontaneously and naturally.

Instead, the only way to encourage appropriate behavior is by modeling it.  If a ruler is a person of impeccable character, those he leads would naturally follow.  But how is the ruler to become the ideal role model, thus insuring harmony for his empire?  As an 8th century Taoist master said to a Tang emperor, "Who governs his body, governs the country."  Self-cultivation practices were common among the Chinese nobility as early as the Warring States period, if not before.  The types of practices have varied widely, from simple reflection and self-examination — being "watchful over oneself when alone" (The Doctrine of the Mean) — to, on the opposite end of the spectrum, taking elixirs in hopes of becoming an immortal.

In the case of Taoism, some practices that were once the province of shamans and fangshi, or of practitioners of inner and outer alchemy, were adopted by the Taoshi.  Also called methods of "nourishing life," or promoting longevity (and potentially immortality), these included "gymnastics," that is, physical exercises designed to improve one's health and lengthen life; breathing exercises; dietary restrictions, such as the avoidance of grains; drinking talisman water (the ashes of a sacred diagram are drawn on paper, then burned, and the ashes dissolved in water); sexual practices designed to generate sexual energy but then redirect it toward the brain, rather than dissipating it through orgasm; and many more.


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