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Religion Library: Taoism

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Julia Hardy

Taoist ideas about suffering and evil reflect a variety of influences, including early Chinese religious beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, and popular religion. Different sects have different beliefs, and these change over time, and individuals also have their own beliefs.  At times parallel beliefs are held that might seem contradictory.  These contradictions arise out of the multiple belief systems from which individual beliefs are formed.

According to the Taode jing and Zhuangzi, nature itself is amoral; it cares nothing for individuals.  The Zhuangzi emphasizes that death is part of a natural cycle, and that illness, death, and misfortune are inevitable aspects of human life.  Thus, they are not punishments for misdeeds, or manifestations of evil.

The Taode jing states that nature is not sentimental and treats the people like sacrifices.  Individuals are best off if they accommodate themselves to nature's laws and patterns, because to go against nature will only bring difficulty and trouble.  When humans deviate from the natural order, societies will develop that are harmful to many.  On the other hand, when the ruler is enlightened, or advised by an enlightened sage, the people he rules will exist in harmony with one another and with nature. 

According to ancient Chinese religious beliefs, which differ quite a bit from the above but carried over into Taoist religion, each person has multiple souls: three hun, or cloud souls, and seven po, or bone souls.  The hun are light and naturally move toward heaven, while the po are heavy and earth-bound, and deliberately aim to destroy the body so that they may rejoin the substance from which they came.  The po will also report one's misdeeds to the heavenly officials.

Another perspective on suffering is offered by Taoist texts that say that illness is caused by three corpse worms that reside in the body.  In some texts these are described as the three cadavers and nine worms.  These, like the po souls, will sometimes report an individual's transgressions to heavenly officials.  Sometimes the three cadavers will also conspire with the po souls to cause the body harm, and they will encourage demons to enter the body.  Demons can cause illness, to punish a person, or just because they want to.

In order to begin a program of Taoist self-cultivation, once must first expel the worms, or cadavers.  Also, there is a Taoist prohibition against eating grain that is based on the fact that the worms find grain a desirable food, and will be encouraged to stay.

Another Taoist belief is that physical health is evidence of purity, and illness is believed to be caused by one's misdeeds.  The cure for illness is to confess and be purged of one's sins.  To accomplish this one could, for example, have a Taoshi transmit to the proper divine official a talisman that describes the malady and the misdeed that has led to it, expresses contrition, and requests the aid of the official.  If the petition is accepted, then the cause of illness will be expelled, and the sufferer will be healed. 


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