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Religion Library: Taoism

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Julia Hardy

According to the Taode jing, something existed "before heaven and earth" and the author, not knowing the name of that something, called it Tao (Ch. 25).  This Tao is a very different Tao from the tao discussed as "the way," and it is a later use of the term.  The Taode jing uses the term in both ways (and several others).  To distinguish them, this article will capitalize the Tao of cosmology.  This Tao is said to be the primordial "stuff" from which all matter emerges. 

From Tao a primal matrix of energy spontaneously occurred, existing then for eons in a state of chaos known as hundun. Within this matrix are the qi, the cosmic breaths that animate the universe, but at this point the qi are undifferentiated and exist only as potential energies.  At a certain point, for unknown reasons, the qi are released.  Some are light (yang), and travel upward to the heavens, some are heavy (yin), and travel down to earth.  Between these is a point of connection, the center between the heavens and earth, which is equally important.  From these three emerges all of existence, described as the "myriad things," or the "ten thousand things." 

Once Tao enters into existence, it takes on yet another meaning; it is the natural patterns and cycles of the cosmic and earthly order.  All natural phenomena are generated by the alternation between yin and yang energies.  Matter ebbs and flows, expands and contracts.  The cycle of existence spontaneously moves through each of the Five Phases: Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth.  All things are thus classified according to yin/yang and the Five Phases (sometimes called the Five Agents or the Five Elements). Within everything there is also qi, the animating breath that is the source of life. 

Tao is not an entity or a divine being.  There are no divine beings that existed before this initial moment of creation, but the number of Taoist deities  is staggering.  The pantheon differs according to sect and region, and its ranks are fluid.  No divine being exists forever, and all who interact with humans are subject to human time.  Some change over time, and all of them change status with time.  Some are elevated, others forgotten.

In the early days of Taoist religion, deities that preexisted Taoism continued to be important to the Taoist religion, such as Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, and her consort, the King Father of the East.  She resides on the sacred mountain, Kunlun, is able to teach and confer immortality, and remains a popular Chinese deity today.  Another significant early deity who carried over into Taoism was Taiyi, the Great Unity or the Supreme One.  In Shangqing Taoism he is regarded as the deity who resides in the Great Dipper and built and unified the Nine Palaces of Heaven.


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