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Religion Library: Taoism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Julia Hardy

A positive attitude toward women, or feminine qualities, has been characteristic of Taoism from the beginning.   The first chapter of the Taode jing and several other chapters refer to Tao as "the Mother of all things." "To play the feminine part" (Ch. 10) is a constant theme of the text.  Chapter 28 opens with the lines, "Know the masculine,/ Keep to the feminine."  The rationale for assuming a feminine role is made clear in passages like this one from Chapter 61: "The Feminine always conquers the Masculine by her quietness, by lowering herself through her quietness./ Hence, if a great country can lower itself before a small country, it will win over the small country . . . "

The Taode jing was almost certainly written by and for men, at a time when perpetual conflict was the order of the day.  Its solution to these conflicts was to encourage men to adopt a non-aggressive, or feminine attitude—to "gain through losing" rather than "lose by gaining" (Ch. 42).

In the Zhuangzi is an account of Liezi's disagreement with his teacher over the power of a shaman with whom Liezi had been initially quite impressed.  When Liezi realized how little he knew he went home and took the feminine role in his own household, cooking and doing other chores usually done by his wife.

Taoist priests emulate Liezi and take the advice of the Taode jing, avoiding typically male activities and emulating attitudes expected of women, such as keeping a cheerful attitude or speaking in quiet tones.  They may even urinate while seated as women do.  Some also endeavor to gestate a divine embryo within their own bodies, evidence perhaps of "womb envy."

The idea of balancing male and female energies is fundamental to Taoism, and applies to women as well as to men.  One early practice was ritual sexual intercourse between men and women who were not married to one another.  These rituals followed strict guidelines, and the goal was the union of yin and yang energies.  The act of intercourse was not motivated by lust or desire, men and women were equal partners, the experience was not centered in the genitals, and sexual climax was not the end or goal.  Climax would be a way of squandering, rather than retaining, vital energies.

More frequently practiced were forms of internal alchemy that involved uniting yin and yang energies within an individual's body.  Divine marriages with deities were one very ancient version of this practice.  Another form of internal sexual alchemy involved cultivating the ability to direct the circulation of several types of body energy, then refining those energies within an internal "crucible," and directing the refined energy toward the brain.  A special kind of saliva was created, which was then swallowed and again directed appropriately such that a divine embryo was created; this was then gradually nurtured until one's individual energy had merged entirely with one's original nature, creating an immortal being.


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