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Religion Library: Taoism


Written by: Julia Hardy

Shang influence is also evident in the bureaucratic structure of the Taoist pantheon, and in the notion of rank and lineage in the afterlife that is so important to the Taoist tradition.  In the Way of the Celestial Masters, the earliest Taoist "church," the founder took on the role of the focal person on earth, and his counterpart in heaven was Laozi, now regarded as a Celestial Master.  There was an elaborate pantheon of deities, like the heavenly bureaucrats of the Shang, and these deities were also believed to be able to influence life on earth.  A register was created that indicated the place of the deceased among these officials.  Living Taoist adepts, when initiated, also took their place in this pantheon.

Buddhism was also of great importance in the development of Taoism.   Some in China already practiced meditation, physical exercises, and other forms of self-cultivation before Buddhism was introduced, and Taoist philosophical thought held some ideas that were similar to elements of Buddhist thought; thus there was from the beginning a receptive audience for Buddhism.  Chinese Buddhism was shaped by these common interests and similarities, and Buddhism, in turn, shaped developments in Taoism.

With time, Buddhist scholars sought to correct misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Buddhist texts, and they were careful to distinguish between Buddhism and native Chinese religious thought.  At the same time Buddhism began to absorb elements of Taoism, and Taoists began to shape their tradition so that it was more like Buddhism, with temple buildings and monasteries, statues of Taoist deities, a canon of scriptures, and the like. 

Before Buddhism, China did not have elaborate ideas about the afterlife, so Buddhist models were very influential in the development of Taoist concepts of the afterlife.  Likewise, there was no idea of karma  in China prior to Buddhism, and no elaborate ideas of judgment after death on the basis of one's deeds.  After Buddhism was introduced, the idea of salvation in the afterlife became popular in China very quickly, particularly among the general populace.

Many different streams of ancient Chinese rituals and practices would also eventually come to be associated with Taoism.  These include shamanism, magic, divination, immortality cults, meditation, herbal remedies, dietary practices, exercise routines, breathing techniques, sexual practices, and lineages of initiation into the esoteric knowledge conveyed by certain secret texts.   What is known about these practices is based on references in old texts, and while there is speculation about the social context and about the types of people who engaged in such practices, there is more mystery than certain knowledge about them.

Study Questions:
1.    What is significant about the Taoist ritual of sacrifice? Of death?
2.    How can an individual's de be enhanced?
3.    Describe a few of the contributions Buddhism made to Taoist thought.


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