Taoism or Daoism (from Chinese 道, in pinyin dào) is usually described as an Asian philosophy and religion, though it is also said to be neither but rather a "way of life". Translated literally, it means "Way" or "Path". The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living or sentient object, as well as through the entire universe.
There is a terminology and cultural debate regarding the name. For information on this debate see Daoism versus Taoism.
Taoism is a tradition that has, with its traditional foil Confucianism, shaped Chinese life for more than 2,000 years. Taoism places emphasis upon individual freedom and spontaneity, non-interventionist government and social primitivism and ideas of self-transformation. Thus, Taoism represents in many ways the antithesis to Confucian concern with moral duties, social cohesion, and governmental responsibilities, even if Confucius's thought includes those Taoist values, as one can read in the Analects of Confucius.
Traditionally, Taoism has been attributed to three sources:
Other books have developed Taoism, as the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness, from Lie Zi; and the Huainanzi compilation. Additionally, the original source of Taoism is often said to be the ancient I Ching, The Book Of Changes.
The Dao De Jing
The Dao De Jing, or Tao Te Ching as it is most commonly rendered in English, was written in a time of seemingly endless feudal warfare and constant conflict. The literal meaning of the title is approximately "Way Virtue Classic" (see Dao De Jing for a more in-depth discussion on translating the book's title into English.)
According to tradition, the book's author, Lao Zi, was a minor court official for an emperor of the Zhou dynasty. He became disgusted with the petty intrigues of court life, and set off alone to travel the vast western wastelands. As he was about to pass through the gate at the last western outpost, a guard, having heard of his wisdom, asked Lao Zi to write down his philosophy, and the Dao De Jing was the result. Lao Zi was reflecting on a way for humanity to follow which would put an end to conflicts and strife. He came up with a few pages of short verses, which became the Dao De Jing. This is the original book of Taoism.
Much of the essence of Tao is in the art of wu wei (action through inaction). However, this does not mean, "sit doing nothing and wait for everything to fall into your lap". It describes a practice of accomplishing things through minimal action. By studying the nature of life, you can affect it in the easiest and least disruptive way (using finesse rather than force). The practice of working with the stream rather than against it is an illustration; one progresses the most not by struggling against the stream and thrashing about, but by remaining still and letting the stream do all the work.
Wu Wei works once we trust our human "design," which is perfectly suited for our place within nature. In other words, by trusting our nature rather than our mental contrivances, we can find contentment without a life of constant striving against forces real and imagined.
The Taoist religion
Though specific religious aspects are not mentioned in the Dao De Jing or Zhuang Zi, as Taoism spread through the population of China, it became mixed with other, pre-existing beliefs, such as Five Elements theory, alchemy, ancestor worship, and magic spells. Attempts to procure greater longevity were a frequent theme in Taoist alchemy and magic, with many extant spells and potions for that purpose. Many early versions of Chinese medicine were rooted in Taoist thought, and modern Chinese medicine is still in many ways concerned with Taoist concepts such as Tao, Qi, and the balance of Yin and Yang.
In addition, a Taoist church was formed, originally being established in the Eastern Han dynasty by Zhang Daoling. Many sects evolved over the years, but most trace their authority to Zhang Daoling, and most modern Taoist temples belong to one or another of these sects. The Taoist churches incorporated entire pantheons of deities, including Lao Zi, Zhang Daoling, the Yellow Emperor, the Jade Emperor, Lei Gong (The God of Thunder) and others.
Taoism outside China
In Korea, the Taoist philosophy is practiced as Kouk Sun Do.
Taoist philosophy has found a large following throughout the world, and several traditional Taoist lineages have set up teaching centers in countries outside China.