Introduction to Daoism

Giovanni Lapis
Ca' Foscari University of Venice

Daoism, also spelled Taoism, is China’s organized, indigenous religious system. Daoists take as their focus the goal of obtaining the Dao, the unnameable source of generative vitality in a universe of constant transformation. Daoists take as their focus the goal of attuning with this Dao, but the methods for realizing this goal have been revised and reinvented throughout Daoism’s 2,000 year history. In general, it can be generally understood in terms of mediating between the energies of the body, the community and the cosmos. Daoism has no single founder, such as Jesus or the Buddha, nor does it have a single key message. Rather Daoism's history displays a continuous transformation. In fact the human experience of change or transformation lies at the heart of the Daoist experience in much the same way that faith in an eternal God lies at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic religious system. Different from an unchanging and invisible stability behind the flux of change, Daoists recognize and celebrate the profound and mysterious creativity within the change itself. Daoism has two distinct characters: one represents the elite traditions that aim to attune with the Dao and enhance the functioning of the body with the goal of obtaining a long life and spiritual transcendence. They also worship a complex hierarchy of sacred powers, which are emanations of the Dao or personal gods who allegedly were former human beings and then have achieved union with the Dao. The communal traditions of these priest or monks are integrated into local society and patronized by non-initiated lay people. These elite traditions are focussed on maintaining and transmitting the teachings of the various lineages to selected initiates. Each of these lineage has its history and sacred authority. At the same time, however, Daoism also embraces the common Chinese religious tradition that pays little attention to religious distinctions. In this tradition, non-initiated lay people patronize temples to pray for good fortune, to mark the changing of the seasons, and to conduct rituals for the departed.