What Makes a Taoist?
A question many people ask me point blank is this:
What makes someone a Taoist
compared to someone who would not be a Taoist?
Since not everyone wants to read an entire book to figure this out and I just got asked this again in an email: let’s just give a simple answer here.
A Taoist is defined by the following characteristics
Living life kindly, compassionately, gracefully, never striving to be first, with modesty while embracing a colorful story to enjoy as ourselves.
These characteristics are defined very clearly in Taoism. Non-Taoists often paint the world to morality (judgment applied to kindness) or force others to live by commandments (judgment applied as principles of living).
Instead Taoists focus in on the roots of kindness, compassion and simple lifestyles.
A Taoist lives in the fullest terms relative to each of our natures to what we can be. It turns out we can be more complete in being simple. Not regarding being first nor last but modestly and with grace (living to potential).
Embracing the Nature of Tao.
Taoists define Tao universally as undefinable.
Non-Taoists insist on defining everything.
Taoist’s won’t fight over the definition of Tao. Unlike many religions fighting over different interpretations of God. Taoist’s accept that each person can only discover Tao by living their life fully and in this, each person can embrace a “personal Tao”. However, Tao, as a concept is undefined and we leave Tao as such.
In fact when a person tries to force the word Tao as a singular “proper noun” that indicates a person still struggling with the term “Tao”. Being undefined: Tao is not a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, nor anything really, even grammatically despite what a dictionary might say. So this means you are pretty free to use it however you wish, just as long as you don’t use it to limit another person (which would be judgement). As a word “tao” gets tossed into the noun grouping and then because of that pesky “Noun-ness” people then go running off to try and get it to mean something.
To define Tao is to lose Tao.
Likewise, to attempt to define your own life, means to lose all the possible options within your life.
A Taoist as a person has an open life with options available.
(but when needing to act… watch out, they act quickly and decisively)
So all this means that Taoists tend to resist being defined by others. They then let “Tao” simply point towards the meandering life they lead or “way” and simply continue to live and explore life as it unfolds from the unknown. Each day as it may.
Daojia / Daojiao
Two terms which you will come across regarding how people practice Taoism are:
Daojia (tao-chia) translates as “Family of the Tao.”
Daojiao (tao-chiao) translates as “Teachings of the Tao.”
These words have a complicated history of how the Chinese sorted out the distinctions between Taoist practices as it evolved. Today, simplified for better or worse these terms most often are used in this manner: Philosophical Taoism is called Daojia, and religious Taoism is called Daojiao.
But these distinctions are not truly meaningful to many Taoists. This distinction more comes out of people trying to sort out how Taoist practice changes over time. People seem to be always trying to determine if you are a traditionalist or are you practicing something newer. Modern Westerners took to these terms because of the desire to separate philosophy from religion. I feel this is meaningless personally, since how you live to Tao transcend such distinctions. You simply are it. How you hold your philosophical views and religious view together is actually your form of Taoism.
The best I can say here is some that people focus with more of a Philosophical bent in life and that is currently labeled Daojia, and some people focus more on ceremony and religious frameworks, and that would be Daojiao.
In style of approach: A Personal Tao Site and Awakening Dragon Taoism is presented with more of a Daojia angle so people from different religious backgrounds will still able to approach and use the teachings. In other words: in Awakening Dragon Taoism if you want to use your Christian religious framework, that is great, in this case, your Taoist practice would be Daojiao since you would be practicing your religion actively along side with your life philosophy. However, when you encounter “Daojiao” in writings on the web, it’s most often used to refer to what is considered as “traditional Taoist Chinese religious practice”, rather than how you practice your Taoist religious practices. But again I find such distinction causes more problems. I mention it, so it doesn’t confuse you as you explore Taoism on the web or other teachers.
Daojia / Daojiao is confusing today because Taoism has reached another major changing point in history. Taoism is a dynamic system of ideas, and it is in the middle of a massive world wide re-evolution of how it is held currently in the human mindset.
A better distinction and less confusing way to determine what type of Taoist you are is to understand what Tradition of Taoism you follow instead.
Variations and Traditions in Taoism
Taoism is not a single organized unified religion as the other major religions of the world. In part this is due to the shamanic roots of Taoism and also in part due to the Taoist’s holding of the undefined nature of the Tao. So Taoist organization tends to be very loose, just enough to meet what ever needs are present at the current circumstances to keep a Taoist community flowing smoothly and healthily. Finally, the Taoist lineages are formed when a group of people feel the need to keep certain forms / practices alive over a longer period of time.
The most common way that Taoist’s do organize themselves is thru a lineage or “Schools” of thought & practice.
The various Taoist sects/lineages will have additional requirements based on that lineage’s history to join. Anyone can be a Lay Taoist (not “formally” taught or self-taught), and a Lay Taoist will be given respect as a Taoist provided they are respectful, kind and modest.
You cannot be of a Specific Taoist lineage unless
(1) Embracing that lineage’s history & variations of teachings as one’s own.
(2) Being formally indoctrinated/accepted into a lineage by an “accepted” teacher of that lineage.
My lineage: Awakening Dragon Taoism, is a simple modern lineage and relaxed in its core. Awakening Dragon Taoism maintains a smaller subset of practices. One major aspect in this lineage is being very clear about removing judgments. Awakening Dragon practice very specifically teaches how to live without judgment.
Now you can say since Taoism doesn’t technically have “morality” nor commandments (rather it uses kindness and compassion) that generally speaking Taoism is much more judgment-less than the majority of religions, and that is true. However, Awakening Dragon Taoism point blank says: remove judgment while Taoism, in general, more implies it.
A reader here needs to understand Taoism as a major religion survived Legalism, an intensely restrictive legal system. Taoist’s couldn’t go out openly and say “no judgment” in 250 BC since to do so would warrant a death sentence to a practitioner. Of course, even with this, the Tao Te Ching ends up being an amazing political work in addition to being a spiritual masterpiece.
Plenty of Taoists can still be very judgmental, but in Awakening Dragon we focus specifically on removing judgment out of the picture. Awakening Dragon Taoism is more vocal about the dangers of judgment since modern culture is walking the dangerous path towards Legalism again.
That’s pretty much it.
In many respects, Taoism is very Universalist in its style.
Another confusing point are the practices. Taoism is thousands of years old, time enough to accumulate a huge number of practices to attach to the Taoist label. Sometimes people think what makes them a Taoist are the practices rather than the teachings. After all after 4000 years, there are countless practices like Kung fu, Qi Gong, meditation, herbal teachings, longevity exercises, so many more… that are now directly associated with Taoism. Practices don’t make you a Taoist, rather practices just help you expand who you are and work towards helping you live a more graceful life. But a practice is never a replacement for who you are. So it’s closer to the point to say, depending on the lineage or Taoist teaching you base yourself within, you will find yourself using different practices that have accumulated within that lineage. However, all practices are geared to helping a person live a more graceful life. It really is a question of what practices match to your nature. So practices don’t define the Taoist, they merely help the Taoist be true to themselves.
Taoist groups have varied over time. Some incorporate Buddhist elements and some modern lineages might even appear more christian or new age. A brief snapshot of Taoist history looks like this:
Taoism first started as many interconnected lineages of shamanic based practices (these roots are old, but no one knows for sure how old, since before 600 BC Taoism is purely a verbal tradition). As China began to form country states, shaman as wise men/healers began to evolve and mix into becoming courtly sages. This process evolves from 2000 BC to 400 BC (Awakening Dragon follows a ShamanicSage tradition more closely). What many would now call “Taoism” comes together in the 600 to 300 BC time frame as Taoism finds written words to match to its verbal traditions (The Sages translating their Shamanic verbal teachings). Around 300 BC; Taoism survived a massive purging of ideologies when China finally unified through the warring states period of time. Buddhism came to China around 100 AD which influenced Taoism to organize into more formal schools and monasteries. The first formal larger scale Taoist school gets create in 200 AD. By 700-1200 AD various Taoist sects become canonized with huge amounts of written material. Ideological purging came again in modern times. With its Shamanic roots and flexible nature Taoism just quietly melded back into the mountains. In the 1960’s a huge amount of Taoist materials were destroyed as China reinvented itself again. Yet this ironically helped push Taoism out of China.
The result of the very long history means in Taoism there exists a huge range of variations. From a simple shaman & sages (Hermits in the mountains) to monastical variations following Buddhist models and even beautiful church base practices…
As a result there exists an amazing range of Taoist’s. In this century we will see another large shift in Taoism as the world is going thru fundamental changes in structure. Taoism is very flexible, as a result Taoism is literally evolving as we speak here. Because of all the changes, the difference between being in a Taoist lineage vs. being a lay Taoist vs. whether a person practices only part of Taoism vs. if they base their entire life upon it vs. if they practice a “traditional” Chinese religious version vs. being more shamanic vs. participating in a more modern offshoot vs. what Taoist practices you love to use vs. etc etc etc… well all this means it has become a bit confusing to know who is a Taoist.
However, despite the changes within Taoism, a Taoist will always at the core be a person who: Lives life kindly, compassionately, gracefully, never striving to be first, with modesty while embracing a colorful story to enjoy as ourselves.
Heart of Taoism
The Heart of Taoism has evolved and survived over 4000 years because it isn’t fixed story! Fixed stories come and then fade away to history. Rather it’s how a Taoist holds to being in the moment, striving to be flexible, working at being a kind aware person and always taking joy to express life with our own style of approach… That is what makes Taoism a timeless practice. Not by living to words but rather in how to hold oneself in expression of life.
The core teachings kindness, modesty, compassion, style, awareness, nonjudgement survive through all the variations of Taoism because these core parts are easy to keep teaching verbally. These elements of action allow the Taoist essence to move on into newer stories for each set of times that arise in human history. So Taoism continues to evolve to match the times to pass on simple practices to reinforce a person’s ability to explore their essence and the universe. It’s flexible, and it allows it, practitioners, to move through changing times.
A Taoist is an open soul: expressing their “style” relative to their “essence“.
Normally people change to fit their practices.
However, in Awakening Dragon Taoism…
Taoism changes to fit its practitioners.
Not many religions work in this manner.
So it comes full circle. If you wonder if you are a Taoist: well if you are living life kindly, compassionately, gracefully, never striving to be first, with modesty while embracing a colorful story to enjoy as yours, then there is no reason why you cannot be a Taoist. To define it any more than that would only be a “label” and Taoists love to throw away definitions.