Daoist philosophy is one of the most prominent philosophical schools to come out of the East. Daoism, sometimes called Taoism, is an ancient Chinese philosophy that focuses on finding harmony with the Dao (Tao), or Way, an indefinable force that permeates everything in the universe, driving it forward and dictating the natural flow of all things.
How Did Daoism Start?
No one is exactly when the first ideas of Daoist philosophy began to take shape. All remaining records credit Daoisim’s origins to Laozi. Laozi is credited as the author of the first text on Daoism, the Daodejing. Interestingly, historical information on Loazi himself is sparse. The first account of him comes from the second major written work on Daoism, the Zhuangzi, written around the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E. by the second most prominent Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi.
Daoist ideas seem to have arrived around the same time as Confucianism with contrasting ideas, and Zhuangzi even claimed that Laozi taught Confucius. The history around any and all if this is foggy at best. In fact, it’s debatable whether Laozi or Zhuangzi were real people or mythological figures.
Over the centuries, Daoist philosophy has blended with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion, blurring many of the lines of what the original Daoists taught.
What Do Daoists Believe?
Because of all the blending of ideas that’s occurred over the centuries and regional differences in China, it’s hard to pin down one unified set of ideas that all Daoists believe. Daoism is both a religion and a philosophy, and while the Daodejing and Zhuangzi provide a philosophical backbone, they are not sacred texts, meaning there is no core orthodoxy among Daoists.
The main shared belief among Daoists is belief in the Dao or Way. The exact meaning of the Dao is notoriously hard to pin down, but in its essence, the Dao is the natural flow of the universe. The primary goal of Daoism is to bring one’s life into harmony with the Dao. Daoists believe that the greater harmony with the Dao one achieves the happier and more fulfilling their life will be. Some also believe that by understanding and finding harmony with the Dao, one can achieve greater health, better fortune, and even physical immortality.
One of the primary ways Daoists look to find harmony with the Dao is by bringing their lives closer to nature and the natural rhythms of the world. Part of that is keeping things simple. The principle of wuwei can be described as not acting, or rather not over-acting. Daoists believe that being overly ambitious or trying to do too much is an attempt to bend the world to one’s will, which is inherently in opposition to the Dao.
Daoists also believe in the Yin and Yang. These are the opposing forces of the universe, darkness, and light, night and day, life and death. These opposites are not inherently good or bad. They simply are. Daoists believe that things in the universe work in cycles, going from Yin to Yang and back.
Depending on the school of Daoism, the region of China or the world, there may be different or additional ideas. When Buddhism arrived in China, many Buddhist ideas were incorporated into Daoist schools of thought, resulting in a wide variation of Daoist ideas and similarities with Buddhism.