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Taoism - a problem of definition

Chinese religion and spirituality has been divided, by both the Chinese and foreign scholars alike, into three great streams: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. In the spirit of Asiatic syncretism, these three teachings were often con-sidered complementary rather than contradictory, Confucianism being concerned with how one should act in the human world, and Buddhism and Taoism with the spiritual and world-transcending path; and Chinese writers would frequently speak of the "three sages": Confucius, Lao-tze, and Buddha. (A similiar approach was taken in India, regarding the reconcilia-tion of the six classical systems of philosophy - the "six darshanas" - which were codified around the time of Christ). But quite apart from the arbitrary nature of such a conciliation, we are faced with the fact that whereas Confucianism and Buddhism could each be considered self-contained religions, Taoism was little more than a "catch-all" category with which to include anything that did not fit within the other two religions: from the sublime philisophico-spiritual teachings of Lao-tze and Chuang-tze (both fourth century B.C.E.) to the magical-occult folk beliefs of the village shaman.

Some Western scholars tried to make sense of Taoism by distinguishing between "philosophical" Taoism (by which is meant the tradition of Lao-tze and Chuang-tze) and "religious" Taoism. Such terms are rather inappropriate. Lao-tze and Chuan-tze's Taoism is hardly "philosophical", but rather "spiritual" in the sense that sophisticated - as op-posed to "popular" or "village" - Buddhism and "Hinduism" are. And "religious" Taoism can itself be divided into many categories, such as Village/Shamanic on the one hand, and Yogic/alchemical/self-transformative on the other.

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 November 1999, last modified 21 November 2003