Daoism encompasses a group of philosophical and religious beliefs that have permeated Chinese culture at every level. Daoism is defined by belief in the Dao 道 (referred to as “Tao” in the older Wade-Giles system) means ‘path’ or ‘way’. Dao refers to the formless, limitless aspect of the universe that underlies all of creation. Daoists study and strive to act in harmony with the rhythm of this cosmic force. The Daoist lifestyle incorporates study of classical Daoist philosophy, ritual practices, meditation, and physical exercises.
The school of Daoism that was first practiced at Wudang Mountain, Zheng Yi Dao (正一道 – Orthodox Unity Daoism) was founded in 142 C.E. during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Many of the original Orthodox Unity Daoist practices grew from shamanistic origins, including writing talismans for protection, and using natural herbs and minerals to create health potions. Orthodox Unity Daoists can chose to live in temples, or offer their services while living among the people. Many Orthodox Unity Daoists practice martial arts or medicine. Hundreds of years after the Orthodox Unity School was founded, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Daoist religion, Buddhism, and local folk practices began to mix, and the Complete Perfection school of Daoism (Quanzhen Dao) emerged. Complete Perfection Daoism is the major monastic form of Daoism today. Complete Perfection Daoists are traditionally celibate, live exclusively in monasteries, and practice “internal alchemy” which seeks to refine the body through breathing exercises, meditation, and visualization practices. In the West, sometimes Complete Reality Daoists are referred to as Daoist Monks, and Orthodox Unity Daoists are referred to as Daoist Priests, but the differentiation does not exist in the Chinese language. There are many similarities among the schools of Daoism, and all Daoists embrace the three jewels of the Dao: compassion, moderation,and humility.
Daoism is occasionally seen as being made up of Philosophical Daoism (Daojia 道家) based on the texts Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi (道德经, 庄子) and Religious Taoism (Daojiao 道敎), which describes the Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection schools (and others schools). However, this dichotomy ignores connections between the classical texts and Daoist religious practices, and has been rejected by Daoist scholars and historians around the world. The Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi texts offer incredibly insightful and powerful teachings, however, they too are just a part of a vast Daoist literature. Many people are unaware of the existence of the Daozang (道藏 – the Daoist Canon). The Daoist Canon was originally compiled during the Jin, Tang, and Song Dynasties, but the version surviving today was published during the Ming dynasty. The Ming Daozang includes almost 1500 texts, which discuss Daoist history, philosophy, and practice methods. The painstaking and rewarding work of translating the Daozang into English is slowly opening up a deeper realm of Daoist practice for the rest of the non-Chinese speaking world.
Daoist clergy follow a variety of paths. Some withdraw from the community to live as hermits or in monasteries. Others live in villages or cities. The work of Daoists in the community is directed towards healing and renewal. In some areas (mostly notably Hong Kong and Taiwan) Daoist priests also work to create amulets and talismans, and perform magic spells and exorcisms. Other specialists, such as diviners and mediums, bridge the human and divine worlds. Working as an intermediary between the mortal and spirit world, Daoist adepts use their skills to protect the people from malignant forces. On sacred mountains around China, Daoist priests train and practice their arts, and Daoist temples run by laypeople can be found in villages throughout China.
The various schools of Daoism also systematize native Chinese health and healing techniques that permeate every aspect of day-to-day life, including meditation and visualization exercises, breathing techniques, sexual practices, and dietary modifications, all of which can be referred to as “yang sheng” (nurturing life). In China, the idea of nurturing life embraces many practices aimed at strengthening the body, mind, and spirit. One of the most important lessons to be learned from self-cultivation is the idea of treating the body before it becomes sick. This corresponds with aspects of modern preventative medicine, such as proper diet and exercise. Each individual person’s body is seen as a small-scale model of the universe, and an inseparable part of the natural world. By purifying the body, it can be brought into harmony with the surrounding natural world, which will lead to a greater level of health. Wudang Daoists dedicate their lives to studying and preserving these valuable arts. It is our hope that students of all cultures and religious can enrich their lives by learning about Daoism and the Daoist sacred arts.