The most commonly held belief regarding the origin of Taoism holds that Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching - the Taoist canon's most well-known work - is its founding father. However, even Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching spoke of the "Tao masters of antiquity." To whom was he referring?
Taoism emerged from a rich shamanic tradition that existed in China since the Ice Age. These shamans were healers and diviners, they had power over the elements, could travel to the sky, converse with animals and had knowledge of the use of plants.
One of these shamans, King Fu Hsi, who lived circa 2,800 BCE, was the first to construct a system by which the underlying structure of the universe could be expressed and understood. This system was the forerunner to the tri-grams of the I Ching - the Classic of Change - and an enduring tool of divination.
Modern academics generally consider Fu Hsi to be mythical due to the fanciful stories that surround him. However, Taoist tradition has a robust lineage and knowledge is passed down from generation to generation in an unbroken link that spans centuries. These Taoists know that Fu Hsi existed and they recognize the role he played in the formation of Taoism. They are also smart enough to distinguish between historical fact and what is likely to be myth.
Recent archaeological finds in China has shed more light on this pre-historic civilization. Jade figures have been unearthed that are consistent with the legend of Fu Hsi and has led some to refer to this period as the Jade Age.
There then followed Yu in 2,070 BCE, another shaman. He was charged by his king, Shun, with the responsibility of saving the people from rising flood waters. Many before him had tried and failed, including his own father. Yu, guided, it is said, by an immortal, designed a system of dikes and canals that not only saved the kingdom from disaster but led to its future prosperity.
While Fu Hsi had discovered the underlying structure of the universe, Yu revealed its nature of continuous flux. Such was the esteem in which he was held, Yu became king when Shun died.
King Wen, who lived from 1100 BCE, took these two systems of divination and produced the sixty-four hexagrams of the modern I Ching.
In the coming centuries, the powerful cities led by feudal kings began to compete with each other, swallowing each other up and growing until Ch'in triumphed over its rivals to unite the warring states as China.
During this period of war and chaos, the kings, no longer shamans, relied on the wisdom of advisers. These advisers, some motivated by money - others by a genuine belief in the need for a better way - traveled from state to state, offering their services and the benefit of their wisdom. One such "adviser" was Lao Tzu.
What little is known of Lao Tzu is that he grew up in the state of Ch'u and went by the name of Li Erh. Ch'u had a culture that was heavily influenced by shamanism and this is reflected in Lao Tzu's great treatise: the Tao Te Ching (The Classic of the Tao and the Virtue). Lao Tzu, when speaking of the Tao sages of antiquity, called for a return to shamanic values such as the understanding of, and the harmonizing with, nature. But the Taoist sage, as put forward by Lao Tzu, is an active member of society, applying Tao principles to everyday life including government because, according to Lao Tzu, this was the only way to restore peace and harmony to a fragmenting society.
The Tao Te Ching represents the first philosophical work of Taoism and is, today, the second most translated book after the Bible. It is agreed that Lao Tzu was not its only writer, however, and while the original version is lost to us, that which was edited and added to in subsequent years by Taoist sages survives in modern translations.
Chuang Tzu, a contemporary of Lao Tzu, is another great father of Taoism. His work, the Chuang Tzu, rich in storytelling and humor, is similar to the wisdom of Lao Tzu but differs in important ways. Whereas, for instance, Lao Tzu's sage involves himself fully in the affairs of state, the sage of Chuang Tzu will have nothing to do with politics and will refuse all requests to take part. For Chuang Tzu, the maintenance of spiritual integrity required that the sage retreat from the corrupt and chaotic world.
Confucius (Kung Fu Tzu) was different still. For him, the way to peace and prosperity was less to do with the natural way of the universe and more to do with a rigid guide to social and moral behavior that governed, strictly, all areas of life.
Eventually, peace did come to China and Taoism continued to thrive and expand into a number of different schools and traditions. With the cessation of war, the traveling sages and their advice were no longer required by the new rulers. These sages became a social class of their own, known as the fang-shih, imparting their knowledge of healing, divination and health to the masses. The upper classes, happy with their life and wanting to make it last as long as possible made use of the fang-shih's knowledge of longevity; the poor, however, not wishing to suffer the iniquity of their lives for a second longer than they had to were more interested in the magic required for guaranteeing successful crops and the avoidance of natural disasters such as storms.
With the decline of the shamans and the popularity of the fang-shih, aided by the state's sponsoring of it, Taoism as a religion grew, reviving shrines, rituals and ceremonies in the first century of the common era during the Eastern Han dynasty.
It was during this time that Lao Tzu became honored with offerings and worship and was elevated to a chief deity status by Chang Tao-Ling who founded a religion around himself and the newly promoted Lao Tzu. The coming years would see Taoism as an organized religion spread throughout China and develop a priesthood, ceremonies, rites and scripture, some of which was transmitted, not by mortals as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were, but by deities themselves. A creation myth evolved as did the concepts of reward and punishment and the need for strict religious observance.
Over the proceeding 1000 years, Taoist sects came and went, often as their charismatic leaders did. Others have endured to the present day. As there is no such thing as heresy in Taoism, a disagreement within a particular sect would often see one or more followers leaving to start sects of their own.
External alchemy, which concerned itself with the discovery of a mineral compound to achieve immortality, faded away because of continued failure and the numerous poisonings that had occurred. Internal alchemy, however, flourished and became woven together with Confucian ethics and Buddhist values to create a synthesis that survives to this day. The Complete Reality School and the Action and Karma Taoism movements were at the forefront of this fusion of ideas. Today, it is sometimes difficult to tell where one religion ends and the other begins such is totality of their union. Over the centuries, times of political upheaval often heralded a shake up of Taoism and its many, many sects.
Such upheaval created a new atmosphere of contemplation and rational thinking. Magical Taoism suffered a drop in popularity and a form of internal alchemy, based on the transforming of the mind through psychological processes emerged and centered on the stilling of the mind. Zen Buddhist practices were introduced and yet more schools of Taoism were created.
Divinational, magical, alchemical, ceremonial and karmic schools of Taoism survive, but in the Western world it is the philosophical Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu that have captured the imagination while internal alchemical practices such as Tai Chi and Ch'i Kung are widespread. The I Ching as a divinational tool is also famed the world over as is Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
With books such as the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, Tao is still a system to which the human race may turn to understand the structure and the nature of the universe, just as the shamanic kings of antiquity did.
On the Web, thousands of discussion groups, set up specifically to talk about Taoism have been created; and with each disagreement a new discussion group emerges, just as, centuries before, disagreement led to there being too many sects to count.
5,000 years ago, shamans looked to nature for its wisdom. Today, as the human race enters its 21st century and has as many centuries between it and Lao Tzu as the old man had between him and Fu Hsi, and facing the kind of problems that confronted China during the Warring States period, Taoism is as relevant now as it ever was. While there is a universe there will be a way and while there is a way there will be people striving to understand it and, by extension, themselves.