As I've mentioned before, in one way I have become my mother! I have gotten to where I read several books simultaneously. (Not at the same time, of course. That would be hard!) I'll read a few chapters or pages of one book and then a chapter or a few pages of another one.
Since my overall knowledge of the history of Taoism is a bit lacking, I recently picked up The Shambhala Guide to Taoism by Eva Wong. As I was reading the section of Chapter Two entitled, "Classical Taoism in the Spring and Autumn Period: Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching," I had an aha moment that wasn't directly related to what I was reading.
My aha moment concerns the philosophical/religious distinction in Taoism that Baroness Radon argues doesn't actually exist. While I am coming to understand that the Baroness most likely is correct in one sense, I have had trouble trying to explain why I believe the distinction is valid in another sense. And that's when it hit me: Most, if not all, of the religious figures we venerate today were philosophers when they walked the earth.
For example, Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jewish philosopher. In time, as people reflected upon his life and teachings, a religion was born out of this reflection. An organizational structure was created and an institution was developed.
The same can be said of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi. Neither of them was a Taoist (a term coined long after their deaths); each was a Chinese philosopher. As with Jesus, people began to reflect on their teachings and a religious belief system slowly coalesced around their central ideas.
As part of this process of religion creation, these human beings were transformed into something akin to deities. They couldn't have been birthed from normal circumstances, so myths were created to show their extraordinary kinship with the heavens. Magical powers were added to the mix and their death stories confirmed that they reached a state that a mere mortal could not attain.
So, it can be argued that those of us who focus solely on the teachings of these Masters -- not the myth creation that occurred after their deaths -- are attuned to their philosophy. This is why I refer to myself as a philosophical Taoist. I focus on the philosophers and their words, not the other stuff that was conjured up after the fact.
Wong herself adds to this point later in Chapter 2, when she writes,
In shedding the shamanic world of diverse spirits and retaining the personal power of the shaman, the Tao-te ching represents a transition from shamanic beliefs to a philosophical system with a unified view of the nature of reality (the Tao), the sage, and the cultivation of life. (emphasis added)