Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Not Two Peas in the Pod

In this modern day world, where the concept of religion permeates almost everything, I and others often have great difficulty explaining to the interested how philosophical Taoism differs from religion. It's certainly not that such people are trying to be obtuse -- though some definitely are -- it is more that it is very difficult for them to grab hold of a perspective outside of their realm of experience and understanding.

For example, it is not infrequent for a Christian to liken God, Jesus and the Bible to Tao, Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. They view each set as being synonymous with the only difference being that of terminology and form. For a Taoist, this can be very problematic because the two sets, in actuality, share little in common.

Looking at these in reverse order, let's start with the dynamic differences between the Bible and the Tao Te Ching. The Bible is a narrative. It tells of the history and struggles of the "chosen people". It includes biographical sketches of all the important players in Judeo-Christian early history. The Bible is filled with rules, commandments, creeds and rituals. In the life of Christendom, it is THE guidebook and road map from here to the hereafter. And, for some Christians, the books in the Bible were written (or were caused to be written) by the supreme deity himself!

The Tao Te Ching is not a narrative and it doesn't provide a biographical sketch of anyone. It's 81 verses contain no rules, commandments, creeds or rituals. It was supposedly written by a very wise man, but not by Tao itself. Far from being a road map, it's a jumping off point. Each person must derive their own understanding from it AND it's certainly not even required reading.

Jesus is believed to be God incarnate. He lived a sinless life and died on the cross to free humanity from sin. After his physical death, he was resurrected to sit on a throne in heaven. Jesus can be communicated with via prayer. He looks out for those who believe in him.

Lao Tzu was a man -- if he actually existed at all -- no more, no less. His life was no different than most any other life. When he died, he died. You can't communicate with him and he doesn't look out for you. The only reason philosophical Taoists hold Lao Tzu in high esteem is that, via his words, he has proven to be a wise man, a sage.

The biggest difference, however, involves the conceptions of God versus Tao. For Christians (in general, this applies to deities in other religions too), God is a specific entity. He is all powerful, all knowing and all present. He exhibits many of the same personality characteristics as humans. He demands worship and obedience and, if a person provides these two things, God will look out for them and, hopefully, will welcome them with open arms into heaven.

Tao is NOT an entity; it's a process. It possesses none of the characteristics of humans. It doesn't demand that it be worshiped or obeyed -- expressed in human-like terms, it doesn't care. It doesn't look out for us and praying to it won't grant you any favors. It is merely the flow of all things.

So, while on the surface these two sets seem to be very similar, they are anything but. Religion is highly specific and seeks to conform you to it. Taoism is not specific and is not about conformity at all. Religion seeks to tell each person how they must live their singular lives to obtain salvation, while Taoism doesn't believe there is anything to be saved from and how we each live our lives is up to us.


  1. Incisive analysis.

    My only quibble would be where you say "For Christians (in general, this applies to deities in other religions too), God is a specific entity."

    I think that, rather than Taoism being exceptional in this regard, it might be the Abrahamic religions. It is true that Hinduism and Buddhism have pantheons of gods--but one could argue that, ultimately, they're not what matter in those religions. For Buddhism, the gods are beings trapped in the samsaric cycle just like the rest of us (indeed, the Buddha was called the teacher of gods *and* men); for late Hinduism (i.e. Upanishadic Hinduism), the importance of the gods gives way to that of the Self, which is a metaphysical concept for the "flow of all things" (very roughly). It's not a being living in another world actively looking out for us, but rather a different way of looking at that which is around us.

  2. You are correct!! I should have qualified the statement by stating I was referencing the Abrahamic versions. Good catch. :)

  3. One of Taoism strongest strength, it needs know defense. Christianity, as well as some religions seem to always need an enemy to exist.

    Which translate many of its followers to stay in a mood of judgment. I no longer find even the slightest feeling to compare taoism with any other matter on earth.


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