Taoism is a philosophy based on tao (“dao”), or the Way, an ancient Chinese concept expressed in two principle works, Tao te ching (“Book of the Way and Virtue”), attributed to Lao Tzu (fl. 6th century BCE), considered the founder of Taoism, and Chuang Tzu, the words of Master Chuang Tzu.
Taoism and Buddhism have a long history of co-existence and intermingling. Many of the early Buddhists in China were also Taoists, and Taoism exerted a profound and positive influence on Buddhism.
But things got off to a rocky start when Buddhism was first introduced to China. The Taoists resented these newcomers, the Buddhists, coming along with their strange Indian ideas. So, they said, “Well, you know the Buddha is just an emanation of Lao Tzu.” Of course, the Buddhists didn’t feel like they could let the Taoists get away with this, so they got together and decided to push the Buddha’s birth-date back 500 years so that he couldn’t be the emanation of anyone. That’s how the date of 3000 BCE was established. Today, everyone knows better, except the Nichiren and Pure Land schools who are kind of wedded to this notion, since their Buddhisms are based on the Latter Day of The Law, the degenerate age, which in turn is based on this 3000 BCE date.
What is tao? As I wrote above it means the Way, but a precise definition is hard to come by, for as the Tao te ching says,
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
The word tao can also be translated as “path” or “road.” Tao is mysterious, unfathomable, a path to ultimate reality, the force of ultimate reality itself, an abstract concept. Wing-tsit Chan gave as good an explanation as any:
It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. When this Tao is possessed by individual things it becomes its character or virtue (te) . . . As the way of life, it denotes simplicity, spontaneity, tranquility, weakness, and most important of all, non-action (wu-wei). But the latter is not meant literally ‘inactivity’ but rather ‘taking no action that is contrary to Nature’ – in other words, letting Nature take its own course.” [1. Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963, 136]
While the idea of a primordial force that is the creator or origin of all things is not entirely consistent with Buddhist thinking, it is not altogether inconsistent either.
In Buddhism, the ideal is that of a buddha or the bodhisattva, while in Taoism it is the sage. “The life of the sage is a transcendent one,” writes Fung Yu-lan. “But to transcend the world does not mean to be divorced from the world, and therefore the Chinese sage is not the kind of sage who is so sublime that he is not concerned about the business of world.” [2. Fung Yu-lan, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1947, 4]
The sage man is “the great man,” the wise man; part philosopher, part King, part ordinary person. The sage does not outwardly strive for anything, not for enlightenment, not to liberate other beings, yet simply by living in the natural rhythm of life, the sage helps all people dispel their confusions. In some respects, sageliness is comparable to Buddha Nature in that all people have the qualities of a sage within, just waiting to be nurtured.
Emptiness, tranquility, mellowness, quietude, and taking no action are the root of all things . . . One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with all beings. To be in harmony with all beings means happiness and to be in harmony with nature means the happiness of nature.”
Chuang Tzu, The Way of Heaven
Once the Taoists began to accept the presence of Buddhism in China, it attracted their interest. They were particularly intrigued by the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata). From exposure to Buddhist culture, Taoism gradually transformed itself from a sort of freewheeling philosophy into a religion, and it was Buddhism that inspired them to make statues of their important figures. During the 5th century, a movement emerged that attempted to forge a real synthesis between not only Buddhism and Taoism, but also Confucianism. This movement was known as Jen-t’ien-chiao or “Man-Heaven Teachings.”
A Buddhist named T’an-ching (not to be confused with the “Platform Sutra”) in an apocryphal sutra titled T’i-wei Po-li Ching (“The Sutra of Trapusa and Bhallika”) sought to meld the five precepts of Buddhism (panca-sila) with the theory of the five elements of Taoism and the five virtues in Confucianism. The claim for this text is that it supposedly represents a teaching the Buddha gave on the seventh day after his enlightenment to a band of merchants led by Trapusa (T’i-wei) and Bhallika (Po-li). This fabricated sutra had an influence on the Chinese p’an-chiao or sutra classification system in which the periods of the Buddha’s teachings were divided according to content and chronological order. The T’i-wei Po-li Ching was used by a lay convert, Liu Ch’iu (438-495), to separate the Buddha’s teachings into the “sudden” and “gradual” categories.
From the first paragraph of the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, translated by Whalen W. Lai, we get a glimpse at how easily and seamlessly the Chinese were able to blend the doctrines of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism into an organic whole:
When the tathagata attained the Tao under the bodhi tree, for seven days no one knew that he had so attained the highest mystical state (samyak-sambodhi) except for two gentry devotees T’i-wei and Po-li. These two were versed in yin-yang and knew thoroughly the art of tortoise shell divination, the I-ching [Book of Change], and fortune telling. They alone knew that the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Together with the god of the tree, T’i-wei [and Po-li] offered food to the Buddha and so did the four heavenly kings. The Buddha, after eating the food, preached to T’i-wei [and Po-li] the law of rebirth in the various paths of existence.”
There is much more that could be said on this subject, and naturally, the surface can only be scratched in a single blog post. For further reading, particularly with regard to Jen-t’ien-chiao and the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, I recommend Buddhist and Taoist Practice in Medieval Chinese Society, edited by David W. Chappell (University of Hawaii Press, 1987) and Kenneth Ch’en’s Buddhism in China A Historical Survey (Princeton University Press, 1973). There are also many good translations of both the Tao te ching and Chuang Tzu to choose from.