The history of Taoism – like that of any spiritual tradition – is an interweaving of officially recorded historical events, and the transmission of the internal experience that its practices reveal. On the one hand, then, we have the unfolding, in space and time, of Taoism’s various institutions and lineages, its communities and Masters, its hermits and sacred mountains. On the other hand, we have the transmission of the “Mind of Tao” - the essence of the mystical experience, the actual living Truth that is the heart of every spiritual path – which happens outside of space and time. The former can be recorded, debated, and written about – in articles such as this. The latter remains more elusive – something beyond language, to be experienced non-conceptually, the “mystery of mysteries” alluded to in various Taoist texts. What follows is simply a rendering of some of Taoism’s important recorded historical events.
Hsia (2205-1765 BCE) & Shang (1766-1121 BCE) & Western Chou (1122-770 BCE) Dynasties
Though the first of Taoism’s philosophical texts – Laozi’s Daode Jing – wouldn’t appear until the Spring & Autumn Period, the roots of Taoism lie in the tribal and shamanic cultures of ancient China, which settled along the Yellow River some 1500 years prior to that time. The wu – the shamans of these cultures – were able to communicate with the spirits of plants, minerals and animals; enter trance-states in which they traveled (in their subtle bodies) to distant galaxies, or deep into the earth; and mediate between the human and supernatural realms. Many of these practices would find expression, later, in the rituals, ceremonies and Inner Alchemy techniques of various Taoist lineages.
Read more: The Shamanic Roots of Taoism
The Spring & Autumn Period (770-476 BCE)
The most important Taoist scripture - Laozi’s Daode Jing – was written during this period. The Daode Jing (also spelled Tao Te Ching), along with the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) and the Liezi, comprise the three core texts of what is known as daojia, or philosophical Taoism. There is debate among scholars about the exact date that the Daode Jing was composed, and also about whether Laozi (Lao Tzu) was its sole author, or whether the text was a collaborative effort. In any case, the 81 verses of the Daode Jing advocate a life of simplicity, lived in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. The text also explores ways that political systems and leaders might embody these same virtuous qualities, proposing a kind of “enlightened leadership.”
The Warring States Period (475-221 BCE)
This period – rife with internecine warfare - gave birth to philosophical Taoism’s second and third core texts: the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) and the Leizi (Lieh Tzu), named after their respective authors. One marked difference between the philosophy espoused by these texts, and that put forth by Laozi in his Daode Jing, is that the Zhuangzi and the Leizi suggest – perhaps in response to the often savage and unethical behavior of the political leaders of the time - a withdrawal from involvement in political structures, in favor of living the life of a Taoist hermit or recluse. While Laozi seemed quite optimistic about the possibility for political structures mirroring the ideals of Taoism, Zhuangzi and Leizi were distinctly less so - expressing the belief that setting oneself apart from political involvement of any kind was the best and perhaps only way for the Taoist initiate to cultivate physical longevity and an awakened mind.
Read more: Zhuangzi's Teachings & Parables
The Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE)
In this period we see the emergence of Taoism as an organized religion (Daojiao). In 142 CE, the Taoist adept Zhang Daoling – in response to a series of visionary dialogues with Laozi - established the “Way of the Celestial Masters” (Tianshi Dao). Practitioners of Tainshi Dao trace their lineage through a succession of sixty-four Masters, the first being Zhang Daoling, and the most recent, Zhang Yuanxian.
The Ch’in (221-207 BCE), Han (206 BCE -219 CE), Three Kingdoms (220-265 CE) & Chin (265-420 CE) Dynasties
Important events for Taoism unfolding during these dynasties include:
* The appearance of the fang-shi. It is in the Ch’in and Han dynasties that China emerges from its Warring States period to become a unified state. One implication of this unification for Taoist practice was the emergence of a class of traveling healers called the fang-shih, or “masters of formulae.” Many of these Taoist adepts – with training in divination, herbal medicine and qigong longevity techniques – had, during the Warring States period, functioned primarily as political advisors for the various feuding statesmen. Once China was unified, it was their skill as Taoist healers that was in greater demand, and so offered more openly.
* Buddhism is brought from India and Tibet to China. This begins the conversation that would result in Buddhist-influenced forms of Taoism (e.g. the Complete Reality School), and Taoist-influenced forms of Buddhism (e.g. Chan Buddhism).
* The emergence of the Shangqing Taoist (Way of Highest Clarity) lineage. This lineage was founded by Lady Wei Hua-tsun, and propagated by Yang Hsi. Shangqing is a highly mystical form of practice, which includes communication with the Five Shen (the spirits of the internal organs), spirit-travel to celestial and terrestrial realms, and other practices to realize the human body as the meeting-place of Heaven and Earth.
next page: Ch'in etc. continued, Tang, Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms Period, Song, & Ming Dynasties ...