5 Unique Taoist practices

Taoism is an aboriginal Chinese philosophical and religious system which dates back 2000 years ago. The principal basis of Taoism is the Tao (which means the “Path” or the “Way”). The Tao or The way refers to a nameless, formless, all-encompassing power which manifests all things into being and revert them to non-being in an eternal cycle. The Tao tradition emphasizes on submission to the nameless all-encompassing force by following the way of The Tao which basically implies acting in alignment with nature and finding one’s place in the natural order of things.

As earlier stated, Taoism falls into two categories: Philosophical Taoism (also known as Dao Jia) and Religious Taoism (also known as Dao Jiao), which are both self explanatory as their names suggest and at the same time mutually exclusive. Philosophical Taoism touches on the philosophical aspect of the Taoist concept; it expounds on the Tao te Ching which is an authoritative text on Taoism attributed to Lao Tzu (an ancient Chinese philosopher accredited with founding Taoism). In Philosophical Taoism there is no element of religious doctrines, no binding religious practices, no temples, and no god. Religious Taoism on the other hand can be seen as a structure which interprets Philosophical Taoism into a religious or spiritual context. Religious Taoism also incorporates ideologies from other school of thoughts such as Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism.

This article centers its focus on religious Taoism, more specifically, practices identified with religious Taoism. In order to be a religious Tao practitioner, one has to be prepared to adopt a set of certain unique practices identified with Taoism faith. These unique set of practices take the following form:

Yang Sheng 養 – Yang Sheng is a Chinese Taoist philosophical theory which relates to nurturing and maintaining good health. The Taoist beliefs which underscore the theory of Yang Sheng is that our longevity and vitality can be strengthened and sustained by adopting comprehensive health care practices into our regular routines. Measures such as meditation, exercise, dietary choices, and other self-healing techniques can go a long way in ensuring our well being in terms of health and longevity. If we can incorporate regular measures to balance and support the energy of our mind, body, and spirit (better known as ‘qi’ or ‘chi’), it would play a significant role in the prevention of illness and diseases in the long run. This preventive approach forms the basis and philosophy of all forms of traditional Chinese medicine.

Taiji Knot-Bowing is an act of demonstrating humility, a key element in spiritual development of a practitioner within the Taoism culture. On the most basic level, bowing is a sign of utmost respect to spirits and other people. Bowing at a shrine signifies being in alignment and showing respect to the energies in the shrine.

In Taoism, bowing takes a specific form; before making an entrance to the shrine or altar, a practitioner is expected to bow towards the shrine or altar as a sign of respect. This should be done in the following way:

Standing upright and putting the two feet together. Use the right fingers to grasp the left hand. Making a fist of the right hand by grasping the left thumb, the left hand fingers then lie across the right hand fist to form what is known as the ‘Taiji Knot.’

Raise the taiji knot towards the solar plexus, then move it towards the fore-head such that the palms are facing downwards, return it back to the solar plexus then take a bow and continue with your spiritual practice. Upon finishing your spiritual practice follow the same procedure once more, bow, and then leave.

Incense and Oil- In Taoism, the Shrine is an embodiment of the cosmic body, the incense burnt on the shrine signifies the breath, and the flame the spirit. Ancient shrines used oil lamps which were later replaced by the use of candles. There is also a methodical approach to lighting incense; the incense being lit must be held on the left side of a candle’s flame, the right hand must then be used to fan out the flame which by now is held on the left hand. The thumb, index and middle fingers of both hands must then be used to hold the incense stick with the right hand placed on top of the left hand. The incense will then be raised on the forehead of the practitioner three times while chanting the name to which the incense is being offered. With the right hand, retrieve each of three incense sticks being offered, and place them in the incense burner, with each time the appropriate name being chanted. When all this is done take a small step back, right foot first, then the left foot, take a half bow to the altar with the hands in a taiji knot position.

Cultivation of Virtue; ‘De’- The cultivation of virtue, also known as ‘de’, is at the core of Taoist practice. The cultivation of virtue is what creates the basic structure or foundation upon which other disciplines within the practice are built. To a Taoist, virtue is true goodness, with a heart full of love, respect, and loyalty, for one’s elders including their parents. It is compassion, universal love, kindness, equality, honesty, a passion to enlighten others, courage, patience and forgiveness.
The path and the purpose of a true Taoist is to re-unite oneself with the Dao which can only be attained through cultivation of virtue and qi gong practices. If say, one only practices qi gong and leave out virtue, then it will be impossible to re-unite with the Dao, the furthest they can get is to a state of qi.
Taoists have stages or levels of virtue that they use as markers on their spiritual path to re-unite with the Dao; the highest form of virtue is genuine virtue, followed by mystical virtue, then yin virtue, and finally apparent virtue. To truly grasp the concept of Dao, one must experience it through cultivation of virtue and other spiritual practices as well.

Polytheism- Religious Taoism is polytheistic (worship of many gods) in nature. At the top of the pantheon of deities are three divine beings known as Yu Qing, Shang Qing, and Tai Qing. These three are an embodiment of the Tao itself but in different aspects.

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