Forms Of Taoist Practice:
Some Taoist practitioners choose to affiliate with Taoist temples or monasteries, i.e. the formal, organized, institutional aspects of the tradition. Others walk a hermit’s path of solitary cultivation; and still others adopt aspects of a Taoist world-view, lifestyle and/or practices while maintaining a more formal connection to another religion.
The four main lineages of Taoist practice today are: Quanzhen (Complete Reality), Lingbao (Numinous Treasure), Shangqing (Highest Clarity), and Tianshi Dao (Way of the Celestial Masters).
Taoist World-View: Natural Rhythms & Qi:
The Taoist world-view is rooted in a close observation of the patterns of change that exist within the natural world. The Taoist practitioner notices how these patterns manifest as both our internal and external terrains: as our human body, as well as mountains and rivers and forests. Taoist practice is based on coming into harmonious alignment with these elemental patterns of change.
Central to this alignment with the patterns of the natural world is cultivating a sensitivity to qi (chi). What is qi? It is life-force energy - what animates all living things. In other traditions it is called prana, ki or shakti.
The Tao & Immortality:
As you accomplish such an alignment with the patterns of the natural world - their wisdom and power - you gain experiential access, also, to the source of these patterns: the primordial unity out of which they arose, named as the Tao. At this point, your thoughts, words and actions will tend, quite spontaneously, to produce health and happiness, for yourself as well as your family, society, world and beyond. You will have attained the highest virtue ("De") and be on the path leading to the realm of Immortality - the summit of Taoist practice.
Laozi and the "Daode Jing":
The most famous figure of Taoism is the historical and/or legendary Laozi (Lao Tzu), whose Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching) is its most famous scripture. Legend has it that Laozi, whose name means “ancient child,” dictated the verses of the Daode Jing to a gatekeeper on China’s western frontier, before disappearing forever into the land of the Immortals. The Daode Jing (translated here by Stephen Mitchell) opens with the following lines:
- The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
- The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
- The unnamable is the eternally real.
- Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Cultivating Intuition Through Metaphor, Paradox & Poetry:
True to this beginning, the Daode Jing, like many Taoist scriptures, is rendered in a language rich with metaphor, paradox and poetry: literary devices which allow the text to be something like the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon.” In other words, it is a vehicle for transmitting to us - its readers - something which ultimately cannot be spoken, cannot be known by the conceptual mind, but can only be experienced intuitively.
Qigong & Inner Alchemy:
This emphasis within Taoism of cultivating intuitive, non-conceptual forms of knowing is seen also in its abundance of meditation, Inner Alchemy and qigong forms – practices which focus our awareness on our breath and the flow of qi (life-force) through our bodies. It's also exemplified in the Taoist practice of “aimless wandering” through the natural world – a practice that reconnects us with a child-like curiosity and playfulness, at the same time teaching us how to communicate with the spirits of trees, rocks, mountains and flowers; as well as through intuitive healing forms such as the Yuen Method.
Taoist Ritual, Divination, Art & Medicine:
Along with its institutional practices -- the rituals and ceremonies eneacted within temples and monasteries; and the more secularized holidays; and the internal alchemy practices of its yogis and yoginis; the Taoist traditions have also produced a number of divination systems, including Yijing (I-ching), feng-shui, and astrology; a rich artistic heritage, e.g. poetry, painting, calligraphy and music; as well as an entire medical system. Not surprising, then, that there are at least 10,000 ways of “being a Taoist”! Yet within them all one can find aspects of the Taoist world-view – a deep respect for the natural world, a sensitivity to and celebration of its patterns of change, and an intuitive opening to the unspeakable Tao.