You may ask yourself: Is she descending into dementia due to old age? Is she losing her critical thinking skills? Can she not tell that she has written the word Taoism twice in the title?
That should not be the question that floats around in your mind. The question should be: Is there a difference between Taoism and Taoism? (well…other than the fact that I italicized the second word).
The answer is: YES! There is a HUGE difference.
This difference has been something that I’ve thought about for a very long time. My understanding of Taoism as a young woman has always been that it is a philosophical teaching that is rooted in clear and concise humanistic, logical, and compassionate ideology.
And then I got older and older and older and I began to realize it’s not as clear-cut and precise as that.
It sloshes around because the world is not as clear-cut and precise as we’d all like for it to be.
There are things and places and situations in this world that defy our rational logical mind. Not only are they inexplicable, sometimes, they are down right terrifying.
I have to admit that throughout the years, I have often meandered into strange and unusual subject matter even though Taoist philosophy should not be all that strange.
But then I hit the strange side of Taoist magic and its folk beliefs, and it leaves me wondering if there is another side to Taoism that I am drawn to…that I actively seek out…that I must search among the vestiges of ancient knowledge in other religions to tease out the tidbits of information that hide within obscure practices.
Let me first preface this by saying that there is a difference, but the English language does not allow us to differentiate this––difference. Since there is no English way to differentiate between Taoism and Taoism, we are gonna have to discuss this differently.
I have to use Vietnamese terminology to differentiate between the two.
Firstly, in Vietnamese, there are two separate words for the differences between the two: They are Đạo Giáo (道教), and Đạo Gia (道家).
Notice that there are Chinese hanzi that shows the difference between the two. The Chinese also knew the difference.
Unfortunately, it all translates into the single word Taoism because the two shades of grey are indistinguishable from each other, at least to western eyes.
Allow me to give definitions and explain a bit about these two distinctly different ideologies. I’ll start the show by giving the definition of the two.
Đạo Gia Taoism (道家)
Đạo Gia Taoism is loosely translated as ‘the path that the family takes’. Đạo means the way or the path. Gia means ‘family‘. Family Path.
Don’t be fooled, however. The Gia in this context is part of the word quốc gia which means nation. It does not mean the average household that is working in the fields, or selling fabric in the markets.
This word Gia was most likely the result of the idea that the Vietnamese nation is comprised of family members (genetic family). Because the King occupies the top tier level of membership within the family nation, it fit in perfectly with the Confucian way of thinking, which meant that Đạo Gia was always taught alongside Confucianism.
And now I understand why my father said that throughout the ages, his family upheld three different religions, Ancestral Worship, Confucianism, and Taoism.
There was a later addition (by a certain member of my family) of Buddhism, which didn’t disturb the natural flow of familial practices. They just added a statue of Buddha onto the already crowded altar and prayed to everyone, all at the same time.
In viewing this family tradition through the lens of an older person with some experience about life in general, I now realize that of the three (actually four) belief systems, only two required an altar: Ancestral Worship and Buddhism.
Confucianism is not and has never been a religion, and Taoism exists outside the construct of man-made religion since it is a set of natural laws that exist whether man exists or not.
The basic tenet of Taoist philosophy was developed by a group of ancient intellectuals as a methodical guide to govern a country. This was the reason that ordinary mortals of that time were not taught (or even allowed to read) this philosophical method.
It is the philosophical side of Taoism, specifically tailored to guide a monarch in the best way to govern a country in the realm of the yang. This puts many chapters of the Tao Te Ching into perspective and everything suddenly makes perfect sense.
What didn’t make sense were some of the more esoteric teachings of Taoism––such as exorcisms and other spiritual practices.
In comes Đạo Giáo Taoism to explain about all this mysticism.
Đạo Giáo Taoism (道教)
This is what you get when you add an ‘o‘ to a word. You change it from the adjective –> ‘family‘, to the noun –> ‘teachings‘. So now, this form of Taoism means ‘instructions for walking the path‘. Path Teachings.
This is what we are familiar with, as it was allowed to be transferred to the ordinary citizens, living their mundane lives.
I’m not saying it is a watered down version of Đạo Gia Taoism. I’m just saying the emphasis is different if you have to rule a country, as opposed to making herbs into medicine and treating the local farming community.
In many ways, Đạo Giáo Taoism actually goes much further than what was allowed to be taught to kings because the first priority of a king is to keep the nation together and to repel invasion of hostile foreign forces.
It is NOT to go off and sit under the banyan tree to seek self-enlightenment (although the banyan tree is another topic for another day).
For the rest of us––we actually have the freedom to do so because we are not weighted down by the yoke of being CEO of a nation. This means that if we want to, we can sever our relationships with our family and go off into the hills to seek self-enlightenment for ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with doing this if it is your calling and it is time for your soul to seek that path. It’s just that kings have to deal with more mundane things…such as having sex.
SEX: That bugaboo word that so many people have such huge hangups over, is actually a major consideration when it comes to the various religions of the world. Of course, the sex I’m talking about has less to do with recreation and more to do with procreation.
Aside from the Taoist sect of Zhengyi, Buddhist Tantric teachings, and some Tibetan yogi sects which allow monks to have sex, get married, and have children, most Buddhist and Taoist sects require celibacy in practicing monks.
And that’s the problem. Kings can’t do celibacy.
Kings need to have as many children as possible to ensure the royal lineage. To construct something that the kings could use as a tool to wield the Tao, there had to be a set of instructions that they could use without needing to get into the nitty gritty of working towards the experience of a personal awakening.
It’s a good thing none of us are kings. By being normal mortals, we have the opportunity to tackle the huge lesson of walking the path and encountering enlightenment along the way.
We also have another hang-up. We’re all different.
Then, as now, there are all levels of humanity. This is because we are each following our own path of enlightenment.
Some are more advanced on the path while others are barely toddlers, stumbling along and trying not to trip over their own shoes.
Some of us can walk the path with little more than a sturdy pair of walking shoes, while others need more hand-holding. Some even need strollers (or even wheelchairs) to assist them on their path.
That’s perfectly fine too. There are many levels of Path Teachings that can accommodate each person’s path, regardless of ability––which brings me back to my question at the start of this post.
What are we to make of the wild and bizarre aspects of Taoist magic and its accompanying folk beliefs?
I love how you wrote this, because this is not commonly known of and I think you explain it wonderfully. As far as your concluding question, I haven’t heard as much about things further back than Fangshi, Taiyi, and Tianshi branches, though I’m sure there are more resources out there for me to look into. I have heard of concepts possibly related to or even brought in from neighboring regions and the peoples there and how this may have influenced Dao Giao. I wonder, could it be that your ancestors that may have contributed some influence? I have heard about some sites and areas that would have been more proximate to the Southwest, and contact with peoples towards that direction, which would get closer to the Viet states wouldn’t it?