The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

India and China
Abeja Dispatch

Tao Tip #101
July 15, 2000

Click image for larger view
The front entrance to Jianfu temple - and another world!
I'd like to tell you about Taoism, but I can't talk about it!

Smoke billows into the air from dozens of sticks of incense, burning on the altar, surrounded by plates of fruit, laid out as an offering. Larger than life, a robed figure of an "immortal" stares down at me. His long, thin beard and two strips of hair from beside his ears hang all the way to his waist.

Click image
for larger view
I pray to the immortals for help with this dispatch
I kneel in the still, shady courtyard of Jianfu Temple, at the base of the sacred Taoist mountain Qingcheng Shan, and pray to whatever gods may be listening, "Please, immortal ones, help me to understand this complex religion. I have a dispatch to write!"

Well, sorry, you guys. I guess I can't write a dispatch today. The Eternal Tao cannot be talked about. It says so right here, in the first book of Taoism, the Tao Teh Ching. And I came all the way up here, to this sacred Taoist mountain in the Sichuan Province of China, just to learn about Taoism, China's only native religion.

"Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name."
Chapter 1, Tao Teh Ching

Even though there are now more Buddhist temples than Taoist temples in China, Buddhism originated in India, and only came to China many centuries later. But Taoism started here with this little book called the Tao Teh Ching, which was written around 600 BCE. That is about the same time that Buddha and Confucius lived, and the Romans were busy spreading stories about their gods, too! It was a big time for religious development throughout Asia and Europe.

Just as Confucius started Confucianism and Buddha started Buddhism, a man called Lao Tzu, "The Grand Old Master," is credited with starting Taoism and with writing the Tao Teh Ching. Some say he's only a legend, and some say he was a real man and a friend of Confucius. The story goes that, towards the end of his life, he climbed onto a water buffalo and headed West, towards the Tibetan Himalayas, to live his last years in quiet contemplation. On his way, someone requested that he leave them a record of his beliefs, and so he wrote the Tao Teh Ching, which means "The Way and its Power."

"Few things under heaven are as instructive as the lessons of silence,
Or as beneficial as the fruits of non-Ado."
Chapter 43, Tao Teh Ching

Tao means, more or less, "the Way." Of course, we know that the Eternal Tao can't really be named or talked about. It is the way of nature, of balance and order, which can only be understood through mystical insight or meditation, not through studying or reading dispatches on the internet about it. The Tao Teh Ching instructs you to be quiet, humble, and still, and not to strive or grasp for things.

Click image for larger view
The front gate of the sacred Taoist mountain, Qingcheng Shan
So really, I should just stop writing now...but I won't. I'm not a good Taoist, I suppose.

Hundreds of Chinese tourists flock to this mountain daily, to ride the fancy cable cars to the top and look out over the lush greenery, dotted with monasteries and temples. Still, it is a quiet and beautiful place. I climb up to a rock, off the main pathway, to sit and read my copy of the Tao Teh Ching. The clean fresh air, the solitude and beauty, seem all the more wonderful in contrast to the dirty, noisy city of Chengdu, where I just was.

"Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other
Back and front follow each other."
Chapter 2, Tao Teh Ching

Ah HA! I know this concept. It's the Yin and the Yang. You know, the symbol of the black and white circle that is so popular these days. It's Taoist. The Yin is the black little fish-like half of the circle, and it represents the female aspect: dark, mysterious, passive, and nurturing. The Yang is the white side, and stands for the male aspect: bright, active, and strong. Life consists of a balance of opposites, and you can't have one without the other. Could I appreciate the beauty of this place without first seeing the industrial pollution in Chengdu? Would I know Chengdu was polluted if I had never been to a place like Qingcheng Shan Mountain?

"All the myriad things carry the Yin on their backs and hold the Yang in their embrace,
Deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital Breaths."
Chapter 42, Tao Teh Ching

Even though the smog is black, I think that the industrial area is represented by the Yang: the active need to create and change the environment, as opposed to the nurturing, passive female Yin, represented by this Taoist mountain. What do you think? Can you come up with other examples of opposites and decide which one is Yin, and which one is Yang? If you were a Chinese traditional physician, or if you practice Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi and Chi Qong, then you would use this concept as a basis for your practice!

The Tao Teh Ching was meant as an instruction book for the ancient Chinese rulers and not as the scriptures for a new religion. In it, Lao Tzu recommends a passive, "feminine" approach to ruling. He speaks strongly against war, over-taxation, gluttony and pride.

"The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
When you are lacking in faith,
Others will be unfaithful to you.
The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed,
All the people say, "We ourselves have achieved it!"
Chapter 17, Tao Teh Ching

Of course, even if you're not an ancient Chinese ruler, you can learn a lot from Lao Tzu's words. For example, replace the words "ruler" with "teacher," and "people" with "student" in the chapter above, and then think about the different teachers in your school. Who is more effective, the teachers you fear, or the teachers who encourage you to take ownership of your schoolwork, and pride in your education?

Click image for
larger view
This immortal god reminds me of the Hindu gods in India!
Ok, all this philosophy is fine and good, but what does it have to do with the numerous statues of "immortals" and burning incense and offering fruit? I'm really confused!

I want to ask some of the monks that I see, who live on this mountain. They wear simple, long-sleeved Chinese shirts and have long hair tied in a knot on the top of their heads. There aren't very many of them, none I've met seem to speak English, and they refuse to let me even take their picture - but I promise they're here. At odd times in the day, I hear them chanting and ringing bells, or see them bowing before the statues and burning incense. And at night, before retiring to the simple room I'm renting in the temple, I see them sitting around playing a Chinese domino-like game called mah-jongg.


Contemplation - a state of mystical awareness of God's being
Creed - belief
Gluttony - eating or drinking too much
Passive - existing or occurring without being busy, open, or direct
Scriptures - a body of writings considered sacred or authoritative

So, unfortunately, I still know very little about the complex rituals of the Taoist religion as practiced in China today - which religious scholars call "neo-Taoism" (the suffix "neo-" means "new"). I've read that Lao Tzu's words were followed by another great philosopher in the 2nd century BCE, Chuangtzu, and The Book of Chuangtzu tells even more about the Tao. Considering the fact that the Eternal Tao cannot be talked about, there seems to be a lot written about it!

Click image for
larger view
Incense burns as an offering to the gods all day in this thing!
Taoism didn't become a religion until 143 BCE, when a movement called the "Celestial Masters" took these books as their creed. Since then, it has adopted a lot of the ancient Chinese religions, including ancestor worship and a bunch of gods, whom they call "the immortals." Lao Tzu, Buddha, and Confucius are all immortals, as are other great historic figures. Some Chinese Taoists follow complex rituals based on witchcraft, exorcism, and magic. There are 1,400 chapters of strange scriptures collected in a book called the Daozong that seem, from what I've read, to be far from the simplicity that Lao Tzu taught.

Related Links

The Tao of Pooh

Mount Qingcheng


In the West, Taoism is making a comeback, too. It's a "new-age" phenomenon, and people are passing up the strange ancestor worship stuff and going back to the basic truths taught in the Tao Teh Ching. The Tao of Pooh is a really popular book that makes the teachings of Lao Tzu easy for anyone to understand-even you! And it doesn't require any incense, rituals, or bowing to statues.

I have to take the bus back to Chengdu today. I'm not looking forward to the city, but I am excited about my next adventures-Yin and Yang remain balanced! See you there!

All Tao Teh Ching quotations are from:
Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu, trans. John C. H. Wu, Shambala Publications, Boston, 1990


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - Nanjing - Second In Line Doesn't Mean Second Best!
Jasmine - Drug Wars to Star Wars: A Tangled Trip through the Opium Trade
Kavitha - Fight for Your Right to Party (or Play Cards?!)

Meet Abeja | Abeja's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info

Meet Abeja