What Do Daoists Believe?

This is part of a series of posts I'm doing on Daoism. I put the first post on its own page (see side bar). As I create more material about Daoism, that page will become a summary with links for all the major posts on Daoism.

When English speaking people first hear that Daoism is a religion, they want to know what the basic tenants of the faith are. They ask, "What do Daoists believe?"

Immediately we have a problem: The standard definition of religion, "A set of Beliefs," doesn’t apply well to Daoism or for that matter any religion which does not encourage conversion and does not proselytize.

Zhang DaolingA Way of Life
Daoism is not well defined by asking the questions, "What are it’s basic tenants? What are it’s beliefs? " Daoism is a tradition with sacred scriptures, rituals, precepts, a pantheon of gods and demons, and sacred places that inspire great devotion. Daoism has ancient training centers for the study and performance of secret and public ritual. It also has monasteries where people dedicated to meditation and other forms of inner cultivation go to live communally. There are also family lineages, some of which are secret. Daoism’s ever changing tradition stretches back into history, at least to the first century CE, but Daoist’s say their way of life has always been an option, and always will be, though in different eras and different lands it may take many different forms.

Contracts & Commitments
Daoism’s definition of religion emerges from asking the question, "What is a human being?" The simple answer is, we haven’t found the limits of humanness yet. But one thing that is clearly true of all humans is that we make contracts. We make agreements about who we are responsible for, and what our duties are. We make agreements about what a word means, and what is a good place to sleep. We vow allegiance to the righteous, and pledge vengeance upon our foes. A significant part of what constitutes our life as humans is defined by our commitments. Whether they are big or small, subtle or obvious, weak or strong, fleeting or pervasive, our commitments make us what we are.

Daoists take this formula about what defines our humanness to the cosmic level. A human is a temporal agreement between everything in us which is subtle and rises, a category we call Heaven(Tian), and everything in us which is solid and sinks, a category which we call Earth (di). A human being is a contract between Heaven and Earth to stay together, in a polarized state, for however long a person lives. When we die, hopefully the contract ends. However sometimes when a person dies, the duties, contracts, vows, and commitments they have made during their lives linger on even after they have given up their bodies. A simple and common example of this is that when a parent dies, the children often still feel the expectations of the parent for years, sometimes even for the rest of their lives. Our final will or intentions can live on for a time after our death.

One of the most popular expressions of Daoism is the making of talisman. These usually take the form of pieces of paper with words and symbols written on them, but can also be cast in bronze, written in the air, printed on food, or worn as clothing. The word talisman in Chinese is Fu, which literally means a contract. One of the oldest forms of Daoist Healing is the making of contracts which clarify the relationship between the seen and the unseen worlds. These Fu are usually between men and the invisible worlds of gods, ghosts, and demons.

A Celestial BeingBecoming an Immortal
The ultimate goal of a great many Daoist practices, precepts and rituals is to see to it that commitments resolve easily. Or stated in a more personal way, we seek to live in such a way that the unresolved desires and pledges we have made during our lives do not linger on and torment the living after we have died. This concept is key to understanding Daoist concepts of freedom and fate. This is sometimes understood as the process of becoming a Daoist Immortal (Xian); it has innumerable forms and unlimited possible expressions. It is very hard to define.

Orthodox Covenant
That being said, there is also a Daoist orthodoxy. It is what one might call a collection of ‘best practices studies’--suggestions for how to cultivate Dao. This orthodoxy traces itself back to the founder of religious Daoism, the immortal Zhang Daoling who lived in first century of the Common Era. He was the first Daoist Priest, or Daoshi meaning an Official of the Dao. He is the founder of the Orthodox Covenant of the True Way (Zhengyidao), which later became known as Celestial Masters Daoism (Tianshidao).