The term Taoism is a convenient conglomerate used by outsiders to encompass two disparate traditions of Chinese wisdom, embracing both the Zen-like philosophy of Lao-tzu and a host of esoteric practices developed by hundreds of different adepts. Despite their differences, these traditions and practices share several traits: the philosophical underpinning of the Tao Te Ching; the search for immortality or at least great longevity; a varied pantheon of Taoist deities; and a certain rebelliousness against both the demands of society and the rigors of traditional Confucian morality and social codes. (For a better understanding of Confucius, consult that section of this site.)
The Chinese themselves use separate terms to distinguish between the two major currents within Taoism. Tao-chia, commonly translated as “Philosophical Taoism,” consists of mystical teachings about the Tao — roughly but inadequately translated as “Way” — and the art of wu wei (non-doing, or letting things take their course) as defined by Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Through meditation, students of Tao-chia learn to let things proceed as they ought. Because it is philosophically oriented, Tao-chia was never institutionalized, passing from teacher to student without the mediation of an organized church.
Philosophical Taoism aims to reduce the friction inherent in most of life’s actions and to conserve one’s vital energy. As with Zen, the notion of making strenuous efforts to achieve this goal is antithetical to the earliest Taoist teachings. This version of Taoism has caught the fancy of Western seekers, producing a profusion of books that attempt to view action through the reductive lens of Taoism, such as, The Tao of Physics, The Tao of Golf, and The Tao of Sexual Massage (similar perspectives have been applied to Zen, as in Zen in the Art of Archery; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even A Zen Way of Baseball, by famed Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh.)
Tao-chiao is generally called Religious Taoism or Church Taoism, which can refers to the institutional Taoist Church itself, but can also encompass a specific collection of body-mind techniques for extending life and preserving health and sexual vitality. The Church has a line of succession beginning with Chang Tao-ling, an official of the early Han Dynasty in the 2nd century, right down to the present day in Taiwan, a lineage that is sometimes compared to the Popes of the Roman Catholic Church. One of its functions has traditionally been to make the more obscure and difficult practices and rituals available to the masses. Made up of many different schools, Tao-chiao focuses more pragmatically than Tao-chia on ways to achieve longevity or even immortality through the augmentation and preservation of one’s essential vitality, or ch’i (or qi, in the modernized spelling system known as Pinyin). These methods make up a kind of yoga that includes elaborate sexual techniques, the use of medicinal herbs, body movement, and alchemy.
Although these practices are all lumped under Tao-chiao, many unaffiliated shamans, alchemists, and small sects of believers follow some of the same practices that the Taoist Church has made available to the masses. Many Taoists not only embrace differing versions of Taoism, but also incorporate elements of Buddhism and Confucianism without any noticeable discomfort.