Taoism - Of Tai Chi and Temples

May 3, 2018

Taoism (pronounced "Daoism") is an ancient Chinese religion, decimated by communism, that continues to exert cultural influence and has brought the world Tai Chi, Feng Shui and Chinese medicine. While teaching a weekend of world religions, we visited this simple temple with an altar, kneelers, and some musical instruments. The temple is visited privately or used communally for chanting services.

 

 

 One interesting feature is that the three images up front represent not one, but three religions - the figures shown below are (from left to right) Guan Yin (Buddhist), the Jade Emperor (which our guide said represented Confucianism in this temple), and Immortal Lao (Taoism). Throughout Chinese history, these traditions were sometimes rivals but were frequently easily blended by the people who celebrated Taoist new year, turned to Buddhist monks when someone died, and practiced Confucian ethics.

 

Also, on the altar, notice the five types of fruit that represent the five elements of Taoism - the earth (oranges in the centre), fire (red apples), wood (green apples), metal (yellowish oranges), and water (bananas, which turn black like the depths of the sea). Taoism is a naturalistic religion, seeing nature as sacred and the source of life and meaning, and hence devotees honour the elements.

 

Below the altar was something quite unique - an extra hidden space for the earth god who blesses the crops. He is kept in a cave-like cubby hole as if deep in the earth's bowels.

 

After seeing the shrine, we practiced Tai Chi, a bodily practice that manifests Taoist philosophy. The philosophy emphasizes softness, fluidity, and balance and so in Tai Chi, one moves in fluid, soft movements that evoke water while we also practice balance throughout the poses. Taoism also sees the physical and spiritual as connected (a scholar calls it biospirituality) in contrast to Western traditions of philosophy (i.e. Greek) and religion (i.e. Christianity) that tend to see the physical as a lesser realm.

 

Even this small facility had a significant kitchen. This is obviously no accident - almost every place of worship finds space for this as religions aim to foster community and nothing builds community and establishes connection quite like food. 

 

Of course, religions are embedded in cultures and so the food always reflects this. Tea occupies a central place owing to the Chinese milieu. 

 

In short, even in this small temple, we learned so much - we saw that Daoism has merged or mingled with other religions, that it sees the physical and spiritual as fused and that this nature based religion honours the elements and engages in practices that mimic water - nature's example of soft fluidity and its ultimate source of life. 

 

 

 

 

 

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