glue that binds the elements of the 'tam giao' - the triple
Taoism is believed to have originated in
China with a man named Lao Tzu at around 500 B.C. The legend
says that Lao Tzu was so "saddened by his people's
disinclination to cultivate the natural goodness he advocated"
that he decided to abandon civilization. Before leaving,
he wrote a brief work called Tao Te Ching, (The Classic
of the Way and its Power) describing the meaning of the
Tao (the way, or path) and how one should live according
to the Tao.
The Tao is described in highly poetic allusions
that are far from clear. The book directs its readers ‘to
take no action contrary to nature’ and to ‘live in harmony
with the Tao’.
A follower of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, further
developed the Taoist philosophy, emphasising that the Tao
cannot be taught or expressed in words. All things are reconciled
in the Tao – there is no concept of good and evil. Only
virtuous, non-violent, compassionate behaviour can take
one closer to the meaning of the Tao.
Taoism becomes a religion
In the first century AD, Lao Tzu gradually became deified,
thus enabling his followers to improve their chances of
immortality through worship, complex rituals, good deeds
and meditation. A pantheon of Gods and the panoply of religion,
including magic, geomancy, astrology and communication with
Yin and Yang
Central to the Taoist philosophy is duality, a ‘oneness’
made of complementary opposites. Yang is male, associated
with the sun, hot, active, rigid and conformist. Yin is
female, associated with the earth, cool, passive, flexible
and unorthodox. This principle applies to all elements of
existence – from nature to a particular individual. Social
disturbance, natural disasters, personal illness, unsettled
family relationships and so on are all the result of an
imbalance between the forces of Yin and Yang. Restoring
harmony cures the ills and gives a sense of direction.
The implications of
Yin and Yang
The tacit suggestion that there is a natural law governing
all life and directing activity towards harmony prompts
Taoists to behave in a way that least disturbs the balance
of Yin and Yang. Lifestyles should therefore be based on
regulated harmonious behaviour, and relationships between
men and women, parents and children, rulers and subjects,
should be carefully regulated in the interests of harmony
and balance. Government should be minimal and forces for
Taoism and other beliefs
The congruity of Taoism and Confucianism is immediately
obvious. Confucianism is a means of regulating behaviour
without a spiritual dimension. Taoism is spirituality and
mysticism lacking firm precepts. The association of Theravada
Buddhism with Taoism also had synergies –the principles
of Buddhism included non-violence, passivity and a path
to enlightenment, but lacked ritual. Mahayana Buddhism adopted
many of the Taoist Gods and practices.
Vietnam and Taoism
In Vietnam, Taoism is the linking mechanism for Buddhism,
Confucianism, Ancestor worship and animism. Countless images
of the Gods of Taoism are in temples and pagodas throughout
the country. Most homes use their altar to worship the ‘Kitchen
God’, the name for the triumvirate of Taoist deities that
monitor the families’ behaviour. Many of Vietnam’s festivals,
including Tet, have a Taoist tradition.
Fortune-telling, astrology and geomancy
are an accepted part of everyday life. Ingredients for traditional
medicine and foods are designated as ‘hot’ or 'cool’, and
the principle of harmony and balance underpins healthcare.
Visitors to Vietnam will often
be puzzled by a small mirrored octagonal disc, with the
Yin Yang and other symbols, fixed above the door of most
houses and small shops. It is to guard the house by barring
wandering spirits, or ghosts.