20 million people around the world including nine percent of Singaporeans (some say more) practise Taoism. What is Taoism? Here's a simplified version on a very complex religion by Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp.

TAOISM (OR DAOISM as it is known in Hanyu pinyin) refers to the indigenous philosophical and religious system of China that can be traced back some 4,700 years to the time of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di). However it was only in the sixth century BC that it developed into a significant religion through the teachings of the philosopher Lao Tzu. His teachings were passed down orally before they were compiled in a book titled "Tao Te Ching" ("The Way and Its Virtue") in the third century BC. "Tao Te Ching" is still the main Taoist scripture today.

Taoism's evolution from a combination of customs ingrained in the Chinese culture and philosophy to a religion has been heavily influenced by popular ancient Chinese practices such as ancestor worship and shamanism (which seeks to mediate between the visible and spirit world).

The services of interpreting and influencing the spirit world, which shamans provide, were used widely because of popular folk belief in alchemy, astrology, spirits and magic. At the same time, meditation and some forms of martial arts, notably tai chi and qigong (which are still popular today), were also linked to Taoism.

Taoism was not the only religion in China, of course. It coexisted with Buddhism and Confucianism, and they influenced one another. Realistically, some Taoists, being Chinese, would also have imbibed Confucian and Buddhist beliefs.

Right, the philosopher Lao Tzu is revered not only for writing the "Tao Te Ching," which is the main Taoist scripture, but also regarded as the first god of Taoism and the personification of Tao.

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Understanding concept of "tao"

Although Taoism has never been a unified religion, it is the case that its various sects and sub sects teach the same core beliefs based on the principles of "Tao" (which means "the Way").

Tao is a concept that is central to Taoist belief and practices, but it is very difficult to define due to the abstract meanings associated with it. Tao is referred to as a life force that surrounds and flows through all living and non-living things, and which balances, orders, unifies and connects them. Tao has been called the ultimate creative principle of the universe.

Tao is also described as a set of natural and unalterable laws which manifest themselves as a flow of continuous change. But Tao is not treated as an object of worship; Tao is treated more like "dharma", the principle or law that orders the universe. Thus, over the years, the meaning of Tao has expanded to include rules and regulations too.

Taoism focuses on learning, cultivating and practising Tao. While Tao is the Way and is associated with a proper attitude, morality and lifestyle, "Te" (which means "virtue") is the active living or cultivation of the Way.

The development of virtue is a Taoist's chief task and Taoist teachings on virtue are aimed at bringing forth the innate goodness in each person. Taoists believe in accumulating merits by doing good deeds to benefit society and by inculcating virtue, especially the virtues of compassion, moderation and humility (the 3 Jewels of Taoism), and by educating and encouraging others to do the same.

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Thus Taoism calls on its faithful to "respect heaven, honour ancestors, and be compassionate to man and all things under heaven".

Taoists can aspire to immortality which the "Tao Te Ching" teaches and can be attained through moral living and self-cultivation. The latter involves a disciplined life in Taoist practices including meditation and qigong.

Since Tao is closely associated with nature, Taoism teaches the respect of nature. Knowledge of the universe or nature can be obtained by studying the self because Taoists view the human body as a miniature of the universe. In seeking to bring all elements of existence into harmony, Taoism advises the concept of Wu Wei - the alignment of one's will with Tao by letting nature take its course because the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts his or her will against nature, harmony is disrupted.

For example, one should allow a river to flow towards the sea unimpeded and not obstruct its natural flow by building a dam. Another concept in Taoism is ch'i ("air" or "breath"), the vital energy given to everyone and which must be nurtured because ch'i enables living things to survive and act, and links them to the whole universe. Life is an accumulation of ch'i, death, its dispersal. The understanding that ch'i is essential to good health and longevity is believed to have led to the interest in exercises like tai chi and qigong.

Feng shui, which translates as wind and water, is also related to ch'i. Believers use feng shui to locate and orient dwellings and possessions so as to be in harmony with the flow of ch'i. A place that has good feng shui is in harmony with nature; one with bad feng shui is not.

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Taiji tu: the Taoist symbol

The symbol of Taoism, called the Taiji tu, is a circle divided into two parts. One part is dark to represent the negative force (ying) and the other light to represent the positive force (yang). Ying and yang are found in all things in the universe. Ying represents earth, night, darkness, coldness, inwardness and femininity.

Yang represents heaven, day, brightness, heat, outwardness and masculinity.

Ying and yang are opposites, complementing and counterbalancing each other. Their interaction produces change. Neither can exist without the other. Neither is good or bad in itself. There is danger only when there is an excessive predominance of either one.

The merging of ying and yang into one circle in the Taiji tu symbolizes harmony and the final unity of Tao.

Taoists believe that it is important to keep their ying and yang in balance. Physicians who practise traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, believe that many illnesses are caused by an excessive imbalance between ying and yang.

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Taoism in Singapore

Taoism arrived in Singapore with the first Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, and flourished with the arrival of more Chinese merchants and coolies.

Taoist priests from South China came to Singapore to set up altars and temples and to carry out rituals during the second half of the 19th century. Today there are over 300 Taoist temples in Singapore.

In the 2000 Singapore census of population, nine percent of Singaporeans were categorized as Taoists. However some Taoists say that the percentage should be higher as many worshippers of Taoist deities blend their devotions with Buddhist practices and these people claim to be Buddhists when they are actually Taoists.

In Singapore, there are three broad categories of Taoism but they are not mutually exclusive. In Popular Taoism, followers focus on prayers and rituals to make contact with Tao. In Esoteric Taoism followers focus on becoming a receptacle for Tao, for magical and healing powers, and for psychic influence. In Philosophical Taoism, followers focus on how to live in harmony with the universe.

Today the younger Taoists, being more educated, are more inclined to take a philosophical approach to Taoism. Organizations such as the Taoist Federation and Taoist Mission have been set up to meet their needs and Taoist priests from China are invited to come here to conduct classes on Taoist philosophy.

One of the oldest Taoist temples is the Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, where Singapore's waterfront used to be before reclamation. Thian Hock Keng was erected in 1821 as a shrine of wood-and-thatch structure by the first Chinese sailors who landed here to pray to the goddess Ma Po Cho for their safe voyage. The temple that stands today (photos above) was built in 1841 over the shrine with funds from the Hokkien community, led by two Malacca-born philanthropists, Tan Tock Seng and Tan Kim Seng.

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Right, the Three Pure Ones - known as Jade Clarity, Highest Clarity and Supreme Clarity - were formed by the breath of Tao. They are at the top of the Taoist pantheon, just below Lao Tzu. Their main goal is to save mankind by teaching kindness.


Taoism is polytheistic. Taoists believe in many deities and immortals. Its gods are believed to be pure emanations of Tao.

Immortals are humans who have achieved eternal life through the cultivation of Tao, and, particularly, through meditation, physical training, breathing techniques, the ingestion of elixirs, and moral behaviour.

Immortals dwell in the heavens, on mountains, and in other magical paradises.

Right, Taoists also worship immortals, who are humans who have achieved eternal life through the cultivation of Tao.

At the top of the pantheon is Lao Tzu, revered both as the first god of Taoism and the personification of Tao. He is followed by the Three Pure Ones whose main goal is to save mankind by teaching kindness. Below them are thousands of gods with numerous titles, qualities and functions and who are worshipped at various ceremonies throughout the year.

Taoists usually worship in their own home or in the temple. The temple is believed to be the residence of a heavenly official (a god belonging to the Jade Clarity realm and who confers blessings).

The temple is usually built with the characteristics of the palaces of imperial China. The principal door of the temple opens toward the south and the temple walls on either side often have the images of the Green Dragon (representing yang) and White Tiger (representing ying).

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The roof is often an image of a sacred mountain, an abode of the immortals. The figurines that decorate the roof depict legendary figures and heroes of sacred myths. At the top of the roof are usually two dragons looking at each other over a flaming pearl located in the centre. This pearl represents the pure energy (ch'i) that emanates from the incense burner in the temple.

Taoists pray to the gods, and to their ancestors too as a mark of respect. Prayer is also a form of cultivating the Tao. When Taoist priests recite the scriptures and chant repentance rituals, they are beseeching the gods to erase sins and, at the same time, spreading the teachings of Tao. Taoists believe that reciting the scriptures can dissolve misfortune, eliminate illness, prolong life and benefit health.

To a Taoist, ancestor worship promotes harmony and peace within the family, reaffirms the family identity and maintains the order of succession. Fruit offerings, the burning of paper money and paper houses, and the lighting of joss sticks are some intrinsic Taoist practices. They symbolize respect, gratitude and pride in one's roots and, at the same time, serve as requests for good luck and fortune.

Right, Taoists offer joss sticks in honour of their ancestors, or to pray for a special intention.

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On death

To a Taoist, death is not the ending of life but the beginning of the next stage in life, the spiritual stage. Taoists believe that the yang component in each person comprises three Hun souls and the ying component comprises seven Po souls. The three Hun souls form the skeleton and the seven Po souls make up the flesh. At the death of a Taoist, a ritual is undertaken to let the deceased's three Hun souls be transported to the other world.

However, the seven Po souls are believed to linger after death and a ritual is required every seven days to send one of these seven Po souls to the other world. Only at the end of 49 days, is the deceased fully at rest in the other world and capable of blessing the descendants still living on earth.

Male and female Taoist priests conduct rituals side by side, evoking the Heavenly Spirits or Celestial Masters, according to the particular celebration.

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Taoist feasts

The most important date for Taoists is the birthday of Lao Tzu on the 15th day of the second lunar month when Taoist temples and organizations honour him.

Another important Taoist feast is held on the 18th day of the fifth lunar month to mark the birthday of Heavenly Master Zhang Dao Ling, famed for his promotion of Taoism.

Other important Taoist dates include the seventh day of each month when it is believed that seven celestial Taoist gods, known as the seven Northern Dipper Star Lords, enter the Mortal World (earth). Taoists believe that when they recite the Great Northern Dipper Scripture on this day, their sins, debts and sufferings will be reduced and they will be blessed with longevity.

The festival of the "Hungry Ghosts," celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, is, perhaps, the most famous Taoist feast in Singapore. It marks the birthday of the Earth Official, who judges the dead.

Devotees take part in good works, fasts and rituals to seek forgiveness for the sins of their ancestors, obtain his mercy for them and ask him to lead them to the heavenly realms.

These devotees pacify the hungry ghosts by praying, chanting and offering food and other things to them so they will have what they need to survive and move on to their next life. In Singapore, it is common to see joss sticks lit, wayangs (street theatre), feasts and auctions during this period.

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