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Category: Mystic groups and systems

Taoism is one of the four great pillars of Chinese mysticism.  Chinese mysticism as a whole consists of four pillars:

  • Taoism - described here
  • Qigong - follow the link for more details
  • The arts - described under Chinese mysticism
  • Confucianism - There is an entry on the site for Confucius.

Taoism is a philosophical and mystic system that lays the foundation for Chinese culture and spiritual thought.  It is within Taoism that the key concepts of Chinese mysticism are explained - concepts such as the Qi and the Tao, the Shin, the Kan and Li.  It is thus the foundation for other pillars of Chinese thought principally martial arts such as Qigong.

It has been influenced by and in turn has influenced Buddhism.  But like Japanese Shinto, the ideas have merged so that Taoism is the main system and it is underpinned by certain Buddist ideas - notably those from Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

Statue of Lao-Tzu (LaoTse) in Quanzhou.

 Brief history and main texts

The keystone work of literature in Taoism is the Tao Te Ching, a book containing teachings attributed to Lao Tzu [also known as Laotse and Laozi]. Together with the writings of Zhuangzi, these texts build the philosophical foundation of Taoism.  This philosophical Taoism, is not institutionalized although institutionalized forms do exist in the form of various schools.  Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was several times nominated as a state religion. After the 17th century, however, it fell from favour. Like all other religious activity, Taoism was suppressed in the first decades of the People's Republic of China but continued to be practised in Taiwan. 

The movement produced a wonderfully rich heritage of literature, poetry and painting and rather than group all the writing under this one heading I have separated many of the books and key figures out as separate sources. If you turn to the section on Chinese mysticism I have listed all these extra entries so that you can follow them all.

This section provides a means of grouping a truly tiny fraction of the sources and giving a taster of the movement.  Whatever I do I will never be able to do justice to this system. 

Some background

The following provides some background to Taoism.

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade,--all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?
The ancient sages never put their teachings in systematic form. They spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools and ended by making their hearers wise. Laotse himself, with his quaint humour, says,
"If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely. It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it."

The Tao literally means a Path. It has been severally translated as the Way, the Absolute, the Law, Nature, Supreme Reason, the Mode. These renderings are not incorrect, for the use of the term by the Taoists differs according to the subject-matter of the inquiry. Laotse himself spoke of it thus:

"There is a thing which is all-containing, which was born before the existence of Heaven and Earth. How silent! How solitary! It stands alone and changes not. It revolves without danger to itself and is the mother of the universe. I do not know its name and so call it the Path. With reluctance I call it the Infinite. Infinity is the Fleeting, the Fleeting is the Vanishing, the Vanishing is the Reverting."

The Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path. It is the spirit of Cosmic Change,--the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds as do the clouds. The Tao might be spoken of as the Great Transition. Subjectively it is the Mood of the Universe. Its Absolute is the Relative.

It should be remembered in the first place that Taoism, like its legitimate successor Zennism, represents the individualistic trend of the Southern Chinese mind in contra-distinction to the communism of Northern China which expressed itself in Confucianism.

The Middle Kingdom is as vast as Europe and has a differentiation of idiosyncrasies marked by the two great river systems which traverse it. The Yangste-Kiang and Hoang- Ho are respectively the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Even to-day, in spite of centuries of unification, the Southern Celestial differs in his thoughts and beliefs from his Northern brother as a member of the Latin race differs from the Teuton.

In ancient days, when communication was even more difficult than at present, and especially during the feudal period, this difference in thought was most pronounced. The art and poetry of the one breathes an atmosphere entirely distinct from that of the other. In Laotse and his followers and in Kutsugen, the forerunner of the Yangtse-Kiang nature-poets, we find an idealism quite inconsistent with the prosaic ethical notions of their contemporary northern writers. Laotse lived five centuries before the Christian Era.

The germ of Taoist speculation may be found long before the advent of Laotse, surnamed the Long-Eared.

The archaic records of China, especially the Book of Changes, foreshadow his thought. But the great respect paid to the laws and customs of that classic period of Chinese civilisation which culminated with the establishment of the Chow dynasty in the sixteenth century B.C., kept the development of individualism in check for a long while, so that it was not until after the disintegration of the Chow dynasty and the establishment of innumerable independent kingdoms that it was able to blossom forth in the luxuriance of free-thought. Laotse and Soshi (Chuangtse) were both Southerners and the greatest exponents of the New School. On the other hand, Confucius with his numerous disciples aimed at retaining ancestral conventions. Taoism cannot be understood without some knowledge of Confucianism and vice versa.

We have said that the Taoist Absolute was the Relative. In ethics the Taoist railed at the laws and the moral codes of society, for to them right and wrong were but relative terms. Definition is always limitation--the "fixed" and "unchangeless" are but terms expressive of a stoppage of growth. Said Kuzugen,--"The Sages move the world." Our standards of morality are begotten of the past needs of society, but is society to remain always the same?

Taoism was an active power during the Shin dynasty, that epoch of Chinese unification from which we derive the name China. It would be interesting had we time to note its influence on contemporary thinkers, the mathematicians, writers on law and war, the mystics and alchemists and the later nature-poets of the Yangste-Kiang. We should not even ignore those speculators on Reality who doubted whether a white horse was real because he was white, or because he was solid, nor the Conversationalists of the Six dynasties who, like the Zen philosophers, revelled in discussions concerning the Pure and the Abstract.

Above all we should pay homage to Taoism for what it has done toward the formation of the Celestial character, giving to it a certain capacity for reserve and refinement as "warm as jade." Chinese history is full of instances in which the votaries of Taoism, princes and hermits alike, followed with varied and interesting results the teachings of their creed.

The tale will not be without its quota of instruction and amusement. It will be rich in anecdotes, allegories, and aphorisms. We would fain be on speaking terms with the delightful emperor who never died because he had never lived. We may ride the wind with Liehtse and find it absolutely quiet because we ourselves are the wind, or dwell in mid-air with the Aged one of the Hoang-Ho, who lived betwixt Heaven and Earth because he was subject to neither the one nor the other. Even in that grotesque apology for Taoism which we find in China at the present day, we can revel in a wealth of imagery impossible to find in any other cult.

But the chief contribution of Taoism to Asiatic life has been in the realm of aesthetics.

Chinese historians have always spoken of Taoism as the "art of being in the world," for it deals with the present--ourselves. It is in us that God meets with Nature, and yesterday parts from to-morrow. The Present is the moving Infinity, the legitimate sphere of the Relative. Relativity seeks Adjustment; Adjustment is Art.

The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings. Taoism accepts the mundane as it is and, unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry.

The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar--the emblem of life--and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

The Concepts

Energy and spirit  - Qi

The energy on which all creation was based is called Qi – there are various states of Qi - programmed Qi and unprogrammed Qi!  Thus Qi can be both energy and spirit.

Qi is used to represent energy when it is the raw energy, and it is also used to represent the ordered system by adding various characters to it to denote the ‘role’ it is playing.
The word Qi is  found in Taoism, Confucianism, and more generally in ancient Chinese philosophy.  It is the foundation of all Traditional Chinese medicine.

In terms of western philosophy, the concept of Qi would be considered ‘immanent’, in effect it is to be found everywhere in every animate and inanimate thing.

Great work - Tao

The term Tao means "way", "path" or "principle". In Taoism, however, Tao denotes something that is both the source of, and the force behind, everything that exists.  It is thus the combination of the Great Work - the plan for creation, destruction and evolution as well as the systems of the universe themselves - what has been created - a concept we might loosely define as 'Nature'. Thus whilst the character Tao itself translates as "way," "path," or "route," or sometimes more loosely as "doctrine" or "principle," it is used philosophically to signify the rules by which the universe operates.

In Chinese thought one does not fight the tao, one goes with the flow.  In effect, one does not fight or go against Nature, and one tries to support the plan for the creation and evolution of the universe by being a 'co-creator'.

Our responsibility lies in understanding and conforming to the systems and the plan - knowing our Destiny.   All the observable objects in the world - these are referred to in the Tao Teh Ching as 'the named' or 'the ten thousand things' - are considered to be manifestations of Tao, and can only operate within the principles of Tao. Tao by contrast is often referred to as 'the nameless,' because neither it nor its rules can ever be adequately expressed in words.

It has no shape or form, is simultaneously perfectly still and constantly moving, is both larger than the largest thing and smaller than the smallest, and in general is outside of all dichotomies’.

A perfect description of software which relies on, for example, digital or even smaller sub atomic units of energy to work.  It is being executed to operate the universe, but on the other hand, doesn’t move, as such.

While the Tao cannot be expressed, Taoism holds that it can be known, and its principles can be followed. Much of Taoist writing focusses on the value of following the Tao - called Te - and of the ultimate uselessness of us trying to control Tao.

Although this can be interpreted in any number of ways, it is possible in the context of the analogy to think of this as the fact that it is better to go with the rules of the universe than trying to change them.  Some people go further to link Tao with fate – that the fate of everything is pre-written, but Tao does not imply this.   

Actions, however, are quite clearly connected.  This is often expressed through yin and yang arguments, where every action creates a counter-action as a natural, unavoidable movement within manifestations of the Tao. Tao is often compared to water: clear, colorless, unremarkable, yet all beings depend on it for life, and even the hardest stone cannot stand in its way forever.

In the Tao Te Ching, it states that - "the softest thing in the world overcomes the hardest".  Software operates hardware! It is worth noting that practitioners of Taoism are taught to ‘go with the flow’ - to be unobtrusive, undemanding, and unsophisticated in their actions, and to know when to let go so that the unseen workings of Tao can carry the act to its completion.

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

He who had made himself master of the art of living was the Real man of the Taoist. At birth he enters the realm of dreams only to awaken to reality at death. He tempers his own brightness in order to merge himself into the obscurity of others. He is "reluctant, as one who crosses a stream in winter; hesitating as one who fears the neighbourhood; respectful, like a guest; trembling, like ice that is about to melt; unassuming, like a piece of wood not yet carved; vacant, like a valley; formless, like troubled waters." To him the three jewels of life were Pity, Economy, and Modesty.

 Kan, Li and Shen

Shen is the Higher spirit, Kan is spirit input and said to be cool 'water', whilst Li is spirit output and said to be hot and 'Fire'.  We can see this below in the generic model used for the site.  The Higher spirit [Shen] provides us with spirit input, whilst we generate spirit output via our thoughts.  The more emotional we are or the more the mind chatters, the more spirit output is produced.


Taoist thought says that Kan and Li are the causes of Yin and Yang.  If one is too 'yang' one is basically either too emotional or your mind is chattering too much with memories and intellectual activity.  The solution is to calm the emotions and memory making down so that the cool spirit input can get through.

In the unlikely event one is too 'yin', one is getting too much spirit input and not doing enough thinking! The objective is balance, by achieving balance the qi circulates in the body and the body is healthy and you get the needed wisdom etc.

Since the Will sends messages to the autonomic nervous system and it sends messages back, this same model holds true for the body.

Xin and Yi

The Xin, very approximately is the Subconscious mind shown on the diagram above with its perceptions and emotions.  The Yi is the Conscious mind, with Reason, Memory, Desires, the Personality and Learning activites [for all definitions of these see the Model of the Mind].  The Shen/Higher spirit makes up this divisioning into three of the mind.


The Po is the soul - the mortal soul as opposed to the Immortal soul.  The mortal soul is Po, the immortal soul is Shen

Fei sheng

Literally 'spiritual ascending'.  The Qigong term for an out of body experience - 'the separation of the Shen [Higher spirit] from the physical body'.

Taoism and sex

As with all mystic movements, a number of the practises used to provoke spiritual experience were sex based.  Not all - only the part of the overall practises called the HeQi were specifically sex based.  "HeQi" ("Joining Energy") was a spiritual practise used by Taoists principally during the Han dynasty that used sexual intercourse and ejaculation control as the means of achieving enlightenment. Thus the practise is another name for Sex Magick as well as Sexual stimulation and Peaking.

The sexual arts arguably reached their climax [if you will excuse the pun] between the end of the Han dynasty and the end of the Tang dynasty. After 1000 A.D. [CE], Confucian puritanism became stronger and stronger, so that by the advent of the Qing dynasty, sex was a taboo topic in public life.  The practises survived via coded poems and via paintings [erotic] as well as via Chinese alchemy and the 'Martial arts'.

For more information with descriptions of the techniques used - see The Manuals of Taoist Sexual Practise.


The Daozang (道藏, Treasury of Tao) was originally compiled during the Jin, Tang, and Song dynasties. The version surviving today was published during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Daozang includes almost 1500 texts. Following the example of the Buddhist Tripiṭaka, it is divided into three dong (洞, "caves", "grottoes"). They are arranged from "highest" to "lowest":

  • The Zhen ("real" or "truth" 眞) grotto. Includes the Shangqing texts.
  • The Xuan ("mystery" 玄) grotto. Includes the Lingbao scriptures.
  • The Shen ("divine" 神) grotto. Includes texts predating the Maoshan (茅山) revelations.

Daoshi generally do not consult published versions of the Daozang, but individually choose, or inherit, texts included in the Daozang. These texts have been passed down for generations from teacher to student.

Demographics of adherence to Taoism according to the most recent data.


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