There has been a lot of rumination and debate in the West about whether Daoism is a philosophy or a religion. This started when early Western observers (primarily Jesuit missionaries) perceived a disconnect between the “philosophy” they read about in Laozi, Zhuangzi, and other early Daoist texts, and the actual “religious” practices they observed in Daoist ritual. A perspective grew in the West during the 20th-century that there were in fact two Daoisms – the original pure philosophy, and the latter-day religion.
Chinese Daoists don’t tend to recognize any such bifurcation, and 21st-century scholars have largely debunked the notion of two separate Daoisms as they have continued their research and discussions with actual practitioners.
Indeed, early Daoist texts do not recommend the kind of complex & elaborate ritual practices that came later. As we know, Laozi & Zhuangzi emphasize simplicity and naturalness. We also know that much of the religiosity of later Daoism appeared as a nativist response to the introduction of Buddhism from India. So there may be a case for distinguishing the original Daoism from later traditions. But many of the practices of Daoist ritual actually pre-date Laozi, dating back to pre-Daoist shamanism. Many “Daoist” practices are not necessarily Daoist but were forms of shamanism that Daoism embraced. More importantly, however, is the dynamic and harmonious interplay of these practices with the various aspects of Daoist “philosophy”.
Let’s look at the meaning of the words philosophy & religion. Philosophy comes from the Greek philosophia, meaning “lover of knowledge” – it implies using rational analysis to satisfy an appetite for understanding. Religion comes from the Greek religare, meaning “binding” – it implies offering sacrifice and relying on a deity for some kind of deliverance. So we can say philosophers are rational thinkers in search of insight into the nature of reality, whereas religious adherents faithfully bind themselves to a higher power.
Daoism is neither of these. Based on the above definitions, we could say philosophy concentrates qi in the head, and religion concentrates qi in the heart. Daoism at its basis relaxes qi from the head and heart, letting it gather in the belly and likewise letting it circulate all over. Indeed, there are many philosophical concepts underlying Daoism that are important to understand, such as the cosmogeny of wuji, taiji, yin-yang, and the five phases of qi – not to mention how wuwei relates to these concepts. And there are numerous ritual practices, precepts, and even deities – but in Daoism these are all simply ways of cultivating qi and expressing Dao-De.
Daoism is a system – or rather a broad family of varied systems – of qi-cultivation with a philosophical basis in ancient Chinese thought and various methods of hygiene, meditation, & ritual. Is this philosophy or religion?
The mountain shadow moves with the sun.