To Whom do Taoists Pray?

by Joseph Eliot
Taoists do not pray to gods, but they do meditate

Taoists do not pray to gods, but they do meditate

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Although often termed a religion, many consider Taoism more of a philosophy. Founded by the philosopher Lao-Tse in the 6th century B.C.E., Taoism only became a faith in 440 C.E., when the Chinese state adopted it as an official religion. While Lao-Tse has been retroactively venerated as a deity, Taoists do not typically pray to him as an omnipotent being in the way that, for example, Christians do Christ. Instead of praying to Lao-Tse or to another God, Taoists more often meditate.

The Tao

The philosophy of Taoism is structured around the Tao, or the way, a force that guides the movement of the universe. Taoists do not believe the Tao is itself a god, nor that it can control events. Whereas those who worship Abrahamic religions often seek to control events through prayer, Taoists try to accept and master circumstances, not fight them. Therefore, instead of asking the Tao to change the course of life, Taoists seek to follow the Tao and find harmony within it. In this way the purpose of prayer for Taoists is different than for practitioners of many Western religions.

Prayer

Taoists do not address their prayers to a god, because Taoists believe that there is no god capable of responding to them. Instead, Taoist prayers center on inner meditation and outer observation. Taoist prayers are about focusing the practitioner's mind so that they are more in sync with the Tao. Considered in this way, a Taoist prays to himself.

Pantheon of Gods

That said, Taoism does contain a pantheon of gods, with many Taoists revering Lao Tsu himself as the first such god. Most of these gods are actually borrowed from other cultures. The bureaucracy of this divine pantheon seems to mirror the secular bureaucracy of imperial China, with many gods having particular roles and titles. However, these gods do not exist outside of the universe. They, like everyone else, are subject to the force of the Tao.

Hybrid Taoism

Because Taoism can be practiced as philosophy, it has a relatively malleable belief system and can be practiced concurrently with other faiths. At various times, Taoism has mixed with local beliefs and practices to create hybrid form of the faith. For example, when Taoism was introduced to Vietnam, it integrated shamanism, ancestor worship and other religious practices. Therefore, a person can consider themselves a Taoist, but still potentially pray to a deity borrowed from another set of religious practices.

About the Author

Based in New York City, Joseph Eliot has been a writer since 2007. He holds a master's degree in journalism, with a focus on cultural reporting.

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