What The Heck is Taoism?
Taoism can be described as a religion, but since, in the West, this carries with it a whole plethora of gods, deities, morals, and faith, Taoism doesn't quite cut it as a "religion" by Western terms. It is probably better described as a philosophy of life, but even this, when strictly defined, doesn't describe Taoism completely. The problem is that Taoism, like the Tao itself, cannot be categorized. It just IS. Discovering that labeling something as philosophy or religion are two unnecessary labels for two unnecessary things, is among the first steps to learning of the Tao.
Taoism is described in the very ancient, and very concise socio-political treatise called the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. However, for the philosophical layman, it can be rather confusing. To grasp much of the meaning, one must be aware of the context in which this book was written, as well as have a basic understanding of Eastern philosophy, with its use of analogy, mythology, metaphor, and paradox. That is why there are so many books written for the purpose of making the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching more accessible to the Western thinker. The following are some suggestions for reading material for those who are interested. Of course, you are still urged to read the Tao Te Ching itself, of which there are several online translations.
What is Taoism? The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff - Perfect for the first-time student of Taoism and a good introduction to Eastern thought. Its unique strategy is to apply Taoist concepts and principles to the unforgettable character, Winnie the Pooh, introducing passages from the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu along the way.
Who are we? Ishmael by Daniel Quinn - Disclaimer: This book is not about Taoism! It is much more general and is aimed to people of all philosophies and religions, and puts human life in the same perspective as Lao Tzu intended in the Tao Te Ching. This book is in the form of a novel and uses a very unique approach.
Who am I? The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts - Here's where you're asked the fundamental question, "who are you?" This book uses Eastern philosophy to explore this question in all of its various contexts, Eastern and Western alike. You can read the first two chapters online here.