The Real Origin of the Tao

by Derek Lin

Due to the language and cultural barrier between East and West, it can often be difficult to find reliable and accurate information about the Tao. Misconceptions abound, even from sources that one would normally consider definitive and authoritative. One such misconception, perhaps the most important of all, has to do with the origin of the Tao.

Many people interested in the Tao are still under the impression that Lao Tzu founded Taoism about 2,500 years ago. There is some truth to this, as long as we are only talking about philosophical Taoism (Dao Jia) or religious Taoism (Dao Jiao). However, the one thing that most people do not realize is that both variants of Taoism came from a much older tradition, known to the Chinese simply as the Tao. It is not possible for Lao Tzu to be the founder of this ancient tradition for the simple reason that it began at least 2,300 years before his time.

Discerning individuals may glimpse this truth when they come across references to Huangdi, one of the legendary emperors of ancient China. Encyclopedia Britannica identifies him as "a patron saint of Taoism," while Columbia Encyclopedia says: "Along with the semi-mythical Lao Tzu, he was associated in the traditional Chinese folk culture with the founding of Taoism."

This is interesting, because Huangdi lived about 4,700 years ago, 2,200 years before Lao Tzu. He could only be a patron saint of Taoism if Taoism already existed at that time. And if he was associated with the founding of it, then Lao Tzu could not logically play the same role. One cannot originate something that has already been around for generations. Thus, most reference works in the West that cite Lao Tzu as the source of Taoism are not completely accurate. We can give Lao Tzu credit for religious Taoism and philosophical Taoism, but not the original Taoism that gave rise to both.

We can see another clue in I Ching (Yi Jing), the Book of Changes. We commonly associate this book with Taoism, but it, too, predates Lao Tzu by more than two thousand years. To Lao Tzu and the Chinese people who lived during his time, the I Ching would be seen in a similar light as the Bible is regarded by Christians today - as an ancient tome of spiritual wisdom. Thus, calling Lao Tzu the founder of Taoism would be like calling a contemporary Christian the founder of Christianity.

It is important to note that Lao Tzu never claimed to be the founder of anything. This is clear in the Tao Te Ching itself, where Lao Tzu speaks of past practitioners. Chapter 15, for instance, is a description of "Tao masters of antiquity" or "those who mastered the Tao in ancient times." The chapter demonstrates Lao Tzu's awareness of the already existing Tao, and his wish to emulate the examples set by revered masters - people who were ancient to him and already historical figures by the time he wrote the Tao Te Ching.

Essentially, the Tao Te Ching was written as a collection of teachings from the original form of Taoism. Lao Tzu presented these teachings in an organized and accessible format. His work revitalized and energized Tao cultivation, so its importance cannot be overlooked. At the same time, it's also important for us to recognize that Lao Tzu was not the one who "invented" concepts like wu wei, p'u, and ziran. Nor was he the first to talk about the significance of silence, harmony, intuition and emptiness.

Who, then, is the true founder of the Tao, if not Lao Tzu? Is it Huangdi? No, as it turns out, there was another figure who came before Huangdi by about a century: Fu Hsi (pronounced foo shee). He is not, and perhaps never will be, identified in Western reference works as the originator of the Tao. However, when we go deeper into research, we can see that the I Ching and the trigrams (Ba Gua, the basis of the 64 hexagrams in I Ching) are attributed to him.

Fu Hsi was the first of the legendary emperors of ancient China. His reign marked the starting point of Chinese civilization, and the Tao concept that originated at the same time also reflected the spirit of Chinese culture from this ancient beginning. We can see the evidence for this when we get closer to Chinese culture. In this painting to the right, Fu Hsi is shown wearing furs. Below him on the floor we see the Ba Gua trigrams as well as a turtle. Legend has it that Fu Hsi divined the underlying pattern of the cosmos from the strange markings on the back of a turtle.

In the photo below from the Bao Guang Yu Shan Temple in Tainan, we see a statue of Fu Hsi, holding Ba Gua and surrounded by trigrams. He is wearing primitive garb made of leaves. This is consistent with the painting showing him wearing furs, because back in his days cloth hadn't been invented yet. It would be roughly another century before Huangdi's wife comes up with silk.

At another temple, the Bao Guang Shen Wei, we see an even clearer depiction of Fu Hsi as the starting point of the Tao. In the photo below, we see Fu Hsi to the right, wearing the same primitive attire, and holding up the same Ba Gua symbol. Above him, the inscription says "First Generation: Fu Hsi, Divine Emperor."

The Tao concept that began with Fu Hsi was all-inclusive. It applied to all aspects of life and was never limited to either religious or philosophical variations. Every religion or philosophy was simply a particular expression of the Tao. When we understand this unifying Tao the way that its earliest practitioners did, we would see that our many distinctions, divisions and categorizations really take us away from the original concept.

The "Vinegar Tasters" story is an example of this. In that story, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are compared against one another. Since the story is told from a Taoist point of view, it is of course Taoism that emerges in the most favorable light. This would be odd to the ancient sages four thousand years ago, because they would see the three not as separate objects to compete for supremacy, but merely different angles on the Tao.

Something is definitely lost in translation when we study the Tao in the West. Somehow, the all-encompassing Tao devolves into merely one camp among many. We know about Lao Tzu but not about Fu Hsi. We read the teachings of the Tao Te Ching while remaining unaware of the rich tradition that created and shaped them.

This is one of the biggest reasons why this web site exists. It isn't just about religious or philosophical Taoism, as many visitors may assume. It is about both and much more. As its name implies, the site focuses on the True Tao - not as something over which we claim proprietary ownership, but as a declaration of our aspiration and direction.

In our quest for the True Tao, we will do our level best to clear up misconceptions wherever we find them. We will offer accurate and reliable information that may be difficult or impossible to find from other sources. We will endeavor to offer, directly from the most authentic tradition available anywhere, the real, original Tao.