An Insider's Look at Taoist Cosmology

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An Insider's Look at Taoist CosmologyEvery spiritual tradition has a defined (or implied) cosmology: a story about the origin of the universe--about how the world as we perceive it comes into existence. In Taoism, this cosmology is uniquely devoid of symbolic deities, focusing instead on energetic and elemental principles. The system can seem quite unusual and abstract to those encountering Taoism for the first time.

The Basics

  1. In the beginning, there was an endless void, known as Wu Chi, or Tao. The Tao is a universal energy, from which all things emanate.
  2. From this vast cosmic universe, from Tao, the One emerges.
  3. As the One manifests in the world, it divides into two: the Yin and the Yang, complementary conditions of action (Yang) and inaction (Yin). This stage represents the emergence of duality/polarity out of the Unity of Tao. The “dance”--the continual transformations--of Yin and Yang fuels the flow of qi (chi) In Taoist cosmology, Qi is in constant transformation between its condensed material state and its dilute energetic state.
  4. From this dance of Yin and Yang emerges the five elements: wood (lesser yang), fire (greater yang), metal (lesser yin), water (greater yin), and earth (central phase). Also produced here are the eight trigrams (Bagua) which form the 64 hexagrams of the Yijing (I Ching). This stage represents the formation, out of the initial Yin/Yang duality, of the elemental constituents of the phenomenal world.
  5. From the five constituent elements come the “ten-thousand things,” representing all of manifest existence, all of the objects, inhabitants, and phenomena of the world that we experience. Human beings, in the Taoist cosmology, are among the Ten Thousand Things--combinations of the Five Elements in different combinations. Spiritual growth and change, for Taoists, is a matter of balancing the Five Elements within the person. Unlike many religious systems, human beings are not regarded as something separate from the natural world, but as just another manifestation of it.

Another way of describing this process is to say that these stages represent the descent of energetic consciousness into physical form. Taoist mystics, using various Inner Alchemy techniques, are said able to reverse this sequence of events, to return to the energetic, blissful realm of Tao. The practice of Taoism, in general, is an attempt to perceive the presence and workings of the universal Tao in the Ten Thousand Things and to live in balanced accordance with it.

By Elizabeth Reninger