Ten Precepts of Taoism
This paper discusses ethical principles of Taoism based on Livia Kohn’s (2005) Cosmos
& Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Taoism will be spelled with a "T" instead of a "D"
since this is the most common spelling in modern scholarship. The discussion includes the relationship between the
individual and community, and the relationship between the community and the celestial realms. These relationships are based
on adherence to ethical principles that form the basis of these relationships. Taoism places great importance on ethical thinking,
speaking and doing. When the individual behaves in an ethical manner, the entire community benefits. The basis of Taoism
as ‘"the natural way of being" is discussed and the Ten Precepts of Taoism are examined. Similarities and
differences between Taoism’s Ten Precepts and Judaism’s Ten Commandments are explored. Additionally, Eastern and
Western ethics relating to religion are reviewed. The individual’s intentions and motivations for living an ethical
life are discussed, and the Tao Te Ching is cited to offer clarity concerning life’s meaning and purpose. The
divine nature of the Tao is reviewed, since everything begins and ends with the Tao. Important themes in Taoism are identified
and human characteristics for attaining the Tao are explored. The issue of whether Taoism is a religion or a philosophy is
reviewed. Conclusions are offered to summarize Kohn’s claims about Taoism and how its teachings effect the Taoist community.
In Cosmos and Community; The Ethical Dimension of Daoism
(2005), Kohn summarizes the ethical principles of Taoism and the Taoist community. From childhood, Taoists learns
societal norms in accordance with specific morals, values, behaviors, disciplines, and responsibilities to the community.
Taoists believe that all things exist in harmony with nature, and if things go wrong for the individual or community, it is
because of an imbalance between the energies of Yin-Yang. To restore balance, Taoists must stop trying to control nature.
All blockages in the natural flow of life are restored when nature is allowed to regain its equilibrium. When Taoists attempt
to dominate nature, their selfish desires have taken hold. The consequences of selfish desires can be disastrous to the individual
and the community. All of nature is a manifestation of the Tao, it is therefore sacred. If the Taoist defies these ethical
understandings, the community will suffer setbacks. Fortunately, these difficulties are temporary, and nature will triumph
in the end. However, in the short term, damage can occur if Taoists force their will upon nature.
Taoists treat others in the manner they want to be treated. If others treat Taoists unjustly, they respond with goodness
and compassion. This is the way of the Tao. One of the The most important ethical principles is the concept of Wu-Wei.
It is defined as either "acting naturally" or as "non-action" (Renard, 2002). Wu Wei
is not laziness or indifference; it is "Being itself" in the flow of the Tao. The ethical belief underlying Wu
Wei, is the Taoist principle that people act for the greater good at all times. They believe acting spontaneously without
struggling or trying to force events to occur. By behaving this way, they are not reacting to societal or government regulations.
Taoists maintain the highest standards of ethics and moral leadership without allowing outside influences to effect them.
By acting selflessly, Taoists are manifesting the principle of Wu Wei. Consequently, they live in harmony with nature
and live according to the teachings of their primary text: the Tao-Te-Ching.
Taoism’s approach to ethics is not designed to preach morality or virtue to others. Taoists do not tell others
how to live their lives. However, they believe that each person must stop seeing themselves as separate and become of one
mind with the community (Kohn, 2005). This attitude requires directing one’s attention away from self and focusing on
the welfare of the community. The harmony of the community is of primary importance, because the Taoist believes the community
is a microcosm of the cosmos. If the cosmos is unified and balanced, the community should be a reflection of the cosmos. This
concept corresponds to the Hermetic axiom - “as above, so below.” It underlines the Taoist’s belief in the
essential unity between the macrocosm and the microcosm.
To achieve unity between cosmos and community,
Kohn (2005) emphasizes the importance of having good intentions. Such intentions are spoken of in Rules
and Precepts for Worshipping the Tao (Kohn, 2004). Kohn quotes Wayne Teasdale (The Mystic Heart, 2010),
while comparing Taoism's concept of good intentions to Christian virtue. Teasdale (2010) posits that “Good intentions
require the development of an attitude that is concentrated and contemplative.” Although Taoists are contemplative at
times, they understand that ethical behavior contributies to the well-being of the community. Taoists place a high value on
communal and social norms and the importance of individual moral conduct.
Ten Precepts which the individual is expected to uphold:
Do not kill but always be mindful of the host of living beings.
Do not be lascivious or think depraved
Do not steal or receive unrighteous wealth.
Do not cheat or misrepresent good and evil.
Do not get
intoxicated but always think of pure conduct.
I will maintain harmony with my ancestors and family and never disregard my kin.
When I see
someone do a good deed, I will support him with joy and delight.
When I see someone unfortunate, I will support
him with dignity to recover good fortune.
When someone comes to do me harm, I will not harbor thoughts of revenge.
As long as
all beings have not attained the Tao, I will not expect to do so myself (Kohn, 2005).
According to Kohn (2005), the Ten Precepts
are classic rules for Taoists seeking to attain the rank of a "Disciple of Pure Faith." Additionally, there are
also 180 precepts of Lord Lao (Lao Tzu, circa 600 BCE) which provides a comprehensive source of rules for living
a good life. Interestingly, many of the Ten Precepts are found in other religions.
Looking to the West, we can find similarities between the Ten Precepts and the Ten Commandments. They both include
ethical principles such as, ‘not killing’, ‘not stealing’, ‘honoring parents or family’
and ‘not lying’. However, there are also differences between the Ten Precepts and the Ten Commandments. These
include Taoist ethics such as, ‘not having depraved thoughts’, ‘refraining from intoxication’, ‘supporting
another who is less fortunate’, ‘supporting another who has done a good deed’, ‘not seeking revenge’,
and ‘understanding that all beings must attain the Tao together’. The Ten Commandments, however, speak of three
other rules relating to human behavior toward the Hebrew God. These include, ‘having no other gods before me’,
‘having no graven images’, and “not taking God’s name in vain’. Additionally, there are another
three commandments not found in the Ten Precepts of Taoism. These are, ‘honoring the Sabbath’, ‘refraining
from adultery’, and ‘not coveting neighbor’s possessions’. This comparison supports the notion that
Taoism is more concerned with ethical behavior of the individual, than with the individual’s attitude toward their gods.
Conversely, the Judaic emphasis is on upholding monotheism, and worshipping the divine nature of The Godhead.
Although there are four precepts paralleling four commandments, the other six principles point-out the differences
between Eastern and Western thought. For example, the second precept warns against ‘having thoughts of depravity’.
However, this concept is subjective, and Eastern and Western religions interpret depravity differently (even the three Western
religions hold different views on this subject). Depravity is defined differently by families, races, societies, cultures,
countries and religions. Therefore, this type of ethical principle is wide open to interpretation. In Judaism,
polytheism could be considered a depraved thought, while in Taoism the worship of multiple gods such as Ma Zu, Shou Lao, Shou
Xing (and dozens of lesser gods), are acceptable to the Taoist (Renard, 2002). Therefore, in Taoism, polytheism is not a depraved
The fifth Taoist precept speaks of ‘thinking of pure conduct’.
For example, Taoism teaches that pure conduct includes balancing the food energies of Yin and Yang (Lorenz, 2007). However,
in Judaism, eating kosher food is considered ‘pure conduct’, as it relates to the manner in which an animal is
killed. For the Taoist, the manner in which an animal is killed is not an ethical consideration (as long as the animal is
not tortured). As another example, in Judaism, eating pork is prohibited, and adhering to this principle is considered ‘pure
conduct’ by religious Jews (Rich, 1995). Conversely, Taoism has no restrictions about eating pork, and is therefore,
considered proper conduct (even though vegetarianism is favored).
seventh precept speaks of ‘supporting the other with joy and delight’. This Taoist ethic prohibits jealousy and
contempt for ‘the other’. It encourages support of the community and celebrates the accomplishments of each member.
As each member of the community is supporting ‘the other’, the community itself is acting as one unit. Together,
all members of the community progress forward toward attaining the Tao. This precept (number seven) also relates to the tenth
precept which says, “As long as all beings have not attained the Tao, I will not expect to do so myself” (Kohn,
2004, p. 185). Therefore, all living beings must support each other in every aspect of life. Both of these precepts help the
Taoist focus on the importance of community, and both help him avoid suffering and the struggle for salvation. He realizes
he cannot attain the Tao by himself, so his efforts are directed toward lifting the consciousness of the community. The Ten
Commandments, however, do not speak of encouraging others or supporting the community. The only hint of this ethic is found
in the Tenth Commandment which prohibits"‘coveting of thy neighbor’s possessions or anything of thy neighbors."
So, in a sense, the Tenth Commandment is warning individuals not to feel envy or jealousy toward others. A lack of these negative
emotions envy will lead to supporting other members of the community. Thus, the Tenth Commandment partially corresponds to
the seventh precept, “When I see someone do a good deed, I will support him with joy and delight.”
It is interesting to note that the seventh precept uses language in a positive manner to reinforce ethical conduct,
while the Tenth Commandment uses language in a negative manner to deter others from acting unethically:
Thou shalt not covet thy
neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass,
nor anything that is thy neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)
In both the seventh precept and the Tenth Commandment, each culture is trying
to eliminate competitive behavior between the individual and ‘the other’. Each culture understands the harmful
eff cts of envy and jealously in a community, and each culture delivers the message of curbing this behavior in different
ways. The seventh precept uses uplifting language with a positive tone, while the Tenth Commandment uses authoritarian language
with a negative tone. Therefore, Taoism and Judaism use different psychological strategies and linguistic approaches for conveying
ethical standards to their communities.
The ninth precept is
at greatest variance with the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. This precept says, “When someone comes to do me
harm, I will not harbor thoughts of revenge” (Kohn, 2002). The message is similar to Christ’s philosophy of ‘turning
the other cheek’ and ‘loving your enemy’. Gandhi teaches a similar ideology of refraining from action in
response to the harmful actions of another. Conversely, the Mosaic doctrine teaches the familiar axiom of “an eye for
an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex. 21:23). This is another example of the differences between Taoist
and Judaic ethics. In Taoist thought, the Mosaic doctrine is viewed as an unethical principle, because the natural flow of
events are being disrupted. The individual seeking revenge is continuing a karmic chain of actions which cause chaos, destruction,
and sometimes death. Most Shakespearian tragedies rely on this formula. If Shakespeare’s characters did not react impulsively
or violently, the karmic forces propelling the drama would be eliminated (and no tragedies would occur). On a larger scale,
if Jews, Christians, and Moslems accepted the Taoist principle of non-action (Wu-Wei), the concept of war would be
eliminated. Even the Prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible tries preaching a version of Wu-Wei:
And he shall judge among
the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning
hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4)
Isaiah is creating a new ethic for the Jewish people after many
years of war. His statement is in direct contradiction to Mosaic Law, and he is trying to raise the consciousness of the Jewish
people. After 700 years of following the ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy, Isaiah realizes this unethical precept is
no longer working for the Jewish people. As the Assyrian army invades Israel and destroys it, Isaiah declares that a new ethic
of non-action and restraint, is more effective than an impulsive act of war. Unfortunately, for Western countries and Western
religions, the “eye for an eye” principle is still being followed today. Taoist ethics could be adopted by the
West (especially since Christ taught many of them), but there is a question concerning the relationship between Taoist ethics
and Taoist spiritual beliefs.
According to Mason (2008), Taoist ethics are
inseparable from Taoist spirituality. Taoists tend to refrain from action, but will act when they have a moral duty to do
so. The Taoist ethic is to wait for events to unfold before taking action. The goal for the individual is to avoid making
decisions based on the immediacy of passions and desires. The Taoist is determined to overcome compulsions and promote moral
behavior for self-improvement. Most importantly, he wants to improve the quality of life within his community. In the Tao
Te Ching, Lao Tzu offers ethical and spiritual teachings concerning the development of virtue:
Cultivate the Tao within oneself; and one’s virtue
will be perfected. Cultivate it within the household, and one’s virtue will be abundant. Cultivate it within the neighborhood,
and one’s virtue will be enduring. Cultivate it within the nation, and one’s virtue will be overflowing. Cultivate
it within the entire world, and one’s virtue will be universal. (Tao Te Ching, 54).
Kohn (2005) refers to the connection between virtue, the community and the cosmos. She explains that the Taoist
is concerned with resolving inner conflicts; creating ‘good’ karma, and encountering sages and divine beings.
The final goal is to travel to the heavens and feel the bliss of being in the presence of the gods. Taoism speaks of thirty-six
heavens which can be experienced through visualization and meditation. They believe in a spiritual hierarchy where divine
beings exist at various levels of spiritual development. The teaching of a spiritual hierarchy is also found in other religions
in the forms of angels, archangels, demons, rishis, elementals, and deities. The Taoist believes that by perfecting virtue,
he and the entire community, will be lifted-up to higher levels of existence. Therefore, each member of the community becomes
a cosmic being, living without the struggles and suffering of daily life. This concept of ending suffering is similar to the
central goal of two other Eastern religions: Buddhism and Confucianism.
Kohn (2005) speaks about simialrities in Taoism and Confucianism, “They [Taoists] integrated Confucian virtues
and demands of social cooperation; popular concepts of reciprocity, karmic retribution and the perfection of virtue.”
Kohn quotes Kant on the subject of being morally good, “One should be good for its own sake, behaving morally should
be the rational thing to do, and morally should not need an exterior motive” (2005). Additionally, Kohn discusses the
Buddhist influence on Taoism and the Ten Precepts, “Buddhist ethics have been identified as an ethics of intention,
as a form of moral determinism, and especially in Mahayana, as a system that promotes altruism over all other considerations"
(2005). Taoists and Buddhists believe that karma will either reward or punish people according to their deeds. However, Taoism
more than Buddhism, places an emphasis on intention, as well as the action itself.
Kohn (2005) concludes that there are two central themes in Taoism: 1) control over one’s fate along with transcendental
freedom and; 2) achieving oneness with heaven and earth. Additionally, Kohn posits that by following the ethical principles
of the Tao, the individual avoids all types of unhappy events, sickness and disease, trouble with the law, encounters with
demons, and natural disasters. Living by the Ten Precepts, the individual is striving to become one with the Tao. The Taoist’s
goal is to rise above selfish desires by adopting an attitude of moderation, detachment, humility, and patience. Kohn contends
that these modes of ethical behavior are the forces behind self-transformation and spiritual realization.
In Cosmos and Community; The Ethical Dimension of Taoism
(Kohn, 2005), the author presents the ethical foundations of Taoism. She discusses human behavior, moral rules, controlling
impulses, progressing toward goodness, and the relationship between the community and the heavens. Kohn’s book places
an emphasis on the innate goodness of the cosmos which the Taoist community wants to emulate in the community. Kohn is making
an important point by stating that the Tao is inherently good, and has naturally good attributes such as truth, virtue, compassion,
justice, harmony, and balance. By taking the position that the Tao has positive attributes, Kohn is saying that the universe
has a divine purpose. Her interpretation agrees with the philosophies of Plato, Plotinus, Locke, Voltaire, Aquinas, Emerson,
and almost all the writings of the world’s major religions. However, there also other philosophies such as atheism,
nihilism, existentialism, and Marxism which take the opposing view of a universe that has no divine purpose, and therefore,
is not inherently good. Therefore, Taoism provides hope, clarity, meaning, and purpose for its followers, while some modern
philosophies do not.
Kohn establishes that Taoism is an ethical instruction-manual
for those wanting to live a moral life. She speaks about Buddhism’s influence on Taoism, but does not explain that these
influences took place hundreds of years after the establishment of Buddhism. Taoism is at least one hundred years older than
Buddhism, so there are no influences from Buddhism in the early days of this religion. Additionally, Kohn does not give enough
credit to Lao Tzu for writing the Tao Te Ching, and its possible influence on the development of Buddhism. There
is even a possibility that Siddhartha may have read the Tao Te Ching before becoming the Buddha! Since the Tao
Te Ching is considered ‘the Bible’ of Taoism, it is surprising that Kohn is not quoting it more often, and
using it more effectively. The lack of quotations from the Tao Te Ching diminishes the importance of ancient Taoism, which
many scholars acknowledge as the authentic Taoism of Lao Tzu.
Kohn stresses the importance of achieving transcendence, and experiencing oneness with the Godhead, she does not discuss the
benefits of mysticism in Taoism. This is a not a major issue, since the thrust of her book is explaining ethics and morals
in Taoism. However, she opens the door to discussing mysticism, when she speaks about the relationship between the cosmos
and the community. By bringing cosmology into the discussion, Kohn is implying that there is an essential relationship between
the mortal and the divine. Consequently, she cannot avoid acknowledging the role of mysticism, transcendence and self-realization
as an important aspect of Taoist life. Additionally, once mysticism enters the discussion, a problem arises as to the relationship
between the pragmatism (and rationalism) of Taoist ethics, and the metaphysical (and irrational) nature of Taoist mystical
In the chapter on Community Application (and moral rules),
Kohn provides details from the 180 Precepts of Lord Lao of the Celestial Masters, and outlines the do’s
and don’ts for ethical living. She concentrates on explaining the Ten Precepts, and lists the remaining 170 precepts
in the translation section in the second half of the book. This complex moral code is similar to the 613 Mitzvoth in Orthodox
Judaism which are designed to regulate every aspect of Jewish life. However, non-orthodox Jews - like most
people – have enough difficulty keeping-up with the Ten Commandments - let alone 603 additional ones! The same situation
probably holds true in Taoism. Kohn explains that within the 180 precepts, many are duplications, redundancies, out-dated
rules, and ancient superstitious.
Her explanation of the cosmology of the Great Plan is especially
interesting because it offers a set of Eight Precepts that connect the cosmos with the community. The Great Plan provides
a look at original ‘Taoist thought’ without the inclusion of other influences from various religions. Although
the ‘Great Plan’ does not focus primarily on Taoist ethics, it establishes the importance of a divine connection
between the Tao and the community. Since the Tao is the ideal of spiritual perfection, the Taoist must be a reflection of
goodness, truth, compassion and selflessness that the Tao symbolizes. By following the ‘Great Plan’ and the precepts,
the Taoist lives an ethical and moral life, and helps his community become one with the Tao. This is the ultimate ethical
and spiritual goal for the Taoist and his community.