Daoism, also spelled Taoism, is China’s organized, indigenous religious system. Daoists take as their focus the goal of obtaining the Dao, or Way, the unnameable source of generative vitality in a universe of constant transformation. The methods for realizing this goal have been revised and reinvented throughout Daoism’s 2,000 year history but can be generally understood in terms of mediating between the fluid energies of the body, the community and the cosmos. Daoists pay attention to the subtle energies of the inner body and engage in meditative cultivation practices that aim to restore and enhance the functioning of the body with the goal of bringing about long life and spiritual transcendence. They also worship a complex hierarchy of sacred powers that includes at its apex the Three Pure Ones, impersonal instantiations of the Dao itself, and also a wide variety of personal gods who were once humans beings but who, over the course of their lives, achieved transcendence, sometimes understood as immortality.
From the perspective of an outside observer, Daoism has two distinct characters: an elite tradition of monks and priests who are dedicated to the quest of obtaining the Dao; and a communal tradition integrated into local society and patronized by non-initiated lay people. The elite tradition is focussed on maintaining and transmitting the teachings of the various lineages to a relatively small number of initiates who are deemed to be suitably qualified by virtue of their religious commitment. This elite tradition is esoteric, in that the contents of its teachings are not generally transmitted to non-initiates, and it generally has a hierarchical structure so that initiates must demonstrate their accomplishment at a lower level of teaching before receiving transmissions of a higher level of teaching. This elite tradition is by definition somewhat obscure and tends to jealously guard its distinct identity and sacred authority.
At the same time, however, Daoism also embraces the common Chinese religious tradition that pays little heed to religious distinctions. In this tradition, non-initiated lay people patronize temples to pray for good fortune, to mark the changing of the seasons, and to conduct rituals for the departed. The patrons of such temples and services may not be aware whether their temple is run by Daoists, Buddhists or other local religious traditions. The main thing is that they regard the temple as having spiritual efficacy. Within this common religious framework, however, there are specifically Daoist rituals for funerals and exorcisms that call upon distinctively Daoist gods and have specific Daoist characteristics that can be easily detected by the trained observer. The most distinctive Daoist ritual is the jiao, generally a complex multi-day event aimed at restoring the balance between the community and the cosmos. The most lavish of these is the the rite of cosmic renewal staged only once every sixty years, to mark the beginning of a new cycle of the Chinese calendar.
From an internal perspective, however, Daoists generally categorize themselves according a variety of distinct lineages each with its own genealogy of sacred authority. Daoists are initiated into a tradition by a master, receiving sacred texts and teachings into the methods taught by that tradition. Historically these various traditions were often centred on particular sacred mountains, and are frequently referred to by the name of the mountain. For this reason, some Daoist lineages tended to have strongholds in distinct regions of China and, at times these affiliations have maintained their various historical and geographic distinctions. In the modern period, however, all lineages and forms of Daoism have been increasingly subjected to mechanisms of centralization, nationalization and bureaucratization under the aegis of a single organizational framework, known as the Chinese Daoist Association (CDA). The CDA is based at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing, which is one of the most important monasteries associated with the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) tradition of monastic Daoism that dominates northern China. For this reason contemporary Daoism at the national level tends to reflect this elite monastic form, though historically, this is a relatively late Daoist movement which does not really represent the whole of the tradition. The CDA is itself supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).