Daoism: Philosophy and Religion 

Some clarification about the word "Daoism" is necessary before reviewing ancient Daoist healing. The English language fails to distinguish between two distinctively different entities: Dao-Jai, the philosophy, and Dao-Jiao, the religion. 

Dao-Jia represents the original philosophy of Daoism proposed in the Dao De Jing (the classic Daoist text, also known as the Tao Te Ching) by Lao Tzu (ca. 580-500, B.C.E.), in which naturalism is regarded as the basic guidance for life as well as a way of ruling a country. The philosophy of Dao-Jia has exerted a profound and everlasting influence in every aspect of Chinese culture, as must as the influence from Yi Jing (I Ching), the Book of Changes. Both are considered main pillars of Chinese culture. 

Dao-Jiao is a religion based on ancient Chinese shamanism which can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122, B.C.E.). In order to remain intact during popularity in China in about the Second Century, C.E., Chinese Daoist began to refine and strengthen their belief system by adopting the Dao Te Jing as the fundamental text, in addition to many scriptures written by other Daoist practitioners. The term "Dao-Jiao" was established, and the religion itself was formulated. For our purposes here, "Dao-Jiao," the religion based on the blending of the Dao-Jia philosophy and the Chinese shamanistic religion, will be referred to as Daoism.   

The Power of Prayer 

The this section of The Treatise presents advice about everyday activities, the effect of emotion on health, and an examination of prayer as a means of improving health. For example, it suggests that: "Sleeping too long will damage original Qi, standing too long will damage bones, walking too far will damage tendons... grief, anger and sorrow will cause damage, over-joy causes damage, over-anxiety causes damage, worry and fear cause damage... celibacy in unhealthy, but one should only perform sexual activities according to proper teaching... If all these are attended to, then one can enjoy longevity."

The importance of prayer is stressed in Daoism as it is universally in nearly every spiritual path. It is the Daoist belief that frequent prayer is beneficial to health; unfortunately, this view has been lost to come extent in the teaching of traditional Chinese medicine. Prayer historically has been a common practice for healing in all culture and races, especially in ancient times. Unfortunately, with the rapid developments in modern science, the intangible power of prayer has been viewed as "unscientific" by many skeptics, and has been sacrificed on the alter of technology. 

These exists overwhelming documentation of cures of illnesses through prayer. Dr. Giuseppe Moscati (1880-1927 C.E.) of Naples, Italy, a professor of medicine and a leading physician in southern Italy, was known as the "Holy Doctor" in the region. He often prescribed prayer or confession for his patients, some of who experienced what was considered a miraculous cure. After his death, there were even more cures linked with the manifestation of Mocati's spirit. He was proclaimed a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1987 after all the pertinent records were reviewed by the Vatican. 9,10

In his book Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, Dr. Larry Dossey documents extensive research into the power of prayer. One need only look, as well, to the burgeoning list of new books being published every year about prayer and spirituality. It should be clear to us that the power of prayer is undeniable, either in the East of the West, then or now. In fact, by searching for the meaning of prayer, not only will be better understand the true meaning of healing, but also find meaning in our own being. Once we have a better understand of our own inner self, we will have a different perspective about illness itself.    

Tao Hong-Jing

An experienced and distinguished Daoist physician, Tao Hong-Jing was also a multi-talented Confucian scholar, and a master of Feng Shui, astrology, astronomy, geometry, alchemy, mathematics, liberal and fine arts, military strategy, and political science. His expertise was highly recognized by the emperor, Liang Wu. Tao Hong-Jing was regarded as a personal advisor to the emperor, since he declined the offer of a formal high position in the Emperor's court. Interestingly, in his later life, Tao Hong-Jing converted to Buddhism. 

Tao Hong-Jing wrote more than eighty articles and books. Unfortunately, the great majority of them were lost in the flow of history. The Treatise of Nurturing Spirituality and Lengthening Life is among the few still extant. The Treatise was based works by earlier or contemporary Doaist healers, in addition to Tao's own opinions and experiences. 

In the place of the treatise, Tao writes: "Among all the creations in the world, human beings are the most precious species, and the most precious thing in a human is his life. The spirit is the foundation of a life, whereas the body is merely a vessel of the spirit. The spirit will be depleted if it is over-used; the body will die if it is exhausted." He further suggests meditation to direct one's mind to nothingness, thereby eliminated worries, and returning to a state of effortless void. In addition, he advises his readers to practice breathing exercise after midnight, to perform Dao In and self-massage regularly, and take medicine as a supplement when necessary. By doing so, Tao believed it should be normal to live to a hundred years in good health. Tao Hong-Jing further states, on the other hand, that if one lets desire dictate one's behavior, overdoing sexual activities just for the sake of pleasure, constantly worrying about gain and loss, not dispelling stress, behaving unethically, and eating improperly, one will have poor health and a premature demise. 

Tao Hong-Jing's overview points to many key issues in all medical traditions, as well encapsulation Daoist holistic healing. The Treatise has two parts, each divided into three sections, and although not all of his perspectives are suitable for or applicable to our modern perspective, examining them makes for a quite interesting study. 

Applications for Our Millennium 

Human nature rarely changes. As Qi Bo describes the people of two thousand years ago, we can't help but be reminded of modern folk. Many of us recognize the deficiencies in our health care system that have been created by the dichotomy of modern western medicine which splits body and spirit; this is fathered by the changes wrought in our civilization by increasingly faster-paced and secular lifestyles. We can appreciated the concern of the Yellow Emperor, only we are in a worse predicament, because our spirits are in jeopardy and our environment is polluted. 

Based upon his experiences in the practice of medicine, as well as the teaching he received from healers before him, Tao Hong-Jin recognizes that the pathogenesis of many ailments originates from within the patient. Hong-Jin's multi-disciplinary approach for health maintenance (or illness prevention) could serve as a comprehensive baseline reference for developing a framework for mind/body medicine. It is his hope, as he states in the preface to the Treatise, that his experiences and advice could help people maintain good health, and live longer and more fulfilling lives. 

In Chinese medical tradition, as stated by Su Wen in Yellow Emperor's Inner Classics: "A superior physician prevents illness from developing, because once the illness is formed, it may be too late." This notion is often neglected in Western medicine. We spend almost all of our energy in trying to fix something is being given to preventative medicine.

As we move into the new millennium, our need for historic healing to alleviate the effects of stress and "dis-ease" becomes even more critical. In reviewing Tao Hong-Jing's Treatise, we can't help but admire his brilliant vision and thorough attempt to provide guidance for holistic healing. We can incorporated much of the wisdom and experiences of Tao Hong-Jing's Treatise today, as an aid to achieving fuller and healthier lives.    

Stretching and Movement (Dao-In)

The fifth section of the Treatise describes in detail the maneuvers of Dao In (stretching exercises) and self-massage. Many of these maneuvers are easy to learn, and offer excellent results. For instance, "Five Animal Frolics," developed by Hua Tuo (110-207 C.E.), another outstanding Daoist physician during the Han Dynasty, is one of best-known stretching exercises. The exercises are based on the movements of five animals: the tiger, deer, bear, monkey and bird. Hua Tuo was best known for his surgical expertise, and he concocted Ma Fei San, a mixture of herbal extracts for general anesthesia before surgery. Most of the maneuvers in this section of the Treatise have been considered standard parts of Qigong practice. 


Note 1:  Shang Han Lun, Treatise of Cold Damages and Miscellaneous Diseases, is a medical text written by a Daoist physician Zhang Zhong-Jing around 220 C.E. This treatise is another important text in Chinese medicine, which addresses the theory of diagnosis and herbal treatment. The treatise contains 113 herbal formulae, selected from about 80 herbs. It has been considered one of the most important Chinese medical texts because of its accuracy in diagnosis and the proven efficacy of its formulae.

Note 2:  Feng Shui, Geomancy, is based upon the theories of Yin-Yang and Five Phases. It emphasizes the harmony of Qi between man and his surroundings. It deals with the location, direction, layout and arrangement of the house, its relation to its surroundings, and the incorporation of the astrology of the tenant into design. The theory maintains that disharmony of Qi caused by "bad Feng Shui" can result in misfortune, poor health, or even death.  Feng Shui for the deceased refers to the location and direction of the tomb and the timing of the burial of the deceased, which is considered to be even more important than the Feng Shui for the living, because it will affect the welfare of the survivors and their future descendants. 

1 Tseng Shao-Nan. New commentary of Yang Xing Yen Ming Lu [The treatise of nurturing spirit and lengthening life]. San Min Book Co., Inc. Taipei, Taiwan. 1997.
2 Li Chong-Hua.  New commentary of Pao Pu Tzi [Master of embracing simplicity, by Ger Hong]. San Min book Co., Inc. Taipei, Taiwan. 1996.
3 Yu Pei-Lin.  New commentary of Lao Tzu, Dao De Jing. San Min Book Co, Inc. Taipei, Taiwan. 1997.
4 Lio Shao-Hua, Dao-Jiao and Chinese folklore. Wen Tsin Publishing Co., Taipei, Taiwan. 1991.
5 Huang Hai-De, Li Gang.  Chong Hua Dao Jiao Pao Dien. (The compendium of Chinese Dao Jiao). Chong Hua Dao Tong Publishing Co. Taipei, Taiwan. 1995.
6 Zhu Yue-Li. Dao Jing Zhong Lun (The compendium of classics of Dao-Jiao). Liao Ning Educational Publishing Co., Inc. Liao Ning, China. 1991.
7 Commentary of Shang Han Lun. Ren Min Health Publishing Co. Beijing, China. 1972. 8 Dossey, Larry.  Healing words; the power of prayer and the practice of medicine. Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA. 1993.
9 D'Onofrio, Felix.  Joseph Moscati: as seen by a medical doctor. ESUR-Ignatianum, Mesina. Napoli, Italy. 1991.
10 Gesuiti Padri.  St. Joseph Moscati, the holy doctor of Naples. Chiesa Del Gesu Nuovo. Napoli, Italy.
11 Loh SH. Qigong therapy in the treatment of metastatic colon cancer.  J of Alt Therapy and Med. 1999, 5(4):111-112.
12 Wang SL.  The history, theory and methods of Chinese qigong. Hua Hsia Publishing Co. Beijing, China. 1989.
13 Harner, Michael.  The way of the shaman. Harper Publishing. San Francisco, CA, 1990.

On Sexuality 

The last section of the Treatise discusses Fang Zhong Shu, which means "techniques in the bedroom", or sexual activities. This section has created a great deal of controversy throughout the centuries among scholars and healers, because some of its content appeared to be rather selfish and immoral. For example, it states that a man's longevity can be achieved by extracting the essence of many women through sexual intercourse. The practice originated during Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E), and subsequently was incorporated into Dao-Jiao tradition. It was further developed into a special way of nurturing the spirit and becoming Xien (one of the Immortals). This particular practice is rejected by most Daoists, and considered unethical. 

Nevertheless, this section of the Treatise has its positive aspects. It advocates openly that sex is necessary and healthy between a man and a woman. It opposes celibacy, because it "shortens the life span," yet it discourages sexual over-activity for fear of losing too much Jing (essence), an important Daoist concept. It is the Daoist belief that every person is given a limited amount of Jing in his lifetime. Jing is precious, and can never be replenished. "Once Jing is depleted, death is inevitable;" therefore, in order to "nourish the brain," excessive ejaculation is discouraged. This concept needs to further examination; however, the extreme exhaustion and "daze" that often occurs after intercourse suggests that a correlation exists between energy depletion and sexual activity.       

Maintaining Health is the Key 

Section one basically elaborates on the concept of Daoist healing by quoting theories and advice from many other Daoist healers and sages, as well as medical texts, e.g. Huang Di Nei Jing, or The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classics.  This medical text is the older in China, and is still in use today. It was originally compiled by an anonymous author (or authors) during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E.). It established the comprehensive medical theories which set the foundation of Chinese medicine. 

The theories in the Nei Jing are elaborated in the form of dialogue between the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestral leader of China, and Qi Bo, Yellow Emperor's minister. The text has two parts: "Ling Shu" (Spiritual Axis) and "Su Wen" (Basic Question). In this text, The Yellow Emerpor asks: "I have heard that in ancient times, people lived to be one hundred years old, and were still able to move around swiftly. But look at people now. When only past their fifties, they already show signs of decline. Is it because times have changes, or is it their own fault?"

Qi Bo answers: "People in ancient times knew how to nurture themselves. They conducted their daily lives according to the rhythm and changes of heaven and earth, of Yin and Yang. They learned the proper way of performing sexual activities, watched their diets, adhered to proper daily activities and avoided over-exhaustion. That's why their body and spirit were in harmony, and why they were able to live over one hundred years as granted by Heaven. Nowadays, people are different. They drink wine as if it were water, behave dissolutely, perform sexual activities even when they are drunk, exhausting their energy just to satisfy sexual drives, waste their Qi in pursuing idle pursuits. They don't know how to nurture their inner selves to the fullest, they abuse their spirits for mere temporary pleasure, totally against the harmony of Yin and Yang, and fail to maintain regular daily spiritual activities. Therefore, they appear weak even in their fifties, or die at even younger ages."

A quote from Shang Han Lun by Zhang Zhong-Jing7 (Note 1), a Daoist physician in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E - 220 C.E.) amplifies this concept: "Many people die much younger than they are supposed to. It is because they don't take good care of themselves. They live with anger and stress in the course of pursuing name and gain. They are not aware that by doing so, they have accumulated poison inside them, which will attack their spirit (Shen). Interally, it hurts the marrow (Sui), and externally it damages the muscles. Once blood and Qi are depleted, meridians will be clogged, the body will become empty, which invites all aliments. By now, good Qi is depleted while harmful Qi is on the rise; the demise of the body becomes as east as using the water from the seven seas to extinguish a little torch fire, or pushing a huge mountain down just to block a little brook."

These two excerpts emphasize that stress and negative emotions have great impact on physical health, and two thousand years later, such findings are being proven scientifically, during a time when stress is becoming more overwhelming than at any other time in history. The words of the ancient healers also stress the fundamental concept of healing: total health comes from harmony of body and spirit, and these two parts of a being are inseparable. An unhealthy spiritual self can trigger many ailments. The text also recognizes the core issue of healing: healing starts from within. Interestingly, the Treatise also observes the existence and importance of "psychosomatic" illness, as they are currently known. For the part two decades, research in psychoneuroimmunology has provided convincing data to support the connection between emotion and its impact on physical health.  


The second section of the Treatise discusses proper dietary habits. It suggests that to eat less is better than more, to avoid greasy and heavily-flavored foods, to eat well-cooked instead of raw food, etc. Some of the advice is worthy of further examination. Advice such as "Don't lie down after meals, because it will cause indigestion," "eating late at night will cause indigestion," and "one prefers to have small and frequent meals rather than large ones" is as valid today as the it was written centuries ago. 

Dietary habits in China have long been established according to the principles of Yin-Yang theory. For example, fish is considered Yin and cold, and it should be prepared with ginger, which considered Yang and hot. Balance and harmony are principles to which one should aspire, even in daily cooking. Food intake is as important as the air we breathe. Optimal nutrition is essential to produce Ying Qi (nutritional Qi) in order to nourish the physical body and maintain balanced energy. 

Chinese Spiritual Synthesis

The ensuing dialog, conflicts, competition, absorption, and evolution among the three main philosophies of Daoism, Confuscianism, and Buddhisl reached its maturity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) and continued for many centuries thereafter. It was a common phenomenon for ancient Chinese scholars to  follow or be influenced by more than one school of philosophy. Syncretism, the blending and influencing of one religious philosophy and practices by others, has often been a naturally-occurring part of the evolution of cultural mindsets, and China is an excellent example of the fusion of three main spiritual philosophies. The Dao was the original bedrock for the spiritual synthesis that occurred prior to the first millennium, C.E. 

Ancient Daoism, like other religions, was divided into several sects. Each sect emphasized different aspects of Daoism. Some sects emphasized intellectual pursuits through the study of the classics of Daoism and other scriptures, while others emphasized the practice of ceremonial rituals, incantation, Fu writing ( type of Chinese calligraphy, written by a Daoist monk on a ritually-prepared paper, after the monk has consulted the spirits in a ceremonial ritual: this paper is then capable of warding off evil spirits by posting it at a prescribed location, wearing it as a charm, or swallowing it to cure illness), payers, alchemy (either internal or external elixir), breathing exercises, exorcism, or sexual Qigong, etc. Nevertheless, the majority of the ancient Daoists believed in multidisciplinary approaches to holistic healing.  

The Lost Wisdom of Daoism 

Daoism has served China for millennia. It has had its glorious past in leading the healing arts, although this is not recognized today by the general public. When Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture developed into a highly specialized and sophisticated profession with tremendous knowledge and techniques, much like its western counterparts, it gradually lost the spiritual aspect essential for healing. The practice of other Daoist disciplines such as prayer, meditation, breathing, and other spiritually-oriented healing techniques have been devalued and even excluded from the practice of medicine. This seems to be an inevitable part of the evolution of all healing systems. But true healing must included the spiritual dimension, or it loses its macroscopic efficacy. One should note, as well, Dr. Michael Harner's discovery about the shamanistic tribes of the Native Americans in the Amazonian rainforests: the healing capability of a shaman is inversely proportional to the modernization of the tribe.13

Daoism originated with shamanism. Even after thousands of years of metamorphosis, we still see the remnants of it in the practice of Qigong. The most obvious example is the emission of Qi for the healing by a Qigong master, among other things. What makes Qigong different from other shamanistic practices is that it has a very long history and sophisticated theory behind it: Daoism.

For the past few centuries, the image of a Daoist in Chinese society hasn't been the same as that of a mainstream Chinese medical doctor. Daoists are considered secondary, since they do mostly spiritual healing. Some use astrology to aid people in planning their lives; others use Feng Shui (Note 2) to set up a better arrangement in a house, either for the living or the deceased. Some still choose to become hermits and devote their lifetimes on top of the mountains among the clouds, in the pursuit of the ultimate truth of Daoism: the void.     

Breathing and Qigong

The fourth section of the Treatise describes methods for practicing breathing exercises and visualization in detail. In modern times, these specifics are generally called Qigong. The variety of Qigong practice described in this section should be considered adequate for practical purposes. Qigong has gained greater popularity in the western world in recent years, and research has related promising results in using Qigong to treat many illnesses.11 

In the practice of Qigong, emphasis should be placed upon the understanding of healing theory, which involves a vast area of the Chinese healing arts, and the awareness that persistent practice is necessary to successfully achieve the benefits of Qigong. 


The practice of breathing exercises is called "Shih-Qi," or "Sing-Qi," in ancient China. Roughly translated, these man "Ingest Qi" or "Mobilize Qi." Qi is viewed as the vital force that circulates in the human body, as well as in the cosmos. It is the Daoist belief that through the practice of breathing exercise and visualization, one can hope to be united with the cosmos. This is the most important daily practice for a Daoist. Further discussion about the concept of Qi would be helpful for better understanding of this exercise, but is beyond the scope of this discussion.      

The Lost Wisdom of Ancient Daoist Holistic Healing 

A Commentary by She-Hong Loh, MD

On The Treatise of Nurturing Spirituality and Lengthening Life by Tao Hong-Jung 


With the rising global interest in holistic medicine, Chinese healing arts have, in recent years, gained great attention outside their original land. Acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, Qigong, Tai-Chi and massage therapy have been studied and applied in various clinical settings. Each of these therapies has great value in its own application, but they also share fundamental concepts from the same sources: Yin-Yang theory, Five Phases Theory, and Daoism (Taoism).


Practice or application of any single one of these disciplines only represents a fragment of total healing. The Treatise of Nurturing Spirituality and Lengthening Life, by Tao Hong-Jing (Liang Dynasty, 456-536 C.E.), is a virtual encyclopedia of treatments and healthy behaviors, including: Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, breathing exercises, stretching exercises (Dao In), self-massage, dietary instruction, an examination of the effects of emotion on physical health, an emphasis of spirituality on bodily health, ethical and moral guidance, the proper use of prayer, and guidance for proper sexual activities. 

To examine the validity of the ancient Daoist healing arts as a whole, one must realize that Daoism as a healing art is not well recognized despite its great history and efficacy. The Treatise, compiled by physician Tao Hong-Jing, best represents the holistic healing perspective fundamental to Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Historical Perspective 

Chinese history has recognized numerous brilliant, creative Daoist practitioners over the last two millennia. Among their numbers are Ger Xuen and Ger Hong of the Jin Dynasty (Third Century C.E.), Zhang Zhan of the Northern Wei Dynasty (Fourth Century C.E.), Dao Lin, Zhai Ping, Tao Hong Jing of the Liang Dynasty (Fifth Century C.E.), Hua Tuo and Sun Simiao (Seventh Century C.E., Tang Dynasty), to name a few. 

Many of these Daoist masters, in addition to the practice of Daoist disciplines, were also experienced and knowledgeable physicians of Chinese medicine, and many made great and valuable contributions to the practice and theory of Chinese medicine. For example, Ger Hong (282-363, C.E.) wrote Handy Formulae for Near-Death Conditions, in which he substitutes expensive and hard-to-find herbs with cheaper and readily available equivalent herbs for emergency situations. The Formulae was revised more than a hundred years later by Tao Hong-jing, and has been recognized as an important text throughout history.