A Brief Overview of Taoist Teaching Traditions
In the West, because the West has been exposed to Taoism through translations, and because Westerners assume that all religions are textually based like Judeo-Christian religions, Taoism is believed to be learned by reading. It isn’t. Taoism is mostly an oral tradition, combined with physical day to day living practices and some reading.
a. Taoist Hermit Tradition: This is the original Taoist teaching tradition. Taoism has its roots in shamanistic practices, and the Shaman training practice was for the Shaman to teach 1 to 2 successors. These were selected from candidates that possessed qualities necessary for spiritual combat, and extraordinary physical combat. This tradition continues for many of the smaller lineages, although the focus on spiritual battle is rare in modern times.
The shamanistic tradition is called the Hermit tradition now, because the teacher often lives as a Taoist renunciate (i.e. a person apart from society), and does not take many students during a lifetime. The Hermit tradition is a highly elitist tradition, as it is derived from one shaman teaching his or her replacement.
b. Taoist Mystery School Tradition: I believe the label is a Western one and it refers to religious mysteries. The mystery schools are predecessors to the temple movements and came after the Hermit tradition. Mystery schools are centered around one to a handful of teachers and a handful to a few hundred active students. Some were much larger. Mystery schools functioned as training, and/or research centers, or production units for Taoist goods and services.
Mystery schools were typically associated with particular clans, or founded by an adept. Mystery schools were often highly selective in admitting candidates into their programs.
c. Taoist Temple Tradition: By temple tradition, I am including both shrines and monastic training centers. Temples start for a lot of reasons. Let’s assume the most altruistic ones in my statements here. Temples were a means of extending the range of Taoist practice and of providing practitioners with a dedicated training environment. They were also largely open to all comers when it came to admittance. The majority of practitioners at a temple are there because they enjoy the environment and the controlled lifestyle. They are not seriously pursuing enlightenment. More remote training environments will tend to add admissions standards, have more rigorous training, and also have students that are more directly pursuing enlightenment.
The Taoist 4 Ascendant Tradition falls largely into the Mystery School teaching approach. However, across the span of practitioners and teachers within the tradition, all of the teaching methods are used.
The general follower of the 4 Ascendant Tradition typically has an advanced secular education and receives faith services in a temple-style setting. For followers seeking them, advanced services or education in deeper practices is usually provided through the Taoist Hermit or Mystery school approach within the 4 Ascendant.
Master Mikel Steenrod