Taoism (or Daoism) is both a philosophy and religion. It originated in China, and it emphasizes the idea of “going with the flow.” Taoism favors the natural world and centers around a core concept that the Tao—literally “way”—flows through all things. But what does Taoism teach about death and the afterlife?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Do Taoists Believe About Death?
- Do Taoists Believe in an Afterlife, Heaven, Reincarnation, or Immortality?
- What Does the Afterlife Look Like in Taoism?
It’s always useful to learn about death in different cultures. And Taoist beliefs about death—both religious and philosophical—are interesting and complex. Taoism is an ancient religion, but many people still practice it worldwide to this day.
By learning about Taoist beliefs about death and life after death, you can better understand many philosophies around the world.
What Do Taoists Believe About Death?
Taoism centers around the idea of the Tao, or cosmic energy. This energy is within all things, binding them together and guiding them through life. Additionally, the Tao is believed to release all things at the end of life.
The Tao-Te-Ching, a book of ancient poetry, presents the core beliefs of Taoism and how to follow the Tao. Its poems present simple ways of living peacefully with yourself and with others. It reminds people how to let go of pride, learn from other people, and focus on interconnectivity.
The theory of yin and yang began with the popular practice of divination in around 1200 BCE. Oracles “read” yarrow sticks thrown onto a table after asking a question of the universe. The pattern made by the yarrow sticks on the table was made up of unbroken lines (Yang) and broken lines (Yin). The oracles used these patterns to tell the future.
According to this practice, both the Yin and the Yang lines were needed to find the answer to important questions about the future. This led to the Yin-Yang principle: that opposites must remain in balance in nature. That includes good and evil, light and dark, female and male, and life and death.
According to the Yin-Yang principle, death is the transition from being to not being, or from yang to yin. The natural world doesn’t recognize a crucial difference between life and death. Instead, both act in harmony to maintain balance in nature. Taoism teaches that humans should strive to see death in the same way.
The central teaching of Taoism is the philosophy of acceptance. Everything that happens in a person’s life is seen as equally important. There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” in Taoism. The “positive” and “negative” aspects of life work together in equal parts to maintain harmony, so they’re both equally “good” according to Taoism.
When it comes to death, Taoism sees it as part of that eternal force. It’s something that we should learn to accept and live with peacefully. Life and death are seen as complementary aspects of the Tao.
Do Taoists Believe in an Afterlife, Heaven, Reincarnation, or Immortality?
Taoist beliefs are typically consistent and unified. However, teachings about an afterlife and reincarnation are somewhat varied.
That’s because Taoism is an ancient religion that has evolved and changed over time. It has existed alongside Confucianism and Buddhism for a long time, incorporating some beliefs from those religions.
A central belief that’s key in Taoism is the concept of eternity. Taoism arose out of rural China, where people lived close to nature.
They observed that in nature, things that appeared to “die” often came back to life later on. For example, a tree that appeared to die in the fall would come back to life in the spring.
According to those observations, Taoists came to believe that people could “live” after death, too. Rather than just disappearing entirely, Taoists believed the spirit lived on as part of the Tao after death.
The Taoist idea of salvation centers around this life, rather than the afterlife. That means participating in the eternal cycle of the natural world while you’re alive, rather than anticipating salvation after death.
Unlike in Christianity and other Abrahamic religions, Taoism isn’t concerned with permanent transcendence to a heavenly afterlife or a state of spiritual redemption.
Taoism focuses on becoming perfectly aligned with the natural world in this life, instead of escaping it after death.
At the same time, some Taoist teachings believe that the gods live in the sun, the moon, the planets, and in the constellations. During a ritual trance, a Taoist can potentially even travel to these mystical, astronomical locations.
Therefore, many of the gods in Taoism reside literally in the “heavens” that we can observe from Earth. We, as humans, can visit the heavens in a trance state or after death.
Throughout history, some Taoists have believed in the possibility of physical immortality. That means they were less concerned with an afterlife, as they hoped to never experience death. They believed, instead, that they could achieve immortality in this life.
Some Taoists believed that these immortals lived in the “realms of the immortals” on Earth. These realms were believed to be located on mountains or distant islands.
However, modern-day Taoism isn’t concerned with physical immortality. Instead, it’s about remaining in alignment with the Tao, or cosmic energy that keeps the natural world in balance.
Taoists believe that death is a transition, rather than an end. One transitions from the state of being to the state of non-being, which are two equally-important states within the Tao.
When a person dies, they participate in the essential process of change and existence known as the Tao. Taoism teaches that, even though human instinct is to see death as a final end, it’s only the next step in an eternal process. And living in harmony with the Tao during your physical life will lead to equal harmony in the next stage.
Modern Taoism teaches that spirits can live on after physical death and that it can migrate to another physical body. There’s no perceived “end” to one life and “beginning” of another. Instead, Taoists see reincarnation as a continuation of the eternal Tao process.
Human spirits can reincarnate as animals and vice-versa, but there’s no concept such as Karma that governs those changes. Instead, the reincarnation process in Taoism is vastly complicated and depends on how harmonious with the Tao you are in life.
What Does the Afterlife Look Like in Taoism?
If you practice the Taoist religion or believe in Taoist philosophical teachings, what does life after death look like?
Some religious sects of Taoism are similar to other religions, like Confucianism and Buddhism. But philosophical Taoism also has unique and widely-varying teachings about the afterlife and what it might look like.
Afterlife is life
Taoism teaches that it is in this life that we’re eternal. Rather than transitioning from the living world to an afterlife, Taoism believes the afterlife exists within life on Earth. As a living person, you exist as part of the Tao, and when you die, you exist as part of the Tao.
Essentially, Taoism believes that the afterlife looks the same as your life now, since they are one and the same.
The philosophy of Taoism also incorporates the beliefs you’ve developed throughout your life. For example, the afterlife might involve living on in the memories of your loved ones, if that’s what you believe true. If you believe in God or gods, you might join those deities in the afterlife if that’s what you believe.
If you hold a number of ideas about the afterlife to be true—even if they conflict—all of those concepts make up your afterlife.
Because of the core belief that no one truly dies, but just remains part of the Tao, ancestor worship is essential to Taoism. This is even more true because of influences from other religions, like Buddhism.
Additionally, the modern philosophy of Taoism incorporates the idea that the deceased “live on” in the memories of their loved ones. Taoists who believe this is true might incorporate that belief into their rituals, making sure to honor the memories of loved ones. This includes participating in spiritual holidays, like the Qingming Festival in China.
Some sects of religious Taoist rituals invoke and honor the spirits of their ancestors in a strictly ritualistic fashion. They often create a “pure” space, using incense and prayer, for communion with those who no longer exist physically.
Variations in Taoism
There are many variations within Taoism when it comes to views on death. While some ancient Taoists believed they could live as immortals in this life, modern Taoists focus on finding salvation and meaning in this life.
But the central theme of both ancient Taoism and modern Taoist philosophy remains the same: all things are connected by the Tao, or cosmic energy. In life and in death, humans are part of the Tao and remain in perfect harmony with the universe as a whole.
- Mark, Emily. “Taoism.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 22 February 2016. www.ancient.eu/Taoism/
- “Taoism.” Patheos. www.patheos.com/library/taoism/beliefs/afterlife-and-salvation
- “The Afterlife.” Personal Tao. personaltao.com/taoism/the-afterlife/