The “Organization” of Daoism
Celestial Masters, Shangqing & Lingbao


From Huang-Lao... Celestial Masters
The emergence of Daoism as an organized religion can be traced back to the second century CE, during the social turmoil and political disintegration that marked the final decades of the Han dynasty. The pivotal year in that process is 142, when Zhang Daoling, hereto an obscure practitioner of fangshi techniques, purportedly had an inspired vision of Laozi in deified form. Laozi allegedly transmitted to him new teachings that could deliver people from the adverse circumstances brought by the decadent Han dynasty and serve as a proper alternative to the debased  cults prevalent at the time. Zhang went on to preach the newly-found doctrine, which was tinged with millenarian overtones and was directed toward chosen people, attracting numerous followers with a utopian vision that held the promise of a new sociopolitical order and better future.
Eventually, Zhang’s expanding following was transformed into a highly organized and influential religious movement, the first of its kind in the history of Daoism. The movement was called the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao). ... Its leaders instituted a peculiar form of government that mixed familiar Han bureaucratic institutions with novel ecclesiastical structures. The families of the faithful were organized into twenty-four parishes, led by priest-officials known as libationers, who performed a combination of civil and religious functions. An important part of the libationers’ duties was their mediating between the parishioners and the various gods and spirits. They also kept household registers that were supposedly held by the gods of the celestial bureaucracy, who watched over each individual and recorded his or her misdeeds. ... [The] communication and supplication of the various celestial powers was supposed to go via proper bureaucratic channels, with a priest submitting a written petition to the appropriate celestial bureaucrat in the same manner as a government official would present a memorial to the court. The whole Celestial Masters movement was permeated with a bureaucratic outlook that extended to the terrestrial and celestial realms, which became a prominent feature of Daoism and popular religion. [ICR, 72-4]
Another comparable group in eastern China was the Yellow Turbans, whose name came from the symbolic headscarves worn by its followers (yellow being the color associated with earth and the Yellow Emperor). ... Their main aim was to usher a sociopolitical utopia characterized by peace, stability, truthfulness, and harmony, a new age called Great Peace (Taiping). ... [The] movement was destroyed by the Han military in 184, after it staged an unsuccessful uprising against the reigning dynasty with intent to overthrow it and bring about the new reign of Great Peace. [ICR, 72-3]

Under [Zhang Daoling’s grandson, Zhang Lu], the Celestial Masters rose to greater prominence, notably through merging with another local cult run by Zhang Xiu (not a relation). This cult utilized a more stringent military-type organization and practiced a formal ritual of confession and petition — both characteristics that were to become typical of the Celestial Masters in general. ... From what information we have it appears that the followers of the Celestial Masters were hierarchically ranked on the basis of ritual attainments, with the so-called libationers (jijiu) at the top. They served as leaders of the twenty-four districts and reported directly to the Celestial Master himself. Beneath them were the demon soldiers (guizi), meritorious leaders of householders who represented smaller units in the organization. All leadership positions could be filled by either men or women, Han Chinese or ethnic minorities. At the bottom were the common followers, again organized and counted according to households. Each of these had to pay the rice tax or its equivalent in silk, paper, brushes, ceramics, or handicrafts. In addition, each member, from children on up, underwent formal initiations at regular intervals and was equipped with a list of spirit generals for protection against demons — 75 for an unmarried person and 150 for a married couple. The list of spirit generals was called a register (lu) and was carried, together with protective talismans, in a piece of silk around the waist. [Daoism and Chinese Culture, 70-1]

Doctrines & Practices
In terms of doctrines and practices, the Celestial Masters believed in Dao as the center of creation, which was represented by the personal creator god Lord Lao, who appeared to special seekers (and virtuous rulers) as the need arose. ... The belief was that he created and ruled the universe, assisted in this task by a celestial administration which kept records of life and death, and consisted of the Three Bureaus (sanguan) of Heaven, Earth, and Water. ... Throughout the year, followers practiced the recitation of Laozi’s Daodejing and were encouraged to follow a set of three times nine precepts based on it. These survive in a later text associated with the Xiang’er commentary [on the Daodejing], and are:
The Basic Nine Precepts
Do not strongly pursue riches and honor if you happen to be poor and humble.
Do not do evil.
Do not set yourself many taboos and avoidances.
Do not pray or sacrifice to demons or the spirits of the dead.
Do not strongly oppose anyone.
Do not consider yourself always right.
Do not quarrel with others over what is right and wrong;
if you get into a debate, be the first to concede.
Do not praise yourself as a sage of great fame.
Do not take delight in soldiering.
The Middle Nine Precepts
Do not study false texts.
Do not covet high glory or vigorously strive for it.
Do not pursue fame and praise.
Do not do things pleasurable to ears, eyes, or mouth.
Always remain modest and humble.
Do not engage in frivolous undertakings.
Always be devout in religious services, of respectful mind and without confusion.
Do not indulge yourself with fancy garb or tasty food.
Do not overextend yourself.
The Highest Nine Precepts
Do not delight in excess, since joy is as harmful as anger.
Do not waste your essence or qi.
Do not harm the dominant qi.
Do not eat beings that contain blood to delight in their fancy taste.
Do not hanker after merit and fame.
Do not explain the teaching or name Dao to outsiders.
Do not neglect the divine law or Dao.
Do not try to set things in motion.
Do not kill or speak about killing. [
Daoism and Chinese Culture, 72-3]
  • Are these precepts consistent with the principles of “early Daoism” found in texts such as Zhuangzi and the Daodejing?
Aside from living morally and harmonizing yin and yang, the early communal Daoists joined popular believers of the time in that they were very concerned with the impact of demons on their lives. ...
If ... someone was attacked by a demon, they would suffer sickness and disease. Moreover, such an attack could occur only because the person had been careless and had a moral failing. As a result, all healing of the Celestial Masters was undertaken through ritual and magic; acupuncture, herbs, and other medical treatments were expressly prohibited. First the sick person was isolated in a so-called quiet chamber (jingshi), an adaptation of a Han institution for punishing wayward officials involving solitary confinement. There they had to think of their sins going all the way back to their birth to try and find an explanation for the illness. Once certain sins had been identified, a senior master would come to write them down — in triplicate and together with a formal petition for their eradication from the person’s divine record. The three copies would then, in a formal ceremony, be transmitted to Heaven (by burning), Earth (by burying), and Water (by casting into a river), whose officials supposedly set the record straight and restore the person’s good health. Additional measures of purification involved the ingestion of “talisman water” — the ashes of a talisman dissolved in water (fushui) — gymnastic exercises (daoyin), and meditations (jingsi). [Daoism and Chinese Culture, 74-5]

During the 364-370 period a medium called Yang Xi (330-386) reportedly received a series of divine revelations, which became foundations for a new school of Daoism. The divinities, said to have appeared to Yang at night, were members of a celestial class of beings superior to the legendary immortals of earlier Daoist lore. They were new-fangled celestial spirits or “perfected” beings (zhengren) that descended from a high heaven named Supreme Clarity (Shangqing, also known as Highest Clarity or Highest Purity). That became the name for the whole corpus of revealed scriptures and the school of Daoism that grew around them. ... [The] new movement initially grew within a fairly narrow social milieu constituted by elite southern families. While proud of their illustrious ancestry, at the time these families felt marginalized by the recent arrival of emigrants within [sic] elite backgrounds from the North, who moved south together with the imperial court of the Jin dynasty after the fall of its capital to foreign invaders in 316 CE.
       As the northerners established their political control in the South, they also set up their own cultural traditions and religious institutions. That included Celestial Masters Daoism, which initiated a program of suppression of local religious movements. The initial rise of the Shangqing tradition can be seen as a particular mode of Southern response to the loss of sociopolitical power and the encroachment of alien culture. ... Notwithstanding claims made regarding the newness of the revelations, the Shangqing scriptures did not represent a revolutionary break from preceding Daoist traditions. Basically they incorporated a range of teachings and practices derived from the major strands of Daoism that existed at the time. That included doctrines and techniques associated with seekers of immortality such as Ge Hong [287-347], although with a changed emphasis, as external (laboratory) alchemy was deemphasized at the expense of contemplative practices or reinterpreted in a metaphorical manner. There were also substantial borrowings from Celestial Masters Daoism and popular religion. There were even traces of Buddhist influences, which are indicative of the growing clout of the foreign religion. ...
By rearranging and modifying the constituent parts of medieval Daoism, the Shangqing school presented a fresh approach to spiritual cultivation, marked by an overriding concern with exploration of the inner world. Communal observances and rituals largely gave way to contemplative practices and visualizations performed by individual adepts, preferably in the solitude of mountains of in meditation chambers. The interior practices described in the text of the Shangqing corpus supposedly mirrored those performed by the perfected beings, who as a result of their spiritual cultivation acquired sublime bodies and came to reside in rarefied celestial abodes. The meditative visualizations (often accompanied with invocations) engaged the Daoist adepts’ faculties of religious imagination and mental pliability. They involved the conjuring up of eidetic images of various gods and divinities, including those that reside within the body and control its functions. ... The ultimate goal of salvation entailed removal of all boundaries between the individual and the universe, as the adept’s inward journey culminated in his/her coalescing with ultimate reality. [ICR, 84-6]
Within a few decades after the advent of the Shangqing scriptures, around 400 CE, a new corpus of Daoist texts appeared in southern China. Declared to be divine revelations and collectively known as the Lingbao (Numinous Treasure) scriptures, these disparate texts initially surfaced in the vicinity of Nanjing. ... In these texts we find a noticeable shift in attitudes and priorities: a move away from the elitist concerns with interior exploration typical of the Shangqing revelations, which are largely replaced with a focus on communally-oriented, liturgical forms of worship. These ritualistic features are somewhat analogous to the ceremonial practices of the Celestial Masters, which had broad appeal and resonated with the religious needs and predilections of wider audiences. ... Although subsequently it was largely overshadowed by the Shangqing school, the Lingbao school continued to occupy an important position within Daoism. Its elaborations and codifications of Daoist liturgy were especially significant, as they became the predominant liturgical frameworks and ritual templates for the whole of Daoism. 
The main element of the Lingbao school’s liturgical program was the communal recitation of sacred texts, which to this day remains a focal aspect of Daoist practice. Central to the ritual observances were intricate purificatory rites (zhai), of which there were nine main categories. Together with the “offerings” rites (jiao), sometimes also referred to as “rituals of cosmic renewal,” these rites form the two main categories of Daoist ritual. Staged in carefully designated sacred space that contained a central altar, the rites involved public confession of past transgressions, as well as communal chants, prayers, and petitions directed towards the heavenly realms and the gods that reside there. [ICR, 87-8]