...to the Way of the Celestial Masters
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. (ICR, 72)
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
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)
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)
Go up to Heaven to speak of (the family's) good deeds
Come down to earth to bestow on us good fortune
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.
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. ...
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)
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.
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)
Zhengyi & Quanzhen
the beginning of the Tang dynasty in 618, the term ‘Celestial Master’
had lost the potency it had in earlier movements such as the Five Pecks of Rice,
and any prominent Daoist could be accorded the title. Emperor Xuanzong
(712-756) canonized the first Celestial Master Zhang Daoling during his
reign. This did not benefit the original territory of his followers in
Sichuan, but rather benefited a temple in the Jiangnan area of Jiangxi
province. This temple, located at Mount Longhu, claimed to be the spot
where Zhang Daoling had obtained the Tao, and where his descendants
still lived. Recognized by the emperor as the legitimate descendants of
Zhang Daoling, these new Celestial Masters established a new patriarchy
at their base of Longhu Shan.
|From Ming times on, Daoism comprised two main schools: that
of the Zhengyi Heavenly Masters, passed on hereditarily since the Han
dynasty in the second century AD, and that of the School of Total
Perfection (Quanzhen). The former fostered local communities and temple
organizations and provided them with their liturgical framework and
ritual specialists, while the latter was based, on the Buddhist model,
in monastic communities. (“Daoism in China Today, 1980-2002”)
The importance of the Zhengyi school grew during
the Song dynasty, with the Celestial masters frequently receiving
imperial appointments. In 1239, the Southern Song dynasty’s Emperor Lizong commanded the 35th Celestial Master Zhang Keda to [unite the] Lingbao School, the Shangqing School
and Zhengyi Dao. The new school was to retain the Zhengyi name and
remain based at Mount Longhu. Shortly after the schools were united, the
Mongols under Kublai Khan conquered the Southern Song dynasty and established the Yuan dynasty
in China. He accepted the claim that the Celestial Master of Mount
Longhu was descended from Zhang Daoling and granted the school the right
to control affairs relating to Daoism in the Jiangnan area. In 1304, as
a result of Zhengyi Dao’s increased importance under the Mongols, all
of the Daoist schools, with the exception of the Quanzhen School, were united under the banner of the Zhengyi School, with the 38th Celestial Master, Zhang Yucai, as leader. (Wikipedia/Zhengyi Dao)
Two Temples in Hong Kong