Priesthood: Daoist Priesthood

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The Daoist priesthood began with the establishment of the first organized Daoist community among the Celestial Masters in the second century ce. The sources suggest that all followers were hierarchically ranked on the basis of ritual attainments, with the so-called libationers (jijiu ) at the top of the priesthood. They served as leaders of the twenty-four districts and reported directly to the Celestial Master himself. Beneath them were the demon soldiers (guizu ), meritorious leaders of households 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 demons75 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.

The world of the Celestial Masters was created by the Dao in its personification as the Highest Lord Lao (Taishang Laojun) and governed by the Three Bureaus (san guan ) of Heaven, Earth, and Water. Led by the senior priests, these three were celebrated at the major festivals of the year, known as the Three Primes (sanyuan ), held on the fifteenth day of the first, seventh, and tenth months. They were also the occasion of general assemblies and tax management: in the first month, the tax was set according to the number of people in the household; in the seventh and tenth months, it was collected as the harvest was brought in.

Beyond that, the priests throughout the year practiced the recitation of Laozi's Dao de jing and were encouraged to follow a set of three-times-nine precepts based on it, which survives in a later text associated with the Xiang'er commentary. The precepts emphasize austerity and moral discipline and instill a sense of being special and separate from ordinary folk in the community leaders. Some scholars suspect that both the mantric, magic recitation of the Dao de jing and the impulse to develop a formal priesthood were inspired by Buddhist monks. The monks first appeared in China around this time and may well have had contact with the new religious groups, but the issue remains unresolved.

This changed with the fourth-century code Laojun yibai bashi jie (The 180 precepts of Lord Lao), which was definitely inspired by early Buddhist community rules known as the prātimoka. Directed at the higher priests of the religion, it provides many detailed rules on practical living and emphasizes personal honesty and community life. The text strongly prohibits theft, adultery, killing, abortion, intoxication, destruction of natural resources, and waste of food, and regulates the proper behavior toward community members and outsiders. It prohibits fraternization with brigands and soldiers, punishes cruelty to slaves and animals, and insists upon polite distance when encountering outsiders and officials. Many details of daily life are regulated, and pettiness and rudeness are discouraged as much as the accumulation of personal wealth.

While ordinary life was governed by discipline and simplicity, the Three Primes and other major community events were celebrated in style with banquets known as kitchen-feasts (chu ). Wine would flow, animals were slaughtered, and everyone had a good time, leading certain critics of the movement to condemn their practices as "orgiastic." The same criticism was made of an initiatory practice known as the "harmonization of qi" (heqi), which involved formally choreographed intercourse between selected nonmarried couples in an elaborate ritual. Practitioners underwent this rite when they were promoted from one level of ritual standing to another (and gained more generals in their registers), enacting the matching of yin and yang in their bodies and thus contributing to greater cosmic harmony.

A reform movement in the fifth century, led by the so-called New Celestial Master Kou Qianzhi (365448), brought the Daoist priesthood into the imperial government. Having received several revelations from Lord Lao in 415 and 423, Kou set up a system of religious activity based on longevity techniques and bolstered by a set of thirty-six community rules as handed down by the deity. In due course he became the head of a state-sponsored Daoism, geared to bring peace and harmony to the northern Toba Wei empire. This involved setting himself up in a palace cum monastery in the capital together with key followers and administrators said to have numbered 120, and establishing Daoist institutionstemples, priests, moral rules, and ritualsthrough-out the country.

As described in the Laojun yinsong xinke jiejing (Scripture of Lord Lao's new code of precepts chanted to the Clouds Melody ), the surviving remnant of Kou's instructions, all people had to be loyal to the ruler, obedient to their parents and elders, and subservient to the Dao. To express their proper attitude, they had to observe daily, monthly, and special festival rites throughout the year. Such festivals were led by lay priests working throughout the empire and could last three, five, or seven days. As among the Celestial Masters of old, they involved community assemblies and formal kitchen-feasts. Daily and monthly rites were performed by the priests through a series of bows and prostrations, as well as by the burning of incense and offering of a prayer or petition. Strictly forbidden were popular practices such as shamanic séances and blood sacrifices, as well as traditional Celestial Masters rites of sexual initiation.

In the sixth century, under the political urge to unify the country, the Daoist religion too strove for integration and unity. As a result, a comprehensive system was created, the so-called Three Caverns (sandong ). Originally a bibliographic classification by the fifth-century master Lu Xiujing (406477), this was influenced by the Buddhist notion of the three vehicles (triyāna ) and included the three major schools at the time, Highest Clarity (Shangqing), Numinous Treasure (Lingbao), and Three Sovereigns (Sanhuang), with the Celestial Masters placed at the foundation of the entire pyramidnot counted as one of the Three Caverns, yet essential to them all.

Based on this scheme, Daoist texts were arranged into three main categories, each school associated with a special "Cavern" and a "Supplement." The latter contained technical and hagiographic materials and served as a home for texts of nonmainstream schools. The overall system, still used in the Daoist canon today, is as follows:

Cavern School Supplement
Perfection (Dongzhen)ShangqingGreat Mystery (Taixuan)
Mystery (Dongxuan)LingbaoGreat Peace (Taiping)
Spirit (Dongshen)SanhuangGreat Clarity (Taiqing)
Orthodox Unity (Zhengyin)

In ritual practice, the system of the Three Caverns led to the establishment of a formal integrated priesthood and ordination hierarchy, first described in the Fengdao kejie (Rules and precepts for worshiping the Dao) of about the year 620. It consisted of a total of seven ranks:

School Rank
(Celestial Masters)
Register Disciple
(Great Mystery)
Disciple of Good Faith
(Cavern Abyss)
Disciple of Cavern Abyss
(Dao de jing )
Disciple of Eminent Mystery
(Three Sovereigns)
Disciple of Cavern Spirit
(Numinous Treasure)
Preceptor of Highest Mystery
(Highest Clarity)
Preceptor of Highest Perfection

The first three ranks were those of lay masters, while the last three were monastic, and the middle rank (Disciple of Eminent Mystery) signified a transitional stage that could be held either by a householder or a recluse.

Ordinations into these ranks began very early, with children being initiated first into the Celestial Masters level and receiving registers of protective generals. After that, each level required extended periods of training, the guidance of an ordination master, and several sponsors from the community. Ordination into any rank of the priesthood involved the transmission of precepts (jie ), scriptures (jing ), and ritual methods (fa ), as well as the endowment of the candidate with various cosmic writs and talismans. In return ordinands had to surrender completely to the Dao and make a pledge to the organization. This pledge involved the presentation of lavish gifts of gold, silk, and precious objects to the master and the institution, as well as the formal oath to follow the rules and work toward the goals of the religion. Higher ranks had as many as three hundred precepts, focusing on social behavior, interaction with community members, and forms of cosmic consciousness, but most ranks involved the observation of ten precepts first formulated by the Lingbao school. These ten consist of five prohibitions, imitating the five precepts of Buddhism, and five resolutions that reflect Daoist priorities. They are:

  1. Do not kill, but be always considerate to all living beings.
  2. Do not commit immoral deeds or think depraved thoughts.
  3. Do not steal or receive unrighteous goods.
  4. Do not lie or misrepresent good and evil.
  5. Do not intoxicate yourself, but be always mindful of pure conduct.
  6. I will maintain harmony with my ancestors and kin and never do anything that harms my family.
  7. When I see someone do good, I will support him with joy and happiness in my heart.
  8. When I see someone unfortunate, I will help him with my strength to recover good fortune.
  9. When someone comes to do me harm, I will not harbor thoughts of revenge.
  10. As long as all beings have not attained Dao, I will not expect to do so myself.

(Fengdao kejie, chap. 6)

Ordinands were then equipped with the insignia of their new status: religious names, as well as the titles, robes, and headdresses appropriate for their new rank. To show their new affiliation, they would tie their hair into a topknot, unlike Buddhists who shaved theirs. Also unlike Buddhism, where nuns had to observe many more rules than monks and were given a lower status, women in Daoism were treated equally. They underwent the same ceremonies and wore the same garb as men, distinguished only by their elaborate headdress, the so-called female hat (nüguan ), a term also used for "Daoist priestess."

The complex structure of the Daoist priesthood as it developed in the middle ages and flourished during the Tang dynasty (618907 ce) collapsed during the Tang-Song transition. Institutions ceased to function, lineages were interrupted, and ordinations were no longer held. Instead, individual seekers emerged, wandering from one sacred mountain to the next, connecting with isolated hermits, perchance finding a stash of old texts, or discovering certain efficacious techniques by trial and error. Occasionally they even secured the support of a local rulerwho was usually more interested in alchemical ways of making gold than in spiritual pursuitsand proceeded to reconstruct one or another temple center of old.

These practitioners had no financial cushion to fall back on, and thus had to find ways of serving communities for a fee so they could continue their quest. As a resultand coinciding fortuitously with the needs of the growing merchant classDaoists, in competition with wandering Buddhists, Tantric ritualists, and local shamans, began to offer practical rites of healing, exorcism, and protection. They issued spells and talismans for concrete goals, and undertook funerals and communication with ancestors to set people's minds at rest. Daoists of this type became very common in the Song and were known as ritual masters (fashi). They were at the roots of the new schools that soon developed. However, the ritual ranks remained haphazard.

A new orthodoxy only arose with the school of Complete Perfection (Quanzhen), which dates back to the twelfth century, and its founder Wang Chongyang (11121170), an official in the military administration of the Jurchen-Jin dynasty who became an eccentric hermit and had several revelatory encounters with Daoist immortals. Organizing his teaching, he left his ascetic life in 1167 and moved to Shandong in eastern China, where he preached his visions and began to win followers. He founded five religious communities, all located in northern Shandong, and continued to spread his teaching until his death in 1170.

His work was continued by seven disciples, six men and one woman, known collectively as the Seven Perfected (qizhen ), who founded various communities that later developed into separate branches or lineages (bai). The most important among these disciples is Qiu Chuji (11481227), better known as Master Changchun, the founder of the leading Longmen lineage, which is still the main Daoist organization in mainland China today.

The ordination system of the Complete Perfection priesthood was formalized in the seventeenth century under its leader Wang Kunyang (16221680), abbot of the Longmen branch's headquarters in Beijing, the Baiyun Guan (White Cloud Temple). In this role, he reorganized the religious precepts and ordination system of the school in accordance with neo-Confucian ethics as supported by the Qing court at the time. He outlined three major ranks, each associated with specific sets of precepts, considered an indispensable means to enlightenment and an important element in the education of the Daoist clergy. The three ranks and major precepts texts were:

Master of Wondrous Practice (Miao xingshi)Precepts of Initial Perfection (Chu zhenjie )

Master of Wondrous Virtue (Miao deshi)Precepts of Medium Ultimate (Zhongjie jie )

Master of Wondrous Dao (Miao daoshi)Great Precepts for Celestial Immortals (Tianxian dajie )

Ordination into these ranks involved, as in the earlier, medieval model, the presence of several masters as well as witnesses. Like their Tang predecessors, ordinands of Complete Perfection would take refuge in the Dao, the scriptures, and the masters, provide pledges to the institution, and take formal vows. Unlike their earlier counterparts, they would then live a strictly controlled monastic life with a strong emphasis on discipline and ascetic practices. They would, however, also function as priests, tending to local temples and performing rituals for the public. There is also an order of nuns in Complete Perfection with similar ranks as for monks, but the tendency is that they function mainly in a monastic setting and less as priests for the general public. However, nuns can also be quite influential in the organization and reach high rank as abbots and teachers.

The monastic-based priests of Complete Perfection are the dominant form the Daoist priesthood takes in mainland China today. They are more common than the lay-based priesthood of the Celestial Masters, which has survived from the very beginning of the religion and is today the main form of Daoist organization in Taiwan, with a growing impact in southeast China. These lay priestswho are all maleare specialists in the service of the communal religion. Called Daoists (daoshi), they share responsibilities also with mediums or "divining lads" (jitong) and exorcists or "ritual masters" (fashi). All three serve to bring the power of the gods to bear on local problems. What distinguishes them is basically the number of gods whose power they can bring to bearthe medium is the mouthpiece of a single local god; the exorcist is familiar with all the local gods; and the Daoist knows how to invite the gods of the entire universe.

The medium is someone who simply "lends his body to the gods." The exorcist is the medium's master, because his technical knowledge of the system of forces that ordinary people refer to as "gods" and "ghosts" enables him to direct the medium's trance to a useful end. The Daoist is completely self-possessed: the forces he uses in the war against evil are not those of a medium but his own. His chief function is that of a civil official in the celestial administration, in the court of the Dao. By means of formal rituals, accompanied by visualizations, he transforms his own body into the body of the Dao and conducts things back to their original purity and primordial state. His rituals are accordingly complex scenarios for the symbolization of the process and combine all the various arts: painting, music, song, dance, gesture, recitation, and visualization.

Lay Daoist priests are trained carefully and often come from generations of Daoist families. A typical priest usually grows up surrounded by all the arts of Daoist ritual and inherits a veritable family treasure of texts and traditions. In addition, he often completes what he has learned from his father by studying with one of his father's colleagues. The rituals he performs divide into two major categories, offerings (jiao ) for the renewal and enhancement of the living, and rituals of merit or requiem services (gongde ) for saving the dead from the punishments of hell, but he also engages in internal cultivation practices, refinement of his qi or vital energy, and the concentrated visualization of otherworldly forces.

The Daoist priesthood has been limited to China until very recently. Besides several Daoist scholars who trained in Taiwan and became fully ordained, there is now also an American branch of the Celestial Masters, called Orthodox Daoism of America. Its leader, Liu Ming, was originally Charles Belyea from Boston. Training in Taiwan, he attained high Daoist rank and was formally adopted into the Liu family, which claims a 2,000-year history of Daoist practice and works with scriptures that have only partially made it into official collectionsundertaken by the Complete Perfection school in the Ming dynasty. Liu Ming is passing the teaching on to Western students along with Chinese, and he helps create a new dimension of the age-old priestly organization of Daoism.

See Also

Daoism, overview article; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Daoist Devotional Life; Zhenren.


Benn, Charles D. "Daoist Ordination and Zhai Rituals." In Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn, pp. 309338. Leiden, 2000. A brilliant, well-researched survey of the medieval ordination system.

Davis, Edward L. Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu, 2001. An exemplary study of the role of Daoist priests and their interaction with mediums and exorcists in the Song dynasty.

Despeux, Catherine, and Livia Kohn. Women in Daoism. Cambridge, Mass., 2003. A detailed survey of the different roles, functions, and practices of women in the Daoist tradition, including chapters on ancient immortals, medieval priestesses, and abbots of Complete Perfection.

Hendrischke, Barbara, and Benjamin Penny. "The 180 Precepts Spoken by Lord Lao: A Translation and Textual Study." Taoist Resources 6, no. 2 (1996): 1729. A good analysis of the priestly rules of the early Celestial Masters.

Kleeman, Terry. Great Perfection: Religion and Ethnicity in a Chinese Millenarian Kingdom. Honolulu, 1998. An outline and historical description of the organization of the early Celestial Masters.

Kohn, Livia. "Monastic Rules in Quanzhen Daoism: As Collected by Heinrich Hackmann." Monumenta Serica 51 (2003): 367397. A discussion of the monastic organization of Complete Perfection.

Kohn, Livia. The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao kejie. New York, 2004. A translation of the main source for ordination ranks and priestly behavior in medieval China.

Kohn, Livia. Cosmos and Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Cambridge, Mass., 2004. A study of Daoist precepts and ordination patterns through the ages, with translations of multiple documents.

Lagerwey, John. Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History. New York, 1987. A detailed analysis of the activities and ritual practices of Celestial Masters priests in contemporary Taiwan.

Schipper, Kristofer M. "Taoist Ordination Ranks in the Tunhuang Manuscripts." In Religion und Philosophie in Ostasien: Festschrift für Hans Steininger, edited by Gert Naundorf, Karl-Heinz Pohl, and Hans-Hermann Schmidt, pp. 127148. Würzburg, Germany, 1985. A study of Tang-dynasty manuscripts that describe ordination ranks and practices.

John Lagerwey (1987)

Livia Kohn (2005)

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