Sima Chengzhen

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SIMA CHENGZHEN (647735; adult style, Ziwei; name in religion, Daoyin) was an eminent court Daoist and Shangqing patriarch of the Tang period (618907). A native of Wen County in modern Henan province, Sima Chengzhen was a descendant of the Sima ruling family of the Jin dynasty (265420) and of high regional officials under the Sui (581618) and early Tang. Sima Chengzhen received his Daoist initiation from the Shangqing patriarch Pan Shizheng (587684) at Mount Songshan, the Central Peak, in Henan. Pan, a counselor on Daoist doctrine to Emperor Gaozong (r. 650684), transmitted to Sima the inspired fourth-century writings of the Shangqing scriptural corpus, as well as meditational and physiological techniques practiced by that movement. Sima Chengzhen succeeded his master as the twelfth patriarch of the Shangqing lineage. After a period of wandering, he lived in seclusion on Mount Tiantai in Zhejiang, where he assumed the epithet Boyun zi, Master White Cloud.

Sima Chengzhen was successively summoned to the court by three sovereigns: the empress Wu Zetian (r. 684704) and the emperors Ruizong (r. 710712) and Xuanzong (r. 712756). Ruizong, who engaged in discussions on cosmology and governance with the Daoist, in 711 founded the temple Tongbo guan for Sima Chengzhen near the master's earlier retreat on Mount Tiantai. Among Sima's surviving writings is a richly illustrated hagiography of Wangzi Jin, the resident saint of the Tongbo temple site, titled Shangqing shi dichen Tongbo zhenren zhen tuzan (Daozang 612). Responding to Emperor Xuanzong's invitation in 721, Sima once again undertook the journey to the capital Chang'an. The patriarch conferred a Daoist ordination on the emperor and was in turn granted numerous honors and court titles. Xuanzong adopted Sima's counsel regarding the reform of China's principle mountain cults and commissioned the Daoist, a renowned calligrapher, to establish a standard text of Laozi's classic "The Way and Its Power" (Dao de jing ) to be engraved in stone. Sima also presented Xuanzong with designs for Daoist swords and mirrors, of which an illustrated description has come down in the Shangqing hanxiang jianjian tu (Daozang 431). Xuanzong finally ordered the construction of a new temple as a retreat for Sima. It was situated on Mount Wangwu, on the border between Shanxi and Henan provinces, where the emperor's sister Princess Yuzhen, an ordained Daoist nun, was also active. According to the commemorative inscription Tang Wangwu shan Zhongyan tai Zhengyi [read Zhenyi ] xiansheng miaojie (Daozang 970), Sima Chengzhen settled on Mount Wangwu in 724 and died there in 735. His posthumous title, bestowed by Emperor Xuanzong, was Master Zhenyi. Among his more than seventy disciples were Li Hanguang (683769), the thirteenth Shangqing patriarch, and Xue Jichang (d. 759), who became a prominent master of the Southern Peak (Mount Heng in Hunan) and Tiantai (Zhejiang) lineages.

Although the subject of continuous official attentions, Sima was drawn to a life of seclusion. His best-known works are concerned with Shangqing methods of personal cultivation and meditation, elucidating the Daoist stages of transcendence. The meditation guide "On Sitting in Forgetfulness" (Zuowang lun [Daozang 1036]), attributed to Sima Chengzhen, outlines a program in seven steps identified as faith, detachment, renunciation through mental concentration, stoicism, discernment, oblivion, and finally, attainment of the Dao. The title of this guide features again as one of five stages (purification, seclusion, contemplation, sitting in forgetfulness, liberation) in "The Master Concealed in Heaven" (Tianyin zi [Daozang 1026]), commentated by Sima Chengzhen. Sima's program and precepts for adepts affirm that the goals of deliverance and physical immortality were attainable through sheer application. This belief was famously advocated by Sima's younger Daoist contemporary, Wu Yun (d. 778), who has also been credited with a work titled "Sitting in Forgetfulness." Sima's essay on "The Quintessence of Swallowing Breath" (Fuqi jingyi lun [Daozang 830]) discusses the absorption of qi -energy, dietary regimens, and physical exercises for prolonging life and curing diseases.

Highly appreciated by leading literati and statesmen of his time, including Zhang Yue (667731), Sima contributed to the esteem in which Shangqing writings were held in literary circles under the Tang. In addition to ancient Daoist concepts of meditation (especially in the Zhuangzi ), Sima's teachings on purification, quietude, and the universal attainability of transcendence assimilated doctrines current in Confucianism and Buddhism on the subject of inborn human nature, the rectification of an individual's moral purpose, and mental discipline and tranquility. In these areas, Sima Chengzhen in turn exercised an influence on the subsequent development of Daoist inner alchemy and neo-Confucian thought and practices under the Song (9601279).

See Also

Daoism, article on The Daoist Religious Community.


Engelhardt, Ute. Die klassische Tradition der Qi-Übungen (Qigong). Eine Darstellung anhand des Tang-zeitlichen Textes Fuqi jingyi lun von Sima Chengzhen. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1987.

Kohn, Livia. Seven Steps to the Tao: Sima Chengzhen's Zuowanglun. Nettetal, Germany, 1987.

Kohn, Livia. "The teaching of T'ien-yin-tzu. " Journal of Chinese Religions 15 (1987): 128.

Kroll, Paul W. "Szu-ma Ch'eng-chen in T'ang verse." Society for the Study of Chinese Religion Bulletin 6 (1978): 1630.

Xu Kangsheng. "Lüelun Sima Chengzhen de daojiao sixiang." In Daojia yu daojiao: di er jie guoji xueshu yantao hui lunwen, vol. 2, edited by Chen Guying and Feng Dawen, pp. 254263. Quangzhou, People's Republic of China, 2001.

Franciscus Verellen (2005)