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Worship and Devotional Life: Daoist Devotional Life


The Chinese have traditionally rendered a cult to a vast array of spiritual beings that includes, in addition to their own ancestors, great heroes of the past, spirits of place, and the souls of the unfortunate dead. Every geographical unit had its own god of the soil; every social grouping has its patron deity and temple. There were gods who judged the souls of the dead and gods who kept watch on the conduct of the living; there were gods of healing and gods who spread epidemics. Even the latrine, as a distinct place, had its guardian spirit.

Chinese popular religion is essentially concerned with the cultivation of the good graces of these spirits, most of whom are at once potentially harmful and potentially beneficial. Their cults represent alliances or covenants between the worshipers and the worshiped: in exchange for the protection and assistance of the spiritual potentate, the faithful render it a cult. It is a reciprocal relationship, with obligations on both sides. These features of the religion of the people also characterize state-sponsored religion from very early times, as may be seen in the third-century bce descriptions of the gods of the realms' mountains and rivers in the Shanhai jing (Classic of mountains and seas): sovereignty over a given territory required knowing the nature of the local gods and making the prescribed sacrifices to them.

Daoism, by contrast, is the cult of the Dao ("way"); it denies neither the existence of the gods nor the legitimacy of the cults rendered them. It simply accords them an insignificant place in the world of the Dao. "In a world governed according to the Way," says Laozi (fourth century bce), "spirits are impotent, or rather, it is not that they are impotent, but that they have no power to harm people."

Unlike the gods of the popular pantheon, the Dao "gives life yet lays no claim, is generous but exacts no gratitude" (Laozi 2); it "clothes and feeds the myriad creatures but does not lord it over them" (Laozi 34). The natural model for this "highest good" is water. "Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and collects in a place ordinary people despise, it comes close to the Way" (Laozi 8). "Greatly virtuous behavior," therefore, "consists in following the Way" (Laozi 21), and the Daoist is simply one who, because he "acts in accord with the Dao, is like the Dao" (Laozi 23).

A book of philosophical maxims, the Laozi says nothing of the practices that most probably lie behind Laozi's principles. Recent studies of hitherto neglected texts, such as the Neiye ("inward training"), said to date to about the same time as the Laozi, have helped to fill this gap by showing that meditation practices were already highly developed at that time. The discovery in tombs dating to the early imperial period (early second century bce) of medical texts and texts of macrobiotic hygiene has also opened up new perspectives on what some now call "proto-Daoism." These new sources show that the human body was already then understood as a kind of microcosm, subject to the same rules of order and disorder as the macrocosm. In both worlds, the normal circulation of qi (breath, vapor, energy) was seen as essential to health, and techniques were therefore proposed for ensuring and improving this circulation. Prominent among these techniques were breath and sexual cultivation.

The Liexian zhuan (Biographies of the immortals), a second-century collection of seventy hagiographic sketches, gives a good idea both of the range of these practices and of their social function. All the practices focus on the human body, which is conceived of as a kind of "energy bank" whose original capital can either be spentthe result is deathor "nourished" and so augmented until one obtains immortality. Adepts "nourished their energy" (yang qi ) with a great variety of natural products thought to be particularly potent. The most remarkable of these products is without doubt the "essence of the mysterious female," obtained by means of the "arts of the bedroom." But most of the products were of either a plant or mineral variety: roots, thistles, chrysanthemums, pine seeds, mica, and cinnabar are among those mentioned. Inasmuch as most of these products could be found only by patient searching in uninhabited regions, the future immortals (xian ) appear as solitary individuals who, having learned the techniques of searching and use from a master, disappear into the mountainous wilds or the "Far West" and are never seen again. But some return on occasion to cure people or save them from a natural disaster.

One Cui Wen Zi, for example, after having lived for a long time in obscurity at the foot of Mount Taialso called the Eastern Peak and considered to be the dwelling place of the souls of the deadreturns one day to human society to sell his "yellow potions and red pills." When later a great epidemic breaks out and the deaths number in the tens of thousands, the civil authorities come to Cui begging him to save the people. Carrying a red banner in one hand and his yellow potion in the other, Cui goes from house to house, and all who drink his potion are saved.

Cui later goes off to Sichuan in western China to sell his pills. Although no cult is established in his honor, many of the immortals do become cult objects. Huang Yuanqui, a Daoist (daoshi ) who descends occasionally from his mountain to sell drugs, comes to be worshiped because he saves the local people from an earthquake by giving them advance warning of its imminence. A female Daoist (daoren ) by the name of Changrong likewise becomes the object of a cult when, over a period of two hundred years, she wins fame by giving away to widows and orphans all the money she makes selling a special plant from her mountain as a dye. Another mountain-dwelling Daoist first appears to give one Shantu a recipe or an herbal drug that not only heals his wounds but also completely satisfies his hunger. When Shantu returns to become his disciple, the Daoist reveals himself to be an "angel of the Five Peaks," that is, one of the divine messengers of the five sacred mountains of China.

Heavenly Master Daoism

If most of the immortals of the Biographies were hermits of the distant past, the second century ce also witnessed the appearance of the first mass movements in Daoism. The most important proved to be that of the Way of the Heavenly Masters (Tianshi dao ), which has survived to the present. Sometime in the middle of the second centurythe traditional date is 142 ceZhang Daoling, on the basis of a revelation received from the Most High Lord Lao (the religious title of the philosopher Laozi), founded a "church" composed of twenty-four "governances" (zhi ). The twenty-four governances on earth corresponded to twenty-four energies in heaven, and the term therefore implied that the world of the Heavenly Masters was "governed" according to the same principles as heaven.

Behind this program for an orderly world lay a detailed cosmology. The Dao was conceived of as a giant body containing three pure energies in a chaotic state. Over time, these energies separated out to form a three-layered universe composed of the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth. Each of these three layers spread out to the "eight confines," that is, the four directions plus the four corners. The twenty-four governances are the replica of these twenty-four regions of the universe; both are expressions of the twenty-four celestial energies, each of which is dominant in turn for fifteen days each year: 24 × 15 = 360.

The new religion was called the zhengyi mengwei dao ("way of the alliance of the orthodox one with the gods"). The Orthodox One was the "unique energy" of Lord Laohis revelationcommunicated to Zhang Daoling. The gods were taken over from the popular pantheon, but they included only the gods who assisted in governing the universe, that is, the gods of the hearth and of the soil, who reported at regular intervals to heaven on the conduct of the family or the community of which they had charge. In addition, there were the Four Generals, who "hold the year-star in place," that is, regulate time, and the Three Officers, who control the Three Realms of heaven, earth, and the waters. Explicitly excluded from this pantheon were the souls of the dead, which played so large a part in popular religion. They were considered "stale energies" that needed to be recycled, and whose worship, as it retarded their recycling and so contravened the natural order, could only cause harm to the living.

The Three Officers were particularly important because they were cosmic inspector gods. It was to them that ill adepts had therefore to address documents of confession, for all illness was considered to be the result of sin. Each of the Three Officers governed a portion of time, as well as a portion of space. Every year, at the beginning of their respective reigns, assemblies of the gods were held to bring the registers of merit and demerit of all beings up to date. On those days, called the days of the Three Assemblies, the Daoist faithful gathered for communal rituals and meals called zhai or chu. The word chu means "kitchen" and therefore refers primarily to the communal meal. The word zhai came to mean "vegetarian meal," in part because Daoist meals did not involve animal sacrifices like the meals associated with popular cults; however, its basic meaning is "to equalize," in the sense of "to compose oneself" in preparation for an important encounter, especially with the gods. The term "merit meals" was also used because, as with the meals in the popular cults, the food eaten was first offered to the gods. It was thus consecrated food that brought merit and blessing to its partaker.

The days of the Three Assemblies were also the occasions for bringing the registers of the faithful up to date. This was the job of the jijiu (libationers), as the heads, male or female, of the twenty-four governances were called. Everyone in his or her governance, layperson or priest, had a register that corresponded to his or her level of initiation. The texts concerning these registers are unfortunately late (sixth to eighth century) and contradictory, but we can deduce from them that the faithful were organized in a military hierarchy, conceived, no doubt, on the model of the heavenly host that was holding its assembly at the same time.

According to some texts, the body of the Daothe universecontains a grand total of 36,000 energies. The bodies of earth dwellers, however, contain only half that number, and adepts must, therefore, learn how to recognize the energies within their bodies so as to "hold them in place" and attract their 18,000 celestial counterparts to come and "attach themselves" to them. This latter term indicates how Daoism borrowed the practices of popular cults and rationalized them by making them controlled techniques in the context of a complete cosmological system, because it is the same term used to describe the phenomenon of possessionthe god "attaches himself" to the mediumon which many popular cults are based.

The expedition of petitions was also a characteristic feature of Heavenly Master Daoism. One surviving collection lists the names of some three hundred such texts, together with the offerings that were to accompany them. The petitions are confessions of sin, statements of merit obtained by the performance of a given ritual, and prayers for children, for long life, and for deliverance from every imaginable kind of difficulty (drought, locusts, rats, tigers, sorcery, epidemics, etc.). The offerings invariably include rice, silk, money, incense, oil, and the paper, brushes, and ink needed to write the petition. The generic term for such offerings came to be jiao, a word that originally referred to the ceremonial offerings made in connection with a marriage or with male puberty rites. What distinguished such an offering from other offerings was that it was not performed "in response" to someone or "in exchange" for something. It was, in that sense, a gratuitous act, as opposed to an act of gratitude.

Jiao offerings of this kind remain to the present day the one truly distinguishing feature of Daoism in general. Nowadays, in addition to rice, they include tea, fruits, wine, precious objects, candles, even the texts used during the rituals. They are called "pure offerings" in order to distinguish them from the offerings of popular religion, which still include meat, either cooked or raw. These two different types of offering show better than anything else the real differences between the alliances of ordinary people with their gods and the Alliance of the Orthodox One with the Powers: ordinary alliances are "deals" between nonequals, and the offerings are often described quite frankly as "payoffs," such as one would make to a local hoodlum or mandarin. At the same time, such an alliance has nothing permanent about it: it can be broken by either of the contracting parties for "breach of contract."

The Alliance of the Orthodox One with the Powers, being based on the structure of the universe itself, cannot be broken; it can only be recognized. Ritual action that is in accord with this structure automatically brings a response of "merit," for like is attracted to like. Adherents of the Alliance, therefore, must transcend the expectations of reciprocity and mutual obligation that normally determine social and spiritual relations and take responsibility for their own destiny. They must learn to become, like a king, "solitary, single" (Laozi 42). All of this is expressed in the "pure offering," an offering that is pure because it includes no blood sacrifices, but also because it expresses the pure intentions of the participants in the offering. It is these pure intentions that will ineluctably attract to the participants the pure energies that bring fortune, health, and salvation. The jiao offering continues to celebrate, thus, both a marriage and a coming of age.

In addition to the vast range of rituals performed, either on the occasion of set feast days or at moments of crisis, Heavenly Master Daoism involved private practices. Recitation of sacred texts (of the Laozi in the first place, but also of rhymed verses describing the spirits inside the body) was one of them. By recitation, the adept assimilated the text and thereby gained mastery over the spirits described in it. Cycles of recitation imitated the gestational cycles in the body of the Dao, and mastery over the energies within attracted their counterparts without.

Great emphasis was also placed on moral behavior, and each step up in the hierarchy of registers brought with it an increase in the number of commandments to be observed (180 for libationers). The basic idea of these many commandments was to preserve and nourish the pure energies within rather than squandering them on the outside in the pursuit of pleasure. Because infractions of the commandments were thought to lead to illness, rituals of confession were from the very beginning a central part of the movement. In the "vegetarian vigils" (zhai) that became characteristic of Daoism from the mid-fifth century on, partly under Buddhist influence, litanies of confession came to play a major role in all Daoist liturgies.

Individual Practices

The rise of communal Daoism did not put an end to the kinds of individual practice alluded to in the Biographies of the Immortals. Beginning in the fifth century, individual eremetism gradually gave way to monastic communities called guan. The word means "to observe" or "to visualize"; it refers especially to the "inner vision." Such inner vision being the fruit of individual practice, the constitution of "hermitages" clearly did not put an end to the individual practice of the arts of immortality. These arts included techniques of visualization, breath control and circulation, gymnastics, special diets, intercourse, and alchemy. Early forms of external alchemy involved a fairly broad range of minerals and metals, with cinnabar and lead being central to the process. Later forms used lead and mercury. Internal alchemical methods ranged from the relatively empirical, scarcely distinguishable from the more ordinary techniques of breath circulation, to the extremely abstract and symbolic, virtually indistinguishable from traditional cosmological speculation. What these various techniques and recipes shared was a common symbolic and cosmological framework and the fact that they were transmitted from master to disciple in separate lineages.

Breathing techniques included purely internal methods such as embryonic breathing and circulating the energy while ceasing to breathe. Other methods involved the absorption of outside energies followed by the wedding of these energies to their internal counterparts. Such techniques were usually practiced at times determined by the system of symbolic correspondences. Absorption of the energies of the five directions, for example, was linked to the cycle of the sun, whereas that of the energies of the sun and the moon was linked to the phases of the moon. The adept was to inhale the energies of the four directions on the first and central days of the corresponding season (the "eight segmental days" [ba jie ri ] because they divided the year into eight equal segments) and those of the center on a day in the sixth month when the central element, earth, was dominant.

The adept who practiced the "method [dao ] of the absorption of the essences of the sun and the moon" did so on set days on each month: on days 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 15. At daybreak, according to the fourth-century Tai-shang lingbao wufu xu (Preface to the five symbols, potent treasure of the most high), the adept would face the sun, close his eyes, and visualize a small boy, dressed in red, inside his heart. He would massage himself with both hands from his face to his chest twelve times; then,

the yellow energies of the true red of the solar essence come before his eyes. They enter his mouth, and he swallows them eighteen times, sending them downward with a massaging movement. He prays, "Original Yang of the Solar Lord, join your power to mine so that together we may nourish the young boy in my Scarlet Palace." After a moment, he visualizes [the energies] going down to the crucible [dan tian, in the depths of the belly], where they stop. This leads to eternal life. (Taishang lingbao wufu xu 1.19a)

From very early times, imaginative visualization played a central role in the Daoist's search for transcendence. In the Laozi zhongjing (second century ce), for example, the adept learns to visualize a whole series of gods, from the Supreme Great One above his head to the spirit of his feet. Inside his body, at each of several levels and with constantly shifting names, he visualizes a kind of holy family composed of a Mother of the Dao and Father of the Dao, together with their infant Real Person. The resultant familiarity with the divine forces of his body becomes vital to survival during a three-day retreat at the time of the autumn equinox, when celestial gods come to inspect the human world: by "holding these forces in his mind's eye" (cun ), he prevents them from leaving his body. Having thus preserved all his own energies, the adept ultimately succeeds in attracting their celestial counterparts and thereby achieves immortality.

The visualizations in the eleventh-century Lingbao bifa are very different, focused not on individual gods but on metaphorical representations of the energies of the viscera that combine in an extraordinary variety of ways. After a first cycle of visualizations concentrated within the trunk of the body, a second cycle expands to include the head. In the third and final cycle the adept achieves complete unity of concentration and energy. This enables him to make, cautiously at first, journeys of the mind outside the body and, finally, complete liberation.

A similar process of interiorization occurs in the rituals of communal Daoism, partly as a result of Tantric influence. The esoteric aspects of rituals for presenting memorials, for examplethe hand gestures, the dance steps, the visualizationsbecome ever more important and complex. In extreme cases the external, written memorial disappears altogether. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the appearance, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, of rituals of "universal salvation" (pudu ) performed by individual laypeople in the quiet of their own meditation rooms. Down to the present day the ritual of universal salvation is normally the most public, not to say noisy, of all rituals.

It is probably also during the Song dynasty that communal Daoism of the kind described above died out. (It seems to have survived only among the Yao tribes of southern China, Thailand, and Laos into the twentieth century.) Lay initiation disappeared, and the priest became a ritual specialist serving a community that had by and large ceased to understand the nature of the rituals for which it still felt a need. The result was not only an increase of ritual secrecy and esoterism, but also a proliferation of rituals. (Urbanization and mercantilization of the economy were also factors in this.) One of the most interesting cases of a new ritual is that of the posthumous ordination of laymen. People became thereby in the next life what they had ceased to be in this life, members of a Daoist community. The religious affiliation of common people in this life tended now only to be with the temples and gods of the very popular religion Daoism had originally set out to combat and replace. Daoism was on its way to becoming what it is in modern times, the servant of the religion of the people, called on primarily to perform offerings that legitimize the gods of the people by showing them how the order of the Dao works, and integrating them thereby into that order.

See Also

Alchemy, article on Chinese Alchemy; Daoism, overview article; Jiao; Priesthood, article on Daoist Priesthood; Xian; Zhenren.


The best general introduction to religiousespecially Heavenly MasterDaoism is Kristofer Schipper's Le corps taoïste (Paris, 1982), translated as The Taoist Body by Karen Duval (Berkeley, 1993). On pre-imperial meditation techniques, see Harold D. Roth, Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism (New York, 1999). On early macrobiotic techniques of longevity, see Donald Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts (London and New York, 1998). On Daoist practice in the formative Six Dynasties period, see Stephen R. Bokenkamp with Peter Nickerson, Early Daoist Scriptures (Berkeley, 1997). On Daoist alchemy, see Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, pts. 3 and 4: Alchemy and Chemistry (Cambridge, U.K., 19761980), and Fabrizio Pregadio, "Elixirs and Alchemy," in Livia Kohn, ed., Daoism Handbook (Leiden, 2000), chap. 7, pp. 165195. On Maoshan practice, see Isabelle Robinet's Méditation taoïste (Paris, 1979), translated by Julian F. Pas and Norman J. Girardot as Taoist Meditation: The Mao-shan Tradition of Great Purity (Albany, N.Y., 1993). On symbolic alchemy, see Farzeen Baldrian Hussein, trans., Procédes secrets du joyau magique: Traité d'alchimie taoïste du XIe siècle (Paris, 1984). On the Laozi zhongjing, see John Lagerwey's "Deux écrits taoïstes anciens," in Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 14 (2003).

John Lagerwey (1987 and 2005)

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