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Religion Library: Taoism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Julia Hardy

Another set of shorter narrative poems from Chu with clear shamanic references is helpful in understanding the allusions of "Li sao."  Called the "Nine Songs," these poems may have been the texts of Chu ritual dramas.  In them, the eroticism of the relationship between human and deity is even more pronounced.  Lacking a strong political theme, the poems focus on a search for an intimate relationship with deity, and they detail various visionary encounters that occur, after which the seeker finds him or herself again alone and abandoned.

While there are many differences between the texts of the Taoist canon and these Chu poems, one can find within the canon many accounts of encounters with spirits, immortals, and gods.  Each set of scriptures revealed to the founders of the various sects of Taoist religion was said to have been given by an immortal or deity, in a visionary context.  Those of the Shangqing sect were particularly vivid descriptions of these encounters, and they were the foundation of the sect's emphasis on the individual's personal, visionary journey to the spirit world.

The Shangqing texts described the encounters of Yang Xi, who received the texts, with the "Perfected," or "True Ones," who declared themselves to be higher deities than those who had visited the Celestial Masters.  One section described the betrothal and spirit marriage between Yang Xi and one of the Perfected females.  It indicated that the sexual rites of the Celestial Masters were inferior to a pure relationship with spirit in which no vital energy is lost.  Erotic in its imagery, the text nonetheless emphasized that no base sexual acts would occur; the mixing of energies was a totally internal and purely alchemical process. 

This type of text set the stage for a tradition among the Taoshi: even when not celibate monks, they always abstain from intercourse for a period prior to presiding over ritual events.  It also reflects the long-standing Taoist notion that while sexuality may enhance vital energy, ejaculation or orgasm will weaken that energy and should be avoided.

Not all Taoist texts are narratives, and not all Taoist visionary journeys are erotic.  However, through these particular narratives one can recognize an important thematic arc that began with an erotic relationship between a ruler (himself in some sense a shaman, certainly in Shang times) and his political servant, and ended with a marriage between a Taoshi and a deity.  The specific deities described in such texts were myriad; they could be either male or female; and the relationship almost always took place on a spiritual, rather than an earthly plane, and involved the transportation of the human participant to a spiritual realm. 


Study Questions:
1.    Should Laozi be named the founder of Taoism?
2.    What are the major themes present in Taoist scripture?
3.    What is the significance of the erotic undertone to Taoist scriptures?


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