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Religion Library: Taoism

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Julia Hardy

This was the first of several enduring Taoist religious organizations to emerge in China.  In the 4th century, an individual named Yang Xi purportedly began to receive visits from a number of different gods and spirits, including legendary immortals and local saints.  Over a period of six years they dictated a large number of texts to him.  The authenticity of these revelations was attested to by their literary quality and the elegant calligraphy in which they were written.  These texts were known as Shangqing, or Highest Purity.  They contained elements of Ge Hong's alchemical speculations, considerable borrowings from the Way of Celestial Masters, some elements from local traditions, and superficial aspects of Buddhism.

Originally a textual classification rather than a religious organization, Shangqing spread rapidly among the aristocracy, and claimed and won supremacy over the Way of the Celestial Masters.  In the 5th and 6th centuries, particularly under the leadership of Tao Hongjing (456-536), a great theoretician, historian, and bibliographer who collected and preserved all of Yang's writings, Shangqing was shaped into an organization with monasteries and community structures.  

What was unique about Shangqing practice was that herbs, elixirs, and bodily practices were replaced by an internal approach to the quest for immortality.  Practitioners served as their own priests, undertaking meditative and visionary journeys that led to physical transformation.  New deities were introduced who served as spiritual guides, nourishing adepts with their divine qi, and taking them on mystical travels to celestial kingdoms.

From 397 to 402 C.E., yet another set of sacred scriptures was revealed, to a descendent of the alchemist Ge Hong named Ge Chaofu.  Called Lingbao, or Sacred Jewel, these scriptures borrowed from the Way of the Celestial Masters and Ge Hong.  This was also the first Taoist scriptural tradition to incorporate significant elements from Buddhism.  The idea of universal salvation replaced immortality as a goal, and the texts contained poorly developed and inconsistent ideas about rebirth and the afterlife borrowed from Buddhism. 

The Lingbao scriptures gained popularity very quickly, and, as in the case of Shangqing, prompted the development of a religious organization.  Lingbao was particularly important in the history of Taoism for its role in establishing definitive forms of Taoist ritual that would eventually become the model for all of the Taoist sects.

In the 12th century a new Taoist sect was launched when a former military officer and practitioner of inner alchemy, Wang Chongyang (1113-1170), had a visionary encounter with the immortal Lu Dongbin and Lu's master, Zhongli Quan, in 1159.  This encounter and the texts that emerged from it became the foundation of the Quanzhen, or Complete Perfection sect.  Quanzhen actively sought new members, and grew quickly.  Its clergy traveled widely, spreading the word, and literature was used as a tool to gain new members.  The sect also assimilated itself into and took over existing religious establishments, and eventually it became the most powerful Taoist organization in China.


Study Questions:
1.    How did “The Way of the Celestial Masters” contribute to Taoist sects?
2.    Why was Shangqing accessible to a variety of practitioners?
3.    How did Buddhism help shape the Lingbao practice?


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