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Religion Library: Taoism


Written by: Julia Hardy

One 2nd-century C.E. text is representative of a large body of sacred literature about Laozi that would emerge over the centuries.  Here Laozi is portrayed as, again, existing before the universe was created, and also as the source of the Tao and the sovereign lord of the spirit realm.  In a portion of the text purported to be his own words, he promises to return and overthrown the unfair government of the Han dynasty.   This motif would be repeated by a number of messianic cults in subsequent centuries. 

It was to Laozi that Zhang Taoling, the founder of the first enduring Taoist religious group (the Way of the Celestial Master tradition) attributed his spiritual revelations, which began around 142 C.E.  Laozi appeared to Zhang in visions, and was said to have awarded him the title of Celestial Master — the deified Laozi's representative on earth.  Laozi told Zhang that the end of the world was coming, and that he must instruct his followers to repent their sins and purify themselves in preparation to be the "seed people" for a new age.   Unlike other messianic cults from that time period, followers of Way of the Celestial Masters did not expect an incarnation of Laozi to return to earth, but they did regard him as Lord Lao the Most High, transmitter of sacred talismans, registers, and new scriptures.

Many scholars regard Zhang Taoling as the true founder of Taoism.   Unfortunately, historical information about Zhang Taoling is scarce.  He was said to have written several books, but these are now lost.  He was also said to have established a theocracy in the region of present-day Sichuan, with himself as the head of state.  By legend Zhang is known as a fangshi and alchemist, a master of longevity techniques who was able to vanquish demons and prepare the elixir that conferred immortality. 

After a number of years as Celestial Master, Zhang was said to have assembled his followers and turned into an immortal before their eyes.  He was succeeded by his son, who was succeeded in turn by his son.  Zhang's grandson swore fealty to the Han general Cao Cao, whose son would become the founder of the Wei dynasty.  At this time, many of the members relocated to areas farther north, home of the Wei, where some were granted titles and property.  Thus began the spread of the organization from Sichuan to other areas of China.  The movement Zhang Taoling founded lasted throughout the centuries and continues today, in Taiwan, with a leader who is regarded as a direct descendant of Zhang Taoling.


Study Questions:
1.    Who was Laozi?
2.    How is Laozi related to Buddhism?
3.    What is significant about Laozi's reincarnations?


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