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Religion Library: Taoism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Julia Hardy

Many westerners are most familiar with the Taode jing (Tao Te Ching) and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), but there are thousands of Taoist scriptures.  Earlier than most of the texts now classified as Taoist, the Taode jing and Zhuangzi belong to the age during which scholars produced discourses about the way, or Tao, rather than to subsequent centuries of "received" or "channeled" transmissions from divine beings. 

Both the Taode jing and Zhuangzi are polemical texts; that is, they criticize or mock other popular views, especially those of Confucius.  Other texts that engaged in the early debates about the way, or path, from a point of view that would later be identified with "Taoism" include the Liezi, a text similar in style to the Zhuangzi and containing some of the same material, and the Neiye, which concerns self-cultivation practices.  The Neiye is a chapter in the Guanzi, a text that would be now classified as "Legalist," but also contains Taoist and Confucian ideas.

All of these texts were written sometime during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 B.C.E.).  When Qin Shihuangdi unified all Zhou territories as well as lands beyond the boundaries of the Zhou empire to form the Qin empire (221-206 B.C.E.), one of the totalitarian measures he undertook to solidify his power was to order the burning of all books.  Although the original texts may have been hundreds of years older, most of the editions that are now available are recreations dating from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) or later.

Unlike these early texts, the vast majority of Taoist texts purport to be records of communications from immortals or deities, a practice that began in the 2nd century C.E., if not before.  One such scripture, now lost but often mentioned in other texts, was the Taiping jing, or Scripture of Great Peace, sacred to the Yellow Turban rebellion of the 2nd century C.E.  Other messianic or apocalyptic religious movements that did not survive also produced scriptures, now lost, but referred to in texts that have survived.

It was with the Way of the Celestial Masters that the process of accumulating texts associated with a particular religious group began.   Beginning with the teachings transmitted to the founder, Zhang Taoling, by the deified Laozi, the Way of the Celestial Masters produced a great many scriptures communicated by deities or immortals. 

In the 4th century C.E., the shaman Yang Xi began to receive visits from Taoist immortals and saints who dictated messages, poems, and book-length texts to him.   These were gathered under the rubric Shangqing, or Highest Purity, because Yang Xi was told that they came from the Highest Heaven.   Another set of revealed scriptures appeared in the early 5th century.  Called Lingbao, or Sacred Jewel, these borrowed heavily from Buddhism and the Way of the Celestial Masters.  It was only later that religious groups, now called Shangqing and Lingbao Taoism, formed around these texts.  Originally it was the texts that defined the tradition. 


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