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Religion Library: Taoism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Julia Hardy

So many scriptures had accumulated by the 5th century that the emperor asked an important Taoist, Lu Xiujing (406-477), to select the most authentic ones so that they could be placed in the imperial library.  Lu Xiujing divided his selections into three categories, which he called the Three Caverns: the Cavern of Truth, or Dongzhen; the Cavern of Mystery, Dongxuan; and the Cavern of Divinity, or Dongshen.  These divisions were based on three different ways of practicing Taoism at the time, and also on ranking: the Cavern of Divinity was ranked lowest and contained texts about the holy mountains and saints, primarily talismans and spells; the Cavern of Mystery contained primarily Lingbao texts, which were liturgical in nature; and the highest rank, the Cavern of Truth, contained Shangqing texts, primarily those that pertained to individual practices such as meditation and alchemy.

Each of the Three Caverns was subdivided into twelve sections: original revelations, divine talismans, exegeses, sacred diagrams, histories and genealogies, codes of conduct, ceremonial protocols, prescriptive rituals, self-cultivation techniques, biographies of saints, hymns, and memorials.  In the Sui dynasty (581-618), the Four Auxiliaries were added, which included the Taode jing and all the Celestial Masters texts.   This classification system was retained in subsequent editions, but as the Taozang, or Taoist Canon, expanded, matching of texts with categories and subdivisions became less and less exact.

In 748 the Taoist emperor Xuanzong (reign 712-756) sent envoys throughout the empire to collect all Taoist texts.  He also caused the newly expanded canon to be copied and distributed, the first time this had occurred.  Not long after this, rebels destroyed the Imperial Libraries and most of this canon was destroyed.   New, expanded compilations were made by two Song Dynasty (960-1279) emperors.  The second of these was carved on woodblocks and printed around 1120.  A third Song emperor had the canon reedited and additional blocks carved.  With the Mongol invasion of 1215, many copies were destroyed, but in 1237, work on a new edition began.  Sponsored by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (c. 1162-1227) and completed in 1244, this was the largest version yet. 

During the Yuan Dynasty, founded by Khubilai (Kublai) Khan (1215-1294), a new Quanzhen, or Total Truth sect was initially favored by the court.  After its representatives lost a series of public debates with Buddhists, however, Khubilai Khan ordered all Taoist texts destroyed except the Taode jing.   The first Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperor turned to the Way of the Celestial Masters sect to create a new Taoist canon.  This version, which took nearly forty years to compile, was wide-ranging and included any texts that might legitimately be considered Taoist.  Current versions are based on this Ming canon.


Study Questions:
1.     How was the Taoist canon formed?
2.    What role does the Taoist canon play in Taoist tradition?
3.    Why were Taoist texts divided into the Three Caverns, and then again subdivided?


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