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Religion Library: Taoism

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Julia Hardy

The Yellow Emperor, or Huangdi, was an important figure for Huanglao Taoism; Huangdi, who became popular during the Han dynasty, was said to have ruled China during the 3rd millennium B.C.E.  To him were attributed several texts concerning immortality, and some also credited him with the creation of humanity and the invention of writing, the compass, the pottery wheel, the breeding of silkworms, and many other essential elements of human culture.  The Jade Emperor is another Taoist deity who, like the Yellow Emperor, was said to have created humanity; he remains very popular today. 

With the Way of the Celestial Masters, Laozi became a principle deity, and he continues to be the personification of Tao for many Taoists.  He is usually regarded as one of the Three Pure Ones, along with the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure.  There are also the three Officials, the Emperor of the South Pole and Long Life, the Emperors of the Thirty-two Heavens, the Emperor of Purple Tenuity and the Northern Pole, and many, many more.  All of these deities are divine emanations of celestial energy, pure cosmic qi, and have emerged from primordial chaos.

Taoist immortals are another kind of divine being, and a third type are the ancestors.  Only those who die a natural death at the end of a completed life cycle can become ancestors, who then may act as benefactors to the living members of the family.  Ancestors can also judge, however, and they may cause trouble for the living who do not act as the ancestors expect them to act.

Those who die an untimely death are considered orphan souls.  They have vital energies that have not been exhausted, and they are trapped between worlds, unable to become human again and unable to become ancestors.  They must be fed and comforted by the entire community to prevent them from causing trouble among the living.  Yet it is from among the orphan souls that a fourth type of divine being can emerge.  These rare humans may have acted heroically prior to death and were morally pure.  After an untimely death, they are discovered to be able to act on behalf of the living.  Thereafter, a lengthy process of deification begins during which a local deity may increase in power sufficient to become a deity for all. 

A good example of the latter is Mazu, goddess of the sea.   At first the object of a small cult at a temple where her mummified body was kept, in the 12th century she became the patron saint of sailors for the eastern coastal region.  She continued to be promoted throughout the centuries, and is now extremely popular among Chinese immigrant communities who traveled across the ocean to their new homes.  These popular gods are not technically part of the Taoist pantheon, and would not attend formal Taoist rituals.  However, these are the deities to whom the people will turn for personal help or guidance.


Study Questions:
1.    What are the two prominent uses of the word “tao”?
2.    How does time shape Taoist deities?
3.    What Taoist deities are still important today?
4.    How does death influence the role of a Taoist deity?


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