In no area is the lack of a single unified Taoist belief system more evident than in the case of concepts about the afterlife and salvation. Several factors have contributed to this: 1) Taoism was at no point the only religion of China, but, rather, coexisted with Confucianism and Buddhism, as well as with Chinese folk religion; 2) each Taoist sect had its own beliefs and textual traditions, and these underwent changes over time; and 3) death and the afterlife became the province of Buddhism early in Chinese history, so that most ideas about the afterlife are Buddhist, or were developed in reaction to Buddhism.
Art found by archaeologists excavating tombs of the nobility has been quite varied, and does not support any unified set of beliefs about the afterlife. Murals or carvings featuring the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, immortals, and other legendary characters of popular Taoism have been found in tombs, but there are Confucian, Buddhist, and other mythical images present in the same tombs. In later dynasties, continuing into the present, it is not uncommon to invite both Buddhist and Taoist priests to officiate at a funeral, and the structure of contemporary Taoist funerals is similar in many ways to those of Buddhism.
It is not surprising that once Buddhism had become established in China, many of its ideas about the afterlife were adopted by Taoism, because there were so many well-developed Buddhist ideas on the topic. Lingbao Taoism in particular incorporated many Buddhist ideas about the afterlife, and Lingbao priests perform rituals pertaining to the afterlife that priests of other sects do not, such as rituals transferring merit to the deceased. Shangqing Taoist scriptures include elaborate descriptions of the heavens and, to a lesser extent, the underworld; the use of Buddhist or Sanskrit terminology in naming some of these is a clear sign of their Buddhist origin. The concept of rebirth also became a factor in later Taoism.
Taoist notions of life beyond death are thus most easily discerned by looking at the time prior to the establishment of Buddhism in China. Generally speaking, early Taoist concepts of salvation focused on this life rather than an afterlife. Early Taoist groups were founded on utopian ideas of a new and perfect society, echoing sentiments found in the Taode jing. The focus for some individual practitioners, both fangshi, Taoshi, and some members of the nobility, was immortality of the physical body. They were not interested in what happens after death because they hoped never to die. Instead, they hoped to live forever in human form, with the supernatural powers of an immortal. Related to the quest for immortality was a popular interest in realms of the immortals that were believed to be located on earth — on mountains, islands, or other locations that are usually invisible to the human eye.
Some Taoist gods are believed to reside on the sun, moon, planets, and constellations, and the Taoist adept is able to travel to these places during ritual trances. Some of the mystical excursions of Shangqing Taoism, for example, are to astronomical realms. The Big Dipper and its central star, the Pole Star, are especially important to Taoism. The deity Taiyi is believed to have a residence on the Pole Star, and the gods who reside within the body also reside in the (literal) heavens. The origin of these beliefs can be traced to a highly developed astronomical knowledge and religious engagement with astronomical realms that date back to the Shang dynasty (1700-1027 B.C.E.).
Salvation for Taoism (absent the Buddhist influence) is a matter of participation in the eternal return of the natural world, a yielding to chaos followed by spontaneous creation, in a never-ending cycle. This is not a permanent transcendent state or redemption such as has been articulated in the Abrahamic traditions. For Taoism, salvation is not an escape from this world; rather, it is to become perfectly aligned with the natural world and with the cosmic forces that sustain it.
1. Why do Taoists lack a unified view on the afterlife?
2. How does the early Taoist view of the afterlife differ from the later, Buddhist-inspired belief?
3. What does salvation look like to a Taoist?