There is no one sacred narrative that is meaningful to Taoism above all others. There are stories about the life of Laozi and of Laozi as an immortal, but these are not foundational stories in the way that the story of Jesus is to Christianity, or those of Buddha is to Buddhism. The legendary Laozi was initially a political philosopher, and only later conceived of as a Taoist immortal.
Taoist religious movements began centuries later, based on purported revelations from a deified Laozi and other gods and immortals. Among these revelations there are many sacred stories, and there are also stories that predate these organized movements but either served as thematic models, or inspired later Taoism in some way.
One such collection of early stories, in poetic form, has been translated as "The Songs of the South." Originating from the state of Chu in around the 4th century B.C.E., these poems represent a different culture than that of northern China of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The degree of difference is a matter of some scholarly controversy. Some Han texts describe Chu as a barbarian culture under the religious aegis of shamans, but this may have been based on attempts by Confucian scholars to demean a competitive cultural sphere. The founders of the Han dynasty were from Chu, and at the time of the "Songs of the South," Chu controlled much of the territory south of the Yangzi River.
The most striking and memorable of the "Songs of the South" is a long narrative poem the title of which, "Li sao," is usually translated as "Encountering Sorrow." It was itself modeled after early sacred songs, and it was also a model for later accounts of ecstatic journeys. In addition, "Li sao" provides an early example of the fascinatingly ambiguous relationship between a human and the object of his or her spiritual yearning.
In the case of Qu Yuan, the author of "Li Sao," the object of his yearning was the ruler. He complained that the ruler had rejected him for public office, despite his moral purity and love of righteousness. He had been "slandered" and "cast off," as so many in early China had been due to political intrigues and machinations. Seeking an alternative place to be useful, Qu Yuan rode a "phoenix-figured cart" yoked to "jade dragons," and traveled to many realms where spirits and gods dwell. He spoke of wooing various spirit maidens, a sexually ambiguous metaphor for his yearning for the acceptance of the ruler. Dancing among the splendors of these realms, he suddenly caught a glimpse of his old world, and he decided to "join Peng Xian in the place where he abides." Ancient commentators identified Peng Xian as a minister to a Shang ruler, one who had drowned himself. Qu Yuan's suicide by drowning is still commemorated in yearly Dragon Boat festivals. Some modern scholars argue that Peng and Xian are two different names, both of legendary shamans who created new shamanic skills.
Another set of shorter narrative poems from Chu with clear shamanic references is helpful in understanding the allusions of "Li sao." Called the "Nine Songs," these poems may have been the texts of Chu ritual dramas. In them, the eroticism of the relationship between human and deity is even more pronounced. Lacking a strong political theme, the poems focus on a search for an intimate relationship with deity, and they detail various visionary encounters that occur, after which the seeker finds him or herself again alone and abandoned.
While there are many differences between the texts of the Taoist canon and these Chu poems, one can find within the canon many accounts of encounters with spirits, immortals, and gods. Each set of scriptures revealed to the founders of the various sects of Taoist religion was said to have been given by an immortal or deity, in a visionary context. Those of the Shangqing sect were particularly vivid descriptions of these encounters, and they were the foundation of the sect's emphasis on the individual's personal, visionary journey to the spirit world.
The Shangqing texts described the encounters of Yang Xi, who received the texts, with the "Perfected," or "True Ones," who declared themselves to be higher deities than those who had visited the Celestial Masters. One section described the betrothal and spirit marriage between Yang Xi and one of the Perfected females. It indicated that the sexual rites of the Celestial Masters were inferior to a pure relationship with spirit in which no vital energy is lost. Erotic in its imagery, the text nonetheless emphasized that no base sexual acts would occur; the mixing of energies was a totally internal and purely alchemical process.
This type of text set the stage for a tradition among the Taoshi: even when not celibate monks, they always abstain from intercourse for a period prior to presiding over ritual events. It also reflects the long-standing Taoist notion that while sexuality may enhance vital energy, ejaculation or orgasm will weaken that energy and should be avoided.
Not all Taoist texts are narratives, and not all Taoist visionary journeys are erotic. However, through these particular narratives one can recognize an important thematic arc that began with an erotic relationship between a ruler (himself in some sense a shaman, certainly in Shang times) and his political servant, and ended with a marriage between a Taoshi and a deity. The specific deities described in such texts were myriad; they could be either male or female; and the relationship almost always took place on a spiritual, rather than an earthly plane, and involved the transportation of the human participant to a spiritual realm.
1. Should Laozi be named the founder of Taoism?
2. What are the major themes present in Taoist scripture?
3. What is the significance of the erotic undertone to Taoist scriptures?