Rituals and Worship

Rites and Ceremonies

The Taoist festival calendar represents an amalgamation of various sources, and varies according to sect, region, and temple.

Major festivals last for days, from two or three up to seven or more.  A two-day service may involve fifteen different rites corresponding to distinct texts, each rite lasting from one to several hours.  Typically each of these rites consists of these stages: purification, invocation of the deities, prayers, consecration and offerings, hymns, dances, and perambulations.

There are two main types of ritual: 1) funeral rites or periodic rites on behalf of ancestors, which are performed only by some sects, sometimes in tandem with Buddhist priests; and 2) rites on behalf of local communities.  Both types include rites to install the ritual space, rites of fasting, rites of communion or offering, and rites to disperse the ritual space.

Rituals on behalf of the community may involve tens or even hundreds of villages, and occur every three, five, or twelve years.  They can be extraordinarily expensive, and are paid for by household donations and community leaders.  Aside from the rituals themselves, there will also be plays, processions, military parades, and communal meals.

As for the performance of the rituals themselves, no mistakes can be made; no step or recitation must falter.  Apprenticed Taoshi serve as musicians; more advanced trainees assist by lighting incense and reciting certain passages.  The heart of the ritual is conducted by five Taoshi: a Great Master and his four assistants.  One of these assistants heads the intricate and complex processions and dances, and is responsible for knowing the entire sequence of rites that make up the full ritual.  Another prepares in advance every communication with the celestial bureaucracy that is used during the course of the entire ritual, and recites all of the invocations and consecrations, the texts of purification, elevation, and confession.

During much of the activities, the Great Master is preparing for his role, quietly murmuring secret formulas and doing mudras with his hands inside his sleeves.  At times he picks up the incense burner and holds it as he breathes in and out, facing different directions, or he burns talismanic symbols or initials documents.  Primarily, he enacts internally the actions spoken by the texts that are being recited by his assistant.

At a certain point, he rises and performs the "dance of the stars," the step of Yu or Taiyi. Then he falls prostrate, in a fetal position with arms and legs under his body, face in hands, as he internally journeys to the Heavenly Assembly, locus of the Heavenly Worthies, accompanied by divine escorts (all described in the recitation that accompanies these acts).  In this sense, the master is the mountain, just as the incense burner and the altar are also the mountain.  In ancient times, the altar was built upon a series of graduated steps, so that the master actually ascended the steps at this point in the ritual, but these days the ascent is entirely internal. 

There he presents the memorial that is the heart of the ritual texts.  The memorial is a petition to the gods, written in literary language, stating the name and purpose of the ritual, its date and location, the names and addresses of the participants, and a vow — that is a request and a pledge on behalf of all the participants.

Standing again, the master burns the memorial and scatters the ashes, gathers his escorts, and returns.  Afterward, there is more chanting and more music, but the main portion of the ritual has occurred.  In breaking down the ritual space, all talismans, writs, and other markers of the ritual space are burned.  Afterward there is a communal banquet, with plenty of food available for the orphan souls who cannot become ancestors.

Taoist rituals are colorful, filled with music, incense, and stylized movements.  Much of Chinese drama is influenced by Taoist ritual.  Puppet theatre especially has roots in Taoist ritual, and continues to mimic it in many important ways, including the consecration of the participants before the show begins, the construction of the stage with four corners, and the appropriate talismanic symbols.  The master puppeteer is located at the center, just as is the Taoist master who presides over a ritual.  Some puppet plays are so fearsome in their spiritual power that ordinary people avoid watching them, just as they avoid watching Taoist rituals.

Some forms of ritual involve mediumship, trance, and the exorcism of demons. These usually occur during festivals, and are regarded as being of a lower order than the rituals of the Taoshi.  The "barefoot masters" walk beds of hot coals, climb ladders of swords, or pierce themselves with sharp objects.  In ritual spaces far less defined than those of the Taoshi, they will call on the powers of local spirit generals and spirit armies and, in the course of dramatic performances, invoke their power for aid and protection on behalf of the community.  To communicate with the dead, a miniature sedan chair carried by two people may become the seat of a deity who will, through the movement of the chair, dictate a response to settle a conflict between dead and living family members.

Both mediums and puppets can also undertake expeditions against demons who have caused problems for a person or community.  The barefoot masters, like the Taoshi, have their ritual texts, long epics that describe voyages to spirit realms. They often paint their faces in elaborate masks, like those of Chinese opera characters.  They might enact a battle against the demons, with swords and military music, and strike themselves with their weapons, drawing blood.  The blood is regarded as protection against evil, and the act, a form of expiation for the sins of all. Tissues are applied to the wounds to soak up a bit of blood, and then taken home and stuck on doorframes to ward off evil.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the two main types of ritual (and rites associated with them) that are of importance in Taoism?
2.     Who can perform Taoist rituals, and how do they participate?
3.     What are some of the ways the dead can be honored in Taoist rituals?

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