Sacred time in Taoism is not focused on creation, but on the notion of "returning to the root" (Ch. 16). The Taode jing states, "Returning is the movement of the Tao" (Ch. 40). Ch. 21 asks, "How do I know the way of all things at the Beginning?" and responds, "By what is within me." To return to the root is to experience the cosmos before creation occurred, but not in order to remain permanently in that state. It is a way of starting anew, of experiencing the cycles of regeneration that are characteristic of existence. Creation does not happen just once; it is a continuous process.
According to Taoism, and Chinese thought in general, the cycles of nature are movements of qi as it is shaped by alternating patterns of yin and yang and the Five Phases. Qi moves outward to create or be transformed, and returns inward to regenerate. Time likewise moves through regular cycles, such as day to night, spring to summer to winter to fall. The moon, stars, and planets also move in regular cycles. All of these cycles are regenerative: day turns into night, night turns back into day; spring moves toward winter, and winter leads back to spring.
That time moves in cycles, expanding and returning, does not mean that things never change; to the contrary things are always transforming, always evolving. To bring about change, whether personal or for the benefit of others, one must first return to the beginning. All Taoist rituals do this, and lone meditators visualize the same experience. It is the foundation of both internal and external alchemy.
The elixir of immortality is created by taking its ingredients through a process of evolution, and then back through the cycles until they reach a pure essence that existed before time. This is what gives the elixir its power; it is in a state of timelessness, and thus it can confer that state to one who consumes it.
According to the Shangqing scriptures, the god Taiyi who resides in the Dipper created time's cycles by pacing through the void with a series of precise steps that divided time and space. In some rituals, the Taoshi repeats these steps, thus unifying and mediating between heaven and earth. Sometimes he wields a sword with which he symbolically divides the void. In doing so, the Taoshi repeats the cycle of creation and at the same time returns to the uncreated state.
In other Taoist rituals, it is the legendary emperor of ancient times, Yü the Great, whose step is emulated. When the flood waters of chaos threatened, he traveled throughout the empire learning the names of all the gods of the rivers and mountains, even every hill and stream, so that he could summon them to draw the waters off the land and out to sea. As in the case of Taiyi, the Taoshi repeats his steps to recreate the world in the face of chaos.
The Taoist adept must repeat the process of organizing the cosmos, and he must also become aware of and experience his proper place in the cosmic order. All humans, even those who are not Taoshi, need to adapt themselves to the patterns of nature and time in order to participate in the harmony of the cosmos. To align oneself with these natural patterns is to experience one's true nature, and thus to experience sacred time.
1. What does it mean for a Taoist to “return to the root”?
2. How does the movement of qi influence life?
3. Why are rituals related to time important to the formation of sacred time?