Rituals and Worship


Taoist symbolism shares some elements with Chinese popular religion.  For instance, immortality is a popular concept strongly associated with Taoism, and is symbolized in a variety of ways.  Cranes symbolize immortality because of their longevity.  Birds in general are a symbol of immortality, because immortals are believed to have the ability to fly.  Pine trees symbolize immortality because they are evergreens.  Peaches are a symbol of immortality because of the belief that the goddess Xiwangmu has an orchard of peaches that convey immortality  to anyone who eats one. 

The gourd is a popular Taoist symbol.  It was used in ancient times to carry herbs and was also used as a mixing and curing container for elixirs.  It is almost always portrayed in the classic shape of a bottle gourd.   The gourd also symbolizes chaos, or huntun, because it is shaped like a womb. 

The cave, like the gourd, is a container for mystery.  Caves are believed to be repositories of special, purified qi.  Adepts meditate in caves, dragons (also a symbol of immorality) live in caves, and the Taoist canon is divided into three main parts called caves or caverns.  The central altar in Taoist ritual is called a cave table.  There are also "caves" within the body, that is, containers of energy, sometimes also known as "cinnabar fields."  Cinnabar is symbolic of immortality primarily because it was an ingredient commonly used in elixirs, and also because of its red color, which means good fortune.

The bagua, or eight trigrams, associated with the Yi Jing (I-Ching) are important to Taoism, as well as to Chinese religion in general.  The trigrams represent the cycles of nature, and include fire, earth, lake, heaven, water, mountain, thunder, and wind.  The bagua are often placed surrounding a taiji symbol, the diagram of yin and yang energies that is so familiar to many westerners.  Yin and yang are also symbolized by the tiger and dragon.

The stars, planets, moon, and sun are important Taoist astronomical symbols inherited from prior Chinese religion.  The Chinese had, from a very early date, a highly developed knowledge of astronomy.  The Great Dipper (Ursa Major) is central to the Taoist tradition.  The Pole Star, the primary star of the Dipper, is the residence of Taiyi.  To return to the One is to return, on one level, to the Pole Star.  It is the place where all things begin and to which all things return.

A flaming pearl signifies the One, the Pole Star, and the original qi, and is worn on a pin at the top of the head to signify full initiation as a Taoist priest.  This symbol is also often found on the roofs of Taoist temples, between two dragons. 

The embroidered robes worn by Taoist priests as they officiate at rituals incorporate many symbols, which might include dragons, cranes, clouds, trigrams, the lunar mansions, the five sacred mountains, the twelve animal signs of the Chinese zodiac, images of divinities, or the eight immortals.

The most important constellation of symbols in Taoism revolves around the written word.  Writing was used in China to communicate with the gods from the beginning, even before it was used to communicate among humans.  During the Shang dynasty, questions were addressed to the gods on bones or tortoise shells, which were then heated until they cracked, and the cracks were interpreted as responses from the gods and "read" by ritual specialists. 

In Taoism, writing plays many essential roles.  Its sacred texts were first given by the gods to human recipients, and the primary signifier of transmission of knowledge from Taoshi to apprentice is the passing of sacred texts.  The Taoshi-to-be must copy by hand all of the texts belonging to his teacher or the local organization, and keep them safe to be passed on in turn to the next generation. 

Talismans are elaborate designs that resemble calligraphy, but can also include images, geometrical patterns, and other symbols.  They are typically written on paper or wood, in black or red ink.  To draw a talisman, the Taoshi must purify and concentrate his energies, as this is an act of communication with the gods.  Talismans may serve as a kind of medicine to ward off demonic forces, or to attract good fortune.  Written and then burned, the ashes are dissolved into drinking water, or rolled into a ball and taken as a pill. Talismans can also be used by the Taoshi to provide the ability to wander in celestial realms and as protection during these journeys.

The ritual space created by Taoist priests contains a multitude of sacred writing, from banners or signs indicating the names of deities, to talismans, to documents to be transmitted to the deities. The Five Writs, which are placed at strategic locations, are essential.  The Writ of the Celestial Sovereign is necessary for the Great Master to "enter the mountain," the climax of the ritual.  At the end of the ritual, all of these writings are burned.  This "sacrifice" of the writings transforms them from earthly symbol to cosmic reality.

Registers are another type of written document important to Taoism, often written in a script similar to talismanic writing.  Registers are given to apprentices at different stages of their development; they consist of the names of the celestial generals upon whom the recipient is authorized to call for help.  A register is to be kept on one's person, and also serves as protection against any threat, natural or supernatural, and conveys the blessings of the celestial realms. 

Registers are prepared sometimes for funerals; these will include the name of the deceased, and indicate his or her place in the divine hierarchy.  The register indicates that the deceased has been pardoned for his or her errors and has sufficient merit to attain the rank designated for him or her on the register.  The deceased is thus effectively added to the ranks of the divine powers.

Study Questions:
1.     How is immortality symbolized within Taoism?
2.     What is the role of writing in the formation of Talismans?
3.     Why is astronomy important to Taoism?

Back to Religion Library