It is difficult to write about lay activity in Taoism, because generally speaking only Taoshi (Taoist priests) are understood to be "Taoists." Daily involvement with Taoism on the part of the laity is not ritualized in any particular way. In immigrant communities, Taoism has been merged with other religions, and has integrated many popular practices, and this was also the case on the mainland. Studies of Taoist practices have, for the most part, focused on the Taoshi, rather than lay practitioners. Some lay activities are more closely associated with the barefoot masters, and thus have received less recognition and scholarly attention.
There is one area in which the Taoshi are still actively engaged with the laity. The Taoshi who live at home (as opposed to those who live in monasteries, much more rare these days) serve as consultants to those members of the community who have personal problems or illness. Each Taoshi has an "office" where the household altar is kept, along with statues or paintings of deities and important figures in Taoist history. When an individual comes to consult, first the layperson will explain his or her problem or illness, while the Taoshi quietly listens. He will then quickly write a talismanic symbol that embodies the energy of his vital power to be transferred to his "client." This talisman will either be carried until the problem is resolved, or ingested by burning and dissolving the ashes in water, or rolled into a little ball and taken as a pill.
Small voluntary contributions are sometimes given for this and other services, such as the healing of childhood fears and individual purifications. When children are brought, the parent will first explain the problem; then the Taoshi will prepare a talisman, curse the demons who have caused the fear, and spit a mouthful of talisman water into the child's face. Depletion of energy in adults, the cause of many illnesses, will sometimes be treated by burning lamps representing the stars of the Dipper. The Taoshi will also sometimes prescribe herbal medicines, perform acupuncture, or do an astrological or fengshui reading, always in conjunction with a ritual cure.
Unlike laypersons, the Taoshi have a rigorous life of daily practice. While in training, a great deal of time will be spent learning every aspect of ritual performance. The sacred texts that are used in the major rituals are recited over and over, until they are memorized. Moral behavior is also expected, with rules increasing with the level of mastery; this is in order that vital energies be nourished rather than dissipated by inappropriate behavior. Periodic rituals of confession are also important practices for the Taoshi.
In addition the Taoshi will perform several self-cultivating practices on a regular basis. Among these might be gymnastic or breath-control exercises, special diets, meditation, etc. Visualization practices are common, such as visualizing the gods within the body or visualizing journeys to the celestial palaces. These exercises are performed on certain days, and at certain times of the day, establishing harmony with the celestial realms. Sometimes the Taoshi will engage in retreats, long vigils during which sleep is forbidden, or fasts, during which they abstain from sexual activity and avoid certain foods.
The object of these exercises is to "Keep the One," that is, to gather one's energies lest they become scattered, to balance one's male and female energies, to remain in harmony with the natural rhythms and cycles of the cosmos, and to experience the "return" to cosmic unity. At the same time, these activities prepare the Taoshi for the rigorous physical and mental demands of the major rituals.
1. Who are the Taoshi, and how are they most actively engaged with their community?
2. Why do Taoshi regularly engage in self-cultivating practices?
3. What are some solutions offered to the laity through Taoshi consultations?