If we think of Taoist priests in traditional China as well as in present
times some people may feel uncertain about what they actually do who
they are, and how to assess them. The question arises how they fit in
with society and state, and it is rather peculiar that this question can
be asked for any time in history. I am sure that the best approach is a
historical approach which allows us to use historical and canonical
sources to analyze a standard of such priests which we are free then to
apply to present times.
Taoism and the workings of Taoist priests always were embedded in state
and society as it was a major objective of the Taoists to fit in with
the frame of the state we may remember the history of the compilation of
the Taoist Canon 道藏in the Tang period under Emperor Xuanzong (8th ct.)
In modern China, nowadays, the Quanzhen school 全真教enjoys the official
support, and therefore I think that it is worthwhile having a short look
at the founder of the school Wang Chongyang 王重陽(1112-1170,
Jin-dynasty 金代) and ask what he stood for.
We have an inscription on his life and workings by the grandson of
Emperor Jin Shizong 金世宗, Wanyan Dao (1172-1232) 完源瓙who makes the
following observation saying:
In a time when the country flourishes, due to an adequate rule of the
dynasty, most perfected persons appear. This is a time when Tao is
present and noble persons賢attain wisdom. Wanyan Dao refers to the Three
Teachings that all have most true sayings, and in the case of Taoism it
is the teachings of Laozi that matter most, especially his teachings of
the Tao called wu-wei 無為真常之道, and Wang Chongyang was a man, he
says, who absolutely embodied this Tao of Laozi.
Living in Shensi 陝西he was the son of a landlord and reportedly a
well-to-do person. However, during the politically turmoil at the time
he grandly supported plain folks in his surroundings and donated from
his properties whatever was needed.
This of course is a hagiographic feature to show that he fulfilled the
virtues of compassion and help for the creatures. However, his learning
is all about completing the own perfection to be an immortal
法师 Taoist Master
Wang Chongyang unsuccessfully strived for a career as official, trying
to receive the Jinshi degree 進士and being good at military planning
武略he also sat at military examinations but failed and found out that
he had a strong Tao-energy 道氣. He decided to embark on a Taoist career
rudao 入道and adopted the Taoist name: Double-Yang Chongyang 重陽.
高功法师 Grand Master
We learn that he worked greatly for the well-being of his contemporaries
but on the other side decided to enter a new life. We especially notice
that he abandoned his family 出家and started to live in hiding, adopting
a weird, drunken life-style. This was the precondition to experience an
encounter with two immortals, who traditionally are Zhongli
Quan鍾離權and LDongbin呂洞賓and from them he received secret
We notice here that receiving secret instruction is the crucial
experience that a Taoist aspires to gain in order to advance his career.
Of course, such secret instructions are often orally transmitted. We
notice: there is a secret Taoist culture that is orally transmitted the
scriptures and books are only the second part of Taoist culture.
法衣Taoist Robe of the Descent
We can say: the attainment of secret instructions is a standard
requirement for the Taoist priest which implies the paramount importance
of the master-disciple relationship師派 which again is a standard
全真派Quanzhen School/Complete Perfection School/Complete Truth
We speak of course about an individual, very personal relationship, not
about education in public institutions. In the case of Wang Chongyang,
his reputed teacher-masters were, as already stated, Zhongli
Quan鍾離權and LDongbin呂洞賓. We notice that the link back to Taoist
history always has a paramount importance. There are no new schools that
emerge out of the void. In short, nobody can become a Taoist priest out
of the own making.
正一派Zhengyi School/Orthodox Unity School/Orthodox One School
The first generation of Quanzhen Taoists, the seven patriarchs Qizhen
七真, were capable literati and performed as erudite poets who joined
Wang Chongyang after leaving the old way of life behind and deserting
the family. They all adopted new Taoist names.
The message of Wang Chongyang is expressed in his name Chongyang Double
Yang he fostered in his life and teaching the dual cultivation of Life
and Existence xingming性命following established notions of internal
self-cultivation, called the Inner Elixir neidan 內丹, and this type of
inner cultivation was achieved in an utterly ascetic life, beyond any
social bonds of family and beyond any social or public obligations.
符箓Talisman and Register
This inner self-cultivation which was the standard and inner aspiration
that Wang Chongyang and his followers targeted. It was the individual
aspiration to achieve immortality in a spiritual way we remind of the
book Chongyang lijiao shiwu lun 重陽立教十四論 which we do not further
discuss but draw the attention to paragraph nr.15, 論立凡世which
explains that striving for a bodily immortality is a folly.
三清Three Pure Ones/Three Pure Deities
Generally speaking, the standard that the Quanzhen Taoist aspired to
referred to the inner, individual life of the respective person who was
a celibate Taoist priest chujia daoshi 出家道士, which later was the
basis for the development of a monastic Quanzhen Daoism. This
development, however, was far beyond what Wang Chongyang originally had
desired, and again we may refer to the Fifteen Discourses, see nr.5/6:
論蓋造/論合道伴. We remind of the 43rd Heavenly Master Zhang Ychu
張宇初who admonished the Quanzhen Taoists not to use the appearance and
flag of monastic Chan-Buddhism 禪宗.
元始Heavenly Worthy of the Primordial Beginning
Wanyan Dao informs us about the individual precondition that let Wang
Chongyang develop his Taoist energies daoqi 道氣. Especially, we get the
information that his immortal mother 仙母had an extraordinary pregnancy
and gave birth to him after 24 months and 18 days. During that period of
time she suppressed amongst the 24 breaths all superfluous Earth-breaths
按二十八氣餘土氣to complete a perfected man 成真人.
灵宝天尊Heavenly Worthy of the Numinous Treature
As a result Wang Chongyang was a good-looking man, with a beautiful
beard and big eyes. Today we would say that he had Tao-bones 道骨 a
suitable natural, physical quality as well as the spiritual basis for
becoming a Taoist. We also may remember Wang Chuyi王處一, one of the
Seven Perfected. His mother dreamt that a cinnabar dawn 丹霞wrapped up
her body and then she gave birth to Wang Chuyi and we learn that at the
age of seven he died without having been ill but came back to life
again. He knew everything about life and death.
老子@Heavenly Worthy of the Way and its Virtue
The biographies of other Taoists often present the notion that this or
that person was predestined from birth on to become a Taoist. He or she
had to be physically and intellectually appealing and acceptable to
society they all were well bred and respectable persons who had a good
education and a strong determination of will. No doubt, the Seven
Perfected fulfilled such requirements.
We may see this as a standard requirement concerning the life style any
Taoist would have to live up to.
Quanzhen Taoists tended to be together in small groups, two or three
persons only, for the sake of practical aspects of life. They provoked
the administrative attention. I remind of the Ming-period when the
official code Da Ming liudian大明六典recorded that the government
demanded to close down these many small cells of Quanzhen communities in
the hilly countryside as they would only exploit common folks. The Da
Ming liudian demand that these people move to the big temples in the
main cities where the state registered them and had them in control.
三洞四辅Three Caverns and Four Supplements
We observe that a culture of Quanzhen Belvederes developed, for example
first in Shandong 山東province which certainly was no longer in accord
with the original intention of Wang Chongyang. In the beginning the
so-called Sanjiao hui 三教會were not huge monastic institutions.
We can generally say that a personal cultivation, the ability to learn,
study and memorize, to have wide literary and practical knowledge are
basic, very general standards that always apply and the Taoist certainly
is no exception.
Now speaking about Taoism we started out with Quanzhen Taoism that
emerged in the 12th century. We notice that some of the early Quanzhen
patriarchs like Wang Chuyi and Qiu Changchun 丘長春eventually staged
Taoist rituals 东正教儀式of the jiao-type醮that are essential features of
Heavenly Masters Taoism Tianshi dao/Zhengyi dao 天師道/正意气风发道.
It is amazing but our sources never tell us how and where or through
whom the celibate Quanzhen masters were initiated to be priests of
Heavenly Masters Taoism. We know the difference: Quanzhen is a
meditative Taoism, and Heavenly Masters Taoism is a liturgical, ritual
We do not discuss the question how these two forms of Taoism merged in
the course of history in the Yuan- and Ming eras元代/明代which is a
tricky question, especially if we consider what the liturgical expertise
of Heavenly Masters Taoism was all about. We can question whether the
ritual culture really fits in with ideals of Quanzhen Taoism which,
again, has its very focus on self-cultivation and not on ritual. We will
try to sort it out at some other occasion.
Anyway, if we speak about the personal education and the standing as a
person, we can say that the requirements are the same for the priest of
Heavenly Masters Taoism and the Quanzhen Taoist. Someone who cannot read
and write and shows a mean personal standard is not suitable to be
initiated入道/受籙. Now, this brings us to discuss the important theme
of affiliation 師派and the relationship: the teacher-master-disciple.
A Taoist teacher-master, whatever branch he may belong to, has to find
suitable disciples to pass on his profession and not to let the
tradition break off.
Po Yu-chan白玉蟾, a well known Taoist of the early 13th century wrote
the tract Nine Essential Introductions to Tao and Method 道 法 九 要
序that presents the paragraph: Searching for a Teacher Master 求
A gentleman who studies Tao needs to get the chance to meet a capable
person. Then it is that he can achieve enlightenment and understand Tao
悟 道. When he has the chance to encounter a true teacher master, he can
turn to him for the transmission of Tao 傳道and receive the methods
It is necessary that on the day before the first meeting he estimates
whether this teacher master is really dedicated to the mysterious
principles, and whether his sources and transmissions are pure and
After that first step one approaches him personally. For the days and
months to come, one fosters veneration and puts trust in the teacher
初真戒Initial Precepts for Perfection
Secondly, one properly uses a correct attitude, presents incense, makes
a contract with heaven and swears to earth. One receives the
transmission of Taoist books, of hidden instructions, of secret methods
and heavenly texts. Treat respectfully what was received, cultivate and
黄大仙Great Immortal Wong
Since one has attained a transmission, one cannot discard it just as one
pleases. Always attend to the school of the teacher master, follow him
and be always around. Ask to receive oral instructions 口 訣and heavenly
secrets. Generally, do not have any doubts. Spontaneously practice and
there will be magic rewards.
灶王爷Stove God/Kitchen God
Po Yu-chan says that in high antiquity the ancestral teacher masters and
disciples were great numbers of people. The teacher-masters investigated
thoroughly whether the mind (14a) of the disciples harboured a
[proper] spiritual attitude:
In the case that this was not so, the teacher master did not give away
财神God of Wealth/Deity of Wealth
In the case that the person was not totally sincere, the teacher master
did not give away the transmission.
全真七子Seven Masters of Quanzhen/Seven Perfected Beings
If the respective person did not have the required bodily marks of
status 骨 相, the teacher master did not give away the transmission.
There were those who acted contrary to the five social relations, the
teacher master did not give away the transmission.
And also, there were those who were ill, the teacher master did not give
away the transmission.