Religious Taoism

Taoist Practices and Beliefs

Alongside the development of Taoism as a philosophy another more strictly religious interpretation of Taoism was evolving. This 'religious' Taoism had its own temples, priests, rites and symbolic images. Lao Tsu was venerated as a 'saint' and imperial sacrifices were made to him. It drew strongly upon the ideas of yin-yang and of the 'Five Agents' (metal, wood, water, fire & earth).

During this time there began to develop a pantheon of TAOIST DEITIES which were often venerated as gods.

So prominent were astrology, alchemy and divination in this stream of Taoism that it had veered away from philosophy to occultism. This movement was sometimes known as Huang-Lao, after the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti and Lao Tsu.

From this form of Taoism emerged very strong alchemical currents as Taoist practitioners (much like Western mystics a millennium later) at the court of Shih Huang-ti of the Qin (Ch'in) dynasty (221-207 BC) tried to cultivate powers that would transform base metals to gold, and hence would serve as a metonym for the transformation of human qualities to the transcendent. These practitioners were also acclaimed as spirit mediums and experts in levitation.

Porcelain: Ch'ing Dynasty Lovers Practicing Taoist 'Hovering Butterflies' Posture: Porcelain, Ch'ing Dynasty.

Among the important features of Taoist religion were the belief in physical immortality, alchemy, breath control and hygiene (internal alchemy). It supported a pantheon of deities, including Lao Tzu as one of the three 'Supreme Ones'. The Taoist liturgy and theology was much influenced by Buddhism. Its scriptures, the Tao-tsang, consist of over 1,400 separate works totaling more than 5,000 chapters.

Of special significance to these mystics were the colour red (symbolizing the furnaces of the alchemists), the Manchurian Crane with its red spot of divinity in its crown, and the compound cinnabar (composed of mercury and sulphur) which could be transformed into a silvery liquid; and back again into a solid.

There is considerable evidence that this religious Taoism came to take on many 'Tantric' elements, in which the worship of yin-yang takes on a distinctly sexual and erotic form. The interplay of yin and yang elements is represented, and celebrated, as a sexual union. There are some scholars who, in fact, believe that the Tantric schools, which later were absorbed into Buddhism, evolved first as Taoist ones.

Taoist Sects

Among the principal Taoist sects to emerge were: Eventually the Heavenly Master sect absorbed most of the beliefs and practices of the other sects and, in the 20th century, became the most popular Taoist group.

History of Religious Taoism

The Immortal Soul of the Taoist Adept. The Immortal Soul of the Taoist Adept.

Late in the Han dynasty (beginning of the 3rd century A.D.) a branches of Taoism, such as Yellow Turban Movement and the Celestial Masters Sec, , became a popular revolutionary cults. The former, led by the three Chang brothers, promised immortality to ordinary people. Hundreds of thousands of destitute people flocked to their banner, holding great public gatherings, confessions of sins and even uninhibited orgies. Although the movement fell apart, it was one of the key factors that de-stabilized the Han dynasty and lead to its downfall.

However, even in the time of the Six Kingdoms (220 to 618 A.D.) Taoism continued to attract many refugee intellectuals, fleeing from the barbarians in the North.

Particularly important to the development of Taoism in China was the rein of the Emperor Li Lung-chi (a.k.a. Hsuan Tsung) who ruled for 44 years and was a fervent adherent of Taoism. Deeply absorbed in its study he tried to create a Taoist state in which capital punishment would be abolished and animals would be treated humanely. He established hospitals for the sick and poor and was an accomplished musician, equestrian, calligrapher and astronomer.

A true mystic Li Lung-chi once had a vision of Lao Tsu who told him where to find a true likeness of him. The image was, in fact, discovered and replicas of it were made and installed in temples across the realm. He also told his ministers that once while burning incense in a shrine he had been wafted up to Heaven.

[Back to Development of Taoism] [Next - Taoist Deities]