Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Taoist Priests And Their Elixir

A mirage often rises out of the sea off Penglai in Shandong Province. Looked at from afar.there seem to be numerous palaces, temples, city walls, and an incessant stream of horse, carriages and pedestrians in the hazy mists. The ancients couldn't understand how a mirage could have occurred, and believed that somewhere there must be a veritable wonder land of elixir and eternal life. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, there had appeared a number of necromancers well versed in astronomy, medicine (including witchcraft), astrology, communication with spirits and other occult practices in the coastal area of the states of Qi and Yan. They engaged in making pills of immortality and preaching the idea of cultivating oneself in body and mind in order to become an immortal. They also maintained that out in the East Sea there were three kettle-shaped fairy mountains, Mt. Penglai, Mt. Fangzhang and Mt. Yingzhou, on all three of which immortals dwelt in palaces and temples built of gold and silver. What is more, they possessed the elixir. In those days, emperors and kings like King Wei and King Xuan of Qi, King of Zhao of Yan and the First Emperor of Qin all believed implicitly in such things and, hoping to be assured of immortality, had all set their lackeys to search for the three fairy mountains,but without avail.

The emergence and development of Taoism in China, a unique and indigenous religion of the country, was closely connected with such ancient occult practices as witchcraft, worship of ghosts and spirits, making an elixir and cultivating immortality.

Owing to the clashes among power-bidding military men and successive natural disasters and plagues during the Eastern Han Dynasty, the common people were driven desperate. In the year A.D. 142, Zhang Daoling founded in the vicinity of Mount Heming the first private Taoist organization in China. They propagated the occult practices of making elixirs to prolong life, and tried to cure diseases with medicinal herbs, magic figures and incantations. Those who applied for membership had to subscribe five Chinese bushels of grain. This earned them the name "Five Bushel Taoists." All of them revered Zhang, addressing him as "Heavenly Master," form which the organization derived another, the "Heavenly Master Taoist Group." They owed their allegiance to the founder of Taoism Li Er, alias Laozi, and regarding him as their sire, referred to him as the "Supreme God," and looked upon Daodejing as the cardinal classics of the religion. In the last few years of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Zhang Daoling's grandson Zhang Lu became the leader of the "Heavenly Master Taoist Group." He provided the poor and downtrodden with food and shelter in various parts of the country. This kind of Taoist organization which was characterized by mutual aid and assistance was warmly welcomed by the broad masses and quickly gained a larger following. Zhang Lu relied on his followers in the struggle against feudal oppression. Later on, another man Zhang Jiao founded the "Taiping Taoist Group." He and his two younger brothers helped the sick with herb medicine and Taoist magic figures and incantations, while propagating ideas of equality and egalitarianism, and recruiting new members of with the ultimate purpose of overthrowing the rulers. Fore more than ten years, they carried on their secret activities, and the number of their followers reached several hundred thousand. In AD 184, they staged a large-scale peasant uprising. This was called the "Yellow-turban Uprising" in history, because all who took part in it wore a yellow turban at the time of the uprising.

Initially Taoism was spreading mainly among the people, often joining hands with contemporary peasant uprisings. After the Wei and Jin Dynasties, it gradually began to move up on the social ladder , owing to the influence of feudal rulers. By absorbing Confucianist and Buddhist theories, the new Taoists made their religion into a center of superstitious beliefs and practices, seeking immortality by means of elixirs and playing a subordinate role under the ruling circles.

In the eastern Jin Dynasty, there was a Taoist theorist named Ge Hong who was a medicine man and an elixir specialist. In his early life, he had once held the position of prime minister and had taken part in suppressing peasant uprisings. Later, he lived the life of a recluse in the mountains to study Taoism and make pills of immortality. While studying Taoist theories, he completed a Taoist masterpiece Baopuzi which was based on his personal experiences in collecting and differentiating medicinal herbs and making elixir pills. In this book, Ge Gong recorded scrupulously and specifically various methods of making elixir and the chemical reactions that had taken place in the processes. He also documented his practice of curing diseases with medicinal herbs. In doing all this, he unwittingly had made some contributions to ancient chemistry and pharmacology.

The spread of Taoism reached a new height in the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties,when there was sort of a vogue for studying Taoist theories and living in seclusion in remote mountain areas to make elixir and cultivate oneself into an immortal. As Laozi bore the same surname "Li" as the emperors of the Tang Dynasty, Taoism was especially encouraged in the Tang Dynasty. Li Yuan, Emperor Gao Zu of Tang, gave orders to build a "Temple of the Supreme God," claiming Li Er as his genealogical ancestor. He also established a new order of things by declaring that Taoism should be placed before Confucianism, which came second, and Buddhism. The rulers placed more faith than ever in the occult Taoist practices of taking elixirs  to achieve immortality. However, the elixirs only only failed to help prolong their lives but made some emperors die of an overdose of toxic substance. Consequently, Taoist priests proposed that longevity should be sought by the dual process of conducting both outer and inner practices. By outer practice was meant the taking of an elixir, while the inner practice referred to what we would call today "qigong". This marked a step forward in developing the theory of making elixirs. Even when Taoism was beginning to lose its hold in the middle of the Ming Dynasty, Taoist activities by secularized priests were still quite popular.

Through its long history, Taoism was formalized in the classic Daozang (Collection of Taoist Sutras) which is comprehensive but heterogeneous in its contents. There are totality of 5,305 volumes. Besides Taoist theories, the book includes medicine, chemistry, biology, physical training, health protection, astronomy, geography and sorcery. It also includes an anthology of the words of various outstanding philosophers in the Spring and Autumn and Warring states Periods. Daozang does not contain a great deal of the philosophical theory of Taoism, but it is a reservoir of practical and useful data, which naturally has much to do with ancient Chinese civilization. That is why it has aroused more interest and attention than Buddhist scriptures in history.


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