Taoism is both a philosophy and a religion, or perhaps more rightly, a philosophy - or way of understanding the universe, including the earth and its inhabitants - that evolved into a religion. However, it is impossible to fix a date for the "creation" ("invention", or codification) of the philosophy of Taoism, for the body of belief that was later ascribed to Taoism was itself a long process, tracing far back into the past, where mystics trying to understand man and nature - or man and his place in the universe ("the laws of the universe"), as it were - sought refuge on secluded mountaintops where they could comtemplate such matters in tranquility, in the hope of receiving divine inspiration ("enlightenment"), possibly under the tutelage of other mystics.
Laozi, the creator of the philosophy of Taoism
Taoism is considered in any case to have developed on Chinese soil, though even this can be disputed if the mystics who helped shape Taoism were wanderers from other geographical regions such as Tibet or India (a not unthinkable proposition, given the "Hundred Schools of Thought" era - see below). Be that as it may, there exist historical records, however patchy, which link the evolution of philosophical thought leading to Taoist philosophy to Chinese soil, and indeed, it is not difficult to imagine that this could very well have happened.
During the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) and Warring States (BCE 475-221) period (also known as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty), Chinese society went through a remarkably liberal period of cultural and intellectual openness in which a "Hundred Schools of Thought" (chu-tzu pai-chia, or "all philosophers hundred schools")) was encouraged. It was during this period that Taoism, Confucianism, Mohism and Legalism (Fa-chia, or "School of law"), the four main schools of philosophical thought at the time, emerged. They exerted a profound influence on Chinese culture that would reach far into the future.*
In BCE 550, in the middle of the Hundred Schools of Thought era, Lao-tzu wrote the Tao-Te Ching, thus founding Taoism. But the Taoism of the period was far removed from the later, more codified Taoism of Zhang Daoling and others. At the time of Lao-tzu, Taoist belief consisted primarily of worship of the heavens and of ancestors. That is, the Yin and Yang and the Tai Chi Chuan, with their elaborate belief systems, were unknown at the time of Lao-tzu. Still, Taoism pays homage to Lao-tzu as the founder of Chinese Taoism and continues to address him respectfully as Senior Lord Taishang.
The philosophy of Chuang-Tzu (BCE 370-301), though not explicitly Taoist, is implicitly so. He wrote the book Zhuangzi (the author is himself sometimes referred to by that name) in which he expounds his immortality philosophy, which can be summed up in the following pithy observations:
· Everything is everything (alternatively, "everything is relative").
· Good and bad do not exist except insofar as our thinking make them so.
· The physical world is an illusion, i.e., only sensory perceptions that may deceive us, and thus one should not rely heavily on the rightness or wrongness of one's senses as they yield arbitrary conclusions.
· Death is only the terminus of the illusion of having lived.
In BCE 150, circa, the book, Taiping Jing (The Book of Supreme Peace) appeared. One version consisted of 12 chapters, though no content has survived, and was written, according to official records, by a certain Gan Zhengke, who lived during the reign (BCE 33-7) of Emperor Cheng (Chengdi) of the Western Han (BCE 206-9) Dynasty. Of the other version, which consisted of 170 chapters originally, only 57 chapters survive, and no evidence of the author exists, though the book is believed to also have been written by Gan Zhengke. From the surviving chapters of the larger version of the book, we know that Taiping Jing deals with the Yin and Yang, the Five Powers (the Five Forces, or elements: metal, wood, fire, water and earth), immortality and the so-called sexagenary cycle (a cyclical system of 60 combinations of the two basic cycles: the 10 Heavenly Stems and the 12 Earthly Branches).
During the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) Dynasty, Zhang Daoling received the Magical Writ of the Orthodox and Arcane Register of the Orthodox One Covenant and joined the Orthodox Oneness School (popularly called Wudoumi Dao, or "Way of Five Pecks of Rice"**), and continued to study Dao on Mt. Heming in Dayi County, Sichuan Province, and to spread the message for the Wudoumi Dao movement. Zhang Daoling established the Twenty-Four Breaths of the year (one every fifteen days), which were later changed to Twenty-Eight Breaths to correspond to the twenty-eight divisions of the Chinese zodiac. Zhang Daoling recruited disciples extensively, formulated regulations and developed the first sect of Taoism, the Tianshi Dao ("Celestial Path"). He is also believed to have written a number of books on Taoism, but since none of them survived, it is impossible to say anything definitive about Zhang Daoling's teachings and doctrines. Taoism, however, was thus formally and firmly established.
During the middle part of the Guanghe (CE 178-184) period of the reign (168-189) of Emperor Ling of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Zhang Jiao - the later leader of the Yellow Turbans (alternatively, Yellow Scarves) Rebellion (CE 184), a widespread peasant rebellion provoked by harsh taxation combined with governmental corruption - widely disseminated a new version of the The Book of Supreme Peace called Taiping Qingling Shu, which modern scholars believe to be the same as the earlier two versions of the book, The Celestial Calendar and The Book of the Initiation of the Era of Supreme Peace. Jiao also established the Taoist organization of Thirty Six Districts.
After the Three Kingdoms Wei (CE 220-265) and Jin (CE 265-316 (Western) - 317-420 (Eastern)) Dynasties, due to generous support from Chinese emperors - i.e., during the Southern and Northern (CE 420-588) Dynasties - Taoism edged itself securely into the best society and grew rapidly in popularity. From the Sui (CE 581-617) and Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasties to the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty, Taoism continued to flourish in China. Its social standing was greatly enchanced throughout the country and Taoist temples sprung up everywhere. Moreover, Taoism expanded increasingly beyond China's borders. Taoist teachers went forth in large numbers, and Taoist texts appeared in increasing numbers and began to be gathered into collections in temples and monasteries far and wide.
From the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty to the middle part of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, Taoism kept up its expansionary momentum. However, given that the Jin (CE 1115-1234) and Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasties had confronted each other, dividing China into a northern and a southern sphere, there occurred a similar division in Taoism itself, with a northern sect that did not agree with the southern sect. In the second half of the Ming Dynasty, therefore, due to the country's own north-south divide as well as due to foreign invasion, the Chinese emperors no longer had the time or financial wherewithal to concern themselves with the affairs of Taoism, therefore Taoism ceased to expand in China.
After Qing challengers routed the Ming rulers at the Battle of Shanhaiguan ("Shanhai Pass") at Qinhuangdao in Hebei province in 1664, Taoism was a spent force at China's royal court. Without political and pecuniary support from the palace, Taoism was forced to shift its emphasis from the upper eschelons of Chinese society to Chinese society's lower levels, where Taoism gradually became a secret religious sect.
The glorious ascension and sad decline of Chinese Taoism is inseparably interlinked to China's own volatile historical development. However, Taoism came to exercise profound influence on every aspect of Chinese life, from politics to culture to philosophical thought to everyday life itself, and would continue to do so for centuries to come, as Taoism had become an integral part of the philosophical, cultural, and social psyche of the Chinese people.
* An introduction to the two more arcane of these four main streams of philosophical-religious thought, Mohism and Legalism (the other two need no introduction), is not appropriate here - go instead to Wikipedia.
** Those wishing to become followers of the school were required to pay a fee of 5 pecks of rice (a peck being roughly equal to 9 liters), a not insignificant expense at the time, which is why the government branded the movement as "Rice Robbers".
The Two Sects of Taoism
As part of its natural development through the course of Chinese history, Taoism became formally separated into two sects, namely, the Orthodox Oneness Sect (the pure Taoist sect) and the Quanzhen Sect (a hybrid sect). It must be said, however, that followers of both of these Taoist sects regarded - and still do, of course - Lao-tzu as Senior Lord Taishang and they accord him a special place in Taoism, even though Lao-tzu ranks below other Taoist deities.
The Orthodox Oneness Sect
The Orthodox Oneness Sect adheres to the doctrines belonging to Orthodox Oneness Taoism. The sect's founder, Zhang Daoling of the Eastern Han Dynasty, created the Tradition of the Mighty Commonwealth of Orthodox Oneness, which was later referred to as Tianshi Dao ("Celestial Path"). In the first year of the Yuanzhen (CE 1295-1297) period of Emperor Chengzong's reign (CE 1294 and 1307) during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, Zhang Yucai was appointed as the thirty-eighth Celestial Master to exercise rule over Taoism in the Yangtze River Delta area. Epecially in the eighth year of Emperor Chengzong's Dade (CE 1297-1307) period, Yucai was conferred the title of Orthodox Oneness Hierarch in Charge of the Register of the Three Mountains (i.e., the three mountains holy to Taoism: Mt. Gezao, Mt. Longhu and Mt. Mao).
Later Yucai was conferred the title of Senior Official of the Golden Seal and Violet Ribbon in Charge of the Empeor's Diet, created Luiguo Lord and bestowed the Golden Seal of First Rank. Since then, the office of Celestial Master has also been termed the Orthodox Oneness Hierarch, generation after generation, and has traditionally overseen the three register* Taoist schools of Gezao Mountain, Longhu Mountain and Mao Mountain in the Yangtze River Delta. Therefore, the Taoist schools such as the Shenxiao School, the Qingwei School, the Donghua School and the Jingming School, as well as Taiyi Taoism - all of which take the Sutra of Orthodox Oneness as their main sutra and the Taoist ritual offerings to the conquering gods and the expelling of demons as their main religious activities - are all referred to as belonging to Orthodox Oneness Taoism, or to the Orthodox Oneness Sect.
* In Taoism, the term register refers to the recording of the name of a person, or object, in an official source, or book (or perhaps in heaven's virtual book), and is considered an important, religious (or belief-system) act, or investiture, that bears an aura of permanency and irrefutability.
The Quanzhen Sect
The other Taoist sect, the Quanzhen Sect, emerged throughout China during the Jin (CE 1115-1234) and Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasties. The Quanzhen Sect adheres to the doctrines belonging to Quanzhen Taoism. Wang Chongyang, the founder of the Quanzhen Sect, inscribed the Orthodox Oneness Taoist temple where he lived and served in Ninghai, in present-day Shandong Province, as Quanzhen Hall, in homage to the new Quanzhen Sect. Those who thereafter joined Taoism in this area were called Quanzhen Taoists, or members of the Quanzhen Sect.
The Quanzhen Sect blended the teachings and precepts of Taoism with Confucianism and Buddhism, maintaining that the three religions should be equal and united into a single, holistic belief system, though at the same time Chongyang gave prominence to Taoism as the core belief of the Quanzhen Sect. In the period of Emperor Taizu's reign (CE 1206-1227) during the Yuan Dynasty (NB: Emperor Taizu is synonymous with Genghis Khan), the Quanzhen Sect entered a golden era. However, during the Ming Dynasty, the Quanzhen Sect slid into a period of serious decline.
The Quanzhen Sect takes The Classic of the Way and the Natural Virtue, The Heart Sutra (Prajna Paramita Sutra), and The Book of Filial Piety as the compulsory Sutra of Quanzhen Taoism. It teaches people to "be unified in doctrine and in practice", to "be upright and sincere", to "think less of oneself and to diminish desire". In its early stage, the Quanzhen Sect gave prominence to individual seclusion and contemplation, and refused to worship symbols or engage in alchemy, which was otherwise popular at the time. The sect placed great emphasis on the cultivation of nature and life, believing that nature was the spirit while life was the inner energy. Over time, however, the sect maintained that ascetics must in effect abandon their former ways, since it required of all of its teachers that they be ordained, give up their lofty pride and devote themselves to doing good for others.
Taoism's Fundamental Precepts
The most fundamental belief of Taoism is the Tao (alternatively, Dao, or "Way"/ "Path"), from which all of Taoism's dogmata and doctrines derive. Adherents of Taoism maintain that Tao is comprehensive, immanent, and the beginning of everything. "Virtue" is often mentioned in connection with Tao, meaning that, for adherents, Tao is synonymous with virtue. Taoism holds that its followers should develop and cultivate themselves according to Taoist doctrine, i.e., foster virtue. Taoists also hold that the cultivation of Taoism can return the individual to its primordial state of pureness, leading to immortality within a life of peace, happiness and perfect health. Taoism is a religion that delights in living (in this sense it contrasts with Buddhism, which advocates suffering - in the sense of the suppression, or negation, of desire - as a means to achieve enlightenment), it places an emphasis on life and therefore loathes death. Hence, living eternally in peace and tranquility is the basic doctrine and belief of Taoism.
The Taoist sutras mainly include the Classic of the Way and the Natural Virtue. The Taoist Canon represents the collective works of Taoist sutras, of which there are many. However, rank-and-file, or ordinary, Taoists chant mainly from the Book of the Jade Emperor, the Book of Peace and Tranquility and the Book of the Three Officials as well as a handful of others, though these three comprise the primary spiritual texts of rank-and-file Taoists. More educated and/or more devoted Taoists study, in addition, the Classic of the Way and the Natural Virtue, the Book of Nanhua, the Book of Huangting, Chapters on Awakening to Perfection, Discussion on Sitting in Meditation and Becoming Unaware of this World and Harmony of Difference and Sameness.
A major deity in Taoism is generally termed a "senior deity". Since Lao-tzu is considered as the senior deity who discovered the Tao, or Path, for the benefit of all mankind, early Taoists venerated him as the highest deity in Taoism. The short, non-exhaustive list below does not necessarily follow the exact hierarchy of Taoist deities, though the first two offices are considered to be the top two, in the exact order listed (the exact hierarchy of Taoist deities is said to be so complex that even Taoist scholars quibble over it).
The Three Pure Ones (the Taoist "Holy Trinity")
The Three Pure Ones is the collective office, or title, of three (3-in-1, actually) highest deities that Taoism holds in veneration and worships. The three highest deities refer to the Celestial Worthy of Original Beginning in the Heaven of Qingwei in the Realm of Jade Pure, the Celestial Worthy of the Numinous Treasure in the Heaven of Yuyu in the Realm of Upper Pure, and the Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power in the Heaven of Dachi in the Realm of Great Pure, of which the realms of Jade Pure, Upper Pure and Great Pure are the respective fairylands they live in, while the heavens of Qingwei, Yuyu and Dachi are the respective celestial boundaries they rule. A "Celestial Worthy" refers to the most respected and therefore highest rank in the hierarchy of Taoist deities.
The Jade Emperor of Heaven
The Jade Emperor of Heaven is a deity to whom ordinary folk have long paid special homage, as he is their defender, the supreme deity who occupies himself with all the disasters and blessings of 'the three realms, the four directions, the five elements and the six paths'. However, as a Taoist deity, the Jade Emperor of Heaven is subordinate to the Three Pure Ones.
The Senior Lord
The Senior Lord is the first deity appearing in Taoism. When Huang-lao* Taoism was in vogue, Lao-tzu had become the highest deity of Taoism. However, the highest deity in Taoism has since been regarded as the Three Pure Ones, followed by the Jade Emperor of Heaven.
The Three Officials
The Three Officials appear relatively early in Taoism. During the early stage of Taoism, the great Taoist teacher, Zhang Daoling, said that Taoists "didn't believe in any deity or ghost, but worshiped Senior Lord and the Three Pure Ones as well as the Three Officials". Later, the titlel of Three Officials was also called the Three Scholars. The Buddhist and Daoist Records of Weishu (The standard history of the Wei Dynasty) says: "Daoism has three essences and nine mansions as well as the three officials of heaven, earth and water". As for the three essences, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month is the upper essence, namely the date when the heaven official examines and rechecks the documents; the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month is the middle essence, namely the date when the earth official examines and rechecks the documents; the fifteenth day of the tenth lunar month is the lower essence, namely the date when the water official examines and rechecks the documents. All the living things on earth are thus under the rule of the three officials of heaven, earth and water."
The Great Perfect Warrior Emperor
The Great Perfect Warrior Emperor is a very impressive deity in Taoism and one of the four saints who are appointed to the four directions - east, west, south and north - who successively take charge of the three realms (Jade Pure, Upper Pure and Great Pure ) for one day.
The Great Emperor of Tai Mountain
The Great Emperor of Tai Mountain is namely Emperor Fengdu. He is originally the god of Tai Mountain, of the five famous high mountains. Emperors of all dynasties would offer sacrifices to the five famous high mountains, especially to Tai Mountain, because it is the easternmost mountain of the five famous high mountains, and is also the ancient head of the high mountains. Therefore, Tai Mountain was taken more seriously. The Basic Annals of the Great Emperor of the Tai Mountain says, "Tai Mountain, as the son of the Heavenly Emperor and the Mansion of Deities, takes charge of the number of the gentle, the simple, the honored and the humble in the human world, as well as the eighteen hells, the six books of law cases, the seventy six departments and the power of life and death". Therefore, Tai Mountain has become a deity in Taoism, and the highest of the Taoist Yin spirits.
* Huang-lao was a Chinese philosopher/ mystic who lived during the 3rd century BCE and who blended the Taoist philosophy of Lao-tzu with Immortalist practices, also known as the Magic and Immortality Tradition in Taoism (this tradition is especially associated with Chuang-Tzu - see under "Historical Introduction" above). The philosophy of Huang-lao emphasized virture as advocated by Emperor Huang-ti (alternatively, Huangdi, but also known as the Yellow Emperor and father of the Han Chinese lineage... Huangdi reigned from BCE 2497-2398). According to Taoist belief, Huang-ti achieved immortality, having first lived to be 100 years old.
Taoist Sutras and Signs
The Taoist Canon is the collected works of the Taoist sutras. In addition to collecting Taoist sutras, the Taoist Canon also amasses works on other aspects of knowledge relevant to the study of Taoism such as schools of classical thought, medicine, chemistry, biology, athletics, health care, astrology and geography. The Taoist Canon is an important part of the cultural heritage of ancient China.
The signs, or symbols, of Taoism are the Bagua (Eight Diagrams) and the Taiji tu (Chart of the Great Ultimate).
The Taoist Fasting Ceremony
The Taoist Fasting Ceremony is a relatively common prayer ceremony in Taoism. The ceremony involves offering a sacrifice to the Fasting God and entreating the other deities to dispel disasters and to bring blessings. The general procedure is of first setting up the altar and placing the sacrifices on it, then lighting incense, writing symbols, chanting sutra and singing praises. Bamboo lamps are lit and music is played as an accompaniment to the ceremony.
The Taoist Sacrificial Ceremony
The Taoist Sacrificial Ceremony, also known as the Tomb Sweeping Festival, is a Taoist rite. On the dates of the Tomb Sweeping Festival, i.e., on July 15th and on October 1st of every year, Taoist rites are held to release the souls of deceased Taoists. Believers and non-believers alike may provide funds and invite Taoists to hold a Taoist rite in order to bring blessings, expel disasters and release the souls of the deseased from purgatory.
The professional Taoist followers, i.e., devotees who embrace Taoist doctrines and who fastidiously study and practice the philosophy, religion and related arts of Taoism, are called Taoists (non-professional followers in Taoism are called scholars, chelas, adherents, believers or disciples, but are not called Taoists). Other appellations for professional Taoists are as follows:
Appelations Common to Both Taoist Sects
It is an honorific title for a Taoist who is proficient in the teachings and the dogmata of Taoism, and who serve as teachers of Taoism. Additionally, those who are advanced in learning Taoist doctrines and who can preside over the fasting ceremony are also called rabbi.
A Perfect Master
A Perfect Master is a Taoist who has applied him-/herself according to Taoist doctrines for a sufficiently long period of time and who combines sharpness of wit in doctrinal matters with a high degree of virtue.
A Taoists who maintains Taoist rules and who takes charge of the affairs of the Taoist temple (of either of the two sects of Taoism) may be called a Director.
A Guest Receptionist
Guest Receptionist is the appellation for a Taoist who takes charge of receiving Taoist followers from the outside (visiting Taoists from other temples), as well as non-Taoist guests, to the Taoist temple.
Appelations Particular to the Quanzhen Sect
A Master of Great Learning and Integrity
A Taoist master who has made religious vows is called a Master of Great Learning and Integrity.
A Master of Commandments
A Taoist master who has assumed the office of Abbot is called a Master of Commandments.
A Great Master
A Taoist master who looks after the temple alter is called a Great Master.
A Succeeding Master
A Taoist master who has not made religious vows is called a Succeeding Master.
It is the appellation for a master of a Taoist Temple of the Ten Directions within the Quanzhen Sect of Taoism. The tranquil lodgings in which this Taoist master lives is also called an Abbot. According to the Ten Taoist Regulations, "as an abbot, [the individual] must be advanced in age, high in virtue, upright in character, bright and extensive in learning, and qualified to be a person of exemplary virtue in the Taoist temple. Moreover, a mere devotee from one of the blessed lands [i.e., one of the seventy-two "blessed lands" of Taoist scripture] may be appointed as an abbot."
A Temple Supervisor
Temple Supervisor is the appellation for the general manager of affairs in the Taoist temple of the Quanzhen Sect. The position is inferior to that of an Abbot.
Appelations Particular to the Orthodox Oneness Sect
Heavenly Master is an honorific title for the founder of Tianshi Dao (Celestial, or Heavenly, Path), Zhang Daoling, and his hereditary successors of later ages, that was bestowed upon these individuals by professional Taoists of the Orthodox Oneness Sect.
Taoism observes the "birthday" of gods and immortals as festivals. The ninth day of the first lunar month of every year is considered as the "birthday" of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, the nineteeth day of the first lunar month is considered as the "birthday" of Qiu Chuji and the eighteenth day of the fourth month is considered as the "birthday" of Lord Bixia, etc. On those dates, the Fasting and Sacrificial Ceremonies are held and the alter is set up for Taoists to chant sutras. When the "birthday" of Lord Bixia arrives, there are multitudes of pilgrims who come to Tai Mountain to offer incense and to pledge a vow. On the twenty-eighth day of the third lunar month - i.e., the "birthday" of the Great Emperor of Tai Mountain - a large-scale temple festival is observed. This special Taoist ceremony has been observed ever since the Song (CE 960-1279) and Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasties.
The Layout of a Taoist Temple Hall
Taoist buildings are often composed of four parts: a sanctuary, a dining hall, a dormitory and a garden. The overall layout basically adopts the style of a traditional Chinese siheyuan, or courtyard house. With a wooden truss as its main structure, the "rooms", as units, make up the individual buildings, which in turn make up the couryard houses. All sorts of Chinese building complexes are based on courtyard houses. The sanctuary is the main site for religious activities and is often located on the main axis of a building complex, as the main structure of the entire building complex.
Large-sized temples are mostly courtyard houses that are laid out in a simple hierarchy with smaller rooms, or halls, occupying the either side of the temple complex (alternatively, occupying the four corners of the complex) while the main hall, or focus of worship, is placed in the center of the complex along the back wall (farthest from the entrance). An open courtyard, sometimes roofed, is generally located in the center (on both axes) of the temple complex. As far as possible, the building scheme is in harmony with the topography of the terrain.
The statues or figures of deities are placed in the halls. The dining hall building includes the guest hall, the fasting hall, the kitchen and the auxiliary storehouse. They are often placed on the side face of the main axis of the building complex. The dormitories - which are accommodation houses for Taoists, non-professional believers and even tourists - have a relatively flexible layout. They are generally built as a separate courtyard house in a secluded part of the building complex.
Most Taoist temples make good use of any available scenic vantage points and/or views of historic sites, as well as any unusual - even grotesque - naturally-occurring landforms and ground objects, including mountain streams, hot springs, boulders, exotic caves, suspended rocks left by erosion and the like, and ancient trees. They develop the temple complex taking these features into account, erecting storied buildings, pavilions, terraced structures, water-driven mills, etc., all in an attempt to enhance the beauty of the temple for the benefit of the monks, the visitors, and surely also the Taoist deities.
In a Taoist building, the four parts - the sanctuary, the dining hall, the dormitory and the garden - each follow a clear and definite zoning principle, reflect an appropriate juxtaposition, and offer convenient contact with the other parts of the building complex. The Taoist temple suggests stateliness, solemnity, cleanliness and freshness, yet cosiness. Moreover, the Taoist temple synthesizes and integrates the various component building structures with relevant art forms such as murals, sculptures and calligraphic works, as well as plaques displaying renowned antithetical couplets, dedications, poems, and even short essays. There are also usually stone inscriptions round about the complex, while the garden itself is designed to complement the various buildings and other natural features. All in all, the typical Taoist temple reflects a high degree of cultural development, but restrained so as to foster self-reflection and religious contemplation.
The Taoist buildings in the coastal areas of Huanan, to take a particular example, boast exquisite carvings and lifelike murals. Examples elsewhere, such as Taoist temples in scenic areas near famous mountains, exhibit a pleasing and harmonious layout by allowing the buildings to conform to the topography of the surrounding landscape, such as exotic peaks, breath-taking gullies, freshwater springs, graceful waterfalls and majestically tall ancient trees. In addition to allowing the layout of the buildings to conform to the natural topography of the surrounding terrain, the typical Taoist temple enhances this effect of natural beauty by the unique charm of its interior design.
The overall layout, mass, decoration and color scheme of a typical Taoist temple complex all suggest that its architectural thoughts follow the concepts of Yin and Yang and the doctrine of the Five Evolutive Phases (of qi, or vital energy - to learn more about qi, click here) of ancient China. This doctrine holds that everything in the universe is composed of the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal (gold) and water, and are assigned to five evolutive phases which depend on each other in a circulatory manner. The particulars of the given climate and the orientation and color of the surrounding terrain are intimately related to the layout and construction of the typical Taoist building.
Taoist scripture proclaims that ten large caves, thirty-six small caves and seventy-two blessed lands located among the famous mountains under heaven are the places where immortals live. These places are called 'caves and blessed lands', and are therefore the proper sites in which to erect Taoist temples.
The Five Famous High Mountains
According to Taoist scripture, there are 'three mountains and five famous high mountains' in China, all of which are holy places. Mountains are understandably places of contemplative refuge, but they also are the natural habitats for caves, another phenomenon holy to Taoism.
Tai Mountain as the Eastern Ancient Mountain
Among the famous Taoist sacred places of 'three mountains and five famous high mountains' in China, Tai Mountain in present-day Tai'an County, Shandong Province is 'the solely respected of the five high mountains' and enjoys a reputation as 'the first famous mountain under heaven'. Though it is not the highest nor the largest of the five high mountains, Tai Mountain is nonetheless grand, steep and lofty. It is situated on the Huabei Plain, one of the important cradles of ancient Chinese civilization and the center of Qi-lu culture. Therefore, Tai Mountain's natural, austere beauty and its specific location in the heart of ancient China's Qi-lu cultural landscape has indeed marked out Tai Mountain as 'the solely respected of the five high mountains as well as 'the grandfather of famous mountains'.
Hua Mountain as the Western Ancient Mountain
Hua Mountain is located in present-day Huayin County, Shanxi Province. Occupying the three ancient states of Qin, Jin and Yu, Hua Mountain is situated in a bottleneck between east and west, a natural junction between the two ancient cities of Chang'an and Luoyang. Hua Mountain is reputed for its dangerously sheer rock faces and craggy peaks, and is considered a challenge to even the most capable hikers.
What the mountain lacks in size and height, it makes up for in its formidable inaccessibility, being composed of thousands of cliffs. Its southern peak, Luoyan, its western peak, Lianhua, its central peak, Yunv, and its northern peak, Yuntai, are all known the world over for their majesty, their starkness and inaccessibility, and the danger they present to the novice hiker. The mountaintop is often enshrouded in clouds or mists. Hidden among Hua Mountain's exotic peaks, the Taoist monasteries and the scenic-view vantage platforms are set off against an exotic background of straight pine trees and mountain caves. The clear springs fork down into the valley below and moisten the Ganoderma lucidum (the Chinese name is lingzhi, meaning "herb of spiritual potency") and the Fly agaric (known since ancient times in China as "the mushroom of immortality").* Therefore Hua Mountain has been known as the immortal's cave in Taoism since antiquity, and is one of the 'ten large caves and thirty-six small caves' of Taoist scripture.
* Both are large mushrooms. The former, not common in Europe and North America, is used for medicinal purposes while the latter, which is quite common both in Europe and in North America, is considered toxic and even deadly in sufficient doses. However, they are both pretty to look at, especially the Fly agaric, which is the quintessential woodland mushroom, and the most common artificial mushroom seen in Christmas decorations.
Heng Mountain as the Southern Ancient Mountain
Heng Mountain is located in present-day Hengshan County, Hunan Province. With its lush vegetation and graceful scenery, Heng Mountain is a famous scenic spot where immortals and Taoists dwell and practice their meditations. During the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) and Three Kingdoms Wei (CE 220-265) Dynasties, a famous Taoist called Wei Huacun, after her children had grown up, resumed her acute interest in Taoism, eventually receiving direct help from the immortals, who were impressed with her acumen. The body of knowledge that Wei Huacun received from the immortals helped her to found Shangqing Taoism, which comprised a form of meditation involving the visualization of deities within the adept's body and which could therefore lead to ecstatic and purifying union between the adept and the deities, rendering the use of traditional Taoist herb remedies superfluous.
Wei Huacun spent much time on Heng Mountain and was duly created Mrs Nanyue (Southern Ancient Mountain) by the immortals. Heng Mountain cum Southern Ancient Mountain became the homeplace for several Taoist temples such as Huangting Taoist Temple, Xuandu Taoist Temple, Zhu Rong Taoist Temple, and - in honor of Wei Huacun cum Mrs Nanyue - also Nanyue Grand Temple. Heng Mountain, sanctified in Taoism as Southern Ancient Mountain, has since been a famous scenic spot, with Buddhism coexisting alongside Taoism.
Hen Mountain as the Northern Ancient Mountain
Hen Mountain is located in the southern part of present-day Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province. It is said that Hen Mountain was conferred the title of Northern Ancient Mountain and raised to be the suzerain of tens of thousands of mountains in the northern part of the country by Emperor Shun in ancient times (BCE 23rd-22nd century, circa), when the emperor made his inspection tour to Hen Mountain. Stretching from northeast to southwest, Hen Mountain has 108 continuous heaving peaks extending as long as hundreds of li [NB: 1/1 li = 1/2 km]. With its imposing presence, Hen Mountain has been a natural barrier of particular interest to Chinese military strategists since antiquity. Taoism calls this mountain 'the fifth small cave'. The mountain is known for its exotic rock formations and tall, ancient trees. Moreover, it is rich in Taoist relics and legends. For example, in ancient times, there were eighteen Taoist temples on Hen Mountain called 'the eighteen wonderful sceneries'.
Song Mountain as the Central Ancient Mountain
Song Mountain, which has alternately been called Waifang Mountain, Chong Mountain and Song High Mountain in ancient times, is located within present-day Dengfeng County near the city of Zhengzhou, Henan Province. With its extremely high and exotic-looking peaks, its graceful landscapes and its numerous Taoist temples, Song Mountain is the foremost mountain in the Zhongzhou Area.
In their usual pithy way of expressing themselves, Taoists say of Song Mountain that the mountain's verve consists mainly in its extensiveness and abundance, that the mountain contains and nourishes all things on earth. Therefore Taoists esteem the god of Central Ancient Mountain as the deity who takes charge of land, mountain, river, and valley in this world, as well as the feeding of oxen and sheep. At the same time, Song Mountain as Central Ancient Mountain is also the symbol of Confucian virtue in the central land.
Song Mountain has occupied a special place in the hearts of the Chinese people, having been sacred to Taoist, Confucianist, and Buddhist alike. Zhongyue Temple on Song Mountain is one of the largest buildings in all of Taoism. Inside the temple there are lofty halls, and towering ancient cypresses grow freely in the temple's open spaces. At the same time, the temple is a museum to an impressive assemblage of Taoist cultural relics, which sets Zhongyue Temple apart as a unique Taoist cultural site and sacred place.
Other Famous Mountains and Ancient Taoist Temples
Qingcheng Mountain - Chang Taoist Temple
Qingcheng Mountain has long enjoyed a reputation as "the most serene mountain under heaven". The founder of Taoism, Zhang Daoling, entered the land of Shu (present-day Sichuan Province) by way of Shanxi Province and settled down on Qingcheng Mountain where he built a thatched house, spread Taoist doctrines and passed away there. As early as the 2nd century BCE, the Qin Dynasty designated Qincheng Mountain as one of the eighteen Taoist sacred places of mountains and rivers for national sacrifice. The Chang Taoist Temple is the center of Taoism on Qingcheng Mountain. It is said that the Heavenly Master Cave behind the Taoist temple is the place where Zhao Daoling built a house and spread Taoist doctrines.
Zhongnan Mountain - Caolou Taoist Temple
Caolou Taoist Temple is located at the foot of the Zhongnan Mountain's northern side in the village of Louguan, near the city of Xi'an in Zhouzhi County, Shaanxi Province. It is said that Yin Xi, the then magistrate of Hangu Pass - a militarily a strategic pass built by the ancient State of Qin in BCE 361 as the state's eastern gate - and also a dafu (senior government official) during the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, built a thatched storied house here to observe celestial bodies. Yin Xi claimed that when he saw a purple gas come from the east, this meant that a Taoist would be passing by. Later, when Lao-tzu traveled west and entered the pass, Yin Xi received him and settled him into the thatched storied house. It was on a high hillock south of this thatched roof house that Lao-tzu wrote five thousand words of the Classic of the Way and the Natural Virtue and had a special platform built there so that he might impart to others the sutra he had just composed. Hence, the platform, known as Louguan Platform in deference to the nearby village, is also called the Sutra Teaching Platform.
During the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, Louguan Platform continued to flourish. Li Yuan - aka Emperor Gaozu (CE 618-626) of the Tang Dynasty - took Lao-tzu as his ancestor and renamed Louguan Platform as Zongsheng Palace. A later Tang Dynasty emperor, Emperor Xuanzong (CE 712-756), transformed Louguan Platform/ Zongsheng Palace into Zongsheng Taoist Temple under the influence of a dream he had of Lao-tzu one night. After its transformation into an official Taoist temple, Louguan Platform, whose name subsequently reverted to the namesake village where it is located, became a sacred place in Taoism.
Wudang Mountain - Zixiao Palace - Golden Temple
The mist-enshrouded, fairyland-like landscapes of Wudang Mountain make it an ideal place for Taoists to pursue their meditations. Legend has it that Xuan Wu, Dark Lord of the North and Lord of True Martiality, one of the higher-ranking Taoist deities and one of the most revered deities in all of Chinese cosmology - especially by martial artists - achieved enlightenment here, ascended to heaven and became an immortal. He is the patron saint of Wudang Mountain. However, what really puts Wudang Mountain on the map, as it were, is its connection to Zhang Sanfeng, the Taoist master who developed the neijia ("internal") form of martial arts, whereby the adept harnesses the force of qi in order to achieve physical feats that would not be possible via simple brute strength). The Wudang Sect of Taoism established by Xuan Wu on Wudang Mountain is equal in importance to the Shaolin Sect of Taoism established on Song Mountain by Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who is credited with having relayed Zen Buddhism (Ch'an Buddhism) to China during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty.
Zixiao Palace is located on the so-called soul path of Wudang Mountain. Built in the eleventh year of the reign (CE 1402-1424) of Emperor Yongle during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, it is a completely preserved Taoist temple. Golden Temple is situated on Celestial Peak ("Tianzhu" - literally, "Voice from heaven"), the main peak of Wudang Mountain. Also built during the reign of Emperor Yongle, Golden Temple is the largest cast-bronze, gold-plated grand temple in China.
Yongle Palace - Chongyang Palace - Baiyun Taoist Temple
Yongle Palace, also called Chunyang Palace, is located in Longquan Village in the northern reaches of Ruicheng County, near Lijiang, Henan Province. Yongle Palace is known the world over for its murals. They can be compared to the murals inside the Mogao Caves ("Caves of a Thousand Buddhas") at Dunhuang, a medium-sized city in Gansu Province. Yongle Palace is one of the three ancestral halls of Taoism in China, and was built for offering sacrifices to Lu Dongbin, one of the Eight (cave) Immortals of Taoism.
Chongyang Palace is located in Zu'an Town in Nanhu County, near the city of Xi'an, Shanxi Province. Built during the Yuan Dynasty, Chongyang Palace was the residence of Wang Chongyang, the founder of Quanzhen Taoism, and from whence he spread the doctrines of Quanzhen Taoism. Wang Chongyang was later buried at Chongyang Palace, wherefore the site thereafter has been regarded as the ancestral temple of Quanzhen Taoism - it is also called the Ancestral Monastery.
Baiyun Taoist Temple, located outside the Xibian ("Western") Gate in Beijing, is the first Taoist temple of Quanzhen Taoism, and also the ancestral temple of the Longmen Sect. As the largest Taoist temple building in China, and the seat of the China Taoist Association, it enjoys a priviliged position among Taoists the world over.
Weizhou Island Matsu Temple - Tianjin Houtian Palace - Taiwan Beigang Chaotian Palace
Ma-tsu, or Mazu, is the Taoist Goddess of the Sea and thus the patron saint of fishermen and sailors. Mazu is, understandably, especially worshipped along China's coastal areas, and in particular, the southernmost coastal area of China. But she is also worshipped by Taoists in neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere. There are Matsu temples all around the world, in fact, but the three listed above correspond to the three largest. Of them, Weizhou Island Matsu Temple is the ancestral temple of Matsu.
Tianjin, home of Tianjin Houtian Palace (also home of Huangyaguan Great Wall, a miniature Great Wall), is the second largest city along China's northern coast.
Chaotian Temple in the city of Beigang in Yunlin County, Taiwan, is Taiwan's oldest and most revered Taoist temple.
As Taoism has spread its roots around the world, it has first and foremost followed the Chinese people as they have migrated to other geographical areas, but it has also been adapted to suit other cultures, especially other Asian cultures. As a religion and as a philosophy - especially those aspects of its philosophy that are associated with the martial arts (both their external as well as internal variants) - Taoism continues to fascinate both Taoists and non-Taoists alike.