The period between the second and the sixth centuries C.E., constitutes the formative period of Daoism.Daoist lineages were concerned with distinguishing themselves from other lineages of practice and had an emic set of categories for doing so. Traditions are constructed retroactively as adherents seek sources for the practices advocated by their communities in order to distinguish them from other practices.
For an introductory summary of the historical background and historiographical issues related to the period following the collapse of the Later Han and through the Six Dynasties period, see Scott Pearce, Audrey Spiro and Patricia Ebrey, "Introduction" in Scott Pearce, Audrey Spiro and Patricia Ebrey, Culture and Power in the Reconstitution of the Chinese Realm, 200-600 ( 2001): 1-32.
An important document that also needs to be taken into account is the Array of the Five Numinous Treasure Talismans of the Most High (Taishang lingbao wufu xu, hereafter WFX). This is a core text for understanding the processes by which Daoists constructed their identity. The major part of the text was compiled in the southern kingdom of Wu and may tentatively be dated to the late third century C.E.
There are different ways in which tradition is created - that is, the strategies by which authors compile new rituals and narratives, and establish a self-consciously distinct style of practice. The process by which Daoists constructed their tradition ranged from the discourse of transcendence found in late Han inscriptions to the integration of imperial ritual and breathing practices in the ritual synthesis of the jiao rite. In order to emphasize the creative aspect of the process by which earlier textual and ritual elements were adopted and adapted, I demonstrated that while underlying notions such as the "power of inscription" were common, the actual choices made by the authors to include specific elements, such as the motifs of the Red Bird or Mt. Zhong, were comprehensible in specific contexts. These choices were often misunderstood, or made irrelevant, in later formulations - and were either discarded or changed to accommodate new interests.
The best example for the early personal quest may be the Inaugural Emperor of Qin whose administrative and ritual system was based upon the cosmological speculations of Zou Yan, and who, under the influence of masters of esoterica from the coast, was personally devoted to the quest for transcendence.l The same type of quest is evident in other inscriptions which suggests how the small localized family based lineages may have been organized. By the late second century, as the three other inscriptions demonstrate, shrines to individual adepts had become foci of communal cultic practice.
The so called Tang Gongfang and Wangzi Qiao inscriptions to earlier forms of cultic practice attest to the historical developments of these cults. The deification process of the adepts evident in the inscriptions in question also demonstrates that the Laozi inscription does not mark a unique development. While Laozi may have been perceived as the greatest of the masters, his deification and eventual identification with the Dao itself must be seen within the context of the deification of other masters of esoterica and as part of the same spectrum.
By the late Han seekers of immortality were deified in various locales throughout China and became foes of communal cultic practice. Inscriptions share terminology and refer to similar practices. These similarities are also shared with early hagiographies and with narratives embedded in contemporary sources. This shared discourse should therefore be seen as reflecting actual social practices rather than mere literary tropes. These inscriptions reveal a process, common to all social levels, in which individual practitioners of esoteric arts, fangshi, came to be perceived as deified beings that provided their communities with benefits, ranging from healing disease to providing good weather and pest control for agricultural work. Simultaneously, these deified beings continued to be seen as transmitters of esoteric arts to individual practitioners.
The deification of Laozi was not unique. Rather, the cult to Laozi should be understood within a spectrum of communal cultic centers. Such cults ranged from small, family based cults, similar to the cult revealed by the Fei Zhi inscription. through local cults, such as formed around Tang Gongfang, to trans-regional cults, such as evidenced by the. inscription to Wangzi Qiao. Along this spectrum, I characterized the cult to Laozi as a uni versal cult. The language in the Laozi inscription portrays hirn as a successful adept who has become one with the Dao. The same qualities with similar phrases are also ascribed to Wangzi Qiao and the other transcendent. The language of transcendence itself is traceable to pre-Han texts, but reaches an apogee in the language used by the Inaugural Emperor of Qin and Han emperor Wu. The active quest for transcendence through esoteric practices and the terminology of attainment used exemplifies the links between the individual quest and the imperial project.
The Han-era transcendents were appropriated into the later Daoist pantheons. Thisvery act of appropriation, however, reveals one of the qualitative differences between the Han practitioners and Daoists. The various Daoist lineages ranked individuals and practices into hierarchies of attainrnent as they attempted to map the entire panoply of practices. and local cults into systematic and unified pantheons. In this sense the Daoist enterprise paralleled the imperial project of unification.
The Fei Zhi inscription is evidence for the existence of a wide range of communal cults, which can be characterized simultaneously as aspects of local common religion and as part of the esoteric lineages of the jangshi. Along with the inchoate Taiping movement and Celestial Master Daoism, these cults were the milieux from which Daoist lineages were to emerge in the following centuries.
For example the choice of Mt. Zhong as a locus of revelation, while traceable to earlier mythical narratives, is explainable when associated with the mountain of this name outside Jiankang, the new capital city of the Wu kingdom, which was to become the capital region for the Southern Dynasties for the next four centuries. The sacrality attributed to Mt. Zhong and Lake Dongting in the transmission narrative coheres with the search for legitimacy by the Southern Kingdoms, which also sought to transpose the sacred geography of the entire of "China" realm into the smaller territory in the south.
Narratives were reformulated to achieve a unified Daoist traditions, for example the one culminating with the reformed Celestial Masters of the Northem Wei. But also the more modern false claim that “Daoisrn emerged from Laozi”
We may consider the "charge" for the author(s) to have been the production of a text which would: (a) advöcate a specific ritual as the ultimate practice for attaining transcendence, (b) legitimate the practice by providing it with a prestigious lineage, and (c) create a mythology that would cohere with the expectations of the ultimate audience, the emperor.
However lineages were constructed by dual processes. First, actual historieal lineages were formed by rituals binding master and disciple, and, second, these historie al lineages claimed ancient prestige by creative constructions of mythical antecedents. The correct transmission by which lineages defined themselves centered on texts and practices. Restricting access to these practices ensured their secrecy and efficacy.
The earliest textual layers consisted of discrete practices which the authors thereby claimed as their heritage. This was the tradition which the authors constructed and which the lineage claimed as its own. By this claim the authors assured the legitimacy and authority of the ritual synthesis which is advocated in the third juan of the Wu Fu Xu one of the most authtentic Daoist documents.
The structure of the WFX is coherent if we realize that the text includes passages emanating from at least two groups. While alert to the danger of "inventing" and reifying lineages,IS I wish to stress that these groups need not be seen as distinct seets or cults. On the other hand, we must be aware that several contemporary groups were active in the Jiangnan region, as elsewhere. Their historical existence and actual contributions to the developing Daoist traditions is obscured by the textual production ofthe Six Dynasties period, which tended to systematize competing notions into hierarchie schemes of attainment and toreformulate oldertexts and practices to fit new interests. Thus, while we may generally label these various lineages as Daoist, we risk losing sight of the specific differences andsimilarities between them.
The interaction and impact of various groups on each other' s practices is reflected in the redaction process of the text and its constituent parts.
The text was composed before Ge Hong and that it is representative of a lineage whose interests differed markedly from those found in theBPZ. The early strata of the text were impacted by a lineage associated with Celestial Master Daoism, and active in the south. While I am unable to name any of the members of the main lineage within which the text was produced, I can characterize them with following attributes: Closely affiliated with fangshi groups with an interest in qi-circulation, and particularly in the ingestion of astral and directional pneumas, as opposed to herbal and mineral compounds, a deep interest in the weft-texts and debates on ritual efficacy, and eIose links to the court. Hopefully, future research will further cIarify these issues and perhaps evenidentify the author and compilers of the text.
The source of the Daoist traditions can be found in the so called five Lingbao talismans and represented the Dao itself.
A summary of the importance of the five Lingbao talismans in the Daoist tradition is found in the Tang manual of transmission rites, the Synopsis of Precepts, Methods, and Registers for Transmission of Scriptures of the Three Caverns by Zhang Wanfu. The passage concerning the Lingbao talismans describes them as primordial simulacra of the cosmognic process. As manifestations of the transformative power by which the universe itself was generated and continues to transform. And the talismans are said to confer transcendence on those fortunate enough to possess them. Zhang writes:
The Five Talismans of Lingbao are the concealed patterns of the Dao, the congealed pneumas of the flying mysteries. They are spontaneously generated radiant graphs, one zhang square, emitting rays in the eight directions. They emerged before the Primordial within the Cavern of Emptiness. Preserving and managing the epochal revolutions they cause heaven to long endure, lead the Brahma-pneumas to diffuse and spread, and cause the myriad forms to sprout and grow. All those in the ten directions who attained the Dao, and all the spirits and transcendents, wear and revere [these talismans] to gain longevity, to transform and become self-sufficient. Driving the hundred spirits they ascend and enter the formless, and merge their perfection with the Dao.
Zhang Wanfu's comment to this passage reiterates the cosmogonic and transformative power of the talismans. Significantly, in describing their appearance in the human realm he summarizes two transmission narratives , the transmission through the Yellow Thearch, described in the Zhenyi jing, and the transmission though the Great Yu, described in the prefatory section of the WFX, refer, in fact, to the same set of talismans. Thus, the two distinct narratives are finally reconciled in a short rhetorical fIourish. Unlike the passage on which he is commenting, Zhang Wanfu specifies that merely carrying the talismans onone' s body will confer longevity. He proceeds next by describing how:;
“The Five Talismans of Lingbao produced heaven and earth, separated into the five phases, mixing with the pneuma they inhale and exhale the hundred spirits, in accord with the epoch they hide and reveal [themselves]. Enduring over succeeding epochs they r€wolve through the five epochs, spreading the pneumas through the ten heavens. Xuan Yuan [the Yellow Thearch] received it from the Celestial Perfected Luminary (Tianzhen huangren ) and transmitted it to his descendents. Xia Yu obtained it at Mt. Zhong and secreted it at Dongting. The King of Wu divulged it and the blessings of his state did not advance. When a Daoist wears them the Dao does not depart from his body, his spirit and pneuma transform and harmonize within the heart. When the spirits and the pnuema of the Dao are unified, transformations will be natural, and longevity will equal that of heaven and earth. Having refined your effulgence’s and entered perfection. after dissolving your physical body you will be without danger and will endure alone for long epochs.”
Traceable to ancient myths, notions of the "power of inscription." underlay the inherent efficacy of "charts and registers" which provided authority to the ruler.
Talismans were perceived as the most subtle form of inscription. In political contexts talismans were used as emblems of fealty, but in the fangshi traditions and common religion and functioned as emblems of authority and power.
The original use of the Lingbao talismans was as apotropaic devices for entering mountains, and this remains the function of the talismans in the BPZ. Ge Hong continues to see the primary use of talismans as protective devices. While this function is clearly alluded to in the incantations of the jiao rite, the talismans are perceived with far greater numinosity.
The Lingbao talismans continued to function as core elements in the Lingbao ritual synthesis. Reformulated as the Five Perfect Writs in the Perfect Writs in Red Script and the Jade Instructions, these talismans retain their significance in contemporary Daoist rituals, in which they function as the markers of sacred space. They are the firstdevices to be instalied when a Daoist altar is constructed, and the last to be removed.
Divergences with other Daoist lineages may be demonstrated by examining the place ascribed to the Lingbao talismans in texts emanating from other lineages. We may, for instance, look at the Hidden Commentary of the Great Culmen on the Jade Scriptures and Treasured Instructions oi Great Purity (Shangqing taiji yinzhu yujing baojue ):
A late Six Dynasties manual associated with the Lingbao ritual system incorporating practices and texts of other Daoist lineages, and typical of the systematizing texts of the fifth and sixth centuries. Within this system the primary talismans are the Nine Great Talismans of Concealment
Next in importance are the Lingbao wufu which ''worn on one's body, allow one to drive dragons and ride the pneumas, cross through fire and water. The five Thearchs will be at one's side as one roams afar and flies high.
This practice which refers to the five Thearchs together with the five talismans is elearly informed by the WFX, and the later codifications in the Peifect Writs in Red Script.
The notions of inscription and naming to concepts of the body described in the Zhenyi jing and related passages in the WFX, included the notions of bodily gods, the Three-Ones and a focus on internal sources for their practice.
These notions were also found in the LZZJ, in which Taiyi has a central role. However, this complex of notions and practices is different from the practice of the Five Sprouts, which is celebrated in the main body of the WFX, and which seems to have been the core of the Lingbao jingo In the practice of the Five Sprouts the practitioner seeks to imbibe qi from sources external to his body, and Taiyi has no part in the rite. This conception is retained in the developed jiao rite of the Peifect Writs in Red Script and in later formulations.
The ritual synthesis of the WFX can be seen on the distinct elements by which the jiao rite was constructed I demonstrated the close links between imperial ritual ideoIogy and early Daoist ritual. I also stressed the divergent cosmoIogical implications expressed by the variant naming schemes of the five Thearchs.
The changes in meaning and significance of emplacing the Lingbao talismans between the red and green silks, and the implications of abandoning the ritual sacrifice of a goose. The WFX still includes a sacrifice and offering of flesh, demonstrating its association with common religion of the Han. This aspect of the ritual recedes from use in the ritual synthesis of the Lingbao scriptures until it is abandoned in the codification by Lu Xiujing.
These changes reflect changes in the understanding of the five Thearchs.
While in the imperial system and the WFX the five thearchs were perceived as ancestralspirits in need of nourishment. This was no longer the case in the Perfect Writs in Red Script, where the fiveThearchs are perceived as aspects of the Dao and thus beyond the need of physical nourishment.
In tracing the
creative processes by which the WFX took form and the changing conceptions of
the practices associated with the Lingbao talismans,
the five sprouts and five Thearchs, the redaction
process of the WFX - in narrative, mythography, andritual
systemization - reflects the emergence of Daoism. The creative processes
involved in the construction of mythical narratives, practices of lineage
construction, and ritual synthesis reveal similarities which point to a
systematic and coherent creative authorship. Similar processes can be found in
other Daoist texts, exemplifying the "creation of Tradition."