Taoist teachings and traditions in China

Below is a brief description of the Chuan Chen Tsung (Complete Reality School), Dragon Gate, and Cheng I sects in China. To begin to gain an understanding of the history of China it is essential to have “required reading” to gain a sense of both philosophical and religious Taoism as listed below. This brief synopsis is intended to have the reader “dip their toe” in Taoism and encourage further study.

The northern sect of the Chuan Chen Tsung (Complete Reality School) incorporated what are considered the best aspects of China’s three major divisions of Chinese religious thought: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.  From Taoism this included:

  1. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.
  2. The Chuang Tzu by Chuang Tzu
  3. The Pao P’o Tzu by Ko Hung, and
  4. The Book of Lieh Tzu by Lieh Tzu
  5. The Jade Lock Treatise by Wang Che, later known as Wang Chung-yang.

The Chuan Chen Tsung (Complete Reality School) placed particular emphasis on the following six classics:

  1. The Jade Emperor’s Immortality Classic
  2. The Clarity and Tranquility Classic
  3. The Yin Convergence Classic
  4. The Response and Resolution Treatise
  5. The Highest Truth Classic
  6. The Jade Pivot Classic

All Taoist novices of the Complete Reality, and subsequent Dragon Gate sects were required to study and memorize the above works (6 through 11), which are as important to a Taoist’s training as the previous five listed above them. Additional books to obtain a clearer sense of Taoist history in China include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. The Way of Immortals Tranquil Sitting Classic (Hsien Tao Ching Tso Ching) compiled by T’ien Hsin Chien
  2. Skills of the Way by Tao Kung
  3. Great Equalizing Classic by Ta Ping Ching
  4. The Ling Shu Ching
  5. Return to the Source Treatise by Kuei Yuan Lun
  6. The Yellow Court Classic (Huang Ting Ching)
  7. Resolution of Doubts by Ts’ao Chin
  8. Plum of Pure Tao by Li Tao Chun
  9. Reciter of the Pure Void by Ts’ui Hsu Yin
  10. The Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Kinetic Postures by Wang Chung-yueh
  11. Eternal Purple Yang by Chang Tzu Yang

From Confucian teachings:

  1. Ideas of filial piety
  2. The Doctrine of the Mean

From Buddhism the following texts emphasized by the Complete Reality School included the following:

  1. The teachings of Bodhidharma and the Pure Land (Chin T’u), as the Bodhisattva Kuan Shih Yin was held in high esteem.
  2. Heart and Diamond Sutras (Prajna Paramitas)

While other sects, discussed below, especially the “southern schools” became important,  it is essential to understand the magnitude of the coming together of the above literary works during the Song Dynasty period of China (960 and continued until 1279 AD). The underlying fabric tying this all together was the ancient teachings/understanding of the I Ching and commentaries that influenced early China. Not in the sense of opposites, but how everything in the universe was looking to complement its ultimate role as it should play out in the scheme of things. This is best shown by the depiction of what was to be called the “Vinegar Tasters” with Lao Tzu, Confucius, and the Bodhidharma all drinking out of the same vat of vinegar in about 1000 AD. This coming almost a thousand years after the burning of the books by the Emperor Chin. Especially of note were influence of the Ten Wings and works of Wang Pi from the Han period. During the Song, Confucianism reigned supreme and the ability to move up in Chinese society depended on a thorough understanding of the “classics” taught in the examination system. This all changes towards the end of the Song dynasty with the introduction of what was known as “The Four Books” diverting attention from the “Five Classics” from the Song forward to the present. This is further outlined in another tab on this website called Confucian Orthodoxy. Confucianism was a philosophy, a way of life that permeates Chinese culture. Taoism and Buddhism were seen in more of a religious context. Again it is important to note that the three were seen to complement each other not to be in competition. Taoism was able to thrive because of this sense of unity .

Everything was to change with the arrival of the Mongols.  Kublai Khan builds himself a magnificent city at Beijing. Its walls are 24 miles in circumference and some 50 feet high. The Mongols call it Khanbalik, the ‘city of the Khan’; and under a version of this name, as Cambaluc, it becomes famous even in Europe. From this base in the north he sets about overwhelming the Song dynasty. As early as 1271 he makes it plain that he sees himself not as an invading barbarian but as the Chinese emperor of a new dynasty. In that year he announces a Chinese name for his dynasty – Ta Yüan, meaning ‘Great Origin’. Ancestors are vital in China, so his grandfather Genghis Khan is given a posthumous Chinese title: T’ai Tsu, ‘Grand Progenitor’. Kublai soon makes good these Chinese pretensions. In 1276 Hangzhou, the capital of the surviving Song Dynasty, falls to his armies. The young emperor and his mother are brought to Kublai’s court and are treated with civility. By 1279 there is no further Song resistance. The Chinese chroniclers record, from that year, the start of a new dynasty – the Yüan, the first in the empire’s history to be ruled by an outsider. But Kublai Khan is determined not to be an outsider. He even adopts the administrative system of the Chinese Imperial System. The only difference is that he employs more foreigners than a Chinese emperor would. One of them, Marco Polo, has left a vivid, if one-sided, glimpse of Mongol China. The Mongols took to Buddhism and Taoism fairly quickly and in doing acclimated to local customs.

Qufu, originally known as the city of Lu, has a foremost place in Chinese history. It was the home of Shang Li (the Yellow Emperor) a great shaman who began assembling what would become the I Ching in 2700 BC. There are stone stele in Qufu to mark his place in Chinese history. Second was the Duke of Zhou (Ji Dan), who lived in 1000 AD who wrote the Book of Rites and other early manuscripts and brought order to China, and third Confucius, who who lived 500 years later in the City of Lu (Qufu) who codified the five classics of early Chinese philosophical and political thought. In many ways, while later commentaries that were attributed to him were very authoritarian in nature and justified the power of the Emperor, many believe at heart Confucius was a Taoist. In addition to the five classics, including the Doctrine of the Mean, listed above, Confucius updated his own commentaries in the Ten Wings and version of the I Ching in his later years. Tradition says that Confucius and Lao Tzu met, but no one is quite sure it actually happened. Chuang Tzu’s writings that extended the boundaries of extraneous thought that provoked freedom of though and expression were as a direct result of the teachings of Confucius that challenged authority and gave more credence to Lao Tzu’s view of the role of government. Taoism added a needed check and balance to the pervasive Confucianism and Confucians who felt entitled to rule the day that would be expanded on by Wang Pi. At the behest of the Emperor of course. Wang Pi’s version would later become one of the texts in the Examination system.Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries sprang up throughout China during the Han period to counter this Confucian orthodoxy.

The development of state temples devoted to Confucius was an outcome of his gradual canonization. In 195 BC, Emperor Han Gao Zu, founder of the Han Dynasty (206–195 BC), offered a sacrifice to the spirit of Confucius at his tomb in Qufu. Sacrifices to the spirit of Confucius and that of Yan Hui, his most prominent disciple, began in the Imperial University (Biyong) as early as 241. Over the centuries as emperors made a trek to Qufu to pay homage the Confucius, they would stop at Tai Shan Mountain. Tai Shan is the most famous mountain in Taoist religion as it is furthest to the east in China and when standing on the top of the mountain you are first to see the rising sun.

Qufu, where I lived and taught at the Qufu Normal High School that was adjacent to the Confucius Temple and Mansion with students from all over western Shandong in 2011-13, was originally established as a school for Confucius descendants and families responsible for maintaining the Confucian traditions in Qufu and China. The school became open to the public with the end in the last dynasty and founding of the Republic of China in 1911. I am still a frequent visitor of Qufu and have many friends there. One is named Kong Tao, a direct descendant of Confucius and my Chinese name, Kongdan, is a direct result of my many visits.

From the Song to present day, the Complete Reality sect continues to be the leading school of Taoism. The two monastic systems of Chuan Chen Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism were so similar that in the Ching dynasty Buddhist monks were accepted, and sometimes invited to stay at the Taoist White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. In the 8th century, the Tian Chang Temple was built in Beijing to house a statue of Lao Tzu.  Although it burned down in 1202, the statue was saved.  In 1224, Genghis Khan ordered the reconstruction of the temple.   It came to be known as the White Cloud Temple.  Today it is one of China’s oldest and largest Taoist temples housing the office of Taoist Association of China.

The southern sect of the Complete Reality School mirrored the northern school except that monastic life was not required. Wang Che disciple Ch’iu Ch’ang-ch’un softened the rules and formed the Dragon Gate sect. This influence from the Han, that mirrored the constraints of Confucianism itself, gave rise to the southern school which became the more influential teaching, both philosophically and in literature. This sect was later taken over by the Celestial Masters sect of the Dragon and Tiger Mountain. By the thirteenth century the Ch’angs were the imperial favorite of the Celestial Masters and gave themselves the name Cheng I. The more complete and traditional sect of Cheng I became much richer in Taoist traditions. Most of what we know of tai chi, qigong, and the martial arts are attributed to the traditions of Hua Shan and Wu-ting Mountains. The hermits, recluses and “cloud wanderers, found there place in the mountains of southern China. Also a major difference between the northern Complete Reality School and the southern Cheng I and its related incantations, was that the northern school required celibacy by its adherents. The southern school did not prohibit sexual intercourse as they felt that preserving the “chi” was better achieved between both men and women by allowing sexual relations. Over the centuries, this distinction became the primary difference between the two.