Way of the Celestial Masters
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Tianshi Dao (simplified Chinese: 天师道; traditional Chinese: 天師道; pinyin: Tiān Shī Dào) or Way of the Celestial Masters is a Chinese Daoist movement that was founded by Zhang Daoling in 142 CE. At its height, the movement controlled a theocratic state in what is now Sichuan.
Way of the Five Pecks of Rice
In 142 CE Zhang Daoling announced that Laozi had appeared to him and commanded him to rid the world of decadence and establish a new state consisting only of the ‘chosen people.’ Zhang became the first Celestial Master, and began to spread his newly founded movement throughout the province of Sichuan. The movement was initially called the "Way of the Five Pecks of Rice", because each person wishing to join was required to donate five pecks of rice. The movement spread rapidly, particularly under his son Zhang Heng and grandson Zhang Lu. Their rebellion against the Han dynasty is known as the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion. After the success of the rebellion in 184, they founded the theocratic state of Zhang Han in the Hanzhong Valley of Sichuan, enjoying full independence.
In 215, Zhang Lu submitted to Cao Cao, the ruler of the Wei Kingdom, surrendering his state in exchange for gaining state religion status for Tianshi Daoism. Zhang was given a title and land, as were several other family members and generals. His daughter was married to Cao Cao’s son, Cao Yu. His followers were forced to resettle in other parts of China, with one group being sent to the Chang'an area, and another being sent to Luoyang. Zhang relocated to the Han court until the Han Dynasty changed to the Wei. He then used his own popularity as a religious leader to lend legitimacy to the Wei, proclaiming that the Wei court had inherited divine authority from the Tao church, as well as from Confucian laws.
The collapse of the Wei Kingdom in 260 CE, along with the fall of Northern China to the Huns in 317, further scattered adherents to the Celestial Master. The Celestial Masters later reemerged in the 4th and 5th centuries as two distinct offshoots, the Northern and Southern Celestial Masters.
The Southern Celestial Masters
After the fall of Luoyang to non-Chinese invaders in 311, the remnants of the court fled to Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing) and established a new state known as the Eastern Jin dynasty. Among the court members who fled were members of the Celestial Masters. There is also evidence that after Zhang Lu’s submission to Cao Cao, numerous adherents fled south from Sichuan. These various followers of The Way of the Celestial Master coalesced to form a distinct form of Celestial Master Daoism known as the Southern Celestial Masters. The Southern Celestial Masters lasted as a distinct movement into the fifth century.
The Northern Celestial Masters
Kou Qianzhi, who was raised in a Celestial Master family, received two visions of Laozi in 415 and in 423. In 424, he brought the work that resulted from these visions to the court of the Northern Wei dynasty. The rulers put his works into practice, and Kou became the Celestial Master of the Daoist theocracy of the Northern Wei. After Kou died in 448, the prime minister, Cui Hao, became power hungry and began to insult the Wei rulers. Unhappy with his insubordination, the rulers had Cui executed in 450, and ended the Daoist theocracy.
The Celestial Masters today
During the Yuan Dynasty, the Zhengyi Dao School of Daoism claimed lineage to the Celestial Masters. They became one of the two leading schools of Daoism in China, along with Quanzhen Dao. Zhengyi Daoists became common in the Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Fujian provinces of China, as well as in Taiwan.
The Celestial Masters have survived into the 20th century. In 1949, after the communists gained power in the mainland, the remaining Celestial Masters fled to Taiwan, where they still live today.
Beliefs and practices
Each of the three different eras of the Celestial Masters had distinct beliefs. However, because the Southern and Northern Celestial Masters both descended directly from the initial movement founded by Zhang Daoling, there are many beliefs that are shared. A number of texts exist that give insight into early Celestial Master practice, in particular the Taiping Jing and the Xiang'er commentary to the Laozi.
The foundation of Daoist belief is that there is an energy source known as qi that pervades all things. The human body also contains qi, but it only has a limited amount of qi. Qi could be lost from the body through things such as sweating and ejaculation. The Celestial Masters shared these foundational Daoist beliefs, but modified them slightly.
One such change was that illness was caused by sin. This was because sin caused qi to leave the body. In order to cure any illness, repentance was a crucial factor in ensuring that the loss of qi could be staunched. Repentance could be accomplished by spending time in a 'Chamber of Silence,' and reflecting on one's sins, or by beating one's breasts and kowtowing to heaven. Illness could also be cured in other ways as well, among them using medicinal herbs and by listening to ritual music. Eating very little was also of extreme importance, and an ideal diet would consist of no food at all, but only noncorporeal things such as air, which the person could absorb through meditation.
Sexual practices (known as heqi, or 'The Union of the Breaths') also differed significantly between Daojia (philosophical Daoism), and Celestial Master Daoism. In both traditions, semen is considered the embodiment of qi. If someone ejaculated too often, their life would be shortened. While Daojia advocates not ejaculating during sex in order to 'nourish the brain,' the Celestial Masters frowned upon this, and advocated non-ejaculation simply as a way to avoid losing qi. In addition, the Celestial Masters thought that the Daojia method of stealing a woman's qi to replenish the man's own qi was completely wrong, and should not be practiced.
The Celestial Masters were the first group of organized Daoists. Before their foundation, Daoism did not exist as an organized religion. Being the first organized religious Daoists, the Celestial Masters are the ancestors of subsequent Daoist movements such as the Shangqing and Lingbao movements.
- Hendrischke (2000), p. 139.
- Hendrischke (2000), p. 140.
- Bokenkamp (1997), p. 150.
- Bokenkamp (1997), p. 83.
- Bokenkamp, Stephen. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California, 1999.
- Hendrischke, Barbara. "Early Daoist Movements" in Daoism Handbook, ed. Livia Kohn, 134-164. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
- Robinet, Isabelle. Daoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford: Stanford University, 1997.
- Tianshi dao (Terry Kleeman), entry from The Encyclopedia of Taoism