Taoism and death
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There is significant scholarly debate about the Taoist understanding of death. The process of death itself is described as shijie or "release from the corpse", but what happens after is described variously as transformation, immortality or ascension to heaven. For example, the Yellow Emperor was said to have ascended directly to heaven in plain sight, while the thaumaturge Ye Fashan was said to have transformed into a sword and then into a column of smoke which rose to heaven.
Religious Taoism holds that the body is filled with spirits and monsters, and prescribes a number of rituals that must be performed so that these spirits are able to guard the body. When the spirits leave the body then there is nothing to protect it from illness so it weakens and dies. Taoism is also known for people believing that there is eternal life. In Taoism when one dies if they need to be contacted it is done so through meditation by an alchemist. In Taoism death is seen as just another phase in life, something that must happen and that we must all accept. People believe if they do what they have to do and are supposed to do then when they die they will be granted immortality.
Taoist ceremonies for the dead often include an altar upon which are placed a sacred lamp, two candles, tea, rice, and water. The sacred lamp symbolizes the light of wisdom, yet it could also be referred to as the Golden Pill or Elixir of Immortality. On each side of the lamp are two tall candles that symbolize the light of the sun, moon, and both eyes of the human body. The tea, rice and water are put in cups in front of the altar. The tea symbolizes yin, water is the energy of the yang, and rice represents the union of the yin and the yang.
Five plates of fruit are used to symbolize the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These elements are further equated with specific colors: green, red, yellow, white, and black. These elements all go in a cycle that when balanced ensure that the body is healthy. An incense burner is placed in the middle of the five elements. The burning of the incense represents refinement and purification of the soul, also known as the inner energies.
The ceremony usually takes place in a person’s house and is held over an odd number of days, usually three, five or seven days. The candle is lit up for the body all that time before burial. During the vigil and the funeral the relatives wear white.
A very common and major goal of most Taoists is to achieve immortality rather than enter the regular after life. Reaching this goal is not easy; there are various tasks that must be met during your entire lifetime to be qualified to be immortal. The two different categories of requirements for immortality include internal alchemy and external alchemy.
External alchemy is mastering special breathing techniques, sexual practices, physical exercises, yoga, attempting to produce an elixir of immortality by consuming purified metals and complex compounds, and to develop medical skills. In Taoism one’s soul or energy is considered to be interlocked with the vital energy, which is what nourishes your soul. Ridding the body of impurities can increase this energy. Aside from these requirements, you must lead an upright, moral and good-hearted life.
Internal alchemy includes sophisticated visualization, strict dieting, specific sexual exercises and self-control. A strict diet was committed to kill demons within the body and to stimulate and maintain energy. The body is purified by the consumption of refined substances such as, jade or gold. The many different types of meditation all revolved around the common idea of breathing. Much of a Taoist’s time is spent meditating. A popular rule of thumb for breathing techniques include holding one’s breath for 12 heartbeats, better known as a “little tour”, 420 heartbeats is the “grand tour” and the most prominent achievement in breathing is holding one’s breath for 1000 heartbeats. Carl Jung was among those who interpreted internal alchemy in a purely spiritual, rather than physical, sense.
Focus on Life
Taoism places great value in life. It does not focus on life after death, but on health and longevity by living a simple life and having inner peace. It is said that the human body is filled with spirits, gods, or demons. When people die, it is believed that they should do rituals to let the spirits guard the body. The spirits of the dead are routinely communicated with through the assistance of spirit-mediums.
Spirits and Funerals
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Taoists believe that the world is full of invisible spirits. There are some that are humans who have died but are still able to help some people. They also believe that the world is full of nature spirits: plants, animals, rivers, stones, mountains, and stars. Shangdi, known as the ruler of the universe, was looked upon as the great spiritual being. People worshiped spirits to keep their troubles away and to get blessed with health and wealth. Some Taoists believed that spirits extended nature, both the natural world and the inner world within people’s bodies.
- Warren T. Reich (1995), Encyclopedia of Bioethics, p. 2467, ISBN 978-0-02-897355-5
- Russell Kirkland (2008), "shijie", The encyclopedia of Taoism, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-7007-1200-7
- Eva Wong (1997), The Shambhala Guide to Taoism, Shambahala, p. 54, ISBN 978-1-57062-169-7
- Eva Wong (1997), The Shambhala Guide to Taoism, Shambahala, p. 21, ISBN 978-1-57062-169-7
- Blofeld,Taoism:Road to Immortality,Shamahala Publications,1978,p 35.
- Eva Wong (1997), The Shambhala Guide to Taoism, Shambahala, p. 62, ISBN 978-1-57062-169-7
- Blofeld,Taoism:Road to Immortality,Shamahala Publications,1978,p 186.
- Eva Wong (1997), The Shambhala Guide to Taoism, Shambahala, pp. 235–237, ISBN 978-1-57062-169-7
- Blofeld,Taoism:Road to Immortality,Shamahala Publications,1978,p 25.
- Henri Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion, translated by Frank A. Kierman, Jr. (University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).
- Carl Jung, Jung on Alchemy, ed. by Nathan Schwart-Salant (Princeton University Press, 1995)
- Hock Tong Cheu, The Nine Emperor Gods: A Study of Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults (Times Books International, 1988).