The Xiantiandao (Chinese: 先天道; pinyin: Xiāntiān Dào; literally "Way of the Original Heaven"; Vietnamese: Tiên Thiên Đạo, Japanese: Sentendo), also simply Tiandao (Chinese: 天道; pinyin: Tiāndào; literally "Way of Heaven"; Vietnamese: Thiên Đạo, Japanese: Tendo) encompasses a group of religions of Chinese origin which trace their lineage back to the White Lotus movement in past centuries. They share a common background in Han Chinese folk religion and Daoism but show themes and perspectives from Gnosticism, Nestorianism and Buddhism.
The Xiantiandao religions were considered heterodox and suppressed throughout the history of China; they are still mostly forbidden in China, yet they thrive in Taiwan where 7.6% of the population adheres to some variety of Xiantian Dao.
The Xiantiandao movement is not limited only to Chinese-speaking countries, with at least one sect, the Tendo (天道, "Way of Heaven"), active in Japan. In Vietnam Tiên Thiên Đạo doctrines ultimately influenced the rise of the Minh Đạo sects since the 17th century, and subsequently Caodaism in the 20th century. In Korea the Cheondo (천도, "Way of Heaven") movement echoes, at least nominally, the Tiandao.
The sect can be traced back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). It is usually referred to as White Lotus Sect (Bailian Jiao), which has a negative meaning in modern Taiwan and is associated with secret, illegal, rebellious sects.
The differentiation of the Xiantiandao subtradition out of the general field of Chinese popular sects is commonly attributed to the so-called ninth patriarch Huang Dehui (1684-1750). The Yiguan Dao and the Tongshan She sects legitimize themselves by tracing their patriarchal lines through Huang Dehui to the mythical patriarchs of early Chinese history.
The patriarchal lines of these two sects are largely identical down to the thirteenth patriarch Yang Shouyi (1796-1828), after whom the lines split and ultimately lead to the development of the Yiguandao and the Tongshan She as separate sects. The other groups maintain a different model of linear patriarchal succession.
Xiantiandao doctrine holds that the origin of the universe is Wusheng Laomu (Chinese: 無生老母; pinyin: Wú Shēng Lǎomǔ; literally "Unborn Mother, Eternal Mother"), creatrix of all living beings. These children went astray and ended up in the earthly world where they forgot their divine origin. The wheel of reincarnation started and the return to Heaven was no longer possible.
For this reason, the Mother sent a range of enlightened beings to bring Her children back to Heaven. The Dipankara Buddha (燃燈佛 Randeng Fo) was the first salvage. Gautama Buddha afterwards was the second enlightened. The remaining beings will be saved by the Buddha of the future, Maitreya Buddha.
The individual Xiantiandao sects all see themselves as carrying out the Mother's intentions by converting people and guiding them on a path of cultivation and reform that will ultimately lead them back to Heaven. The cultivation urged on members is divided into "inner" and "outer" work (neigong, waigong), that is, meditation and good deeds, so as to accumulate merits and purify the mind.
As the focus is on a primordial deity superior to all other gods, Xiantiandao sects claim to represent a Way (Tao) that transcends, comes before, and thus overcomes all existing religions. Consequently, a syncretism of features is noticeable in some groups. Most Xiantiandao groups rely heavily on spirit-writing as a means of communicating with the Mother and lower-ranking deities.
Along with the written works of the founding patriarchs, spirit-writing provides a distinct corpus of scriptures for each individual sect, that develops the shared themes in different directions and serves to differentiate the individual group from related sects. The variations on the central theme are many: for example, different sects use different names for the supreme deity, the Yiguandao and the Tongshan She calling her "Venerable Mother of Limitless Heaven" (Wuji Laomu) and the Ci Hui Tang "Mother of the Jasper Pool" (Yaochimu).
The Daoyuan diverges from the common maternal pattern by describing the supreme deity as male, naming him "Most Sacred Venerable Patriarch of Former Heaven" (Zhisheng Xiantian Laozu). Despite these and many other differences in liturgy, organization, and doctrine, ultimately each Xiantian Dao sect represents a variation on a central theme. Other movements have significantly departed: the Tiandist movements have shifted to a centrality of the Tian, while the Caodaist religion to the Cao Đài.
- Yiguandao (一貫道 "Complete Way")
- Tongshan She (同善社 "Society of Goodness")
- Tiandist movements
- Daoyuan (道院 "Sanctuary of the Tao")
- Ci Hui Tang (慈惠堂 "Compassion Society")
- Haizidao (亥子道)
- Zailiism (理教)
- Tendo (天道) - Japanese
- Great Way of Maitreya
- Minh Đạo ("Way of Light"), a splinter movement in Vietnam
- Caodaism, a Vietnamese religion related to the Minh Đạo
- Cheondoism (Cheondo, "Way of Heaven"), a similar Korean religion
- Historical influences
- White Lotus
- Gnosticism — Manichaeism — Valentinianism
- Mother goddess