Banner.jpg

 

Home

 

Critical Terms

 

Basic Resources

 

Advanced Resources

 

Profession

 

Public Offerings

 

Projects

 

Weblinks

 

Support

 

Contact

 

About

DAOIST PERSONAGES AND GODS

 

The historical personages, mythological figures, and gods venerated in the Daoist tradition are vast and diverse. Here a representative sampling of the most important and widely revered of such figures is provided.

 

Daoism is a Chinese religious tradition, currently being transmitted and adapted to a global context, in which reverence for and veneration of the Dao (Tao) 道 , translatable as both the Way and a way, is a matter of ultimate concern. Like religious traditions in general, Daoism has both apophatic (discourse based on negation) and kataphatic (discourse based on affirmation) tendencies and expressions. Generally speaking, Daoist cosmology and “theology” (discourse on the sacred) centers on emanation and immanence. While fundamentally unnamable and beyond human conception, the Dao becomes manifest in the present cosmic configuration through a process of differentiation and cosmological transformation. This is expressed in the well-known passage from chapter forty-two of the Daode jing 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power): “The Dao gave birth [or gives birth] to the One; the One gave birth to the two; the two gave birth to the three; and the three gave birth to the myriad beings.” On one level, the Dao even transcends the primordial unity before the manifest universe. On another, it permeates everything that exists. This includes the possibility of multiple sacred realms inhabited by multiple gods.

 

Daoism is a theistic tradition. Like the terrestrial bureaucracy, there are “gods” (spirits or elemental forces) responsible for the functioning of the cosmos. Because Daoist cosmology and “theology” centers on emanation and immanence, there is no necessary distinction between “nature” and “gods.” Deities are simply differently differentiated aspects of the Dao, and worshipping deities is not, in and of itself, different than having reverence for the unnamable mystery which is the Dao. Thus, the fundamental Daoist theology is monistic (one, impersonal reality), while the secondary theology is panenhenic (Nature is the Dao), panentheistic (Dao in everything, but beyond everything), and polytheisitic (many gods). From a Daoist perspective, these theologies are complementary and interrelated. The distinguishing characteristic is each being’s degree of differentiation and proximity to the Dao.

 

The Daoist pantheon is a diverse one, perhaps only outdone by Hinduism. This diversity also manifests in personal religiosity, with different people venerating different gods. In terms of the dominant Daoist schools, only two of which survive in name into the modern world, Zhengyi 正一 (Orthodox Unity) altars generally place Yuhuang dadi 玉皇大帝 (Jade Emperor) or Laojun 老君 (Lord Lao) in the highest position, while the central altar in Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) temples tends to be devoted to the Sanqing 三清 (Three Purities). There is, of course, much diversity concerning devotion in the individual lives of Daoists.

 

dao.jpg

DAO

 

How does one represent the unrepresentable or describe the indescribable? In the Daoist tradition, the Dao is the Source of all that is, an unnamable mystery, all-pervading numinosity, and the cosmological process which is the universe. The Dao is impersonal and simultaneously immanent and transcendent. The locus classicus for Daoist apophatic (negation-based) discourse is chapter one of the fourth-century B.C.E. Daode jing 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power): “The dao that can be spoken is not the constant Dao; the name that can be named is not the constant name.” Similarly, the anonymous eighth-century Qingjing jing 清靜經 (Scripture on Clarity and Stillness; DZ 620) explains, “The great Dao is without name. It raises and nourishes the myriad beings. I do not know its name; forced to name it, we call it ‘Dao’.” Even “Dao” cannot contain the reality of                      . “It” is the darkness and silence beyond intellectual conceptions.

 

 

daode.jpg

DAODE TIANZUN 道德天尊  (Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power)

 

Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power is one of the Sanqing 三清 (Three Purities), with the other two being Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊 (Celestial Worthy of Original Beginning) and Lingbao tianzun 靈寶天尊 (Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure). These “gods” represent the three primordial energies of the cosmos, the earliest moment of cosmic differentiation. The Three Purities also are mapped according to other associations, including the Three Caverns (sandong 三洞), Three Fields (santian 三田), Three Heavens (santian 三天), Three Treasures (sanbao 三寶), and so forth. They usually occupy the central altar in contemporary Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) temples, with Yuanshi tianzun in the center, Daode tianzun on his right, and Lingbao tianzun on his left. Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power is usually identified as Laojun 老君 (Lord Lao), the “deified” form of Laozi 老子. In terms of iconography, he holds a fan depicting the immortal paradise of Penglai 蓬萊, with the base resting in his lower left hand and the center point resting in his raised right hand. Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power corresponds to the Cavern Spirit (dongshen 洞神) section of the Daoist Canon, lower elixir field, Heaven of Taiqing 太清(Great Clarity), and vital essence (jing 精).

 

guanyin.jpg

GUANYIN 觀音  (Guanyin)

 

Strictly speaking, Guanyin (Kuan Yin) is a Buddhist goddess. She is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. As a goddess, she represents a  Chinese transformation of Avalokiteśvara, the Indian Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion who is male in gender.  Guanyin is perhaps the most popular goddess throughout East Asia, and her name may be translated liberally as “She Who Hears the Cries of the World.” She is thus a savior figure. In the Daoist tradition and in Chinese folk religion, she is often associated with Mazu 媽祖 (Matriarch), Tianfei 天妃 (Celestial Consort), Tianhou 天侯 (Empress of Heaven), Xiwangmu 西王母 (Queen Mother of the West), and Yaochi jinmu 瑤池金母 (Gold Mother of the Turquoise Pond). In terms of iconography, Guanyin frequently holds a vase in her left hand, which contains the tears of suffering humanity.

 

laozi1.jpg

LAOZI 老子 (Master Lao)

 

Laozi (fl. 560 B.C.E.?) is a pseudo-historical figure and was held by Daoists to be an older contemporary and teacher of Kongzi 孔子(Confucius; ca. 551-ca. 479 B.C.E.). The name Laozi may be translated as Master Lao, the Old Master, and/or the Old Child. Laozi is frequently identified as the “founder” of Daoism and attributed with authorship of the Daode jing 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power). During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), Laozi was deified as Laojun 老君 (Lord Lao). In the Daoist tradition, he was then read retrospectively as one physical embodiment of Lord Lao. As a “historical figure,” he is believed to have revealed the Daode jing to Yin Xi 尹喜, the “guardian of the pass,” before leaving China. The site of this transmission was identified as Louguan tai 樓觀臺 (Lookout Tower Monastery), which was the first Daoist monastery and which is located at the base of the Zhongnan mountains in Zhouzhi, Shaanxi. This mysterious westward journey later became the basis of the huahu 化胡 (“conversion of the barbarians”) theory, which held that Laozi left China and became the historical Buddha in India. Although pseudo-historical, for practicing Daoists Laozi may still retain a venerated position as a “place-holder” for the classical tradition. In terms of iconography, Laozi is frequently depicted riding a water-buffalo on which he arrived at Hangu Pass and then left the political chaos of the “central kingdom.”

 

laozi2.jpg

LAOJUN 老君  (Lord Lao)

 

Lord Lao is the anthropomorphic representation of the Dao and the “deified” form of Laozi. As synonymous with the Dao, he is formless. As the high god of Daoism, paralleling the Jade Emperor in certain contemporary Daoist circles, Lord Lao is usually depicted as an elderly Chinese man residing among the clouds, often with a celestial entourage. Lord Lao is most well-known as the source of a revelation given to Zhang Daoling 張道陵 (fl. 140 C.E.?) in 142 C.E. This led to the founding of the Tianshi 天師 (Celestial Masters) movement, also known as Zhengyi 正一 (Orthodox Unity) Daoism. As a deity with the power to appear in different places at different times, Lord Lao gradually became identified with various historical personages. These figures represent the “manifestations” or “transformations” (bianhua 變化) of Lord Lao, with perhaps the most famous being a series of eighty-one incarnations. The image on the left is one such transformation: Chuanyuzi 傳預子 of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-c. 1050 B.C.E.). Lord Lao is sometimes identified as Daode tianzun 道德天尊 (Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power). Like Huangdi 黃帝 (Yellow Thearch), Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓 (b. 798?), and other popular personages and gods, Lord Lao represents different things to different people.

 

lingbao.jpg

LINGBAO TIANZUN 靈寶天尊 (Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure)

 

Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure is one of the Sanqing 三清 (Three Purities), with the other two being Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊 (Celestial Worthy of Original Beginning) and Daode tianzun 道德天尊 (Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power). These “gods” represent the three primordial energies of the cosmos, the earliest moment of cosmic differentiation. The Three Purities also are mapped according to other associations, including the Three Caverns (sandong 三洞), Three Fields (santian 三田), Three Heavens (santian 三天), Three Treasures (sanbao 三寶), and so forth. They usually occupy the central altar in contemporary Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) temples, with Yuanshi tianzun in the center, Daode tianzun on his right, and Lingbao tianzun on his left. In terms of iconography, Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure holds a wish-granting scepter resembling a mushroom in shape, with the base resting in his lower right hand and the center point resting in his raised left hand. Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure corresponds to the Cavern Mystery (dongshen 洞玄) section of the Daoist Canon, middle elixir field, Heaven of Shangqing 上清 (Highest Clarity), and qi (qi 氣).

 

dongbin.jpg

LÜ DONGBIN 呂洞賓

 

Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓 (Chunyang 純陽 [Purified Yang]; b. 798 C.E.?) is a pseudo-historical figure who is perhaps most famous as the patriarch of various internal alchemy (neidan 內丹) lineages. As such he is identified as the student of Zhongli Quan 鍾離權 (Zhengyang 正陽 [Aligned Yang]; fl. 2nd c. C.E.?), from whom he learned internal alchemy after abandoning an aristocratic life and career in officialdom. This is the inspiration for the famous Yellow Millet Dream. Lü Dongbin, "Lü the Cavern Guest," is included in both the Five Patriarchs (wuzu 五祖) of Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) Daoism as well as the later group of the Eight Immortals (ba xianren 八仙人). Quanzhen Daoism maintains that Wang Chongyang 王重陽 (1113-1170), the founder, received a mystical transmission from Lü. In terms of iconography, Lu Dongbin usually carries a sword, indicating his exorcistic skills in subduing demons. Sometimes he also has a fly-whisk, which is traditionally a Buddhist ritual implement representing non-violence, freedom from mundane concerns and senior standing within a monastic community. As a Daoist symbol, the fly-whisk also symbolizes the clearing away of illusions, obstructions, defilements and negative influences.

 

chuji.jpg

QIU CHUJI 邱處機  

 

Qiu Chuji 邱處機 (Changchun 長春 [Perpetual Spring]; 1148-1227) is one of the so-called Seven Perfected (qizhen 七真) of Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) Daoism,  who were the seven senior Shandong disciples of Wang Chongyang 王重陽 (1113-1170), the founder. Qiu Changchun was the third patriarch of Quanzhen, becoming the leader after the death of Ma Danyang 馬丹陽 (1123-1183). It was under Qiu that Quanzhen was transformed from a regional religious movement to a nationwide monastic order. In Chinese history, Qiu is remembered as a protector of the indigenous population from suffering and violence under the Mongol invasion and occupation. The Longmen 龍門 (Dragon Gate) branch of Quanzhen identifies Qiu as its founder, although this lineage was officially founded by Wang Changyue 王常月 (Kunyang崑陽 [Paradisiacal Yang]; 1622-1680).

 

changyue.jpg

WANG CHANGYUE 王常月

 

Wang Changyue 王常月 (Kunyang崑陽 [Paradisiacal Yang]; 1622-1680) was the abbot of Baiyun guan  白雲觀 (White Cloud Monastery) in the mid-1600s. The Longmen 龍門( Dragon Gate) branch of Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) Daoism, the officially recognized form of Daoism in contemporary mainland China, was formally established by Wang Changyue. In addition to being influential in the Qing dynasty revitalization of Quanzhen, which included the ordination of many monks and nuns, Wang Changyue compiled the main precept texts, which remain central in contemporary Longmen. These include the Chuzhen jie 初真戒 (Precepts of Initial Perfection), Zhongji jie 中機戒  (Precepts of Middle Ultimate), and Tianxian jie 天仙戒 (Precepts of Celestial Immortality). He also wrote the Longmen xinfa 龍門心法 (Core Teachings of Dragon Gate).

 

xiwangmu.jpg

XIWANGMU 西王母  (Queen Mother of the West)

 

The Queen Mother of the West is the most important and most prominent Daoist goddess. She rules over the Western mountain paradise of Kunlun 崑崙.. According to one version of the legend, the Queen Mother oversees the orchards where the peaches of immortality grow. These come to fruition every 3,600 years, at which time she holds a banquet where guests may partake in the peaches that confer or confirm immortality. She is thus often depicted as holding court near the orchard and surrounded by a female retinue. Sometimes she is identified as the mother of the Jade Emperor, while at other times she is understood as his wife. In a contemporary context, the Queen Mother of the West is also associated with Yaochi jinmu 瑤池金母 (Gold Mother of the Turquoise Pond), who is popularly known as Laomu 老母 (Venerable Mother). In terms of iconography, she often wears her distinctive headdress on which the peaches of immortality are suspended.

 

yuanshi.jpg

YUANSHI TIANZUN 元始天尊  (Celestial Worthy of Original Beginning)

 

Celestial Worthy of Original Beginning is one of the Sanqing 三清 (Three Purities), with the other two being Lingbao tianzun 靈寶天尊 (Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure) and Daode tianzun 道德天尊 (Celestial Worthy of the Dao and Inner Power). These “gods” represent the three primordial energies of the cosmos, the earliest moment of cosmic differentiation. The Three Purities also are mapped according to other associations, including the Three Caverns (sandong 三洞), Three Fields (santian 三田), Three Heavens (santian 三天), Three Treasures (sanbao 三寶), and so forth. They usually occupy the central altar in contemporary Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) temples, with Yuanshi tianzun in the center, Daode tianzun on his right, and Lingbao tianzun on his left. In terms of iconography, Celestial Worthy of Original Beginning is depicted with different hand gestures. Sometimes he joins his hands at heart-level. At other times his lower hand rests at the navel and holds a pearl (representing the elixir), while the upper hand forms a sacred hand gesture with the tip of the thumb touching the tip of the index finger. Celestial Worthy of Original Beginning corresponds to the Cavern Perfection (dongzhen 洞真) section of the Daoist Canon, upper elixir field, Heaven of Yuqing 玉清 (Highest Clarity), and spirit (shen 神).

 

yuhuang.jpg

YUHUANG DADI 玉皇大帝  (Great Thearch Jade Emperor)

 

The Jade Emperor is the celestial counterpart to the Chinese emperor of earlier times. In a contemporary context, the Jade Emperor is seen as the ruler of the cosmos and the highest tier of the Daoist and popular pantheon. Since the Three Purities represent impersonal energies, and are thus beyond the reach of human beckon, the Jade Emperor is the most powerful and sovereign of the gods of the manifest universe. In the bureaucratically organized and hierarchical Chinese pantheon, only high ranking gods, such as Dongyue dadi 東岳大帝 (Emperor of the Eastern Peak; a.k.a. God of Taishan), may address or report directly to the Jade Emperor. In terms of iconography, the Jade Emperor usually sits on a throne, with his face partially hidden behind a string of pearls hanging from the front brow of his headdress. He also holds a jade tablet as a symbol of his imperial authority.

 

zhang.jpg

ZHANG DAOLING 張道陵  (Zhang Daoling)

 

Zhang Daoling 張道陵(fl. 140 C.E.) is recognized as the founder of the Tianshi 天師 (Celestial Masters) movement and as the first Celestial Master. Because the Celestial Masters movement was the most successful of the early Daoist communities, and because it formed the foundation for the movements that immediately proceeded it, Zhang Daoling is sometimes elevated to the status of “founder” of organized Daoism as a whole. According to traditional accounts, in 142 C.E. Zhang received a revelation from Laojun 老君 (Lord Lao), the “deified” form of Laozi and personification of the Dao, on Mount Heming 鶴鳴 (Crane Cry; Sichuan). The Celestial Masters are sometimes referred to as Zhengyi 正一 (Orthodox Unity), because of a description of its founding revelation as the “covenant of orthodox unity” (zhengyi mengwei 正一盟威), or as Wudoumi dao 五斗米道 (Way of Five Pecks of Rice), because of its supposed requirement of an annual donation of “five pecks of rice” for religious membership. During Lord Lao’s revelation, Zhang was appointed as terrestrial representative, the “Celestial Master,” and given healing powers as a sign of his empowerment. The movement in turn became patrilineal, passing from Zhang Daoling to his son Zhang Heng 張衡 and then to his son Zhang Lu 張魯 (fl. 190 C.E.). Although Longhu shan 龍虎山 (Dragon-Tiger Mountain) became the Tianshi headquarters from the Tang dynasty (618-907) onwards, the Celestial Master was forced into exile in Taiwan following the Communist takeover of China. It is a patriarchal householder tradition, in which a male lineage-holder with the surname Zhang remains the community leader. As a decentralized tradition, Zhengyi is one of the two major schools of Daoism to survive into the modern world, with the other being Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection), a Daoist monastic order. In terms of iconography, Zhang Daoling is one of the few Daoist personages or gods who appears of foreign (“barbarian”) ethnicity. Like the sword that often forms part of his ritual paraphernalia, his fierce appearance also suggests exorcistic prowess.

 

zhenwu.jpg

ZHENWU 真武  (Perfected Warrior)

 

Zhenwu 真武 (Perfected Warrior), also known as Xuanwu 玄武 (Mysterious Warrior), is the ruler of the northern direction. The Perfected Warrior has a complex history, but he is generally viewed as a celestial marshal or general. According to one account, he was a terrestrial general who retired to Wudang shan 武當山 (Mount Wudang; Junxian, Hubei) to engage in Daoist cultivation, after which he ascended to the heavens and assumed his position within the celestial bureaucracy. In this respect he is sometimes associated with atmospheric phenomena (thunder, lightning, and so forth) and became a protector against malevolent spirits as well. He is also considered the patron saint of Mount Wudang and is particularly revered by martial artists. In terms of iconography, Zhenwu usually appears with a tortoise and snake, the symbol of the north. He is also depicted in both literary (with empty hands) and martial (with sword and sword-mudra) guises.

 

zhongli.jpg

ZHONGLI QUAN 鍾離權

 

Zhongli Quan 鍾離權 (Zhengyang 正陽 [Aligned Yang]; fl. 2nd c. C.E.?) is a pseudo-historical figure who occupies a central place in  various internal alchemy (neidan 內丹) lineages, perhaps only second in importance to Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓 (Chunyang 純陽 [Purified Yang]; b. 798 C.E.?). He is identified as the teacher of Lü, whom he taught internal alchemy. Like Lü, Zhongli Quan, also known as Han Zhongli 漢鍾離, is included in both the Five Patriarchs (wuzu 五祖) of Quanzhen 全真 (Complete Perfection) Daoism as well as the later group of the Eight Immortals (ba xianren 八仙人). Quanzhen Daoism maintains that Wang Chongyang 王重陽 (1113-1170), the founder, received a mystical transmission from Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin. In terms of iconography, Zhongli Quan, like Zhang Daoling, is one of the few Daoist personages or gods who appears of foreign (“barbarian”) ethnicity. He is represented as a bearded, corpulent, bare-bellied man of pleasant disposition. Sometimes he carries a gourd (symbolic of medicinal knowledge or the world) in which he may hide. At other times he holds a fan, with which he can control the seas.