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Shangqing Taoism

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”The world of Shang-ch’ing Taoism: a world where guardian spirits live inside the human body; a world where mystics fly to the sky and journey among the stars; a world where people absorb the essence of the sun and moon to cultivate immortality; a world where the highest attainment in life is to merge with the Tao in bliss and ecstasy …”

- Eva Wong, from The Shambhala Guide to Taoism

Shangqing: Taoism’s Most Mystical Lineage

Shangqing (also spelled Shang-ch’ing) Taoism is known as the most mystical of Taoism’s main lineages. In it we find practices similar to those performed by the shamanic cultures of ancient China. As Eva Wong points out, mysticism in general has many connections to shamanism: ”Each involves ecstatic experience, transformed perception, feats of power, and a union with a force that takes the individual to a more complete existence than the mundane self.”

Shangqing Taoism is, however, different from many shamanic traditions in its belief in the fundamental unity of the Heavenly and Earthly realms. In this tradition, deities and spirits are understood, ultimately, to simply be the cosmic aspect of ourselves – whether they reside within our bodies or in realms perceived to be “external.”

Founded By Lady Hua-ts’un

The Shangqing lineage was founded in the early Chin Dynasty by Lady Hua-ts’un. She received its basic teachings and practices via mystical revelation from the highest Tao, and subsequently (in 288 CE) recorded them in a text known as The Yellow Court Jade Classic of Internal Images of the High Pure Realm.

The Internal Universe of Shangqing Taoism

In the cosmology of Shangqing Taoism we find an internal and an external universe. The internal universe consists of a hierarchy of spirits or deities existing within our human body. Most important is “The One” – the Tao within us, also known as the Immortal Fetus. The most important practice for a Shangqing Taoist is the practice of “Keeping the One” – cultivating an inner alignment, an inner stillness which supports a continuous union with the Tao.

Other important guardian spirits within the body include the Three Treasures and the Five Shen. The Three Treasures include creative energy, life-force energy and spiritual energy. The Five Shen are the spirits of the major yin organs. When these spirits are vibrant and healthy, the body is healthy and the person has what is known as a “good Shen” – a vital constitution which can be seen in sparkling clear eyes.

Spirits, Deities & Monsters

Though the above are the main deities of Shangqing Taoism’s internal universe, the human body is understood to contain countless numbers of deities and spirits (similar to those found in both Buddhist and Hindu tantric traditions) which protect it from illness and support it along the path to immortality. Also to be found, at times, are “monsters” – more malevolent spirits who obstruct the gates to the dantians, preventing life-force energy from gathering in these important centers. The Nei Jing Tu is one highly-revered rendering of the internal universe of the human body.

The External Universe of the Shangqing Lineage

The external universe of Shangqing Taoism consists of the spirits of the sun, moon, stars and constellations. Shangqing practitioners learn to absorb the essence of the Tao as it expresses itself through the light, energy and power of these heavenly bodies. Also important are the spirits of mist, clouds and dew. Both internal meditative practices and elaborate rituals are used to invoke the presence of the deities residing within these potent substances.

Mystic flight and soul-travel are among the practices used by Shangqing practitioners to access the various celestial realms of this external universe. These practices are similar to the “journeying” practices found in many shamanic traditions. The difference, as mentioned above, is that for the Shangqing practitioner, this so-called “external” universe is understood to be an aspect of the practitioner him- or herself.

Uniting the Microcosm with the Macrocosm

All of the practices of this form of Taoism have as their goal the uniting of the microcosm of the body with the macrocosm of the universe. It is in this dissolution of the inside/outside polarity that the practitioner is able to merge with the Origin of all things – the primordial Tao – and in so doing become an Immortal.


References & Suggested Reading

Eva Wong, The Shambhala Guide To Taoism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1977).

Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Taoism

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