Daoist Immortalism: Immortality Can be Sought After and Learned
The pantheon of Daoist Immortals:
Daoism is a polytheistic religion. Its divinities form a pantheon of Immortals divided into three levels. The first level is comprised of the Lordly Spririts of Anterior Heaven; they are the Perfect Spirits of Anterior Heaven which have existed since before Heaven and Earth divided. They include the Three Pristine Ones, the Three Heavenly Officials, the Four Heavenly Ministers, the Stellar Sovereigns of the Five Planets and Seven Stars, the Four Numinous Animals and Twenty-Eight Constellations, etc. The second level is comprised of Perfect Immortals who have attained Dao after the creation of Heaven and Earth. Called the Divinities of Posterior Heaven, they were originally common people who have become Immortals after Cultivating Dao. They include the Three Mao Perfect Sovereign Brothers, the Eight Immortals, etc. The third level is made up of divinities of popular religion which are recognized by Daoism, such as the Door Spirits, the Spirits of Wealth, the Kitchen Spirit, the Earth Spirits, the Motherly Matriarch, Emperor Guan, the Saintly Founder-King of Zhang, the Water-Margin Lady, etc.
Looking at the functions and spiritual attributes of the three levels of divinities, we can see that they form a structure analogous to the administrative systems prevalent in human society. Among them, the Perfect Sages of Anterior Heaven occupy the highest position, and are omnipresent and omnipotent. On the other hand, the popular divinities can only influence one aspect of peoples’ lives, and therefore their position is low. In the Great Law of the Numinous Treasure of the Highest Clarity of the Southern Song dynasty, a list of 360 Immortals for Ritual Offerings is given, in which the Immortals are divided into 11 ranks. Although Daoism is polytheist, it nevertheless has a certain inner unity, as all divinities are manifestations of ‘Dao’, and possess Dao-Nature. Daoist Immortals are all made of ‘Vital Breath’, i.e., they are emanations of Vital Breath. The Book of Pervasive Divinity states: ‘The Great Dao sends down Spirits, and attends to all. Some have a name but no style; some have a style but no surname; and some have a rank but no name. Each has specific attributes and is all are different. Thus the true Spirits are all created by Dao”.
Immortality can be sought after and learned:
The Tang dynasty high Daoist priest Pan Shizheng of the Highest Clarity sect once said: “The Sage is he who is awakened to the Mysteries. All has form, and everything has Dao-Nature. In attaining to Dao, there are differences in depth of awareness. He who remains within the vulgar world and does not commune with Perfection, does not attain to Dao. He who is aware of the near but not of the distant, is not called a Sage.” Since everything has Dao-Nature, all Daoist Immortals and adepts share the common essential chracteristics of Dao and Vital Breath. Immortals are concerned for the lives of men, and hence often enter this world to guide men and save those who have a predestined affinity. Some of the Immortals of Anterior Heaven were thus awakened to Dao and refined to perfection by divine guidance. Those who are not predestined to meet a Perfect Immortal may accumulate Virtues, perform good deeds, and assiduously Cultivate and Refine until they become enlightened and attain Dao, reaching the stage where ‘the body is united with Dao and cannot but remain with it, and the mind is united with Dao and cannot but commune with it.” Then one enters the realm of Immortals who no longer undergoe birth or death, are unharmed by water or fire, and can come and go at will. Therefore, Daoist adepts can pray to Immortals and interact with them, and receive their protection and enlightenment; they can also study and cultivate Dao by themselves until they enter the ranks of the Immortals.
Author: Chen Yaoting
Translator: David Palmer
(Courtesy of: Taoism Culture & Information Centre)