Chinese Philosophy – Daoism

Chinese Daoist Monk

In addition to its philosophy, Daoism is practiced as a religion which worships Laozi and other patriarchs as sages who acquired the immortality of gods through wisdom and discipline.  The religious tradition was founded by Zhang Daoling in 142 CE, 750 years after Laozi was to have lived and 500 years after Zhuangzi and Liezi.  This was right around the time when Buddhism was settling into China, and just before the Yellow Turban rebellion and other popular rebellions that were mobilized by growing Daoist temples and communities.


Zhang Daoling, who is pictured riding a tiger much like Laozi is pictured riding a water buffalo, was a local magistrate near the end of the Han dynasty.  Although he studied Confucianism to obtain his position, he is said to have studied the Dao De Jing from a very young age and later wrote a twenty four volume commentary on the work after founding the first Daoist community.  According to tradition, Laozi appeared to Zhang Daoling in 142 CE, telling him that the Han dynasty would come to an end but a Daoist community must be founded to help human beings through the crisis and to immortality beyond this world.  Zhang Daoling became one of the four celestial masters in the tradition, ascending from a mountaintop to immortality at the age of 123 (a nice auspicious number).  The Daoist community rapidly expanded through the leadership of Zhang Daoling’s son and grandson.

Daoist priests teach Daoist commoners that there are three fields of cinnabar in the head, heart and stomach, the red crystallized mineral that is used to make mercury and red die, used in ancient China, Rome and the Americas by the Olmecs.  Each field has a guardian spirit but also a worm demon. The three worms try to kill their host human to escape, giving deadly ideas, feelings and desires, much like Plato’s republic if each organ was fighting itself over whether or not to kill you.  Daoist immortals manage to kill off the worms with alchemical drugs, oven including cinnabar, gold, silver, jade, pearls and the five mushrooms.

Many Daoist alchemists tried to use a furnace to produce gold, as Isaac Newton spent a good deal of time trying to do, with Chinese alchemists passing practices and proto-modern chemistry to Muslims, who passed it to European scientists along with many technological innovations.  There is an ancient Chinese saying, Pure gold doesn’t fear heat.  A similar saying says, A clear heart doesn’t fear a knock on the door at midnight.

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