29. The Celestial Masters

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

While Daoist monastics of the Complete Perfection school, if assigned to city temples, will also perform relevant life ceremonies, the dominant community Daoists belong to the school of the Celestial Masters(Tianshi 天师), more formally known as the Way of Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi dao 正一道).

The school was founded by the ecstatic seeker and alchemist Zhang Daoling 张道凌 after receiving a revelation in Sichuan, an event variously placed on either Mount Heming or Qingcheng. The, the story goes, in 142, Lord Lao appeared to him and told him that the end of the world was at hand. He was to instruct the people to repent and prepare themselves for the momentous changes by becoming morally pure so they could serve as the “seed people” of the new age of Great Peace. Closing the “Covenant of Orthodox Unity,” the god appointed Zhang as his representative on earth with the title “celestial master” and gave him healing powers as a sign of his empowerment.

Zhang followed the god’s orders and, in an era characterized by continuous disasters, gathered thousands of people around him. As a token for his efforts, he took five pecks of rice from his followers, whom he organized into tight units and controlled with a strict moral code and ritual schedule, creating a semi-independent state on a religious and ritual basis.

Seeing themselves as advisers to a potent worldly ruler, the early Celestial Masters submitted to the warlord Cao Cao 曹操around 215, who in due course decided not to tolerate a separate organization in his territory. He forcefully moved large numbers of Celestial Masters followers to different parts of the empire, where they spread their cult, transforming it gradually into a major organized religion.

As such they are still present today. The current Celestial Master, the 65th of his lineage, resides in Taiwan with mainland headquarters on Mount Longhu in Jiangxi. Especially in southeastern China, Celestial Masters priests control a wide network of Daoist temples and communities, specializing in purifications, exorcisms, and cosmic renewal rituals. In addition, an intact and functioning community of Celestial Masters Daoism is still found among the Yao in northern Thailand, who adopted the religion in the 12th century.

Their teaching focuses heavily on divine protection against demons, partly by receiving and carrying ritual registers with names of divine generals who can fight off all sorts of attacks. In addition, they provide relevant talismans and perform complex rituals of healing and exorcism, identifying invading demons and expelling noxious influences with a variety of means—herbs, wands, spells, dances, and more.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nx-HK-4Xx2U

Read: Kleeman, Terry F. 2016. Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Yenching Institute.

Hsieh, Shu-Wei. 2016. “Possession and Ritual: Daoist and Popular Healing in Taiwan.” Journal of Daoist Studies 9:73-100.