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A Look at Community and Ritual in Medieval Taoism

UCLA graduate student reports on Professor Franciscus Verellen's talk at the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies.

On October 10, 2005, Dr. Franciscus Verellen (Director, École française d'Extrême-Orient, Chaired Professor in the History of Taoism) gave a talk entitled, "Community and Ritual in Medieval Taoism: New Sources on the Way of the Heavenly Master." This talk was the first in the 2005-2006 Center for Buddhist Studies Colloquium Series.

In his colloquium presentation, Dr. Verellen discussed two forms of source materials for the study of Daoism—liturgical petitions and sermons—which shed light on the principal rituals, historical organization, diffusion, and development of medieval Daoism. He spoke at length on the Way of the Heavenly Master (Tianshi dao), a Daoist movement that emerged out of a messianic milieu and flourished from the 2nd to 9th centuries C.E. The Heavenly Master Community seems to have rejected not only ancestral cult practices, but also one of the cornerstones of Daoism: the quest for physical immortality. During the fifth century, however, Buddhist rites were assimilated into the Daoist tradition in movements such as the Lingbao.

Dr. Verellen reconstructs the rituals of this distinctively Chinese movement from the Petition Almanac of Master Red Pine (Chisong zi zhangli), a text that offers rich insights into many aspects of the daily life and concerns not of the ecclesiastical elite but of the general public: childbirth, funerals, personal welfare, and so forth.

The liturgical petitions are addressed to any number of deities from a specialized pantheon—some known, some unique—depending on the specific needs and concerns of the individual client. These petitions were a way in which the living could reach the dead, and intercede on their behalf. Through prayers offered in these petitions, the sins of the deceased may be absolved. Absolutions, however, come at a price, as shown in great detail by the ritual manuals and tomb documents (inventories). All of these documents in fact reveal an economy of ritual absolution in which offerings could be determined according to the means of the donor, a system in which sincerity was the secret to the efficaciousness of the ritual.

The second type of source documents for the Heavenly Master Community is sermons, texts such as the ten sermons by Lu Xiujing (406-477) in which the ideal of retreat rituals (zhai), a concept that derives from Buddhism, is espoused in the language of Laozi's Daodejing. In this way Lu employed the authority of antiquity and tradition in order to introduce to his Daoist audience something that was not archaic at all, but was in fact the latest development in ritual technology: Buddhist ritual retreats. In this way Lu reviewed the old and taught the new.