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The Goals of Spiritual Practice in Lingbao Daoism

Updated on November 12, 2011

Every religious tradition can be analyzed in terms of the ultimate goal, or solution, that they offer their practitioners. In Christianity, this goal is salvation, and so the category of “soteriology”—the word is derived from the Greek root σωτηρία (transliterated “soteria”), meaning “salvation”—is entirely applicable to the ultimate aim of Christian practice. While the ultimate goal of Lingbao Daosim may be thought, in a sense, to be a sort of salvation, it is qualitatively different from the salvation of Christianity to such an degree that referring to the “soteriology of Lingbao Daosim” may prove to be more misleading than helpful. This paper will discuss the development of the goals of spiritual practice in Lingbao Daosim in comparison to the aims of spiritual practice in both external alchemy and the Daode jing.

To begin with, I noticed in both the Daode jing and the Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity—I will use the Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity to illustrate the aims of practicing external alchemy—that a distinction can be made between at least two broad categories of aims: those concerned with the here-and-now, and those concerned with transcending the here-and-now. It may be said that the overarching goal of spiritual practice in the Daode jing is a type of transcendence of the cares of this world: “All things arise, and [the sage] does not turn away from them. He produces them but does not take possession of them” (Chinese Religion 73). Concerns with the here-and-now are nonetheless evident in verses that express a sociopolitical philosophy. For example, the Daode jing provides advice on how one is to become “the leading official”, and comments on the ways of a “great ruler”. It warns against a downward spiral that culminates in “the beginning of disorder” (presumably social/political disorder). (Chinese Religion 75)

Likewise, the goals of external alchemy are both ethereal and mundane. A concern with the here-and-now is displayed in the Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity. The ingestion of cinnabars can provide material prosperity, as one may spend money, and it “will return the next day” (Chinese Religion 151). The pressing worldly concern with having children is addressed, as the “Supple Cinnabar” provides unnatural virility (Chinese Religion 151). One is granted protection from common dangers in the natural world, such as “water and fire”, and there is even the aesthetic appeal of “jade maidens” to look forward to (Chinese Religion 150). But external alchemy also unmistakably promotes a much higher goal: immortality. Often, this immortality is far removed one from earthly concerns. Certain elixirs would, after all, kill the earthly body, purportedly allowing an immortal body to ascendto the heavens. The Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity clearly expresses this transcendent goal of celestial immortality (although it doesn't mention the death of the earthly body), referring to “mounting clouds . . . roaming high and low throughout the vast empyrean” (Chinese Religion 150).

Lingbao Daoism certainly developed along the same lines as the two aforementioned traditions, in the sense that, while promoting an ultimate goal of transcendence, it still managed to focus a great deal on earthly matters. Poceski, for example, says, “The Lingbao rituals were often used for the achievement of prosaic goals, such as the prevention of natural calamities. However, their self-professed ultimate aim was the salvation of all beings” (Poceski 92). Salvation, in the context of Lingbao Daoism, referred to transcendence, as one would “return to a primordial order” and “arrive at union with the Dao” (Poceski 91).

Although the two categories of goals in Lingbao Daoist practice provide a point of similarity to the precedent traditions I have discussed, from this convergence there are radical departures. The transcendence of Lingbao Daoism contrasts sharply with the transcendence of the external alchemists. Whereas the transcendence of the external alchemists involves a magical panacea that physically transforms a person and caters to his/her every fancy, union with the Dao is a spiritual condition. It is an inner disposition of harmony with the Ultimate that constitutes transcendence in the midst of the here-and-now. A person in such a state must still deal with the base realities of this life. They must obtain food and shelter. The money they spend will not return to them, and their bodies are still vulnerable to the elements. Jade maidens and spirits will not swarm to serve them. Even in such a vulgar condition, however, the Lingbao Daoist may rise above everything, maintaining the inner peace and composure of one who dwells deep in the heart of the ultimate reality.

Furthermore, Lingbao Daoism diverged from both external alchemy and the Daode jing with its universalism. This universalism may have been the most natural extension of its communal emphasis (an emphasis absent from the other two traditions), although such an emphasis certainly doesn't necessitate the development of universalist beliefs—consider, for example, Christianity, an ostensibly communal faith in which universalism is a decisively heterodox position (although this wasn't always so, and is slowly changing). In any case, the Lingbao Daoists looked forward to the time when all beings would be reunited with their primordial beginning (Dao). This sentiment represented the polar opposite of that espoused by the external alchemists, who, having discovered the magic solution to rid themselves of all mundane inconveniences and woes, had no desire to share their good fortune with the hoi polloi, let alone with all beings. This esoteric tradition offered its final solution only to the few, who actually made a pact not to share their knowledge with “anyone of lesser caliber”, sealing this covenant by throwing away golden objects that a commoner could scarcely afford to obtain, let alone throw away (Chinese Religion 150).

While the Daode jing lacks this explicit exclusivism, it also lacks any overt universalistic references.In a sense, the very obscurity of its verses might be seen as representing a sort of gnostic tendency to filter out the people who lacked either the capacity or the free time to untangle such verbiage. Abstruse metaphysical musings, after all, would have been largely the domain and concern of the upper-class in an agricultural society where the majority of people worked hard just to meet their basic needs. This upper-class orientation might also be inferred from the Daode jing's frequent reference to rulers and officials, suggesting that at least one intended audience was the aristocracy.

In conclusion, the Lingbao Daoist tradition developed with both prosaic and transcendent aims for its spiritual practice. In this sense, it developed along a trajectory similar to the precedent philosophies of the external alchemists and the Daode jing. It differs vastly from external alchemy, however, both in the nature of its final (transcendent) goal, and in who this goal was made available to. Compared with the Daode jing, the differences are less prominent. The goal itself is seemingly identical: union with the Dao. The Daode jing, however, doesn't give any specific method for attaining this goal, whereas the Lingbao Daoists used their communal rituals as “potent vehicles” for achieving this end (Poceski 91). Ultimately, however, what I find most admirable about the Lingbao Daoists—in fact, the reason I chose to write about them—is their focus on community and collective attainment of “salvation”. In this culture, I often feel all too inundated by religious beliefs that posit salvation for only the few, much like the external alchemists. So I am always refreshed when I come across a group of religious adherents who are not content with salvation if it is only for themselves and others who adhere to their particular dogmas, but see the salvation of all beings as an integral part of the term “salvation” itself.

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