The Northern Celestial Masters

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A statue of the Buddha representing Emperor Taiwu. Grotten.jpg
A statue of the Buddha representing Emperor Taiwu.

The Northern Celestial Masters type of the Way of the Celestial Master (simplified Chinese :天师道; traditional Chinese :天師道; pinyin :Tiān Shī Dào) Daoist movement existed in the north of China during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. The Northern Celestial Masters were a continuation of the Way of the Celestial Masters as it had been practiced in Sichuan province by Zhang Lu and his followers. After the community was forced to relocate in 215 CE, a group of Celestial Masters established themselves in Northern China. [2] Kou Qianzhi, from a family who followed the Celestial Master, brought a new version of Celestial Master Daoism to the Northern Wei. The Northern Wei government embraced his form of Daoism and established it as the state religion, thereby creating a new Daoist theocracy that lasted until 450 CE. [3] The arrival of Buddhism had great influence on the Northern Celestial Masters, bringing monasticism and influencing the diet of practitioners. Art produced in areas dominated by the Northern Celestial Masters also began to show Buddhist influence. When the theocracy collapsed, many Daoists fled to Louguan, which quickly became an important religious center. The Northern Celestial Masters survived as a distinct school at Louguan until the late 7th century CE, when they became integrated into the wider Daoist movement.

Simplified Chinese characters Standardized Chinese characters developed in mainland China

Simplified Chinese characters are standardized Chinese characters prescribed in the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters for use in mainland China. Along with traditional Chinese characters, they are one of the two standard character sets of the contemporary Chinese written language. The government of the People's Republic of China in mainland China has promoted them for use in printing since the 1950s and 1960s to encourage literacy. They are officially used in the People's Republic of China, Malaysia and Singapore.

Traditional Chinese characters Traditional Chinese characters

Traditional Chinese characters are Chinese characters in any character set that does not contain newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946. They are most commonly the characters in the standardized character sets of Taiwan, of Hong Kong and Macau. The modern shapes of traditional Chinese characters first appeared with the emergence of the clerical script during the Han dynasty and have been more or less stable since the 5th century.

Pinyin Chinese romanization scheme for Mandarin

Hanyu Pinyin, often abbreviated to pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in mainland China and to some extent in Taiwan. It is often used to teach Standard Mandarin Chinese, which is normally written using Chinese characters. The system includes four diacritics denoting tones. Pinyin without tone marks is used to spell Chinese names and words in languages written with the Latin alphabet, and also in certain computer input methods to enter Chinese characters.



Northern Wei (424-450)

Kou Qianzhi was a member of Celestial Master family that came from an area near Chang'an. Inspired by the burgeoning Daoist movement in Southern China, Kou retreated to Mount Song in Henan to receive inspiration. On the mountain, as described by the text The History of the Wei Dynasty, he was visited twice by Laozi. In his first visit in 415, Laozi revealed to Kou a text known as the Laojun Yinsong Jiejing (New Code). [4] This text contained precepts designed for a new religious community. In 423, a messenger of Laozi came and offered Kou a new text called the Lutu Zhenjing (Perfect Scripture of Registers and Charts), which is now lost, and appointed him as the new Celestial Master. [5]

Kou Qianzhi (365–448) was a Taoist reformer who reenvisioned many of the ceremonies and rites of the Way of the Celestial Master form of Taoism and reformulated its theology into a new movement known as The Northern Celestial Masters. His influence was such that he had Taoism established as the official state religion of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534); this act, however, embroiled Taoism in long and often bloody factional political struggles. There was a saying Kou Qianzhi once secluded in Mount Huashan for his Taoism meditation.

Changan Ancient capital and city of China

Chang'an was an ancient capital of more than ten dynasties in Chinese history, today known as Xi'an. Chang'an means "Perpetual Peace" in Classical Chinese since it was a capital that was repeatedly used by new Chinese rulers. During the short-lived Xin dynasty, the city was renamed "Constant Peace" ; the old name was later restored. By the time of the Ming dynasty, a new walled city named Xi'an, meaning "Western Peace", was built at the Sui and Tang dynasty city's site, which has remained its name to the present day.

Mount Song mountain

Mount Song is a mountain in central China's Henan Province, along the southern bank of the Yellow River, that is known as the central mountain of the Five Great Mountains of China. Its summit is 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) above sea level.

In 424, Kou took these texts with him to the Wei court. There, he was welcomed by Emperor Taiwu and garnered the support of Cui Hao, the prime minister. [5] Even though Cui Hao was a Confucianist, he greatly admired Kou and was immediately drawn to him. Cui also appreciated Kou's mathematical skills and hoped that he might help him improve his own longevity techniques. They also shared a dream of a 'purified society,' a land where peace and justice prevailed. [6] Kou's 'New Code' was promulgated throughout the realm, and a large altar was built near the capital where 120 Daoist practitioners performed rites and prayers daily. Cui gained a great deal of power in the court, and in 444 began to purge the Buddhist clergy. This led to a major persecution against Buddhists in 446. [7] In 448, Kou Qianzhi was 'released' from his body, and Cui lost his greatest supporter at the court. Shortly after Kou's death, Cui had a national history of Wei dynasty containing unflattering portraits of its rulers carved in stone. This so enraged the emperor, that he had Cui executed in 450. [8] After Cui's execution, the Daoist community was forced to flee, with many of them settling at the Daoist center of Louguan. [9]

Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei, personal name Tuoba Tao (拓拔燾), Xianbei name Buri or Bili (佛貍), was an emperor of Northern Wei. He was generally regarded as a capable ruler, and during his reign, Northern Wei roughly doubled in size and united all of northern China, thus ending the Sixteen Kingdoms period and, together with the southern dynasty Liu Song, started the Southern and Northern Dynasties period of ancient China history. He was a devout Taoist, under the influence of his prime minister Cui Hao, and in 444, at Cui Hao's suggestion and believing that Buddhists had supported the rebellion of Gai Wu (蓋吳), he ordered the abolition of Buddhism, at the penalty of death. This was the first of the Three Disasters of Wu for Chinese Buddhism. Late in his reign, his reign began to be cruel, and his people were also worn out by his incessant wars against Liu Song. In 452, he was assassinated by his eunuch Zong Ai, who put his son Tuoba Yu on the throne but then assassinated Tuoba Yu as well. The other officials overthrew Zong and put Emperor Taiwu's grandson Tuoba Jun on the throne as Emperor Wencheng.

Cui Hao (崔浩), courtesy name Boyuan (伯淵), was a prime minister of the Chinese/Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. Largely because of Cui's counsel, Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei was able to unify northern China, ending the Sixteen Kingdoms era and, along with the southern Liu Song, entering the Southern and Northern Dynasties era. Also because of the influence of Cui, who was a devout Taoist, Emperor Taiwu became a devout Taoist as well. However, in 450, over reasons that are not completely clear to this day, Emperor Taiwu had Cui and his cadet branch executed.

The entrance to the Louguan temple. Louguan Gate.JPG
The entrance to the Louguan temple.

Louguan (450-688)

By the late 470s, Daoists fleeing from the Northern Wei court had transformed Louguan into an important religious center. According to legend, Louguan used to be the home of Yin Xi, the first recipient of the Dao de jing . At this time, the center's buildings were greatly expanded, and many Daoist scriptures were collected, including materials from the Lingbao and Shangqing schools. [10] During the 7th century, the school had a prominent role in a series of debates that examined whether Buddhism or Daoism would be better suited to bring stability to the realm. The first debate surrounded Fu Yi, a scholar and Daoist who proposed that Buddhism be abolished in China. Naturally, the Buddhists were not happy with his suggestions and countered his arguments in several treatises. The second debate concerned Lu Zhongqing, a friend of Fu Yi, who wrote about Buddhism's inferiority to Daoism. The Tang emperors were in support of the Daoists, and in 637 issued an edict that secured the precedence of Daoism over Buddhism. This edict remained in place until 674, when Empress Wu Zetian came to power. At the same time, Louguan also served as a refuge for Daoists fleeing the persecution of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty to the south. [11] The final Northern Celestial Master, Yin Wencao arrived at Louguan in 636 and later achieved the favor of the Gaozong Emperor. After Yin's death in 688, Louguan remained an important place of Daoist learning, but ceased to be considered part of a distinct school. [12]

Lingbao School Daoist school that emerged in China in between the Jin Dynasty and the Liu Song Dynasty in the early fifth century CE; lasted for about two hundred years until it was absorbed into the Shangqing and Zhengyi currents during the Tang Dynasty

The Lingbao School, also known as the School of the Sacred Jewel or the School of Numinous Treasure, was an important Daoist school that emerged in China in between the Jin Dynasty and the Liu Song Dynasty in the early fifth century CE. It lasted for about two hundred years until it was absorbed into the Shangqing and Zhengyi currents during the Tang Dynasty. The Lingbao School is a synthesis of religious ideas based on Shangqing texts, the rituals of the Celestial Masters, and Buddhist practices.

The Shangqing School (Chinese:上清) or Supreme Clarity is a Daoist movement that began during the aristocracy of the Western Jin dynasty. Shangqing can be translated as either 'Supreme Clarity' or 'Highest Clarity.' The first leader of the school was a woman, Wei Huacun (251-334). According to her Shangqing hagiographers, her devotion to Daoist cultivation so impressed a number of immortals that she received revelations from them 31 volumes of Daoist scriptures which would become the foundation of Shangqing Daoism. Later, Tao Hongjing (456-536) structured the theory and practice and compiled the canon. He greatly contributed to the development of the school that took place near the end of the 5th century. The mountain near Nanjing where Tao Hongjing had his retreat, Maoshan (茅山), today remains the principal seat of the school.

Fu Yi was a Sui dynasty official who later became historiographer during the reign of Emperor Gaozu of the Tang dynasty. He presented a memorial asking that Buddhism might be abolished; and when Xiao Yu questioned him on the subject, he said, “You were not born in a hollow mulberry-tree; yet you respect a religion which does not recognize the tie between father and son!” He urged that at any rate priests and nuns should be compelled to marry and bring up families, and not escape from contributing their share to the revenue, adding that Xiao Yu by defending their doctrines showed himself no better than they were. At this time Xiao Yu held up his hands, and declared that hell was made for such men as Fu Yi. The result was that severe restrictions were placed for a short time upon teachers of Buddhism.


The most important text from the Northern Wei period of the Northern Celestial Masters is the Laojun Yinsong Jiejing (New Code). This text was revealed to Kou Qianzhi in 415, and is now mostly lost apart from a few fragments. The surviving text contains thirty-six precepts that outline rules which a Daoist had to abide by. The behavioral rules outlined proper public conduct and what to do in case of sickness. There were also guidelines describing how banquets were to be set up, as well ritual instructions concerning funeral rites, immortality practice and petitions. [13]

One of the most important text's from the school's Louguan period is called the Xishengjing (The Scripture of Western Ascension). This text describes Laozi's emigration to India and the transmission of the Daode Jing to Yin Xi. However, the text is not really a narrative, but uses the stories as a framework to describe how an adept should live his life. The text describes how an adept can make use of the Dao that is inherent in the world, outlines meditation techniques, and discusses the results of living a sagely life and what happens after death. [14]


The Xishengjing is a late 5th century CE Daoist text with provenance at the Louguan 樓觀 "Tiered Abbey" of The Northern Celestial Masters. According to Daoist tradition, Louguan was near where the legendary Laozi 老子 transmitted the Daodejing to the Guardian of the Pass Yin Xi 尹喜. The Xishengjing allegedly records the Daoist principles that Laozi taught Yin Xi before he departed west to India.

India Country in South Asia

India is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by area, the second-most populous country, and the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the north; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives; its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

Tao or Dao is a Chinese word signifying "way", "path", "route", "road" or sometimes more loosely "doctrine", "principle" or "holistic beliefs". In the context of East Asian philosophy and East Asian religions, Tao is the natural order of the universe whose character one's human intuition must discern in order to realize the potential for individual wisdom. This intuitive knowing of "life" cannot be grasped as a concept; it is known through actual living experience of one's everyday being.


The Northern Celestial Master variety of Daoism was both similar and different from Zhang Lu's earlier form. Unlike prior incarnations of the Celestial Masters, which supported sexual practices as a means of achieving immortality, Kou's text urged that the sexual arts be purged from the religion. [15] In addition, he also states that religion must be purged of the imposition of religious taxes on the faithful and the inheritance of religious titles. In the Northern Celestial Masters, Laozi became closely linked with the Buddha, who was claimed to be a student of Laozi. [16] There were also very specific dietary requirements that had to be followed, as well as other rules, many of which were influenced by Buddhism. [17] The Northern Celestial Masters were also the first Daoists to practice a form of monasticism, another idea that came from Buddhism. Kou also condemned messianic movements and called for texts such as the Daodejing to be copied and recited. Those people who were good in life would gain immortality in a new age, whereas those who were bad would be reborn as insects or animals. [18] [19]

Laozi, depicted as the Taoist god. LaoGod.jpg
Laozi, depicted as the Taoist god.

Some similarities between earlier Celestial Master Daoism include the role of Laozi. Laozi was viewed as the personification of the Dao, who existed for eternity and created the world. He was believed to be the creator of the universe and came to earth intermittently to bring forth sacred scriptures, including the Daode Jing and Xisheng Jing. Moreover, Laozi continued to appear periodically and bring forth new scriptures to both Kou Qianzhi and adherents at Louguan, surrounded by a celestial entourage and announced by a celestial envoy. Laozi was also extremely closely linked with the Buddha, and in certain sources, even became the Buddha or announced Yinxi as the Buddha. [20]


The Northern Celestial Masters followed certain regular, communal rites. One of these communal rites involved formal banquets. These feasts could last as long as seven days. In order to purify themselves for feasts, members had to abstain from eating meat, garlic, green onions, ginger, leeks and onions. A banquet consisted of three courses – wine, rice and a vegetarian meal. Ritual activity during feasts and other activities usually involved a series of bows and prostrations as well as the burning of incense. [17] Banquets were also held when someone died. During these banquets, attendees would perform rituals aimed at remitting the sins of the deceased. [21]

While monasticism had existed in Chinese Buddhism, the Northern Celestial Masters were one of the first Daoist groups to practice it. Kou lived a monastic lifestyle on Songshan, known today for being the location of the Shaolin Monastery. [22] Monasticism developed further during the Louguan phase of the Northern Celestial Masters due to this influence of Buddhism. During this period, a clear distinction developed between lay and monastic followers in Daoism. The ordination, precepts and way in which monks sought salvation were all influenced by Buddhism. [19]


Many art objects were produced in Northern China during the time of the Northern Celestial Masters. These objects were closely modeled on Buddhist designs. The image of the god (usually Laozi), would be carved on the front side of a stone stele, with inscriptions on the back or side of the carving. The inscriptions were usually prayers to the dead, a wish for the happiness of family members or wishes for political peace. The iconography and contents of the inscriptions show that a close relationship between Daoism and Buddhism existed in the Northern Wei state. [23] This relationship is especially evident in some four-sided stelae that had carvings of both Laozi on two sides and the Buddha on the other two. [24]

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  1. Harper, (2002) p. 452.
  2. Kohn (2000), p. 283.
  3. Kohn (2000), p. 284-285.
  4. Ware (1933), p. 228.
  5. 1 2 Kohn (2000), p. 284.
  6. Mather (1979), p. 112-113.
  7. Mather (1979), p. 116-117.
  8. Mather (1979), p. 120-121.
  9. Kohn (2000), p. 285.
  10. Kohn (2000), p. 286-287.
  11. Kohn (2008), p. 710.
  12. Kohn (2000), p. 289-290.
  13. Kohn (2008), 609-610.
  14. Kohn (2008), 1135.
  15. Despeux, (2000), 399.
  16. Kohn (2000), p. 299.
  17. 1 2 Kohn (2000), p. 302.
  18. Robinet (1997), p. 76.
  19. 1 2 Kohn (2000), p. 304.
  20. Kohn (2000), p. 298-299.
  21. Toshiaki, (1995), 73.
  22. Goosseart (2008), p. 916.
  23. Kohn (2000), p. 303.
  24. Kohn and Lafargue (1998), p. 67.

General sources