dao disaster

Chinese characters for disaster
scroll showing religious figure

Mute black night,
Sudden fire.

Disaster strikes at its own time. It is so overwhelming that we can do nothing other than accept it. It alters the course of our day, our work, our very thinking. Although it is tempting to resist disaster, there is not much use in doing so. We cannot say that a disaster had malice toward us, though it might have been deadly, and it’s hard to say that it has “wrecked” our plans: In one stroke it changes the very basis of the day.

Disaster is natural. It is not the curse of the gods, it is not punishment. Disaster results from the interplay of forces; the earthquake from pressures in the earth, the hurricane from wind and rain, even the accidental fire from a spark. We rush to ask “Why?” in the wake of a great disaster, but we should not let superstition interfere with dispassionate acceptance. There is no god visiting down destruction.

Disasters may we change us deeply, but they will pass. We must keep to our deeper convictions and remember our goals. Whether we remain ash or become the phoenix is up to us.

365 Tao
daily meditations
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
ISBN 0-06-250223-9x
Chinese characters for "Celestial Worthy of the Way and the Power"
close view of face
Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Power (detail)
Early Qing dynasty, 17th/18th century
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk 160 x 80 cm
White Cloud Monastery2 (Baiyun Guan), Beijing cat. no. 67

Celestial Worthy of The Way and Its Power

Together with the previous painting, the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure, this painting formed part of a triptych depicting the Three Purities. It shows the third of the Three Purities, the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Power, or Laozi. The god's identity is indicated by the presence of his defining attribute, a fan with fly-whisk. His divine title was derived from the name of the text attributed to him: the Classic of the Way and Its Power
1(Daode jing). Since the name Laozi literally means "elder master," he is shown with white hair and an aged face, unlike the other two Celestial Worthies. Laozi also differs from the others in that he played an active role in the development of Chinese civilization, often appearing to reveal divine teachings to humanity.

Here, he sits on a throne in his celestial kingdom, attended by two figures whose lesser stature serves to emphasize his magnificence. The figure on the right is Zhang Daoling
3, the first Celestial Master and the founder of the Way of the Celestial Masters4, which formed the foundation for religious Taoism. Zhang accompanies Laozi because he was supposedly inspired by a vision of the sage master. The other figure may represent Yin Xi, the man to whom Laozi first revealed the Classic of the Way and Its Power. The artist's choice of these two attendants—the most important representatives of Laozi on earth—highlights Laozi's active participation in the human realm.

1 Classic of the Way and Its Power (Daode jing) (also spelled Tao Te Ching) the earliest-known text of the Taoist tradition, which is said to have been authored by the legendary figure Laozi. The text is actually a compilation of various writings collected over the course of generations. It may have assumed its current form by the third or fourth century B.C. The Classic of the Way and Its Power includes poetic passages, sayings, fragments of political texts, and passages intended for recitation. It served as the foundation for both philosophical and religious Taoism.

2 White Cloud Monastery (Baiyun Guan) one of the most famous Taoist monasteries in China. The temple, located in Beijing, was first built in the Tang dynasty and assumed its present name when it was rebuilt in 1394 during the Ming dynasty.

3 Zhang Daoling (also known as Celestial Master Zhang) Taoist leader, from the second century A.D., who converted the philosophical ideas of Taoism into a popular religion. He is said to have written approximately 24 works of Taoist scripture, cured the sick through incantation, and taught people to confess their wrong deeds. The image of Zhang Daoling riding a tiger became popular for expelling insects, curing diseases, and protecting the family from calamity.

4 Way of the Celestial Masters the first formal Taoist religious organization, founded in the late Han dynasty by Taoist master Zhang Daoling, who claimed to have received teachings from the deified Laozi. Members of the Celestial Masters sect addressed the spiritual needs of the community. Communal rites were performed regularly, especially during seasonal changes. The Celestial Masters sect was also responsible for healing, which required the recording of misdeeds on a paper addressed to one of the Three Officials (heaven, earth, or water). The movement remains active in China to this day.


the symbol of yin and yang, in modern art form

The Taoist Pantheon
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of deities in Taoism. The first formed spontaneously out of the primordial energies at the beginning of the world. These are the highest gods of Taoism who hold titles like "Celestial Worthy" or "Emperor." These gods hold court in celestial paradises and govern a complex hierarchy of lesser gods similar to the hierarchy of emperor and officials on earth. Many of the most fundamental gods of this category developed between the second and sixth centuries A.D. and were consolidated into a well-defined pantheon by the Tang dynasty. Among them are the Three Purities3 (including Laozi) and the Three Officials. As pure embodiments of the Way, these Taoist gods are abstract figures defined more by their rank than by their personal mythology. They do not accept sacrifices of food or alcohol and can only be contacted through official requests written by Taoist priests.

The second category of Taoist deities consists of human beings who—through learning, self-discipline, alchemy, or other means—have purified themselves of mortal imperfections and become gods, a transformation often described as "ascending to the heavens in broad daylight."
© many thanks to the Chicago Institute of Art

Three Purities (Three Clarities) the highest deities in Taoism, they reside over the three greatest heavenly realms. Their names are the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure, and the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Power.

numinous having spiritual, mysterious, or holy qualities

hierarchic scale an artist's method of indicating the importance of individuals through relative size, regardless of actual dimensions. Persons of lesser importance are thus depicted smaller in size in relation to their superiors.

Complete Realization sect a Taoist monastic order founded in northern China around 1160. The sect combines the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The goal of the sect's followers was to attain immortality by perfectly realizing the Tao in themselves. Both male and female members of this sect practiced a strict monastic lifestyle. It survives today as one of the two major sects of Taoism, and its headquarters is the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing.

religious Taoism a term used to define Taoism as an organized, institutionalized religion as opposed to the original philosophical tradition. Religious Taoism developed between the second and fifth centuries A.D. and built on the earlier philosophical foundations. Unlike philosophical Taoism, religious Taoism incorporated new ritual practices and religious institutions, established a priesthood, defined the Taoist Canon, and created a pantheon of deities.

Taoist Canon the collected scriptures of Taoism, systematically catalogued by imperial decree for the first time in the fifth century A.D. The present Taoist Canon dates to the 15th century.
Copyright © 2000, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Here are some reminders of what we have already studied:

TAOIST RITUAL SWORDincense Burner with Li TieguaiCelestial worthy of the primordal beginningCelestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure

click on each to revisit that day's meditation and lesson!

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