Water seeks its own level.
No matter how extreme a situation is, it will change. It cannot continue forever. Thus, a great forest fire is always destined to burn itself out; a turbulent sea will become calmer. Natural events balance themselves out by seeking their opposites, and this process of balance is at the heart of all healing.
This process takes time. If an event is not great, the balancing required is slight. If it is momentous, then it may take days, years, even lifetimes for things to return to an even keel. Actually, without these slight imbalances, there could be no movement in life. It is being off balance that keeps life changing. Total centering, total balance would be only stasis. All life is continual destruction and healing, over and over again.
That is why, even in the midst of an extreme situation, the wise are patient. Whether the situation is illness, calamity, or their own anger, they know that healing will follow upheaval.
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
Taoist Official of Heaven (detail)
Traditionally attributed to Wu Daozi
(active 8th century)
Southern Song dynasty2, first half of 12th century
Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk
125.5 x 55.9 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Special Chinese and Japanese Fund cat. no. 69
Taoist Official of Heaven
This and the following two paintings form a triptych depicting the Three Officials1. The Three Officials were ancient Taoist deities worshiped since the second century A.D. They were believed to keep records of human deeds on earth and to control each person's life span and fate after death. As a result, they were stern, imposing figures of particular importance to Taoist believers. The ancient Chinese believed illness to be the result of bad deeds, which the Three Officials were responsible for recording and punishing. When a Taoist follower became ill or experienced other crises, the priest would submit petitions to the Three Officials on his or her behalf. One petition was burned to transmit it to the Official of Heaven; one was buried for the Official of Earth; and one was submerged for the Official of Water.
This painting shows the Official of Heaven at his desk in the heavens, surrounded by a group of officers and female attendants, called "jade maidens." In front of his desk kneels a Taoist priest, suggesting that this painting was originally made for a ritual in which the priest would envision himself in a similar audience. A lesser officer of the Official of Heaven rises from the lower right, probably intending to either report on the human world or deliver an official petition.
The dynamic movement of the clouds upon which these figures hover and the remarkable detail of this and the other paintings from the triptych make them among the most important Taoist paintings to have survived from the Southern Song dynasty2.
1 Three Officials a triad of Taoist deities in charge of heaven, earth, and the waters under the earth. The Three Officials record people's good and bad deeds and determine their life span and destiny.
2 Southern Song dynasty (1127—1279) the period within the Song dynasty during which invasions from the north and west forced the move to a southern capital, Hangzhou. Art during the Southern Song period is characterized by lyrical, intimate landscape painting and ceramic works noted for their quiet subtlety.
reviewThree 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.
T A O I S M A N D T H E A R T S O F C H I N A
THE TAOIST CHURCH
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
click on each to revisit that day's meditation and lesson!
receive a full HTML copy of the daily meditation sent directly to your inbox, please send a note with the words "subscribe tao" in the subject line to duckdaotsu