Umbrella, light, landscape, sky—
There is no language of the holy.
The sacred lies in the ordinary.
No one is able to describe the spiritual except by comparing it to ordinary things. One scripture describes the divine word as an “umbrella of protection.” Another says a god is light. Heaven is supposed to be in the sky, and even ascetics who have rejected sex use erotic images to describe enlightenment. People have to resort to metaphor to state the divine.
Even esoteric languages have been invented, and they mystify the outsider. Holy words always appear that way to the uninitiated. After one learns to read them, their message becomes assimilated. We no longer worry about the images, for we have found the truth that the words were indicating.
When you buy something that has assembly instructions, you follow the directions, but you do not then venerate the instructions. Spiritual attainment is no different. Once you’ve gained it, instructions become secondary. Spirituality gained is no different than the ball game you play, the work you do, the car you drive, the love you make. If you constantly regard Tao as extraordinary, then it remains unknown and outside yourself—a myth, a fantasy, an unnameable quantity. But once you know it, it is yours and part of your daily life.
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
Saintly Mother, Heavenly Immortal of the Eastern Peak (detail)
Ming dynasty, c. 1600
Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk 216 x 100 cm
MusÈe National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet, Paris cat. no. 96
This work will only be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Saintly Mother, Heavenly Immortal of the Eastern Peak
This goddess, usually known as the Sovereign of the Clouds of Dawn, developed relatively late in Chinese history, coming to prominence only in the early Ming dynasty. Almost immediately, she became one of the most popular deities of northern China. She is closely connected with Mount Tai in Shandong province, the easternmost of the Five Sacred Peaks1, and her main temple is located on that mountain. Worshiped by at least the third century B.C., Mount Tai was traditionally seen as the gateway to the afterlife. The god of Mount Tai was traditionally male, a figure of considerable severity who controlled the paths of the dead. The Sovereign of the Clouds of Dawn was believed to be his daughter. Unlike her father, she is a compassionate figure associated with life, especially childbirth. She is the yielding yin2 counterpart to her father's yang3 sternness.
This painting, which probably served as an image of worship in a Taoist temple, shows the Sovereign of the Clouds of Dawn seated on a throne in her celestial court, surrounded by female attendants and holding a tablet. She can be identified by the multiple phoenixes in her headdress. Both this goddess and the Queen Mother of the West4 are usually adorned with images of the phoenix, but the Queen Mother of the West wears only a single phoenix on her head, while the Sovereign of the Clouds of Dawn typically wears three or more.
Divine Manifestations of Yin: Goddesses and Female Saints
Women have always played an important role in Taoism—as teachers who have influenced the development of Taoist teachings and as goddesses, the principal embodiments of feminine yin energy and the necessary counterparts to masculine yang energy. The significance of goddesses is most apparent in the divine mother figures, special protectors of women and childbirth. Their worship, however, was not limited to women; in fact, they had an equally strong male following. These mother figures were especially associated with the Tao itself, which was often described as an empty, receptive womb that made possible the birth of the world and the transformation of energy into matter.
The most important divine embodiment of feminine energy, the Queen Mother of the West4, was worshiped in China before the rise of religious Taoism. In the Northern and Southern dynasties5, it was believed that she had appeared to different emperors to legitimize or deny the legitimacy of their rule. She eventually came to be seen as the head of a complex pantheon of different goddesses—the feminine equivalent of such supreme figures as the Three Purities6 or the Jade Emperor7.
Mortal women have also had a deep impact on Taoism, both as patrons and teachers. Not only emperors but also women from the imperial family could be ordained as Taoist priests. Many other women served as the religious instructors of high-level officials and scholars. Several movements within Taoism are attributed to female founders. Both Taoism and Buddhism offered female followers the possibility of becoming nuns, an accepted option for a woman who did not wish to become a wife and mother. Although Taoism inherited many social biases against women, it allowed them to play a vital role. The influence of women on the growth of religious Taoism is undeniable.
1 Five Sacred Peaks five sacred mountains located along the five directions (north, south, east, west, and center) that occupy powerful places in Taoist geography. The sacred mountains are not actually single peaks; rather they are networks of peaks, cliffs, gorges, hills, ravines, etc. To communicate with the deities on these mountains, emperors ordered the construction of important Taoist temples on each peak. Taoists also believe that immortals inhabit the Five Sacred Peaks. On their slopes grow the magical mushrooms that bestow immortality.
2, 3 yin and yang two opposing types of energy or contrasting forces. Yin is described as yielding, passive, negative, dark, and female. Yang is dynamic, assertive, positive, light, and male. The two energies are opposite and yet mutually dependent. Yin may become yang and vice versa, just as day becomes night, cold becomes hot, and the reverse. The behavior of yin and yang describes the structure of any event or thing. It may be said that their dynamic relationship describes the operation of the Tao in its cycles of creation, and that their alternating movement underlies the structure of everything in the universe. The concept of yin and yang is conveyed by the tiger and dragon and by the Taiji symbol.
4 Queen Mother of the West the Taoist goddess who rules over the western paradise and is the head of a pantheon of goddesses and female immortals. In her garden, she grows the peaches of immortality.
5 Northern and Southern dynasties (386—589) long period of political disunity after the fall of the Han dynasty. During this time, China was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms. The period is also known as the Six Dynasties.
6 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.
7 Jade Emperor chief of the pantheon of popular gods incorporated into Taoism
THE TAOIST RENAISSANCE
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 RENAISSANCE
Taoism and Popular Religion
From its very beginnings, religious Taoism has made a special point to distinguish itself from popular religion, especially local cults that relied on blood sacrifice as the primary means of worship. At the same ordinary, Taoism developed from popular religious beliefs and practices and has been influenced by different regional traditions throughout its history. Popular religion has been an important source of new gods, and the orthodox Taoist establishment has frequently turned to popular traditions to renew its own spiritual doctrines.
The relationship between Taoism and popular religion, in particular the incorporation of popular gods into the official Taoist pantheon, became increasingly subject to official rules and procedures in the Song dynasty. Absorption of a local deity into the official Taoist pantheon meant imperial recognition of the deity's followers, with the political security that this recognition entailed. Imperial recognition could also provide increased economic opportunity for cults that centered around merchants and guilds. After the Song dynasty, Taoism and popular traditions often maintained a mutually beneficial relationship. Taoism was able to increase its appeal and expand its pantheon by absorbing popular deities, while local cults were able to avoid persecution and reach a wider audience through the elevation of their gods to national status.
© 2000 AND many thanks to the Chicago Institute of Art
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