dao shaping

Chinese characters for shaping

scroll showing religious figure

Potter at the wheel.
From centering to finished pot,
Form increases as options decrease;
Softness goes to hardness.

When a potter begins to throw a pot, she picks up a lump of clay, shapes it into a rough sphere, and throws it onto the spinning potter’s wheel. It may land off-center, and she must carefully begin to shape it until it is a smooth cylinder. Then she works the clay, stretching and compressing it as it turns. First it is a tower, then it is like a squat mushroom. Only after bringing it up and down several times does she slowly squeeze the revolving clay until its walls rise from the wheel. She cannot go on too long, for the clay will begin to “tire” and then sag. She gives it the form she imagines, then sets it aside. The next day, the clay will be leather hard, and she can turn it over to shape the foot. Some decoration may be scratched into the surface. Eventually, the bowl will be fired, and then the only options are the colors applied to it; its shape cannot be changed.

This is how we shape all the situations in our lives. We must give them rough shape and then throw them down into the center of our lives. We must stretch and compress, testing the nature of things. As we shape the situation, we must be aware of what form we want things to take. The closer something comes to completion, the harder and more definite it becomes. Our options become fewer, until the full impact of our creation is all that there is. Beauty or ugliness, utility or failure, comes from the process of shaping.

365 Tao
daily meditations
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
ISBN 0-06-250223-9

Chinese characters for "Taoist Official of Earth"
close view of scroll
Taoist Official of Earth (detail)
Traditionally attributed to Wu Daozi (active 8th century)
Southern Song dynasty, 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. 70

Taoist Official of Earth
Together with the previous and following painting (Taoist Official of Heaven and Taoist Official of Water), this painting is part of a triptych depicting the Three Officials. It shows the Official of Earth traveling through a mountainous landscape, about to cross a bridge. It was the duty of the Three Officials to travel through the world observing and recording the good and bad deeds of people and then to punish them appropriately.

The Official of Earth is shown here on such an inspection tour. He is accompanied by martial figures appropriate to the severity of his office and demons responsible for punishing wrongdoers. Of particular interest is the tree spirit, a small dark figure with barklike skin in the lower right corner of the painting. Watching over the demons, in the bottom center of the painting, is Zhong Kui, the "Demon Queller"— fierce popular figure who was believed to have taken a vow to protect people from unfair demon attacks. His presence is most necessary here, since demons were known to be overly enthusiastic in their punishments, often indiscriminately harming innocent and guilty alike. This is one of the earliest known depictions of Zhong Kui, who would become a popular figure in later Chinese art.


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 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.

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.

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 shaping, 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.

3 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:

incense Burner with Li TieguaiCelestial worthy of the primordal beginning Celestial Worthy of Numinous TreasureCelestial Worthy of the Way and Its PowerTaoist Official of Heaven

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

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