dao time

Chinese characters for time

three wise looking men with small man at side

The river, surging course,
Uninterrupted current.
Headwater, channel, mouth.
Can they be divided?

Each day, we all face a peculiar problem. We must validate our past, face our present, plan for the future.

Those who believe that life was better in the “old days” sometimes are not able to see the reality of the present; those who live only for the present frequently have little regard for either precedent or consequence; and those who live only for some deferred reward often strain themselves with too much denial. Thinking of past, present, and future is a useful conceptual technique, but ultimately they must be appropriately balanced and joined.

We must understand how the past affects us, we should keep the present full of rich and satisfying experiences, and we should devote some energy each day to building for the future. Just as a river can be said to have parts that cannot be clearly divided, so too should we consider the whole of our time when deciding how to spend our lives.

365 Tao
daily meditations
Deng Ming-Dao (author)

ISBN 0-06-250223-9

close view
Chinese characters for "The Star-lords of Good Fortune, Emolument, and Longevity"
The Star-Lords of Good Fortune, Emolument, and Longevity (detail)
Ming dynasty, Jingtai reign, dated 1454
Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk
140 x 78 cm
Musée National des Arts Asiatiques Guimet, Paris cat. no. 91
This work will only be shown at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The Star-Lords of Good Fortune,
Emolument, and Longevity

The three stars of Good Fortune, Emolument, and Longevity form a popular group of gods. Still today, they remain the most commonly depicted Chinese deities. Their worship seems to have begun in the 15th century; only the Star of Longevity can be traced to an earlier source. This god is shown in the upper left as an old man with white beard who looks directly outward. The other two float below him and look to the right. All three gods hold tablets and are dressed as Taoist priests. Accompanying them is a smaller attendant holding a parasol with banners. The inscriptions in gold at the upper right identify the gods and indicate the date of the painting.

In the third century B.C., China's first emperor worshiped the Star of Longevity. The other two gods, however, were unknown before the Ming dynasty. Although they became quite common, there is no scripture devoted to them in the Taoist Canon. Instead, they seem to have originated as popular gods outside of the orthodox Taoist tradition.

With one possible exception, this painting is the earliest known depiction of the group. The first literary source for these three stars is a play about the lunar New Year's festival, in which the three stars descend to the mortal world to grant the blessings suggested by their names—good fortune, wealth, and long life. The play was published only 11 years before this painting was made. Both of these early sources are connected with the emperor's family, suggesting that worship of the star-lords may have been instituted at the imperial level. This is both an example of a popular movement that originated at the highest levels of society and an important reminder that popular religion does not necessarily refer to the religion of uneducated peasants, but also to that of scholars and even the imperial family.



the symbol of yin and yang, in modern art form


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 time, 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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