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Chinese Mysticism

The Buddho-daoist Melange: Tantra, Zen, And Mediums, 400 C.e.–present

By about 300 C.E., northern Chinese polity had collapsed under pressure from proto-Turkic invaders. Many northern social and political elite had reestablished themselves in the south, a general area long known for expressions of ecstatic vision and song and escapist literature. When Daoism and Buddhism, as organized monastic-lay communities, flourished in the south, detailed instructions in mystical practice became more frequent, while at the same time the themes and types of practice changed. When the nation was unified under the Tang dynasty in 618, the two religions achieved widespread official sanction.

Buddhism's Hinayana roots in China (from about 100–300 C.E.) had emphasized mind-body exercises (breathing, counting, and recitation). Mahayana Buddhism, a bit later, shared with Daoist scriptures the desire to impart protection for individuals and communities against demons and apocalyptic chaos. The resulting Buddho-Daoist melange reflected the entrance (and frequently the forging) of Indic Tantrist technics and scriptures from Tibet and Central Asia. The Buddhist scripture titled Book of Consecration (c. 450s) is a collection of various spells, oracles, talismans, and even instructions for re-birth into a heaven of medicinal herbs. It is a total package of Chinese mysticism. Seemingly Indic and Tantric, it is nonetheless solidly Chinese, presenting practices in the mantic way, in self-cultivation and transcendence, and finally tutelary divinities who defend against demonic forces.

The Book of Consecration provides the first example of physical implements and practices as tools for transitory union with divinities. This was a new twist, since previously divinities were mainly powerful, official-like beings to whom one petitioned. "Officials to be petitioned" and "gods with whom to gain union" continue in modern Daoist communities throughout the Chinese world. Rites and festivals require chanting for divine intercession, writing of magical calligraphic documents, and direct transmission of divine will through medium-shamans.


The following snippet of recitation (from a 600-year-old text) was performed in the 1990s in Fukien, China, for local Daoist rites: "… with complete obedience [to] … Perfected Lord Wu/ … Wrote talismans, let fall seal-scripts … that his Sacred Spell would have awesome power.…"

SOURCE: Taoist Ritual, translated by Kenneth Dean, p. 93.

In Tang times, "Double Mystery" (chengxuan) Daoist priests such as Liu Jinxi (d. c. 640), who resided at a Daoist monastery in Changan and defended Daoism at court debates in the 620s, exhibited Buddho-Daoist blending. Liu's Benji jing uses a Buddhist debate style as well as notions of the Dao as cosmic deity. Tang Daoists developed the older strains of "self-cultivation" more systematically. Instructions were set out to effect the discarding of all desires, then even the discarding of the state of no-desires, a logical ploy borrowed from Mahayana Buddhism. Chan (Zen) Buddhism matured as a sect from the 700s to 900s, transmitting texts, oral teaching, and even implements in guarded fashion, through disciple-master lineages. Chan rules for meditation were codified, for example, the "Regulations of the Chan School" (1004), and Zongze's "Principles of Seated Meditation" (1103), which prescribe how to enter the practice room, how to sit, the placing of the limbs, and the positioning of tongue and mouth for breathing practice.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterChinese Mysticism - China's "mantic Way": Knowledge Through Insight And Technics, Self-cultivation As A Secular Pursuit: C. 400 B.c.e.–1600 C.e.