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Taoism, Meditation and the Wonders of Serenity

From Latter Han to Tang

Taoism has always emphasized mental serenity and has maintained that good effects will come about from it.  To be serene means that the mind is clear (qing 清), or free of any thoughts that confuse it; it also means that the mind is calm (jing 靜), without any emotions that agitate it.  Taoism recommends fostering serenity at all times and in all activities.  However, meditation has been a primary means of fostering serenity, and of bringing it to greater depths.  The greatest depths of serenity are entranced states of consciousness wherein mystical insights or experiences are said to come about, or where vital forces of both mind and body—typically conceived as spirit (shen 神),qi 氣/炁 (breath or energy) and essence (jing 精)—are said to be activated and mobilized in most salubrious and wondrous ways.  

An immense variety of meditation methods and regimens have been devised within Taoism.  Many of these have involved the active manipulation of the psyche and physiology by means of techniques such as visualizations (especially of deities inside and outside the body), invocations, mental guiding of qi, controlling and holding of breath, swallowing of breath, swallowing of saliva, knocking of teeth, self-massages, bends, stretches, drawing or swallowing of talismans, and such.  Techniques of this sort—which we shall refer to as “proactive” (as opposed to the sort that most concerns us, which we shall refer to as “passive”)—are presented in particular detail and abundance in a category of Taoist scriptures called the Shangqing 上清 or Maoshan 茅山 scriptures, which originated out of divine revelations that are said to have occurred in the latter half of the 4th century in Jurong 句容, not far from present day Nanjing.  These scriptures were widely acknowledged as the highest of divine revelations in medieval Taoist circles, to the extent that in the structure of the Taoist Canon (Daozang 道藏) as conceived in the early 5th century, the canon’s first section—the Dongzhen 洞真 section—was reserved for them.  Modern scholarship has rightfully devoted a great deal of attention to the Shangqing scriptures and their proactive meditation techniques. 

However, such elaborate, proactive meditation techniques are not described or endorsed in ancient Warring States (Zhanguo 戰國; 403-221 B.C.E.) period Taoist texts such as the Laozi 老子 (The Old Master, a.k.a. Daode jing 道德經 [Classic of the Way and the Virtue]), the Zhuangzi莊子 (Master Zhuang) or the Neiye 内業 (Inner Cultivation).  These texts endorse the habitual fostering of serenity throughout all circumstances and activities; if and when they do specifically speak of meditation, the method seems to involve little more than just calming and emptying out the mind. 

As we shall see in this study, despite the subsequent profusion of proactive meditation techniques in medieval Taoism, there also continued to exist and develop more passive approaches to meditation that calmly observed the processes that unfold spontaneously within the mind and body.  Theorists and practitioners of such methods claimed that through sheer serenity one could variously attain profound insights, experience numerous sorts of visions, feel surges of salubrious qi in the body, overcome thirst and hunger, be cured of all ailments and decrepitude, ascend the heavens, and gain eternal life.  While they did not necessarily reject tor disdain the proactive methods, they often viewed them as more rudimentary methods to be practiced in preparation for undertaking the more sublime passive methods.

Our study is a historical overview of Taoist religious texts of the Latter Han 後漢 (25-220) through Tang 唐 periods (618-906) that describe meditation methods of the passive kind, along with the various effects that serenity—particularly that of the deep sort—was believed to bring about.  These texts, in emphasizing serenity and promoting passive approaches to meditation can be said to follow the legacy of Warring States period Taoism to a significant degree, though they also draw inspiration from other sources, and have far more to say about the wondrous effects that serenity can bring about.  Also, this material is crucial to our understanding of the subsequent development of some of the major types of 内丹 (Internal Alchemy) meditation that emerged from the Song period onward, and which also put a prime emphasis on deep serenity and passive observation.  This subsequent development is intended as the subject of a future sequel to our current study.

As we shall see, Taoist theories on deep serenity and its effects developed under the influence of far more than just ancient Taoist philosophy.  During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and throughout the medieval period (covering roughly the years 220 through 960), the increasing emphasis put upon the quest for physical immortality, and the incorporation of various macrobiotic theories and methods developed by various immortality-seeking lineages, led to the development of a much greater variety and complexity of meditation techniques, as well as more extensive, concrete, detailed and audacious claims regarding the sensory and physical effects that can come about.  From the 5th century onward certain key Buddhist doctrines and notions such as rebirth, the Dharma Body [fashen] 法身, compassion, skillful means, and Emptiness [kong] 空 came to be firmly incorporated into the Taoist world view.  There also emerged a renewed interest in the philosophy of the Laozi as reinterpreted through a mode of discourse (the so-called Twofold Mystery [Chongxuan 重玄]) modeled upon that of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism.  The incorporation of Buddhist ideas provided Taoists with new reasons for laying emphasis on mental serenity, as well as new insights and strategies for the cultivation of serenity.  It also caused some Taoists to re-examine the nature and relationship of mind, spirit and body in a way that engendered a preference for passive approaches to meditation, as well as a tendency to emphasize the cultivation of the spirit over that of the body.  This latter tendency would come under explicit criticism from fellow Taoists, who lamented what appeared to them as an abandonment of the cherished the goals of physical longevity and immortality.