You are on page 1of 20
Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism Author(s): Livia Kohn Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of the American Orientaly : American Oriental Societ y Stable URL: . Accessed: 07/05/2012 07:46 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact American Oriental Society is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of the American Oriental Society. " id="pdf-obj-0-2" src="pdf-obj-0-2.jpg">

Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism Author(s): Livia Kohn Reviewed work(s):

Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1990), pp. 622-


Accessed: 07/05/2012 07:46

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism Author(s): Livia Kohn Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of the American Orientaly : American Oriental Societ y Stable URL: . Accessed: 07/05/2012 07:46 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact American Oriental Society is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of the American Oriental Society. " id="pdf-obj-0-39" src="pdf-obj-0-39.jpg">

American Oriental Society is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of the American Oriental Society.





The exact nature of immortality or transcendence as a religious ideal of ancient China has puzzled scholars considerably. It seems certain that, despite their claim to physical immortality, the ancients all had to die in the end. Still, why this claim? One possible answer is that they had indeed the feeling of living forever, that they had found a state which allowed them to survive. There are a number of texts which continue philosophical Taoism in the Taoist religion. They all speak of eternal life, they are all mystical documents, i.e., directly informed by a religious experience which they try to define in the terms of their world-view. These materials show that eternal life was attained in one of two modes: as an ecstatic going-along with the transformations of the universe, or as an enstatic union with the Tao. Moreover, the texts make it quite clear that the human body was thought of as the main vehicle of survival-but a body defined as a replica of the cosmos and originally indestructible.


bypassing death entirely. 1 Immortals then become

increasingly a literary motif, while the religion begins

  • I to organize them according to type. More than that, immortality techniques are tested and developed, and

THE CHINESECHARACTER for hsien, "immortal" or

"transcendent," can be written either ', or ibl: both

graphs depict a man on a mountain. Another variant

I@, used in the Shih-ching "tE for "to dance with

flying sleeves" (Ode 220), is defined in the Shuo-wen

as "living long and vanishing in flight" (Shuo-wen

chieh-tzu chu, 8A.38b). This word, used for "vanish-

ing in flight," is related to A, "to rise up." The com-

mentary to the Shuo-wen further specifies that fhfiis

"to reach old age and not die," while Id is "to move

away and enter the mountains." The obvious basic

implication of the term is therefore twofold from the

beginning: the idea of a take-off, a separation from

normal life, be it in an ecstatic dance or by going into

the mountains, and the notion of longevity and the

complete avoidance of death.

The connotations of the term vary with time and

author, and it is therefore not immediately clear what

concrete ideas and religious beliefs the Chinese gener-

ally associated with hsien. Texts from before and

during the Former Han dynasty together with numer-

ous archaeological finds are generally accepted as

describing actual beliefs of the time. However, since

Wang Ch'ung's E 3R Lun-heng

A i4 at the latest, one

finds a critical awareness of the impossibility of

collections of recipes and descriptions of practices are

found in increasing numbers.

In poetry, Transcendents generally represent images

of freedom, lightness, and beauty. In religion, they are

seen to be long-lived and beyond death, they have

magical powers and can control nature, they are the

ones who populate the otherworldly hierarchy above.

By the Sung dynasty, the word hsien has been inflated

to such a degree that it can refer to anyone who has

done something extraordinary or who is in some way

special. Stories frequently emphasize such persons'

magical powers, their joyful ease, and their trickster

nature. In modern China, they are like fairies: beauti-

ful, young, supernatural, living above the clouds. Still,

the concept includes notions of the improbable, the

fantastic, and the marvelous.

1 In his "Tao-hsu-p'ien" il



(ch. 7; Forke 1907: 332-

50) he describes the ascent into heaven of a number of famous Han-dynasty magicians and immortals. About Li




he remarks that "he parted with his

body," and since humans do not have shells to cast off, he

obviously must have died. About Wang Ch'iao IX ? he mentions that he did not eat and had no clothing and remarks, "How can frozen and starved people live any longer than others?"


KOHN: Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism 623

In general one may say that the ideas most closely

related to the concept of immortality or transcendence

are longevity and flight, i.e., a permanence on earth

and a freedom from all mundane strife. Two other

important concepts are energy and paradise, i.e., the

concept that all life is made up from some primordial

stuff which, when used correctly, will give magical

powers and eternal life and the idea that beyond the

range of human vision there is a realm of permanence,

of beauty, of a glittering radiance where the True

Ones make their home.

The earliest formulations of these ideals of immor-

tality are found in the Chuang-tzu a: f and the Ch'u-

tz'u #

A, and later authors tend to go back to these

two early texts again and again. The Chuang-tzu is

most frequently cited in its description of the "Free

and Easy Wandering" id A it, an expression that

refers to an attitude of spontaneity and instinct, free-

dom from circumstance and strife (Fukunaga 1946).

The Ch'u-tz'u, in the "Far-off Journey" s9 it provides

the archetypal description of the mystical excursion

into heaven (Fukunaga 1970). Important motifs, such

as the lightness of the body, the act of flying into the

sky (Murakami 1956: 185), the use of natural phe-

nomena (thunder, wind, etc; Wen 1956: 175) as car-

riages, the identification of the writer with the powers

of heaven, are all typical features of transcendent

existence (Gulik 1941: 33; Schafer 1973: 121). The

ultimate freedom is then expressed as the loss of any

conscious identity. A famous example of this is

Chuang-tzu's "butterfly dream" (Watson 1968: 49).

An exceptionally clear description is also found in the


After nine yearsI gave up speakingand thinking,I

did not know the differencebetween benefit and

damage,I did not knowwhether my masterwas really

my master,nor yet that anotherwas my friend.Outer

and inner life had completelymelted together. There-

after the five senses also meltedtogether, I could not

determinewhither the sensationscame. My mindwas

frozen, my body free, flesh and bones seemedto have


I did not know on what my body rested,nor did I

know what was undermy feet. I was bornehither and

thither,like a leaf that falls from a tree, or like a dry

chaff, without knowingwhether the wind was riding

on me or I on the wind.(Graham 1960: 36)

The immortal or transcendent state here is obviously

a state of mind. It consists of a closing-in of knowl-

edge, at the same time there is a feeling of freely

floating along. This state is connected with mundane

life in two ways: on the one hand, it is found in the

conscious realization of the Tao which pervades the

universe in continuous change and as such is always

very close by. "One could see

it quite clearly if one

used the soul for seeing instead of the eyes" (Gulik

1940: 89). On the other hand, it is a refinement of the

body. Every individual can refine his material body

through various techniques and meditations to such a

degree that he can attain perfect lightness of the body

and the ability to fly through the air (Chou 1974: 144).

Once a high degree of refinement has been attained,

the body consists only of ch'i A, breath, ether, or

energy, which is the fundamental stuff of all life.

Everything in nature has its own ch'i-so specialized

that the term often seems untranslatable (Liu 1970:

70). The emanations radiating from beings are called

ch'i as is the matter from which they are made up

originally. By treating the basic stuff of creation in the

proper manner, everyone can become finer and finer,

until one is only the fine matter itself. This then

enables people to fly and ascend into the higher

regions of the cosmos

(Maspero 1971: 479).


The background of the immortality complex and its

historical development are shrouded in mystery. Gener-

ally speaking, there is evidence for a strong concern

with long life around the fourth century B.C., when

the philosophy of the Lao-Chuang tradition first

developed (Yu 1965: 87). The same period sees the

origin of the earliest works that would become the

core of the Ch'u-tz'u, this southern and shamanistically

oriented text. During the Han dynasty philosophy,

longevity concerns, and shamanism were joined into

one complex, also incorporating cosmological, astro-

logical, and medical theories. At this time, trans-

cendence was primarily understood as a mechanical

process: one received divine materials from the im-

mortals already residing in paradise, then transformed

them for human use in a ritual procedure, applied

them to oneself and thus could become an immortal

(Shih-chi t A,

28). It was only necessary to get the

proper drug to open the gates of heaven (Chou 1974:

14). Toward the end of the Han, inner cultivation and

physical techniques seem to have received more atten-

tion. In the 4th century A.D., strong evidence for a

more magical approach to immortality is suggested in

Ko Hung's I; it Pao-p'u-tzu It 4+ # (Murakami

1956: 39). The issue is complicated by the fact that the

Han, though intensely concerned with the unification

  • 624 Journal of the American Oriental Society 110.4 (1990)

and standardization of measures and ideas all over the

empire, still retained a large variety of local ideas and

practices. As a result, even the officially approved

documents that have come down to us contain no

unified concepts of life and death (cf. Loewe 1979 and

1982). Consequently it is hard to tell whether the

concept of immortality was there originally, developed

as a progressive advance,

or should rather be de-

scribed as a degeneration of earlier beliefs (Creel 1970:

10). The winged beings depicted on Han mirrors and

in Han tombs have invited wide speculation as to

their origins and meaning in the graves (Seidel 1982).

It is generally assumed that the biographies of im-

mortals were first descriptions of similar pictures of

otherworldly creatures (Kaltenmark 1953: 8).

According to Yu Ying-shih, the fundamental human

desire underlying the immortality complex is the wish

for a prolongation of life, which is frequently ex-

pressed in prayers of the Chou period (YU 1965: 87).

The Shan-hai-ching LbX, *

(Classic of Mountains

and Seas) mentions numerous places, peoples, and

plants of "no-death." Death itself seems to have been

understood as a curable disease (Bauer 1971: 155). The

T'ai-p'ing-ching -k, (Scripture of Great Peace)

draws a connection between one's good and evil deeds

and the life-span one earns on earth (Yu 1965: 112).

There seems, according to Yu Ying-shih, to have been

a strong fundamental desire to make this existence

continuous, permanent, to prolong it as it is, to grow

older and attain higher levels of wisdom, yet never

lose the youthfulness and energy of the body. Old age,

weakness, and diseases are early steps toward death:

they have to be prevented in order to avoid the final

stage. According to this understanding, the immortal

or transcendent state is a static solidity of body and


Kuo Hui-ch'ing and Wen I-to, on the contrary,

assume that the Chinese originally held the concept of

an immortal soul which would be freed by destroy-

ing-especially by burning-the body (Wen 1956:

159). Later this concept was developed to include the

physical body. Thus, while immortality first implied

the destruction of the body in order to free the

inherent immortal soul, it later meant the preservation

of the body, without, however, continuing the suffer-

ings caused by it (Kuo 1935: 17). Wen I-to suggests

that the concept of immortality is related to the

migrations of the Ch'iang tribe from what is now

Tibet in the west toward Shantung in the east, on

grounds of the geographical location of the paradises

in the eastern sea and in the mountains of the west.

Originally, he suggests, the Ch'iang believed in the

immortality of the soul, but developed a more physi-

cal approach to the problem after they mixed with the

native inhabitants of eastern coastal China (Wen 1956:


The important literary motif of ecstatic travel or

flight through the air caused Kuo and also Edward

Schafer to see transcendence as a flight from an

unbearable situation in life. Flight is the symbol of a

rejection of an insufferable earth-bound environment

(Schafer 1963: 80; also Balasz 1948). The search for

solitude in the mountains, a concrete form of travel

away from the world, tends to be a measure of

withdrawal from bad political and social circum-

stances. Kaltenmark thinks it quite possible that such

mountain recluses would meet with aborigines in the

mountains and learn not only a variety of medical and

pharmacological methods from them, but also their

understanding of nature and the world. These arts of

the aborigines would then be related to the fang-shu

7h'iti, the various magical and therapeutical methods

which came to the attention of the court during the

Han dynasty (Kaltenmark 1953: 17). The role of the

mediator between two worlds, typical for the immortal

as the one who can fly and who can go back and forth

between wilderness and civilization, suggests a shaman-

istic connection. Many of the classical techniques and

attributes of immortals are, moreover, also found in

the shamanistic religions of Central Asia (Bauer 1971:

151). According to this understanding, the immortal

state is a free flight, a transcendence of spirit over



In the old texts it is not entirely clear whether

immortality or transcendence meant long life on earth,

ascension into heaven after death, or the complete

avoidance of earthly passing. It becomes clear through

the study of the concrete methods Taoists applied to

attain it that the desired state ultimately meant a

combination of long life on earth and an ascension

into heaven after death, but not the actual no-death

of this physical body. In Taoist materials, "spirit

immortality"(shen-hsien 4 1W)and "longevity"(ch'ang-

sheng a I) are therefore to a certain extent synony-

mous in the sense that one had fully to realize one's

given life-span on earth and attain a subjective feeling

of everlasting life to assure proper ascension after this

body has fallen away.

The concrete practices can be distinguished accord-

ing to their relative physiological or psychological

nature. Among the former, the ingestion of a cinnabar

elixir has been meticulously studied by M. Strickmann

who suggests that ultimately "there was no belying the

KOHN: Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism 625

death that he (i.e., the adept) first had to die" (Strick-

mann 1979: 137). He points out that "in hagiography

it is usually suggested that the successful immortal

somehow managed to bypass death entirely



hagiographic accounts make willingness to follow a

master in apparent suicide the crucial test of a dis-

ciple's resolution" (Strickmann 1979: 130). The elixir

often was highly poisonous and would be swallowed

upon receiving a summons from the immortals to take

up a position in the heavenly hierarchy above. Im-

mortality here is not the preservation of the physical

body, but the attainment of a spiritual state in the

other world.

Among the psychological methods, meditation tech-

niques such as "guarding the One" (shou-i e ;

Kohn 1989a), "sitting in oblivion" (tso-wang '5;

Kohn 1987), ecstatic flight (Robinet 1976) and visuali-

zations of body gods (Robinet 1979) are essential. In

all these, immortality is not a bypassing of the death

of the physical body, either. The body will eventually

fall away like the shell of a cicada. The state attained

is a mental equanimity toward death, a state of

concentration in which one is either so innerly har-

monized that "life and death are one whole" (sheng-








far advanced beyond

the world in ecstatic vision that one is more at home

over there than down here. In either case, physical

death-though occurring at some point-has become


It therefore seems that the avoidance of physical

death was ultimately not an issue in the attainment of

the desired state. On the other hand, health and

longevity (in the sense of living out one's allotted life-

span) are important prerequisites for either the al-

chemical or the meditative transformation. What is

more, the texts continue to describe the perfect state

in terms of "eternity"(yung 77), "prolonged duration"

(ch'ang-chiu a A), or of attaining a life as long as

that of the sun and the moon. The question thus

arises: What is meant by these references to "eternity"?

What is it that supposedly lives forever? If it is not

the physical body, or some kind of immortal soul in

the Christian sense, how exactly is the state of eternal

life imagined? What are the necessary steps to




To consider these questions means gaining a more

realistic understanding of what it was that the Taoists

considered the perfect state. For this purpose, I

propose to look at the description of eternal life in the

texts of Taoist mystical philosophy.

By mystical philosophy I mean a theoretical dis-

course that takes place in a religious framework and is

informed by a specific religious experience. This dis-

course differs from theology and cosmology in that it

does not seek to map the universe or define the nature

of the sacred; it differs from philosophy in that it does

not argue certain points or search for a universal truth

acceptable to all. Rather, mystical texts are guides to

a specific way of understanding and experiencing the

sacred. They are based on a specific experience of

union with god and all-there-is, which is considered

ultimate truth, not just one possible way of being in

the world. They neither justify nor explain this truth,

but on the strength of personal experience categori-

cally state that its recognition and realization leads to

salvation or liberation. Thus, mystical texts need not

necessarily be "confessions" or personal reports of the

mystical experience, as they commonly are in a Chris-

tian context. Equally likely, mystical theory could

come as instructions or as theoretical statements. In

the Taoist context, such mystical philosophy is found

in the texts of the traditions of the Chuang-tzu and

the Tao-te-ching, especially within the Taoist Canon.

It includes these two scriptures together with their

commentaries as well as a number of independent

scriptures and treatises. A representative selection, to

be used below, shall be introduced now.


While a large portion of Taoist mysticism can be

traced back to Buddhist concepts and practices, the

idea of eternal life is deeply rooted in the native

Chinese, Taoist tradition. Seen clearly in the quota-

tions used in T'ang-dynasty mystical texts, especially

in the works of philosophers of the Ch'ung-hsuan


school of Taoist thought and in the works of

Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen PJ * 10 (647-735), numerous

mystical concepts have their ultimate ancestor in the

Chuang-tzu and also in the writings of Kuo Hsiang

$5 *,

the great Chuang-tzu commentator of about



T'ang-dynasty materials occasionally


passages as stemming from the Chuang-tzu which are

only in part contained in the text as we have it

today. The remainder are found in Kuo Hsiang's


This is not altogether surprising since, when Kuo

Hsiang first cleansed the Chuang-tzu of popular and,

in his view, superstitious elements, he rearranged the

text to a large extent and included parts of the old

original in his commentary (Fukunaga 1964; Knaul

  • 626 Journal of the American Oriental Society 110.4 (1990)

1982). Yet one

cannot say that the philosophical

outlook of the Chuang-tzu is completely identical

with Kuo Hsiang's. Where Kuo Hsiang built up an

intriguing and influential system of thought, the

Chuang-tzu often tends to be merely questioning,

pointing, alluding. Kuo Hsiang in his system expressly

excludes those elements of the Chuang-tzu that have

been described as "primitivist" and "individualist"

(Graham 1980: 470), yet he certainly bases his views

on the ideas present in those parts of the text tradi-

tionally ascribed to Chuang-tzu himself and his school

(Knaul 1985: 444).

Kuo Hsiang's commentary is found in a variety of

editions, but for our purposes here we will use the

version found in TT 745, f. 507_19.2 This edition also

contains a subcommentary by Ch'eng HsUan-ying

MZ X-,







was originally from Kuang-tung. He was summoned

to the T'ang capital in 631 (Hsin tang-shu Pi*-*

59). In 647, the emperor ordered him, together with

Hsuan-tsang t t (ca. 602-664) and Ts'ai Huang

B y, to prepare a translation of the Tao-te-ching

into Sanskrit (see T. 2104, vol. 52, p. 386c). Later,

between 650 and 656, he was banished to Yu-chou

+I M (Chen 1979: 77; Robinet 1977: 104).

that the motif of the conversion was only used as a

framework narrative for an essentially mystical text,

which provided a pretext to canonize the scripture

and give it a rank equal to that of the Tao-te-ching


Legend has it that Lao-tzu, wishing to leave China,

set out for the west. Yin Hsi v A, guardian of the

western frontier, recognized from the appearance of a

purple cloud that a sage was on his way. He prepared

a formal welcome for this honored traveller and

begged him for instruction. Lao-tzu, though reluctant

at first, agreed to impart his knowledge of the Tao.

He transmitted the Tao-te-ching in two sections and

five thousand words (Shih-chi 63). The Hsi-sheng-

ching then proceeds to relate the oral instructions

given by Lao-tzu to Yin Hsi together with his actual

practice. It ends with Lao-tzu's final ascension into


The 39 sections of the text can be roughly divided

into five parts. First, the general setting is established,

the background story is narrated, Yin Hsi's practice is

outlined, and the fundamental problems of talking

about the ineffable and of transmitting the mysterious

are discussed. Next, the inherence of the Tao in the

world is described together with an outline of the way

in which the adept can make this inherence practically

  • II useful to himself. A more concrete explanation of the

In religious Taoism, the first and-at least in T'ang

times-most frequently cited mystical scripture is the

Hsi-sheng-ching Ai eT 9 (Scripture of Western Ascen-

sion; see Kohn 1991) which can be tentatively dated to

the fifth century. It survives today in two major

Sung-dynasty editions, one by Ch'en Ching-yuan Rt

c fin of the eleventh century (TT 726, f. 449) and one

by the Sung emperor Hui-tsung 0 Iy (r. 1101-26)

which is contained in TT 666, f. 346. The former of

these two editions contains five commentaries, which

were edited independently during the Sung (Loon

1984: 103). The Hsi-sheng-ching was first mentioned

in connection with the theory of the conversion of the

barbarians (Zurcher 1959: 311). It seems, however,

2 Texts in the Taoist Canon (Tao-tsang, hereafter ab- breviated TT) are given according to the number of the sixty-volume edition published in Taipei and Kyoto. These numbers coincide with those found in K. M. Schipper, Concordance du Tao Tsang (Paris: Publications de l'Ecole Franqaise d'Extrame-Orient, 1975). "F." stands for "fascicle"

and refers to

the volume number of the 1925 Shanghai

reprint of the original Canon of 1445 (Cheng-t'ung Tao-


theory and practice, including meditation instruction,

is given in the third part. The fourth part deals with

the results of the practice and with the way of living a

sagely life in the world. The fifth and last part is about

"returning." The ultimate return of everything to its

origin is described, and the transformation of the

physical body is explained as a recovery of a more

subtle form of participation in the Tao.

The history of the text can be glimpsed through a

look at the five commentaries extant in Ch'en Ching-

yuan's edition. The oldest of these is by Wei Chieh

m A, who lived in North China from 497 to 559. He

was originally a Confucian official who struck up a

friendship with the Taoist master Chao Ching-t'ung

S iA of Mount Sung in Honan while serving in a

district close by. He spent many years writing com-

mentaries on a large variety of texts, including the





the I-ching 9 W the Miao-chen-ching

and the Hsi-sheng-ching (Li-shih chen-hsien

Cl-tao t'ung-chien E t -A ft X A It; TT 296, f. 139-

48, 29.4a).

The second commentator is Hsti Miao




follower of Shang-ch'ing Taoism. He cites the Chen-

kao A e (Declarations of the Perfected) of T'ao

Hung-ching WNqL A (456-536) in his commentary. Tu

Kuang-t'ing (850-933) e t 9K mentions him as a

KOHN: Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism 627

Taoist of the early T'ang: he supposedly was a disciple

Cloudy Satchel) of the year 1019 appears to be later

of Wang


E is X,

one of the

early Shang-

than the version in the Taoist Canon proper (TT

ch'ing patriarchs (Robinet 1977: 151).

1036, f. 704).? The Yun-chi ch'i-ch'ien version of the

The next commentator cited in Ch'en Ching-ytian's

text is also found in Ch'uan T'ang wen JX

edition is Ch'ung-hsuan-tzu If

?t f about whom

ch. 924. The text outlines the gradual progress to-

nothing is known. The fourth, on the other hand, is

quite a celebrity: Li Jung a A, the Tao-te-ching

commentator and famous philosopher of the Ch'ung-

hstian school who defended the Taoist position in the

Buddho-Taoist controversy of the early T'ang (T.

2104, vol. 52, p. 387a-94c). He was also called Jen-

chen-tzu -E A t

and came originally from Szechwan.

A contemporary of Ch'eng Hstian-ying, he yet seems

to have lived somewhat longer, since we know that he

was alive around the year 670. He is associated with


monasteries, the Tung-ming kuan W P and

the Yuan-t'ien-kuan xL X (Robinet 1977: 105). His

commentary to the Hsi-sheng-ching has been edited

by Fujiwara Takao (1983).

ward the Tao in seven steps: 1. Respect and Faith;

  • 2. Interception of Karma; 3. Taming the Mind; 4. De-

tachment from

Affairs; 5. True Observation; 6. Intense

Concentration; 7. Realizing the Tao.

The earliest source of the present-day Tso-wang-

lun is an inscription engraved in 829 by the Taoists

Liu Ning-jan


0* and Chao Ching-yuan M A AG

on Mount Wang-wu, the place where Ssu-ma Ch'eng-

chen spent the last part of his life and where he also

died (Chi-ku lu-mu * tAi$3 Eil 5.5a; Wu 1981: 46a).

Here Ku Hsieh-kuang W t e

of the Ming also found


the stele, located in front of the Tzu-wei-kung



the Temple of Purple Tenuity. He describes it as the

Chen-i hsien-sheng miao pei A-t tI i W (Stele

The fifth and last commentator

cited by Ch'en

of the Temple for Master Chen-i; Ho-shuo hsin-pei-

Ching-yuan is Liu Jen-hui Lf *,

a Taoist of the

mu hilM Vi R H 3.12a).

middle to late T'ang, about whom information is

scarce. In addition to the five commentaries, the Hsi-

sheng-ching has also been quoted frequently in mys-

tical texts of this period.

The text of this inscription was written by a Taoist

from Wang-wu called Chang Hung-ming Ti t A.

The information, i.e., the contents of the text, was

brought to Wang-wu by a certain Mr. Hsu i Et of

whom we know nothing (Wu 1981: 47a). He received

  • III it at Mount T'ung-po where Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen's

One of the texts influenced by the Chuang-tzu, its

commentaries, and the Hsi-sheng-ching is the Tso-

wang-lun ? 5 R (Discourse

on Sitting in Oblivion)

of Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen. Also known under the name

Tzu-wei T A or as Po-ytin hsien-sheng m TX t,

Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen was the twelfth patriarch of the

Shang-ch'ing school of Taoism. He resided first on

Mount T'ung-po ff-1M dLiof the T'ien-t'ai range; later

he moved to Mount Wang-wu 31 F in Shensi. His-

torically speaking, not much is known about him.

Born in Honan in 647, he studied the Tao with P'an

Shih-cheng I 9 iE on Mount Sung and in 684

succeeded him in the lineage of Shang-ch'ing patri-

archs. Around the year 686, Empress Wu invited him

to the capital, but his first official audience was not

until 711 when he went before Emperor Jui-tsung.

Hstian-tsung summoned him several times, and in 724

had a monastery built for him on Mount Wang-wu so

that the Taoist master could reside closer to the

capital. This was the Yang-t'ai-kuan R 'n A, where

Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen died in 735 (Kroll 1978: 16 and

1981: 19; Schafer 1980: 45; Englehardt 1987: 40).

The Tso-wang-lun has come down to us in two

different editions,


which the one in ch. 94 of the



E )K-t

ffi (Seven Tablets of a

teaching seems to have been transmitted orally. The

text of the inscription contains many phrases and

quotations that occur also in the Tso-wang-lun. The

basic progress toward the Tao is outlined more explic-

itly and in more detail in the seven sections of the

latter, but in general it is found in the inscription as

well. Not only does the inscription mention the grad-

ual refinement from body to breath, from pure breath

to spirit, from pure spirit to union

with the Tao, it

also outlines the more fundamental steps to mystical

experience, i.e., the recognition of the delusions that

make up one's everyday consciousness, the attainment

of a concentrated mind, the arising of insight, and the

bodily union with the Tao, which results in eternal



The appendix of the Tso-wang-lun, containing the

concrete meditation instructions around which it pre-

sumably was first conceived, is the Ting-kuan-ching

(Scripture on Concentration and Observation) it!

3 The Yiin-chi ch'i-ch'ien is an early Taoist encyclopedia, found in TT 1032, f. 677-720.

  • 628 Journal of the American Oriental Society 110.4 (1990)


This text is found in four different editions in the

Taoist Canon: TT 400, f. 198 and Yun-chi ch'i-ch'ien

17, 6b-13a are identical and include a lengthy com-

mentary. Without the commentary, but with an addi-

tional ten lines after the first quarter of the text, it

325, f. 167) and the Nei-kuan-ching NV1T, (Scrip-

ture on Inner Observation; TT 264, f. 342; Yun-chi

ch'i-ch'ien 17, la-6b). While the former seems a

mixture of Buddhist precepts and Taoist beliefs typi-

cal of the Ling-pao school of Taoism (Zurcher 1980:

functions as an appendix to the Tso-wang-lun (15b-

18a). Also, there is another version under the title

84), the latter merges traditional Taoist cosmology

with the Buddhist concept of the body as the result of

Kuan-miao-ching m

AS , (Scripture on Observation

of the Wonderful), in TT 326, f. 167.4

The Ting-kuan-ching can be divided into 49 stanzas

of two or more lines of four (sometimes six) characters

each. This division follows the edition in the Yun-chi

ch'i-ch'ien. The text gives meditation instructions to

be followed while undergoing the transition from a

normal state of mind, characterized by impurity and

nervousness, vexations and emotions, passions and

desires, to a state of total concentration, utter peace

and tranquility of mind. Once this is attained the

adept will then realize immortality of the body through

further intensified refinement. The development of the

mind is described in five phases, the progress of the

body in seven stages. While the Ting-kuan-ching is

especially noteworthy for its practical details concern-

ing the various mental states of meditation, its descrip-

tion of the five phases and seven stages is also found

in the Ts'un-shen lien-ch'i ming 4 P i* a A (Inscrip-

tion on Visualization of Spirit and Refinement of

Breath) by Sun Ssu-miao



of the late seventh

century (TT 834, f. 571; Yun-chi ch'i-ch'ien 33, 12a-

14b). Since the Ting-kuan-ching appears as appendix

to the Tso-wang-lun of the eighth century and in its

basic themes is preceded by the Ts'un-shen lien-ch'i

ming, it can be approximately dated to the early

eighth century.

The Ts'un-shen lien-ch'i ming itself is a very short

survey of how to attain salvation through the practice

of Taoist meditation. It includes concrete instructions

on how to focus one's attention on the ocean of

the karma of earlier lives.

Both texts go together well with the Ting-kuan-

ching, the appendix to the Tso-wang-lun. The Ting-

chih-ching is related to the Ting-kuan-ching in that it

is placed in a similar setting, i.e., the Heavenly

Venerable explains mystical practices to the Left Real-

ized One of the Mystery. The basic doctrine of the

text lies in the necessary recognition that "the three

worlds are all empty, and even though I have a body

it is bound to return to emptiness" (TT 325, 4b). This

insight makes the complete oblivion of self and the

world possible; one will then be filled only with love

for the Tao. This state is the "return to truth."

The Nei-kuan-ching, on the other hand, is placed in

the mouth of the Highest Venerable Lord. It consists

of thirteen paragraphs of varying length and deals

with the spiritual and psychological make-up of hu-

man beings. The human body is explained in terms of

the Five Agents and the Five Orbs, but also by means

of the cosmology of the body as found in the texts of

early Taoist meditation. Definitions of psychological

terms are given, then the Taoist system is integrated

with Buddhist conceptions of consciousness, ego, and

the senses. Thereafter, the mystical way of purification

is outlined, to conclude with the statement that Lao-

tzu himself had to study and realize the truth (Yiin-

chi ch'i-ch'ien 17, 6b).

Another mystical text of the T'ang period is the

Hsuan-chu hsin-ching-chu $L (Annotated

Dark Pearly Mirror of the Mind), which appears in

two editions in the Taoist Canon (TT 574 and 575,

breath in the lower abdomen and cause energy and

spirit to remain constantly in the body. One then

attains complete concentration and finally refines one-

self to higher levels of purity, until the Tao itself is


f. 320). It consists of two sets of poems revealed by

Chiao Shao-hsuan A J A, the wife of Lu Ch'ui A P

of Fukien. Originally an immortal from the heaven of

Highest Clarity, she had already departed this world,

leaving behind only an empty coffin. Her husband

implored her to give him some instructions regarding

  • v the Tao.

So she returned to earth once again and

Certain Buddho-Taoist mixtures dealing with the

mystical ascent are also found in the Ting-chih-ching

, (Scripture on Concentrating the Will; TT

revealed the poems. They were published, with com-

mentaries, on Mount Wang-wu, the former residence

of Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen, in 817. The two editions of

these two poems entitled "On Guarding the One" and

"Valuable Verses of the Great Tao of Guarding the

4 Parts of the text are moreover found in TT 725, f. 448, 49.8ab; TT 1017, f. 641-48, 2.2b-3b; TT 574, f. 320, 6b and 9b-1Ob; and TT 1258, f. 999, 2.3a-4a.

One" give commentaries of varying length. They

detail the late T'ang Taoist understanding of salvation,

i.e., of the attainment of a life as eternal as that of

heaven and earth.

KOHN: Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism


























in the first chapter

of the

Looking at the usage of terms like "eternity,"

"lasting long," etc., in the context of Taoist mysticism,

two distinct yet interrelated patterns emerge: an ec-

static and an enstatic experience of eternal life. Pro-

tagonists of the ecstatic model tend to emphasize the

psychological side of things more than the physical.

Typically they make statements such as "make your

mind no-mind and go along with the changes." The

final state here is a mental equanimity, a going-

beyond of the mind over the various experiences of

the body. The mind is made one with true spirit, with

the functions of the Tao; the adept survives in eternity

as a spirit being. He or she rides on the changes and

joins in the interplay of yin and yang.

The imagery of the ecstatic form of eternal life is

strongly shamanistic: the flight into higher realms, the

experience of an altered state of consciousness, the

freedom from the limits of this world are all present in

the descriptions. The process of attaining ultimate

freedom is depicted as one of getting lighter and

brighter. The higher one ascends, the purer the spirit

becomes, the more light is radiated. The world-view

that underlies this model of eternal life is one of

"becoming": the universe is in a constant flux, nothing

ever stands still or stops for a moment. Time is

conceived as cyclical, eternity can only take place in

an eternal return (Eliade 1959).


Many typical passages portraying the ecstatic con-

ception of eternal life are found in the Chuang-tzu,

famous for its central concept of "Free and Easy

Wandering," which in itself bears expression of the

free flight of the perfect man (Fukunaga 1946). A

concept close to "Free and Easy Wandering" and

equally central is the notion of "non-dependence," a

complete non-reliance on anything whatever (Robinet

1976). As the Chuang-tzu has it, Lieh-tzu should have

"mounted the truth of Heaven and Earth, ridden the

changes of the six breaths, and thus wandered through

the boundless

. .

." (ch.

1; Watson

1968: 32).

For Kuo Hsiang, the major commentator on the

Chuang-tzu, the central concept of the text is to "go

along" with everything, to follow the current of things

in a state of utter mental freedom, of ecstasy. In his

work, he uses some fifteen different terms to express

this concept, with slight variations in connotation

(Knaul 1985: 23).


there are spirit people living on faraway Ku-she Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like young girls. They don't eat the five grains, but suck the wind, drink the dew, climb up on the clouds and mists, ride flying dragons, and wander beyond the four seas. (TT 745, 1.25b-27b; Watson 1968: 33)


Kuo Hsiang says:

This is a parable. The spirit person is what we call today the sage. The sage, even though he may sit in court, in his mind is no different from the freedom of

the mountains and the woods ....

He embodies the

spirit, dwells in numinosity, and while pervading the principle of the universe reaches out to utmost won- der. Even though he may be quiet and relaxed within his hall, he mysteriously goes along with all beyond the four seas. Thus he can ride on the Two Forces (i.e., yin and

yang) and control the Six Energies, he can join the mass of people and go along with the myriad beings. There are no beings he does not follow, he even floats along with the clouds. There are no shapes he does not use, he even flies astride a dragon. He relinquishes his body and realizes spontaneity. Even though he is totally serene, he does not depend on anything, sitting in oblivion, acting in

oblivion, doing everything in utter oblivion ....


can do this, because his spirit is concentrated.

In Ch'eng



the imag-

ery of light is brought

out more strongly:

The passage states that the sage moves along with inner serenity, therefore he radiates in harmony with emptiness.


















beings cannot




and is always


(7.27a; Watson

1968: 8 1). Kuo Hsiang



The sage wanders in the realm of change, he frolics along with the flux of what is daily new. As the myriad beings undergo ten thousand transformations, he changes with them thousandfold. As the trans- formations are limitless, so he is limitless with them. Who could impose upon him? He can perish in life and exist in death-when would he ever not be there?

  • 630 Journal of the American Oriental Society 110.4 (1990)

Here eternal life is defined quite clearly as an

ongoing floating movement in harmony with the

changes. It is a going-along with the transformations

in a free state of mind, come what may. Kuo Hsiang's

sage is utterly one with the transformations of all

beings; all states are the same to him, he can be

nonexistent while alive, he can be present while dead.

The all-pervading flux is central to Kuo Hsiang's

thought; even when the Chuang-tzu speaks of "pre-

serving the body" (ts'un-hsing ti ff{) he interprets it as

a flowing along with its developments (14.12a). The

Chuang-tzu states:

Let there be no seeing, no hearing. and the body

will right itself ....

When the eye does not see, the ear

does not hear, and the mind does not know, then the spirit will protect the body, and the body will enjoy

long life (13.19a; Watson 1968: 119).

Kuo Hsiang comments:

Forget to see and there will be spontaneous vision; forget to hear and there will be spontaneous hearing.

Spirit will not be disturbed, the body will not go wrong. One has to let oneself go along with its

spontaneous moment ....

All this means that one has

to follow and obey one's inner nature in all its

movements. Then one will enjoy long life.

This state of total harmony with the flux of existence

is made possible through a complete mental uncon-

sciousness, a forgetting of oneself in ecstasy, a freedom

from self and others which will last eternally, as the

changes continue to happen. "Whether beings come

or go, he (i.e., the sage) is not aware of either," Kuo

Hsiang insists (13.23b). In a similar manner he defines

the state of complete oblivion: "Practicing forgetful-

ness, what would remain unforgotten? On the inside

unaware of one's body, on the outside never knowing

there is a universe" (8.39ab).

Where Kuo Hsiang describes the ultimate state as a

free floating in harmony with the changes, Ch'eng

Hstian-ying uses expressions that point more toward

a stability of mind and body, toward an arrest of all

movements, cosmic or individual:

Let there be no outside seeing or hearing for the eyes and the ears, embrace and guard essence and spirit,



you will become one with the Tao. (13.19a)

This description

represents what we shall call


enstatic view of eternal life (see below).

Here it


interesting to








Chuang-tzu gives rise to such variant interpretations,

that apparently the state of inner unconsciousness is a

prerequisite to both: the free flight and the mystical



The Hsi-sheng-ching as a whole tends to be more

on the enstatic side, admonishing adepts to "preserve

the Tao" (pao-tao

R L4), "guard the One" (shou-i

'T -), and "recover the root" (Ju-ken fM4I). Never-

theless, the commentaries occasionally mention ecstatic

freedom as one of the results of the enstatic training

in concentration and purity.

Mystery and emptiness accumulate to fullness: life is eternal (6.6b). Ch'ung says: "'Mystery and emptiness' refer to the Tao. One truly accumulates its wonderful energy until it completely fills one's body-then one will be able to fly into empty space and live forever."

As in the Chuang-tzu and in Kuo Hsiang's com-

mentary, the complete loss of any kind of identity, be

it physical or psychological, the complete ecstatic

transcendence of the self, is the essential characteristic

of the experience of eternal life.

A similar description is found in the Nei-kuan-

ching of the mid-T'ang:

The Venerable Lord said:

The Tao highly values long life, so guard your spirit and hold on to the root. Never let essence and energy disperse, but keep them pure and always together. When body and spirit are aligned with the Tao, you

can fly to Mount

K'un-lun, live in Prior Heaven,

continue living in Latter-day Heaven, and forever pass in and out of the spaceless. (6b)

Passing in and out of the spaceless, being alive

either in Prior or in Latter-day Heaven-freedom,

flight and ecstasy are the result of a preservation of

essence and energy, of a merging, a union with the

Tao. Adepts no longer should directly lose their

consciousness and identity to the flux, as Kuo Hsiang

advises, but should first gather in and preserve the

stuff that makes up the changes, i.e., the Tao itself.

The clearest description of how adepts gradually

attain perfect ecstatic freedom is found in Sun Ssu-

miao's Ts'un-shen lien-ch'i ming, in a passage con-

tained also in the Ting-kuan-ching and in the appendix

to Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen's Tso-wang-lun. Here immor-

KOHN: Eternal Life in Taoist Mysticism











longer definite. One changes accordingto occasion,


and seven


of the body.


appearsin differentshapes, and one goes along with

are an exercise

in concentration,

Where the former an enstatic stabiliza-


tion of the mind, the latter are described as a gradual



in movement,







Going beyond all beings in one's person, one whirls

stasy, until the successful adept takes up a position

next to the Jade Emperor

of the Great Tao.

The Seven Stages of the Body

1. The diseases inherited from former lives diminish, the body grows light and the mind luminous. The mind is now totally at rest within, the spirit is tranquil, and the energy at peace. The four elements are joined in harmony, the six emotions are deeply calmed. With the mind resting peacefully in the mysterious realm, continue to practice one-pointedness and inner con- centration. Joy and exultation are daily new-this is called "realizing the Tao."

  • 2. The limits of normal life are left behind. In appearance one recovers a youthful complexion. The body in a state of joy, the mind constantly at peace, one numin- ously attains a vision of the deep and mysterious. At this stage, one should move to a different part of the country, choose a spot and settle down. It is better not to be a too familiar acquaintance of the local folk.

  • 3. Extending one's years to a thousand-one is called an immortal. One travels extensively to all the famous mountains, flying or walking in spontaneity, with Azure Lads as one's guards and Jade Maidens for entertainment. As one steps high on mist and haze, colored clouds support the tread.

  • 4. Refining one's body to pure energy, this energy will duly radiate throughout the entire body. This is called the stage of the Realized One. Appearing and disap- pearing to the common world in accordance with spontaneous change, one's glittering clarity will radi- ate of itself, night and day in equal brightness. With immortals in attendance, one traverses through grottos and palaces.

  • 5. Refining the energy to pure spirit, one becomes a spirit man. Changing and passing on spontaneously, one is utterly boundless, one's power can move heaven and earth, remove mountains and drain the sea.

  • 6. Refining the spirit to unify with the world of form, one becomes a perfect being. As one numinously per- vades all existence, one's appearance and body are no

out of normal relationsand comes to residenext to

the Jade Emperorof the GreatTao in the Numinous

Realm. Here the wise and sagely gather, at the

farthestshore and in perfecttruth. In creativechange,

in numinouspervasion, all beings are reached.Only

one who has attainedthis level of cultivationhas truly

reachedthe sourceof the Tao. Herethe myriadpaths

come to an

end. This is called the final culmination.

(2b-3a; see Kohn 1987:122-23)

The ecstatic experience of eternal life is therefore

described in terms of flight. It is a flowing, floating

movement in accordance with the changes and trans-

formations of the universe. It is a state of eternal

becoming, of never standing still for even an instant.

Adepts feel light in their bodies and radiant in their

minds. All states they undergo give them nothing but

joy. They are no longer limited to themselves, but

have gone beyond the limits of individual body and

mind. Heaven and earth are one paradise to them, a

realm of joyful pervasion without bounds.


The notion of "enstasy" in mysticism was coined by

Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion (Eliade

1958). It serves as an opposite to "ecstasy" and has all

the characteristics that are opposite to our description

of ecstasy above. The enstatic model of eternal life