The Aspirations and Standards of Taoist Priests in the Early T'ang Period

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:24
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THE ASPIRATIONS AND STANDARDS OF TAOIST PRIESTS IN THE EARLY T'ANG PERIOD. By Florian C. Reiter. Asien- und Afrika-Studien 1 der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998. Pp. viii + 241; glossary; index. Cloth, DM 140, ISSN 0948-9798/ISBN 3-447-04086-6.


Continuing his wide-ranging research on Daoism from the Six Dynasties (420-589) through the Ming (1368-1644) periods, in the present work Reiter focuses on Tang-dynasty (618-907) Daoist monasticism. The centerpiece of Reiter's book is the Taixuan lingbao sandong fengdao kejie yingshi (Practical Introduction to Rules and Precepts for Worshipping the Dao from the Three Caverns of Numinous Treasure and the Great Mystery; DZ 1125/DH 39; abbrev. Fengdao kejie [Rules and Precepts for Worshipping the Dao]). This text has been labeled the "first handbook of Daoist monasticism" and is traditionally ascribed to a certain Jinming Qizhen (fl. 550 C.E.?), a shadowy figure whose Daoist name Qizhenzi (Master of the Seven Perfected) most likely refers to the seven stars of the Dipper that occupied a central position in the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) tradition. Jinming Qizhen, the Fengdao kejie, and other related texts thus become a means by which to study and understand the early development of Daoist monasticism.


From Reiter's perspective, "The intention of this study on the Taoist priests of the early T'ang period, their ‘aspirations and standards', is rather fundamental. It is an attempt to look at things from the Taoist side. How did Taoist priests define their own profession and requirements? What were the aspirations and standards which they gave themselves and for what ends?" (vii-viii). The book in turn consists of three parts. 


In part one, Reiter discusses features of Daoist history during the early Tang dynasty, religious and geographical concepts and their application, Wang Yuanzhi (528?-635) (a scion of the southern elite who studied under a disciple of Tao Hongjing [456-536] on Maoshan) as a "model Daoist," and the scope of the activities of "outstanding Daoists." This section also contains Reiter's difficult-to-locate introduction to the Fengdao kejie (46-49). 


Part two provides information on Jinming Qizhen and the Fengdao kejie, including Reiter's rendering of the Fengdao kejie in a variety of sections that "present paraphrases and sometimes summarizing descriptions of the most important parts of this extensive work" (55). 


In part three, Reiter considers Jinming Qizhen's standing in the Daoist tradition and three texts associated with him: the Shangqing sanzun pulu (Chronology of the Three Worthies of Highest Clarity; DZ 164), Wushang sanyuan zhenzhe linglu (Numinous Register of the Supreme Three Primes for Protecting Private Residences; DZ 674), and Shangqing jinzhen yuhuang shangyuan jiutian zhenling sanbai liushiwu bu yuanlu (Original Register of Highest Clarity Concerning the 365 Perfected Numen of the Nine Heavens and Highest Prime of the Jade Sovereign Gold Perfected; DZ 1388). The book concludes with a discussion of Jinming Qizhen and the general standard of the scholarly elite. Reiter's study is significant for its consideration of a neglected aspect of the Daoist tradition, namely, pre-Yuan (1260-1368), i.e., pre-Quanzhen (Complete Perfection), forms of monastic Daoism. 


In terms of the "translation" contained in part two, one finds that the received Fengdao kejie contains a wealth of information on all major aspects of Daoist monasticism. The text divides into eighteen sections in six scrolls, with the first ten sections in three scrolls describing the conceptual framework and concrete conditions of monastic practice and the last eight sections, in three more scrolls, dealing with specific rituals. The Fengdao kejie also delineates the steps (titles) for the various ranks and sub-ranks of investiture and lists of the scriptures, registers, tallies, covenants, and the like that were transmitted to ordinands. Such information is especially relevant for those conducting research on Daoist monasticism, ritual, and ordination, as well as on the social history of Daoist organizations. Reiter's notion of "aspirations and standards" also provides a helpful interpretative framework for thinking through the Daoist tradition in general. Still, the book suffers from a number of deficiencies. First, the overall contribution of the book would have been strengthened if it consisted of a complete annotated translation of the Fengdao kejie rather than "paraphrases" and "summaries." Second, the emphasis on, and rather uncritical acceptance of, the various texts considered as evidential work for understanding the actual religious and social conditions of Daoists during the Tang is somewhat problematic. One wonders about the extent to which these texts represent commonly accepted beliefs and match anthological realities. That is, it may be that the texts utilized in Reiter's study were composed in order to establish models of "orthodoxy" or present idealized projections of Daoist lifeways. Particularly conspicuous is the absence of any references to the research of Livia Kohn, a scholar who focuses on the period of Daoist history under consideration here, much of which was published before the appearance of Aspirations and Standards. There is also a certain disorganized and confused (confusing) quality to the work; one finds it difficult to understand how Reiter's questions and concerns presented in part one and the conclusion connect with his central topic of study, i.e., Jinming Qizhen, the Fengdao kejie, and Tang-dynasty Daoist monasticism. The work would have benefited from a more systematic and narrowly focused discussion of these interrelated topics. Scholars of Daoism in general will find valuable information in Reiter's study. However, because of the above-mentioned problems, the book will be most relevant for individuals researching Daoism in the Tang dynasty and traditions of Daoist monasticism. (See also Journal of Chinese Religions 28 [2000]: 235-37.)


Louis Komjathy

Boston University

Date Posted: June 25, 2003