The Teachings and Practices of the Early Quanzhen Taoist Masters

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:36
Komjathy's picture


THE TEACHINGS AND PRACTICES OF THE EARLY QUANZHEN TAOIST MASTERS. By Stephen Eskildsen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. Pp. vii + 274. Cloth, $50.00, ISBN 0-7914-6045-2.


The present book is a radically reworked, updated, and supplemented version of the author’s Master’s Thesis (University of British Columbia, 1989), which has already exerted some influence on the academic understanding of Quanzhen (Ch’üan-chen; Complete Perfection) Daoism. One’s gratitude and respect must go out to Stephen Eskildsen for the timely appearance of his research on early Quanzhen Daoism, translated as “Complete Realization” in Teachings and Practices. The necessity and importance of Teachings and Practices cannot be overstated—it is the first readily available and accurate Western language publication on this important twelfth-century Daoist movement, perhaps the most significant sub-tradition in all of Daoist history. 


In its earliest historical phases, Quanzhen was a Daoist religious movement that began in the twelfth century under the leadership of Wang Zhe (Chongyang [Redoubled Yang]; 1113-1170). Following the death of Wang Chongyang, his first-generation disciples, specifically Ma Danyang, Wang Yuyang, and Qiu Changchun, began a process of national dissemination that resulted in the establishment of Quanzhen as the dominant Daoist monastic order in northern China. In the contemporary world, Quanzhen Daoism, in its Longmen (Dragon Gate) branch, is the official, government-sponsored form of monastic Daoism in mainland China. In addition, there are now Longmen and Longmen-inspired organizations outside of mainland China, specifically in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. In the West, the two most prominent organizations are the British Taoist Association and Ching Chung Taoist Association.


In the present book, Stephen Eskildsen concentrates on the earliest historical phases of this Daoist movement, specifically on the “teachings and practices of the early Quanzhen masters,” that is, on the life-world and religious system of Wang Chongyang and his first-generation disciples. Employing a historical and textual approach, but with particular attention given to self-authored Quanzhen writings, Eskildsen endeavors to provide a comprehensive overview of the early Quanzhen movement, which the book does adeptly. Teachings and Practices in turn consists of ten chapters: (1) Introduction; (2) Cultivating Clarity and Purity; (3) The Asceticism of the Quanzhen Masters; (4) Cultivating Health and Longevity; (5) Visions and Other Trance Phenomena; (6) The Miraculous Powers of the Quanzhen Masters; (7) Death and Dying in Early Quanzhen Taoism; (8) The Compassion of the Early Quanzhen Masters; (9) Rituals in Early Quanzhen Taoism; (10) Conclusion. The foundations for these various chapters are numerous and often lengthy translations of Quanzhen primary sources from every major genre (hagiographies, poetry, discourse records, etc.), usually followed by Eskildsen’s exegesis. “By employing these materials, my intent is to let the masters speak for themselves” (18). If such a thing is possible through the translation and study of primary texts, this aspiration has been accomplished.


Chapter one is a historical summary of early Quanzhen Daoism. In chapter two, the author focuses on the Quanzhen emphasis on “clarity and purity” (qingjing), alternatively appearing as “clarity and stillness.” This chapter and some of those which follow also provide selected information on internal alchemy (neidan) in early Quanzhen. Chapter three reveals that the early Quanzhen adepts engaged in intensive ascetic practice, including voluntary poverty, wilderness seclusion, meditative enclosure, begging, fasting, physical austerities, and so forth. Chapter four, “Cultivating Health and Longevity,” supplies detailed information on Quanzhen beliefs concerning anatomy and causes of disease and death as well as Quanzhen responses to disease and death. Consideration is often given to internal alchemy practice, with Eskildsen explaining, “The Quanzhen masters possessed and transmitted a great deal of knowledge on how to prevent, cure, and anticipate disease” (88). However, one wonders if “health and longevity” is really the best category for understanding Quanzhen alchemical training; it seems, rather, that “health and longevity” is simply foundational for higher-level religious praxis. Eskildsen’s research in fact hints at this. In the subsequent chapter, a version of which was previously published as “Seeking Signs of Proof” in the Journal of Chinese Religions 29 (2001), emphasis is placed on the types of visions and related “signs” that the Quanzhen practitioners experienced. A major portion of this chapter centers on Yin Zhiping (Qinghe [Clear Harmony]; 1169-1251), a second-generation Quanzhen adept who, I would argue, belongs in a later phase of Quanzhen history. Chapter six centers on “miraculous powers” (Skt.: siddhi) attributed to the early adherents, including the ability to manifest their yang-spirit (yangshen), both during life and after death, as well as clairvoyance, clairaudience, and the like. Eskildsen translates yangshen as “Radiant Spirit,” which is slightly misleading as the meaning of yang here is not simply “illuminated,” but also purified and perfected. In this context, yang refers to those aspects of self which are divine in nature, with yang being associated with the heavens in Chinese cosmology. Specifically, the “yang-spirit” is a spirit of pure yang, wherein all yin qualities, here connoting negative and impure aspects of being (e.g., intellectual and emotional turmoil, desire-based living, materialistic concerns, and so forth), have been refined and transformed. The chapter is subdivided into sections on how to attain miraculous power, manifesting the yangshen, clairvoyance, miraculous physical feats, healing and ritual thaumaturgy, and wondrous mirages. After discussing Quanzhen beliefs concerning death and dying in chapter seven, Eskildsen turns his attention to more worldly concerns, specifically the compassionate and evangelical activities of the early adepts (“Self-absorbed ascetics they were not” [170]) and ritual performances. With regard to the latter, Eskildsen suggests that the early practitioners had ambiguous attitudes toward ritual, but that they did perform traditional Daoist jiao-renewal and zhai-purification rites. 


While noting the centrality of asceticism and internal alchemy in early Quanzhen Daoism, Eskildsen suggests that “clarity and purity,” or “clarity and stillness,” were the central concerns of the early adepts: “The core of this multifaceted religious system lies in the cultivation of the clarity and purity of mind that occurs not only within seated meditation but also throughout all daily activities” (195; also 19, 21-38, 114; cf. 23, 40, 192). Teachings and Practices does instead provide convincing evidence for this characterization. However, as my forthcoming dissertation, entitled “Cultivating Perfection: Mysticism and Self-transformation in Early Quanzhen Daoism” (Boston University, May 2005), suggests, the early Quanzhen movement is best characterized as an internal alchemy tradition. In this sense, “cultivating clarity and stillness” becomes one method or existential approach for completing alchemical transformation. Eskildsen recognizes this (1), but one needs to make a distinction between the classical Daoist quietistic model, based on recovery, cosmological attunement, and mystical absorption, and the late medieval Daoist alchemical model, based on rarification, transformation, and self-divinization. While Quanzhen Daoism did adopt concerns and practices from classical Daoism, here internal alchemy is not a way of “recovering innate nature,” as Eskildsen and Pierre Marsone have suggested, but a set of transformative techniques that facilitate a shift in ontological condition: from ordinary human being to Perfected or immortal. From this perspective, Quanzhen is best understood as the path toward spirit immortality, as the Way of Complete Perfection.


Before concluding, two final points need to be made. First, one hopes that in the future the State University of New York Press can abandon the outdated requirement of using “Taoist” and “Taoism,” instead of “Daoist” and “Daoism,” even when Pinyin is the main romanization system utilized, as is the case with Teachings and Practices. There is either a superficial post-modern critique of “Taoism” as a Western construct (see Journal of Chinese Religions 29 [2001]), which would lead to the abandonment of the category if fully embraced, or an economics of book publishing underlying such a choice. In either case, the practice should be abandoned. Second, many readers may be perplexed by the cover photograph of Teachings and Practices, the source of which is not mentioned in the book. The image is of a statue of the Quanzhen patriarch Qiu Changchun, which is housed in a cave behind the mid-level temple compound at Longmen dong (Dragon Gate Cavern; near Longxian, Shaanxi). 


Historians of Daoism in particular will want to read this book carefully. It helps to rectify the general lack of attention given to post-Tang developments and rectify mischaracterizations of Quanzhen as “bastardized Buddhism” or as a “reform” or “syncretistic” movement. Scholars of Chinese religions, libraries with collections on Daoism, and individuals interested in Daoism will want to acquire this book. For the latter, Stephen Eskildsen’s study is all the more recommended as it recognizes the connection between early Quanzhen Daoism and contemporary Daoist communities, both in China and in the West.


Louis Komjathy

Pacific Lutheran University

December 2, 2004