Major Events in the History of Daoism
The history of Daoism - like Daoism itself - is not easy to pin down. In part this is because the religion consists of various lineages, practices and streams of influence: some formal/institutional, others informal; some interwoven or overlapping, others developing quite independently from one another. Such an interweaving is, not surprisingly, consistent with Daoism's recognition and celebration of the kaleidoscopic patterns of change that define natural as well as social/political terrains. While certain practices (defining specific schools or lineages) have been transmitted through the generations in a consistent way, one finds also a continual process of modification, giving birth - again and again - to new forms of worship and practice.
Also contributing to the difficulty of defining a single "history of Daoism" is the fact that China's history is rife with political turmoil and (often savage) internecine military conflict - entire dynasties, with their royal courts, coming and going, at times almost overnight. To the extent that particular Daoist teachers or lineages exerted their influence, in whole or in part, through their relationship (e.g. as advisors or official court practitioners/priests) with the families holding political power - to this extent their own (public) existence was subject to the same rapid transformation as often beset their patrons.
Throughout all of this, of course, there were those Daoist practitioners - particularly those practicing within "hermit" traditions - who remained impervious to such political shifts and changes. Such practitioners, however, are (with a few notable exceptions) also those least likely to be on the radar of the people most influential in creating documented "history."
Having said all this, it is possible to identify certain major events within the unfolding of historical Daosim - to paint a picture, with broad brush-strokes at least, of its philosophical foundations, its unfolding as an organized religion, and the subsequent development of its major forms of practice.
1. Classical Daoism
~ Spring & Autumn period (770-476 BCE). The first of the three core texts of so-called "philosophical Daoism" (daojia) is Laozi's Daode Jing, which is generally believed to be a product of the Spring & Autumn period, though it is now the consensus among scholars that this text was a collaborative effort - with contributors other than just Laozi. Along with advocating a life of simplicity, lived in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world, this text discusses issues of politics and state-craft, advocating the potential for a kind of "enlightened leadership."
~ Warring States (475-221 BCE). The Zhuang-zi and Lieh-zi - the second and third of these core texts - were products of the political chaos and civil war of the Warring States period. Perhaps out of disgust for what was perceived as the unethical and savage behavior of the political leaders of this time, Zhuang-zi and Lieh-zi here advocated a withdrawal from involvement in politics. Political involvement was no longer seen as conducive to spiritual growth; rather, the life of a hermit or recluse was recommended as the best way to cultivate physical health, longevity and an awakened mind.
2. From Philosophy To Organized Religion
~ Eastern Han Dynasy (25-220 CE). The first successful organized religious Daoist system appeared in the Eastern Han Dynasy when, in 142 CE, Zhang Daoling established the "Way of Celestial Masters." The inspiration for and content of this tradition was, according to Zhang Daoling, based upon visionary encounters with Laozi -- divine revelations in which he received the guidance necessary to structure this system of practice.
~ Chin Dynasty (221-207 CE). The foundations for the success of an organized religious form of Daoism lay, for one, in the unification of China in the Chin and through the Han Dynasties. The mercenary statesmen and traveling political advisors whose craft was in high demand during the Warring States period, were - within a unified China - no longer needed. Many of these people were trained also in Daoist arts of divination, healing and longevity techniques - services they began to offer when their political advice was no longer marketable. These traveling healers/diviners became known as fang-shih, or "masters of formulae." (The disappearance of court shamans and traditional ceremonies in the Han Dynasty also helped set the stage for the emergence of religious Daoism.)
~ During the early part of the Chin Dynasty, a form of mystical Daoism called Shangqing Daoism (Way of Highest Clarity) was founded by Lady Wei Hua-tsun, and propagated by Yang Hsi. This form of practice included "Keeping the One" (i.e. cultivating the spirit); relating to the guardian spirits (Shen, Po, Hun, Zhi, Yi) of the body's organs; and unifying the internal terrain of the human body with the celestial and terrestrial realms via visualization techniques and spirit-travel.
~ The tradition of Ling-bao Daoism (Way of Numinous Treasure) also emerged during this period, instituting a system of ritual (with its attendant scriptures and liturgies) that is still in use today.
~ And Buddhism was brought to China from India and Tibet.
~ CE 400 marked the first attempt to bring together Daoist texts into an official Daoist canon (Daozang).
~ Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). The Tang Dynasty was a high-point for Chinese arts and culture. It was also a time when Daoism was integrated into the imperial court system as the "official religion."
~ In CE 748, Emperor Tang Xuan-Zong sent monks out to collect additional scriptures and teachings, which resulted in the "second Daozang."
~ On the heels of a large number of poisonings from external alchemical formulas (intended to bestow, upon those who ingested them, the prize of physical Immortality), there was -- in the latter part of the Tang Dynasty -- a re-thinking of the meaning of Immortality. From Buddhism there came the idea of Immortality as liberation from endless cycles of birth-and-death; from Daoist physical sciences came the idea of Immortality defined by excellent health and longevity. All in all, these developments resulted in a more distinct separation between Internal and External Alchemy, with a clear leaning toward the former (i.e. internal energetic practices rather than the ingesting of herbal or mineral substances).
3. Modern Daoism
~ Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms (906-960 CE). The political chaos of the Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms period led many Confucian scholars to choose the path of the Daoist hermit. With the Confucian ethics that was their training, these scholars-become-hermits integrated a Daoist simplicity & quietude, as well as meditation practices drawn from Chan Buddhism. This integration of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism would find its most eloquent expression in the Complete Reality School of Wang Chung-yang (see below).
~ Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). The Song Dynasty is known as the "golden era" of Internal Alchemy. Lu Tung-pin (one of the Eight Immortals) is considered the patriarch of Inner Alchemy, and Chuang Po-tuan - who advocated a dual cultivation of body and mind, i.e. meditation practice along with techniques for circulating internal energy -- its foremost practitioner.
~ It was during this time also that Wang Che (Wang Chung-yang) founded Quanzhen Dao - the Complete Reality School - which is the major monastic form of Daoism in existence today. The Complete Reality School is devoted to the practice of Internal Alchemy, and incorporates also techniques from Chan Buddhism (in particular its experience of emptiness) and the ethical precepts of Confucianism. (Wang Che had a classical Confucian education, and is reputed to have explored Buddhism in some depth before apprenticing himself to the Daoist Masters Lu tung-pin and Chung-li Chuan.)
~ CE 1060 marked yet another revision of the Daoist Canon (some texts eliminated, others added), resulting in the so-called "third Daozang" of some 4500 scrolls.
~ Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). It was Magical Daoism that, in the Ming Dynasty, gained a strong foothold. The Ming emperors were sympathetic to popular religion, and there was a flourishing of state-sponsored ceremonies and rituals. They were also sympathetic to Daoist magic and sorcery, often employing Daoist magicians for their own purposes. These official leanings translated into an increase in Daoist practices focused on the acquisition of magical abilities and personal power (as opposed to practices to still the mind and enter into quietude); and the proliferation of numerous Daoist sects, based upon the power/charisma of individual practitioners.
~ At the same time, Daoist ideas filtered more and more deeply into popular religious culture, in the form of morality texts/scriptures, as well as taiqi and qigong practice.
~ CE 1445 marked the compilation of the "fourth Daozang" (Daoist Canon) comprised of 5300 texts.
~ Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 CE). The Ching Dynasty was a era of "critical reflection" which took the form, in large part, of a critique of the Ming Dynasty. How this played out in relation to Daoist practice was as a revival of a more Contemplative Daoism, which focused on practices for cultivating the mind (as opposed to the Ming's emphasis on magical abilities and personal power).
~ In alignment with this emphasis on mental cultivation was Liu I-Ming's form of Inner Alchemy, which considered the transformations of Inner Alchemy to be purely psychological phenomena (as opposed to the psycho-physiological interpretations of Song Dynasty Inner Alchemists such as Chuang Po-tuan). For Liu I-Ming, physical health and longevity was simply a by-product of a tranquil mind.
~ By this time (of the Ching Dynasty), the Daoist pantheon included not only Daoist deities, spirits and Immortals, but also Buddhist Bodhisattvas (e.g. Kuan Yin) and Confucian Sages - many of whom were considered to be reincarnations of one another.