Taoist Sacred Texts
I Ching (“Book of Change”)
The oldest and best known book of Chinese wisdom was composed primarily during the late second and early first millennium BCE, with later additions of mostly Confucian but some Taoist ideas. Primarily used for casting oracles, the I Ching is believed by many Taoist adepts to be a guide to the secrets of the “celestial mechanism,” a tool for understanding and living in harmony with the flow of events in the universe. It is based on the opposing principles of light and dark, later referred to as yin and yang, whose interaction yields change. The Ching is made up of different arrangements of broken (- -) and unbroken (–) lines, which represent yin and yang, respectively. The lines are arranged in 8 groups of three lines, called trigrams, each of which has specific associations: heaven, earth, fire, water, thunder, mountain, lake, wind. The trigrams are combined into 64 different pairs of six lines each called hexagrams, originally obtained by throwing 50 yarrow stalks, later simplified to 3 coins.
Tao Te Ching (“Book of the Way and its Power, or Manifestation”)
A work of seminal importance to Taoism and influential on Zen Buddhism, this work is elliptical and often mystifying, perhaps the inevitable result of trying to describe in words what the author insists is ineffable, unnameable, and unknowable. Although traditionally attributed to Lao-tzu, many scholars now believe the work was composed centuries after his death.
Although only the first seven of this work’s 33 chapters are accepted as the genuine work of the master, they contain more detail than the 81 wispy chapters of the Tao Te Ching. The extent to which Chuang expanded on that book has led one commentator to remark that he was to Lao-tzu what St. Paul was to Jesus Christ, and Plato to Socrates, exploring and developing his ideas with a combination of rigorous logic and sheer imagination.
Hua Hu Ching (“Classic on Converting the Barbarians”)
An account of Lao-tzu’s missionary travels, created c. 300 CE, to back up the theory that when Lao left China, he headed West to India where he converted the Buddha! This supposedly proved that Buddhism was an imperfectly understood spin-off of Taoism. Another version of the same concept was that Lao-tzu had somehow become the Buddha. The Buddhists countered by revising history to claim that Buddha was actually born in the 11th century BCE, thus obviating the possibility that Lao-tzu could have had any impact on him whatsoever.
A large body of Taoist writings, much of it esoteric, makes up the basis of Taoist doctrine. Almost 1,500 works, undated and anonymous, in nearly 5,500 volumes, including material as old as the 5th century CE, the Tao Tsang began to be compiled during the 8th century, was catalogued during the 10th, and was first printed in 1019. After further work, it was completed during the Ming Dynasty in essentially the same form in which it exists today.
T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien (“Tractate on Actions and Retributions”)
Sung Dynasty text outlining the reporting of an individual’s good and evil deeds by the Three Worms (San Ch’ung) and the God of the Stove, Tsao-chun (aka the Lord of Destiny), and the appropriate lengthening or shortening of his or her life. The penalties range from 100 days lopped off for a minor offense to 12 years for serious evil–whereas 300 good deeds will make one a terrestrial immortal, capable of healing and helping others, and 1,300 good deeds, a celestial immortal. Good deeds can be as simple as printing and distributing free copies of the Tractate or other shan-shu, folk manuals of religious ritual and devotion, or as elaborate as building hospitals and orphanages or other charitable works. Another popular symbol is the burning of paper money, created expressly for his purpose, in furnaces located just outside a temple. Following the Chinese metaphor of heavenly and underworld bureaucracy, the paper money is thought to be deposited in the underworld bank, where its interest can pay off corrupt officials and pay for atonement of wrongs in hell.
The punishable offenses include disobedience, contradiction of one’s elders or superiors, boastfulness, bribery, fraud, stealing, lying, adultery, and the killing of animals. The faithful were also advised against urinating in a northerly direction (the realm of the spirits) or spitting at a falling star. Despite, or because of, its mundane nature, the Tractate is perhaps the most influential religious book among the Chinese masses to this day, whether in mainland or maritime China or the large overseas Chinese community.
T’ai I Chin Hua Tsung Chih (“The Secret of the Golden Flower”)
Showing the influence of Taoist schools of alchemy and inner hygiene, as well as Ch’an Buddhism, it expounds the method for creating a sacred embryo within the adept’s body as a way of achieving immortality. Attributed to Lu Tung-pin of the T’ang Dynasty, it is now believed to have been composed in the 17th or 18th century. Carl Jung, who wrote a lengthy commentary to the 1929 German translation, is responsible for introducing this work to the West.
The Four Books and The Five Classics
Together, the Four Books and Five Classics make up the basic texts of Confucianism. By no means were they all written by Confucius, although he did have a hand at least in editing a number of them. The Five Classics were all written by the second century BC: The I Ching, the Shih Ching (Book of Odes), the Shu Ching (Book of History), the Ch’un Ch’iu (Spring and Autumn Annals), and the Book of Rites. Sometime in the 12th century AD, two chapters were removed from the Book of Rites and made into two of the Four Books: Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean. The Analects of Confucius and the Book of Mencius, by the great Confucian idealist, make up the rest of the Four Books.