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Men of the Way and Their Fellow-Travelers: Daoists in Song Miscellanies

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 42, 2012
pp. 95-149 | 10.1353/sys.2013.0004

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The Chengdu Daoist Jian Gongchen excelled at upholding the precepts. He practiced the Correct Rites of the Celestial Heart. His talismanic water was usually efficacious. When he lived in the capital, he cured diseases for people. [The profit that he] obtained was incalculable.

At the end of the Yuanyou period (1086-1093), he came from Tiantan. I asked him, 'It has been passed down for generations that Fei Changfang acquired the talismans from Sire Gourd and with them he subdued the many demons. Later the demons stole his talismans, and thereupon they used them to kill Changfang. You carry out the Correct Rites of the Celestial Heart. Do you also know these sorts of talismans? For a time these talismans were able to subdue the many demons, yet [Fei] did not escape their being stolen by demons. Why?'

Gongchen could not answer but asked me, 'How does your excellency know about these talismans?' I told him, 'This is not a matter of possessing the talismans. One uses rituals to save people, but makes no requests of people. This, then, is the talisman. As for Daoist ritual practice, it invariably begins with frugality and ends in greed. This is why Changfang lost the talismans and died." Gongchen praised this comment as excellent.

Now I have not seen Gongchen for six years. I have heard that his rites have not weakened. Could it be that he believed and used my words?

成都道士蹇拱辰,善持戒,行天心正法,符水多驗,居京城為人治 病,所獲不貲。元祐末,自天壇來,予問之曰:「世傳費長房得符於 壼公,以是制服百鬼,其後鬼竊其符,因以殺長房。子為天心正法, 亦知此何等符耶?且符既能制百鬼,不免為鬼所竊,何也?」拱辰不 能答,反問予曰:「公豈知此符也?」予告之曰:「此非有符。以法救 人,而無求於人,此則符也。道士之行法者,必始於廉,終於貪,此 長房所以失符而死也。」拱辰稱善。今不見拱辰六年矣,聞其法不 衰,豈能信用吾言耶。

This tale appears in a collection of random notes, entitled Longchuan luezhi 龍川略志, or Brief Records from Longchuan , compiled by the Northern Song scholar-official Su Che (1039-1112). Su is of two minds. On the one hand, he puts the subject in his place, dominating the conversation and leaving Jian only to listen, inquire and then approve of his remarks. Despite Jian's success in curing ailments, his immense wealth does not accord with the modesty, if not the austerity, expected of a worthy man. It constitutes an anomaly in the social balance sheet and leaves Jian vulnerable to reprisal and expropriation. True, long-lasting efficacy derives from a power that cannot be confiscated, namely, moral virtue. In short, Su adopts the voice of the Confucian moralist, dressing down a talented but benighted commoner.

That being said, the general attitude toward Daoists in this anecdote is more one of appreciation than aversion. Su readily recalls the Han-era transcendent and his acolyte, Sire Gourd and Fei Changfang, and believes that, whatever its more bizarre features, the tale offers instructions for contemporary Daoists. His allusion to the Correct Rites of the Celestial Heart shows his knowledge of current developments in Daoist ritual. His criticism of Jian's business practices notwithstanding, he notes Jian's clerical discipline, a virtue reserved in in literati writings much more often for Buddhist monks than Daoist priests. Su's speculation that Jian has accepted his advice, reflected in the enduring prosperity of Jian's practice, belies his earlier pronouncement that "Daoist practice inevitably begins in modesty and ends in greed," and thus failure. Moreover, the intervening six years that Su refers to had seen him purged as a member of Yuanyou faction, being exiled to a series of miserable positions in South China. That Jian continued to thrive reflects a faith, if not an absolute certainty, that Jian, unlike the court and its officials, recognizes his worth, and that the Daoist has embraced Su's belief in the primary importance of ethical propriety.

In the century and a half before Su wrote his anecdote, Daoism changed markedly. As the medieval order collapsed, many abbeys suffered destruction, texts disappeared, and ecclesiastical structures transformed. As state and society rebuilt, the Song court, especially during the reign of Song Zhenzong (r. 998-1023), patronized generously the church, and Song Huizong (r. 1101-1125) later launched a colossal campaign of state devotion. Internally, Daoism saw a number of major changes, such as the spectacular growth in attention to longevity techniques and self-cultivation methods grouped under the rubric of inner alchemy 內丹, the spread of new therapeutic and exorcistic rituals typified but not restricted to the Correct Rites of the Celestial Heart, and, in the following century, the emergence of an entirely...

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