University of Hawai'i Press
  • Loyalty and Filial Piety in Internal Alchemy

The Daoist school of Purity and Brightness was prevalent in the Song and Yuan dynasties (1126-1368), advocating the cultivation of immortality by means of loyalty and filial piety. The common academic understanding is that the school's doctrines are influenced by Confucianism, but they are in fact closer to Daoism, since in essence they represent a form of internal alchemy. In this paper, I illuminate what exactly is the "internal alchemy of loyalty and filial piety" as described in this school and discuss on its relationship to Confucianism and traditional Daoism. Beyond that, I will focus on their particular understanding of the notion of "heaven and humanity in oneness."1

The Southern Song dynasty saw the emergence of internal alchemy as a key Daoist practice, undertaken in great variety among a plethora of different schools and lineages. Thus, the Zhong-Lü 鍾呂 tradition, associated with the immortals Zhong-li Quan 鐘離權 and Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓, which flourished in the 12th century, advocated the creation of an immortal embryo with the help of systematic breathing and internal energy circulation (Baldrian-Hussein 1984). The group linked with the Master of the Numinous Sword (Lingjianzi 靈劍子), and documented in a text of this title (DZ 570), worked internal alchemy by absorbing qi and practicing embryo respiration, claiming a connection to Xu Xun 許遜, a legendary [End Page 57] Daoist master who supposedly lived under the Eastern Jin (317-420).2 They particularly venerated his statement, "Absorbing qi and harmonizing the respiration in the proper application of internal qi is called internal alchemy" (Guo 1997).

Not only was there a major division between solo and dual cultivation, that is, internal refinement within the individual and sexually based practices with a partner (Guo 2000c), but the Southern School (Nanzong 南宗), constructed by Bai Yuchan 白玉蟾 (fl. 1194-1229) and his disciples in the early 13th century (see Zhang 2019), insisted that one must cultivate the physical dimension described as destiny before the psychological, called inner nature (xianming houxing 先命後性) (see Lu 2009). Its northern counterpart, better known as the school of Complete Perfection (Quanzhen 全真), saw things the other way round, placing the spirit before the body, and insisted on celibacy, intense retreats, and a variety of ascetic disciplines (Eskildsen 2004; Komjathy 2014; Guo 2000b).

Within this overall framework, a new sect spread through southern China, known as the Way of Purity and Brightness (Jingming dao 淨明道). Its major codifier was Liu Yu 劉玉 (1257-1308), whose life and teachings are recorded in the Xishan yinshi Yuzhen Liu xiansheng zhuan 西山隱 士玉真劉先生傳 (Biography of the Hermit Liu Yuzhen of the Western Mountains). The text is contained in the collection Jingming zhongxiao quanshu 淨明忠孝全書 (Complete Writings of the School of Purity and Brightness, Loyalty and Filial Piety, DZ 1110, ch. 1), by Liu Yu's main disciple Huang Yuanji 黃元吉 (1270-1324).

According to this, Liu Yu stated, "Loyalty and filial piety are the foundation [of the teaching] and respecting heaven and worshiping Dao as well as rescuing living beings and saving the dead are the main task [of the school]." According to the Yuzhen xiansheng yulu 玉真先生語錄內 集 (Recorded Sayings of Master [Liu] Yuzhen), contained in the same collection (ch 3), he gave this definition when a disciple asked him, "There are many methods from ancient times to today. Why is your teaching called the Way of Loyalty and Filial Piety?" [End Page 58]

The school traces itself back far beyond the Southern Song to the worship of Xu Xun. He is said to have practiced filial piety with great devotion and eventually ascended into heaven together with his family; various generations of disciples continued his work over the centuries (Boltz 1987, 77). Because the school praises the daily practice of moral activities such as loyalty and filial piety, scholars assume that it developed under Confucian influence (e. g., Qing 1996). In fact, however, there are many differences between the school's practices and Confucian teachings, since it focuses particularly on the cultivation of internal alchemy and the attainment of immortality.

Alchemical Elements

The definition cited above suggests that loyalty and filial piety constitute the basic behavioral code of the school of Purity and Brightness. These two virtues, as commonly known, are cornerstones and central ethical norms advocated in Confucianism, prescribing the correct attitude and behavior toward rulers and parents. There may indeed be a certain degree of Confucian influence on the school, but its teachings are significantly different in that they use loyalty and filial piety as important ways to cultivate the heart-and-mind (xin 心) and inner nature (xing 性). These two are key factors in the personal transformation leading to immortality, which makes the use of the virtues quite different from their application as moral rules in secular society.

Scholars tend to think of loyalty and filial piety as concepts belonging to the "way of humanity" (rendao 人道) and as such consider them the basis of the "way of the immortals" (xiandao 仙道). Although this is certainly correct, it only covers half the truth. In fact, loyalty and filial piety in this context include contents on two distinct levels: social moral rules advocated in Confucianism that belong to the way of humanity, on the one hand, and a form of religious practice that serves advanced communication with the supernatural world and thus forms part of the way of the immortals.3 [End Page 59]

The way of humanity in the school of Purity and Brightness has been studied variously.4 It inherits the tradition associated with Xu Xun, from Jin through Tang times, which placed great emphasis on filial piety, but did not emphasize loyalty all that much. The first master of Purity and Brightness in the early Southern Song to advocate both was He Shouzheng 何守證, also known as Perfected Lord He. He clearly describes them in their spiritual and religious dimension. For instance, the Jingming dongshen jing 淨明洞神經 (Scripture of Pervasive Spirit of Purity and Brightness, DZ 1103), in its chapter on "Entering Dao and the Ranks of the Perfected" (Rudao zhenpin pian 入道真品篇), says:

The body of father and mother is also the body of the Heavenly Worthy. If you can serve your parents, the Heavenly Worthies will descend promptly to protect you. If you want to worship the stars and planet, you must treat your brothers friendly and respectfully, because the bodies of your brothers are also those of the perfected in the various heavens.

All those who realize this can practice alchemy and draw magical figures: ghosts and demons will fear their names. Those who do not realize this, will not be permitted to join Dao and worship the Three Clarities. Rather, yaksha monsters will devour their flesh and nasty demons will kill their spirit. They may possess many volumes of scriptures about alchemy, but they can never ascend to perfection. They may have thousands of magical figures, but they can never control the ghosts and spirits.

In the above paragraph, the secular bodies of parents and brothers are regarded as the sacred bodies of the Heavenly Worthy and the perfected of the various heavens, so that the daily moral rules of filial piety toward the parents and respect for one's brothers are transformed into religious forms of behavior, opening communication with the divine. The text here clearly integrates core conceptions associated with the early followers of Xu Xun into a Song-dynasty Daoist context.

Another master called Zhou Zhengong 周真公, also of the Southern Song, is credited with integrating the virtues as specific forms of religious cultivation. For instance, the "Rudao pin" 入道品 (Chapter on Entering Dao) of the Huangsu shu 黃素書 (Book on Yellow and White) has, [End Page 60]

All students of the Huangsu shu must practice loyalty and filial piety. To do so, they should maintain their minds in a straightforward and relaxed state and uphold the energy of gentleness and respect. They must not be shaken by right and wrong, nor impacted by obscene or evil things. Rather, they must possesses goodness throughout and eliminate all disasters. Outside things and events must not disturb their mind and in the end they will reach full attainment.5

The virtues advocated in this paragraph are not merely part of the moral rules of secular society, but form an intricate part of practitioners' mind and attitude. Adepts must keep their minds on the straight and narrow, remain at ease, and behave with gentleness and respect at all times. This will influence their religious cultivation practice and the efficacy of Daoist magic (huangsu fa 黃素法), literally "methods of yellow and white." The key difference between Masters Zhou and Master He is that the latter added a sacred dimension to the meaning of the virtues while the former integrated them into religious cultivation to begin with.

Embodied Virtues

In the Yuan dynasty, the way the school worked with the virtues changed again: they established a direct relation between the loyalty and filial piety and people's inner organs, so that moral action and conscientiousness would have an immediate impact on the body. Masters of Purity and Brightness called this new theory "perfect loyalty and utmost filial piety" (zhenzhong zhixiao 真忠至孝). The Yuzhen xiansheng yulu neiji 玉真先生語錄內集 (Inner Collection of the Recorded Sayings of Master [Liu] Yuzhen) records a question asked of the master about the key points of the "theory of making the heart upright and cultivating the body" in relation to "perfect loyalty and utmost filial piety." Liu Yu responded,

Ever since I began my study of cultivation in my early years, I have worked with only thirty characters. I have used them constantly over the years and [End Page 61] become strongly aware of their power. I will tell you what these thirty characters are:

"Restrain your anger and curb your desires, stick to the bright principle and don't overshadow the universe within [lit., heaven in your heart]. If you lose the right measure even in the tiniest bit, you will commit nasty, dark transgressions; if you ever say evil words, you are bound to violate the taboos of the demons of the void."


The key phrase in this paragraph is the first part of the thirty words about restraining anger and controlling desires. It essentially indicates the same ideas expressed in classical Confucian thought, however, is here linked with internal alchemical cultivation. The master continues:

When you restrain your anger, your heart fire can descend; when you control your desires, your kidney water will ascend. When you stick to the bright principle and don't overshadow the universe within, your primordial spirit will be stronger every day, your good fortune and blessings will increase daily.

As water ascends and fire descends, your essence and spirit fully saturate your being, and your body and mind are governed well by the perfect phase earth. This is how you "create an upright heart and cultivate the self." It is the way of perfect loyalty and utmost filial piety. If you practice this with dedication for a very long time, you will recover the original purity and primordial brightness of your inner nature. Dao rests in this!

(3. 5b)

This paragraph begs several questions. How exactly do the virtues connect with the effort of restraining anger indignation and controlling desires? Why does anger management allow heart fire descend and impulse control let kidney water ascend? It seems that the central objective of moral behavior and intention is not the pleasing of parents or compliance with secular rulers, but the cultivation of mind and inner nature, the realization of a truer level of being within. Thus, Liu Yu speaks of loyalty as being faithful to the "lord of the heart." He says, "What does loyalty mean? It means to be loyal to the ruler. Your heart is the ruler of the myriad gods and spirits. If even with a single thought you betray your heart, you are not loyal!" He further explains filial piety as "not overshadowing the universe within," and continues, "There is an internal heaven in your heart: it holds the bright principle. It means, if you [End Page 62] can respect and love your parents, you will not overshadow the principle of Dao" (3. 5b).

According to this, the practice of the virtues means cultivating life, thus allowing heart fire and kidney water to move up or down, which means they can mingle in alchemical fashion and open the way toward recovering the original purity and primordial brightness of inner nature. That is to say, perfect loyalty and utmost filial piety are a direct means toward the attainment of alchemical transformation and the ascension to immortality. Liu says further, "The way of loyalty and filial piety does not always mean reaching extended longevity, but leads to the ongoing existence and long life of inner nature so that at death one does not enter the darkness [of the underworld] but will be ranked among the immortals" (3. 6a). This means that the goal is still the same as in medieval Daoism and other schools of internal alchemy, but the methodology has changed toward a more ethical outlook.

According to the Yuzhen xiansheng yulu waiji 玉真先生語錄外集 (Outer Collection of the Recorded Sayings of Master [Liu] Yuzhen), a disciple once asked whether Xu Xun really ascended into heaven with his whole family. Liu Yu answered,

The story does not actually refer to him entering the nine empyreans in his physical body of blood and flesh, accompanied by his entire household, including chickens and dogs. Rather, it means that as a master who attained Dao he purified himself time and again. Once he refined himself internally to pure essence, all yin is eliminated completely and he has a pervasive organism of pure yang. When this comes together, there is physical form; when it disperses, there is energy.

As such, he can soar up into the air and move forward; light and clear, he can return to heaven, without a shade of doubt! When the texts speak of his entire household, including chickens and dogs, they mean that the fruits of Dao are full and complete within the main protagonist and accordingly there are various spirit beings that go along with him, but they stop at the continents and isles beyond the sea


Legends and tales about Xu Xun, recorded since the Jin dynasty, recount that he flew up into heaven in his physical body, reflecting the ideal of "becoming an immortal in the body of flesh" (routi chengxian 肉 體成仙), common in the Six Dynasties (222-589 CE). However, Liu Yu [End Page 63] reinterprets this in a more metaphorical manner, stating that ascension was not actually physical but more spiritual. This reflects the outlook of "becoming an immortal through the soul" (linghun chengxian 靈魂成仙), prominent since the late Tang. While Liu acknowledges that "being ranked among the immortals" has to be preceded by death, this does not mean "losing life and entering the Yellow Springs" (mingsang huangquan 命喪黃泉). Rather one transforms to pure "self-nature" (zixing 自性) or the soul and as such becomes pure and bright and is free from all darkness and shadows, that is, one undergoes rebirth in a new, subtler, and more divine form.

Cultivation Practices

Further details about the practice of the virtues appear in works relating the sayings of Liu's inheritor and editor, Huang Yuanji. For example, as recorded in the Zhonghuang xiansheng wenda 中黃先生問答 (In Dialogue with Master Zhonghuang), a disciple once asked him, "If someone never gets to serve as an official for his whole life and does not have the chance to serve the emperor and the people, even if he has a heart of loyalty, how can he put it into practice?" Here the disciple assumes that loyalty is a form of secular behavior that involves service to government and people so that anyone out of office has no chance to practice it. Master Huang soon dispels this misconception.

What are you saying? Is it that, according to you, each and every one must first serve in office and only then can they have a heart of loyalty?… This is not so. Anyone who never serves in office yet with every single thought focuses on keeping free from a cheating mind and never overshadows the principle [of Dao], steadfastly makes it his priority to never tell a lie and is able to remain true to his words, successfully avoids being a person without loyalty. Anyone who studies to be like this can be called an adept of loyalty!

(ch. 6)

That is, to him loyalty has less to do with the concrete service of emperors and holding government office than with cultivating a high level of personal integrity and a deeply moral life by never even allowing a thought of lying or cheating into one's heart and mind. But it goes [End Page 64] even beyond that. When Huang Yuanji speaks of not cheating or lying he does not just refer to honesty and integrity in the ordinary sense, but also includes a pious attitude to and regular worship of the gods. He notes, "You don't need to sacrifice grains and livestock, but you must apply yourself to not cheating, thereby very carefully and diligently offering your worship to the Highest Lord: this is called perfect loyalty." The Highest God, moreover, here is the lord of the heart, the ruler over the myriad gods and spirits mentioned by Liu Yu above. Service to the truth within, in other words, is perfect loyalty to the school.

Utmost filial piety similarly has less to do with serving the parents and taking care of one's relatives, but means "treasuring your endowment of primordial qi, deeply appreciating your heaven-given destiny, steadfastly nurturing the Dao embryo, and continuing the teachings of the right lineage." All this relates closely to internal alchemy.

Another time, a disciple asked, "Serving the parent with propriety, keeping them warm in the winter and cool in the summer, seeing them settled [for bed] in the evening and caring form [the well-being] in the morning, nourishing them with body and soul, always exhausting one's mind in thinking of them—can one call that filial piety?" In contrast to this standard, secular view, Huang Yuanji says,

This is just one aspect of the way of filial piety. Beyond this, you should know there is yet another way of filial piety in your heart, which you must practice with dedication. Since we owe our body to the actions and giving of the parents, we must strive to venerate and protect it while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down—during all twelve double-hours of the day—and never allow any offense to impact the five organs. Only this can be called utmost filial piety.

(ch. 6)

This passage makes it quite clear that serving the parents in their daily necessities is just one way of filial piety, but the other, cultivating ourselves by preserving the purity of body and mind, is the more powerful and ultimately more efficient one. But how exactly can one protect one's inner organs? Huang adds:

There are certain people who never consider the activation of public spirit and loyalty, uprightness and integrity, benevolence and filial piety or incorruptibility and clarity in their hearts. Instead, they devote every single [End Page 65] thought day in day out to framing others and making them suffer, committing evil, trickery, acerbity, cattiness, and the like. In this manner, they accumulate offenses in their hearts. …

Then again, there are some people who establish their heart and mind in rightness and goodness, yet they refuse to pay any attention to the methods exploring the ultimate and guarding life. Instead, they drink alcohol without measure, kill living beings without restraint, pursue fancy foods and strange objects—in one word, they never know moderation of any kind and eventually fall ill. In this manner, they accumulate offenses in their spleens.

Yet others are given to excesses of sensuality and sexuality, destroying their vital essence and diminishing their spirit to the point where they lose their life. In this manner, they accumulate offenses in their kidneys…,

Generally, all forms of these three—unbridled anger, uncontrolled indulgence, and overshadowing the principle [of Dao]—harms the five inner organs, and particularly the one most closely associated with the specific behavior. And people who hold offenses in their five inner organs are actively disrupting and destroying their primordial qi, pounding their body and self: they are not in any form or shape practicing the way of filial piety.

(ch. 6)

This passage makes it quite clear that protecting and not harboring offenses in the five inner organs means to keep them free from harm by acting morally and in moderation. Utmost filial piety as advocated by the school of Purity and Brightness is thus a form of nourishing life and plays a major part in spiritual self-cultivation. This is also borne out by the Jingming dongshen jing, which says in its chapter on "Cultivating Efforts and Realizing Fullness" (Xiugong chengshi pian 修功成實篇):

Who would not want to become immortal? To study for immortality must being in one's youth. If one practices loyalty and filial piety from a young age, one can accumulate virtue for a long time and grow strong roots of goodness. From here one makes sure to keep qi and blood whole and diligently moves energies up and down through the elixir fields. Doing so, one will be able to produce efficacious talismans and cure the diseases of others. Increasingly accumulating hidden virtue, one gets to a point where one can transcend all.

Cultivating yourself and practicing according to my methods, why worry about ascending to the heaven? Also, you can recite my Scripture of Purity and Brightness to work more on loyalty and filial piety. If you assiduously [End Page 66] refine your physical body and material reality, the bright spirits will come to praise and assist you, and you can cure all the hundred diseases. By this concentrated effort, you will certainly reach the realm of the immortals.

This again confirms that the school did not advocate some kind of secular moral rules or concrete virtues, but a mode of religious and spiritual cultivation with the ultimate purpose of reaching immortality.

The Oneness of Heaven and Humanity

The literal meaning of purity and brightness is to be "unpolluted by outside things" and "not affected by affairs." But in essence the terms refer to the individual's pure and bright inner nature, described as the universe or "heaven" in the heart, in some passages also referred to as original destiny (benming 本命) or the "primordial spirit" (yuanshen 元神). The Yuzhen xiansheng yulu bieji 玉真先生語錄別集 (Separate Collection of the Recorded Sayings of Master [Liu] Yuzhen) says, "The radiance and brightness of the sun—that is the numinous brightness of my own inner nature." The school of Purity and Brightness thus subscribes to the notion that the spontaneous inner nature of each individual is originally pure and bright, but is overshadowed by strong emotions and sensory indulgence to the point where the person falls into hell after death. As Liu Yu notes,

The one inner nature of the individual is originally and spontaneously radiant and bright and connects to heaven [the universe] above. However, if over many lifetimes it suffers from being gradually polluted and increasingly suffocated through uncontrolled indulgence in anger and desires, it will turn away from and overshadow the principle of Dao. As a result, the person will lose the chance to be again reborn on the human plane.

(ch. 5)

Similarly, the Yuzhen xiansheng yulu neiji has,

When original destiny and the primordial spirit are concealed in the land of black darkness, once one closes one's eyes [at death], one will fall into the dark gates [of hell] and will sustain a myriad different forms of suffering throughout the long night.

(ch. 3) [End Page 67]

In other words, purity and brightness is the original state of the individual at birth, but this state is easy to lose and the farther one gets away from it the more likely one is to fall into hell after death. For this reason, all people should cultivate themselves continually by restraining anger and curbing desires, so they can recover—and eventually maintain—the originally pure and bright state and never allow their universe within to be covered up or overshadowed. In this sense, purity and brightness signify the ultimate ideal state both inherently owned and actively pursued by practitioners of the school. As Liu Yu remarks, "The great teaching of the school of Purity and Brightness begins with the establihsemtn of loyalty and filial piety as firm foundation. From there, it moves on to eliminating desires and creating an upright heart. It ends with the attainment of ultimate and utmost purity and brightness (Bieji 5). This describes three stages and level of attainment the school's followers strive to realize.

The reason why purity and brightness represent the ideal state and ultimate goal of the practice is that they are characteristics of the ultimate root, the most powerful center, the numinous quality of the universe. Thus, the Jingming fashuo 淨明法說 (Explanation of the Methods of Purity and Brightness), contained in the Jingming zhongxiao quanshu, equates the two with the concept of the Non-Ultimate. Liu matches this, saying, "What is silent and motionless is the Non-Ultimate; what receives impulses and pervades all is the Great Ultimate. The Non-Ultimate is the perfect harmony of purity and brightness" (Bieji 5).

The notion of the Non-Ultimate goes back all the way to the Daode jing 道德經 (Book of the Way and its Virtue), which says, "Constant virtue does not change; it recovers and returns to the Non-Ultimate" (ch. 28). However, here the Non-Ultimate refers only to the boundlessness of the universe and not the numinous power underlying all creation. In this latter sense, the term appears in the Taiji tushuo 太極圖說 (Explanation of the Great Ultimate) by Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017-1073), a famous Neo-Confucian thinker of the early Song dynasty (see Wang 2005). Here the Great Ultimate signifies the boundlessness of the universe, while its deepest root is described as the Non-Ultimate.

This contrast also plays out in a debate among the prominent Neo-Confucian philosophers Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) and Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 [End Page 68] (1139-1192). As recorded in the Zhu Wengong wenji 朱文公文集 (Collected Literary Works of Master Zhu Wengong), Zhu Xi posited, "When the Daode jing speaks of the Non-Ultimate, it refers to original boundlessness" (ch. 36). In contrast, Lu matches Zhou Dunyi and, as noted in the Lu Jiuyuan ji 陸九淵集 (Collected Works of Lu Jiuyuan), places it at a more original level of creation, speaking of cosmic unfolding in terms of moving from the Non-Ultimate to the Great Ultimate. For Zhu Xi, the two are the same, while for Lu Jiuyuan they represent different dimensions of cosmic originality (see Zhang 1992).

Liu Yu and his school of Purity and Brightness inherit the latter position. They then claim that the personal quality of purity and brightness is the same as the Non-Ultimate and connects people to the core of the cosmos, positing that each individual in the ideal state of realizing his or her own inner nature is recovering the ultimate root of the universe. As Liu Yu describes it, echoing the Daode jing, "By bringing the self back to full sincerity, one recovers and returns to cosmic oneness" (Bieji 5). In other words, by acting and thinking morally, adepts of the school can transcend ordinary life and become one with the root of all creation, the universe at its deepest core.

The Neo-Confucian background is more than just a borrowing of terms; it signals the absorption of ideological contents. Thus, when Liu Yu says, "What is silent and motionless is the Non-Ultimate; what receives impulses and pervades all is the Great Ultimate," he refers back to Zhu Xi's rephrasing of Lu Jiuyuan's position. As recorded in his Da Lu Zijing 答陸子靜 (Response to Liu Jiuyuan), he said, "[You claim:] If we did not use the term Non-Ultimate, then the Great Ultimate would be the same as the first being and not suffice to refer to the root of the myriad beings. If we did not use the term Great Ultimate, the Non-Ultimate would be merged in emptiness and silence and could not be the root of the myriad beings, either."

Similarly, when Liu Yu speaks of the transition "from nonbeing to being" in terms of moving from "cosmic oneness at the origin to the multiplicity of creation," and the reverse, going "from being to nonbeing" in terms of return from "the multiplicity of creation to cosmic oneness at the origin" (Bieji 5), he echoes Zhu Xi's notion of "principle as cosmic [End Page 69] oneness dividing into multiplicity" (liyi fengshu 理一分殊) as formulated in the Zhuzi yulei 朱子語類 (Assorted Sayings of Master Zhu).

Cosmological Connections

Liu Yu next explains the relationship between the Non-Ultimate and the Great Ultimate in terms of the contrast of substance and function (tiyong 體用). "The Non-Ultimate is what Laozi [in the Daode jing] calls the valley of the spirit—this is substance. The Great Ultimate is what he calls the mysterious female—this is function" (Bieji 5). This statement closely reflects Zhu Xi's thought, although he was more interested in philosophical speculation, while the school of Purity and Brightness used the concepts to explain their religious ideals. The Jingming dadao shuo 淨明大道說 (Explanation of the Great Dao of Purity and Brightness) has,

Purity and brightness are the ancestral origin of the formless great Dao in its state before creation. Above it is unlimited clarity and emptiness, in heaven [the sky] it is the eight poles and [the Lord of] Central Yellow, and in human beings it is the Scarlet Palace, [the home of the god] Cinnabar Prime. These three have the same source but manifest in different names..

The realm of unlimited pure emptiness is called purity and brightness. The eight poles and [Lord of] Central Yellow form the heart of heaven, and the scarlet palace of cinnabar prime is the heart of the human being.

(ch 2)

In this presentation, the highest of all worlds is pure emptiness, open space, nothingness, the vastness of the galaxies. Next, is the celestial realm, characterized by a great openness that yet has a limit in the eight directions and is run centrally by the personified Dao, the Lord of Central Yellow (Zhonghuang jun 中黃君). On the human plane, the same potency is present in the heart, in traditional cosmology associated with the color red and in spiritual cultivation described as the Scarlet Palace (Jianggong 絳宮), where its deity resides, a figure also lined with red and called Cinnabar Prime (Danyuan 丹元). All these different dimensions of purity and brightness are but different expressions of the Non-Ultimate. More specifically,

The Non-Ultimate is an expression of purity and brightness and signifies the highest of the Three Worlds [of Desire, Form, and Formlessness]. [End Page 70]

This being so, the Great Yang of Celestial Yellow is the Non-Ultimate in the realm of heaven, while the Highest Emperor of Vast Heaven [Haotian shangdi 昊天上帝] is the Great Ultimate.

The Great Yin of Earthly Yellow is the Non-Ultimate in the realm of earth, while the Earth God [Houtu 後土] is the Great Ultimate.

The Cinnabar Ring of Human Yellow is the Non-Ultimate in the realm of humanity, while the [creator] Pangu 盤古 is the Great Ultimate.

(Bieji 5)

On all three major levels of heaven, earth, and humanity, therefore, both the Non-Ultimate and Great Ultimate are active, appearing as different potencies and deities who organize the entire universe and govern the whole world. Purity and brightness pervade it all, being the core qualities of the highest sacred level of the Three Worlds. In this respect, the doctrine of the Daoist school is significantly different from Neo-Confucianism. Going even further, Liu Yu explains the heart of heaven in relation to the human organ:

The core of the Nine Palaces of Central Heaven, the area of Great Oneness of Central Yellow is the heart of heaven, also knew as the ancestral place. From here originates all generation and transformation of the world; it is the capital of the myriad manifestations of principle. In fact, it only came to exist after chaos [Hundun] broke open and the qi of accumulated yang floated upward to form a vast cover [over the earth], 810,000 miles wide. Here the ruler of the principle of Dao resides.

The body and mind as well as the merits and demerits of the people in this world are pervasively illuminated by the bright radiance of heaven, so that nothing can escape. As the light disperses all over the bodies of human beings, we speak of the Cinnabar Ring and call it the concrete manifestation of the Great Ultimate in the human heart.

(Neiji 3)

This outlines the cosmological connections in some detail and illuminates the concept of the ultimate oneness of heaven and humanity. Since the human heart is essentially the Cinnabar Ring formed by the brightness of the heart of heaven as represented by the Lord of Central Yellow, it is in nature the same as the heart of heaven and also as the unlimited clarity and emptiness of the vastness of the galaxy. "They have the same source but manifest in different names." This means that to reach the ultimate celestial realm, the highest state of clarity and emptiness, [End Page 71] adepts need only cultivate the heart-and-mind in this very body. This means that, as the Jingming dadao shuo has it,

The key practice is not sitting in absorption or inquiring about Dao, going deep into the mountains or refining the physical form. Rather, it is in fact establishing oneself firmly in loyalty and filial piety and filling your square inch [heart] with purity and brightness. If you can possess all four virtues to the fullest, your spirit will gradually penetrate the numinous realm. Then you no longer need to practice cultivation or refinement, but will naturally find Dao complete within.

(ch. 2)

To fill the heart with purity, then, as Liu Yu says, means to keep it "unpolluted by outside things" and "not affected by affairs." According to the Zhonghuang xiansheng wenda, Huang Yuanji similarly says, "If you eliminate all thoughts of hatred and evil on the inside, you will never perform an actions that are not good on the outside" (ch. 6). That is to say, purity and brightness as manifest in an upright mind and sincere intention present the best and most direct approach to immortality, more powerful than working with the virtues as established formalities and ethical standards.

The link between outside behavior and mental attitudes, moreover, connects to the theory of "simple efforts" (yijian gongfu 易簡工夫) advocated by Lu Jiuyuan. This theory rests on the understanding that the core principle of life is naturally rooted in the human heart. As noted in the Lu Jiuyuan ji, "all people have a heart, and each heart contains principle: the heart is the principle" (ch. 11). Based on this conviction, Lu also believed that "the organism of the heart is gigantic. When I do my utmost in my heart, I can be at one with heaven" (ch. 35).

This means that a very simple effort, such as striving to be honest and straightforward at all times in one's thought and actions, can have humongous results, leading to amazingly high levels of accomplishment and personal transformation. The practice of the virtues is so powerful because it activates the core principle of the cosmos within.

Once the true heart-and-mind is present, principle will of itself become clear. When the time is right to feel compassion and sympathy, one will naturally feel so. When the time has come to be ashamed of wrong-doing, one will natural be so. When the time has come to recuse oneself and withdraw, [End Page 72] one will naturally do so. Whatever form and shape right and wrong may present themselves, one can discern them immediately.

(ch. 34)

That is, the mind will be so attuned to whatever is needed that no other effort or practice is necessary.

This level of mental attunement signals the full realization of spontaneous inner nature, which is ultimately one with the heart of heaven, another expression of the traditional idea of the oneness of heaven and humanity. Since they are one, as adepts cleanse their minds and practice the virtues, they are "returning to the origin and going back to the source" (fanben huanyuan 返本還源), "attaining Dao and becoming immortal" (dedao chengxian 得道成仙).


The central doctrine of the school of Purity and Brightness, first developed in the Southern Song and matured under the Yuan, centers on the virtues of loyalty and filial piety. The school's leaders inherit the thought of Neo-Confucianism in their understanding and argumentation, but they also go far beyond it. While the Confucian take on the virtues is limited to seeing them as moral rules in secular society, the Daoist school uses them as a spring-board for self-cultivation along the lines of internal alchemy and the attainment of mystical states and immortality.

In its more mature understanding, the school transformed the objective of ethical practice away from serving rulers and parents on the outside and toward internal cultivation of heart-and-mind and spontaneous inner nature on the inside. In this context, the also integrated Chinese medical thinking and medieval Daoist doctrine, somatizing the psychological concepts and relating different attitudes and actions to the qi of the five inner organs. Specific negative emotions were seen as harming particular organs and contributing to ill health, death, and even the descent into hell.

In addition, the school saw the practice of the virtues as essential in "recovering the original purity and primordial brightness of inner nature," a key stepping stone in the path to immortality. This is so because the pure original nature of human beings is essentially the same as the ultimate purity and the highest god of heaven, the Non-Ultimate state [End Page 73] before the creation of the universe. The heart of heaven is no different from the human heart and as such is accessible to everyone at all times, provided they make the right, often simple, efforts. Since the original source of the universe is already present deep within, as long as one avoids strong emotions and sensory indulgence and strives to maintain a strong sense of goodness and integrity, it will begin to shine forth and naturally open the path to transformation and ascension into heaven. To add a comparative perspective, a similar understanding is also outlined in Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane (2001). Here homo religious, when he encounters the sacred as opposed to the profane—also expressed by Rudolf Otto as the idea of the holy or the numinous (1995)—reunites with a portion of himself and the world that is the source of all and originally sacred. From this the existing modality of the profane had broken away at some point in illo tempore, but the sacred continues to underlie it and each individual can access and transfer back to it.

The ultimate experience of homo religiosus, then, as also outlined in the school of Purity and Brightness, is union with the sacred or a hierophany, that is, the active manifestation of the sacred in this world. Connecting to the ultimate root, the numinous source of all, one can become one with the sacred world (Lai 1999, 6). Eliade sees this experience of the holy is the foundation of all religions and manifests within a large variety of profane situations and constellations, which he describes in some detail (2001, 62). The experience of the sacred happens when the seeker opens himself toward the holy and moves away from the profane. This can be as simple as embracing core virtues or as complex as undergoing years and years of painstaking training. The Daoist school of Purity and Brightness opts for the simple, strongly anchoring mystical cultivation in the concrete parameters of everyday life.

Guo Wu

Guo Wu (b. 1966) graduated from Peking University in Religious Studies. After serving as the director of the Institute for Religious Studies at Sichuan University for many years, he is now professor of Religious Studies at Yunnan University. Email:


Akizuki Kan'ei 秋月観英. 1978. Chūgoku kinsei dōkyō no keisei: Jōmyōdō no kisoteki kenkyū 中國近世道教の形成: 淨明道の基礎的研究. Tokyo: Sōbunsha.
Baldrian-Hussein, Farzeen. 1984. Procédés secrets du joyau magique. Paris: Les Deux Océans.
Boltz, Judith M. 1987. A Survey of Taoist Literature: Tenth to Seventeenth Centuries. Berkeley: University of California, China Research Monograph 32.
Ding Peiren 丁培仁. 1989. "Daoshi xiaokao erze" 道史小考二則. Zongjiao xue yanjiu 宗教學研究 3-4:7-13.
Eliade, Mircea. 2001. Sheng yu su: Zongjiao de benzhi 聖與俗: 宗教的本質. [The Sacred and the Profane]. Translated by Yang Su'e. Taipei: Guiguan Books.
Eskildsen, Stephen. 2004. The Teachings and Practices of the Early Quanzhen Taoist Masters. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Guo Gang 郭剛. 2001. "Jingming dao de zhongxiao lunli guan" 淨明道的忠孝倫理觀. Daoyun 道韻 9:74-86.
Guo Wu 郭武. 1997. "Zhongli Quan de shengping sixiang yu yingxiang qiantan" 鍾離權的生平思想與影響淺探. Daoyun 道韻 1:28-76.
_____. 2000a. "Guanyu Xu Xun xinyang de jige wenti" 關於許遜信仰的幾個問題. Zongjiao xue yanjiu 宗教學研究 4:19-26.
_____. 2000b. "Jindan pai nanbei zong sixiang duibi yanjiu" 金丹派南北宗思想對 比研究. Daoyun 道韻 6:167-190.
_____. 2000c. "Weng Baoguang ji qi nannü shuangxiu, sancheng miyao shuo" 翁葆光及其男女雙修三乘秘要說. In Shixue luncong 史學論叢, 150-64. Kunming: Yunnan daxue chubanshe.
Hatake Oshi 畑忍. 1998. "Gendai jōmyōdō no kakushin no shi Ryu Gyo no ronri shisō: Jōmyōchōkyō zensho o chūshin ni" 元代淨明道の革新の士劉玉の倫理 思想: 淨明忠孝全書を中心に. Chūgoku gakushi 中國學志 1998:57-64.
Komjathy, Louis. 2014. The Way of Complete Perfection: A Quanzhen Daoist Anthology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Kong Linghong 孔令宏. 2001. "Jingming dao de zhenzhong zhixiao zhi dao" 淨明道的真忠至孝之道. Daoyun 道韻 9:54-73.
Lai Chitim 黎志添. 1999. "Zong shensheng yu fansu zongjiao jingyan yu wenhua de guanxi: Eliade de yige zongjiao xueguan dian." Paper presented at the Shared Symposium of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Peking University, Beijing.
Lee Fengmao 李豐楙. 1997.Xu Xun yu Sa Shoujian: Deng Zhimo daojiao xiaoshuo yanjiu 許遜與薩守堅: 鄧志謨道教小說研究. Taipei: Xuesheng shuju.
Lee Xianguang 李顯光. 1999. "Xu Xun xinyang xiaokao" 許遜信仰小考. Zongjiao xue yanjiu 宗教學研究 3 12-19.
Liu Cunren 柳存仁. 1985. "Xu Xun yu Lan Gong" 許遜與蘭公. Shijie zongjiao yanjiu 世界宗教研究 3:40-59.
Lu, Xichen. 2009. "The Southern School: Cultivating Mind and Inner Nature." In Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality, edited by Livia Kohn and Robin R. Wang, 73-86. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press.
Otto, Rudolf. 1995. Lun shensheng 論神聖 [The Idea of the Holy]. Translated by Cheng Qiong and Zhou Bangxian. Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chunbanshe.
Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. 1996. Zhongguo daojiao shi 中國道教史, vol. 3. Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe.
_____and Zhan Shichuang 詹石窗. 1987. "Xu Xun yu Jingming dao zhi gaige" 許遜與淨明道之改革. Zhongguo wenhua yu Zhongguo zhexue 中國文化與中國哲 學 1987:352-75. Beijing: Sanlian shudian.
Sun Yiping 孫亦平. 2001. "Lun Jingming dao sanjiao ronghe de sixiang tese" 論淨明道三教融合的思想特色. Shijie zongjiao yanjiu 世界宗教研究 2:65-73.
Wang, Robin R. 2005. "Zhou Dunyi's Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate Explained (Taiji tushuo): A Construction of the Confucian Metaphysics." Journal of the History of Ideas 66.3:307-23.
Xu Xihua 徐西華. 1983. "Jingming dao yu Lixue" 淨明教與理學. Sixiang zhanxian 思想戰線 3:35-40.
Zhang Liwen 張立文. 1992. Zouxiang xinxue zhi lu: Lu Xiangshan sixiang de zuji 走向心學之路: 陸象山思想的足跡. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.
Zhang, Weiwen. 2019. "Lineage Construction of the Southern School: From Zhongli Quan to Liu Haichan and Zhang Boduan." Religions 10.179:1-19.; doi:10.339.
Zhang Zehong 張澤洪. 1990. "Xu Xun yu Wu Meng" 許遜與吳猛. Shijie zongjiao yanjiu 世界宗教研究 1:65-73.
Zeng Zhaonan 曾召南. 1988. "Jingming dao de Lixue tese" 淨明道的理學特色. Zongjiao xue yanjiu 宗教學研究 2-3:37-41.
Zhu Yueli 朱越利. 2001. "Lingjianzi de niandai, neirong ji yingxiang" 靈劍子的年代, 內容及影響. Daoyun 道韻 9: 127-48.


1. This paper was presented in Chinese at the symposium on "Chinese Culture and the Unity of Heaven and Humanity" (Nantou, Taiwan, 2015).

2. For more on this figure, see Guo 2000a. Further studies include Akizuki 1978; Lee 1997; Liu 1985; Qing and Zhan 1988; Ding 1989; Zhang 1990; and Lee 1999.

3. Only few people have paid attention to the different meanings of loyalty and filial piety in this school, as Hatake notes (1998).

5. Contained in Gaoshang yuegong Taiyin yuanjun xiaodao xianwang Lingbaojingming Huangsu shu xuli 高上月宮太陰元君孝道仙王靈寶淨明黃素書序例 (Beijing: Wenwu, 1988), 10:499-503.