Nature, Impersonality, and Absence in the Theology of Highest Clarity Daoism

Models of God James Miller. 2013. Nature, Impersonality, and Absence in the Theology of Highest Clarity Daoism. Pp. 665-676 in Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities, edited by J. Diller and A. Kasher. Dordrecht: Springer.

Excerpted and slightly adapted with the author’s permission from The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China (Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008).

The Way of Highest Clarity (Shangqing dao 上清道) flourished for 1,000 years in medieval China from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. It was a distinct branch of the Daoist religion formed around its own scriptural revelation transmitted under the authority of a lineage of 45 patriarchs. Although it no longer exists in any overt institutional form, its practices were absorbed into the mainstream Daoist traditions that continue to this day. It thus constitutes an important link between the earliest organized religious traditions that emerged in the latter Han (25–220) and the modern forms of Daoism that were developed from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) onwards.

It originated in a series of revelations from a variety of “perfected persons,” former human beings who had been transfigured into powerful celestial gods. The revelations from these gods were written down in texts which describe lush celestial paradises inhabited by a vast panoply of divine personages served by “jade maidens” and “lads,” and who lived a life of sumptuous luxury and ease. The texts also explain that the way to this Heaven of Highest Clarity consists in repeating the process by which these perfected beings were revealed in the first place: namely, by mentally visualizing their descent from heaven and their entry into the body of the individual. This can occur at the specific times and places when the vast and obscure operations of the cosmos make this contact possible. Through this process of visualization, the transformative powers of the gods are once again revealed, and the body of the adept is transfigured into the same type of perfected being who revealed these celestial worlds in the first place. The adept’s body then avoids death completely and, while still alive but in a transfigured state, ascends to heaven in broad daylight, leaving behind no earthly token. Those who do not manage to achieve this transfiguration die but, through the intervention of perfected beings, may be reborn in paradise as “immortals.”  Such persons obtain a position within the celestial hierarchy inferior to that of the perfected beings, but nonetheless avoid much of the trauma experienced by those condemned to a postmortem existence in the underworld. Those unfortunates are tortured, tried and punished by sadistic officials in the three bureaux of heaven, earth and water in order to work off the accumulated guilt of their misdeeds, and they are separated from their friends and family. Such a fate is to be avoided at all costs.

The Way of Highest Clarity thus regards humans as living in a space between the biological process of earth and the constellated spiritual powers of the heavens. Within the hierarchy of the cosmos, humans rank above the animal world, but below the heavenly world. But because natural law is understood as a law of transformation, Highest Clarity Daoists believe that it is possible to change one’s fundamental nature in an act of cosmic transfiguration and, as it were, metamorphose from one’s earthly status to that of a celestial being. Again it is important to understand that although this involves transcending the ordinary givenness of human life in a literal and metaphorical ascension to the stars, this is not, strictly speaking, a supernatural process, because the heavens are governed by the same laws of nature as every other part of the created order. Bodily ascension, though rare and wondrous, is understood as a wholly natural transformation of the body that is open to anyone who had been initiated into the scriptures and who has the dedication to pursue the methods they detail.

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