There are many books about Taoism. Most are about philosophical Taoism or are translations of ancient Chinese texts. Taoist Master Chuangis different. It’s about religious Taoism, not how it was in some ancient past, but the living, breathing religion of today. The focus of the book, Master Chuang, until his death in 1979, was a Taoist priest in Hsinchu City in Northern Taiwan. He was probably the most learned and accomplished priest on the whole island. In specific, the book examines in great detail, the religious rituals and magic performed by Taoist priests and the liturgies and canons they use. Taoism has existed as a religion for well over two thousand years. The rites performed by Taoist priests are extremely complex, sometimes lasting several days and require the up most discipline and training.
The author, Michael Saso is a western scholar who has devoted his life to the study of religious Taoism. Not content to simply read books and observe from the outside, he took the ultimate step for his study and became an initiated Taoist priest himself and is one of the world’s for most authorities on Taoism. In Taoist Master Chuang, Saso reveals a hidden world, previously unknown to westerners. It is a world where magic is a reality and spiritual possession and exorcisms are commonplace. Perhaps even more interesting than the religious aspects of the book, is the intimate look into the life of Master Chuang himself as well as a behind the scenes look at religious Taoism and where it fits in modern Taiwanese culture. The book is divided into two parts and six chapters.
In the east and the west, religious Taoism is a relatively new subject of study for scholars. This is due to the fact that a copy of the Taoist Canon was not widely available until the 1920’s. The Taoist Canon is a massive collection of religious books and liturgies containing well over 1,000 volumes. The most famous books of philosophical Taoism, the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are basic texts which all novice priests must study. The are used as a guide for Taoist living and also for meditation. However, that’s just the first step of their training. Interestingly, the study of philosophical and religious Taoism can be quite different. Philosophical scholars assert that the Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu have little to do with religion and Priests would say that being an expert on philosophical Taoism does not make you an expert on religious Taoism. One of the major problems in studying the Canon is that scholars couldn’t understand the esoteric terminology. This was solved by fieldwork with Taoist priests who could not only understand and explain the texts, but who had their own manuals which were more complete that the official versions of the canon, with notes and commentaries to explain the texts. Saso outlines the canon and also gives an overview of the major sects of Taoism and their relative importance.
In Chapters one and two, Saso gives us a detailed history of the development of religious Taoism as well as the history of the texts in Master Chuang’s library.
The Taoist Master Chuang
Chapter three is probably the most interesting of the whole book. In Taoism, as in many religions, there are two main groups of practitioners. There are the monks who live a monastic life often on mountain tops removed from the world, and there are priests who live in the community, in the temples and who serve the needs of the people. Master Chuang belongs to the later group. Taoist priests marry and Master Chuang has a large family. The position of head priest of the temple is a family affair and passed down from father to son. In the book, Master Chuang was in the process of grooming two of his sons to follow him. Running a temple is also a business and each rite or ceremony costs money. Nearly all the people who live in the alley around his house depend on him for their livelihoods. Taoist ceremonies require assistants, musicians, a whole entourage. Most of them worked for him, at least occasionally and others get the business that he couldn’t handle.
Far from being the image of a quiet, pious man, Master Chuang is famous for his short temper and firey personality. He is also a heavy drinker. However, when it comes to vocation, he has the upmost conviction and seriousness. He is completely devoted to those he aids and is extremely loyal to those close to him. In one example, in the middle of a festival celebration, a very busy time, a drunkard burst ino the crowd and started hurling insults at Master Chuang. His sons were enraged and ready to pounce on the man, but Master Chuang simply said, “He is my friend”, though he’d never seen the man before. In the mists of the pressing commitments of the festival, this drunken man, in his confusion, was the most important man there. He was in need and Master Chuang personally guided him home.
There is a lot of competition and jealously among Taoists. Master Chuang is the most sought after because of his expertise and almost flawless performance of the rites. It’s no only the superficial performance, but his deep knowledge of the Taoist Canon and meditation. He is also the only one around qualified to certify others in the rituals. Many come to him and take classes to learn the rites. They are only interested in learning the rituals and liturgies to perform them in order to turn a profit at their own businesses. They have no interest in the deeper meditative practices. The ultimate goal of a true Taoist is union with the Tao, not for himself, but so he can then serve the people. Being a Taoist is not necessarily an enviable job. Taoist rites are associated with illness, possession, or death. He does not have many friends. He is respected and feared. Because of this he often gets special treatment and often doesn’t have to pay at bars or shops, but he is not really liked. Master Chuang’s close friends are from his youth, to whom he is extremely loyal. Master Chuang’s spiritual power is unmatched, especially for exorcisms. Saso gives two examples. In case one, a man comes to him and says his relative is being attacked with black magic by another Taoist. Master Chuang immediately goes to him and finds the man bed ridden and extremely ill. He performs a ceremony to reverse the magic and send it back to the antagonist. The man soon recovers. Master Chuang later returns home, quite drunk and happy after celebrating with the family. Almost immediately, a pale and very distraught man appears at the house and says he was the Taoist who performed the black magic and vowed never to do such a thing again. In case two, Master Chuang was preparing for a cleansing and renewal ceremony for a small community. In Taoism, there are proper times and hours to perform ceremonies. The Taoist uses his almanac to calculate the correct time. Master Chuang was aware of the correct time, but chose to start the ceremony earlier for other reasons. One, the local leaders wanted to attend and two, Master Chuang was tired and had other ceremonies to perform the same evening. This fact was only known to the author and Chuang’s son. After he began the ceremony, a local medium became possessed by the temple god. He followed Chuang and taunted him, “The ceremony’s not begun at the proper time.” At first, Master Chuang ignored it, but then turned, eyes wide with rage and expelled the spirit on the spot saying as the priest, he reserved the right to start the ceremony at a time of his choosing and continued to finish the rite. At no time in the book does Saso ever question the reality of possession or the effectiveness of magic. Nor does he use non-commital language like, “The people believed he was possessed.” They are simply facts.
In part two, Saso gives detailed descriptions of three types of ceremonial magic, step by step, complete with diagrams and the calligraphy-like talismans and seals.
The Tao of the Left
This is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. To expel demons and harmful spirits, the Taoist often calls upon the aid of a group of six extremely powerful spirit generals called the Six Chia Generals. This is officially considered black magic by the Taoist orthodoxy, but is commonly performed by many Taoists. This is like something out of Lord of the Rings. There is a ceremony for the young Taoist adept trainee to practice summoning these six spirits. Over a period of sixty days, he performs the rites to call forth one or two spirits a day. In total, he invokes them twelve times. After that, he has memorized the rites and can call summon them at will whenever he needs. The most closely guarded secret of the Taoist is the specific names and detailed descriptions of these spirits. It’s the last thing he will teach his disciples. Each Chia Spirit General has one or more names and very specific appearance down to their uniform and weapons. One is twelve feet tall, with horns on his head, the face of a rat and the body of a man. Another has the face of a man and the body of a snake. Yet another, looks like a beautiful woman. Each commands an army of hundreds of thousands of spirit soldiers. Throughout the book, Saso shows us that in these ceremonies, visualizing the spirits is extremely important. Without this, the rituals are empty. It makes me think of when I was a kid I had imaginary friends. I could see them in my minds eye perfectly. They even helped me when I needed them. I think it is an inate power of children. The mind has a way of making things real. In Taoism, the gods or spirits are often not summoned from heaven, but from within the Taoist’s own body. There are specific gods residing in specific organs of the body’s microcosm. This gives new meaning to the expression, “The body is a temple.”
The Tao of the Right
This is the higher form of magic of the Taoist orthodoxy. It is a type of liturgical meditation leading to union with the Tao. This has three purposes: one, it leads to immortality for the adept, two, it brings blessings and renewal for the people of the community, and three, it brings salvation to the souls of the departed. There are two main types of ceremonies. “Chiao” ceremonies win blessings and renewal for the living. They always begin with meditations of union with the Tao. The other are “Chai” ceremonies to free the souls of the dead from hell. Here, the Taoist reads lengthy canons of merit and liturgies of repentance. The meditative rituals are complex and require years of training. Saso goes into great detail describing each step of these ceremonies.
The highly developed meditative magic of the Tao of the right is the hallmark of orthodox Taoism. However, it has one major drawback. It requires complete purification to perform the rites of union with the Tao properly, purification of the adept as well as the setting. Also, the demons and spirits called forth by the heterodox magic of the Tao of the Left could never be admitted to the pure area of the temple during the Chiao ritual of renewal. For these reasons, the orthodoxy needed a new ritual. One that was less austere. This new Thunder Magic is a neo-orthodox ritual and represents a kind of middle ground between the pure Tao of the Right and the profane Tao of the Left. Thunder magic is a fusion between Taoism and tantric Buddhism. It is so called because it uses the power of thunder to cure sickness and exorcise spirits. The Taoist performs meditations similar to those in the Tao of the Right, but the purpose is not union with the Tao, but rather to prepare his body and inner microcosm to receive the power of thunder. The Taoist first must perform a meditation in the spring during a thunderstorm. He faces in the direction of the storm and breathes deeply. The power of thunder circulates through his organs and is stored in the body. He can then call upon this power at anytime to perform the thunder magic rituals. There are different forms of Thunder Magic from different Taoist sects and each has its own history and forms.
Taoist Master Chuangis not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend this book if you’re new to Taoism. For me, the most interesting parts were the look at Master Chuang’s life and Taoism in modern Taiwan and also the descriptions of the Six Chia Generals. I have to admit, I skimmed through much of the book. Saso is very thorough and goes into a lot of detail. However, if you want a deeper understanding of Taoism as a religion or the more esoteric aspects, this book is for you. It may be particularly interesting for those studying meditation or chi-qong. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this, it appears that the book is currently out of print. It is available, but at many times the original price. You may be able to find a copy through your local library.