How Taoism From Philosophy Passed Into Organized Religion
It is generally accepted that the period between the beginning of the Eastern Han (25-219 CE) and the end of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (304-589 CE) is characterized by the fact that Taoism from philosophical doctrine has turned into an organized religion. The institution of the priesthood was formed, a strict set of rituals appeared, and basic canonical writings were written. This contributed to the formation of a huge number of followers of Taoist religious teachings.
Several objective factors contributed to this change in Taoism, which arose at the end of the Warring States period (475-221 BC) and at the beginning of the Early (Western) Han (206 BC-8 BC) .e.).
The unification of the country under the rule of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) practically negated the need for hired wandering political advisers. They were practically replaced by a unique social group called “fan shi” or spell masters. Their magic was called talisman because it involved the use of magic words and symbols to turn to spirits with a request for healing and protection.
Another factor that facilitated the transformation of Taoism from philosophy into religion was the belief in the hierarchy of spirits and the practice of worshiping them through sacrifice. At the end of the Warring States period, the followers of the great philosopher Mo-tzu (Moists) developed a whole system that describes the order of sacrifice. Therefore, when their altars and religious leaders began to appear in Taoism, this was just a continuation of the tradition established earlier.
The next factor is considered to be the decline in the role of ceremonies organized by the state. During the early dynasties, state rituals were performed by court shamans. Over time, they lost their personal strength and could no longer satisfy the spiritual needs of the people. The original meaning of the former rites was forgotten and degenerated simply into nation-wide celebrations. It is also important that the first emperors of the Han decided to support Taoism. The court shamans left the stage, and their place was taken by the fan shee magicians with their own ceremonies.
The following historical fact is indicative of this. In 150 AD, eight centuries after the death of Lao Tzu, the Han emperor ordered the erection of an altar in his honor, and he personally conducted the opening ceremony. In the Chinese culture of that time, there were two types of altars: altars of the ancestors and altars of deities. Lao Tzu was not the ancestor of the Han emperor. Consequently, the Taoist sage was honored as the highest principle. From a historical character, he turned into a deity, that is, into a higher power.
Since imperial altars dedicated to Lao Tzu appeared, it was quite appropriate to assign him a title and identify with the supreme deity of the Taoist religion. That is what the end of the Eastern Han did Zhang Dao-lin (Zhang Lin). He organized a cult around him. Lao-tzu appropriated the title Taishan Lao-jun (Supreme Lord Lao).
The cult was headed by Zhang Dao-lin himself and his descendants, and the religious movement was called the “Way of the Five Measures of Rice,” because it was just that much rice was required to join the organization.
In the new religion, the leading role of the clergy immediately emerged – with a spiritual leader, priesthood, rituals, ceremonial and magic. But most importantly, this religion met the spiritual needs of the common people.
So, from philosophical doctrine, religious Taoism, having appeared during the period of the Eastern Han (25-219 CE), turned into an organized religion that reached its greatest prosperity during the Wei dynasties (220-265 CE), Jin (265 -420 AD), as well as during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (304-579 AD).