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The Taoist Body Author(s): Kristofer Schipper Source: History of Religions, Vol. 17, No. 3/4, Current Perspectives in the Study of Chinese Religions (Feb. - May, 1978), pp. 355-386 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: Accessed: 13-03-2017 17:51 UTC

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Kristofer Schipper THE TAOIST BODY

La conception du corps-microcosme n'a rien de specifiquement taoiste; c'est une croyance universellement repandue et qui, en Chine meme, se rencontre a peu pres dans tous les milieux laiques. Mais les Taoistes ont pousse cette assimilation du corps au monde plus loin.... [H. MASPERO, Le Taoisme, p. 109]

The Taoists say that "the human body is the image of a country [i-jen chih shen, i-kuo chih hsiang]." For them the human body is like a landscape with mountains, lakes, woods, and shelters (fig. 1).1 Moreover, the body as a "country" has an administration with a ruler and officials (kuan). The heart, or more accurately the spirit (shen) inhabiting it, generally is considered to be the ruler or king of the body while the other viscera are the officials.2

Already in the Hsin-tzu the expression wu-kuan (Five Officials) denotes the functions of the body, and the same usage may be found in the Chuang-tzu.3 It even may be said that for the Ho- shang-kung commentator the correspondence between the admin- istration of the country and that of the human body is the corner- stone of his interpretation of the Tao te ching.4 This kind of

1 This is illustrated by the picture of the "Interior Landscape" (nei-ching-t'u) of modern times. Fig. 1 is a specimen published in 1967 by the Ming-shun shu-chii in Tainan.

2 See, for instance Huang-t'ing-ching [Book of the yellow court], chap. 3, p. 18. All references to this book are to the so-called Wai-ching edition unless specified otherwise (see my Concordance du Houang-t'ing-king [Paris, 1975], introduction).

3 Hsuin-tzu, Chu-tzu chi-cheng ed., ch. 17, p. 206. The functions here are the five senses. Chuang-tzu, Yin-te ed., ch. 14, p. 37/27.

4 See commentary to Lao-tzu, ch. 3, shih-i sheng-jen chih; and ch. 59, yu kuo chih mu k'o-i chang-chiu.

? 1978 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0018-2710/78/1704-0008$2.49


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FIG. 1-The Inner Structure. A moder version of the landscape of the human body (without the limbs). The upper part represents the head with a pagoda symbolizing the throat. Beneath it, the lungs, the liver (the mulberry grove), the heart (the weaver), the kidneys (the paddyfield) and of course the tan-t'ien (the burning cauldron). The four "tai-ch'i" emblems represent the energy phases of the tan-t'ien. The infant born out of the union of the weaver and the cowherd

strings pieces of cash together that form the constellation of the Dipper-the star of fate, thus creating a new life for the body.


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History of Religions

metaphorical relation is also found in medical texts so that the Huang-ti nei-ching [The Yellow Emperor's handbook of internal medicine], for example, states that "the heart has the function (kuan) of ruler governing by means of the spirit (shen); the lungs are the transmitting officers giving forth regulations; the liver is the general devising stratagems . . ."5

As suggested by Maspero, a very specific relationship of sym- pathy exists in Taoism between the human body and a territory (country, kingdom, or state). Thus, in the Kung-yang chuan [Kung-yang's commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, late third century B.C.] we already find that "the kingdom and its ruler form a single body [kuo-chin i-t'i]," which indicates a correspondence going beyond a simple metaphor.6 For the Taoists the body of the ruler (chiun) becomes an autonomous "ruling body" homologous to the region it inhabits. Peace and harmony in the body result in peace and harmony in the terrestrial environment. Ordinary men are shaped and determined by their environment, or, as Anna Seidel reminds us, "The influence exerted by the landscape on the mentality and conduct of its inhabitants is an old theme in China."7 For the initiated Taoist, however, the influence is reversed in that the Taoist knows how to regulate and harmonize the outer (wai) forces of nature by governing his own body (the inner, nei). This, along with the moral conduct of a country's inhabitants, determines the harmony of nature.8

All of this suggests that in Taoism there is a certain priority of the human body in relation to the rest of the universe; and this priority is illustrated in the Taoist creation myths, especially the mythology of Lao-tzu. The "cosmogonic body" of Lao-tzu is, therefore, the focus of a great number of physiological and mental practices; and we may learn from such fundamental treatises as the Huang-t'ing ching [Book of the yellow court] what kind of representations were attached to the Taoist conception of the human body. A final point worth investigating is the homology established between the administration (kuan) of communal Taoism and the structure and function of the universe. At the end

of the Han dynasty the Heavenly Masters' movement, which established the foundations of communal Taoism, not only made

5 Huang-ti nei-ching su-wen, Tao-tsang ed., ch. 8, p. la-b. 6 Chuang 4, Chia-ch'ing ed., ch. 6, p. lib. 7 Anna K. Seidel, La Divinisation de Lao-tseu dans le Taogsme des Han (Paris,

1969), p. 46, citing Huai-nan-tzu, ch. 4, p. 59. 8 See San-t'ien nei-chieh ching, ch. 1, p. lb. This is a short but important doc-

trinal work of communal Taoism. It dates from the (Liu) Sung dynasty (420-79). 357

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The Taoist Body

its newly revealed cosmology coincide with its conceptions about the human body but also created an organizational framework homologous with the same model.9 Down to the present day, the Taoist liturgical tradition has remained faithful to the same principle.

In the present article the "Taoist body" means not only the physical and mythical body but also the social body (comparable with our expressions the "legislative body," the "diplomatic corps," etc.). Consequently, our investigation potentially embraces the totality of Taoist tradition. Needless to say, nothing of the kind is envisaged here, and the conclusions put forward are only tentative and preliminary. This is essentially a report on work in progress, and, therefore, it has not always been possible to select the oldest and most pertinent texts. I have taken data most immediately at hand, sometimes without paying too much atten- tion to chronology. Also, space does not allow me to put forward all the critical notes I have assembled concerning my sources. Finally, I want to note that the first section of this study on the cosmological Lao-tzu myths owes much to Anna Seidel's excellent work on the divinization of Lao-tzu and Yoshioka's exhaustive

compilation of texts related to Lao-tzu's "transformations" (pien- hua).10 The conclusions are, however, my own responsibility.


Lao-tzu is the personification of the Tao (Tao chih shen).12 One of the first indications of the idea that Lao-tzu is coexistent with the

Principle of the Universe is, for example, found in the Chuang-tzu where Lao-tzu declares to Confucius that he was "wandering in the Beginning of Things."13 In late Han sources the link between Lao-tzu and the creation becomes more explicit. Thus, the famous Lao-tzu-ming [Inscription on Lao-tzu] of Pien Chao, composed in 165 in commemoration of the sacrifice to Lao-tzu by Emperor

9 See below, Part IV.

10 See n. 7 above and Yoshioka Yoshitoyo, Dokyo to Bukkyo (Tokyo, 1959), vol. I.

11 The different words for "body" in the Chinese language have all been applied to Lao-tzu in relationship to the Tao. Tao chih hsing (lit. shape, pattern), in Hun-yian sheng-chi, ch. 2, p. 6a; Tao chih shen (body, person, personification), ibid., p. 37a, citing Yin Wen-ts'ao, of the T'ang; Tao chih t'i (body, embodiement), in Yu-lung chuan, ch. 1, p. 3a. The topic of this section is hsing, the shape of the Tao-universe in its transformational process (cf. Shuo-wen, s.v. "chen" [real]).

12 The etymology of the character for shen is not clear. The original graph may show a female body.

13 Chuang tzu, ch. 21, cited by Seidel, p. 85. 358

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Huan, states that Lao-tzu is united with, and then separated from, the ch'i of Chaos (hun-tun); that he is coeternal with the Three Luminaries; and that he participates in the radiance of the Sun and Moon in harmony with the Five Planets....14 The Lao-tzu pien-hua-ching [The book of the transformations of Lao- tzu], a popular text from approximately the same period but written by the Taoists themselves, gives a similar, but more detailed description: "He [Lao-tzu] was at the origin of the Great Beginning, circulating in the Great Expanse. Alone and without companion, he was moving in the times of yore before Heaven and Earth. Coming out of the hiddeness and returning thereto, being and non-being, he is the First One. Assuming form, he becomes a man ...." 15 The text continues by describing the birth of Lao-tzu, a subject we will develop below. As to the nature of the cosmic body of Lao Tzu, the Pien-hua-ching describes it in terms that have become standardized in subsequent hagiographies-that is, the incarnated Lao-tzu is the image (hsiang) of the world, and the sun, moon, and stars, the whole heavenly clockwork, are all present in his body.16

These representations are related to those to be found in cosmo- gonic myths describing the creation of the world as the transforma- tion of Lao-tzu's body: "Lao-tzu transformed his body. His left eye became the sun, his right eye the moon, his head the K'un-lun mountain, his beard the planets and the heavenly mansions, his bones dragons, his flesh quadrupeds, his bowels snakes.... 17 Following Maspero, I translate the foregoing in the past tense since it is quite similar to the myth of P'an-ku, which states that the creation through transformation of the world came about after P'an-ku died.18 It is perhaps worthwhile mentioning here that the differentiation of ch'i in the creation of the universe and

man is also the origin of death. This, for example, is the implicit meaning of the fragmentary creation myth found in chapter 7 of the Chuang-tzu which describes how the Emperors of the North and South Seas (complementary opposites, compared by the commentators to yin and yang) were at first united in the Central Chaos (hun-tun). But, the two emperors, recklessly and rashly (thus were their names), wanted to transform Chaos into a human being. Therefore they punched seven holes (the seven openings of

14 Seidel, p. 123. 15 Ibid., p. 61. 16 Ibid., pp. 62, 63. 17 H. Maspero, Le Taoisme (Paris, 1950), p. 108, citing the Hsiao-tao-lun. 18 Ibid.


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The Taoist Body

the head) into Chaos, one per day. On the seventh day, Chaos died.19 Elsewhere in the Chuang-tzu, life and death are described as successive states of transformation;20 and the same thing is expressed in the Pien-hua-ching where Lao-tzu says that "I transform [pien-hua] my body, passing through death and living again.... I die and am reborn, again and again I have incarna- ted."21 This notion of pien-hua is one of the foremost character- istics of the Tao as the principle of cyclical time, and it is also an essential quality of Lao-tzu as the Body of the Tao.

The famous hagiographer Yin Wen-tsao, author of a now lost Hsuan-yian huang-ti sheng-chi [Annals of the Emperor of the Mysterious Origin, a biography of Lao-tzu], comments on the incar- nation of Lao-tzu by saying that "Lao-tzu is the body of the Tao [Lao-tzu chih, chi Tao chih shen yeh]. The traces [of his different existences] are esoteric as well as exoteric."22 There are nine esoteric lives, with nine corresponding esoteric names (nei-hao) of Lao-tzu. These nine lives are, in fact, nine transformational aspects of the One: Ultimate One (Chih-i), Real One (Chen-i), etc. Lao-tzu also has many historical lives, reincarnating at each period as the Teacher of Kings. To these historical lives (fifteen according to the author) correspond fifteen names of celebrated sages of antiquity, some also known from other contexts.23

These consecutive incarnations of Lao-tzu are already mentioned in the Pien-hua-ching.24 The exoteric lives are the same (only less

19 Chuang-tzu, Yin-te ed., ch. 7, p. 21/33. 20 Ibid., ch. 13, p. 34/14, and ch. 15, p. 40/10. The term wu-hua used here is also

found in the famous story of Chuang-tzu and the butterfly. 21 Seidel, p. 69. 22 Yin Wen-tsao (died 688) compiled this biography for Emperor Kao-tsung of

the T'ang. He also is the compiler of the Taoist Canon (Yii-wei tsang-ching) of the time (see Yoshioka, pp. 140, 261, 262). On the esoteric "lives" of Lao-tzu, see Seidel, p. 104, n. 4. These nine transformations are comparable with another series of nine "lives" mentioned by the Pien-hua-ching and the San-t'ien nei-chieh-ching. Here Lao-tzu, who has the surname Li, changes his name (ming) nine times in "one day" (ibid., pp. 92-110). There exists a meditation practice connected with this: at different hours of the day, one visualizes Lao-tzu under different appear- ances and growing each time taller. His name also changes in accordance with his "nine transformations" (see also Max Kaltenmark, "Miroirs Magiques," in Melanges sinologiques offerts a Paul Demieville [Paris, 1974]). Other texts mention nine bodily transformations on the path to immortality (see my Empereur Wou des Han dans la legende taoiste [Paris, 1965], p. 91). The connection with the nine transmutations of cinnabar as well as with the gestation process is obvious (see also Seidel, p. 100).

23 Such as Kuang-ch'eng-tzu, the teacher of Huang-ti (Chuang-tzu), Ch'ih- ching-tzu, a famous immortal, Wu-ch'eng-tzu, the "commentator" of the Huang- t'ing-ching. There is also a Lu-t'u-tzu [Master chart-and-register], translating a form of hierophany connected to the practices described in section 4.

24 Seidel, pp. 65-67. 360

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in number). The esoteric are always nine, and only the names differ.25 In both cases, the lives correspond to consecutive phases and periods of undifferentiation and differentiation, of amalgama- tion and scattering. These nine esoteric transformations particu- larly correspond to the nine phases in the births of Lao-tzu.26 This birth process begins, as many texts state, with the undifferenti- ated condition of huang-hu-which recalls chapter 21 of the Tao te ching where the creative process starts with huang-hu, goes through different phases, and finally leads to the Name that is the Mother of the ten thousand things.27


Huang-hu! Undifferentiated! [From it] the heavenly and the earthly are being created [trans- formed]. Its spirit assumes form, In the womb of Mother Li, Changing (i) its body until [the time of] happy destiny has come. After seventy-two years in his mother's womb, He appears in the country of Ch'u. [Lao-tzu pien-hua ching]28

There are a great number of texts recounting the birth of Lao-tzu. A comparative study of them certainly would be a worthwhile task; but for the moment I have chosen only two texts which seem most appropriate. Thus, the San-t'ien nei chieh-ching [Explications on the doctrine of the three heavens],29 a book from the fifth century, recounts the creation as follows:

The Tao originally emerged from Nothing Before, Obscure! Confused!

There was nothing that caused it. Emptiness begot it spontaneously, Through transformation, it became the Great Man Power-of-the-Tao, Who was born before the Primordial Ch'i. He is the worthiest manifestation of the Tao, that is why he is called the Great Man Power-of-the-Tao.

25 Ibid., p. 65. Yoshioka, p. 152. 26 As seen below, many hagiographies describe the birth of Lao-tzu in nine

stages. Also, as Anna Seidel puts it, they correspond to nine stages in the process of evolution from the invisible to the visible. But another aspect of the same question is the fact that Lao-tzu changes "all the time." In the Shen-hsien chuan a certain Shen Hsi goes up to Heaven and sees Lao-chiin who "in a short time undergoes several transformations" (Yun-chi ch'i-ch'ien, ch. 105, p. 7b; italics mine). In Lao-tzu's biography of the same work, this quality is rationalized by Ko Hung, saying that the sage "conforms to the transformation of his primordial ch'i" (T'ai-p'ing kuang-chi, ch. 1, p. lb).

27 Following the Ho-shang-kung commentary. For the use of this chapter in creation myths, see, for instance, Hun-yuan huang-ti sheng-chi, in Yun-chi ch'i-ch'ien, ch. 102, p. la.

28 Seidel, p. 61. 29 See n. 8 above.


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From this came the Most High Lord Lao [Lao-Chiin] of the Infinitely Great Tao of the Three Supreme Heavens-the most Pure, the Mysterious, and the Primordial; the Most High Great Man, Lord Emperor of Heaven; the Nine Old Lords of the Capital of the Immortals; the Nine Great Men of the Nine Ch'i; and so on. [All this diversified] into the myriad layers of Tao-ch'i, [and formed] Their Excellencies of the Most Pure Heaven, the Twelve Hundred Officials! 30 When people today present written memorials to the Most Pure Heaven, it is precisely these Pure Ones of Heaven that they are addressing.31

The preceding passage describes the first transformational action of the Tao which creates the pantheon of what is called the Anterior Heaven (hsien-t'ien) before the creation of the world (called Posterior Heaven, hou-t'ien). The nomenclature of this part of the San-t'ien nei-chieh ching, such as the names of the Three Heavens, belong to the Heavenly Masters' (Cheng-i) movement. It is still used in parts of the present-day Taoist liturgy wherein written memorials (chang) are addressed to this pantheon. How- ever, since the introduction of the Ling-pao canon,32 the ch'i of the Anterior Heaven is called T'ien-tsun (Heavenly Worthies).33

The San-tien nei-chieh ching continues by stating that

After this, in the midst of obscurity was born the Empty Grotto [k'ung- t'ung]. Inside of the Empty Grotto was born the Great Non-being. The Great Non-being was transformed [pien-hua] into the three ch'i: Mysterious, Primordial and Initial.34 These three ch'i, after mixing together in "chaotic order,"35 gave birth to the Hsiian-miao yii-nui [Jade Woman of Divine Mystery, mother of Lao-tzu]. After she was born, the mixed ch'i coagulated [inside of her] and through transformation gave birth to Lao-tzu. He was born from her armpit. When he was born, he had white hair. That is why he was called the Old Infant [Lao-tzu].36 This Lao-tzu is the Lord Lao [Lao-chiun]. Through transformation, he formed his ch'i into Heaven

30 On the Twelve Hundred Officials and the memorials addressed to them, see Fukui Kojun, Dokyo no kisoteki kenkyu (Tokyo, 1958), pp. 37-52.

31 San-t'ien nei-chieh-ching, ch. 1, pp. 2a-b. 32 Based on the Ling-pao tu-jen-ching (see Fukui Kojun, Toyoshi kenkyu

[Tokyo, 1960], pp. 1-112), this liturgy was introduced by Lu Hsiu-ching (406-77). However, the presentation of memorial (the Taoist sacrifice) and accompanying meditation remained in the tradition of the Heavenly Masters. In Sung times, alterations were made under the influence of the New Orthodoxy (Hsin Cheng-i) of the Heavenly Masters.

33 See above where Lao-tzu is said to be the "worthiest manifestation of the Tao." The number of T'ien-tsun is infinite, but the three principal ones are the well- known Three Pure Ones (San-ch'ing) that are hypostases of the Three ch'i of the Three Heavens.

34 This theory of the Three ch'i is fundamental in the Heavenly Masters' movement since it is emblematic of the new cosmic era that started with their revelations (see Cheng-i fa-wen tien-shih chiao-k'o chieh-ching, pp. la-b).

35 Using N. J. Girardot's expression in "Chaotic Order and Benevolent Disorder in the Chuang-tzu," forthcoming in Philosophy East and West.

36 This interpretation of the name Lao-tzu is justified by its usage in the Hun- yuan sheng-chi, ch. 2, p. 37a.


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and Earth, man and things; and thus was everything, born each in its turn. In refining his substance (hsing-ch'i), Lao-chiin gave forth the Mysterious, Primordial, and Initial ch'i. When the transparent and the opaque were not yet divided,37 the Chaos [hun-tun] had the form of an egg. Then, from the yolk, were separated the [three] ch'i: The Mysterious ch'i, being clear and light, rose upwards, making Heaven. The initial ch'i, being thick and opaque, went down and became the Earth; and the Primordial ch'i, light and penetrating, streamed forth, becoming Water. Thereupon the sun, the moon, and the stars were spread out, and Lao-chiin, from the memory of these [three] ch'i, created the Nine Countries. In each country he placed nine people-three men and six women. In the time of Fu-hsi and Nii-kua, each assumed a name and a surname....

The passage goes on to tell of the revelation of three doctrines appropriate to the geological context of different regions of the Earth, and the subsequent appearances of Lao-tzu as teacher of kings (see above). The nine transformations of Lao-tzu "in one day" are also mentioned. But the important point here is the appearance of Lao-tzu's mother, Hsiian-miao yii-niu, as a new element in comparison with the Former-Heaven stage. This figure is found almost everywhere in Taoist literature. She is created (hua) from the "chaotic" amalgamation of the Three cosmic ch'i, themselves evolved from the matrix of k'ung-t'ung.38 These three ch'i, as shown later, are differentiated emanations of Lao-tzu's "cosmic egg" type of body.

Here we find a first example of the concept that Lao-tzu is his own mother, something explicitly stated in the following passage describing Lao-tzu's "historical" birth. This historical birth, in the book being discussed, corresponds to the middle-phase (chung-ku) era (there is, afterward, a third phase [hsia-ku], initiated by Lao-tzu's revelation to the Heavenly Master Chang):

In the time of King Wu-ting of the Yin, Lao-tzu again returned to the womb of Mother Li. Inside of the womb, he chanted holy books for eighty- one years and then was born by ripping open her left armpit. At his birth he had white hair. Therefore he was again called the Old Infant [Lao-tzu]. The San-t'ai ching [The book of the three terraces] current today is the book Lao-tzu chanted inside of his mother's womb. With regard to his reversion to the embryonic state inside Mother Li, it must be understood that he himself transformed his vacuous body into Mother Li's form, and then returned into his own womb; it was not that there was really a Mother Li. Unaware of this, the people of today say that Lao-tzu was placed [from the outside] in Mother Li's womb. In reality this is not so.

37 This refers to the creation of Heaven and earth. As in the earliest passage of the Lao-tzu pien-hua-ching, the opening up of Chaos and the creation of the universe are concomitant with the birth of Lao-tzu.

38 On k'ung-t'ung, see below.


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Other texts confirm the statement of the San-t'ien nei-chieh

ching that Lao-tzu is his own mother,39 or, more precisely, that Lao-tzu moves through alternative phases on two levels. First, there is the change between undifferentiation and differentiation, or dispersion and coagulation, and then, inside of the phase of differentiation, we find a second alternation of mother and child. There is never any question of a father figure, and the surname Li is generally assumed to come from his mother.40 Some biographies even refer to a matrilinear society that was supposed to have existed in ancient times.41 Some late texts state that the Hsiian-

miao yii-niu was from the Yin clan and that Lao-tzu's father's name was Li.42 This father figure, however, never really caught on in the Taoist tradition. In oral tradition he is absent,43 and the transubstantiality of Lao-tzu and his mother is emphasized by the latter dying from fright at seeing her offspring.

As we shall see, the transubstantiality of Lao-tzu and his mother is linked with the Taoist practice of yang-sheng or "Tending Life." Those who nurture the Immortal Embryo, the Real Self,44 are mothers and should adopt a female personality. Evidence of this attitude can be seen everywhere in Taoist literature, from Lieh- tzu, who when awakened to the truth replaced his wife in the kitchen, to Lu T'ung-pin, who told a courtesan that he was pregnant.45 The Hsiang-erh commentary on the Tao te ching states clearly that men should cultivate a female character.46 Along with this commentary, there is a set of Hsiang-erh Com- mandments intended for those who are at the first stage of religious practice.47 The first commandment says: "Practice non-action and meekness, keep to what is female, never make the first move."

39 See below, Hun-yiian huang-ti sheng-chi. Anna Seidel (p. 64, n. 6) notes the androgynous nature of Lao-tzu, as seen in the Pien-hua-ching.

40 Cf. Shih-chi, ch. 63, a biography of Lao-tzu with a commentary citing Ko Hsiian. According to a legend, Lao-tzu was born from a plum kernel that his mother had swallowed (Tu Kuang-t'ing, Tao-te chen-ching kuang-sheng-i, cited by Seidel [p. 188, n. 8]). As is well known, Li is not a normal clan name of ancient China. A cult of the plum tree is mentioned in Pao-p'u-tzu, ch. 9.

41 Hun-yiian sheng-chi, ch. 1, p. 4a. There is also the famous passage in Chuang- tzu, stating that "in olden times ... in the age of Shen Nung [the Divine Husband- man], people knew their mothers but not their fathers" (Yin-te ed., p. 81).

42 Hun-yian sheng-chi, ch. 2, p. 33a-b. 43 My informants are Taiwanese Tao-shih. 44 See Lao-tzu chung-ching, 11, in Yiin-chi ch'i-ch'ien, ch. 18, p. 7a. 45 Chuang-tzu, Yin-te ed., ch. 7, p. 21/30; and Lu-chu chih, ch. 3, p. 9b. 40 Jao Tsung-i, Lao-tzu Hsiang-erh-chu chiao-chien (Hong Kong, 1956), p. 9

(commentary to the famous sixth chapter "Ku shen pu ssu"). In my opinion, this commentary does not belong to the Heavenly Masters' movement (although it may have been used by its followers) and might be of an earlier date.

47 See, among other places, T'ai-shang lao-chun ching-chieh, Tao-tsang, 562:la-b. 364

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Moreover, "being receptive" …