Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sacred Caves In Taoism (道教洞天)

In Taoism, the term ‘heavenly cave’ (洞天) refers to the holy mountain where Taoist deities and immortals live. There are 10 major sacred mountains and 36 minor mountains that form the main structure of Taoist heaven. These sacred mountain (hence the caves) also included the five major mountains in mainland China. These sacred mountains are physical locations where Taoists of past dynasties built temples for their spiritual practices. The actual meaning of ‘heavenly cave’ if we are to scrutinize, refers to caves in the mountain that can reach the heaven. This is depicted by a work ‘Traces Of Tao’ (道迹经) composed during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (东晋): “五岳及名山皆有洞室” meaning “All five mountains and famous mountains have caves.”

In another matter, there is something like ‘deities of 8 caves’ (八洞神仙) that may refer to Taoist deities reside in the 8 caves. Again, the cave in this context refers to sacred mountains or heaven if you like. And the 8 caves can be subdivided into ‘upper cave’, ‘middle cave’ and ‘lower cave’ where only one fairy resides in each of these three caves. Some scholar suggested that these 3 fairies refer to 3 stages of live of a woman: the young, mother and elder fairy.

However, in another epic work, ‘Journey To The West’ (西游记) mentioned the fairy of the 8 caves as: the deities of upper cave as the ‘three purity’ (三清), the four emperors (四帝) and other heavenly immortals. The deities of the middle cave are the ‘jade emperor’ (玉帝), the 9 fortresses (九垒) and the deities of oceans and mountains. While the last of the list are deities of lower 8 caves: the lord of underworld (幽冥教主) and earth deities (地仙).

As if the above is still not enough, the folk literature further added another two groups of ‘8 immortals’ (八仙) in addition to the original ‘8 immortals’ existed since the Yuan Dynasty. The original ‘8 immortals’ refer to Lv Dongbin (吕洞宾), Li Tieguai (李铁拐) etc. a total of 8 immortals. However, in Qing Dynasty, the middle 8 immortals (中八仙) and lower 8 immortals (下八仙) were added to increase the number of deities in the pantheon of Taoist deities.

In modern times, these sacred caves have become Tourist spots mainly and I doubt that anyone can meet any forms of immortals there. Of course, the size of ‘8 immortals’ has shrunk to only the original 8 immortals. It is okay if you still feel confused about the ‘cave’ and ‘mountain’ issue, please rest assure you not alone as many Chinese too is obvious about the distinctions.

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