The Book of the Master of Heavenly Seclusion (天隐子) is an ancient Daoist practice manual. It was written in the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty. Nothing is known about the Master of Heavenly Seclusion besides his name. However, the preface to the manual was written by Sima Chengzhen (司马承祯). Sima Chengzhen, also known as “Master White Cloud”, was the 12th patriarch of the Upper Clarity school of Daoism. He is the author of the famous meditation guide called “Discourse on Sitting in Forgetfulness” (坐忘论). In his preface to Book of the Master of Heavenly Seclusion, Sima writes that the manual contains teachings he received from the Master of Heavenly Seclusion (天隐子). No further information about the master is included, so many people speculate that Sima himself wrote the manual.
The Upper Clarity school of Daoism began in the 300s, when a wealthy man named Xu Mi (许谧) hired a spirit medium named Yang Xi (杨羲) to help him contact the spirit of his dead wife. The visions that Yang had included a detailed description of the heavens, including a spirit realm called Upper Clarity (上清), along with visualization practices, and methods for spirit travel. Upper Clarity Daoism was the dominant school of Daoism during the Tang Dynasty. Shangqing practice values meditation techniques such as visualization and breathing and physical exercises. The Book of the Master of Heavenly Seclusion explains these practices.
Here are the 5 gates to the Dao as described in the Book of the Master of Heavenly Seclusion:
Fasting and Abstention (斋戒)
The first gate the master describes is physical purification, including balanced diet and moderation of physical activity. It says to eat only when hungry and not eat until completely full. Do not eat food where the five flavors (salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and bitter) are in excess. Do not eat anything rotten or under-cooked. Avoid long periods of sitting or standing and excessive physical labor. Massage your skin until is becomes moist and warm, which will expel the cold Qi and give your body a radiant glow. This is the first step to the Dao.
This section of the text describes the proper environment for spiritual practice; a small, secluded place where yin and yang are in balance. Shangqing Daoism differed from the schools of Daoism that came before it because it put the focus on personal practice. Rather than visiting a temple, a person could create their own sacred space. For most Daoists this was a quiet hut with a bed, a meditation mat, an altar, and a few personal belongings. The Master of Heavenly Seclusion writes “What does seclusion mean? It has nothing to do with living in ornate buildings and cavernous halls, on double matting and thick carpeting.” Embracing simplicity and finding seclusion is the second step to the Dao.
The fourth step describes visualization practice. Although the master does not give detailed instructions, he is referring to the practice of neiguan (内观) meaning “inner observation” which is the Daoist version of Buddhist Vipassana insight meditation. The master tells us that when our attention is focused outward, our spirit is distracted. Instead, he encourages us to gather our heart-mind and focus inward. This practice is used to develop concentration of mind, expand consciousness, gain insight into the more subtle layers of your being, and gather insight into the divine. With this step, the path to learning the Dao is half complete.
The fifth step describes “Sitting in Forgetfulness”, a practice which is considered the heart of Daoist meditation. The name of the practice comes from Zhuangzi, who wrote, “I smash up my limbs and body, drive out perception and intellect, cast off form, do away with understanding, and make myself identical with the Great Pervasion. This is what I mean by sitting-in-forgetfulness.” (Burton Watson translation). “Sitting in Forgetfulness” is a state of deep meditation and mystical oneness where all all sensory perception, the conscious mind, and the self and other all fade away. Everything is forgotten and the mind is still, allowing you to experience the Dao.
Spirit Realization (神解)
The final gate is attainment of spiritual transcendence. In this section, the master describes a state of spiritual realization. He writes, “When the four gates of faith, tranquillity, insight, and absorption have been pervaded by the spirit, then we speak of spirit liberation . . . Through spirit I am liberated from all: life and death, movement and rest, perversion and perfection.” Unity with the Dao is realized. This is the final step.
The Book of the Master of Heavenly Seclusion is studied by Daoists across China, and around the world. Nothing is known of the Master of Celestial Seclusion, but his teachings have survived over a thousand years. I hope you can also benefit from his wisdom.