Here in the West, I have heard many people refer to the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) as the “Daoist Bible”. While this isn’t completely wrong, it also isn’t completely right. The Dao De Jing is a very important sacred Daoist text, however it is not the only Daoist sacred text. If Daoism has a “Bible”, I think it is the Daozang, the Daoist Canon.
The Daoist Canon is not one book. Like the Bible, it is a collection of writings by different spiritual teachers completed at different times throughout history. Compilations of Daoist texts existed as early as the Zhou Dynasty. One important early version of the Daoist Canon was printed by the Daoist emperors of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Most of its 5,000 volumes were destroyed when China was invaded by the Mongolians who founded the Yuan Dynasty. Other versions existed in subsequent dynasties. Today, the most frequently studied Daoist Canon is the Zhengtong Daozang (正統道藏), which was completed in the year 1445, during the rein of the Ming Dynasty Zhengtong emperor.
The Ming Daoist Canon contains 1500 or so texts. There is some debate about the exact number, because it is difficult to determine when one ends and the next begins. Written by Daoists from different lineages, it contains a wide mix of things including: divine revelations, philosophy, talismans, alchemy, cosmology, ritual, meditation, history, divination, commentaries on other texts, charms, hymns, and medicinal formulas.
The Daoist Canon is organized into three “grottoes” and four “supplements”.
Each “grotto” came from a different spiritual tradition:
- Spirit Grotto (洞神) – texts of the Three Sovereigns Lineage – mostly related to exorcism
- Mystery Grotto (洞玄) – texts of the Sacred Treasure Lineage – mostly related to ritual
- Authenticity Grotto (洞真) – texts of the Upper Clarity Lineage – mostly related to meditation
These three categories of texts corresponded to different levels of initiation, and would be shared with Daoists in order, with the Authenticity Grotto as the highest level. Each of the Grottoes contains the same 12 chapters, including main texts, talismans, commentaries, illustrations, histories, precepts, ceremonies, rituals, practices, biographies, hymns, and memorials.
The Four Supplements, originally contained writing influenced by one major scripture, except the last supplement, which included the texts from a particular lineage:
- Great Mystery (太玄) mostly internal alchemy and meditation texts
- Great Peace (太平) mostly charms and rituals
- Great Purity (太清) writings by non-Daoist authors including Mo Zi, Sun Zi, and Han Feizi.
- Orthodox Unity (正一) based on the texts belonging to the Celestial Masters Sect
Although this seems organized, the Daoist Canon is difficult to navigate because not all texts were sorted by this system, so they are often not where you would expect to find them.
Reading the Daoist Canon
Reading the Daoist Canon is a lot easier than it used to be. In 1900, when the 8-nation army (Japan, Russia, England, France, the U.S., Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary) invaded Beijing, the printing boards of the Ming Daoist Canon were burnt. Only one copy hidden away in the White Cloud Temple survived. In the 1930s, a bookstore in Shanghai printed a few hundred copies, with 1120 volumes per set. This is the most common version of the Daoist Canon today. While hard copies would fill an entire bookcase, now you can buy it in entirety on one DVD! Most of the Daoist Canon has yet to be translated to English, but pieces are available in English online here. Enjoy!