If you like Chinese culture, you have likely also encountered Chinese movies and folktales. Often in these stories, there are people who can ride on the wind, catch ghosts and exorcise demons, foretell the future, and advise rulers. Some of them can enter flames without being burned, or water without becoming wet, can fly to the heavens and dive into the earth: this is the indigenous Daoist culture of China, and these are Chinese Daoshi or at least the Daoshi who have cultivated themselves into immortals. Although these Daoshi were invented for movies, they also express an aspiration of real Daoshi, who hope they can attain their ultimate goal through cultivation techniques. The title “Daoshi,” their way of thinking, and their methods of training, have been in existence for thousands of years, from the time of the sage Fuxi stretching all the way to the present. In terms of philosophy, it can refer to those like Laozi who are extremely proficient in the great Dao.
Beginning from the Han Dynasty the title “Daoshi” has had a broad range of meanings, referring to those who enter monastic orders to seek the true principles of the cosmos, to Fangshi 方士 (who often used medicines and alchemy), Shushi 术士 (known for exorcistic rituals and talismans). In Daoism these can generally be referred to as Daoshi.
What is a Daoshi? Those who enact the great Dao are called Daoshi. Every Daoshi takes the Dao and de 德 (virtue) as their father, spirit illumination (shenming 神明) as their mother, clarity, and tranquility (qingjing 清靜) as their teacher, and great harmony (taihe 太和) as their friend. They take the three hundred precepts so that they might limit unavoidable misfortune; they use the three thousand forms of etiquette so as to encourage a spirit of naturalness.
After Daoist institutions were formed in the Han Dynasty, Daoshi were those who took the Dao as their highest belief, adherents of Daoism, and those who practiced its methods. Daoshi could indicate in general that those who studied the Dao and who served the Dao, were shi 士 (scholar-officials or knights) devoted to the Dao, thus they were called “daoshi.” When walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, raising the heart-mind and moving the intention is called being engaged with the Dao; keeping a vegetarian diet and worshipping, respecting the precepts and reciting scriptures, burning incense and scattering flowers, lighting lamps and repenting one’s failings, being charitable and thinking of others, is called the great vehicle that can guide the masses; Expressing the heart of the great Dao, building merit, being equanimous, putting others before oneself, not being confused with worldly affairs, is called enacting the work of the Dao.
Daoshi and similar terms like daoren 道人 (person of the Dao), yushi 羽士 (literally “feathered knight”), yuke 羽客 (“feathered guest”), yuren 羽人(“feathered person”), huangguan 黄冠 (“yellow hat.” Male Daoists wear yellow hats, because the clothes of daoshi are inherited from the clothes that the Yellow Emperor, the primogenitor of human culture, wore.), and qiandao 乾道 (qian is the most yang trigram in the bagua, standing for the male principle). Female daoshi are called nüguan 女冠 (female hats), kundao 坤道 (kun is the most yin trigram, representing the female principle), xiangu 仙姑 (immortal nuns). Out in society these cultivators are collectively called daozhang 道长 (elder of the Dao), daoye 道爷 (ye represents firm character, pure yang, being harmonious and not dying, and is also a symbol of strength), huanglaodao 黄老道 (yellow old Daoist), or shenxian 神仙 (spirit immortal). In Daoist circles, some daoshi who have great virtue, profound learning, or whom the imperial palace officially recognized are also called zhenren 真人 (perfected person), or tianshi 天师 (celestial master). Daoists call each other daoyou 道友 (Daoist friend), daoxiong 道兄 (Daoist brother), shixiong 师兄 (senior apprentice), shidi 师弟 (junior apprentice), or [name of person]-ye 爷,
Those who live in Daoist temples and perform duties there have special titles based on their positions, for example:
Fangzhang 方丈 : Leads the Daoists in the temple to cultivate and preach together.
Zhuchi 主持: Organizes the daily work responsibilities in the temple
Jianyuan 监院: supervises and inspects the daily work of the Daoists, and makes sure that Daoists do not fall into side paths or wicked ways.
Zhike 知客: Receives traveling Daoists, checks on the visitors, and plans their living arrangements and meals.
Gaogong 高功: People with deep knowledge of Daoist methods, they are familiar with profound texts and religious etiquette. When religious rituals are held, they are the leading officiant sitting on the ritual platform.
Tangzhu 堂主: Manages the temple buildings for personal work, receives worshippers as they burn incense, performs divination, and helps worshippers resolve the puzzles of life. The yitang tangzhu 医堂堂主manages the medical hall and the Daoist doctors in it and is also responsible for seeing patients and prescribing medicine.
The personal reasons for Daoshi to cultivate is in order to transcend regular society, transcend birth, old age, sickness, and death, to pursue a different sort of lifestyle, through ceaselessly regulating themselves and various methods for achieving their goals. Through observing the profound rules of the heavens and earth, they make an effort to understand the spontaneous principles of all events and things.
Every Daoshi has their own methods and approach to life and to cultivating the Dao. Some Daoshi give counsel to assist rulers in administering the world.
There is a poem that describes the difference between Daoshi and Buddhist adherents:In chaotic eras, Buddhist enlightenment does not manage affairs, but the sword on Lord Lao’s back saves the common people. In times of peace Buddhists welcome worshippers, while Daoists return to hiding in mountains and forests.
Author: XuanYun Zhou
Translater: Larson Di Fiori