The Celestial Masters: Tianshi

 This is a continuation of my series on basic facts about Daoism.

All Daoist’s recognize Zhang Daoling as the first Tianshi, which means Celestial Master.  The title Tianshi was first given to Daoist priests by the emperor during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) in acknowledgment their ritual mastery (shi) of the Celestial (tian) realm.   The title was then applied retroactively one thousand years, all the way back to Zhang Daoling.  Zhang is the founder of religious Daoism who met with Lao Jun (Lord Lao), the source of the Daodejing, on mount Heming (Heron Call) in the Year 142 CE and formed the Covenant of Orthodox Unity.  (See article Zhang Daoling.)

A Tianshi PriestThere are many Tianshi lineages but there is one individual in each generation who is the central Tianshi.  This person comes from a continuous family lineage going back to Zhang Daoling.  During the Dynastic eras of China the Tianshi had a palace at Dragon Tiger Mountain (Longhushan).  To get a sense of the importance of the Tianshi it helps to understand that all building and construction in China has always been regulated by the government.  No building was allowed to be built larger than the Emperor’s palace.  We get a sense of how important the Tianshi was by noting that the Tianshi’s palace was specifically built (roughly) six feet smaller than the Imperial Palace.  Needless to say, the role of Tianshi was central to the religious life of the country and the functioning of the state, and because of this, the Tianshi is sometimes called the Daoist Pope.

When the Communist government took power in 1949 it banned all religion, and as a consequence the Tianshi fled the country.  During the Cultural Revolution in China (1967-1977) the Tianshi’s palace was completely demolished.  Recently the Tianshi’s palace has been rebuilt and Tianshi Daoism is making a tenuous recovery.

The Priesthood
The Tianshi  priesthood is the oldest Daoist movement.  Its primary activity is the performance of ritual. Rituals are performed in private on behalf of a cosmic, national, or local constituency.  To be a Tianshi of the highest rank one must be married to another Tianshi.   Both men and women are equals, the difference between them has more to do with society at large than any doctrine within Daoism.  Male Tianshi have historically been the ones who interact with the public.

Tianshi are required to keep precepts.  These precepts are from three overlapping categories.  First they are derived from Daodejing and are consistent with its teachings.  Secondly, they regulate appropriate social conduct related to one’s priestly role or position.  And third, they support ritual purity and transcendent practices.

Becoming a Tianshi
Most Tianshi lineages are passed down within families, but it is also possible to be adopted into a lineage.  Each Tianshi gets a name which is taken from a line of a secret lineage poem.  Every member of a generation in the same lineage has a name chosen from the same line of poetry.  Since the Tianshi tradition is very old and has spread wherever Chinese people have settled, this secret lineage name allows Tianshi to identify each other.

The process of becoming a Tianshi usually begins with investiture.  Investiture entails the taking of precepts, the passing-on of ritual vestments and ritual implements, receiving and copying sacred texts (which are usually also committed to memory), and the receiving of registers, which are secret documents used in ritual to regulate the gods, ghosts, spirits and demons of the Daoist Pantheon.

The type and number of sacred texts a Tianshi is invested with determines his or her ritual rank.  This list is absolutely secret, it is shown only to other Tianshi in specific ritual circumstances.  For example the list could be shown when a new text is transmitted or at the beginning of  a new course of study.  Thus the rank of a  Tianshi is not a personal achievement and all Tianshi are considered equals--there are no true earthly hierarchies.  That being said, there are indeed heavenly hierarchies.  A Tianshi’s role as ritual master is intrinsically about the recording of meritorious acts on earth,  in heaven and in the unseen world.

Zhengyi and Tianshi
The terms Zhengyi and Tianshi are somewhat interchangeable.  The designation Zhengyi  literally means Correct One; it is the name for the original covenant made between  Zhang Daoling and Laojun (Lord Lao) on mount Heming in the year 142 CE.  In English we refer to it as the Covenant of Orthodox Unity.  All Tianshi are also considered Zhengyi.  Zhengyi is perhaps better understood as the category of orthodox  practices, which are in contrast to all practices which are unorthodox (Buzheng).  It can be applied to other Daoist movements and lineages as well, such as Quanzhen or Shangjing.  The trend has been to include Daoist movements and practices under the designation Zhengyi as they are understood to be in conformity with the Original Covenant.

The picture above came from here.