Who Was Zhang Daoling?
Zhang Daoling is the founder of Religious Daoism (Daojiao), the Celestial Masters (Tianshidao) and Orthrodox Daoism (Zhengyidao). All Daoist lineages trace their inspiration back to him. He was born in Eastern China and as a child studied with five fangshi, which was a general term used for shaman-doctors. These fangshi were probably experts in ritual, healing, and trance. Still in his youth, Zhang traveled to Western China, to the area we know as Sichuan. There he went into solo retreat in a cave on Heron Call Mountain (Hemingshan).
The revelations of Lao Jun
When Zhang Daoling came out of retreat in 142 CE he began teaching publicly and healing the sick. He said that he had met Lao Jun (Lord Lao), the source and the original inspiration for the Daodejing. His teaching centered on the meaning of the Daodejing, the text was read aloud so that even the illiterate could memorize it.
True for all time and in all eras
Zhang taught that Lao Junâ€™s revelations had appeared to humans many times throughout history, transmitted through â€˜seed people,â€™ such as himself and Laozi the original author/compiler of the Daodejing. Zhang taught that the Daodejing was the perfect expression of Lao Jun for the time it was written; however, the text was by Zhangâ€™s time nearly 500 years old and the original inspiration had become occluded. Thus he was inspired to reveal its true meaning through his teachings and commentaries. He further taught that new expressions of this essential teaching would continue to appear in each era because these revelations are both true and always available. The characteristics of each era are different and so the same essential teaching may manifest in different ways at different times.
Healing by Commitment
Zhang performed healing ceremonies in which part of the healing process was a commitment on the part of the person being healed to change their behavior. He began the method of making written talismanic contracts called fu, which were burned, put in water, or buried in the earth as a way to reify peoples new commitments. This brought about healing among his followers. Some of the talismanic style of writing he produced is still copied and used today.
A Daoist Country
Zhang Daolingâ€™s following grew steadily and his teachings were carried on by his descendants. By the time of his grandson Zhang Lu, the Celestial Masters had founded a small country. Each family contributed five pecks (a bushel) of rice, and thus for a time early Daoism was called the Five Pecks of Rice school. Zhang Daoling is still represented in ritual as a bowl of rice with the tip of a sword stuck straight down into it.
The country they founded was approximately 40 miles across, was multi-ethnic, and from what we know it was administered very successfully from 190 until 215 CE. When the general Cao Cao swept across China with a huge army, Zhang Lu personally rode out to meet him and the two forged an agreement. The Wei Dynasty which Cao Cao founded was short lived (215-266) but his agreement with Zhang Lu allowed Daoist priests to be spread throughout every part China.
Zhang Daoling and Zhang Lu both wrote commentaries on the Daodejing which are still read today (though parts of each have been lost). Zhang Lu is the author of several of Daoismâ€™s founding texts, including the Xiangâ€™er Precepts and The Commandments and Admonitions for the Families of the Great Dao.
Zhang Daoling, his sons, his grandsons and all of their wives reach the highest level of xian known as "rising up in broad daylight with oneâ€™s dogs and chickens!" (Xian is usually translated â€˜immortalityâ€™ or â€˜transcendenceâ€™.)