Isabelle Robinet-From ‘Taoist Meditation’: A Little Sampler

商 青銅鼎- Tripod cauldron (Ding), Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.), 13th–12th century B.C. China at the Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 207.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are excerpts from Isabelle Robinet trail-blazing study about the Mao-Shan Tradition of Great Purity, ‘Taoist Meditation’, State University of New York, 1993 (1979 for the original French, ‘Meditation Taoiste’, Dervy Livres) in an English translation by Julian F. Pas and Norman J. Girardot.

Since the time of its original French publication in 1979 to the present day, Robinet’s book remains the only general study in any language, whether European or Asian, of the extremely important and clearly formative Shang-ch’ing (上清,  Great Purity) movement that grew out of the new revelations of the Tao given, through the agency of the Lady Immortal Wei, to a certain Yang Hsi between 367 and 370 C.E. Centered on Mt. Mao, (茅山, Mao-Shan) in south China during the Six Dynasties period of disunity, it is this tradition that developed a distinctive ritualized meditation of “interior visualization” and stellar extravagation that influenced most later forms of Taoism. While focused on the early Shang-ch’ing texts, this book has proven itself to be a classic work of contemporary Taoist scholarship and constitutes a crucial benchmark for any future assessments of the overall nature and meaning of Taoist mysticism and meditation.‘  Norman J. Girardot


II. The Planets and the Bushel

1. Description

In the Great Purity texts, the sun and moon primarily form a triad with the stars associated with the planets and with the Big Dipper, which is called the Northern Bushel ( 北斗星, bei-dou, pei-tou).

For Ssu-ma Ch’ien, the stars are the dispersed emanation of the Agent Metal and their origin is fire. They are, therefore, composite entities made up of two symbolic agents: fire and metal. In the Huai-nan-tzu, the stars are produced by an excess or surplus of the moon and sun. The written form of the character hsing meaning “star” is formed by the character for “sun” under which is placed the ideogram meaning “to be born.” This indicates that the stars are born from the sun. Certain authors claim that the stars are yin or that they are made from the most subtle aqueous essence of the original Breath. They have shape, but no light i.e. they shine because of the brilliance of the sun. In this sense, they are classified within the category of yin, metallic, and watery beings.

The stars play an important role in the destiny of the states and are often consulted. Ssu-ma Ch’ien devotes along passage to the predictions that can be drawn from them. It was later maintained that the stars could influence individuals and, for this reason, they became important for divination. We will not, however, linger over such practices since the texts which occupy us here are not concerned with this aspect of astral action.

For the Great Purity texts, the slats draw their physical life from Earth and their subtle life from Heaven. They complete the couple made up of the sun and moon that is, the dyad becomes a triad. The moon is “deficiency,” the sun is “plenitude,” and the stars are “accomplishment.” Thus, the stars ”complete and fix the four seasons and five agents.”

In divination, the stars are basically the planets and the twenty-eight mansions formed by the circumpolar constellations; but for our texts the stars, which form a triad with the sun and moon, are either the planets or the Bushel constellation (the Big Dipper, pei-tou).

The K’ai-t’ien san-t’u ching, a Great Purity text dealing with the stars, sets out a quaternary. Thus, from the Great Yin or moon, the adept asks forgiveness of his faults; from the Great Yang or sun, he receives life (both natural and supernatural); from the Dipper, he asks that his name be erased from the registers of death; and from the planets, he asks that his name be inscribed in the register of immortals. We see here that the stars are not concerned with influencing the earthly destiny of mortals. Rather they control the actions, and decide on the survival, of mortals. This seems to be a typical transposition since a Taoist is more concerned with extra-terrestrial life than with his destiny in this world.

This text also shows us that the intercession of the deities ruling the planets must be complemented by the action of the spirits dwelling in the Bushel. In a similar fashion, the fundamental practice of the march on the stars of the Big Dipper or Bushel is often coupled with a march on the planets. Moreover, practices concerned with the planets are generally complemented by practices aimed at securing the intercession of the deities of the Bushel. In this regard, the planets and the Bushel constitute a single unit which is, in the texts we are now studying, indicated by the term hsing (星, stars) when used in the expression “sun, moon, and stars.” For Ssu-ma Ch’ien, the planets are the “rulers of heaven” along with the sun and moon.

They are “heaven’s assistants” and “constitute the warp and woof.” Prognostication is based on the observation of the planets. They correspond to the five agents and to the five cardinal directions. Thus, Jupiter is the planet of Wood and spring(east); Mars corresponds to Fire and summer (south); Venus corresponds to Metal and autumn (west); Mercury presides over Water and winter (north); and Saturn presides over Earth and the center. This same scheme is applied in the texts under consideration here.

These texts use this classification system to regulate the practices followed by the adept. Yin and yang have, therefore, been transformed into the Five Agents. And in heaven, the planets correspond to these Five Agents. They are the very essence of the agents.

The Pa-su ching, which is one of the revealed works associated with the origins of the Mao-shan school, is among those texts which apply the classification system just mentioned. It is the text which provides us with the most defiled description of the planets. To each of the planets it ascribes a number of gates equal to the number corresponding (from the standpoint of the Great Purity tradition) to the direction of each particular planet. Rays filter through these gates, each of which is guarded by an emperor dressed in the planet’s colors. These emperors are ruled by a spirit, one for each planet, whose colored attributes also correspond with the planet’s assigned direction. Each of these spirits also has a spouse. Moreover, the names of these spirits must be known by the adept seeking their intercession.

Under the Flower Canopy (hua-kai), there is a constellation of twenty-two stars to the left of the pole star (pei-ch’en) and the Bushel constellation is to the right. Below is the Three Terraces, a constellation made up of six stars arranged in groups of two. The first four stars of the Bushel or Big Dipper constitute the scoop or “head” and the three next stars form the handle. In addition to these seven stars recognized in official astronomy, the Taoists include two other invisible stars, known as fu and pi, which only appear to those who attain certain conditions of purity.

Those who see these invisible stars are guaranteed several hundred years of life. Sometimes these stars are considered as part of the total constellation of the Bushel; yet, at other times, they are considered to be the left and right-hand assistants of the Bushel. When considered as assistants, they play a role similar to that of the sun and moon which often stand on each side of the Bushel. The fu star is related to Mars (south) and the pi star is associated with the pole star and yin. Both of these stars are visualized in relation to the eyes, just like the sun and moon.

The Tu-jen ching, which is associated with the Ling-pao tradition, mentions five Bushel sone for each spatial direction. According to some commentators, however, these “five bushels” really correspond to the first, second, sixth, fifth, and seventh stars of the Big Dipper. In this system, the seventh star represents the Bushel of the Center which governs all of the spirits of the body. But the scriptures we are studying here make no allusion to this theory and this seems to indicate the earlier date of our texts and the doctrinal differences between the Great Purity and Ling-pao schools. The silence of the Great Purity texts on these matters is even more remarkable when we consider the fact that the Five Bushels, in later periods understood as five distinct constellations, become very important in all of the Taoist schools and are present in all of the rituals.

The stars of the Big Dipper are inhabited by deities. A second century C.E. bas-relief from Shantung shows the god of the Big Dipper seated in the middle of his stars. But the texts under consideration here populate each star of the Dipper with a deity. Furthermore, each deity has several names which the adept must know in order to gain access to the Dipper.

The stars of the Big Dipper are also doubled in number by virtue of their association with “black” or “dark stars.” These “dark stars” are actually the stars’ hun and p’o souls (yang and yin souls) or their ling-ming (spiritual light) where the female deities dwell (the spouses of the lords of the Bushel stars). The “dark stars” define another Bushel which is on the outside, and surrounds, the primary Bushel. They shed a dark and subtle light which shines on, and brightens, the stars of the Bushel. In the human body, the “dark stars” dwell within the ming-t’ang while the Bushel stars inhabit the heart.

A palace of “watery essence and lapis-lazuli” stands within each star of the Bushel. A precious tree with colored fruit, nestling with golden birds, grows there. A fragrant and supernatural plant also grows there and whoever ingests even one mouthful of this plant is guaranteed tens of thousands of years of life. This scheme is the same as the one where earthly paradises were situated at the four comers of the world and were visited by the sun and moon.


2. Meditation practices: The mantle of stars, heavenly couch, and the mesh of the network

There are three practices concerning the planets and stars that is, they are invoked because of their protective action, they are made to descend into the adept’s body, and finally, the adept can ascend to them (this includes the important category of “stepping” or “marching” on the planets or on the stars of the Bushel).

As the heavenly counterparts of the heraldic animals which symbolize the four cardinal directions, the planets and their spirits are often invoked to form a sacred and protective enclosure around the adept. For example, the Fei-hsing chiu-ch’en yü-ching (Winged Scripture of the Flying March on the Nine Stars) recommends this practice before proceeding to a series of “steps” on the Bushel.

It is, however, one of the most important functions of the Bushel deity of the north and place of the hells to protect the faithful adept against baleful influences. The Great Purity texts do not describe any such specific practice, but this kind of function is suggested by various allusions and the tone of the invocations addressed to the Bushel deity. For example, the Fei-hsing chiu-ch’en yü-ching alludes to the immortals who “cover” themselves with the stars of the Bushel. Thus, it is very likely that this text refers to a regular practice in which the adept (or the ceremonial officiant) visualizes the Bushel above his head with the handle of the constellation to the front.

The Fei-hsing chiu-ch’en yü-ching describes how the adept, before stepping on the Dipper, must dress himself with stars. The first three stars are arranged on points situated in the upper left part of the body (palm, elbow, and breast), the fourth star is located on the heart, and the last three are located on points in the lower right part of the body (stomach, knee, and foot). Finally, the pi and fu stars are respectively located under the navel and on the head. After an invocation and a swallowing of breath, all of the left-hand stars then switch to the right and vice versa. However, the pi and fu stars move to occupy the right and left eyes.

One of the most important talismans of the Great Purity school is the famous Ho-lo ch’i-yüan. This talisman, as seen from the several versions of it, is related variously to the five planets, to the sun and moon, or to the seven stars of the Bushel. The primary power of this talisman is concerned with removing the demons and with protecting the adept from the hells. Now it should be noted that this talisman is contained in the T’ien-kuansan-t’u ching (Three Diagrams of the Heavenly Gates Scripture), which is wholly concerned with the Bushel.

The famous exorcistic formula or prayer which says that “I am the eye of heaven” must be recited while visualizing the Bushel. This derives from the Pu t’ien-kang ching (Scripture of the March on the Net of Heaven) which primarily discusses the “march” or steps on the stars of the Bushel. This formula is directly related with another equally famous formula, the T’ien-peng, which repels demons.

In the course of time, the role of exorcism was greatly amplified and became the principal characteristic of the Great Dipper. This is in accord with the general development of Taoist tradition which favored the proliferation of the rites of exorcism to the detriment of inner meditation. Several Bushel deities have, therefore, become warrior gods and terrible demon chasers. Some Great Purity texts, although not many, recommend exercises which are concerned with making the star deities descend into the adept’s body.

The Tung-fang ching (Scripture of the Profound Chamber) explains two of these methods one dealing with the planets and the other with the Bushel. The first of these methods described the way to make the planets, except for Saturn, descend into different facial points. In the case of Saturn, which corresponds to earth and the center, it must be put at the center of the body.

The other method is concerned with the “Secret Method For Making the Three Originals Return (hui-yüan).” “Originals” here refers to the stars of the Bushel, but the expression hui-yüan can also mean “to return to the origin.”

This method permits the adept to wipe away his mistakes and involves the visualization of the seven stars of the Dipper. Each star is invoked one after the other (the last two are, however, invoked at the same time) and made to enter into, after each invocation, a bodily organ. After this is accomplished, they enlighten the whole body.

The exercise described in the Fei-hsing yü-ching has three phases which should be performed at different times. Starting with the gods of the handle, the adept has the Bushel deities enter into one of his three cinnabar fields.

Thus, on the first, third, and fifth day of the month, these gods are made to enter into the upper cinnabar field (in the brain); on the seventh, ninth, and twelfth day, they go into the middle field (the heart); and on the fifteenth, nineteenth, and twenty-third day, they enter into the lower field (below the navel).

At each of these times, one of the Great Spirits of the Nine Essences (of the nine stars of the Bushel)appears in the “head” or scoop of the Bushel. Their names are indicated and they must be invoked. In fact, these Great Spirits are the hypostases of the triad formed by the Three Originals.

These exercises most often conclude with a flight to the Bushel and this may, in its own right, become the object of a special practice.

These imaginary ascensions to the stars by the adept occur in several forms. One of them consists in ” sleeping in the Bushel.” The Chin-shu yü-tzu (Jade Characters of the Golden Book) recommends the drawing of the Bushel on one’s sleeping-mat and the arranging of oneself on the mat so that the star chen-jen (the third star) is in association with the extension of the head, the left and right feet are respectively in the direction of the fu and pi stars, and the left and right hands are touching the second and fourth stars.

In this way, the adept is stretched out with his hands crossed in the direction of the second and fourth stars and with his feet on the fu and pi stars. When meditating in his position, he will suddenly see the essence of the nine stars transform into a deity, seated on a chariot, who comes to meet him. Afar an invocation addressed to the Bushel gods, the adept absorbs their essence which then illuminates the whole interior of his body.

The Huang-ch’i yang-ching ching describes the Bushel in the same way that the sun and moon are described each of them equally contain a walled city and a grove with seven jewels. The Bushel travels around heaven in a day and a night. At night, the immortals gather the “brilliance of the seven luminaries and the perfume of the purple lights”

At night, the adept mast see the Big Dipper shining in the north and then see himself lying within the constellation’s expansive radiant light which covers him with a purple brilliance. Beyond this brilliance and within the seven stars of the bushel, nothing is visible either on the inside or outside.

Everything is a flowing darkness. Then the glimmering rays of the stars change into seven boys, each of whom is placed on a star. Each of these boys exhales the light of one of the seven treasures (gold, silver, pearls, jade) which nourishes the adept.

When this exercise is completed, the adept covers himself with rice powder and goes to sleep. After seven years of this practice, the adept’s body will shine with the brilliance of the seven jewels and his head will emanate a purple radiation.

The exercise of “sleeping in the Bushel” is often practiced as preliminary to other meditations.

We have already seen the adept ascend into the Bushel. It was, we will recall, part of the practice concerned with “preserving the One,” where the adept rose up to the constellation in the company of the Three Originals and their acolytes. Exercises which include the adept’s ascension to the Bushel are, therefore, rather numerous

The Bushel also plays the role of a vehicle which transports the faithful to the heavens. An example of this is found in the “Method for Passing On to Life and Certifying Immortality,” which is explained in the K’ai-t’iensan-t’u ching (Book of the Three Charts which Open Heaven).

To reach paradise and to walk in the Yü-ch’ing heaven, the adept must pass through three heavenly passes, which are the three gates of the Nine Heavens. Each of these gates is guarded by flying dragons, poisonous beasts, and three thousand giants. To open the gates, one must concentrate on the Bushel and turn with it in the sky.

The stars of the constellation then carry the adept to each of the gates, one after the other. Once there at a gate, the adept presents a tablet to the guard. He must then know the name of the guard to be allowed to pass through.

After crossing these three passes, the adept first floats, without support, in the void. Then he arrives at the Golden Gate which is the gate of paradise in front of the Celestial Capital. Here he again presents his tablet and the True Ones of the Four Poles, after notifying the Emperor of the Golden Gate, permit him to enter.

After this, the adept finds himself in the Yü-ch’ing heaven where the four limitless poles rise up, where there is only a green breath, and where there is no longer a heaven above and an earth below. In the center of this heaven, he perceives the Golden Gate in which a precious palace stands. A jade tree with golden branches grows there and is surrounded by giant dragons. Animals play at the apex of the palace. The adept goes there and frolics in paradise.

The adept then returns to his couch where he feels like “he is walking in the void.” His excursion is finished.
The best known practice, and the one most fully developed in all of the rituals, is the “march” on the stars, which is performed either on the planets or on the Bushel. The Great Purity scriptures seem to be the first texts to describe this practice.

This march is performed in emulation of the “step of Yü,” which already had a long history in China. Granet has effectively demonstrated Yü the Great’s function as a “surveyor” who laid out, divided, and measured the world, as well as opening up the passes. “Standard of all measures,” Yü was the ”minister of public works” and “engineering expert in hydrography” who knew “how to move earth and draw up charts.” He is the one who received the Great Rule (Hung-fan) and the Lo-shu or World Image, which was a diagram that represented the organization of space and time.

According to the Taoists, the Five Talismans (wu-fu), which control the five parts of the universe, were also revealed to Yü the Great. Yü the Great is, therefore, the prototype of the sage who regulates and orders the universe with a sacred chart and golden rule that determine exact measurements and configurations. He is the very model of what a Taoist must be. He also plays an important role throughout the Taoist tradition because of the many recipes and methods he revealed and transmitted.

The Lo-shu appears as an arrangement of numbers in the form of a magic square. It is said to have affinities both with the I ching trigrams arranged in the pattern attributed to King Wen and with the text of the Hung-fan, which forms the basis of the Five Agents theory. In this way, the first nine numbers of the Lo-shu, the eight trigrams, and the Five Agents are all correlated. All of these systems trace out a very imaginative representation of the universe which superimposes various orders and symbols.

Yü the Great measured and arranged the universe by his marching step. And it is this “step” which Yü bequeathed to the Taoists. Dragging one leg, he limped which is, according to Granet, a kind of hopping movement that evokes the rolling motion of mediums in trance. The Taoist Step of Yü imitates this. In the Pao-p’u-tzu, it is described as follows:

Standing in an upright position, the right foot should be in front and the left foot behind. Then bring the right foot forward and, with the left foot following the right, bring them into alignment. This is the first step. Once again put the right foot in front and then bring the left foot forward. Making the left foot follow the right, bring the feet into alignment. This is the second step. Once again bring the right foot forward and, with the left foot following the right, bring them into alignment. This is the third step.

The Yün-chi ch’i-ch’ien further explains that:

‘The March on the Net (pu-kang means to step on the Bushel which is called the t’ien-kang or “heavenly net”) proceeds from the “three steps and nine traces.” This is what is called the Step of Yü. It goes very far back in the past so that it was Yü of the Hsia dynasty who received it from the gods and transmitted it to the world. . . . The Three Originals and the nine stars, the Three Poles, and the Nine Palaces correspond to the great number of the Great Yang. This method (consists in) first lifting the (left foot). One stride, one step, (one foot) forward and one foot back, one yin and one yang the former and the latter steps are alike. Lift the leg horizontally and put (the feet) down to form the character ting (in the shape of the letter “T”) and, in this manner, to reproduce the union of yin and yang.’

The Yun-chi ch’i-ch’ien adds that the adept must proceed in this way while thinking that the four heraldic animals are surrounding and protecting him. He must also visualize the Bushel above his head with the handle in front.

In this practice, the conjunction of the numbers three and nine (three steps, nine traces), which correspond to the Three Originals and the Nine Deifies of the Bushel (representing the Nine Primordial Heavens), is emphasized. Now we have already noted the value of the numbers three and nine and their equivalency to One.

The variant form of the Step of Yü which involves the placing of the feet in a “T” formation is also related to the hexagram chi-chi (No. 63), which is made from the conjunction of the fire and water trigrams.

One ritual text says that “stepping on the net” (pu-Kang) is the “essence of the flight to the heavens, the spirit of marching on the earth, and the truth of human movement.” It is, therefore, a dance which joins Heaven, Earth, and Man. It represents the union of yin and yang, the numbers three and nine, and water and fire.

The Pao-p’u-tzu explains the principles of the Step of Yü and states the necessity of this practice for entering into the mountains; but it does not refer to any other applications. The Great Purity texts describe more elaborate forms of this practice which seem to be the prototypes for the extremely complex variations found in all later rituals. As compared with the Pao-p’u-tzu, the novelty of these later forms is their application to the march on the stars. Several expressions are used to refer to this practice for example, “marching on the heavenly net,” “marching on the net,” or “pacing the void.”

The stars of the Big Dipper must, first of all, be drawn on a strip of silk and locked up in a small box. This must be used when the exercise begins. After setting up a sacred enclosure by summoning the planets around him, the adept “dresses himself” with the stars of the Bushel (as seen in the procedure already described).

After this, the adept ascends to the Bushel by “turning around on the outside” of the Bushel that is, by treading upon the hun and p’o souls, or “dark stars,” of the constellation which define a circle on the outside of the Big Dipper. He starts with the head or scoop of the constellation and turns each time toward the Bushel star corresponding to the soul being stepped on. This exercise is accompanied by the invocation of the names of these souls and by the visualization of their appearance and attributes as female deities.

Only after this can the adept march on the deities of the Bushel. Each time he passes over a star, he puts his right hand on his heart and points with his other hand in the precise direction of the star. Holding his breath and swallowing his saliva, he closes his eyes to make the astral deity appear. He invokes the deity and then advances his left foot onto the next star while holding his breath. He releases his breath as soon as he puts his right foot on the star. An often mentioned, but never explained, taboo is that the adept should not step on the third star called Chen-jen.

This first march is followed by nine more which are executed, without an invocation, with the Step of Yü. Then the practitioner dresses himself with the stars of the Bushel as he did at the beginning. Within a fiery red cloud, he rises up to the constellation and, along with the Bushel stars, turns nine times. After this, he returns to his star chart, rubs his eyes, pinches his nostrils, and once again utters an invocation.

After all of this, the adept goes on to the exercise called the pu t’ien-kang that is, a “march on the heavenly net ” in the strict sense. The text explains that the invocation formulas (chu) are different, but the principle is the same as before. Kang refers to the net or network that connects the stars.

One must never cut across it transversely during one’s march since this would constitute a cutting of the Tao as the Way of Heaven. It must be drawn on a silk ribbon with green stars and a red net.

This exercise consists of four parts. The first part is executed in the “proper direction” (shun-hsing) which means that, after completing three counterclockwise rounds on the outside of the stars, the adept then steps on the Bushel, starting with the first star and ending with the second. Here the adept must always start his steps with his left foot.

After this, the adept proceeds by marching in the “opposite direction” (tao hsing fa)that is, he starts from the last star of the Bushel and returns by going back over his previous steps. One foot after another touches each star, both feet coming together on the fourth step and on the last star.

Then the third phase or “return” (fan) takes place. It is a reiteration of the first part but includes an initial clockwise round on the outside starting with the right foot. It is, in fact, the yin replica of the first “march in the proper direction.”

The overall exercise ends with the adept travelling around the stars once again, although this time both feet, one after the other, step on each star.

Later Taoist ritual developed a multitude of variants based on this already rather complicated exercise. Here we will only cite the examples of the “march on the networks of the Three Originals” and the march on “the network of the Nine Phoenixes “both of which are generally exorcistic marches with a cosmic character.

The march on the stars of the Big Dipper was combined with marches on the planets, on the trigrams (connected, in fact, with Yü the Great), on the Three Officials (san-kuan or Heaven, Earth, and Water), and on the Three Terraces. Collectively, these interrelated marches form a very complicated labyrinthine design.


5. The north: Matrix of transformations

The north is also the Origin, the site of those cyclical terms correlated with the embryo and the pole, which symbolizes water as the source of all birth. Indeed, it is in the north, at the lowest point of the descending course of the sun during the middle of the winter, where ascent begins and where the seed of rebirth is hiding.

Paradoxically it is also in the north where the sun is reborn and where the yang starts its movement toward the south. So therefore it is at midnight that the breath revives and the adept starts his meditation. This is why the Bushel is “natural fire contained in yin.”

The Pei-tou is in this way related to the development of all seeds. The seven stars of the Bushel open the seven orifices of the embryo and give it life. Its nine stars refer to the nine mutations of Lao-tzu during the course of centuries, as well as to the nine transformations of cinnabar achieving perfection. Nine, as the number of stars in the Bushel, establishes a relation with everything on earth and in heaven that is counted in nines for example, the Nine Breaths, the nine regions, and the Nine Palaces of subtle physiology. These stars are the nine roads(tao), the nine True Ones, and the Nine Essences. As it is written on the first page of the Fei-hsing chiu-ch’enyü-ching:

In heaven, the Nine Breaths,

the nine stars are their spiritual nodes;

on earth, the nine regions, the nine stars are their divine masters.

Men have nine orifices, the nine stars axe their Offices of Life;

the nine stations of yin and yang, the nine stars are their nine gates;

the five peaks and four seas, the nine stars are their Office of the Abyss.’

Nine is the number of multiplicity in unity and the number of the completion of mutation in the One. Thus, it is said that “to transform ones is to come to fulfillment, and that is what is called the Nine Palaces; the Nine Palaces fuse and change into a common Unity.”

The Pei-tou or Bushel is, therefore, both the place of Origin and of Return. The hui-yüan, or “return to the origin” days, are days of “renewal” and are dedicated to the deities of the Bushel. The rifles given to the deities of the Bushel imply that they either preside over the transformations associated with the origin of all life or function to protect the embryo. These deities are, in fact, the esoteric empresses of “mutation, mystery, and the escape toward the Origin” who are concerned with the “protection of the embryo and the transmutation of form.”

The invocations found in the K’ai-t’ien san-t’u citing seem to suggest that the nine lords or Nine True Ones of the Bushel have the same role as the Nine Lords who preside over the formation of the embryo. They fuse and transform into a Great Lord who “closes the gates of death and opens those of life.”

The method of “Opening the Three Passes,” which insures the intervention of these deities, is called the “Tao of fusion and the ten thousand transformations.” One of the texts concerned with meditation on the Bushel is called the Superior Scripture of the Transformation of the Body and the Hidden Light Which Allows Ascension into Heaven and Insures Immortality (Hua-hsing yin-ching teng-sheng pao-hsien shang-ching).

Within the context of the spatial dimension, the Bushel would seem, therefore, to be associated with the development of the primordial point which, through its transformations and permutations, unfolds within the world and makes all things grow. Gathered within itself, it contains the seeds of the five spatial directions which are represented by five of its stars. Moreover, since it faces the pole star as the fixed point turning around its own axis, the Bushel marks the seasons by the displacement of its handle and indicates the source of life.

As the texts say: “wherever it withdraws, everything dies; and wherever it goes, there is no harm.”
It is also the Bushel which indicates to the mystic the locus for his prayer.

As the Fei-hsing yü-ching and the Chen-kao explain, the beginner in his ignorance turns to the north (which includes all directions), but the informed adept turns in the direction indicated by the Bushel. In the same sense, he must lay out his “chart” of the stars in the direction indicated by the Pei-tou.


7. Polar darkness

Before marching on the stars of the Bushel, it is necessary for the adept to pass by the female deities who surround the Bushel namely, those constellations which ” shine with a light that does not enlighten,” “are bright without brilliance,” and “have a splendor without sparkle.” These deities are the “Nine Yin” or the Nine Empresses of the Great Yin.

The Great Yin is associated with the condition of ataraxia or wu-wei in which the forces of nature are collected and hidden. It is the northwest, the place or condition which is devoid of heaven and which cannot be reached by the sun. It is, then, the point which is the highest germinal concentration of all force and space.

The Nine Yin represent black light that is, a sacred darkness floating around the Pole, which is the inverted image of the infernal darkness or a midnight sun corresponsing to the noon sun culminating in the south.

The light of the Nine Yin is also associated with the “floating darkness” where “nothing on either the inside or outside can be seen.” This darkness is associated with the purple radiation of the stars and, in the Huang-ch’iyang-ching ching, precedes the appearance of the seven boys of the Bushel.

These dark stars are the hun and p’o souls which revolve around the Bushel. And the Bushel itself is caught up in the network of the dark stars. What we know on earth happens in an inverse way among these stars thus, souls in heaven exist on the outside rather than on the inside.

The celestial order turns the earthly order upside down so that yin stars are on the outside and yang stars are on the inside (usually yin corresponds to the inside). It is furthermore the case that dark yin stars illuminate the yang stars.

All of these factors black light, external souls, celestial darkness throw us into a completely paradoxical, or totally upside-down, situation.


8. Gateway and step; the dance

The Bushel is two-fold and ambiguous, a multiple unity (the numbers one to nine) that simultaneously conjoins the north and south, determines and orders the various worlds, and promotes creative mutation. It is fundamentally related to the notion of passage/transition.

The faithful adept implores the deities to help him pass from death to life. The practices addressed to these deities are called either the “Superior Method for Guaranteeing Immortality and the Passage to Life” or the “Cult of the Seven Stars that Assist Passage.” The expression “seven passages” refers to the march on the Bushel.

Thus the seven stars of the Big Dipper constitute the threshold of the Gate of Heaven. As the commentator on the Tu-jen ching says, it is the divine boy of the Bushel who moves the Heavenly Gate by making it turn ten times, and he is the one who convenes the deities to salute the Jade Emperor. Adepts, who know about the breath of the four seasons and the gate of ten revolutions, will enter into paradise.

The last star of the Bushel, which corresponds to the center, is also called the Heavenly Gate, T’ien-kuan, which is a name sometimes used for the whole constellation understood as the “hinge between separation and conjunction.” The Lords of the Bushel give the adept “talismans which open up the gate.” These Lords, as we have already seen, are closely related to the three Celestial Passes. They help the adept cross through these passes, transporting him by their celestial rotation. They are also closely related to the nine gates of the heavens so that, after marching on the Bushel, the adept ascends toward these gates.

The invocation he pronounces at this time establishes the connection between his march in the air and the nine gates. The conjoined pair of hell-heaven is marked by the numerical opposition of six-nine or by the opposition of north-south and death-life. Now the Bushel presents itself as a double-faced Janus par excellence as that which passes back and forth, cuts up into two, bifurcates into life and death, and transports.

Thus the adept who swirls around within the void is carried by the stellar deities who allow him to pass through the gates of heaven and confer on him the talismanic passwords or gate passes.

The Bushel deities turn and make the heavens turnaround them; and through their intercession, the demons are “turned” into benevolent spirits. The passage of the adept is symbolized and actualized by the march on the stars, which is a kind of stellar dance similar to the limping Step of Yü. And Yü the Great, it will be recalled, is the hero who established anew world by opening up the passes, who expelled calamities and practiced ecstatic dance, and who dragged his leg thereby walking as if he had only one foot divided into two.

Just as the practices concerned with the sun and moon evoked certain aspects of shamanism, so also does the march on the stars even though it relates to the universal theme of labyrinthine and exorcistic dances as well as reminding us of temple circumambulation seem to be original and proper to Taoism.

The adept is often initially directed to march on the planets after he has visualized them in his viscera. This is a practice that generally begins in the west (the “tomb of the deities”) and ends in the north (the “domain of the celestial deities”)that is, it starts from the horizontal axis and ends at the summit of the vertical axis.

Thus, these heavenly bodies define the outermost planetary circle and correspond to the Five Agents. This practice of stepping on the planets is, moreover, complicated in certain cases by a practice of marching on twenty-five stars or “black points” divided into five groups, one for each planet.

After this, the mystic “dresses” himself with the stars of the Bushel, each of which are placed in relation to certain bodily points. But before starting his march on the Lords of the Bushel, it is almost always the case that the adept must pass by the sites associated with the Bushel Lords’ spouses that is, the deities of the dark stars which surround the Bushel and shed an obscure light on it. Only then can the adept gain access to the innermost circle which solely corresponds to the Bushel. Once within the Bushel, he finally arrives at the seventh star or the Bushel of the Center.

The stars are united together among themselves by a kind of chain linkage the “net” or “network “which also connects the heavens and their corresponding stars. This network can take the form of either the Thread of Ariane or a malevolent net.

Thus the nine stars will seize the soul of anyone who, while marching on the stars, does not chant the prescribed hymns; or they will imprison a person “within the network of the Bushel” and make him lose his reason.

Thus the adept who advances with the Step of Yü ruled by the image of creation and who is destined to master the spirits and convene the deities crosses the distance separating one star from the next. He ties the stars together within himself just as the network links the stars in the heavens. As one of the texts says, this is a “tortuous and meandering network.”

It has been noted that the theme of the labyrinth is closely related to the dance, to the viscera, to darkness, to duplication, to metamorphosis, to the passage from life to death and hell, and finally to the center.

Now each of these elements is present here and form a complex whole. Constituting a unique totality, they can be distinguished only to accommodate their examination.

Climbing the ladder or chain of various mystical stations or “heavens” made up of the stars, the faithful practitioner “flies within the void” and, by degrees, arrives at the seventh and last star. This star represents the Celestial Pass and the actual Central Bushel that is, the one which governs all of the spirits and corresponds to the highest of the three supreme heavens, the Yü-ch’ing.

Rising up in the sky as a ”flying immortal,” the mystic arrives at the heavens by means of his march on the stars. The stars have become his vehicle just as the Bushel was the emperor’s chariot.

At first, the adept travelled to the four comers of the world either by following the rotation of the sun and moon or by marching on the planets. In this way, he marked the four directions and measured the four sectors. Then the adept rises up on the central axis which is understood in two ways that is, as the opposition of the zenith-nadir (heavens-hells) or as the conjunction of north and south, yin and yang, within the Bushel.

The adept’s relationship with the deities is equally two-fold namely, the incarnation or descending movement of the deities toward him and the adept’s assumption or ascending movement toward the deities. There is, therefore, a double duality on the vertical plane that of the relation between the poles and that of the relation between men and gods.

In all of this, there is a progression from the couple sun-moon to the planetary group, and then on to the Bushel constellation. This occurs in the sense of a simultaneity of operations and an increasing synchronization. That which is expressed in the sense of spatial breadth is gradually verified by the degree of intensity.

The vision becomes more and more unitary. The practices concerning the sun and moon are completed in a year or in one month and bring the adept to the ends of the world. The march on the planets, or their visualization within the viscera, already brings the cardinal directions together within the body or into a single diagram.

It is also the case that the planets projected into the sky already seem to be less remote from each other than the poles dispersed to the four comers of the world.

Finally, it is the Bushel, as the symbol of the five elements, that concentrates everything into just one constellation.

The Bushel’s unitary character is, moreover, emphasized by the presence of left- and right-hand assistants (the fu and pi stars) which give it the rank of the Center. This is also verified by the Bushel’s rotation around, and close association with, the pole star.

The purifying bath and light preside over the contemplation of the sun and moon.

It is the purgative and illuminating way. The visionary contemplation of the Bushel is unitive and transforming.

Labyrinthine Dance Based on the Step of Yü (T’ai-shang chu-kuo chiu-min tsung-chen pi-yao, TT 987, chüan 8, p. 3b). Treading the network of the earth and flying in the heavenly net, and the method for marching with the Step of Yü in the form of the “three-five” footprints.

Professor Isabelle Robinet



More about Isabelle Robinet: 🌿 Her bibliography: 🌿Mao Shan temple:
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