The Shangqing School, also known as the Supreme Clarity or Highest Clarity school, began as a Daoist movement within the aristocracy of the Western Jin Dynasty. This form of Daoism is also known as Mystical Daoism. The mystical experiences to which it leads is only achieved after rigorous training through systematic procedures. This school was purportedly founded by a woman named Wei Huacun (251–334). She allegedly received a revelation from Daoist deities and recorded the message in a book called The Yellow Court Jade Classic of Internal Images of the High Pure Realm in 288 A.D.
Yang Hsi reputedly received a vision from Lady Wei who then composed these scriptures while in a cannabis-induced trance. Its early teachings were strongly influenced by the beliefs and practices of Celestial Teachers Daoism, including the use of talismans and deification of Lao-Tzu. These deities used these talismans for invoking and visualizing the deities which they believed lived inside the body, particularly within our organs, and also for traveling to other realms. This school of Daoism majors in three topics: The internal universe of the human body, the external universe of the celestial and terrestrial realms, and the unification of both.
The human body is understood as a dynamic soup of deities, monsters and spirits. These Daoists held that there are deities and spirits who protect the body and when these guardians leave, the body weakens and dies. The main focus of this form of Daoism is to keep these spirits from leaving the body so the human does not die.
Their most important Deity is known as the One, which is the Dao that dwells within all of is. It is, as Eva Wong describes it, “the undifferentiated primordial vapor that keeps us alive,” sometimes known as the sacred fetus of immortality. Keeping the One inside is understood as holding onto the Dao, and embracing this One is analogous to nourishing a sacred fetus in the way a mother nourishes and holds an infant. Next, there are The Three Ones, which are the next highest guardian deities of the body. They are differentiated emanations of the One Dao. Within the human body, they are the generative, vital and spirit energies and these guardians have energies that live in the three dan tian. Spiritual energy is the most fundamental manifestation of the one and it directs all faculties of the mind, living with its guardian in the upper dan tian between the eyes in the part of the body known as the Celestial Realm.
Next, vital energy is associated with the breath and lives in the middle dan tian, known as the Terrestrial Realm. Last is the generative energy responsible for procreation, and it resides with its guardian in the lower dan tian just under the navel, in a place known as the Water Realm. High levels of these energies will ensure that the guardians are bright and the human will live long and prosper, but the human will become weak and sick if the energies are low. Thus, one of the main preoccupations of this form of Daoism is to keep the Three Ones in the body, that is, preventing them from escaping, while the One alone is embraced.
Next in importance are the five spirits that protect the five viscera, namely, the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys. When spirits leave these organs or become weak, the internal organs will no longer function well. Each of these spirits protecting one of the organs is associated with a color. This form of Daoism emphasizes the appearance of these guardian deities and spirits within its meditation. Visualizing the images keeps the guardians within the body to protect these organs and regulate their function. The body also contains monsters living in the cavities near the three gates along the spine. Each gate is understood as associated with a certain dan tian that controls its activity.
The upper gate controls the upper dan tian, the middle gate controls the middle dan tian and the lower gate controls the lower dantian. When these gates are locked, energy is not gathered in that dan tian. These monsters control these gates and are able to impact the energy levels of these dan tian. These monsters live off of our desires and off of grain. It is for this reason that this school of Daoism fasts from grain, in addition to eliminating craving to prevent these three monsters from closing our energy gates. These Daoists emphasize looking at the truly ugly nature of the monsters rather than regarding them as attractive, since regarding them as attractive can be linked with regarding wholesome behavior as attractive. Their practice of “seeing the True Forms,” therefore, involves seeing the monsters for their ugliness and the guardians for their beauty.
Within the internal universe of the body are conduits that direct energy to various places. In this respect, its philosophical system can be seen as providing concepts that act as precursors to Qigong. Different junctions in the pathways are given different names depending on the dan tian their energy flows to. Ideally, energy is to be directed to the lower dan tian to nourish the sacred fetus, which is the seed of immortality, and when the fetus is fully formed, the practitioner attains immortality.
Next, let’s look at the external universe of this form of Daoism. It is inhabited by many deities who live in major celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon and stars. They believe that the celestial bodies are expressions of the primordial Dao and that the Dao is carried in their light. This is why these practitioners emphasize the importance of absorbing the essence of the sun, moon and stars. The sun is understood as providing yang energy and the moon, yin energy. Absorption of the essences of the sun and moon nourishes the immortal fetus and strengthens the guardians of the body. The North Star and the Big Dipper are seen as deities who control longevity and destiny. These Daoists use various practices to ask them for protection.
Finally, mystical Daoists focus upon uniting the internal and external universe through ascension and travel through the celestial realms. Ascension is when the practitioner leaves the mortal realm to become united as an immortal in the High Pure Realm. Some of them fly to the sky in their physical body, and allegedly, in the presence of witnesses. Lao-Tzu is said to have himself ascended in this manner.
Preparations for celestial journeys involve abstaining from grain, meat and sexual activity, performing rites of purification, ritualistic drawing of talismans which are then eaten, and drawing talismans on the ground to protect the area where the body will be left when the spirit journeys to the sky. Lastly, a series of visualizations of celestial deities, incantations, dancing, celestial deities and certain breathing exercises, results in the spirit departing from the body.