What are Taoist Ceremonial Arts?

This introduction to the Taoist Ceremonial Arts is intended to provide a brief description of Taoist ceremonies and rituals. It is written by a student of the Long Men or Dragon Gate branch of the Quan Zhen Pai or Complete Reality school, or sect, of Taoism. The Complete Reality school of Taoism was created by Wang Chong Yang and the Dragon Gate Branch was created by Qiu Chu Ji.

The ceremonial arts originated in the ancient culture of the Wu, the witch or shaman culture. The first sect of Taoism, the Wu Do Mi Tao or Five Pecks of Rice Sect, was created by Zhang Dao Ling in 156 CE (Common Era) and included ceremonial arts that had evolved from the Wu culture. The Ling Bao school of Taoism which originated in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 CE), is credited with creation of the Ceremonial Arts or Ke Yi Zai Jiao. The Ling Bao Pai is also known as the sect that first expressed belief in the primacy of the Three Purities (Yuan Shi, Ling Bao, and Dao De). Over time the ceremonial arts changed, with some ceremonies disappearing and others being created in response to folk culture and the needs of society.

In more recent times these ceremonies are used to communicate with the Gods, and the priests and priestesses offer thanks and praise and submit petitions on behalf of others. The rituals serve many purposes, for example to bless and protect babies, homes, and families; to cleanse places and people of negative energy or evil spirits; or to guide the spirits of deceased family members to the next world. Ceremonies are regularly performed in temples but can also be performed in peoples’ homes. The ceremonies function like a walkie-talkie opening the energetic frequency to allow humans to connect with the Gods and Immortals.

Taoist ceremonies are a rich sensory experience, with fragrant incense, priests and priestesses dressed in beautiful ornate robes performing elaborate footwork patterns. The ceremonies frequently include chanting and music that complete the sensory experience. During the ceremonies the celebrants may use a variety of sacred implements including the Yu Wu which is made of polished wood (in ancient times it was made of jade) and is held in front of the eyes, nose and mouth to prevent eyes and mortal breath from polluting the pure Yang energy of the Gods. They may also use a Fa Chi, which is a small piece of wood, to bang on the altar to scare ghosts and evil spirits. The Fa Yin is a divine seal held by the priest or priestess and used to draw sacred talisman, and the Shui Yu is a metal container (often silver or gold) that holds water which may be used for ceremonial blessings. The Mu Yu is a hollow piece of wood carved like a fish that is struck with a small stick to produce the rhythmic beat used to keep time in chants and music. The vibrant music is played using traditional instruments including a vertical flute called the Dongxiao, a horizontal flute called the Dizi, a four-stringed lute called the Pipa, a zither or Guzhong, along with cymbals and percussion instruments. All of the elements of the Taoist ceremony work together to create a harmonization with the Holy Immortals.

As an observer one may watch the priests lighting the incense and performing the rituals, chanting the mantras and prayers, and be mesmerized by the beauty of it. If one opens one’s mind to become not just an observer but a participant giving thanks and praise from the heart along with the priest, then one may accompany the priest in connecting with the spiritual energy of the Gods. The step of shifting from observer to participant requires nothing more than a sincere and humble spirit. The opening of one’s heart in thanks creates the energetic transformation that allows one to reconnect with the divine energy of the Gods. In studying to become a priest one must practice footwork and memorize mantras with devotion similar to that used in studying Tai Chi. Through endless practice comes the effortless grace that can be observed in a Master performing the Ceremonial Arts.

Jacqueline Wright