Immortality

Doctrines The major religious interest in Taoist followers can be said to be the quest for longevity or immortality (ch'ang sheng pu ssu) which always meant physical immortality as the soul or personality was regarded as being an incorporation of several interrelated souls that were dispersed at death. The aim was to return to a primordial wholeness, as part of the original unity of the Tao. It was believed that immortality was achieved by nourishing the "vital principle" and implied that humans might change their body into some substance which was lighter and more lasting. This is reflected in a passage from Chuang Tzu, who describes a magic island on which lives:

"A spiritualized man (shen jen) whose skin is white, who does not eat the five grains, but inhales air and drinks dew. He can mount the clouds and drive flying dragons. He can save men from disease and assure a plentiful harvest. he is immune to flood and fire."
[Chuang Tzu I.5]

The methods and practices used in attempting to achieve immortality were originally associated with the fang-shih, who specialised in the occult sciences. These practices, especially the belief in 'the immortals' (hsien-jen) were one of the major religious strands of religious practice which led into Taoism.
The physical methods included dietary practices, meditation, interior alchemy (nei-tan), external alchemy (wai- tan) which attempted to produce the elixir of immortality through ingesting purified compounds and metals, breathing techniques, sexual practices, physical exercises, yoga and the development of medical skills. If various gnostic and religious techniques as well as physical means were of interest to Taoists in their search for 'immortality' it was because holiness was considered to be inter-connected with the energy that depended on nourishing one's 'chi' or vital energy, and that energy would be increased by freeing the body of impurities and nourishing the primordial breath. In addition an upright and moral life was a necessary prerequisite for a long life.
Dietary practices were maintained in order to kill demons within the body and to stimulate and maintain energy and vigour, but apart from morality, magic, diet, meditation, sexual self-control and exercise, one means of achieving a long life was through alchemy . External alchemy (wai- tan) attempted to change the transitory material of the body into indestructible matter. The body had to be purified by living on a diet of refined and unusual substances such as gold, jade or cinnabar. Various breathing techniques had to be carried out which were also used in other methods of seeking to achieve longevity. Interior alchemy (nei-tan) comprised various sophisticated visualisation processes involving the preservation of the primordial breath and essence (ching) of the body, leading to the adept achieving the level of an earthly immortal.
Various methods of meditation and guiding the breath through one's body and storing its benefits were formulated. Holding the breath for twelve heartbeats was known as the "little tour"; four hundred and twenty heartbeats is known as the "grand tour", and, for very advanced adepts only, breath retention for one thousand heartbeats. Having reached this stage one also became an immortal.
It is possible to interpret sections of the Tao Te Ching as a recommendation to practice various breathing and physical exercises, for example

" In concentrating your breath can you become as supple as a babe?"
(Tao-Te-Ching chap 10)

The art of esoteric sexual practices (Fang-chung) developed independently of Taoism. The technique involved refraining from ejaculation as it was believed that retaining the semen led to a long life and improved the power of the intellect. A knowledge of this technique was indispensable for the success of the other methods used to attain a long life, and carefully regulated sexual intercourse was one of the oldest of Taoist paths to immortality, said to have been practised by Lao-tzu himself.
Other methods of attaining immortality were prayers, incantations, rituals and magic. Some sought to find the Isles of the Blest, which included P'eng-Lai where, it was believed, the substances promoting long life might be found, and immortality would be assured.
The three main principles of immortality can be seen as 'nourishing the life principle', 'nourishing the spirits' and 'keeping the One'. In the more advanced levels meditative contemplation, ecstatic rapture, and visionary experiences would lead to immortality and the ultimately to fusion and absorbtion by the Tao.

History The origins of an immortality cult and the relationship between this cult and philosophical Taoism are unclear and still very much open to scholarly debate. It would appear, however, that the basis of an immortality cult was in evidence in the fourth century BCE. That this is so is borne out by the reference to immortality in the Chuang Tzu. (See doctrines.)
Clear evidence of an immortality cult is found in the reign of Ch'in Shih Huang Ti (r.221-210 BCE), who sought out immortals and provided financial support to magicians who were seeking the drug of immortality. The sixth Han ruler, Emperor Wu (140-87 BCE) also supported magicians who developed techniques and drugs with the purpose of seeking immortality.
Prior to 100 BCE there is little evidence that the cult of immortality had any relation to Taoist philosophy. However, by the first century of the common era immortality and Taoism had become much more closely associated. Writing in the second half of the First Century CE,Wang Ch'ung identifies the quest for immortality with the cultivation of the tao and refers to magicians who sought immortality through the use of drugs and the avoidance of grain as "practitioners of tao".
With the emergence of Tao Chiao (Religious Taoism) in around the second and third centuries C.E., the relationship between Taoism and physical methods of achieving long life and immortality became closer. More philosophical Taoists (Tao Chia ) both sought to be at one with the Tao and to transform their human bodies into an exalted condition, employing methods that produced insight, mystical union and ecstatic states through meditation, breathing and yoga techniques.
However, distinguished only by their methods, all the various Taoist currents shared the quest for longevity. It should be remembered that the lines of demarcation between the Philosophical and Religious streams of Taoism were not clearly separated, nor should the methods used be considered as distinct modus operandi, but rather as streams of thought which mutually influenced each other, sometimes combining and at other times diverging.
The most important exponent of the quest for immortality was Ko Hung (288-343CE), the author of Pao P'u Tzu. The Pao P'u Tzu was a compilation of texts concerned with the means of becoming immortal. The ambiguous relationship between the cult of immortality and philosophical Taoism is well illustrated in the attitude of Ko Hung to major Taoist writings. He attacks the Chuang Ttzu for denying any difference between life and death and, while respectful towards Lao Tzu, is still critical of the Tao te Ching for its vagueness and the absence of any clear method of achieving immortality in the text.

Symbols The cult of immortality is too diverse to associate it with specific abstract symbols that define it. However, it is possible to identify artistic forms that relate to the quest for immortality. An important deity associated with immortality is Hsi Wang Mu. In the Shan Hai Ching (Book of Mountains and Seas), which was composed in about the fourth and third centuries BCE, Hsi Wang Mu is described as having a human form, but the tail of a leopard and the teeth of a tiger. Over time, however, her character became more benign as she took on the role of the Queen Mother of the West who reigns over the dwelling place of the immortals, the mountain K'un-lun, with her consort Tung Wang Kung, the Lord King of the East.
The immortals themselves have been depicted in a number of interesting ways. They were often depicted with wings or with feathers. Sometimes they have very large heads since the brain was regarded as the place in which vital energy was stored. Sometimes they were depicted as birds, particularly herons or cranes. The crane above all symbolised immortality; its bent neck was regarded as enabling it to make its breath supple. The whiteness of its plumage was a symbol of purity and its cinnabar-coloured head was a sign of its ability to preserve its life force.

Adherents It is not possible to determine the number of practitioners of the quest for immortality.

Headquarters/
Main Centre
 The cult of immortality does not have a main centre.