Northern Celestial Masters

"Northern Celestial Masters" designates the Way of the Celestial Master (T'ien-shih-tao) in the north of China during the medieval period of division, in the fifth and sixth centuries. Supported by the state. it brought forth the first form of Taoist state religion, established first Taoist monasteries, and became involved in debates with Buddhists for political supremacy.

Doctrines The key belief of the NCMs was in the Venerable Lord (Lao-chun), the deified Lao-tzu, as the the creator and savior of the universe, who also provided sacred scriptures, practical teachings, and organizational rules. Lao-tzu existed prior to heaven and earth and, making order from chaos, created and formed the world, then continued to descend at regular intervals (his so-called transformations) to bring forth scriptures and teach rulers, being single-handedly responsible for all and any forms culture took on earth.
A major event among these "transformations" of the god was his transmission of the to Yin Hsi, the Guardian of the Pass (). Dated by believers to the early Chou dynasty, this event signifies the beginning of the monastery of Lou-kuan, the major religious center of the group, as a sacred place and the active presence of its masters in the world. All 24 early Lou-kuan patriarchs (mostly legendary) attained the Tao with the help of the text and followed Lao-tzu's rules in this world. Later revelations by the deity included especially the "New Code" () to K'ou Ch'ien-chih in 415, which served as the basis for the so-called Taoist theocracy. Under this, all people in the state became Taoist followers and as such had to observe strict rules and perform regular rites so as to create a land of perfect peace ().
Major rites usually involved formal banquets and communal meetings and lasted 7, 5, or 3 days. To prepare for them, members had to purify themselves by abstaining from meat, garlic, and onions, and other forms of impurity. A typical banquet was a vegetarian meal with wine, and rice; it was celebrated with a series of bows and prostrations as well as the burning of incense and offering of prayers or petitions.

History Three phases of NCM history can be distinguished. The theocracy under K'ou Ch'ien-chih (423-448), the flourishing of Lou-kuan as a major center (550-750), and the involvement of northern Taoists in debates with Buddhists (6th century).
K'ou Ch'ien-chih (365-448), born into a Celestial Masters family, was a visionary on Mount Sung, where the Venerable Lord appeared to him several times between 415 and 423. Receiving especially a set of 36 precepts in the "New Code," he went to court, where he found the support of prime minister Ts'ui Hao and became head of a state-sponsored Taoism, geared to bring peace and harmony to the northern (T'o-pa) empire. After establishing Taoist institutions throughout the country, the emperor himself accepted Taoist initiation in 440, changing his reign to "Perfect Lord of Great Peace" (T'ai-p'ing chen-ch"un). Successful for some time, the theocracy declined with K'ou's death in 448 and ended with the execution of Ts'ui Hao in 451.
In the meantime, a local Taoist called Yin T'ung had established his ancestral homestead at the foot of the Chung-nan mountains (60 km southwest of Hsi-an) as the "Lookout Tower" (Lou-kuan) where Lao-tzu transmitted the to his alleged ancestor Yin Hsi, an event usually located at the Han-ku Pass east of Mount Hua. After the theocracy, Lou-kuan grew significantly and rose to prominence under the leadership of Wang Tao-i (447-510). It became the first major monastery of Taoism and a great center for the collection and integration of the teachings of the various Taoist schools, including also those in the south. In the civil war at the end of the Sui, moreover, Lou-kuan under the leadership of Ch'i Hui (558-630) supported the rising T'ang rulers, who believed themselves direct descendants of Lao-tzu, and was duly honored as the "Monastery of the Ancestral Sage" (Tsung-sheng kuan). Later its seventh-century abbott, Yin Wen-ts'ao (622-688), was blessed by the miraculous appearance of the Venerable Lord and wrote a major hagiography of him.
In addition, various Lou-kuan masters were active in the debates with Buddhists, held at the imperial court in 520, 570, and the 620s with the goal to prove the superiority of one or the other teaching. Men like Wei Chieh (496-569), Wang Yen (519-604), and Yen Ta (514-609) defended their faith at court, aside from being notable writers or thinkers of the religion.

Symbols The NCMs widely produced statues of the Venerable Lord (also called Heavenly Worthy of Primordial Beginning), typically showing the deity clad in a thick robe and wearing a formal square headdress, with a straight triangular beard and a fly-whisk in his right hand, while his left rests on his thigh, holding a tablet. Often he has two attendants at his sides, each grasping a jade audience tablet, and usually the group is placed on a lotus-type platform, guarded to the right and left by lions, with an incense burner in front. Most commonly an inscription is added on the back of the object, but sometimes there are also additional figures, even including buddhas and bodhisattvas.
About fifty such objects have been unearthed to date--as compared with several thousand Buddhist pieces. The statues closely follow Buddhist models and were usually placed on mountainsides where they could easily communicate with the otherworld. Inscriptions typically contained prayers for the dead, wishing them to avoid the three bad forms of rebirth (animal, ghost, hell) and instead come to life in the heavens; for the happiness and prosperity of currently living family members; for the imperial family and political peace; and for the liberation of all beings. As a whole, the art works show the active, close interaction of Taoism and Buddhism among the people who did not care about the doctrinal squabbles going on at court.

Adherents There are no specific NCM adherents today, but its doctrines, practices, and centers survive in the Yin-Hsi-Lineage () of the school of Complete Perfection (Ch'"uan-chen). Lou-kuan, the center of this lineage, is still a functioning Taoist monastery.

Main Centre
  Lou-kuan monastery, which has recently been restored, has a number of impressive halls, including a main hall dedicated to Lao-tzu, with two stone stelae containing the text of the , a shrine for the Lady of the Dipper (Tou-mu), Goddess of immortality and destiny, and a sanctuary of the Goddess of the Morning Clouds (Pi-hsia y"uan-ch"un), daughter of the god of Mount T'ai and bringer of children, in addition to dormitories, a dining hall, and a souvenir shop. From the back porch of the second hall one has a sweeping view over the valley below and into the hills above, where a number of minor pavilions and shrines can be found, altogether presenting a worthy remnant of the NCM's historical greatness.