Numinous Treasure; Numinous Gem; Spiritual Treasure

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

Reproduced from:

Stephen R. Bokenkamp, "Lingbao"

In The Encyclopedia of Taoism, vol. 1, pp. 663-69
Edited by Fabrizio Pregadio
Routledge, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

Table of Contents and List of Contributors


Sample Entries

Daode jing (Scripture of the Dao and Its Virtue)

daojia (Taoism; "Lineage[s] of the Way")

daojiao (Taoism; Taoist teaching; "Teaching[s] of the Way")

Daozang (Daoist Canon) and Subsidiary Compilations

jiao (Offering)

jindan (Golden Elixir)

Lingbao (Numinous Treasure)

Quanzhen (Completion of Authenticity)

Shangqing (Highest Clarity)

Tianshi dao (Way of the Celestial Masters)

The name lingbao (Numinous Treasure) was originally a description of a medium or sacred object (bao, "treasure") into which a spirit (ling) had descended. Seemingly, the first scripture to use the name, thus indicating its own status as spiritual treasure, was the Lingbao wufu jing (Scripture of Five Talismans of the Numinous Treasure), the surviving edition of which, the Lingbao wufu xu (Prolegomena to the Five Talismans of the Numinous Treasure), contains passages which were cited by Ge Hong in his Baopu zi. At the end of the fourth and into the early 5th century, a unified corpus of new scriptures appeared in Jiangnan, near present-day Nanjing, under the name Lingbao. The success of these scriptures, particularly in the realm of communal ritual, led to imitations and expanded versions. The present entry will focus on the earliest corpus of Lingbao texts, as listed by Lu Xiujing (406-77) in his catalogue of 437 (see below).

The Lingbao scriptures drew upon the prevailing religious traditions of the day — fangshi practice, Han-period apocrypha, southern practices known to Ge Hong such as those found in the Lingbao wufu jing itself, Celestial Master Taoism (Tianshi dao), Shangqing Taoism, and Buddhism — sometimes copying entire sections of text and presenting them so as to accord with its central doctrines in order to fashion a new, universal religion for all of China. This goal proved elusive. Scholarly Buddhists, in particular, were not slow to point out the ways in which Lingbao texts adapted and reconfigured Buddhist tenets. In the court-sponsored Buddho-Taoist debates of the fifth and sixth centuries, the charge of plagiarism was often levelled at the original Lingbao texts. Some Taoists, such as Tao Hongjing (456-536), made the same charge with regard to Lingbao incorporation of the earlier Taoist scriptures.

Despite the failure of their central mission, the Lingbao scriptures did foster a new unity of Taoist thought and practice. The Three Caverns (sandong) division of Taoist scriptures, first outlined in the Lingbao texts as the celestial ordering of scriptures, became the primary organizational rubric for all subsequent Taoist canons. The communal liturgies presented in the texts became the basis for later Taoist ritual and, in modified forms, are still practiced among Taoists today. Lu Xiujing, who was responsible for collecting, editing, and cataloguing the early Lingbao scriptures, was also the first to produce a comprehensive listing of Taoist texts for presentation to the throne, thus ensuring Lingbao texts prominence in subsequent canons. Lingbao codes of morality and practice led to a more formalized temple Taoism with a professional priesthood to oversee religious activity throughout China. In addition, the success of the Lingbao effort to sinicize elements of Buddhist belief not only shaped the direction of Taoism itself, but also aided the integration of Buddhism into Chinese society.


Unlike the Shangqing scriptures of Yang Xi, whose transcripts of visionary sessions and even correspondence with his patrons was collected and annotated by Tao Hongjing, we have only scattered references that reflect on the actual composition of the early Lingbao scriptures. According to the Lingbao scriptures themselves, the texts were first revealed to Ge Xuan (trad. 164-244), an uncle of Ge Hong who had gained some local renown as Transcendent Duke (Xiangong), a title bestowed upon him by deities. Such attributions were clearly intended to grant the scriptures precedence over earlier Taoist texts copied into them.

In similar fashion, the subsequent transmission history of the texts given in the scriptures, from Ge Xuan to Zheng Yin (ca. 215-ca. 302) to Ge Hong (283-343), seems to have been fabricated to account for the inclusion of material from earlier Taoist texts. In fact, one of the scriptures included in the Canon, the Lingbao wufu xu, was a text known to Ge Hong and bears no signs of the soteriology or cosmology of the remaining scriptures.

Later Taoist records state that the Lingbao scriptures were "released to the world" ca. 400 CE by Ge Chaofu (fl. 402), a grandnephew of Ge Hong. While some attempts have been made to discern multiple stages of composition by different groups of Taoists for portions of the scriptures, none of these theories has gained acceptance. Equally inconclusive have been attempts to use developments within the Buddhist sphere, particularly the translations in northern China of Kumarajiva (ca. 344-ca. 409), to date emphases within the Lingbao scriptures; the only demonstrated borrowings come from the translations of Zhi Qian and Kang Senghui, both late third-century translators in the south. Modern scholars have thus generally taken the statements concerning the scriptures' "release to the world" to indicate that the scriptures were largely composed by Ge Chaofu.

None of Lu Xiujing's surviving works relate how the scriptures came down to him. In his Lingbao jingmu (see table 16), Lu divided the canon into two sections: "old" (jiu) scriptures of former world-ages and "new" (xin) scriptures comprised of oral instructions and dialogues between Ge Xuan and his divine instructors and earthly disciples. Only one of the old scriptures, the Falun zuifu (Blame and Blessing of the Wheel of the Law; CT 346, 358, 455, and 647) presents Ge Xuan as the first earthly recipient, but his receipt of all the texts in part one of the catalogue is made clear in the "new" section. Among Ge's divine instructors are Laozi himself and Zhang Daoling, founder of Celestial Master Taoism.


Table 16. The Lingbao textual corpus. Unnumbered texts were said to be unrevealed in the Lingbao jingmu. Those that exist in the modern Taoist Canon were revealed after the time of Lu Xiujing.
1CT 22Wupian zhenwen (Perfected Script in Five Tablets)
2CT 352Yujue (Jade Instructions)

Yundu daqie jing (Scripture of the Revolution of Great Kalpas)

Yundu xiaoqie jing (Scripture of the Revolution of Lesser Kalpas)

3P. 2399Kongdong lingzhang (Numinous Stanzas of the Void Caverns)
4CT 1439Shengxuan buxu zhang (Stanzas on Ascending to Mystery and Pacing the Void) [see under *Buxu ci]
5CT 318Jiutian shengshen zhangjing (Stanzas of the Life-giving Spirits of the Nine Heavens) [see under *Shengshen jing]
6CT 671Ziran wucheng wen (Text of the Self-generating Five [Talismans] of Correspondence)
7CT 97Zhutian neiyin yuzi (Inner Sounds and Jade Graphs of the Heavens) [see under *dafan yinyu]
---CT 361Bawei zhaolong jing (Scripture of the Eight Awesome Powers for Summoning Dragon [Kings])
8CT 457Zuigen shangpin dajie (Great Precepts of the Upper Chapters on the Roots of Sin)
9CT 177Zhihui shangpin dajie (Great Precepts of Wisdom from the Upper Chapters)
10[lost]Shangyuan jinlu jianwen (Bamboo Slips on the Golden Registers of the Higher Prime)
11CT 1411Mingzhen ke (Code of the Luminous Perfected)
12CT 177Zhihui dingzhi jing (Scripture on Wisdom and Fixing the Will)
13P. 3022Benye shangpin (Upper Chapters on the Basic Endeavor)
14CT 346Falun zuifu (Blame and Blessings of the Wheel of the Law)
15CT 1Wuliang duren shangpin (Upper Chapters on Limitless Salvation) [see Duren jing]
16CT 23Zhutian lingshu duming (Salvation as Recorded by the Spirits of the Various Heavens)
17CT 369Miedu wulian jing (Scripture on Salvation through Extinction and the Fivefold Refinement)
18CT 456Sanyuan pinjie (Precepts of the Chapters of the Three Primes)
---Suming yinyuan (Karmic Causation)
---Zhongsheng nan (Hardships of the Sages)
---Daoyin. . . . xing ([Exercises for] Guiding [qi]. . . . Stars)
19CT 1407Ershisi shengtu (Charts of the Twenty-four Life[-givers])
---Feixing sanjie (Flight through the Three Realms)
20CT 388Lingbao wufu xu (Preface to the Five Talismans of Lingbao)
21CT 425 Taiji yinzhu baojue (Concealed Commentary and Treasured Instructions of the Grand Ultimate)
22CT 330Zhenwen yaojue (Essential Explanations of the Perfected Script)
23P. 2356Zhenyi ziran jingjue (Explanations of the Self-generating Scripture of Perfect Unity)
24CT 532Fuzhai weiyi jue (Instructions on Retreats and the Dignified Liturgies)
25CT 344Xiaomo zhihui benyuan dajie shangpin (Upper Chapters on the Original Vows and Great Precepts of Devil-destroying Wisdom)
26CT 1114, S. 1351Xiangong qingwen (The Questions of the Transcendent Duke)
27CT 1115Zhusheng nan (Trials of the Sages)
28[lost]Shenxian zhenqi neizhuan (Esoteric Tradition of the Activities of the Divine Transcendents)
29[lost]Xiangong qiju jing (Activities of the Transcendent Duke)


Much material has been incorporated into the Lingbao scriptures from earlier Buddhist and Taoist texts and the cosmology of the scriptures is correspondingly complex. In response to elaborate Buddhist depictions of innumerable world-systems, the Lingbao scriptures portray a far-flung geography of former times. First, there is a system of thirty-two heavens (*sanshi'er tian) to compete with the twenty-seven or twenty-eight heavens ringing the cosmic mountain, Mount Sumeru, of Buddhist scripture. Like the Buddhist heavens, the thirty-two are divided into the three realms of desire (yu), form (se) and formlessness (wuse). Unlike the Buddhist realms, though, the Lingbao version circle a mountain that towers above them, the Jade Capitol (Yujing shan), which stands in the Great Canopy heaven (*Daluo tian), the residence of the Celestial Worthy (Tianzun) high above all other celestial realms. Further, the thirty-two heavens are divided into four groups of eight, one in each of the four directions. These heavens are each ruled over by a celestial Emperor and populated by the "heavenly Perfected" (zhutian zhenren) of earlier kalpa-cycles (*jie). Elements of the celestial language, *dafan yinyu ("secret language of the Great Brahma"), of these heavens, written in elaborate graphs, serve as talismans and as powerful chants.

As the above shows, the Lingbao scriptures follow the tendency of the Shangqing scriptures to organize the cosmos in terms of three and five (see *sanwu). The cardinal directions and center come under the rule of the Five Emperors (wudi) adopted from Han imperial cult and the "weft texts" (weishu; see *taoism and the apocrypha). In one scripture, the three heavens are further subdivided into nine cosmic heavens, which are given Sanskrit-sounding names and associated particularly with the gods of the human body. The "earth-prisons" or hells of the scriptures, however, are divided according to the "ten directions" — the four cardinal directions, their intermediate points, above and below — more frequently seen in Buddhist texts.

While the narrative structure of the first part of the Lingbao scriptures places all events many kalpa-cycles into the past, they foretell the violent end of a kalpa-cycle in the jiashen year (the twenty-first of the sexagesimal cycle; see table 10) of our own world-system. In this, they respond to the eschatological fervor already evident in the Shangqing scriptures, but portray the new age as beginning with the appearance of the Lingbao scriptures themselves to sweep away all other religious doctrine. (See the entry *Apocalyptic eschatology.)

Gods and Spirits

The Lingbao texts describe an elaborate cosmic bureaucracy and instruct practitioners to approach these celestial powers through ritual and supplication. At the apex of the pantheon is the Celestial Worthy of Original Commencement (Yuanshi tianzun; see *sanqing). This deity plays somewhat the same role in the Lingbao scriptures as the cosmicized Buddha in Buddhist scriptures. His emergence in the heart of the primeval Dao is traced through a series of five groups of kalpa-cycles that are given reign-names in the manner of human dynasties (for their names, see *Cosmogony). Next in importance is the Most High Lord of the Dao (Taishang daojun), a deity who serves as the disciple of the Celestial Worthy and interlocutor in many Lingbao scriptures. With the exception of Laozi, whose existence in the prior heavens was as the Emperor of the West, the Five Emperors of the four directions and center do not appear as actors in the scriptures, but are invoked in ritual.

The deities resident in the human body include those already elaborated in the Shangqing scriptures. Particular reference is made to a group of five internal deities who date back to Celestial Master practice:

1. Great Unity (*Taiyi), essence of the embryo of perfection, who lives in the palace of the head known as the Muddy Pellet (*niwan)

2. Non-pareil (Wuying), with the byname Lordling (Gongzi), and

3. White Prime (Baiyuan), with the byname Cavernous Yang (Dongyang), two spirits who inhabit the Palace of the Cavern Chamber in the head (dongfang gong; see *niwan) and also descend into the liver and lungs, respectively

4. The Director of Destinies (*Siming), whose residence is in the heart and the sexual organs

5. Peach Vigor (Taokang), or Peach Child (Taohai), who resides in the lower ☞ Cinnabar Field (*dantian)

In addition, the *Ershisi sheng tu (Charts of the Twenty-Four Life[-Givers]) lists the powers and envoys of the three registers of the body who are dispatched in ritual to present petitions and vows to the celestial hierarchy.

Salvation and Practice

In the Lingbao scriptures, rebirth has been fully integrated with earlier Taoist views of the afterlife. Through adherence to the practices of the scriptures one might hope for a fortunate rebirth "in the family of a Marquis or Prince" or into the heavens themselves. A fortunate few are able to "ascend in broad daylight," avoiding death altogether. At the highest reaches of the celestial bureaucracy are those who rejoin the Dao at the end of the world to reemerge in the new age.

While the scriptures contain ritual programs for lengthy Retreats (*zhai), Offering rites (*jiao), burial rites, and penitentials, they also include a number of practices for the individual. Adherents were enjoined to regularly recite the *Duren jing (Scripture on Salvation), keep the ten precepts (Bokenkamp 1989, 18-20), and adhere to the commemorations and vows of the texts. The moral component of the Lingbao scriptures — a mixture of traditional Chinese morality and Buddhist salvational ethics — is much more prominent than that found in earlier texts. There is also a pronounced proselytizing emphasis. One scripture in the corpus, the Zhihui dingzhi tongwei jing (Scripture for Penetrating the Subtle through Wisdom and Fixing the Will; CT 325), specifically presents itself as a text to be granted for a small fee to Taoists, but free to Buddhists and, one suspects, other non-Taoists. The text expounds at some length on the ten precepts, modifying them slightly for special circumstances, and presents its message with lively stories, one a version of a popular Buddhist tale.

Most important doctrinally for the Lingbao scriptures is its Taoist version of the "bodhisattva ideal." This is the central message of the scriptures. Precepts and rituals regularly contain the wish for the salvation of all beings, from the emperor down to "beasts that wriggle and crawl." In practice, rites enunciating these wishes were most often conducted for the ancestors of the practitioner. This traditional emphasis on the post-mortem fate of family members is explained in the scriptures as necessary since, though one's "true" father and mother is the Dao, one still owes debts to the family of one's earthly origin.

Originally, the scriptures seem to have contained a ten-stage path, parallel to the Buddhist system of ten bhumi, or stages of bodhisattva attainment. This began with the arousal of the thought of the Dao (comparable to Buddhist bodhicitta, or Awakening Mind) and ended with the adepts' attainment of extended life in the heavens with no further rebirths. As with the bodhisattva ideal described in indigenously-composed Buddhist scriptures, those of wealth and status are seen as having achieved such favorable rebirth through adherence to the scriptures in previous lives. Because of this, the Lingbao scriptures played an important role in the spread of Taoism to the gentry class.