Introduction to Quanzhen Daoism and the Dragon Gate Tradition

The Zhongnan mountain range in central China has been the abode of hermits, sages, and shamans, for at least 3000 years. Amidst its forests, waterfalls, and misty valleys, they dwelt in natural caves and built hermitages made of wood and stone. It is here, far away from the intoxications of the dusty world, that Daoism has its roots. It is also in this region that Laozi chose to give Yin Xi the teachings of the Daode jing, that so clearly express the way of the Dao.

Wang Xuanpu and Zhongli Quan

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) Wang Xuanpu, a Daoist adept and cultivator of the golden elixir, lived in these mountains at the Misty Sunlight Grotto. His lineage, according to tradition, was passed down from Laozi to Jinmu, who passed it to his master Baiyun Shangzhen. The oral teachings of this lineage were later written down by one of Wang’s disciples, Ge Xuan, as Laozi’s Clear and Tranquil Classic, an important text for Daoist cultivation.

It was to the Misty Sunlight Grotto that fate led the general Zhongli Quan who was lost in the mountains after losing a battle. Realising his good fortune at meeting the hermit, Zhongli asked to be accepted as his disciple. Wang Xuanpu agreed and after some years of guidance in internal cultivation, Zhongli perfected the golden elixir, tied his hair in two buns and, calling himself the “freest tramp under heaven”, began his travels. Spirit immortals like Zhongli Quan drop their bodies like old clothes at death and the liberated spirit enters the celestial realm. At an auspicious time the immortal can retake human form and return to the world to teach sincere seekers of the Dao. Wang Xuanpu and Zhongli Quan are considered the first two patriarchs of the Quanzhen tradition.

Lü Dongbin – The Third Patriarch

One day, several hundred years later in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), Zhongli was in a tavern in the city of Chang’an, writing poems on the wall and singing them to all that would listen. Sitting at a nearby table was a young man named Lü Dongbin and he was watching the Daoist with great interest. He had travelled from his native village to take the civil service entrance exam and that day he had stopped at the tavern to quench his thirst. Seeing that he had the spirit to follow the Dao and could be the student that he was looking for, Zhongli engaged the young man in conversation. While they talked Lü Dongbin felt himself to be getting very tired and gradually he fell into a deep sleep in which he dreamed that he took the civil service exam and passed with honours. He rose very quickly through the ranks of the emperors court and became a trusted advisor to the emperor himself. He married, had a family and lived in a very luxurious house, and it seemed to him that he had everything that a young man could ever wish for. However, others in the court grew jealous and schemed behind his back, creating false rumours about him. The emperor was taken in and believed these stories, but as there was no real evidence against him the emperor decided that rather than have Lü Dongbin executed, he would banish him to the outer reaches of China, a terrible fate. Suddenly, awakening from his dream, Lü knew that he no longer wanted to follow that lifestyle and that his path was to follow the Dao. Zhongli accepted him as a student and together they headed off into the mountains to pursue inner cultivation. Lü became highly attained in Daoist cultivation as well as embodying many of the characteristics most admired by the Chinese, being a Confucian scholar, poet, and swordsman. A free wanderer, he was known and loved all over China, especially in the north. As the third patriarch of the Quanzhen school he is honoured as Ancestor Lü. He wore a red sash about his waist and when priests are ordained into the tradition they are given a red sash as a symbol of this.

Through Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin’s teachings of the Golden Elixir, Daoism was moving away from the older approach to immortality that emphasised external elixirs and physical longevity. Their emphasis was on inner cultivation and spiritual immortality, and they taught that the way to the golden elixir was to nourish the spirit through tranquillity and emptiness.

Liu Haichan – The Fourth Patriarch

Liu Haichan, whose name means Sea Toad, lived in the Liao Dynasty (916 – 1125), serving as prime minister to the King of Yan. One day Zhongli Quan visited his home calling himself Master Zhengyang. He engaged Liu in a conversation about the Dao and asked for ten eggs and ten gold coins. Liu provided these and Zhongli proceeded to pile up the eggs, with the coins in between, pagoda fashion. Liu said “Your crazy! What is the point of this recklessness?” Zhongli said “This is not as reckless as living your life in pursuit of wealth and fame.” With that he took the coins, broke them in two and threw them away. Liu realised his folly and resigned as prime minister so that he could travel to the mountains and study the Dao. Later he met Lü Dongbin who taught him about tranquillity, non interference and ways of nourishing the spirit. After this he went to live in seclusion at Phoenix mountain to developed these cultivations.

Wang Chongyang – The Fifth Patriarch

Wang Chongyang was born to a wealthy family in a village in Shaanxi province at the end of the Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127). Like Lü he was a Confucian scholar and he also studied Chan Buddhism. He worked as a military officer and was highly respected in the community but despite all this he felt a deep dissatisfaction with his life. Eventually he decided to leave the world, abandoning his family and career, and taking to the life of a drunken drop out. One day as he was on his way back to his hut with a jug of wine, he met a strange Daoist on the road who asked him for a drink. Wang was happy to share his wine but to his surprise the Daoist proceeded to drink every drop. Telling him not to worry, the Daoist went to the nearby river, filled the jug with water and gave it to Wang who took a sip. He had never tasted anything like it, and was sure it must be the wine of the immortals! Wang asked him who he was and the strange Daoist laughed, saying “I am Liu Haichan!” From that day forward, Wang never drank another drop of wine.

Later he was walking by the Sweet River in the Zhongnan mountains when he came upon two wanderers on a bridge. He was struck by their presence and engaging manner and soon fell into conversation with them. He asked them where they were going and what they were doing to which they replied that they were “spreading the mysterious wind.” Wang knew this was a term for the Daoist teachings and, being intrigued, he was very happy when they invited him to accompany them for a while. He gradually realised that this was no accidental meeting and these two wanderers were actually Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin, who had picked this time to introduce him to the Dao.

Renouncing his old life, he began a period of intense practice, wandering and living in the mountains. For three years he buried himself ten feet below the ground in a grave that he called “The Tomb of the Living Dead”. He also spent some time in cultivation at the Misty Sunlight Grotto, the ancestral cave of Wang Xuanpu, and then built himself a hut to continue his cultivations. After four years in the hut he set fire to it and was seen dancing and laughing amongst the ashes, so that he became known as Mad Wang. “Who can become an immortal without a touch of madness!” he said. Wang Chongyang then travelled to Shandong province where two of his disciples, Ma Danyang and Sun Bu’er, built him a retreat in their garden. This retreat was known as “Quanzhen”, meaning “The Complete Realisation”. This became the name of the sect founded by Wang and it was during this time that he began his main period of teaching.

The Teachings of Wang Chongyang

Wang embraced many of what he considered the better aspects of the three teachings which dominated China’s religious followings at the time – Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism – and incorporated them into the Quanzhen school. He moved away from the elaborate ceremonies, the writing of talismans, and the intricate visualisations that were central to the old Daoist traditions and put a greater emphasis on self cultivation through the practice of quiet sitting meditation. He identified closely with the simplicity and naturalness in Laozi’s Daode jing, as well as Zhuangzi’s teachings of spontaneity and non interference (wu wei). There are several other texts considered important in the Quanzhen school and these include the Clear and Tranquil Classic, the Yin Convergence Classic, and the Jade Emperor’s Mind Seal Classic.

The elements he took from Buddhism included their approach to karma and rebirth and, in particular, the Chan (Zen) teachings of the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. He also had great respect for the teachings of Confucius and encouraged his followers to study the Classic of Filial Piety, to help others, and do good deeds whenever they could. Wang considered the golden elixir to be our true nature. He said that helping others and being clear and tranquil contributes to developing this elixir. He advised that people wishing to cultivate their true nature should not seek fame, wealth, or profit, should eliminate worry and anger, and should abstain from sex, alcohol, and strong smelling vegetables (onion, garlic, etc.) He left behind fifteen principles for following the Dao which form the basis of the Quanzhen teachings.

Wang and his followers lived a very simple and ascetic life, surviving on only the bare necessities. They had intensive periods of meditation, and followed ascetic practices such as never laying down to sleep. Sometimes they would wander together from place to place, at other times they would live separately as hermits. Although the Quanzhen school adopted a temple lifestyle as it developed after Wang’s death, the path of simplicity that he advocated still remains a strong part of the tradition. To this day it is still common for priests to spend a period of two or three years “cloud wandering”, in which they travel the countryside, visiting temples and studying with different teachers. Those whose cultivation develops may also choose to spend time living as a hermit in one of the small shrines or caves that are found in the mountains of China.

By tradition the priests possess seven sacred objects: “The first object is the meditation cushion which tames the monsters of the mind. The second is the robe which subdues the mischievous mind. The third is the bowl which holds only purified (meatless) food. The fourth is a straw hat for protection against wind, rain, frost, and snow. The fifth is a horse-hair whisk or fan for sweeping away the dust of the mundane world. The sixth is a bag for carrying the sacred scriptures. The seventh is a staff for clearing the obstacles that block the clear wind and bright moon of the Tao.”

The priests will also apply the following cultivations in their daily life: “When walking, the gait should be like that of a crane and the body should move like an immortal floating with the winds. When sitting, the body should be still as a rock. When sleeping, it should be curved like a bow. When standing, it should be like a tall pine. Your body should be as flexible as a willow in the wind and as relaxed as the petals of a lotus.”

The Seven True Daoists of the North

Wang left seven accomplished disciples, six men and one woman. They all continued to spread the teachings of the Quanzhen sect and are called the Seven True Daoists of the North. Each one expressed the Quanzhen teachings in their own way, creating seven different lineages:

The sect of Qiu Chuji is called Longmen (Dragon Gate)
The sect of Liu Chuxuan is called Suishan (Mount Sui)
The sect of Tan Chuduan is called Nanwu (Southern Void)
The sect of Ma Danyang is called Yuxian (Meeting the Immortals)
The sect of Hao Datong is called Huashan (Mount Hua)
The sect of Wang Yuyang is called Yushan (Mount Yu)
The sect of Sun Bu’er is called Qingjing (Clarity and Stillness)

Qiu Chuji and the Dragon Gate Sect

The largest of these is Qiu Chuji’s Dragon Gate sect. Following Wang’s death the seven disciples dispersed. Qiu Chuji continued to follow a quiet ascetic life, living in caves and begging for food. He lived for several years in the Dragon Gate Cave and his sect is named after this place. It was here that Qiu began to develop his teachings, emphasizing Wang’s view that the three doctrines of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism are complimentary and share a common origin. Later in his life he gained favor with the Jin emperor Shizong and then with the conquering Mongol ruler Chinggis Khan, who honored him with the title Spirit Immortal. With this recognition and support the Quanzhen school grew very quickly and Qiu encouraged the building of many Daoist temples, developing the structure for that way of life. He gained a large following, including many among the working class, and over the years the Dragon Gate sect spread to many parts of China becoming the main representative of the Quanzhen school. There is even a saying that “the Dragon Gate covers half the land.” Qiu spent the last few years of his life in Beijing living at a Daoist temple now known as the White Cloud Temple, and was buried there after his death. Since his time the White Cloud temple has been the seat and headquarters for both the Quanzhen and Dragon Gate sects, and continues to be so even today.


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