Taoism Deities

Because Taoism is a polytheistic religion there is not one single god to worship or honor. Taoist deities are part of our universe, not separate from it, and are as equally beholden to the movements of the tao as are normal people. In that sense they are "deities" more so than "Gods." They are worshipped or venerated in Taoist temples. Religious adherents often choose one of many gods that is especially useful at a particular time. Taoist deities exist in a great pantheon. Within this pantheon is a structure, with various deities operating under the authority of other deities. The pantheon generally changes over time, and various Taoist sects have differing views of it. But all Taoist sects acknowledge the pantheon's existence.

Some of the main deities worshipped in Taoist temples by the various Taoist sects are listed below. Each of these deities represents different qualities. They all have different attributes and are worshiped at various ceremonies throughout the year.

Chang Kuo-lao was once the head of the Imperial Academy but he retired to live as a hermit on Mt. Chung-t'iao in Shansi. He was summoned to court by the Empress Wu (684-705 A.D.) however, when he reached the Temple of the Jealous Woman he fell down dead. Shortly afterwards he came back to life.
He had a magic mule which could travel thousands of miles a day. When he reached his destination the mule would turn to paper and Chang Kuo-lao could fold it up and put it in his pocket. To revive it he unfolded it and spurted water on it with his mouth. He is often pictured riding the mule, facing the tail.

Han Chung-li represents military men. He lived during the Han dynasty when he was a Marshall of the Empire. In his old age he became a hermit and lived on Yang-chiu Mt. in Shansi where he met the Five Heroes who taught him how to be an immortal. This knowledge he taught to Lu Tung-pin.
During a famine he turned base metals into silver which he distributed to the poor people. He is recognized as a figure who holds a fan or a peach.
When he achieved immortality he was carried by a stork into the Heavens. Another legend has it that the wall of his hut burst open to reveal a casket in which were instructions on how to become an immortal.

Han Hsiang-tsu represents youth. He was the grand nephew of Han Yu (768- 824 A.D.) who was a minister to Emperor Hsing-tung. He is reported to have accomplished all manner of remarkable feats including the production of extraordinary plants.
He became an immortal by eating one of the peaches of immortality. He carries with him a basket of fruit or flowers.
He was a disciple of Lu Tung-pin.

Ho Hsien-ku is represented holding a lotus blossom (a symbol of purity) and a peach. The legend is that she lived in the time of the Empress Wu (684-705 A.D.) in the Yun-mu (Cloud Mother) Mountains.
One night she had a dream that she should grind up a stone called Yun-mu and eat it. She did and vowed chastity at the same time. She then floated from mountain peak to peak gathering fruits which she gave to her mother (she having no need to eat). The Empress heard of her and summoned her to the court but on the way she disappeared. In this way she became an immortal. She is a patron deity of women.

Li T'ieh-kuai has an iron crutch and a black face. He represents the crippled and deformed. He tries to alleviate human suffering. He was taught to be an immortal by Hsi-wang-mu, Queen of the Immortals.
One day, when his soul went to Mt. Hua he told his disciple to guard his body and cremate it after seven days if he had not returned. On the sixth day the disciple's mother fell ill and so leaving to take care of her he burnt the body a day early. Li T'ieh-kuai's soul on returning could find no body so it entered that of an old man who had just died. Only then did he discover that it was a cripple. At first he wanted to leave it but Lao Tzu persuaded him to stay and gave him a golden circlet and an iron crutch. He carries a gourd with him in which he keeps medicine to help people. Some say that it contains the elixir of life made from the peaches of immortality that grow in Hsi-wang-mu's garden.

Pa-hsien -- Eight Immortals. The Eight Immortals are a group of legendary figures that are prominent in Taoism. According to popular Taoist lore, the Eight Immortals were selected as distinguished exemplars of world-transcendent, freely wandering sages who had reached their state of human perfection through various practices such as meditation and ascetic life. The Eight Immortals are:

Chung-li Ch'uan
Ho Hsien-ku
Chang Kou-lao
Lu Tung-pin
Han Hsiang-tzu
Ts'ao Kuo-chiu
Li T'ieh-kuai
Lan Ts'ai-ho

San-ch'ing -- Three Pure Ones. These are the highest deities of Taoism. Pure is referring to the three heavens in which they are believed to live. The Three Pure Ones are said to be different manifestations of Lao-tzu. Their main goal is to save mankind by teaching kindness. The Three Pure Ones are:

Yu-ching -The Jade Pure
Shang-ch'ing - The Higher Pure
T'ai-ch'ing -The Grand Pure.

San-kuan -- Three Officials. The Three Officials are in charge of the three offices of heaven, earth, and the waters under the earth.

San-yuan -- Three Primordials. These are the three supreme deities that "created" the cosmos.

T'ien-shih was the title awarded to Chang Tao-ling (157-178 A.D.), the founder of the Yellow Turban Taoists (he is also claimed as founder by the Cheng-I and Five Bushels of Rice sects). It is believed that he received the Ling-pao (spiritual Treasure) Scripture written on golden tablets, from the Gods. He succeeded in finding the elixir of immortality, swallowed it, and ascended to Heaven, leaving his secrets, including his seals and demon-dispelling sword, with his son.
Since then the title T'ien-shih has passed through the family for generations. The current (63rd) Chang T'ien-shih lives in Taiwan and heads the Five Bushels of Rice Taoist sect. He continues to retain the sword and seals of Chang Tao-ling.

Ts'ao Kuo-chiu represents the nobility for he was connected with the Imperial Sung Dynasty. His brother committed a crime for which he was ashamed and he retired and became a hermit who studied the Tao and learned the recipe for perfection. He holds in his hands the tablet that admits one to an audience with the emperor.
One day Han Ching-li and Lu Tung-pin found him and asked him what he was doing. He replied that he was studying the Tao. "What is that and where is it?" they asked. He pointed first to the sky and then to his heart. Then they realized that he understood and they gave him the recipe for perfection.

Yu-huang -- Jade Emperor Yu-huang is considered the foremost deity of popular Taoism. He is the ruler of Heaven. He is also considered to be the ruler of all the other gods who in turn must report to him. His main purpose is to monitor the heavenly administration. Every year he observes the performance of all the gods. Based on their performance Yu-huang gives out rewards or promotions, and punishments or demotions.

Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun -- The First Principle is believed that Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun existed before the creation of the universe. In contrast to the universe which is in a constantly changing state of creation and destruction, Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun is eternal and imperishable. When a new creation of the universe occurs, he descends to earth letting mankind know about the secrets of the Tao. He is never worshipped in solitude, but always as the central member of the trinity.

Taoism and Deities

There are some who insist that the tao doesn't need deities, or that the Dao De Jing doesn't mention deities, and thus original "pure" Taoism doesn't include deities. There are some important factors to consider and that is that there is a difference between Taoism and those who practice the Tao.

The tao is omnipresent. That means it is present throughout Taoism, but that it is equally present throughout Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and most every other religion. The tao is completely areligious. If being a part of the tao was a religious experience or qualification, then every single person in the world would be a Taoist.

Tao and Taoism, however, are not the same thing. Taoism is a specific religious tradition and not everyone is a Taoist. To claim so would be an insult to the hundreds of millions of people who sincerely claim to follow other religious traditions. So while the tao may or may not require deities, that has no bearing upon Taoism's requirement.