Altars for Fasts
Origin of the Fasting Altar
Fasting Altars are altars for worship set up for the Ritual Masters ( 法師 Fashi ) and Daoist priests when large-scale Daoist rituals are performed. The rituals led by the Daoist priests are all conducted at the Fasting Altar. This type of altar is different from the altar for general Daoist priests' burning incense, offering sacrifices, and kow-towing. Early Daoist rituals were fairly simple, so there was no special Fasting Altar. According to records in the literature, in early rituals a square earth platform, on which the incense burner was placed, was set up in the open. The Libationers ( 祭酒 Jijiu ) and Daoist priests living in mountains performed the rituals on the platform, and the ordinary believers did this below the platform.
In the Southern and Northern Dynasties, Daoist rituals were well developed. According to The Pervasive Mystery Numinous Treasure's Book of Five Correspondences ( 洞玄靈寶五感文 Dongxuan Lingbao Wugan Wen ) written by the eminent Daoist Lu Xiujing of the Liu Song dynasty, the fasts of the Golden Register and of the Yellow Register both required setting up multi-level altars. After the Tang and Song dynasties, Daoist rituals became more and more complex, and the Ritual Space ( 壇場 Tanchang ) was arranged more and more luxuriously. After the Yuan and Ming dynasties, as Daoist Ritual Offerings gradually replaced Fasting Rituals, Offering Altars replaced the Fasting Altars in the arrangement of the ritual space.
According to The Pervasive Mystery Numinous Treasure's Book of Five Correspondences, in the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the Fasting Altars of the fasts of the Golden Register were three-zhang-wide Mysterious Altars set up in the open. On the altar was set another altar, which was two zhangs wide with fences and ten doors at the top and bottom. Placed in its center is a nine-chi-long lantern with nine other lanterns on it. Thirty-six colour lanterns are placed around the altars, and thousands of lanterns are lit beside the altar. In the fasts of the Yellow Register, altars are set up in the same way as the fasts of the Golden Register, but the number of lanterns surrounding the altar is different. The altar has two floors, signifying Heaven and Earth.
Daoist rituals of fasts and offerings were greatly developed in the Tang and Song dynasties. According to The Numinous Treasure Golden Book of Instructions on Aid and Salvation ( 靈寶領教濟度金書 Lingbao Lingjiao Jidu Jinshu ) written in the Southern Song dynasty, the fasting altars are square-shaped and have three floors. The inner altar is three chi high and one zhang and eight chi in area, with 20 Red Ribbons ( 纂 Zuan ) on it. The middle altar is one chi and five cun high and three zhang in area, with 24 red ribbons on it. The outer altar is on the ground. It is four zhang in area and has 28 red ribbons on it. Beyond the three altars, decorative pillars are also set up. The altar consists of three floors, signifying Heaven, Earth, and Man. It is said in The Highest Clarity Numinous Treasure Golden Book of the Great Achievement of Aid and Salvation ( 上清靈寶濟度大成金書 Shangqing Lingbao Jidu Dacheng Jinshu ) compiled by Zhou Side of the Ming dynasty, that the altar must be set up in a straight direction. "It should be located in the north and face the south. If its direction is different from that of the temple, the direction of the altar should be decided according to the east, the west, the south and the north. No matter whether the altar deviates from the direction of the temple, it must be set up in a straight direction." Hung on the left, the right and the northern inside walls of the altar are pictures of the Perfect Men of the Three Worlds. Incense, flowers, lanterns and candles are offered in the altar. Six curtains are set up on the left and right outside the altar. Daoist fasting altars have been gradually replaced by Ritual Offerings since the Qing dynasty. Besides, due to the turbulent society, there are now few occasions for the performance of large-scale rituals of fasts and offerings like those recorded in Daoist books, so Fasting Altars are now rarely seen in Daoist temples.