Sima Chengzhen

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Life of Sima Chengzhen

Sima Chengzhen (AD 647-735) was a renowned Daoist priest of the Tang dynasty. He styled himself Ziwei and adopted the religious name Daoyin. He was born in a family of officials in Wen, Hebei. Sima Chengzhen was devoted to study and fond of Dao from early youth, and was not interested in being an official but inclined to stand aloof from the world. He became a student of Pan Shizheng, a Daoist priest on Mt. Song, and was quite appreciated by him for his diligent study and hard work. From him he learned the Scriptures and Skills of the Highest Clarity ( 上清經法 Shanqing Jingfa ) and the techniques of Talismans and Registers ( 符籙 Fulu ), Gymnastics ( 導引 Daoyin ), and ingesting drugs, and became the fourth generation successor to the Highest Clarity sect ( 上清派 Shangqing Pai ). Later, he traveled to all the famous mountains, and then led a secluded life on Yuxiao Peak of Mt. Tiantai, and named himself Baiyun Zi of Tiantai Mountain. He kept in close contact with ten contemporary high officials and refined scholars such as Chen Zi'ang and Li Bai, who were called the 'ten friends of the Immortalist school' ( 仙宗十友 Xianzong Shiyou ) by contemporaries.

Daoist ties with emperors

Empress Wu Zetian heard of Sima Chengzhen and called him to the capital. She personally issued an edict drafted in her own hand, to eulogize his attainments in Daoism and noble conduct. In the second year of Jingyun during the reign of emperor Ruizong of the Tang dynasty (AD 711), he was called to the court and asked about the magic arts of Yin-Yang divination and the government of the country. His answer, that 'Non-Interference' ( 無為 Wuwei ) should be the foundation of government, was highly appreciated by the emperor, so a precious stringed instrument and a short embroidered tasseled cap were bestowed on him. In the ninth year of Kaiyuan (AD 721), emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty sent an envoy to invite him to the court, in order to receive Magical Registers in person. In the 15th year of Kaiyuan (AD 727), Sima Chengzhen was called into the court again and asked to choose a good site to establish the Solar Platform Temple ( 陽台觀 Yangtai Guan ) as his abode. In addition, the emperor ordered the construction of a Perfect Lord's Shrine ( 真君祠 Zhenjun Ci ) on each of the Five Sacred Mountains ( 五獄 Wuyue ) in accordance with his own desire. He was good at carving seals and writing official script, and had a unique style known as "Golden scissors' calligraphy". Emperor Xuanzong ordered him to write Laozi's Book of Dao and its Virtue ( 道德經 Daode Jing ) in three styles of calligraphy, collate the text, and engrave it in stone. After his death, Sima Chengzhen was conferred the title 'Senior Official the Silver Seal and Blue Ribbon in Charge of the Emperor's Diet' ( 銀青光祿大夫 Yinqing Guanglu Dafu ) and honoured as 'Faithful Gentleman of Integrity' ( 貞一先生 Zhenyi Xiansheng ).

Daoist ideology

Sima Chengzhen drew on the Confucian idea of devoutness and Buddhist theories of calming the mind and securing wisdom. In his elaboration on Daoist theories of Cultivating Dao ( 修道 Xiudao ) and Attaing Immortality ( 成仙 Chengxian ), he held that human beings are gifted with the innate quality of Immortals. In order to Attain Immortality, one need only Cultivate One's Vital Breath of Emptiness ( 修我虛氣 Xiuwo Xuqi ), Fulfil One's Nature ( 遂我自然 Suiwo Ziran ), and Keep in Harmony with Dao ( 與道相守 Yudao Xiangshou ). In his book Discourse on Sitting in Oblivion ( 坐忘論 Zuowang Lun ), Sima Chengzhen put forward seven 'Stages' for Cultivating Dao. Furthermore, he classified the process of Cultivating Dao and Attaing Immortality into five 'Gates of Progress' ( 階次 Jieci ), and declared that "the five ways to Attain Immortality ( 修煉 Xiulian ) are unified into one". He held that the five 'Gates of progress' and 'Seven stages' can be summed up into the three commandments of "Decreasing involvement in human affairs", "Having no desire" and "calming the mind", and declared that "Dao will come to those who observe these three commandments regularly and constantly, even when they don't seek Dao purposely". He held that those studying Dao can become Immortals if they attain the plane of "Inwardly, one is unaware of one's body and outwardly, one is unaware of the universe; one enters into subtle communion with Dao and all worries disappear", and when "one forgets both the world and himself, neither of which is reflected in the mind". Sima Chengzhen's Daoist theories exerted some influence on the development of theories on Daoist Cultivation and Refinement, and on the formation of the Neo-Confucian philosophical school of the Northern Song dynasty.