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The Divine Incantations Scripture is the earliest written apocalyptic text of the Daoist religion and one of the oldest discovered to originate in China. Composed at the beginning of the 5th Century, it spoke to the turbulent times of the late Jin Dynasty. Through revision and addition, it Daoist leaders repurposed the text to address challenges facing Daoism for the next 500 years.
The Scripture, or Taishang dongyuan shenzhou jing, details the massacre of China at the hands of an unruly army of 80 million “epidemic ghost” warriors. Ouch! The Scripture, however, offers a few tips on how to avoid the ghastly horde—and as a bonus ensure one’s salvation. The full text of the scripture is included at the bottom of the page.
Daoism formed in southeastern China around 200 B.C.E., but really didn’t start to amass a more popular following for nearly 400 years. In its inception, it had strong influences of mysticism, burgeoning Buddhist thought, an obsession with immortality perpetuated by the imperial Chinese ruling class, and the immanent worries of the pocketed apocalyptic cults scattered in the hills and bleak regions of subsistence agriculture.
Before Daoism, there were many gods in China. Kitchen deities burned down huts and rampant demons spread disease to the careless and lazy. But as the region changed socially and politically, Daoism stepped in to fill the gap and unite the gods. (Buddhism made a similar move in southwest Asia and Christianity made an uncomfortable home in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions.) That social change was one of the widespread consolidation across China. Dynastic succession and internecine warfare shrunk the land area of the empire. Political power was just becoming re-centralized and, at the same time, the regional religious cults were starting to agglomerate. They found similarities and compromises in their traditions—and, when syncretized, many saw the light in the teaching of the Dao, or “The Way.”
HOW IT GOES DOWN
Warfare has a special place in apocalyptic thinking. The unstoppable violence of an invading army is an apt symbol for abstract judgment being meted upon the individual or community. In the Divine Incantations Scripture, the army is composed of spirits. The supreme force of the universe, The Dao, commands them, and they are a bit capricious depending on their whims.
At the beginning of the text, we’re presented with a world in disarray. There is a “flood not far off” and China “abounds in vice and lacks goodness.” To the author of the scripture the reason seems clear: while the teachings of the Dao have been on the rise, “the people are benighted and fail to seek out and accept [Daoism]. “
Follow the way and you will be saved. In a few years, the text warns, “eighty million great ghosts will come to annihilate bad people.” While some are the spirits of soldiers, others are of the damned: “In the world there are eighty thousand drowned people. The ghosts are about three feet high. They move about in immense groups. They kill people in water.” And lastly, if ghosts don’t get you themselves, they’ll leave traps in the forms of diseases, which are detailed in all their diversity, including the “ninety-six varieties of sudden death.”
All of the maladies and unfortunate ends happen to those “who do not follow the law of Dao and who plunge the country into disorder.”
An Ancient Chinese Secret for Salvation
Right actions and good works are a staple of most religions. This is especially true of organized religions that have a strong moral component, as many do. If humankind cannot approach a state of grace and divinity by what they accomplish while on Earth, then there remains little connection to the gods except a bond of fear. In contrast, some faiths, however, have taken the formula to its logical and self-negating limit. If the right action is merely to believe that you will achieve salvation, then there’s no need for all the inconvenient busy work to get there. (American evangelical Christianity’s emphasis on “born again” is a fine example of this.)
Daoism also devised a key to unlock the door to salvation. In the second and third centuries, Daoists introduced the idea of “registers” into their spiritual repertoire. Registers are essentially spell books that list the names of the deceased. They’re granted to the faithful at initiation rituals after achieving increasing levels of religious knowledge or demonstrating heartfelt devotion. Registers purportedly control the listed spirits, thus many believe they are a source of great power.
The Divine Incantations Scripture is something of a hybrid form. It suggests right-living through religious conversion. But it also claims to be the most powerful and populous register. It claims to hold “the names of the demon kings of the thirty-six-fold heaven as well as of seven billion minor kings.” (Demons are not always bad in this text.) If you possess this register, you de facto command pretty much the whole ghost army of the spirit world. As long as a priest follows The Dao and possesses and preaches the Scripture, he is granted the support to survive all manner of death and disease. That includes, of course, the apocalypse.
There are many perks to believing the scripture, according to the text. They include “every action will reach completion and all that is done will be harmonious.” If that isn’t enough for the discerning 5th Century would-be Daoist convert, “the great demon kings will protection them.” The text list many others, including the protection from the aforementioned epidemic ghosts.
Let’s briefly mention some of the additional instructions to priests included in the Divine Incantations Scripture. It advises that Daoist priests “must receive and practice this book separately,” meaning that even other Daoist texts should not be preached. Additionally, “when traveling, if you carry it on your person the multitudes of ghosts can’t come near” or bring you harm.
If 5th Century Daoism had a headquarters (responsible for quarterly conversion reports and quality control, etc.), it would likely consider this advice very practical and advantageous. If the Divine Incantations Scripture is the only book that can be carried because others should not be preached alongside it, it promises a lot of benefits for those who adhere to it and Daoism generally, and additionally that it serves as a protective travel-charm on the dangerous road, it follows that the scripture will be the only logical choice for the traveling priest. It’s theology that feeds its own distribution, a perpetual motion machine. Or, put another way, it is a talisman that one carries for their own salvation—and, ultimately, instilling the fear of apocalypse becomes both a self-preserving vocation and an effective method of religious conversion.
READ THE TEXT
Read the Divine Incantations Scripture on Google Books.
- The Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, or “Heart Sūtra” of Zen Buddhism