Ge Chaofu Founds the Lingbao Tradition of Daoism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ge Chaofu attributes a series of scriptural texts to ancient revelations representing the first significant melding of Daoist and Buddhist thought, resulting in a new, liturgical tradition within Daoism.

Summary of Event

According to several sources, between 397 and 402 c.e., an otherwise little-known member of China’s southern gentry, Ge Chaofu, transmitted a set of scriptures to two Daoist priests, Xu Lingqi and Ren Yanqing. Known as the Lingbao (Numinous Treasure or Sacred Jewel) scriptures, their appearance elicited such enthusiasm that they were widely disseminated within a decade and prompted the creation of dozens of similar texts. The texts’ unique merger of Daoist and Buddhist thought, along with a well-developed liturgical system, gave rise to a new movement within Daoism, the high religion of China. Although scholars differ on whether this movement ever solidified into a distinct school, it is clear that the Lingbao tradition dramatically changed the nature of Daoist practice and expanded its fundamental worldview. Drawing on Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Lingbao scriptures shifted Daoist practice from the individual pursuit of transcendence or immorality to universal salvation and the emancipation of one’s own ancestors from the travails of reincarnation. Ge Xuan Ge Hong Ge Chaofu

Ge Chaofu was part of the Ge family, aristocrats from southeastern China, whose most famous member, Ge Hong, had amassed an extensive library of alchemical and magical texts devoted to the pursuit of longevity and immortality. Ge Hong’s major work, Baopuzi (c. 320 c.e.; Alchemy, Medicine, Religion in the China of a.d. 320, 1966; commonly known as the Baopuzi), synthesized these traditions and presents numerous practices, talismans (abstract depictions of the universe used by adepts to gain power over its elements), and formulas for achieving immortality. Such practices have a long history in Chinese religion, dating as far back as the third century b.c.e. and associated with a group of magical practitioners known as fangshi. Fangshi actively served the Han emperor Wu (r. 140-87 b.c.e.), and were responsible for discovering the secrets of immortality, controlling demons through the use of talismans, and performing prognostication via cosmic charts.

Ge Chaofu, grandnephew of Ge Hong, inherited his ancestor’s celebrated library and religious techniques. He also carefully studied Buddhist texts, particularly those of the so-called Great Vehicle, or Mahāyāna tradition, Han cosmological texts on the Five Phases, and the scriptures of another early Daoist school, the Shangqing (Highest Clarity). Then, between 397 and 402, Ge Chaofu claimed to have discovered the Lingbao corpus, purportedly revealed to his distant ancestor, Ge Xuan.

According to the Baopuzi, Ge Xuan received three alchemical texts from Zuo Ci (Tso Tz’u; c. 200 c.e.), who himself had been given the scriptures by a god. He then transmitted them to his disciple, Zheng Yin (Cheng Yin), who subsequently passed them on to his student, Ge Hong, Xuan’s nephew. While Ge Hong identifies the specific texts transmitted, along with several “Lingbao” manuscripts, none of them correspond to the scriptures Ge Chaofu claimed he inherited in his great-uncle’s collection, nor do they appear to exist in the extant scriptural corpus. However, the most important of Ge Chaofu’s alleged scriptures are based on another text, the Wufujing (n.d.; five talismans scripture). Most scholars believe that this is a relatively ancient text that was expanded and added to over the centuries.

The basic premise of the text, fragments of which can be found in the Daoist canon, is built upon the Han cosmological scheme of the five phases. As developed in the first two centuries of the common era, the theory of the five phases (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) sought to understand the cosmic correspondences between these fundamental building blocks of the universe, and a bewildering array of natural elements. For example, each phase came to be associated with a specific color, direction, season, bodily organ, sacred mountain, musical note, etc. According to the Wufujing, by controlling these elements through the ritualized use of a corresponding talisman, it was believed that one could heal, dispel demons, achieve longevity, or protect the adept from serpents, dragons, and other natural dangers. Composed in three chapters, the text centers around the five Lingbao talismans, and offers a variety of meditation and ritualistic practices based on the five phases, along with additional talismans, dietary measures, invocations, and prescriptions for health and immortality. This basic framework permeates and informs the remaining Lingbao texts.

Contemporary scholarship has convincingly demonstrated that Ge Chaofu himself authored the earliest text that he claimed was revealed to Ge Xuan. This text, the Perfect Script in Five Tablets (fifth century c.e.), establishes the basic structure and philosophy of subsequent Lingbao writings. Heavily influenced by Mahāyāna Buddhism, whose principal philosophical texts and sutras were just becoming widely disseminated in China, the Lingbao scriptures represent the first significant fusion of Daoist and Buddhist elements. Neither of the previous Daoist movements, the Celestial Masters (founded in 142 c.e.) and Shangqing (founded c. 370), had addressed or incorporated the teachings of the foreign religion. The Lingbao tradition—apparently working from the premise that Buddhism was nothing more than an Indianized form of Daoism, created after Laozi traveled to the west and converted the barbarians (that is, the Buddha)—freely adapted and borrowed numerous ideas based on a rather superficial understanding of Buddhism.

Thus the Lingbao scriptures introduce the notion of punishments in hell, reincarnation, and the practicing of five or ten precepts, copied almost verbatim from the original formulation in Buddhism. Time is divided into four kalpas, or ages, directly patterned on the Indian notion of successive ages, each more corrupt and degenerative than its predecessor. At the conclusion of each, the world collapses, and the scriptures vanish. Like the Buddhist sutras, many of the Lingbao scriptures opened with a god proclaiming the text in the presence of a multitude of other heavenly beings and worthies. Lingbao also adopted the traditional Buddhist worldview in which rebirth occurred in one of five realms: earth prisons, hungry ghost, animal, human, and celestial. Because the Chinese were initially repulsed by the idea of reincarnation, emphasizing as they did the ancestral obligations incumbent on every individual, the Lingbao emphasized that proper ritual will benefit the adept and his or her ancestors. For example, the proper recitation of the Wondrous Scripture of the Upper Chapters on Limitless Salvation (fifth century c.e.; English translation, 1997), assures the release of the souls of myriad ancestors, who will ascend to the Vermillion Palace and have their souls refined for rebirth. Thus, the adept is able to fulfill his or her familial responsibilities while simultaneously gaining better rebirth for the self.

The most significant adaption came with the related idea of universal salvation. Most Daoist practice up to this time centered on the individual’s pursuit of immortality, or transcendence. Emulating the Buddhist notion of the bodhisattva, who forgoes his or her own salvation until all beings are enlightened, Lingbao liturgical ritual increasingly incorporated the idea that individual practice should be directed toward universal salvation. Vows to devote one’s coming lives to the salvation of the world become commonplace, and every monk entering Lingbao orders took an oath to relieve suffering for hundreds of thousands of kalpas. The majority of Lingbao ritual, which centered on purification ceremonies, also revolved around the concept of universal repentance, cleansing, and establishment of harmony and well-being.


Through the efforts of later Daoists such as Lu Xiujing, cataloguer, compiler and ritual specialist, the Lingbao corpus became a major portion of the developing Daoist canon. Its worldview and emphasis on universal salvation; its incorporation, rather than rejection of Buddhism; and the liturgical tradition it established are all prominent features of Daoism down to the present day. The use of talismans and charms, rituals involving the Big Dipper and other stars, the presentation of petitions to the celestial bureaucracy on behalf of the community, all owe their existence in part to the Lingbao movement. Its texts are cherished and used by practitioners of many other forms of Daoism. The present-day liturgy is a direct result of the Lingbao revelations. By combining the Celestial Master emphasis on petitioning the Heavenly Bureaucracy, the Shangqing belief in body gods, and Buddhist notions of reincarnation and universal salvation, and by adding the power of talismanic control over the universe, the Lingbao tradition effectively established the parameters of Daoist ritual. Although variations naturally crept in over the centuries, based on new revelations, Daoism today is essentially of Lingbao origin.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bokenkamp, Stephen R. Early Daoist Scriptures. With a contribution by Peter Nickerson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. A selection of scriptures from the three major schools of early Daoism (Celestial Masters, Highest Clarity, and Numinous Treasure). Along with an excellent historical and philosophical introduction, Bokenkamp translates perhaps the most important Lingbao text, the Wondrous Scripture of the Upper Chapters on Limitless Salvation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bokenkamp, Stephen R. “Sources of the Ling-pao Scriptures.” In Tantric and Taoist Studies, edited by Michel Strickmann. Brussels, Belgium: Institut Belge des Hautes Etude Chinoises, 1983. A very important study on the Buddhist and Highest Clarity influences on the formation of the Lingbao scriptures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. Contains an excellent chapter on the growth and history of the Lingbao school by one of the world’s foremost scholars on Daoism. Doctrines, practices, and the school’s place within the broader context of Daoism are clearly and succinctly discussed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yamada, Toshiaki. “The Lingbao School.” In Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn. Boston: Brill, 2000. A seminal summary by one of the leading experts on the Lingbao school. In addition to this particular article, the Daoism Handbook is the single most comprehensive volume on the Daoist tradition. Supplemental information can be found on ritual, the use of talismans, and everything else Daoist.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Laozi; Wang Bi; Zhuangzi. Lingbao

Categories: History