UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Twofold Mystery (Chongxuan 重玄) Assandri, Friederike; Hamm, Matthew


Chongxuan 重玄 (“Twofold Mystery”) is a Daoist teaching developed by early medieval Daoist monastics; the most prominent was Cheng Xuanying 成玄英 (fl. 631–655). The name Chongxuan derives from the fact that the Daoist thinkers, like Cheng Xuanying or Li Rong 李榮 (fl. after 650), used their commentaries to the Daode jing 道德經, and specifically to the expression xuanzhi you xuan玄之又玄 in the last sentence of the first chapter, to develop their own version of the four steps of continued negation (also called si ju 四句, or tetra lemma), which had become known in China predominantly with Buddhist Mādhyamika teachings, as an approach to realize Dao conceptually.// The earliest traces of Chongxuan thought can be found in writings and anecdotes from Daoists active at the courts of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 CE), it became popular in the early 7th century during the Sui 隋 (581-618 CE) and Tang 唐(618-907 CE) dynasties in the capital Chang’an. Furthermore, presumably because of individual monks travelling and spreading the new teaching, it spread also in Sichuan. Early 7th century Chang’an saw fierce competition and heated court debates between Buddhists and Daoists. Multi-level interactions between Buddhists and Daoists, from the reading of each other’s texts, to the participation in public debates, to the struggle for imperial support and patronage, was most probably the immediate background of the development the intellectual innovations of chongxuan teachings.// Interaction and competition between Buddhists and Daoists gained an important political dimension in the Tang dynasty due to the imperial clan’s claim that they, the Li 李 family, were descended from Laozi 老子, whose surname was also said to be Li 李. This claim was an opportunity for the advancement of Daoism, but it required that Laozi (associated in his divinized form with the Celestial Masters tradition dominant in the north) be the principal deity. This was potentially problematic because Daoism, as it was proposed by the clergy of the capital Chang’an, seems to have relied much on the southern tradition of the Three Caverns (a synthesis of the Shangqing 上清, Lingbao 靈 寶,and Sanhuang 三皇 traditions), which considered the Heavenly Worthy of Primordial Commencement (Yuanshi Tianzun 元始天尊) to be the highest deity.// To resolve the clash between these two pantheons, Chongxuan theorists turned to the most distinctive feature of their teaching, the use of the logic of the tetra lemma (otherwise known as the four-fold negation from), which they had adapted from the Madhyamaka Buddhist tradition. Combining this mode of logic with the Two-Body theory (a Daoist adaptation of the Buddhist theory of the Three Bodies of the Buddha), Chongxuan theorists were able to argue for the logical interpenetration of the Dao, apparently separate deities, and the sage. In doing so, they redefined Laozi and the Heavenly Worthy as “response bodies” (yingshen 應身) of the Dao and thus unified the pantheon, making sure Laozi could be treated as the highest deity.// This interpenetration also enabled Chongxuan figures to transfer seemingly anthropomorphic characteristics, such as wisdom and compassion, to the ultimate entity of the Dao, which is inherently devoid of any specific characteristics. They thus defined the Dao as a compassionate entity that actively worked for the salvation of all beings and thereby responded to Buddhist critiques that Daoism did not offer the same type of soteriological benefits as Buddhism.// In fact, Chongxuan theorists developed a sophisticated soteriological model in which individuals could cultivate themselves and return to the Dao, thereby becoming immortal sages. Sages, moreover, were thought to deliberately return from the Dao to the mortal plane (much like a Buddhist Boddhisattva) in order to actively work for the salvation of all entities. They did so, it was thought, because they were motivated by the same type of compassion as the Dao.

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