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Religions in China - Sanqing 三清, the Three Pures


The Sanqing 三清 "Three pures" are the highest deities in the Daoist pantheon. Sanqing 三清 is actually the name of three palaces or realms (jing 境) in Heaven where the highest deities of Daoism reside. The three realms are:
  • Yuqing shengjing 玉清聖境 "Holy realm of jade purity" (or Qingwei tian 清微天 "Pure Subtleness Heaven")
  • Shangqing zhenjing 上清真境 "Perfect realm of the highest purity" (or Yuyu tian 禹餘天 "Sorrowless Heaven")
  • Taiqing xianjing 太清仙境 "Immortal realm of the greatest purity" (or Dachi tian 大赤天 "Great Red Heaven")
The deities (sanbao zunshen 三寳尊神 "the three deities adored as jewels") residing in those heavens are:
  • Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊 "Heavenly honoured of the primordial beginning" (also called Yuqing dadi 玉清大帝 "Great Emperor of the jade purity")
  • Lingbao tianzun 靈寳天尊 "Heavenly honoured of the numinous treasure" (also called Taishang dadao jun 太上大道君 "Lord of the great Way of the highest loftiness" or Shangqing dadi 上清大帝 "Great Emperor of the highest purity")
  • Daode tianzun 道德天尊 "Heavenly honoured of the Way and the Virtue" (also called Taishang laojun 太上老君 "Old Lord of the greatest loftiness" or Hunyuan laojun 混元老君 "Old Lord of the uncleared origin", Jiangsheng dadi 降生大帝 "Great Emperor sending down life", or Taiqing dadi 太清大帝 "Great Emperor of the greatest pureness")
The term sanqing originated in the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) and at that time only designated the heavens. The use of this term for deities gradually came up with the development of the three cavern theory (sandong 三洞) according to which the Daoist traditions are divided into three strands. To each of the three caverns, a heaven and a deity was assigned. The writing Daojiao yishu 道教義樞 says that the Dongzhenfa tianbao jun 洞真法天寳君 "Lord of the Heavenly treasure of the standards of the perfect from the cavern" resided in the Yuqing jing 玉清境 "Jade Purity Realm", the Dongxuanfa lingbao jun 洞玄法靈寳君 "Lord of the numinous treasure of the standard of the mystery from the cavern" in the Shangqing jing 上清境 "Highest Purity Realm", and the Dongshenfa shenbao jun 洞神法神寳君 "Lord of the divine treasure of the standard of the divine from the cavern" in the Taiqing jing 太清境 "Greatest Purity Realm". The "three pures" are thus nothing else than a collective designation for the Yuqing, Shangqing and Taiqing heavens.
Yet the order of the heavens and the rank of the deities was not always the same. During the late Tang period 唐 (618-907), for instance, the sanqing were identified as Yuanshi tianzun, Taishang dadao yuchen jun 太上大道玉晨君 "Lord of jade dawn of the great Way of the greatest loftiness", and the Taishang laojun. Later they were called Yuqing dayou tianbao jun 玉清大有天寳君 "Lord of the jade purity possessing the Heavenly jewel to a large extent", Shangqing miaoxuan lingbao jun 上清妙玄靈寳君 "Lord of the numineous treasure of the miraculous mystery of the highest purity", and Taiqing taiji shenbao jun 太清太極神寳君 "Lord of the divine treasure of the greatest extreme of the utmost purity", together the "three venerated jewel gods" (sanbao zunshen 三寳尊神).
In the scriptures Yebaojing 業報經 and Yinghuajing 應化經 it is said that the Heavenly venerated had the following names, residings and tasks:
  • Wuxing tianzun 無形天尊 "Formless Heavenly honoured", Lord Tianbao, residing in the Yuqing Heaven, revelating the Dongzhen writings to teach the nine saints (jiusheng 九聖) in Heaven. This is the large vehicle of Daoism (dasheng 大乘).
  • Yuanshi tianzun, Lord Lingbao, residing in the Shangqing Heaven, preaching the Dongxuan writings to teach the nine perfect men (jiuzhen 九真) in Heaven. This is the middle-sized vehicle of Daoism (zhongsheng 中乘).
  • Fanxing tianzun 梵形天尊 "Heavenly honoured with the pure appearance", Lord Shenbao, residing in the Taiqing Heaven, preaching the Dongshen writings to teach the nine immortals (jiuxian 九仙) in Heaven. This is the small vehicle of Daoism (xiaosheng 小乘).
The book Yuanshi shangzhen zhongxian ji 元始上真衆仙記 talks of the mysterious jade capital ontop of the seven-treasuries montain (xuandu yujing qibao shan 玄都玉京七寳山). Three palaces are built upon it. He highest palace (shanggong 上宮) is the residence of Pan Gu zhenren yuanshi tianwang 盘古真人元始天王 "Perfect man Pan Gu, Heavenly king of the primordial begining", and is administrated by Taiyuan shengmu 太元聖母 "Holy mother of the great origin". The middle palace (zhonggong 中宮) is the residence of the Taishang zhenren 太上真人 "Perfect man of the highest abode" and administrated by Jinque laojun 金闕老君 "The old lord of the golden tower gate". The lowest of the three (xiagong 下宮) is the residence of the Jiutian zhenhuang 九天真皇 "Perfect emperor of the nine heavens" and administrated by the Santian zhenwang 三天真王 "Perfect king of the three heavens". The palaces are located in the three highest of 35 heavens, as the book Laojun shengji 老君聖紀 says.
The Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) writer Jin Yunzhong 金允中 made a very concise overview of who and what exactly the sanqing means:
  • The three venerated (sanzun 三尊) are in the Daoist scriptures called: Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊, Taishang daojun 太上道君, and Taishang laojun 太上老君
  • alternative designations are: Tianbao jun 天寳君, Lingbao jun 靈寳君, and Shenbao jun 神寳君
  • adressing them with their realms they are called: Yuqing 玉清, Shangqing 上清, and Taiqing 太清
  • referring to the cavern realms they are called: Dongzhen 洞真, Dongxuan 洞玄, and Dongshen 洞神
The Taishang laojun, who is nobody else than Laozi 老子, was the oldest god among this trinity. He was already venerated as the highest deity in the Daoist Heaven by the adherents of the "Five pecks of grain school" Wudoumi dao 五斗米道 at the end of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). During the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420), with the manifestation of the Shangqing 上清派 and the Lingbao 靈寳 traditions new deities were invented, as Yuanshi tianwang 元始天王 "Heavenly king of the primordial beginnig", Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊, or Taishang yuchen dadao jun 太上玉晨大道君 "Lord of the great Gao of the highest jade dawn". Master Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 tried to create a systematic logic out of those newly emerged deities, and with the compilation of his Zhenling weiye tu 真靈位業圖 the trinity of the Sanqing was manifested. Laozi was still seen as the preeminent teacher (laoshi 老師) of Daoism. The Laojun 老君 "Old Lord" was interpreted as teacher of the Daojun 道君 "Lord of the Way", the latter as teacher of the Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊. The latter was interpreted as the founder of the Lingbao school and ancestor of the Dao, the Daojun was seen as the ancestral teacher of the "standard" (fa 法), and the Laojun the true teacher of the transmission (jiao 教). The ranks of the three pures changed after the Tang period and Laojun from then on occupied the lowest place in the trinity.
The Yuanshi tianzun (sometimes called tianwang 天王 "Heavenly King") is the highest deity of the three pures and is centered on the altar of the Sanqing Hall 三清殿 in Daoist temples. He is identified with Pan Gu as the creator of the universe out from the shapeless mysterious dark. He had thus existed before all objects came into being. As part of the voidness (xu 虛) had had himself no dimension (wuji 無極) but nevertheless filled out the whole imaginable space (taiji 太極). The Yuanshi tianzun can thus be identified with the Dao itself which is similiarly described in the Daodejing. He is a personification of the Dao.
The Lingbao tianzun, or Daojun as he was called in the beginnings, is a deity spreading out the knowledge of the Dao into all directions. He is a personification of Daoism and occupies the second place in the sanqing trinity.
The Daode tianzun or Taishang laojun is the deification of Laozi. Although he is originally believed to have been a really existing person, the philosopher Li Dan 李聃, he was already identified as a personification of the Dao as early as the beginning of the Later Han period. It was especially in the region of Sichuan where he was venerated not only as a worldly teacher but also as the primary teacher of the Dao who had existed even before the universe came into being, as the Xiang'er 想爾 commentary to the Daodejing says. Although Laozi was ever venerated as practically the highest personal deity of the Daoist pantheon (in contrast to the other two Pures, which are rather concepts than persons) he only was officially granted such a position by Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), and then again by Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (r. 997-1022) of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279). He nevertheless only occupies the lowest position of the sanqing trinity.

Source: Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (ed. 1994), Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. NNN.

August 3, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail