The Lingbao Tradition 靈寳派 "School of the Numinous Treasure" is one of the oldest Daoist schools. It was based on a corpus of writings first compiled by the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) Daoist master Ge Chaofu 葛巢甫, the so-called Lingbaojing 靈寳經 "Classic(s) of the Numinous Treasure".
Ge Chaofu was a grandson of the famous Daoist master Ge Hong 葛洪 (283-343). There had existed some Lingbao scriptures before him, like the Lingbao wufu 靈寳五符 "Five Talismans of the Numinous Treasure" mentioned in the book Yuejueshu 越絕書. This collection of talismans is said to have been presented to Emperor Yu the Great 大禹 by an immortal. The immortal hid these writings in a cave of Mt. Dongting 洞庭山. Much later, a certain Longwei zhangren 龍威丈人 "Tall man of the dragon power" presented these writings to King Helü 闔閭 of the regional state of Wu 吳. According to Daoist legend, nobody knew what kind of books these were, barring from Confucius 孔子, who knew their contents.
Ge Hong presents a similar story in his book Baopuzi 抱朴子, where it is said the the Lingbaojing contained three chapters on magic skills, namely Zhengjijing 正機經, Pinghengjing 平衡經 and Feigui shouzhi 飛龜授袟 (also called Feigui zhenjing 飛龜振經). Ge Hong's teacher Zheng Yin 鄭隱 (d. 302) was already in possession of those writings. The book Taishang lingbao wufu xu 太上靈寳五符序 in the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 narrates a simliar story. Liu Shipei's 劉師培 (1884-1920) remarks on the Daoist Canon (Du Daozang ji 續道藏記) say that the text of the essay Xiaodaolun 笑道論 of the Northern Zhou period 北周 (557-581) scholar Zheng Luan 甄鸞 (535-566), as well as in the encyclopaedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽, these statements are identically reported, which proves that the version of the Lingbao wufu in the Daoist Canon can be said to be an original, unaltered text. The term xu 序 "preface" is somewhat misleading because the book contains all three chapters, and is not just an introductory text.
The paragraph Wudi guanjiang hao 五帝官將號 elucidates the designations and names of the mythological Five Emperors 五帝, their oficials and generals, and the corresponding colours. The paragraph Taiqing wushi fa 太清五始法 speaks of the Five Storehouses (wuzang 五藏), the Five Constancies (wuchang 五常) and their relation to the Five Agents (wuxing 五行), which proves that the Lingbaojing was a writing compiled at the end of the Later Han period, when correlative thinking was en vogue. The text was for a long time kept secret and only became more widespread after Yang Xi 楊羲 (330-386) and Xu Mi 許謐 (305-367) had compiled the corpus of the Shangqing School 上清派, the Shangqingjing 上清經. Ge Chaofu thereupon started expanding the old Lingbao texts. Daoist scholars studying these writings were accordingly called adherents of the Lingbao School 靈寳派.
The Lingbaojing was handed down to Ge Chaofu's disciples Ren Yanqing 任延慶 and Xu Lingqi 徐靈期 (d. 474), which must have happened during the Long'an reign-period 隆安 (397-401) of Emperor An 晉安帝 (r. 396-418) of the Jin dynasty. The Lingbao writings soon became very popular. According to the Japanese scholar Kobayashi Masayoshi 小林正美 (b. 1943), Ge Chaofu's own compilations were the Lingbao chishu wupian zhenwen 靈寳赤書五篇真文 and Lingbao chishu yujue miaojing 靈寳赤書玉訣妙經.
The story of the transmission of the Lingbao writings says they were handed down from the deity Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊 ("Celestial Venerated of the Primordial Origin") down to Ge Xuan 葛玄 and his descendants. The Daoist encyclopaedia Yunji qiqian 雲笈七籤 tells the story that the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 instructed the immortal Tianzhen huangren 天真皇人 ("True August Man of Heaven") on Mt. Emei 峨眉山, and the latter Emperor Di Ku 帝嚳 on the Mude Terrace 牧德之臺, while Yu the Great was instructed on Mt. Zhongshan 鍾山, and King Helü of Wu on Mt. Gouqu 句曲.
The book Lingbao lüeji 靈寳略紀 holds that after ten thousand (yi 億) aeons or kalpas (jie 劫), Heaven would open, and the name of this new kalpa would be the "Red Bright" (chiming 赤明). In that aeon, a "Great Saint" (Dasheng 大聖) would appear on earth. This person was no one else than the immortal Yuanshi tianzun, who will give his instructions on the the Lingbao texts, and these will be very clear. Also, the deits Taishang dadao jun 太上大道君 (High Superior Lord of the Great Way) will appear, the Yuanshi tianzun will descend from Heaven and will teach the law of the Great Vehicle (dasheng 大乘) of the Lingbao. It is also said that King Helü of Wu was not able to perceive the meaning of the scripture. The book thereupon disappeared in the airs. Only when his son Fucha 夫差 climbed Mt. Laoshan 嶗山, he was able to recover it.
During the reign of Sun Quan 孫權 (r. 222-252), Emperor of Wu 吳 (222-280), Ge Xuan climbed Mt. Tiantai 天臺山, where he was visited by three deities instructing him. He is said to have obtain a 23-juan long book, was well as a 10 further scrolls inscribed with the books Yubing 語禀 and Qingwen 請問. Ge Xuan explained these writings to Zheng Siyuan 鄭思遠 and to his own brother, the grand-father of Ge Hong, and so the book was transmitted to Ge Chaofu.
Lu Xiujing's 陸修靜 text Lingbaojing muxu 靈寳經目序 and the Daojiao yishu 道教義樞 report similar stories of transmission from the Yuanshi tianzun to the Taishang dadao jun, and the Santian zhenhuang 三天真皇 ("Three True August Men from Heaven"), i.e. Emperor Di Ku, Yu the Great and King Helü. The Baopuzi and Ge Xuan's biography in the Shenxianzhuan 神仙傳 only mention the books Taiqing danjing 太清丹經 and Sanhuangwen 三皇文. Tan Sixian's 譚嗣先 Taiji Ge Xiangong zhuan 太极葛仙公傳 from the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) also does only mention the text of Tao Hongjing's 陶弘景 text on tomb stele, the Wu Taiji zuo xian tong Ge gong zhi bei 吳太極左仙公葛公之碑.
The historical facts were probably that Ge Xuan was in possession of a Lingbaojing text that was later expanded by Ge Chaofu and his disciples. The highest deitiy of Lingbao Daoism is the Yuanshi tianzun, and the oldest patriarch is Ge Xuan. Texts like Dongxuan lingbao benxing suyuan jing 洞玄靈寳本行宿緣經 (old name Taiji zuoxiangong qingwen 太極左仙公請問經) or Dongxuan lingbao benxing yinxuan jing 洞玄靈寳本行因緣經 (old name Xianren qingwen zhongsheng nanjing 仙人請問衆聖難經), corresponding to the Yubing and Qingwen of the Lingbao lüeji, were later additions.
The most important early Lingbao scriptures are Lingbao wufu xu (jing) 靈寳五符序(經), the Lingbao chishu wupian zhenwen 靈寳赤書五篇真文 and the Lingbao wuliang duren shangpin miaojing 靈寳無量度人上品妙經 (shortly called Durenjing 度人經). The Durenjing is very important and constitutes a kind of moral center of the Lingbao philosophy that adhorts all adherents to become morally better persons. It is the first of the Lingbao writings in the Daoist Canon and has often been commented. The greatest difference to other Daoist writings, especially those of the contemporarian Shangqing school is that while the latter stressed the individual cultivation (xiulian 修煉) to become an immortal, the Durenjing rather stresses the social context of an individual person. Each adherent of Lingbao Daoism had to act as a bridge-builder for others and so resembles the Buddhist Bodhisattva who first supports others before entering Nirvana himself.
While the other Daoist masters were only able to become "terrestrial immortals" (dixian 地仙), the Lingbao master, who possessed the clemency to support others (nian du ren 念度人), was able to become a celestial immortal (tianshen 天仙). One of the original aims of Lingbao belief was to prolong one's life and become an immortal. Yet during the Southern dynasties period 南朝 (420-589) the Lingbao religion was deeply influenced by the Buddhist belief in the retribution of sins and virtues (baoying 報應). The theory of immortality was therefore adapted to the postulation that evildoing and good deeds would be inherited to future generations. Someone attempting to become an immortal would therefore have to free himself from his body by recognizing that the physical body is vain (kong 空) and meaningless. All aspirations were to be directed towards the inherent Way (dao) instead of the outer shape of things, and only when the body (niwan 泥丸 "pill of mud") was forgotten (wang shen 忘身) and left behind, the basic nature of the Dao ("Way"), namely, sympathy with others, was found (wei dao shi ai 唯道是愛), and immortality could be attained.
This method was quite the contrary to that of earlier Daoist schools who laid stress on the physical body, its nourishment and the prolongation of life. Immortality so was newly defined by the Lingbao School as the state in which the mind was no longer desiring the physical continuation of the body. The accumulation of positive merits by benevolent doing (dexing 德行) would furthermore lead to immortality after death or in a future incarnation. For a Daoist adept it was therefore virtually imbossible to attain immortality in the present life, but he had to undergo moral purification for several incarnations (lunhui 輪回) before he was able to annihilate a further transgression (miedu 滅度) to a new life. As an immortal, one could ascend to Heaven (tiantang 天堂) as a deity and was able to trespass the limits of time and space.
Talismans (fulu 符籙) and incantations (zhushu 咒術) were, as a remnant of the Celestial Masters School (Tianshi dao 天師道), nevertheless also used to call spirits and dispell demons, to prevent disaster and to heal from illness. Communication with the gods was also possible by the help of talismans and supported supplicants in being registered in the ledgers of immortals (xianji 仙籍). Rituals and liturgies (zhaijiao keyi 齋醮科儀) were an important means of accumulating virtue and could be seen as the fundament in the search for the Dao.
The Lingbao School made use of traditional methods too, in order to purify the body from accumulated evils from the past, like visualization of spirit (cunshen 存神), ingestion of breath (fuqi 服氣), chattering with the teeth (kouchi 叩齒) or swallowing saliva (yanjin 咽津).
Ge Chaofu transmitted his Lingbao instructions to Ren Yanqing and Xu Lingqi who founded their own schools. The identity of Ren Yanqing is not clear, but there is some information to be found about Xu Lingqi who became an immortal, i.e. died, in 473 or 474. More important the these two Daoist masters is Lu Xiujing (406-477) who made the Lingbao School ripe for members of the aristocracy. He is the most important person for the popularisation of the Lingbao School and is the most eminent teacher who brought the various sources of the Lingbao School into one coherent concept.
Lu Xiujing's teachings are founded in the Celestial Masters School, the Shangqing School and the proper Lingbao School. Lu Xiujing is not a direct student of any master of these schools yet he was instructed in the wide range of Daoist writings by a certain Xi Zhang 郗張 who transmitted to him the teachings of the Three Zhangs 三張 (the Heavenly Masters Zhang Ling 張陵, Zhang Heng 張衡, and Zhang Lu 張魯, d. 216) and the two Ges 二葛 (Ge Xuan 葛玄, 164-244, and Ge Hong).
First, Lu Xiujing screened all Lingbao writings and rearranged them in the shape of a canon. This was done because many people had confused Ge Chaofu's teachings of the Lingbao Canon with that of the Shangqing Canon. Some Daoist masters had therefore produced Lingbao writings by simply altering, rearranging or abbreviating Shangqing scriptures or by assembling various scattered informations from different writings, or by composing commentaries or talismans for Shangqing writings. Lu Xiujing carefully sorted out false writings or useless duplicates from the 55 juan-long Lingbao Canon and compiled an index to his orthodox version of 35 juan that he presented to Emperor Wen (劉)宋文帝 (r. 424-453) of the Liu-Song dynasty 劉宋 (420-479) in 437. Unfortunately it is not possible to reconstruct which transmitted writings belonged to this orthodox Lingbao Canon.
Lu Xiujing also commented some of the Lingbao writings, like the Zhenwen chishu 真文赤書 or Renniao wufu 人鳥五符. The first is quite probably a writing by Ge Chaofu and is also known with the names Wupian zhenwen 五篇真文 or Yuanshi wulao chishu yujue 元始五老赤書玉訣. The latter is today known with the name of Taishang lingbao wufu jing 太上靈寳五符經 (short Wufujing 五符經), but the original Lingbao text seems to have been lost.
Lu Xiujing also systematically brought into a canonical form the rituals and liturgies of the Lingbao School. There had been some fasting rituals already during the time of the Three Masters Zhang and the Five Pecks of Grain school, like the mud-and-soot retreat (tuhui zhai 涂炭齋) or the retreat for mandating the teachings (zhijiaozhai 旨教齋). Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365-448) and Ge Chaofu were the first to reform the protean rituals of the Celestial Masters School and shaped the rituals of the Lingbao school. Any respective writings from their hand have not survived, but it seems that the rituals were still quite simple. Lu Xiujing standardized and expanded these fasting and liturgical rituals (zhaiyi 齋儀) to a higher and more sophisticated form.
According to his book Dongxuan lingbao wugan wen 洞玄靈寳五感文 he extended the ritual context so far that the fasting rituals could be used by the Heavenly Masters school, the Shangqing and the Lingbao schools as the nine observations and twelve rules (jiu zhai shi'er fa 九齋十二法). The last two originated in the Shangqing service, the former from the Lingbao service. The nine observations were that of the golden register (jinlu zhai 金籙齋), the yellow register (huanglu zhai 黄籙齋), the bright truth (mingzhen zhai 明真齋), the Three Origins (sanyuan zhai 三元齋), the eight fastings (bajie zhai 八節齋), being-in-itself / nature (ziran zhai 自然齋), the Three Augusts (sanhuang zhai 三皇齋), the Great Unity (taiyi zhai 太一齋), and the Heavenly instructions (zhijiao zhai 指教齋). The tuhui zhai from the Dongshen observance 洞神齋 was also incorporated into the rituals of the Lingbao School.
According to the book Maoshanzhi 茅山志, Lu Xiujing assembled descriptions of rituals making out a text of no less than 100 juan. Among these were older chants like Shengxuan buxu zhang 升玄步虛章, Lingbao buxu ci 靈寳步虛詞, or Buxu dong zhang 步虛洞章. It can be said that Lu Xiujing assembled all existing Daoist rituals of his time. His collection was the fundament of later compilations, as Zhang Wanfu 張萬福 or Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850-933) from the Tang period 唐 (618-907).
Rituals and liturgies were a very important instrument of Daoist religion and the main channel between the masters and the believers.
Although the Lingbao School had been founded by Ge Chaofu, it must be said that Lu Xiujing was the first real teacher, master and missionary of this branch of Daoism. The Daoist master Tao Hongjing reports in his book Zhengao 真誥 how adherents of Lu Xiujing assembled at the foot of Mt. Maoshan 大茅山 and erected a prayer hall, the Chongyuanguan 崇元觀 ("Veneration of the Origin, i.e. the Dao"). Thousand of persons gathered for the rituals on the 18th day of the 3rd month and climbed the sacred mountain, chanting prayers and hymns. This had only been possible because Lu Xiujing had systematically collected and arranged the writings of the Lingbao religion that before had only consisted of a few revised rituals, chants and talismans of the Lingbao tradition. The result was that the Lingbao School with its regulated fasting rituals and a fixed liturgy had effectively far more adherents than the Shangqing School.
Yet even if Lu Xiujing's merits for the development of the Lingbao School are very great, he did not transmit his teachings directly to any disciple, so that the fate of the Lingbao School after him is not very clear. There is no famous Lingbao master during the Tang period. Only at the beginning of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), the Lingbao School reappears in the shape of the Daoist practicioners of Mt. Gezao 閣皂山 in Qingjiang 清江, Jiangxi, a school that is also called the Gezao Church 閣皂宗.