This overview provides some explanation and history on the Yellow Court Scripture so that students will have some idea of the goal for learning it. The reason for practicing these teachings is to become an immortal, so it is important to understand what immortality means to a Daoist.
In the term “Immortality” (Xian), the Chinese ideogram (仙) shows a person within a mountain, the image of someone leaving the mundane world to go into hermitage or seclusion. An “immortal” is someone who has ascended beyond his or her mortality, defined in three distinct ways:
- The first is to attain the age of one hundred years or more.
- The second is to attain perpetual youthfulness.
- The third is to awaken, or illuminate, the spirit, so that after death the spirit may traverse to whatever realm of existence it chooses. This third way of defining immortality predominates most Daoist views.
Daoists proclaim that the common person dies in fear and confusion because the spirit is aggravated and muddled. The person who has awakened his or her spirit, however, enters into immortality in clarity and with purpose. To attain immortality is to obtain the Dao.
In the end, all cultivated Daoists hold the belief and goal in immortals and immortality, or as Lao Zi, the attributed founder of Daoism says in The Scripture on the Dao and Virtue, “To live as long as Heaven and Earth.”
Whether immortality be in body or spirit is a mute point because the cultivation process of attaining immortality is truly a process of wholly appreciating life itself.
The Two Texts of the Yellow Court Scripture
1) The Exalted One’s External Illumination of the Yellow Court Scripture
(太 上 黃 庭 外 景 經, Tai Shang Huang Ting Wai Jing Jing)
Attributed to Lao Zi
This text dates back some time before the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 CE), as it is mentioned in the Bao Pu Zi by Ge Hong, and because it is attributed to Lao Zi. The scripture is composed in three parts with Upper, Middle, and Lower chapters, and each is an explanation of the three Yellow Courts in the human body, and the eight spirits that surround each of these Yellow Courts. This first book contains 196 verses, with each verse composed of seven Chinese characters.
2) Supreme Clarity of the Internal Illumination of the Yellow Court Scripture
(上 清 黃 庭 内 景 經, Shang Qing Huang Ting Nei Jing Jing)
Attributed to Madame Wei Huacun
This scripture was composed by Madame Wei and it describes the meditation, visualization, breathing, and ritual aspects for the attainment of longevity and immortality. In this part of The Yellow Court Scripture, Madame Wei composed thirty-six verses, 440 seven-character verses, explaining the inner meaning of The Yellow Court Scripture. In her opening remarks, she states:
Employing these methods will harmonize the Three Hun Spirits, regulate and discipline the Seven Po Spirits; cast out the Three Corpse Spirits; bring peace and harmony to the Six Treasuries and Five Viscera; manifest a beautiful flower within; revert to youthfulness; the hundred illnesses cannot cause injury; and so thousands of calamities and misfortunes from Heaven can be diverted. There will then be an expiration of myriad transgressions, a natural and clear observation of ghosts and spirits, internally be able to envision the stomach and the ability to observe the Five Viscera. At this time, one will become a True Person of the Yellow Court, the Jade Maiden will appear within a flower, and you will become master-teacher of spiritual immortality. This is the Dao of immortality.
The first written reference to The Yellow Court Scripture in Daoist literature was given by Ge Hong in the Bao Pu Zi. He clearly shows his familiarity with The Yellow Court Scripture in the twentieth scroll of his work, titled Dispersing Doubts (祛 惑, Qu Huo), wherein he records the practice of a man called Cai Dan (材 但) who erroneously thought that just reciting The Yellow Court Scripture throughout the day and evening would bring him immortality.
In this reference to The Yellow Court Scripture, Ge Hong offers no historical information on when the text was written or of its original author. The text is attributed to Tai Shang (太 上, Supreme Exalted One) an honorific title of the deified Lao Zi. The Yellow Court Scripture does, however, contain some of the language and ideologies of The Scripture on the Way and Virtue.
During the time of Ge Hong, there existed the Daoist sect Supreme Clarity (太 清, Tai Qing). Tai Qing was a school based on the practices of alchemical formation of a pill of immortality, and the Tai Qing school viewed the practice of long-term seated meditation as preliminary and inferior to their alchemical practices. The rituals and processes of creating and maintaining the furnace, the gathering and infusion of the necessary materials and ingredients, and the invocation of specific spirits all took great concentration and intent.
The idea of producing a pill of immortality was not so much about the finished product, but more so about the ritual and constant mindfulness a practitioner had to maintain to make it over a three-month period (usually ninety days, or as it is sometimes referred to in Daoist texts: “One hundred days of spiritual work”). Actually, it could take a Daoist years just to prepare for undertaking the practice. Once everything was in place, the Daoist would set aside a three-month period for the process and ritual.
The Tai Qing Sect gradually disappeared due to the influences of the formation of the Celestial Masters Sect. The alchemical rituals and process waned as the main method of cultivation for most Daoists, being replaced with seated meditation methods for circulation of qi within the body—the Dao Yin (導 引, Leading and Guiding) approach propagated by the Celestial Masters Sect.
Within this period, Madame Wei Huacun, who was a semi-follower of the Celestial Masters Sect, experienced visitations from various immortals who transmitted teachings to her.
It was the instructions given to her by an immortal called Wang Bao, Perfect Man of Foremost Emptiness (清 虛 眞 人 王 褒, Qing Xu Chen Ren Wang Bao) that enabled her to write the thirty-six incredible compositions on internal alchemy.
Scholars postulate, however, that it was from the visitation and transmission of another immortal, Perfected Man Jing Lin (眞 人 淨 林, Zhen Ren Jing Lin) that she wrote what is called, The Internal Illumination of the Yellow Court Scripture.
Thirty years after her death, when her disciple Yang Xi (楊 羲) reworked her compositions, The Yellow Court Scripture was divided into two parts: The External Illumination (外景) of the Yellow Court Scripture (the original text) and The Internal Illumination (內景) of the Yellow Court Scripture (Madame Wei’s thirty-six sections on the original text).
Hence, it was from the work of Madame Wei—in contrast to the external process and alchemy of creating a “material pill” of immortality—that the internal alchemical process of creating a “spiritual pill” of immortality was developed.
The debate concerning the text is whether The External Illumination of the Yellow Court Scripture existed before Madame Wei or whether she is its original author.
The Supreme Harmony Sect (太 平 派, Tai Ping Pai) before her time had already taught some coarse methods of visualizing internal spirits within the body, but their teachings were not nearly as articulate, nor were they directed at attaining immortality per se, but more on the idea of increasing longevity.
Keep in mind, however, that Ge Hong only refers to The Yellow Court Scripture, not the two divisions formed by Yang Xi, and Ge Hong could not have known about the two divisions of the text because Yang Xi didn’t form them until 364 CE, some twenty years after Ge Hong’s passing. There is also no record showing that Ge Hong knew of or ever met Madame Wei, but if he had, and in consideration of the historical accuracy usually included in his works, he would have definitely mentioned her.
Of course, this is just conjecture, but it is logical to assume that The Yellow Court Scripture existed before Madame Wei’s time and that she is the author of The Yellow Court Internal Illumination Scripture, and not The Yellow Court External Illumination Scripture.
Yang Xi formally founded the Foremost Purity Sect (上 清 派, Shang Qing Pai), and he named Madame Wei as the first matriarch of the sect. To gain aristocratic and imperial favor of the Tang dynasty officials over the influences of the Celestial Masters, Yang Xi eliminated the sexual connotations Madame Wei incorporated and had learned within the Celestial Masters teachings, but later it appears either Bai Yuchan or Wu Zhengzi restored them.
The Shang Qing Sect became very popular through the efforts of Yang Xi and Madame Wei’s two sons (刘 璞, Liu Pu, and 刘 瑕, Liu Xia). The Shang Qing Sect was instrumental in the propagation of internal alchemy, but it never overcame the popularity of the Celestial Masters Sect with the aristocracy of the Tang imperials.
Later, a famous Daoist scholar named Tao Hongjing (456 to 536 CE) further reworked the teachings of the Shang Qing Sect, and since his hermitage was in the mountains of Mao Shan (茅 山, Grass Mountain) outside of the city of Nanjing, the Shang Qing Sect later began to be called the Mao Shan Sect, which is still active today and headquartered on Grass Mountain.
Since the time of Tao Hongjing, however, the Mao Shan Sect focused more on ritual, magic, and talismanic arts than on the original Yellow Court internal alchemy practices created by Madame Wei.
Tao Hongjing himself viewed the practices of The Yellow Court Scriptures as only being useful for longevity purposes, not immortality. But his view was most likely tainted by the fact that he was never transmitted the teachings. Rather, he was a famous scholar who reworked existing documents of the Shang Qing Sect, and so was honorably given the title of ninth patriarch of the Shang Qing Sect, but there is no evidence showing he was an actual cultivator of The Yellow Court Illumination methods.
During Tao Hongjing’s time, the Confucians, and other competing Daoist sects, were very punitive towards practicers of the sexual arts and the schools promoting them, so it could also be that Tao’s remarks on The Yellow Court Scripture—which, in part, employs sexual practices—was an attempt to protect the Shang Qing Sect. Also, Buddhists of that time, and even today, shun the practices of The Yellow Court Scriptures. Chinese Buddhism, demanding lifelong celibacy of its clergy, can hardly find any reconciliation with the teachings of The Yellow Court Scriptures.
Sometime around 1120 CE, a Daoist Priest named, Bai Yuchan (白 玉 蟾, White Jade Toad) was transmitted the Yellow Court Illumination teachings and Thunder Techniques from a famous Shang Qing Sect Daoist master named Chen Nan (陳 楠). Bai Yuchan then undertook the task of reorganizing the Spiritual Firmament Sect (神 霄 派, Shen Xiao Pai), the school to which Chen Nan was connected.
The Spiritual Firmament Sect was supposedly created by loyal Shang Qing Sect adherents in opposition of Tao Hongjing’s changes to the syllabus of texts and practices, and over time the sect became overshadowed by the growing influence of the Mao Shan Sect. The foundational works and practices of the Shang Qing Sect were largely replaced and absorbed into the Mao Shan Sect teachings, and by the tenth century, the transformation was complete. However, due to the work of Bai Yuchan, the Spiritual Firmament Sect continued, even into present day.
Regarding the teachings of Madame Wei, she saw the process of attaining immortality through the cultivation of the Three Treasures, and did so by applying the methods of sexual arts, breathing, visualization, meditation, and ritual—and these were all done in preparation of cultivating the practice of the Yellow Court Illumination, a ninety-day immersion of spiritual work that included these main practices:
- Reciting The Yellow Court Scripture (念 經, Nian Jing)
- Thunder Techniques (雷 法, Lei Fa)
- Absorbing the Mists Methods (服 霧 法, Fu Wu Fa)
Additionally, students abstain from all recreational types of sexual activity during the ninety days. They ingest specialized herbal formulas, eat very low levels of starches, and forego eating grains and meat.
In the end, this ninety-day period of cultivating the Yellow Court Illumination is a spiritual internal replication of what the earlier cultivators of the Tai Qing Sect performed in their alchemical processes of forming a material pill of immortality.
The cultivation method of the Yellow Court Illumination is not easy, and it takes a great deal of preparation before being able to engage in it. As transmitted to a student by his or her teacher, no one should practice it unless he or she has cultivated the Three Treasures to the point of having experienced Shen Ming, otherwise there will be insufficient spiritual force in which to accomplish the practice.
This practice is reserved solely for students who have achieved Shen Ming. This practice is not about just reading or reciting The Yellow Court Scripture. Doing so might be beneficial on some levels for health and longevity purposes, but not for the attainment of immortality.
Without the transmission from an accomplished teacher, crucial points of practice and interpretation will be missing in the student’s practice.
Ultimately, all the teachings lead up to the time when the cultivator can cut him or herself off from the world and spend ninety days immersed in the methods and procedures of the Yellow Court Illumination practices. Like the cultivators of the Tai Qing Sect, years are sometimes spent in preparation before the actual alchemical process could take place, and sometimes it would require repeated efforts to accomplish.
The Yellow Court Illumination teachings are held as the foremost method of attaining immortality. Unless a student has experienced Shen Ming, however, the practice simply will not work. This is not a question of being elitist or secretive, rather the practice can take years to prepare for, and for a student to follow the conditions of devoting ninety days for complete and undisturbed practice is very difficult. Very few accomplished students can even prepare for doing it, let alone attempt it. So to just speak carelessly about these teachings or talk about them as if anyone could do them serves no good end.
Likewise, if someone were to just practice these teachings without proper preparation, guidance, and knowledge, he or she could end up like Cai Dan in Ge Hong’s story. As Ge Hong describes, Cai Dan lost everything and achieved nothing because he foolishly thought by just reciting The Yellow Court Scripture throughout the day and night he would achieve results. Without transmission from a teacher, doing no preliminary or preparatory work, and leaving aside all his worldly and family obligations, Cai Dan completely failed. Instead of acquiring immortality, he made his mortal life even worse.
For those who approach, practice, and learn properly, however, the reward of ascending and sitting with the immortals is assured. That, undoubtedly, is a bold statement, but it is stated because the Yellow Court Illumination teachings are the gateways to the conditions and experiences of immortality. Simply put, they aren’t just teachings that can lead to immortality—they are the teachings for achieving it.
In Daoism, there is an underlying factor that many students simply overlook and normally dismiss as wild fantasy, and that factor is that every great teacher and every serious cultivator has an experience of communing, in either physical or ethereal form, with an immortal. In fact, without such an experience, immortality can hardly be achieved—nor would any true teacher claim so without such a transmission.
Too much of Daoism in present day is simply based on acquiring some form of qi, but this is only a coarse experience and not the height of Daoist practices. In the Yellow Court Illumination practice, the underlying intent is to not only envision internal spirits of the body, but to have communion with the external spirits and immortals as well.
Within these teachings there is both the invocation and sexual or spiritual communion with immortal deities such as Jade Maiden (玉 女, Yu Nu) and Jade Youth (玉 童, Yu Tong). Hence, the reason for cultivating Shen Ming and creating a very powerful spiritual force (Yao Ling), a spiritual brightness and virtue the immortals can see and find worthy of their attention.