vernacular priests (Daoist/Buddhist)


vernacular priests (Daoist/Buddhist)
The term ‘vernacular priests’ refers to married Daoist and, in some cases Buddhist, priests who perform rituals in local temples and homes at the request of people or communities who are best referred to as their ‘clients’. In the more common, Daoist case, the rituals performed belong to family traditions and are transmitted to disciples who have undergone a period of apprenticeship and, usually, a ritual of ordination, during which they are given a ritual name that defines their generational position in the tradition. In modern Chinese, such priests are described as huoju (hearth-dwelling) or sanju daoshi (scattered Daoists: that is, living at home, not in a temple or monastery). The names by which such priests are referred to traditionally varies a great deal from place to place, but one of the most commonly encountered is shigong, or ‘master’.
In the most typical case, a future master is the son of a Daoist priest who learns the trade naturally, by following his father around. Frequently, however, he will also have to ‘recognize a master’ (baishi)—that is, in the company of local Daoists, officially and ritually become the apprentice of a Daoist master. As with many traditional occupations, that of vernacular priest normally requires a three-year apprenticeship during which the disciple lives in the home of his master and performs menial tasks for him while gradually learning the métier. At the end of the apprenticeship period, the disciple, having copied by hand the ritual manuscripts transmitted to him by his master, will undergo a public ritual of ordination which provides the kind of community recognition necessary to becoming a master in his own right. Often, this ritual involves ‘ordeals’, like the ascension of a ladder of swords or running barefoot across red-hot coals, demonstrating to the community his ‘magic’ power, and thereby attracting clients.
If, in contrast to a spirit-medium or Buddhist monk, such individuals become priests not by vocation but by heredity, and if their work may be described most appropriately in the economic terms of a ‘trade’, it must be underlined that their trade is a most peculiar one. Once admitted to the confraternity of local Daoists, their job is to worship the gods and drive away demons on behalf of those who request and pay for their services.
This is considered to be extremely dangerous work, and it is therefore surrounded by a great number of prohibitions and rules that can best be described as ‘religious’. Frequently, such Daoists must not eat beef, for their patron saint, Taishang laojun (Lord Lao, the Most High), is said to have ridden a buffalo. As mistakes in the preparation of ritual documents or in the execution of rituals will be punished severely by the gods, these masters must go about their work with great care. Particularly dangerous rituals are often preceded by the ‘hiding of their souls’, lest the demons being fed or driven away attack them and cause them to fall ill or even die. Personal names and above all birth dates are not communicated to fellow Daoists, lest this information be used to injure the priest who may be a rival as well as a collaborator. Most such Daoists, finally, engage in regular worship at their home altars, so as to maintain their contractual relationship with the gods, who, in their tradition, protect them personally and help ensure the efficacy of their rituals.
See also: Daoist priests; Lüshan jiao (Sannai jiao); temple fairs
Further reading
Lagerwey, John. (1987). Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History. New York: Macmillan.
Schipper, Kristofer. (1993). The Taoist Body. Trans. Karen C.Duval. Berkeley: University of California Press.
JOHN LAGERWEY

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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