Sacred Mountains of Taoism

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Yuangshuo Village & Li River

Flickr Creative Commons: Magical-World

The mountains of China have long been places of great inspiration and support to Taoist practitioners. Their potent energy and deep quietude provide a context in which meditation, qigong and Inner Alchemy practice can be especially fruitful. Their beauty inspires poetry, or perhaps instead the dropping of all language, in an awed silence. Naturalness and spontaneity -- the hallmarks of wuwei (non-volitional action) -- are nourished by the energy of mountains with their rivers, meadows, misty forests and waterfalls.

A Tang dynasty text on Taoist "Grotto-Heavens & Auspicious Sites" lists 10 major, 36 lesser and 72 auspicious sites. The phrase "Grotto-Heavens and Auspicious Sites" or “Grotto-Heavens and Wholesome Earths” or "Grotto-Heavens and Blissful Realms" refers to specific locations within China's sacred mountains, which are said to be governed by Taoist Immortals. More generally, it can refer to any landform whose spiritual energy is potent – making it a sacred space for Taoist practice. The Grotto-Heavens and Wholesome Earths have much to do with both the terrestrial branch of Fengshui, and the practice of "aimless wandering" through places of great natural beauty.

Here we'll have a look at some of Taoism's most revered mountains: Yuangshuo, Huashan, Wudan, Shaolin, Jade Dragon and Huangshan. Enjoy!

Sitting alone in peace
Before these cliffs
The full moon is
Heaven's beacon
The ten-thousand things
Are all reflections
The moon originally
Has no light
Wide open
The spirit of itself is pure
Hold fast to the void
Realize its subtle mystery
Look at the moon like this
The moon that is the heart's

- Han Shan

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Yuangshuo Mountains From A Bamboo Boat

Flickr Creative Commons: Magical-World

You ask why I make my home in the mountain forest,
and I smile, and am silent,
and even my soul remains quiet:
it lives in the other world
which no one owns.
The peach trees blossom.
The water flows.

- Li Po (translated by Sam Hamill)

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Huashan - Flower Mountain

Flickr Creative Commons: Ianz

Huashan - Flower Mountain - is often listed along with Songshan, Taishan, Hengshan and another Hengshan as China's five most sacred mountains (each associated with a specific direction). Others that are frequently acknowledged as being of particular importance for Taoist practitioners are the Wudang Mountains, Shaolin, Mount Hui, Mount Beiheng and Mount Nanheng.

According to Volume 27 of the Taoist text known as Seven Slips of a Cloudy Satchel, the Ten Great Grotto-Heavens are: Mount Wangwu Grotto, Mount Weiyu Grotto, Mount Xicheng Grotto, Mount Xixuan Grotto, Mount Qingcheng Grotto, Mount Chicheng Grotto, Mount Luofu Grotto, Mount Gouqu Grotto, Mount Linwu Grotto, and Mount Cang Grotto.

It feels good to call out by name these powerful places, though it's important also to remember that there are countless others - perhaps even one in your own back yard! (From my window here in Boulder, Colorado, I can see Bear Peak and Green Mountain and the Flatirons, as well as Mount Senitas - all of whom I at times take for granted. How easy it is to pine away for distant peaks, even when what is close at hand is so sublime. Sigh.)

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Huashan - The Plank Path

Flickr Creative Commons: Alverson

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

- Han Shan (translated by Gary Snyder)

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Huashan - Mist & Stone Stairs

Flickr Creative Commons: Wit

It's traditional for those on pilgrimage to Huashan to purchase a padlock, have it engraved with a personal message, lock it to a rail, and then throw the key off of the mountain. In this way, ones aspiration is symbolically "locked into" the mountain.

Visiting Feng-Hsien Temple At Lung-Men

I leave the temple, but stay another
night nearby. The dark valley all empty
music, moonlight scatters lucid
shadow among trees. Heaven's Gap

cradles planets and stars. I sleep
among clouds - and stirring, my clothes
cold, hear the first bell sound
morning for those waking that deeply.

- Tu Fu (translated by David Hinton)

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Huashan - The Long View

Flickr Creative Commons: Alverson

Drunk On T'ung Kuan Mountain, A Quatrain

I love this T'ung-kuan joy. A thousand
years, and still I'd never leave here.

It makes me dance, my swirling sleeves
sweeping all Five-Pine Mountain clean.

- Li Po (translated by David Hinton)

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Wudang Mountains In Mist

Flickr Creative Commons: KLFitness

Young clear-voiced dragons in these
gorges howl. Fresh scales born of rock,

they spew froth of fetid rain, breath
heaving, churning up black sinkholes.

Strange new lights glint, and hungry
swords await. This venerable old maw

still hasn't eaten its fill. Ageless teeth
cry a fury of cliffs, cascades gnawing

through these three gorges, gorges
full of jostling and snarling, snarling.

- Meng Chiao (translated by David Hinton)

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Shaolin Mountain & Monastery

Flickr Creative Commons: Rainrannu

Buddha's Satori

For six years sitting alone
still as a snake
in a stalk of bamboo

with no family
but the ice
on the snow mountain

Last night
seeing the empty sky
fly into pieces

he shook
the morning star awake
and kept it in his eyes

- Muso Soseki (translated by W.S. Merwin)

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Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Ken Driese

These next four photos of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain are the work of photographer Ken Driese - so beautiful!

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is sacred, in particular, to the Naxi people, whose Dongba religious practices have roots in the shamanic aspects of Taoism as well as in the Bon tradition of Tibet.

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Jade Dragon - Cradled In Clouds

Ken Driese

This photo, the previous and the next, were taken from a hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China.

Gazing At The Sacred Peak

For all this, what is the mountain god like?
An unending green of lands north and south:
from ethereal beauty Creation distills
there, yin and yang split dusk and dawn.

Swelling clouds sweep by. Returning birds
ruin my eyes vanishing. One day soon,
at the summit, the other mountains will be
small enough to hold, all in a single glance.

- Tu Fu (translated by David Hinton)

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Jade Dragon - Windy Clouds

Ken Driese

Singing Image Of Fire

A hand moves, and the fire's whirling takes different shapes:
All things change when we do.
The first word, "Ah," blossoms into all others.
Each of them is true.

- Kukai (translated by Jane Hirshfield)

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Jade Dragon & Flowers

Ken Driese

Written On The Wall At Chang's Hermitage

It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.

- Tu Fu (translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

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Jade Dragon, Snow & Sky

Flickr Creative Commons: Travelinknu

How cold it is on the mountain!
Not just this year but always.
Crowded peaks forever choked with snow,
Dark forests breathing endless mist:
No grass sprouts till the early days of June;
Before the first of autumn, leaves are falling.
And here a wanderer, drowned in delusion,
Looks and looks but cannot see the sky.

- Han Shan (translated by Burton Watson)

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Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) Sunrise

Flickr Creative Commons: Desdegus

I lie alone by folded cliffs,
Where churning mists even at midday do not part.
Though it is dark here in the room,
My mind is clear and free of clamor.
In dreams I roam past golden portals;
My spirit returns across the stone bridge.
I have thrust aside everything that vexes me-
Clatter! clatter! goes the dipper in the tree.*

- Han Shan (translated by Burton Watson)

* Someone, feeling sorry for the hermit Hsu Yu because he had to drink water from his hands, gave him a gourd dipper. But after using it once, Hsu Yu hung it in a tree and went off, leaving it to clatter in the wind.

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Yellow Mountain & Monkey

Flickr Creative Commons: Desdegus

I love that monkey! (Or maybe it's Li Po?)

The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

- Li Po (translated by Sam Hamill)

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The Mountains Of Li River

Flickr Creative Commons

... and back where we began, with the mountains of Li River, around the village of Yuangshuo. Thanks for making the journey!

At Home In The Summer Mountains

I've come to the house of the Immortals:
In every corner, wildflowers bloom.
In the front garden, trees
Offer their branches for drying clothes;
Where I eat, a wine glass can float
In the springwater's chill.
From the portico, a hidden path
Leads to the bamboo's darkened groves.
Cool in a summer dress, I choose
From among heaped piles of books.
Reciting poems in the moonlight, riding a painted boat ...
Every place the wind carries me is home.

- Yu Xuanji

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Your Citation
Reninger, Elizabeth. "Sacred Mountains of Taoism." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, Reninger, Elizabeth. (2020, August 26). Sacred Mountains of Taoism. Retrieved from Reninger, Elizabeth. "Sacred Mountains of Taoism." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).