Examples of Successful Papers - University of San Diego Home Pages

Compiled by Louis Komjathy, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies
University of San Diego
I have compiled the present handout for students who need guidance concerning the
characteristics of a successful undergraduate research paper in my upper-division classes. I am
grateful to my former THRS 494 students who gave permission to use their papers. I have
omitted their names in order to avoid potential privacy issues. Please note that the samples are
not necessarily “A” papers. Rather, they are generally well-written, well-researched, fulfill the
requirements, and represent a more innovative approach to the assignment.
Student Name
November 16, 2009
THRS 494: Daoist Faith and Practice
Research Paper
The Daoist tradition can be characterized by a variety of cultural aspects that contribute
to an overall understanding of the beliefs and practices central to the tradition itself. One such
aspect is the expression of specific Daoist beliefs through poetry. Poetry has long been a means
of cultural expression for Daoists, and with the flourishing of Shangqing (Highest Clarity) during
the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), poetry began to focus on such themes as immortality and
mystical union with the Dao. Perhaps one of the most talented poets of the Tang dynasty was Wu
Yün, who both effectively and mysteriously provides insight into the inner desires of Tang
dynasty Daoists. Through his various cantos, one gains access to the mystical world of Daoists
practicing in the Shangqing tradition.
Wu Yün, known in English as the “Elder Who Takes Mystery as His Ancestor,” lived in
the mid-eighth century CE under the Tang dynasty. While he is described as “equally significant
as the Daoist priest he became after quitting the court,” his poetry, which most famously
describes “ecstatic journeys of the soul…”, is perhaps what is most revered (Pregadio 1048). In
an examination on how to become a “divine immortal through training”, Yün stressed the need
for mental self-cultivation, “described in terms of ‘inner nature’ and ‘emotions’” (ibid. 1049).
These qualities, or requirements to reach immortality, are expressed in his poetry, specifically in
his “Cantos on Pacing the Void” as well as “Saunters in Sylphdom”.
Being a Daoist under the Tang dynasty most likely implied Daoist practice according to
the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) school. These Daoists focused on an internal alchemy along
with personal meditation to work towards mystical union with the Dao. They also developed
belief in a celestial layer between the Dao and the created world in which both “pure gods of Dao
who were emanations of the original cosmic qi” and “immortals who had attained celestial status
through effort and the proper elixir” existed amongst various other entities (Kohn, Daoism, 89).
Further, practitioners of Shangqing used a visualization practice, in which they would leave the
ordinary world behind to “go on extensive journeys into the otherworldly realm, both on the
earth, exploring its far-off corners, and in the heavens,” (ibid., 90). Once there they would
“transform themselves into cosmicized and spirit beings, their bodies becoming networks of
deities and palaces, their minds in intimate relationship with heavenly divinities” (ibid.). Keeping
these practices and beliefs in mind is vital to the understanding of Wu Yün’s mysterious and
mystical poetry.
Daoist mysticism in general provides more insight into the works of Wu Yün. In her
article, “Eternal Life in Daoist Mysticism”, Kohn describes specific traits of religious mysticism,
describing transcendence as “the idea of a take-off, a separation from normal life…and the
notion on longevity and the complete avoidance of death” (622). This idea of a take-off is
specifically relevant to the works of Wu Yün, as he describes his cosmic journeys following a
departure from the world as we know it. As an analysis of many of his cantos will show, Wu fits
with Kohn’s description of using images of “freedom, lightness and beauty” to represent
transcendence (ibid.). To summarize the mystical influence in Yün’s poetry, “The ecstatic
experience of eternal life is therefore described in terms of flight. It is a flowing, floating
movement in accordance with the changes and transformations of the universe” (ibid., 631).
As with anything of historical value, much of Wu Yün’s poetry has been lost through the
ages. What survives today wholly intact are ten poems known as “Cantos on Pacing the Void”
and twenty-four poems named “Saunters in Sylphdom” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Cantos,” 385).
Through these two sets of poetry, one finds the common theme to be ecstatic and mystical
experiences as a result of visualization, divinity, and transcendence. “Cantos of Pacing the Void”
can be analyzed on the basis of an “underlying plot or scenario”, categorized as one of the
following: Halfway House, Departure, Flight, Arrival and Revelation (ibid., 393). In a differing
manner, Wu’s “Saunters in Sylphdom” are less specific in terms of the stage of transcendence;
instead, they focus on the overall emotional experience that the immortal goes through on his or
her journey throughout the cosmos. What these two sets have in common, however, is a style
that is “ecstatic, visionary, fantastic” and that captures the “essence of Highest Clarity-that is,
Tang Daoism—into skillfully constructed verses” (ibid., 414).
As mentioned, each of Wu Yün’s “Cantos on Pacing the Void” pertains to one or more
scenarios within the idea of transcendence itself. When analyzing the individual cantos, these
scenarios are key to a complete understanding of what specific aspect of the journey is being
described. When reading through the ten cantos, one can see that they are not written in
chronological order in terms of the specific steps of the journey being described. Thus, when
analyzing Yün’s poetry, it is perhaps more practical to group the poems based on the particular
scenario that most fits the poem’s underlying message. What follows is an analysis of several
poems in order of their location on the journey to immortality.
Canto five of Wu Yün’s set can be categorized in the scenario of halfway house (Schafer,
“Wu Yün’s Cantos,” 406). Broadly speaking, this tells the reader that the subject matter of this
canto concerns “briefing at the world-mountain Kunlun, usually with initiatory banquets and
other pleasant passage rites” (ibid., 393). In more general terms, it concerns celebratory events
upon becoming an immortal, and signifies readiness for passage into the realms beyond. The first
line in the canto makes reference to Fu Sang and the “first phosphor-glow”. According to
Chinese mythology, Fu Sang is a divine tree in the East from which the sun rises. Symbolically
speaking, this could represent (beyond light), the transition between yin and yang. Dawn would
signify a shift into the yang ideals. Wu also references the “Metal Mother”, which is symbolic of
the fourth of the five phases of Daoist cosmology.
In terms of diction, there is much reference to the color blue, using words such as “cyan”,
“lotus flowers”, and “the palace of blue sapphires” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Cantos,” 405). Blue is
used here to represent the Dao itself. The last three lines if the canto reveal the particular
message concerning the delight of spontaneity. “In Spontaneity, my mind is free of perversion.
Looking down, I pity the gentleman in that tract: Their sky is blurred-how very much to be
regretted” (ibid.). Wu Yün exalts the greatness of having achieved immortality and pities those
who have not yet achieved and experienced the truth and purity of the Dao.
Canto seven accurately portrays the theme of departure, representing a departure from the
earthly world into the celestial one which one experiences with transcendence. The canto opens
with a comment on the extreme brightness and also mentions a “Forest of Blue Flowers”. These
two things represent both the yang side of things as well as the Dao in its greatness. A reference
is then made to “numinous winds” suggesting an unseen presence and perhaps referring to the
Dao as an all-pervading numinosity. Wu’s mention of the “Three Lights” conjures imagery of
the three heavens of Shangqing, as well as a reference to yin and yang cosmology. The next few
lines make it apparent that the speaker has ascended into the sky and is moving throughout the
universe. Line six reads, “I turn my pupils downward—I am neighbor to the asterial net”
(Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Cantos,” 408). This line represents departure from the terrestrial as well as
a constant movement toward the celestial realm.
Next in the poem, there are references to asterial talismans known in English as “Free
Fall” and “Streaming Folly-bell” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Cantos,” 408-409). Traditionally,
talismans were highly revered in the Daoist tradition, especially in association with mystical
experiences. The inclusion of such talismans may suggest that Wu is describing a personal
journey and his encounters with such entities, rather than writing more generally about
transcendence. The use of detail suggests a more personal approach. Towards the end of the
canto, Wu makes reference to “felicity without limit”, thus describing his transcendent
experience and his union with the Dao in its entirety. It is interesting to note that this canto in
particular ends in a question regarding age. This suggests the timeless aspect of transcendence
and immortality.
Canto three of the “Pacing the Void” set accurately portrays the scenario of flight. It
opens with a reference to the Three Palaces, symbolizing the three primary bodily regions where
qi is stored in the human: the heart-mind, the navel, and the perineum. The palaces may also
refer to the Three Heavens of Shangqing: Great Clarity, Highest Clarity, and Jade Clarity. Wu
Yün then speaks of guiding “the impetuous tempest in motley tumult” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s
Cantos,” 400), describing his experience of flight throughout the celestial realm. He also makes
reference to the “latter-day skies” which symbolizes the heavenly realm after differentiation from
the Dao has occurred. Many references are also made to happiness, harmony, and calm which
portray the overall sentiments of those experiencing immortality as well as union with the Dao.
In particular, Wu Yün notes that, “Within this Mystery there is the utmost happiness” (ibid.,
401). Here “mystery” refers to the unnamable mystery dimension of the Dao. The Dao may also
be what Wu Yün is referring to with the phrase “in the company of a perfectly realized friend”.
The canto ends with the line “A wind-born waif, I am free to ramble at pleasure” (ibid.). This
line reiterates the freedom of transcendence and the celestial qualities of weightlessness and free
movement experienced beyond the terrestrial realm.
The next scenario in the procession of immortality and transcendence is that of arrival at
the heavenly realm. Canto eight of the “Pacing the Void” set expresses the emotions and actions
experienced by one who is arriving in the world of the celestial. The canto opens by informing
the reader that the transcendent has arrived in the Highest Clarity heaven and that there is
“neither waste nor dissipation…” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Cantos,” 409). This suggests that all
movement within the heavens has a purpose and is not simply frivolous action. Wu then states
that those with whom he comes into contact “generate florescent light”, thus implying that they
have yang-like qualities and are pure in form. Line four provides insight into the wuwei aspect of
Daoism, as it reads “Tones of jade tinkle spontaneously” (ibid., 410). The spontaneous aspect
represents the ultimate state of being and the use of jade echoes the highest heaven of Shangqing,
namely, Jade Clarity.
As the canto continues, imagery of specific places within the celestial realm is present.
Once again, this suggests that perhaps Wu Yün truly ventured to these places on one of his
mystical journeys. The words “Light”, “Truth” and “Phosphors” are all capitalized to show that
each represents the Dao as well as its emanation throughout the heavens. The last two lines of the
canto read, “As a sky person, truly my time and space are unbounded; my joy is grand-not
possibly to be measured” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Cantos,” 410). As seen in previous cantos, the
idea of timelessness is again exemplified, as is the limitlessness of space. This provides the
reader with a truly endless vision of the cosmos which the transcendent experiences. The last line
emulates the overwhelming joy felt upon arrival to the celestial realms. Wu Yün implies that
reaching immortality is the greatest joy to be felt.
The last scenario that Yün’s Cantos on Pacing the Void fit is that of revelation in which
“ultimate secrets are discovered” and “things beyond conception are explored” (Schafer, “Wu
Yün’s Cantos,” 393). Fittingly, the final canto in the set, canto ten, describes this scenario. The
entire poem encapsulates various aspects of the Daoist tradition, beginning with the very first
line which reads “The Two Energies sow the Myriad Beings” (ibid., 413). This is a clear
reference to the complementary cosmological forces yin and yang. Additionally, this line makes
reference to the 10,000 things which represent the concept of differentiation from the Dao. Wu
Yün then explains that qi never stops flowing and implies that he himself is at the beginning of
the universe with the following line: “While it is I who grasp its key” (ibid.). He then talks of
going forth from creation and ascending the Great Silence. This quite possibly could represent a
state in which knowledge and qi are simply absorbed through meditation. Wu Yün seems to be
focusing exclusively on taking in his surroundings and thus notes that all he encounters “is clear
and perfect” in line six.
As seen in previous cantos, allusions to the forces of yin and yang are embodied in canto
ten. Wu speaks of Primal Harmony as well as an aurora. The harmonious relationship of yin and
yang are thus represented through the aurora, which exists as a combination of bright colors
lighting up the night sky. The last two lines of the canto provide a perfect ending, both to the
canto as well as the set in its entirety. They read, “My wish is to use it to conserve youth and
infancy; I shall employ it forever to transcend both form and spirit” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s
Cantos,” 413). Wu thus expresses immortality as his deepest desire, and upon reaching it, he will
be one with the Dao.
Another impressive set of Wu Yün’s poetry is the aforementioned set of “Stanzas on
Saunters in Sylphdom.” Like the “Pacing the Void” set, these poems conjure imagery of eternal
life. As Schafer puts it, “His excursions are shaped by literary imagery, often dazzling, which
gives a vivid impression of incredible galactic adventures” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Stanzas,” 345).
They do differ, however, in the sense that they are not scenario specific. Instead, Wu’s “Saunters
in Sylphdom” portray the overall experience of transcendence.
Poem seven of the set combines the idea of appreciation for nature with the desire for
eternal life. The first two lines reference the Cyan Sea and the Three Mountains, demonstrating
they are limitless. This suggests that nature is the constant in life and represents the panenhenic
aspect of Daoism. The imagery evokes being at a high altitude, in which immortals “indulge
themselves in roving and relaxing” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Stanzas,” 321). Lines five and six, with
their references to “auroral liqueurs” and “rainbow mushrooms”, evoke mystical experiences
brought about by external alchemy.
The poem then takes on a more personal side with three lines beginning with “I”. The
reader is drawn in closer to learn Wu Yün’s personal account of being happy, weightless, and
eternal. The last of these three, line nine, reads “I shall conserve my longevity—to be equal to
that of the Three Lights” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Stanzas,” 321). This line suggests the eternal
aspect of immortality, as well as a degree of equality with the natural cosmic world. Overall,
poem seven captures the essence of oneness with nature and the ever-lasting life experienced by
Poem twenty-two provides perhaps the most particular relation to the Shangqing tradition
itself. The first line references the Three Clarities, which are the celestial beings that correspond
to the Three Heavens of the Shangqing tradition. Wu Yün refers to one of these beings as his
friend, thus implying a person relationship with divine beings. Once again, the imagery suggests
a relaxed journey through an endless space. Line five reads, “The Grand Hollow yields constant
light”, thus implying the yang aspect of the celestial journey. The fact that the light is constant
implies the constancy of both the Dao and the flow of qi, the two omnipresent ideals in the
Daoist belief system. Reference is then made to birds, constantly used in literature as a symbol of
freedom and the natural world. The last line of the poem states that the “ultimate happiness lies
with the Divine King” (Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Stanzas,” 341). While the Dao is often referred to as
the “Mother” or the “Source”, it could be argued that this line is a reference to the Dao itself. In
the view of transcendence, achieving union with the Dao provides the ultimate happiness. In this
situation, the Dao could easily be referred to as a King in terms of ruling all as well as a male in
terms of possessing the yang quality of the celestial realm.
The very last poem in the set, poem twenty-four, provides an overarching close to an
analysis of Wu Yün’s mystical poetry. Different from all of his other poems, this one begins,
quite literally, at the beginning. Yün is looking back in time to the era of undifferentiation. The
fact that he is able to do so implies the omnipotent aspect of immortality. He also chooses to
mention the Dao directly, which may imply a personal relationship with it, a unity that is desired
by many Daoists. Wu Yün then discusses the “constant character” and the aspects of light that
surround the Dao. He finishes with the line, “While it gained nothing, it surely lost nothing”
(Schafer, “Wu Yün’s Stanzas,” 343). This line denotes the shift from undifferentiation to
differentiation, implying also that the Dao remained constant in substance and character.
Thus, through careful examination of Wu Yün’s poetry, one gains a detailed and
confident account of the Shangqing ideals of immortality, transcendence, and ultimate union
with the Dao. What is perhaps most striking about Wu’s poetry are both the complexity of ideas
and the radical aspect of these ideas when compared with other literature of the period. However,
Wu Yün effectively portrays the joy and lightness of transcendence with beautifully chosen
words and carefully chosen themes. While it serves as valuable art, it also serves as a powerful
resource for those hoping to capture the essence of immortality and the celestial realm most
treasured by Daoists throughout the centuries.
Fabrizio, Pregadio. “Wu Yün.” In The Encyclopedia of Taoism, edited by Fabrizio Pregadio,
1.1048-49. 2 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
Kohn, Livia. Daoism and Chinese Culture. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2001.
Kohn, Livia. “Eternal Life in Daoist Mysticism.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 110.4
(1990): 622-640.
Schafer, Edward H. “Wu Yün’s ‘Cantos of Pacing the Void’.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic
Studies 41 (1981): 377-415.
Schafer, Edward H. “Wu Yün’s Stanzas on ‘Saunters in Sylphdom’.” Monumenta Serica 35
(1981-83): 309-345.