The beliefs of the Lingbao school were based on the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. The school's cosmology was also influenced by Buddhism, but still maintained many Daoist beliefs, including the idea that the world emerged from the Single Breath, and that an apocalypse would occur that only a limited few could avoid through faith. Its pantheon is similar to Shangqing and Celestial Master Daoism, with one of its most important gods being the form of Laozi. Alongside Laozi, other minor gods existed, some of whom were in charge of preparing spirits for reincarnation. Although reincarnation was an important concept in the Lingbao School, the earlier Daoist belief in attaining immortality remained. Likewise, Lingbao ritual was initially very similar to individual Celestial Master ritual, but went through a transformation that put more emphasis on collective rites. The most important scripture in the Lingbao School is known as the ''Five Talismans'' , which was compiled by Ge Chaofu and based on Ge Hong's earlier alchemical works.
The Lingbao School began in around 400 CE when the Lingbao scriptures were revealed to Ge Chaofu, the grand-nephew of Ge Hong. Ge Chaofu did not claim to have had the scriptures revealed to him directly from the spirits, but rather from a line of transmission going back to Ge Hong's great-uncle, Ge Xuan . Ge Chaofu transmitted the scriptures to two of his disciples, and the scriptures gained quick and immense popularity. In 471, Lu Xiujing compiled a catalogue of all the Lingbao texts, and also was responsible for reorganizing and standardizing Lingbao ritual. This organization of texts and ritual provided a solid foundation upon which the Lingbao School prospered in the subsequent centuries. Under the Tang Dynasty, the Shangqing School, better integrated with the aristocracy, was more influential in court. The Shangqing School, however, borrowed many Lingbao practices, thus further integrating the two schools. While the Lingbao school did not survive as a distinct entity, its ritual apparatus did, and it forms the basis for present-day Daoist ritual practice.
Many Lingbao beliefs are borrowed from Buddhism. These borrowings, however, were often clumsy and betrayed the Lingbao Daoists' poor understanding of Buddhism. The names of the many different deities and heavens were often given titles copied from Buddhism that were based on phonetic transcriptions of Sanskrit. Many Buddhist terms were borrowed, but given completely different meanings. The only significant borrowing from Buddhism was the idea of reincarnation.
Both Buddhism and the Lingbao School share the idea of the . These were rebirth into , as a , as an , as a or as a . After death, the adept's body would be alchemically refined in the Palace of Supreme Darkness located in the north, and in the aptly named Southern Palace in the south. The transmutation of the body consisted of two steps; the yin components of the person were refined in the Palace of Supreme Darkness, followed by the yang components in the Southern Palace. The Lingbao concept of rebirth is a sinicization of Buddhism, mixing traditional Chinese concepts with newly arrived Buddhist ideas.
Lingbao cosmology borrows heavily from Buddhism. Unlike previous cosmological systems which were divided into anywhere from four to nine regions, Lingbao cosmology supposed that there were ten regions, an idea borrowed from Buddhism. In addition to the cosmological regions, there were 32 heavens divided into four sectors, each with eight heavens that were placed horizontally on the periphery of the celestial disc. Like Buddhism, the heavens were divided into 'three worlds,' the worlds of desire, form and formlessness.
Certain traditionally Daoist ideas were retained in Lingbao cosmology, such as the idea that the world originated from the Single Breath, and then was divided into heaven and earth. However, the Single Breath is subdivided into three breaths that corresponds to three deities, the lords of the Celestial Treasure, of the Sacred Treasure and of the Divine Treasure. During the subsequent three cosmic eras in the three Daoist heavens, these three lords introduced the teachings of the ''Dadong'' , the ''Dongxuan'' and of the ''Dongshen'' . These three teachings form the basis for the later classification of texts in the Daozang.
notions that appeared in Shangqing Daoism were developed fully by Lingbao Daoists. Lingbao cosmology supposed that time was divided into cosmic cycles that were correlated with the . At the end of a cosmic era, the emperor of the colour that was associated with that era would descend onto earth and reveal a teaching that would save a fixed number of people from death. There were two types of cosmic eras, short ones that were characterized by an excess of Yin energy, and long ones that were characterized by an excess of Yang energy. At the end of a short era, the moon would produce a flood that eroded the mountains, caused the Nine Breaths of the universe to be renewed and the ten thousand emperors to change their ranking. At the end of a long era evil creatures were unleashed, heaven and earth were turned upside down, and metals and stones melted together. The people who followed the correct teaching revealed by the emperor would be gathered up by the Queen Mother of the West and transported to a 'land of bliss' that would not be affected by the apocalypse.
In addition to borrowing deities from the Celestial Masters and the Shangqing School, Lingbao also developed its own gods. The supreme god of Lingbao Daoists is known as the ''Yuanshi Tianzun'' or ''The Celestial Worthy of the Original Beginning,'' who played a similar role to the deified Laozi in the . According to the scriptures, this god went through a series of kalpa cycles that were given names similar to dynastic names, until emerging at the beginning of the ''Kaihuang'' period. The next most important god was ''Laojun,'' the deified form of Laozi, who was the Celestial Worthy's chief disciple. Below these two main gods in the celestial hierarchy were those deities associated with the Southern Palace, which was where spirits went after to death prepare for rebirth. The head of this group of gods was known as the Perfected of the Southern Extremities. Beneath him was the Director of the Equerry, who was in charge of the life records of the spirits, and Lord Han, who controlled Fengdu, the city of the dead. Below these principle gods in the Lingbao hierarchy, were other deities such as the ''Five Old Men,'' the ''Dragon Kings'' and the ''Demon Kings''.
Deities were not only present in the heavens, but also in the human body itself. These deities, with names such as the Director of Destiny and Peach Vigor, were responsible for maintaining the body's , guarding the registers of life and regulating the souls. Normally these deities resided in the heavens, but they could be activated by scriptural recitations in order to descend into the body.
Despite a belief in reincarnation, the Lingbao School maintained the traditional Daoist idea that certain techniques could allow an adherent to achieve immortality. One technique was to ingest the essence of the sun and the moon. This involved exposing oneself to the planets at certain times of the month, and then with one's eyes closed, visualizing their essence coagulating and entering the body. Once in the body, the sun's essence was matched to the heart and visualized as being red, while the moon's was matched with the kidney's and seen as black. Besides interior meditation practices, immortality could also be achieved through the ingestion of potions or the ingestion of .
Early Lingbao ritual was mostly done on an individual basis, and was done either in a meditation chamber, or the courtyard of a house. These practitioners were not professional priests, but rather 'students of the Dao'. Later on, as the Lingbao movement developed religious institutions and an established clergy, ritual practice became more of a communal rite.
Lingbao ritual shares a great deal with ritual in other Daoist traditions. Like other traditions, Lingbao rituals had a theatrical quality, that involved accompanying music, dances and chants. Lingbao Daoism also shared the multidimensional aspect of Daoist ritual, meaning that it was carried on at several different levels simultaneously. For example, while the external ritual was being performed, the priest would repeat the ritual within himself through interior meditation. In addition, rituals always involved three levels: heaven, earth and man.
There are three categories of ritual in Lingbao Daoism. The first type is known as the heavenly Golden Register of Rituals, and is carried out to prevent natural disasters. During the Tang Dynasty, this ritual was carried out in honour of the imperial family, but later it could be performed by anyone. The earthly Yellow Register ritual was performed in order to ensure the dead was at rest. The final type of ritual, which has not survived, was the human Jade Register, which was performed in order to ensure the salvation of mankind. Today, the Golden Register has assumed the role of the Jade register and in addition to preventing bad weather, also ensures salvation.
Lingbao scriptures arose as a direct result of the success of earlier Shangqing texts. Lingbao scriptures are all based on a text known as the ''Text of the Five Talismans'' , which was compiled by Ge Chaofu between 397 and 402 and borrowed from the work of Ge Hong, his great uncle. Being the most ancient Lingbao text, the ''Five Talismans'' provided the framework of the remainder of the Lingbao canon, which was based on the . Because all Lingbao texts descended from the ''Five Talismans'', it was believed that all the other Lingbao texts had been revealed to Ge Xuan, who was the believed to be the original owner of the ''Five Talismans''. Ge Xuan is purported to have transmitted the Lingbao texts first to a disciple Zheng Siyuan, who then transmitted it to Ge's grand-nephew Ge Hong , who is well-known for his alchemical innovations. The claim that the Lingbao texts derive from Ge Xuan, however, was likely a way of legitimizing them through the exaggeration of their antiquity. In reality, they were likely assembled by Ge Chaofu himself. Within a few years of the texts' dissemination, they had become extremely popular.
The canon itself is a mix of previous Daoist traditions, mixing features from the Shangqing School and the Celestial Masters, along with other ancient texts and even some Buddhist ideas. The two most important texts of the canon besides the ''Wufujing'' are the ''Red Book of Five Writings'' and the ''Scripture of Upper Chapters on Limitless Salvation'' . According to Lu Xiujing, who edited the Lingbao Canon, there were a total of 34 texts in the canon, of which three have been lost.