In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha says, “Compassion comes from wisdom.” For the past five thousand years, individuals in China searching for wisdom, whether they called it the Dharma or the Tao, have invariably looked for it, and sometimes found it, in the mountains. But sooner or later, wisdom gives rise to compassion. Sooner or later, the Tao comes to town.
Buddhists who brought the Tao to town were called p’u-sa, or bodhisattvas. Taoists were called hsien, or immortals. By their own admission, few Taoists got that far. But some did, though they were always hard to find—for those who did lived apart from others. If they didn’t leave the world altogether and fly off to the Islands of the Blessed, they usually lived in mountains, deserts, and marshlands. But they also frequented the temples, marketplaces, and wineshops of civilization: they came to town to find someone to teach.
In Ch’ang-an, or Sian, the meeting place for visiting immortals for the last thousand years has been Pahsienkung, the Temple of the Eight Immortals. It was built in the eleventh century on the site of an earlier Taoist shrine and next to the wineshop where Lu Tung-pin met the immortal Han Chung-li in the eighth century.
Lu and Han were the founding members of a group of recluses that by the thirteenth century were known as the Eight Immortals. Several hundred years earlier, the poets Li Pai and Tu Fu were included as members of the Eight Immortals of Wine, and references to a group of eight sages go back much earlier. But none of these earlier groups elicited the same amount of patronage, much less veneration, as Lu and Han’s group. Of course, Taoism recognizes hundreds if not thousands of immortals, just as Buddhism recognizes hundreds if not thousands of bodhisattvas. Why these eight were chosen for special attention is unclear. And who was responsible for their selection is also unknown. Besides their Taoist cultivation, the only other thing they had in common was that most of them cultivated the Tao in the Chungnan Mountains.
In 1989, photographer Steve Johnson and I visited Pahsienkung, the temple where these eight immortals once met, and perhaps still meet. It was at its original location, about five hundred meters northeast of Sian’s East Gate. The temple, though, has seen better days. A factory that had taken up the entire main courtyard was only recently dismantled. The government has apparently decided the temple has tourist potential and has funded a certain amount of renovation. At the rear of the grounds, we visited the recently restored shrines honoring the Eight Immortals and the Lady of the Southern Dipper.
At one of the renovated shrines, Steve and I joined other visitors in lighting incense, making wishes, and choosing bamboo sticks with numbers on them. I chose number two and went to a nearby window, where I paid the equivalent of five cents for my fortune. It began, “Those who are hidden one day shine forth.”
I walked over to a group of Taoist monks. One of them turned out to be the abbot. I told him I was looking for hermits. He said my fortune promised success. Steve and I had visited the Taoist temples on Wutangshan in Hupei Province several months earlier and had heard about six-hundred-year-old Taoist masters living deep in the Shennungchia Mountains. I asked the abbot if there were any masters that old living in the Chungnan Mountains.
He said he had heard similar reports from herb collectors but had never met anyone older than 150. He asked me how old Steve was.
Everyone we met in China wanted to know how old Steve was. One look at his beard convinced them he must be ancient. I smiled and said Steve was 500 and that he had come to China to find someone older. This sent shock waves through the temple and soon every Taoist in the place was gathered around. I tried to undo the damage and told them that I was only joking, that Steve was a whisker under fifty. It was like puncturing a balloon. You don’t joke with Taoists about old age.
A week later, we found ourselves back in Pahsien- kung. After letting us turn in the wind for three days, the foreign affairs police had finally decided we were too dumb to be spies. As they handed back our passports, they warned us that conducting interviews was grounds for deportation. They were somewhat concerned that the purpose of our trip was to talk with people over whom they had no control, no matter that they were harmless hermits.
Usually Steve and I attracted a crowd wherever we went, but this time as we walked through the courtyard, it was as if we had become invisible. An intermediary had arranged for me to interview one of the temple’s resident monks. We arrived at Master Yang’s room on the east wing completely unobserved. I knocked, and a voice said to come in. We went in, and 1 closed the door to make sure we wouldn’t be disturbed.
Master Yang had been meditating, and he didn’t bother to uncross his legs. At one end of the bed on which he was sitting was a mosquito net. Next to the other end was the bed of his disciple, who was away for the day. The only other furnishings included two wooden trunks for clothes and possessions, two wooden desks, and two folding chairs. I sat down on one of the chairs and asked Master Yang how old he was. He said he was only seventy-two, not very old at all. He said he had been a monk for nearly fifty years. I asked him about cultivating the Tao.
Master Yang: Cultivating the Tao is like being a fetus. When we’re inside our mother, we can’t see or hear a thing. All we know is our own feelings. We don’t know we’re inside our mother or who she is. When we can see and hear, then we’re born. Cultivating the Tao is the same. When we finally know the Tao, our cultivation is over. But first we have to spend a long time cultivating. What we cultivate, though, isn’t this physical body. Lao-tzu didn’t talk about this body. Our physical body isn’t our true body. Our true body is inside our false body, just like the fetus is inside its mother. Our mother is our false body. Our true body doesn’t appear until we leave our false body behind.
Do people who cultivate the Tao look different?
Yes and no. A number of years ago 1 met an old Taoist monk at Loukuantai. His name was also Yang, and he only ate one meal a day, which was unusual. At that time there were more than a hundred Taoists living at Loukuantai, and he was the only one who ate just one meal a day. Other than his morning meal, he didn’t have a schedule. He slept whenever he felt like it. And when he wasn’t sleeping, he worked. He had more spirit and energy than the others, but other than that he didn’t seem special.
A few years later there were some changes at Louku- antai, a dispute about leadership, and he was asked to take over as abbot. I saw him again a year or so later when he came to Pahsienkung for a meeting. He was completely different. His eyes looked different. His voice sounded different. Suddenly he acted like someone who cultivated the Tao. But he hadn’t revealed this side of himself before, because his responsibilities had been different then.
Why did you decide to devote yourself to the Tao?
The reason I left home and became a monk was to study. When I grew up, I didn’t have the chance to go to school. My family was too poor. My cousins, though, went to school, when they weren’t busy with farm work. But my father said it hadn’t done them any good. Still, I wanted to learn something. And when I was almost twenty, my older brother agreed to let me go to school. I studied three or four years, but I didn’t learn much, just enough to read stories. I didn’t really learn to read until I left home and became a monk. Since then, studying has caused me a lot of trouble. It wasn’t as easy as I thought, it was like wind blowing past my ears. So I decided I’d better concentrate more on practice than on study. Still, over the years I’ve read whenever I could.
After Liberation we weren’t supposed to read old books anymore. But I managed to collect quite a few Taoist books, and I hid all the important ones away. Then the Cultural Revolution came, and they started burning books and arresting people. By that time I knew what was inside the books. So when the Red Guards came and demanded we hand over our books, I brought out a whole chest of them, including things that I had written. I told them to take what they wanted and leave me the rest. They took everything into the kitchen and burned it.
What a pity. Were you upset?
Not really. It was just change. Besides, after the Cultural Revolution I was able to collect another chest of books, and I was able to do some reading almost every day. Then about seven years ago I lost my eyesight and gave away all my books.
What happened to your eyes?
Taoist practice can be dangerous. I did something wrong, and they went out like a couple of candles.
What books on Taoism did you like the most?
Of course, the Taoteching. After Liberation, people criticized the Taoteching a lot. But not now. Now they agree it’s the most profound book in the Taoist canon. Most Taoist books reveal themselves as deep or shallow as soon as you read them. But not the Taoteching. The Taoteching is only for people of deep understanding. It’s not for ordinary people. It was the first Taoist book. After that came Huangti’s Yinfiiching, which is even briefer than the Taoteching in explaining the essentials of Taoist philosophy and practice.
But the most important, the most precious of all Taoist books is the Jade Emperor’s Hsinyiching, which is the most essential part of the Huangching. We use it in our morning and evening services. It’s the teaching transmitted by the Jade Emperor. It’s not about external things. It explains how we’re all miniature universes, how we all have the sun, the moon, the stars, and space inside us. It’s about how to use our ch’i to nourish and protect our mortal body and how to concentrate our ch’i to create an immortal body. If our ch’i only comes from the outside, we’re easily exhausted. It teaches us how to cultivate our inner ch’i. Cultivating the Tao isn’t easy. Some people cultivate all their lives without success. The key is to concentrate your ch’i. Once you concentrate your ch’i, your wisdom will arise naturally, as easily as a flame rises and rain falls.
Did you find books useful in learning Taoism?
Books are like food. They can fill our stomachs but not our minds. If we don’t know something, we can buy a book and leam about it. We can learn a lot from books. But after we’re finished reading, we discover that what books talk about is different from reality.
There are many books about love now. Some monks read these books and decide to return to lay life, to get married and have children. But love changes and becomes meaningless. Books can deceive. And practice takes time. It’s a shame to spend years practicing the Tao and then return to lay life only to be disappointed. It’s very hard to begin practicing again.
If you’re going to cultivate the Tao, you have to be prepared for hardships. Unless you’re born with advantages, you’re going to suffer. But from suffering comes joy. It’s like with money. If it comes easy, it goes easy. If you have to work for it, money means more. You don’t waste it. It’s the same with cultivating the Tao. If you’re born into a good family and receive a good education, it’s easier. If you’re not, you need to have greater determination. But understanding the Tao takes a long time, and it takes great determination to succeed. Many people cultivate the Tao, as many as the hairs on an ox. But success takes time. Those who truly cultivate the Tao are very few. And those who succeed are even fewer.
What difference do you see between Buddhism and Taoism in terms of practice?
Buddhists and Taoists walk the same path. They just dream different dreams. Essentially Buddhism and Taoism are the same. Their sacred texts talk about the same things. It’s just that Taoism emphasizes life, and Buddhism emphasizes nature. But people who truly cultivate cultivate both. In terms of actual practice, Buddhism is somewhat better than Taoism. Even though Taoists talk about cultivating the mind, they often have a harder time controlling their emotions. They have a harder time suppressing feelings of pride. But to cultivate either of them successfully is very hard.
Has Taoism changed in recent decades?
The Tao never changes.
What we eat and wear has changed, but the Tao hasn’t changed. There have been advances in science and society, but so what? We’re eating better now. But it’s the same old Lao-tzu.
Can you support yourself by instructing people about Taoist practice?
(Laughing): It’s like making tofu. When a tofu master decides to teach what took him years to learn, how should he count up what it cost him in charging an apprentice? There’s no bill for instruction in the Tao.
There may not have been a bill, but it was time to leave, time to say good-bye to Master Yang and the hermits of the Chungnan Mountains and, for that matter, to China.
My last day in Sian, I went to buy some stamps for my son. The stores specializing in stamps were at the end of Poshulin Road, not far from the city’s South Gate. I passed up the Ch’ing dynasty stamps and the Cultural Revolution stamps and bought a bunch of stamps with flowers and famous beauties of the past. Then I headed back up Poshulin Road. I hadn’t gone more than a hundred meters, when I noticed a small hand-painted sign on the right: Wolungszu, Temple of the Sleeping Dragon. I’d read about Wolung Temple. This was where Empty Cloud stayed before he moved to Chiawutai at the end of the Ch’ing dynasty. I’d heard that it had been destroyed by the Red Guards, but here was a sign that said otherwise. I followed it into a lane for about fifty meters to a rusty metal gate. Inside was Wolung Temple.
During the T’ang dynasty, it was called Kuanyin Temple, and in the Sung dynasty, its name was changed to Sleeping Dragon in honor of Wei-kuo, an abbot of the temple who practiced meditation in a reclining position.
The metal gate creaked. The front courtyard was deserted. Another factory had recently been dismantled. The temple buildings were old and in such sorry repair, I almost turned back. Past the inner courtyard, 1 went inside the
main shrine hall. After lighting some incense and paying my respects, I noticed a small stone buddha. The attendant told me it had been carved at the end of the fifth century. He also pointed out a T’ang dynasty painting of Kuan-yin. Incredible treasures for such a dilapidated temple.
Just as I was leaving, several monks appeared at the door. When they asked me what I was doing, I told them I was visiting hermits. They laughed. One of them said, “Then you’ve come to the right place. We’re all hermits here.” I couldn’t help but laugh too. The monk’s name was Ju-ch’eng. He was obviously the abbot, though he denied it—he said he was too dumb to be an abbot. Then he explained that Wolung Temple refused to have an official abbot. He said, “If we choose an abbot, he has to be approved by the government. We prefer to be left alone. That’s why we don’t fix up the temple. The government has offered us money to repair the buildings. But this is a Zen temple. We don’t need fancy buildings. Fancy buildings just attract tourists.”
He told me there were about fifty monks living at the temple. Two of them, he said, were in their eighties. Their names were Hui-ching and Hui-t’ung. He said they got up every morning at three and didn’t go to sleep until shortly before midnight. They spent most of their waking hours on their meditation cushions. I asked Ju-ch’eng who their master had been, but I should have known the answer. He said, “Empty Cloud.”
We talked for half an hour about Wolung Temple and about the Chungnan Mountains. The temple, he said, had four seventy-day meditation sessions every year. Then he started listing all the hermits he knew in the mountains. I knew all of them. I smiled and told him this was the first time I had met city hermits. He laughed, and so did I. And then I remembered the Chinese saying: “The small hermit lives on a mountain. The great hermit lives in a town.” Having nothing left to say, I bowed and said good-bye.
© 1993 by Bill Porter. Published by Mercury Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.