Had I discovered a favorite meditation spot of the Immortals (“shien”) said to inhabit Ht. Hua Shan, or “Flower Mountain”, the most famous sacred Taoist mountain in China? I was sitting on the gnarled branches of a centuries old pine tree. This tree, for some strange reason, grew sideways about forty feet out from the face of a sheer cliff, like a tiny dart stuck on the side of the mountain. It was a 3500 foot drop off to the ground, measured only by a handsome white Yosimite-like granite cliff face. To look down into the dizzying abyss below was to openly stare death in the face.
I rooted my spinal qi into the tree trunk, so I wouldn’t think about falling or being blown off the tree. As I got centered, I allowed my mind to explore the bottomless void below. I slowly expanded my energy body until I could feel the empty space of the natural bowl formed by the mountains merge into the center of my now giant sized dan tien. Suddenly, a surge of qi shot through my physical body, flowed through me into the tree, then penetrated deep inside the mountain.
I experienced being in an even more vast empty space inside the mountain. This space felt very primordial, the qi very formless. Iit was deeply calming and blissful. It felt like the heart space of the Spirit of Flower Mountain. Was it showing me me where to root my center of gravity and awareness if I really wanted to meet with the Immortals who had achieved themselves on Hua Shan?
Facing me was a cave that He Zhi Zheng, a Taoist adept from the 13th century, had dug by hand out of the vertical mountain wall. The only way to get to the cave, with my tree serving as its front porch, was to walk along a narrow board one foot wide for 200 feet across the sheer wall of the bare granite cliff, clinging to a chain. It’s both scary and exhilarating, like mountain climbing with no safety rope. This guy Zheng was serious about wanting his privacy. I asked a monk if anyone ever fell down off the cliff. His answer was a typical taoist aphorism. “No”, he said. “The more dangerous it is, the more careful everyone is.”
He Zhi Zheng is just one of the colorful Taoists that made Shaanxi province renowned as the stronghold of Taoism. Some 55 miles from Hua Shan China’s ancient capitol, Xian, where I had visited the Tang Dynasty 8 Immortals Temple. Sixty miles beyond Xian I had also visited Luoguantai, a famous Taoist Monastery built on the spot where Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching. The surrounding plains of Shaanxi is virtually the largest outdoor museum in China, with temples and relics from nearly every dynasty that ever ruled China, including the famous terra cotta underground army of Emperor Qin.
My quest was to discover how Taoism was faring in modern China, and to energetically observe if (or how) the quality of contemporary Taoists would reflect the ongoing presence of the ancient Immortals. My own passion for twenty years was to practice deeply the Taoist internal alchemy formulas that cultivate the “Golden Elixir”, the inner light of eternal life grasped while one is still in mortal body. I had just finished two weeks with the National Qigong Association studying with medical qigong masters in Beijing hospitals (see Qi winter ’99 issue). Now I wanted to peek underneath the religious life of the Shaanxi Taoists.
I had found the perfect guide and companion to climb Mt. Hua Shan with me. Wu Zhongxian, at age 32 was already a lineage holder in taoist neigong (internal mind cultivation) and a superb qigong healer. Like me, he was not really interested in becoming a religious Taoist, but he was friends with many monks, as many had similar internal practices apart from their use of religious deities and mantras.
Wu pointed out “it’s important to remember that the Eight Immortals are real historical figures, and that seven of the eight came from Shaanxi province. Chun li Chuan received the formulas of inner alchemy here from the Tao, and taught them to Lu Dong Bin. “Ancestor Lu” taught them to five others, who left Shaanxi to spread the inner alchemy (nei dan) teachings across China and to found different schools of Taoism. But Shaanxi province still remains the most important center of Taoism.”
Back on Mt. Hua Shan, I finished meditating in my pine tree. I asked Wu, what did he think the adept He Zhi Zheng ate while perched in his bird-nest cave? “Maybe he was a breatharian, the qi up here is quite pure and nourishing”, Wu replied. He pointed up high above the cave, at some Chinese characters carved into the sheer cliff wall. “Nobody can figure out he got up there to write that poem. Even climbers say with modern equipment they can’t reach that spot because of an overhang. How did he chisel that poem 700 years ago from solid rock? The government has a 10,000 yuan reward for anyone who can solve this mystery. I don’t know, maybe he was a Tao Immortal, and flew up there.”
Zheng did have had one problem. His heart was too big. He dug 72 caves on Mt. Hua Shan, named “Flower Mountain” for its five petalled peaks spreading up to heaven like a giant stone lotus. But Zheng would give away each cave he dug to his neigong students. His last cave was the one facing me, chosen for its excellent feng shui: facing southwest for warming sun, the pine tree indicating strong nourishing qi. Today inside the cave there is a shrine to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Chinese tourists and pilgrims still brave the cliff walk to make prayers there, bowing and lighting incense in a timeless ritual.
I remembered the words of Chen Yu Ming, the young vice abbot of Jade Spring monastery at the base of the mountain: “There are still a lot of Tao Immortals said to reside around Hua Shan”, he said, and pointed out a surprising fact. “Of all the sacred mountains occupied by Taoists in China, Hua Shan is the only one dedicated to the Goddess. Most of its many temples and shrines are to different female deities.
This is a bit odd, since historically mostly only male adepts were allowed to live here. Perhaps it was considered too steep and difficult for women. So the few lady Taoists who were permitted to come here were of exceptionally high caliber. Some practiced to a higher level than the monks and became Immortals. They were in perfect health, but one day suddenly their body could not be found. But their spirits would make themselves known.”
Wu and I inched our way back along the cliffwalk to visit the much larger Jade Emperor’s Cave. Inside were life-size statues of Taoist religious deities, and a young monk wearing the traditional Taoist outfit, dark blue cotton with white leggings and his hair tied in a top knot. He finished giving an I Ching reading to one of the thousands of Chinese who flock to Hua Shan every year, making it one of China’s most crowded national parks.
Hsueh Yu Chang, the monk, is 36 years old, and has been living on Huashan for ten years. “I plan to live here for the rest of my life”, he exclaimed, and his sincerity was apparent. It is the same story I have heard from all of the forty monks and and ten nuns who reside here. Even those who rotate to work in the monastery at the base of the mountain eventually long to go back up. “Life is very magical here”, Chang says. “In the winter it is quiet and blanketed with snow, so I do a lot of meditation, study old tao texts, and visit with my friends on other parts of the mountain. In summer I serve as spiritual counselor to the public”.
In another temple on Huashan I had a long talk with a Taoist nun, Liang Gui Zhi. Like the monks, she wore pants, and her face had the same happy warm glow that comes from living a simple life and cultivating a radiant inner smile. She was shy at first, but after we shared a couple of cups of tea together she began to talk. “The oldest living Taoist on Hua Shan today is a woman, the 70 year old Chao Xiang Chen”, she said. “She has lived here continuously for 50 years, except for during the cultural revolution when the communists forced her to leave. Now she lives in seclusion, in a remote valley that takes 4 hours to walk to. She is a great and wise teacher to all the young taoists.”
I asked Liang if female adepts were trained to cultivate their middle dan tien (heart) first, as suggested by some ancient texts. “The lower dan tien first, later the middle”, she replied. She assured me the women received equal treatment with the men. She herself grew up helping around Wu Dang mountain taoist temple, which is close to Shaanzi, and later moved to Hua Shan, where she was gradually adopted as a nun about ten years ago.. “Taoists like to wander from mountain to mountain”, she noted. “We are free to leave anytime we wish. I love Hua Shan because I can meditate under the quiet sky at night, and climb mountains by day.”
She politely declined to give her age, but did allow me to photograph her. Most taoist monks and nuns will not allow tourists to photograph, but I had a letter of introduction from the vice abbot, and was considered an exception. I found out later Liang was sixty; she looked much younger. I noticed she wore lipstick, her one concession to the modern idea of beauty.
In the summertime, up to 10,000 visitors, mostly Chinese, swarm like ants up the stone stairs carved out of the steep mountain rising 7,150 feet from the plains of Shaanxi. There is a spectacular cable car ride ($7.) that will take you up halfway the mountain, the highest lift in all Asia. Riding it, I felt like an eagle. Off season there are only a few hundred people on any given day. The monks and tourists stay in former monasteries converted into hostels that are fairly primitive.
Many chinese cannot afford the cable car and hike the six hours from the bottom, starting at midnight in order to catch the magnificent sunrise at the top. This is a better way to get to know the whole mountain. This midnight trail is lined with little tents lit by bare light bulbs selling food and water to the hikers: prices rise with the altitude. I see many people carrying heavy provisions up coolie style, a stick with two heavy bundles at each end. A man, carrying 50 pounds of cement bags to build a new hotel, told me he earned only $7 for the 12 hour roundtrip, but he was desperate for the money.
How did Hua Shan come to be a taoist holy mountain, and the source of so many famous qigong and neigong teachings? The mountain is home today to about 50 Taoist monks and nuns, much reduced from the past, but still holding the thread of an ancient taoist presence. Records suggests that taoists have lived on the mountain for over 2200 years, since at least the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.). Taoist hermits may have been attracted to its special spiritual energy, but they could not scale the higher peaks. Each peak is named after the four directions, with South Peak being the highest, and East Peak having the most hair raising cliff climbs.
It was not until the Sung Dynasty, a thousand years ago, that a way was found to reach the upper peaks by a carved “stairway to heaven” that is so steep that you must hold onto a chain to keep from falling over backward! There is a boulder called “Back Rock”, because so many would turn back, diismayed at the vertical stairs in a section called “Thousand Foot High Precipice”.
Legend has it that one of the most famous Taoists, Chen Tuan, won the mountain at a chess game. Chen Tuan, beat Zhao Kuangyin, who later made good on his promise to deliver the mountain if he became Tang Dynasty Emperor, which he did (960-976 AD). Chen Tuan presided over a revival of Taoist neigong practices, and is especially famous for his Taoist Dream Practice. There is a cave at the Jade Clear Spring Monastery where he lived his later years, and today it is a shrine with a statue of him in the classical dream practice pose (lying on right side, right hand supporting the head, like a Sleeping Tiger). Records note he would meditate in this position for months without eating while he flew about in his dream or energy body.
Hua Shan was taken away from the Taoists for ten years during the cultural revolution. Later the temples (but not the mountain itelf) were returned to the Taoists. Perhaps the government realized nobody else could really take care of it. Chen Yu Ming is a slender 30 year old monk who in addition to being Vice Abbot is Jade Spring librarian and musician. He gave me a private concert on the classical gu ching, a seven stringed hammered dulcimer-like instrument. The music was quite elegant. He is the resident intellectual at the monastery, and is the new breed of young Taoists who have chosen to turn their backs on commerce crazed modern China for communal life in a mouintain monastery. He is not isolated, as I noticed a TV in his room, otherwise simply furnished with calligraphy.
“The cultural revolution was terrible for the monks and nuns. They were given three options: return to their home, become a farmer in Shaanxi, or do hard (slave) labor. Most chose the hard labor, because they did not want to marry and return to society. They wanted to keep open their hope of returning to Hua Shan. Many of them died of starvation and brutal labor conditions. But the ones who survived are our teachers today. They tell me, “Trust the Tao, and accept whatever it delivers to you. The immortals will help at the right moment”. Their hearts are pure and forgiving. Amazingly, they hold no anger against their former tormentors.”
I ask Tsong Fa Ching, a young 26 year old monk who studies Wudang style tai chi chuan in his spare time, why he joined the monastery. “When I was eighteen, I saw a TV cartoon drama about the Eight Taoist Immortals, using their powers to help the common people,” he said. ” I knew immediately I wanted to be a Taoist. My parents lived in the south of China, and were opposed bitterly, because monks do not bear grandchildren. At twenty I ran away and this was the first Taoist monastery I could find..They accepted me, and I have been happy ever since.”
At the Eight Immortals Temple in Xian, a fabulously well preserved Tang Dynasty complex that has been continuously operating for 1400 years, I found similar stories, and another 50 monks and nuns. Huang Shizen (“He who walks on Air”) is only 26 years old, another of the breed of young Taoist leader. He is well educated, speaks English, and travels to other Taoist temples to attend ceremonies and keep harmony between temples in different provinces. He had also just opened his own small taoist temple in another part of Xian.
I ask Huang if he has strict dietary and sexual rules to follow as a monk. He winces, and says with a sigh, “I get tired of people asking me if I eat meat or have sex. In fact, most of the monks are vegetarian and celibate. But that is irrelevant to spiritual attainment. The Tao is about spiritual freedom. More important to remember that, not religious rules of behavior.”
Together we leave the bustling capitol city of Xian to drive to Luoguantai, famous for its location at the mountain pass where Lao Tzu was stopped by the gate keeper and asked to write down his wisdom. The 5000 chacracter masterpiece, the Tao Te Ching was alledgedly written on this spot. The monastery is nicely kept up by the 42 monks and 8 nuns. By a large statue of Lao Tzu I take a photo of Huang and another young taoist leader, the 30 year old Liu Si Chuan. One is dressed in black, the other in white, like a designer yin-yang outfit. What’s the difference? “The summer outfit is white, the winter is black”. Of course. Harmonize with the seasons.
Huang introduced me to the abbot, Ren Fa Rong, who is also his meditation teacher. Rong is famous as a scholar of Lao Tzu and vice president of the All China Taoist Association. At age 70, Ren Fa Rong is friendly but inscrutable. Of all the Taoists I met in China, his shen, or spirit, felt the most powerful. We had tea and discussed Lao Tzu. “There are over a thousand commentaries on the Tao Te Ching”, he noted. “It’s good to have a lot of interpretations. Lao Tzu was not just writing about the politics of his time, he was also guiding us about nei dan (inner alchemy). Ultimately Lao Tzu is writing about the Natural Tao, which embraces everything.”
I promised Ren Fa Rong I would return for a longer study, and bring some western students of the Tao with me. He seemed happy to deepen that connection, gave me his commentary on Lao Tzu, and asked if I would help translate and publish it in America. I heard myself saying yes. (Any Chinese translators out there?)
The words of one young monk captured the essence of what I encountered in Shaanxi. “We are religious Taoists, but the original Taoists had no religion. Our uniforms and temples are merely a reflection of the local culture. None of it matters. Only, can you grasp the essence?”
Michael Winn is leading a joint NQA-Healing Tao trip to China Sept 23 – Oct. 7, 2000. It includes a week studying with Taoists in Luoguantai & Hua Shan, a week training in medical qigong in Beijing. Winn lives in Asheville, NC, has 20 years teaching experience. He is Past President of the National Qigong Association USA, writer of 6 books on neigong with Mantak Chia, is founder and Dean of Healing Tao University in Big Indian, N.Y., the largest offering of low cost Tao Arts in the west with 33 summer retreats (academic credit available) in qigong, feng shui, healing, herbology, pa gua, taoist alchemy, etc. For free newsletter & catalog of neigong home study courses, call 888-432-5826 (or 201-656-2346). Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.HealingTaoUSA.com/retreats