August 6, 2006 at 4:53 am #16256
Asceticism in Ch’üan-chen Taoism
[Originally published in B. C. Asian Review volume III-IV, 1990]
“There was a person who questioned the Perfected Man, saying, ‘People are born between Heaven and Earth. Even though they can be called the most worthy they are but one of the myriad [living] things. Who could [possibly] be able to escape the numbers of yin and yang ? (1) Who could be able to escape from the mechanisms of creation? What has a beginning always has an end. What has birth always has death. This is the constant principle of nature. It one is not endowed with extraordinary ch’i (2), Immortalhood cannot be sought. It you do not meet with predetermined fate, the Tao cannot be studied. Must you make your body suffer and impoverish yourself? [Longing for Immortalhood] is like binding your shadow, catching wind, notching ice, or carving rotten wood. By [trying to] do things that definitely cannot be done, you seek results that are difficult to accomplish.’
The Perfected Man sighingly lamented saying, ‘The marvelous principle of long life, people share. The woods of the Immortals; who is not able to seek [them]? There are those who are lazy and do not accomplish [Immortalhood]. They are visible and they are very numerous. There are those who are diligent and have results. They hide [themselves] and are very few in number. People regard what they see much of as believable, and regard what they do not see as doubtful. Eventually, because matters of Immortalhood are not clearly visible, they regard them as something which cannot be hoped for. Let us try to examine this with the principles of things. Metal ore which is refined can be made into iron. Bronze which undergoes projection (3) can be made into gold. A fish jumps over [Mt.] Lü-liang (4) and becomes a dragon. A pheasant enters the water and becomes a shen bivalve. Ice which melts easily can survive the summer if you store it. Grass which withers easily can survive the winter if it is covered. If people are able to cut off what they cherish and get rid of their covetousness, preserve the female and embrace the One, make their minds travel to serenity and combine their ch’i with empty nothingness, they will also be able to rise high, reach far, climb the scenery, ascend to vacuity, wander freely, ride and control enemy winds, go about flying, respond to the staffs of the Perfected [Men], mount a whale and travel to Ts’ang-hai (5), mount a phoenix and ascend the blue darkness, transform after 1000 years like the cranes of Liao-tung (southern part of Liao-ning Province), and gaze at the sunrise like the wild ducks of She District (in Honan). With those like An Ch’i (6) and Hsien Men (7) and those like Hung Ya (8) who penetratingly perceive the profound, [they will] line up with the ranks of the Immortals. It is not difficult (9). Those who have acquired the Tao and lightly risen [to Immortalhood] in past and present cannot be sufficiently counted. Your saying that there is no sign [of Immortalhood and its attainability] is like a deaf person’s inability to hear the sound of bamboo chimes or a blind person’s not knowing that there are colors such as bright red or blue. With such shallow insight and slight hearing, how can one speak of the Tao?'”(10)
The above conversation is said to have taken place between Wang Ch’ung-yang (1112-1170) (11) and a skeptic, and is recorded in the preface of Chung-yang Ch’üan-chen chi (below, “CCC”), a collection of Wang’s poems. Wang was the founder of the Ch’üan-chen (Complete Perfection) school of religious Taoism, a sect which was to enjoy immense popularity during the latter part of the Chin Dynasty (12) (1115-1234) and throughout the Yüan Dynasty (13) which followed. It has survived (albeit much reduced) to this day. Whether this conversation actually took place is questionable, but it conveys the fundamental spirit of the Ch’üan-chen sect very well. In it we see Wang arguing for basic tenets of faith: faith in the existence of the Immortals , the human beings who have transcended the normal boundaries of mundane existence; and faith in the ability of himself and other ordinary human beings to attain Immortal status. It was the faith in this Immortalhood (14) and its attainability which formed the cornerstone of the Taoist religion.
Two basic kinds of religious practice were based on this faith. One was primarily that of the Taoist clergy, who trained full-time to attain Immortalhood. The other was primarily that of the laity, who looked towards the benevolence and guidance of the Immortals to bring them good fortune in present and future lives (15). Wang Ch’ung-yang was an accomplished monk (16) regarded by his followers as a living Immortal or Perfected Man, as were his most eminent disciples (commonly referred to as the Seven Perfected ): Ma Tan-yang (17), T’an Ch’ang-chen (18), Liu Ch’ang-sheng (19), Ch’iu Ch’ang-ch’un (20), Wang Yü-yang (21), Hao Kuang-ning (22), and Sun Ch’ing-ching (23). As Perfected Men (and a Perfected Woman), Wang and the Seven Perfected were extremely dynamic, both in terms of the way in which they painstakingly strove for the attainment of Immortalhood (or “Perfection”) and in their enthusiastic attempts to meet the demands and needs of lay believers.
What is particularly interesting about the arguments made by Wang is that they strongly (perhaps deliberately) resemble those made more than 800 years earlier by the great writer on laboratory alchemy (24) Ko Hung in his classic, the Pao-pu-tzu :
“If you claim that all breathing things follow one fixed norm, your thesis cannot be sustained, for the pheasant turns into a shen bivalve, the sparrow becomes a clam, earth bugs assume wings, river frogs come to fly, oysters are changed into frogs, hsing-ling plants become maggots, field mice become quail, rotting grass turns into lightning bugs, alligators become tigers, and snakes become dragons. If you claim that man, unlike other creatures, has an undeviating nature — that the destinies bestowed by August Heaven are not subject to vicissitudes — how can you account for instances where Niu Ai became a tiger, the old woman of Ch’u a tortoise, Hunchback a willow, the girl of Ch’in a stone, the dead came back to life, males and females interchanged sex, Old P’eng enjoyed great longevity, but a baby son died prematurely? If such divergences exist, what limits can we set to them?
If a genie (immortal) nurtures his body with medicaments and prolongs his apportionment of life with special arts, illness will not arise from within him, nor will disease strike him from without. Though he attains everlasting vision and does not die, the body which he has long had undergoes no change. There is nothing difficult about this provided one possesses the divine process. The shallow-minded, however, cling to popular beliefs and preserve the ordinary ways: They merely say that because they see no genii in their world it is not possible that such things exist. But what is so special about what our eyes have seen? Why should there be any limit to the number of marvelous things that exist between the sky and earth, within the vastness of Unbounded? All of our lives we have a sky over our heads but never know what is above it; to the end of our days we walk the earth without ever knowing what is below it. Our bodies are our very own, but we never come to understand how our hearts and will become what they are. An allotment of life is ours, but we never understand how its actual measure is achieved. And this is even more true in the case of the more abstruse patterns governing gods and genii, and the dark mystery surrounding God and the natural life. Isn’t it a sad spectacle to rely on the surface perceptions of eyes and ears in judging the existence of the subtle and the marvelous?” (25)
The Taoism of the Ch’üan-chen masters (26), like that of their distant predecessor Ko Hung, can be seen as an investigative proto-science of Immortalhood. However, the definition of that state, as well as the methods used to attain it, had changed drastically from what they had been for Ko Hung.
Ko Hung believed that the ultimate requirement for Immortalhood was the successful concoction and imbibing of a special elixir pill of artificial gold. His Pao-p’u-tzu is a treasure chest of directions and recipes for producing this elixir. The Ch’üan-chen masters did not engage in any kind of laboratory alchemy. In his reply to the skeptic, Wang gives a rough summary of what his basic approach was: to cut off all worldly attachments, to rediscover one’s innate good nature (which is equivalent to the Tao  itself) by maintaining a flexible and non-forceful lifestyle and outlook (“preserving the female”), to maintain a calm and undistracted mind, and to cultivate and refine the solid, liquid, gaseous and formless material or energy (ch’i ) that makes up the human body. This multi-faceted training was called “Perfection Cultivation” .
For Ko Hung, an Immortal was a person who never underwent the death of the physical body, who would quite often become a sort of bird-man who possessed wings and feathers and was able to fly. For the Ch’üan-chen masters, an Immortal was a spiritually enlightened person in complete control of his body, who possessed various supernormal qualities and who had the compassion and power to benefit others. The Immortal conceived of by Wang and his followers would undergo the inevitable death of the physical body, but upon his or her death would have a refined yang spirit that would ascend into an everlasting, deified existence. Below, for the purpose of clarity, I will use the term “Perfected Man” to refer to the Immortal prior to the death of the physical body and the term “Immortal” to refer to the everlasting, deified mode of his or her existence. (Although the general tendency of the Ch’üan-chen texts is to use the terms “Perfected Man” and “Immortal” in this way, the distinction is by no means absolute.)
This drastic change in the definition of Immortalhood and the way in which it was pursued was the result of a very slow but steady evolution of religious Taoist doctrines and practices, in which a large-scale incorporation of Buddhist ideas and ways is evident, and a shift towards an emphasis on physiological rather than laboratory alchemy. Perhaps the most significant events in setting this trend were the “revelations” of the Shang-ch’ing and Ling-pao scriptures that took place in the same region where Ko Hung lived (28). The Ling-pao scriptures were allegedly revealed to Ko Hsüan , an uncle of Ko Hung, in the early third century, but seem actually to have been written in the late fourth century by his descendant, Ko Ch’ao-fu . The Hsü family, among whom Hsü Mi and Hsü Hui were patrons of Yang Hsi , the recipient of the Shang-ch’ing revelations (364-370), was related by marriage to the Ko family. The Taoism that began with these events had risen to an extremely prominent position on the Chinese religious scene by the T’ang Dynasty. The Ling-pao school seems to have been especially instrumental in developing various traits important to the Ch’üan-chen sect, such as monasticism and an emphasis on ritual methods for the salvation of the dead.
Returning to the conversation between Wang and the skeptic, we can see that despite the changes that had taken place in the definition and attainment of Immortalhood, Wang (and his followers) venerated the prominent Immortals of yore, such as An Ch’i-sheng, Hsien-men, and Hung Ya. Even more venerated by them were legendary Immortals such as Lü Ch’un-yang (29), Chung-li Cheng-yang (30), and Liu Hai-ch’an (31), particularly popular during their time. The belief in such Immortals, who had all themselves been mortal men, was an important motivational force for aspiring adepts of the Ch’üan-chen sect. There is in fact ample evidence that such Immortals were believed to occasionally manifest themselves in order to instruct and guide those who were deemed worthy in terms of their will and moral character. Thus a vital part of the Ch’üan-chen belief system was that the founding masters such as Wang Ch’ung-yang had themselves had mystical encounters with such legendary personalities, and the masters themselves seem to have made such claims. The fully enlightened and accomplished Ch’üan-chen master was himself labeled a “Perfected Man,” who during his remaining lifetime was to devote himself to the salvation of all living things and reveal the ultimate secrets of Perfection Cultivation to those whom he deemed fully worthy. Such a Perfected Man was considered to be not only spiritually enlightened, but also in full control of his physical health, immune from hazards such as the diseases and demons which jeopardized the bodies of ordinary people. Even after the crude, mundane body had reached its inevitable demise and the Perfected Man had entered his everlasting existence as an Immortal, he was thought to intervene at times in human affairs. The phrase, “respond to the staffs of the Perfected [Men]”, seems to refer to the ability of the Immortal (the emancipated yang spirit of the Perfected Man) to manifest himself or assist the Perfected Men who call upon him, particularly in the context of Taoist rituals.
In the conversation between Wang and the skeptic, it is evident that the skeptic is not necessarily confident that Immortals do not exist. Rather, his main criticism of Wang is that he is toiling in vain. Arguing that Immortalhood, if there is in fact such a thing, must be something that one is predestined for from birth, the skeptic maintains that the hardships which Wang so constantly puts himself through are but ignorant and futile exercises.
This argument, even more than one against the existence of Immortals, strikes at the essence of the early Ch’üan-chen sect. The central endeavor that had to be undertaken on the road towards Perfection was the complete elimination of desires, and the attainment of total control over one’s physical body and its feelings and urges. If a person could do this, he would gain total peace of mind, and realize and preserve the One inside him. (The One is the principle of the Tao which is present within all people and things, and which can be realized within oneself without outside seeking; the Immortal yang spirit, in fact.) Essentially, Wang blames the inability of people to realize this innate potential towards Immortal-hood on “laziness.” In my opinion, perhaps the most definitive characteristic of the early Ch’üan-chen sect was their intense effort. Realizing that the elimination of desires and control over the body was their most urgent task, the Ch’üan-chen masters underwent the extremely arduous ascetic practices to nurture self-discipline. In the eyes of their contemporaries, it was this emphasis on asceticism that distinguished them from other Taoist sects. While Taoist asceticism was by no means a Ch’üan-chen innovation, it seems very likely that the Ch’üan-chen sect took it to extremes previously unrealized.
Asceticism in Ch’üan-chen Taoism:
Theory and Practice
“From the time I left my house and separated myself from the dusty world,
I no longer coveted the fame and profits which are among people.
With messy hair and a filthy face I sit in solitude throughout the morning.
The livelihood of inner cultivation is inside old shrines and ceramic altar houses.
As I allow that red circle (the sun) to sink in the west, I recognize the being within the nonbeing and I understand the white and preserve the black.
Lengthily and softly I control my breathing.
In my heart I have no other matters which bind me.
I have an arm bag and a cane which I carry about with me as I wear my grass sandals.
I do not eat tasty foods, my thighs are bare, and sheepskins clothe my body.
When I get hungry I go about begging from door to door.
When I have eaten my fill I sing, ‘Li-lien-lo-li’ (32).
I allow people around me to laugh and say, ‘You stupid, lazy bum!”
Is there anybody who knows who I am?
To study the Tao the heart must be firm like iron.
Completely inside yourself fierce and sudden, and break loose from the chain of profits and the leash of recognition.
Cut off and get rid of your feelings of wanting and completely abandon all affairs.
Have nothing to which you are attached to or which arouses you.
Do not stay in your straw hut or grass shack.
Reside within the shops and market places and properly preserve the Tao.
Rely on this activity, spanning hours and months.
One who practices this way of poverty must rely on coarse food and not be concerned with coldness and heat.
With messy hair and a dirty face sit alone throughout the morning.
Internally cultivate your livelihood and earn an encounter with the lessons of an enlightened master.
People of the world will say, ‘Here comes the windy wildman’ … (33)
This poem by Wang Ch’ung-yang vividly describes the lifestyle of the Ch’üan-chen monk as he undergoes his ascetic training aimed at the attainment of Perfected Man status. This process involved a complete rejection of everyday comforts. The monk was supposed to get by with the barest of necessities. By begging for his food and by lingering among the townsfolk, he was to intentionally humiliate himself. By so doing, the monk aimed at ridding himself of all feelings and longings which could hinder his enlightenment and perfection.
The quest for Perfected Man status, as carried out by the Ch’üan-chen masters, was an intense process of survival and perseverance that had to be continued until the monk could feel confident that he was indeed a full fledged Perfected Man who could work with full power and efficiency as a savior of all living things, both during the remainder of his mortal life and during his existence as an Immortal. From the standpoint of those who came to believe in the Ch’üan-chen way of Taoism, it was often this capacity of the Ch’üan-chen masters to overcome extreme ordeals which gave their claims credibility.
In discussing this, we will have to deal with different aspects of Ch’üan-chen asceticism. First of all, there is the ideal of “pure poverty” which the monk was to abide with throughout his entire life. Then I will deal with begging and its significance. While “pure poverty” and begging pervaded the entire life of the Ch’üan-chen monk, his life also included a period of several years in which he had to undergo severe physical and psychological ordeals. A monk had to maintain complete control of his physical and emotional urges and had to become completely free of anger or fear. We will see that the ascetic practices of the Ch’üan-chen masters were regarded by them as both elimination of karma and accumulation of merit points with the heavenly bureaucracy. By the end, I hope the reader will understand why asceticism was seen by the Ch’üan-chen masters as the cornerstone of proper Perfection Cultivation, and how they acted on their conviction.
A good example of what was meant by “pure poverty” can be seen in the following description of the lifestyle of Ma Tan-yang in Tan-yang chen-jen yü-lu (The Collected Sayings of Perfected Man Tan-yang: TYL):
The master resided in a shack furnished only with a desk, a long couch, a brush, an ink tablet and a sheepskin. It was empty without any extraneous objects. In the early morning he ate one small bowl of rice gruel and at noon ate one large bowl of noodles. Beyond this [gruel, noodles], never did fruits or spicy vegetables go through his mouth.” (34)
In the same book, Ma discusses the importance of maintaining this extremely simple lifestyle:
“A person of the Tao must not dislike being poor. Poverty is the foundation of nurturing life. If hungry, eat one bowl of rice gruel. If you become sleepy, spread out a grass mat. Pass the days and nights in tattered garments. Such is truly the lifestyle of a person of the Tao. Therefore you must understand that the single matter of pure immaculateness cannot be acquired by the wealthy.” (35)
By saying “poverty is the foundation of nurturing life”, Tan-yang is implying that his lifestyle of poverty not only helps erase the desires and attachments that hinder enlightenment, but is also conducive to health. “Pure immaculateness” or “purity and stillness” refers to a state of mind that is completely free of desires and attachments; and the term can also have definite physiological implications.
In explaining why his sect laid such importance on maintaining an ascetic lifestyle, Liu Ch’ang-sheng pointed to the fact that the great enlightened men of old times were ascetics:
“Accomplished men of old, wanting to distance themselves from the dreams and mirages (the impermanent and illusory world), took on the outer appearances of fools. The Confucian Yen Hui (one of Confucius’ best disciples) was pure and poor and [owned only] a rice bucket and a drinking gourd. The Buddhist Sakya [the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha] begged for food and took one meal [per day] by [begging from] seven [different] households. The Taoist [Lu] Ch’un-yang was non-active. He lived like a quail (had no permanent home) and ate like a baby bird [ate only what was given to him without complaint like a baby bird receives the food given to it by its mother].” (36)
Lu Ch’un-yang, the Immortal and putative teacher of Wang Ch’ung-yang, was the consummate role model for Ch’üan-chen monks. Folk tales about the life and the miraculous feats of this semi-legendary (at best) culture hero had become very popular and widespread during the century or so preceding the founding of the Ch’üan-chen sect. This lore, and the cult of “Golden Elixir” internal alchemy and patriarch worship that was connected with it, probably formed the chief background tradition of the Ch’üan-chen sect. One especially interesting book in the wide variety of Ch’üan-chen literature available in the Taoist Canon is Chun-yang ti-chün shen-hua miao-tung chi (The Chronicle of the Spiritual Transformations and Marvelous Penetrations of Imperial Prince Chun-yang: MTC), a compilation of Lu Ch’un-yang stories that had accumulated over the centuries, selected, edited and commented on by a Ch’üan-chen monk named Miao Shan-shih in the early fourteenth century. MTC tells us that Lu, after undergoing a miraculous conversion experience at the hands of the Immortal Chung-li Cheng-yang, gave all his wealth to the poor during a severe famine. Throughout the stories found in MTC, Lu wanders about various regions of China as a sloppy-looking beggar, performing miracles and bringing salvation to people who are ready to open their hearts to him; and the Lu depicted in the MTC symbolized what the Ch’üan-chen masters aspired to. The Ch’üan-chen masters taught that Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism were ultimately the same religion: three different expressions of the ultimate and only reality, the Tao. This basic attitude is clearly apparent in the above quotation, as Liu points to Yen Hui (a famous disciple of Confucius) and the historical Buddha as examples of great ascetics who could serve as role models for Ch’üan-chen monks.
Following such examples as Yan Hui and the Buddha, Ch’üan-chen monks engaged in begging as their primary remunerative activity. For a newly initiated monk, this was a very difficult adjustment. The difficulty was primarily mental, as there was a large amount of humiliation involved in appearing in the midst of townsfolk as a beggar. Another important Immortal who served as a role model for Ch’üan-chen monks was Liu Hai-ch’an , another of the putative teachers of Wang Ch’ung-yang. In TYL, Ma Tan-yang tells his disciples the following facts about this Immortal, whom he frequently referred to as his “uncle” :
“Sir Hai-ch’an was originally a minister of the land of Yen (37). One morning he realized the Tao. Thereby he cut off his family connections. His poetry includes the words, ‘I abandoned and left the 3000 people of my household fires (domestic life and its attachments). I abandoned my personal troops which numbered one million.’ After this he supported himself by begging. Wherever he came to an open area he clowned around [acted in an eccentric manner when in the presence of other people?]. He got to the point where he would go into brothels carrying barrels of liquor. He did not feel any embarrassment.” (38)
Liu Hai-ch’an had, in other words, abandoned his status, wealth, and power in order to pursue the livelihood of a beggar. Begging was just one of the ways in which he intentionally shamed himself in the interests of conquering self-conscious feelings of embarrassment: not only did he beg, but he acted like an insane person and associated unashamedly with the more unsavory elements of society. An interesting comparison can be drawn between Liu Hai-ch’an and Ma Tan-yang in that Ma also came from an extremely wealthy background and had opted for the ascetic life. But in the case of Ma, this ability to shed all feelings of shame and embarrassment seems to have been developed with much more difficulty. As we can see from the following passage from TYL, Ma had an extremely difficult time adjusting himself to the humiliation of begging:
“The Patriarch-Master (39) [Wang Ch’ung-yang] one time ordered his disciples to go to Ning-hai and beg for grain, coins and rice. I wanted to have another disciple go for me [and thus said], ‘Make another older or younger brother [of mine] (fellow disciple) go.’ Later, [Ch’ung-yang asked me], ‘Why [do you want me to do that]?’ [I answered,] ‘I, your disciple wish not to have to return to my home village [as a beggar]’. The Patriarch-Master became furious and beat me continually until dawn. Because of the many blows that I received, I had a regressing heart and I left him. But Master-Brother Ch’iu [Ch’ang-ch’un] urged me into staying. Till this day, neither of us has forgotten [this incident].” (40)
From the vehement reaction of Wang at Ma’s reluctance we can see how important it was for a monk to have the humility to be able to shame himself in front of anybody, even the people in his home area. Although there is no evidence that he ever resorted to violence, as his master frequently did, Ma seems in his turn to have had frequent difficulty with disciples who were reluctant to beg after he took over the sect’s leadership on Wang’s death:
“Mr. Shih (41) of Li-ch’uan (in Shensi) came to see me at the tea room by the eastern gate. I asked him what his name was. He said, ‘l am the Crazy Man Shih. I am also a disciple of the school of Perfected Man Ch’ung-yang’….
I had already sensed that this man was afraid of going into the streets and begging. Therefore I took him around with me. I wanted to share a round of drinks with this wise man. The master [of the saloon] hesitated to serve us [perhaps because of their appearance]. Mr. Shih took some money out from his bosom. I said, ‘Do not use this money. You must go into the streets and beg for the money to buy the liquor.’ Mr. Shih stared [at me] and after a while finally went into the streets to beg. He returned with some liquor. I drank it [all] by myself.” (42)
Thus whether through violence or by “skillful means” (upâya) (43) such as those described above, a master had to somehow bring his disciples into the state of dedication and humility in which they could become willing to go out into the streets and beg.
This “pure poverty” had to be carried out as a life-long commitment. However, the quest for Perfected Man status that the Ch’üan-chen masters underwent and expounded involved much more than this. In order to become Perfected Men, and to prove to themselves and others that they had indeed succeeded in doing so, they had to toil and suffer in ways that exceeded the normal human capacity. The word “suffering” is discussed by Liu Ch’ang-sheng:
“To suffer means to suffer with the mind and body. The confused people of the world make themselves suffer by coveting life and entering into the road of death. Straining their minds they use their cleverness and thus their [innate] nature sinks into the land of punishments. One who understands the Tao makes himself suffer by training his body. In other words it is like shattering a rock to take out a piece of jade. Straining his willpower he forgets cleverness and therefore his nature ascends the Nine Empyreans [Taoist heavens].
The wise find enjoyment in the midst of suffering. The foolish suffer in the midst of enjoyment. For the wise, bitterness ends and sweetness arrives. For the foolish, enjoyment climaxes and then they are sad. A scripture (44) says, ‘Blessings are born from difficulties and difficulties are born from blessings.'” (45)
Taoism as practiced by the Ch’üan-chen masters was a full-scale rejection of the selfish seeking of worldly benefits and pleasures in favor of diligent and arduous training in pursuit of Immortalhood. Rather than chasing after the things that most people enjoy in life, they preferred to abandon all such worldly pursuits and to suffer at the lowest levels of poverty, because they maintained that the proper cultivation of mind and body could not be attained otherwise.
The Immortalhood sought by Ch’üan-chen was an emancipation from the mortal body and a spiritual ascension into the high heavens beyond the realm of suffering and rebirth; and yet, it was a process of training and strengthening the body as well as the mind. Herein lies an important difference between ascetic monasticism in Ch’üan-chen Taoism (and similar sects) and that in Buddhism. The Buddha, after trying various approaches to the problem of human suffering, including extreme asceticism, arrived at the conclusion that the enlightenment of mind which brings emancipation from samsâra (the cycle of reincarnation) must be sought through the “middle path,” an approach which holds the mean between self-denial and comfort. The Ch’üan-chen masters, on the other hand, seem to have felt that ascetic extremes were unavoidable. There are passages in their writings which advocate the “middle path” approach, and some modern scholarship has cited these to prove the syncretic nature of the Ch’üan-chen sect. However, it would appear that such exhortations primarily applied to adepts who had undergone the required preliminary stages. As evidenced by the above passage and by the teachings and act of the Ch’üan-chen masters, testing one’s body to the limit was a requirement. In order for the “rock” (the mortal body) to be shattered and the “piece of jade” (Immortalhood) to be obtained, one was required to suffer through harsh physical training.
The quest for Perfection or Immortalhood was understood as a process in which points (tabulated by certain gods in the heavenly bureaucracy) for “merit” and “deeds” had to be earned. Through a diligent accumulation of these points, it was hoped that an Immortal such as Lu Ch’un-yang or Liu Hai-ch’an would be moved to come to the aid and instruction of the monk; and that as result of further cultivation based on the Immortal’s instruction, the monk could eventually be summoned to the Immortal ranks himself. The number of points required for Immortalhood was believed to be 3000 merit points and 800 deeds points. Chin chen-jen yü-lu (The Recorded Sayings of Perfected Man Chin) (46) defines merit and deeds as follows:
“If you want [to accumulate] true merit you should clear your mind, stabilize your will, and control your vital spirit. Without motion and without action, truly pure and truly still; embrace your origin and preserve the One, visualize your spirit and solidify your ch’i (the solid, liquid, gaseous and formless components which make up the body). This is [the meaning of] true merit.
If you want [to accumulate] true deeds, you should cultivate your behavior and pile up virtuous acts. Help the poor and relieve those who are suffering. If you see the tribulations of others, always be willing to help and rescue. Also, evangelize to good people so that they will enter the Way and train themselves. In whatever you do, put others first and yourself last. In dealing with the myriad objects, keep nothing for yourself. This is [the meaning of] true deeds (47).
In other words, “merit” refers to the degree to which the adept has effectively trained his mind to be enlightened and free of superfluous thoughts and the degree to which he has trained his body and solidified his ch’i. Deeds refer to good deeds of charity and evangelism.
Below is the most comprehensive sermon on the diligent accumulation of merit and deeds that I know of. It is found in Ch’iu Ch’ang-ch’un’s letter to the believers in Hsi-chou (in Shensi) included in Chen-hsien chih-chih yü-lu (Record of the Direct Instructional Sayings of the Perfected Immortals, TT 998):
“Generally speaking, in cultivating Perfection and cherishing the Tao you must rely on the accumulation of deeds and the stringing together of merit. If you do not strain your will power and have a determined heart, it is difficult to transcend ordinariness and enter into sacredness. To use your strength to perform a great amount of tiresome labor for the sect, to from your heart engage in merit (training methods), to completely abandon worldly affairs, to do nothing other than overcoming your self-consciousness and focusing your mind on the Tao; all of these things form the basis of bringing about blessings. However, the Tao envelops Heaven and Earth and its greatness is hard to measure. Slight goodness and slight merit cannot bring results immediately. Therefore it is said that the enlightenment of the Tao that takes place in an instant must result from training that spans over long kalpas (extremely long periods of time). The sudden enlightenment of the single mind must rely on thorough cultivation and myriad deeds.
The enlightenment of the Tao that takes place in this life is a result of one’s having had merit during previous lives. Yet, not knowing of the causes from past incarnations and seeing that they have toiled for years without success, [people nowadays] regard [Perfection Cultivation] as hard labor that is but a hoax. Thus they give rise to laziness. What a shame! What they especially fail to understand is that even though their minds are reflecting upon the Tao within all activities, their mind’s ground has not yet been opened up. As time elapses, everybody has their accumulation of hidden merit. When one’s merit is insufficient, then [one’s unity with] the Tao is incomplete…
Even if you have not yet acquired the Tao, if your roots of goodness are deep and solid, support from a holy sage will come to you in this life or the next. One who has no roots of destiny is far [from salvation] indeed! I only regret that the minds of people become regressing and lazy and that therefore the holy sages are unable to deliver and release them. If you do not backslide during this life, the next life or over the span of many lives, salvation [by the hands of a holy sage] will arrive suddenly, and you will accomplish and master [the Tao).
I did not have bones of destiny (a significant amount of merit and deeds accumulated from past lives). [Thus], even though I have met an insightful master (Wang Ch’ung-yang), I have not yet completed [my Perfection Cultivation], [even though I have undergone] 10,000 sufferings and 1000 harsh experiences. [Ma] Tan-yang and [T’an] Ch’ang-chen were predestined, and thus were able to rise and fly beyond the heavens at will after ten or five years. Even though I have not yet completed [my Perfection Cultivation], the difficulties that I have undergone surpass those of ordinary people (48).
In this long exhortation to diligent personal effort can be seen a tinge of what could be called fatalism. Ch’iu says clearly that some people are destined to attain Immortalhood during this lifetime, and others are not. Also, we can see the reliance on the merciful intervention of the Immortals for ultimate salvation. Such elements of the faith could quite conceivably have functioned to undermine the sect’s emphasis on ascetic personal effort. (It seems quite possible that this happened in the generations succeeding the original masters.) But in the above passage, Ch’iu effectively uses these elements to enhance his exhortation for relentless personal effort. Because the so-called “bones of destiny” were understood to be a product of diligent personal effort in past lives, Ch’iu maintains that it is essential to work hard and to maintain one’s faith in the Tao, even if it only serves to build a foundation for eventual Perfection in the next or later incarnation. And although the merciful intervention of an Immortal is a necessary step towards Perfection, Ch’iu reminds his students that an Immortal cannot and will not intervene unless the aspirant himself has acquired the appropriate amount of merit through his own efforts.
Yin Ch’ing-ho who succeeded Ch’iu as the leader of the sect, narrates the following episode from Ch’iu’s days as a novice in his Ching-ho chen-jen pei-yu yü-lu (Record of the Sayings of Perfected Man Ching-ho during his Northern Journey; TT 1017):
“In the days when the Patriarch-Master (Wang Ch’ung-yang) was on Mt K’un-yu, the Master-Father (49) [Ch’iu] Ch’ang-ch’un had already been his disciple for three years and was 23 years old. Because Master-Father [Ma] Tan-yang had an extremely great amount of merit and deeds from past lives, the Patriarch-Master always spoke to him about the profound wonders. But because Master-Father Ch’ang-ch’un was still lacking in merit and deeds, he made him perform arduous labor without allowing him to rest for even a moment. One day, while the Patriarch-Master was discussing a method of breath control (50) with Tan-yang behind closed doors, the Master-Father eavesdropped from outside. After a while, he pushed the door open and entered, and [Wang and Ma ] immediately ended their discussion. The Master-Father thought about this and decided that breath control is marvelous and that the arduous labor that he was doing contradicted it completely. Thus after this, whenever he could find time, he forcefully practiced the method that he had overheard.
The time of return (death) of the Patriarch-Master was imminent. Therefore during the three years [that Ch’iu trained under him], he trained the four masters (Ma, Ch’iu, T’an Ch’ang-chen and Liu Ch’ang-sheng) with ever increasing harshness. The work of each day was equivalent to that of hundreds and thousands of days in the past. As the seasons changed, his demands became more and more unreasonable and nothing could gain his approval. Nothing which they said or did ever went without blame and reprimand. The Master Father (Ch’iu) silently thought to himself, ‘Since the time that I began to follow the Master I have been unable to understand what the Tao is. Everything that he has taught me (or made me do) has not had anything to do with this matter (the Tao).’ He had his doubts and wanted to question [Wang] about them but was afraid of the harshness of the Patriarch-Master. He wanted to obediently practice what he had been told but his desire to seek the Tao was urgent and he could not stabilize his will. Thus when his frustration came to a climax he gathered up the courage to ask. The Patriarch-Master answered, ‘It is upon your nature’, and said nothing more. The Master-Father did not dare to ask anything more.
Later, when the Patriarch-Master was on the verge of his death in the middle of the la month (the twelfth month), the four masters had gathered some money by begging. [Wang] made them buy some firewood and build a large fire in the room in which he was sleeping. The room was very small. He made Tan-yang and Ch’ang-chen stand inside the room. The heat was unbearable. He made Ch’ang-sheng and Ch’ang-ch’un stand outside. The coldness was unbearable. He did not allow those inside to go outside or those outside to come inside. After a long time, Master-Father Ch’ang-sheng could not stand the suffering any longer and thus ran away.
On the fourth day of the first month the Patriarch Master was about to ascend [to Immortalhood] (pass away) and the three masters stood by his bed. The Patriarch-Master said, ‘Tan-yang has already acquired the Tao, Ch’ang-chen already understands the Tao and I have nothing to worry about [regarding them]. Ch’ang-sheng and Ch’ang-ch’un have not yet [acquired the Tao]. Ch’ang-ch’un in studying should listen to Tan-yang’s orders. Ch’ang-chen should look after Ch’ang-sheng.’ He then said to Ch’ang-ch’un, ‘You have committed one great sin which you must get rid of. In the past you thought to yourself that everything that you had been taught had nothing to do with the matter [of the Tao]. You never understood that the point at which you do not seek is the Tao'” (51).
We can see from the way that Wang trained his disciples that training was supposed to vary with the amount of accumulated merit and deeds. It is not easy to see how Wang determined that Ma had accumulated more merit and deeds than Ch’iu had during his past incarnations, but as a result he transmitted his breathing techniques to Ma only. A complete detachment from superfluous thoughts, desires and attachments was essential before the various esoteric physiological methods could be practiced properly and effectively. Thus, Ch’iu was made to accumulate merit by training his capacity to shut out desires and attachments through constant engagement in undesirable tasks. His error lay in his inability to realize that hasty longing for the Tao was what was hindering him from attaining it. As for why Wang was able to know what Ch’iu had been thinking, the implication is that Wang possessed the supernormal ability to know what is in the minds of other people, an important defining characteristic of a Perfected Man. We can see that Wang was a very harsh master towards all of his disciples. One biography (52) tells us that during the few days before his death, Wang also tortured his disciples by making them eat large quantities of a stew full of rotten meat and fish. It was this near sadistic quality of Wang that made his inner circle of disciples a very exclusive and distinct group:
“Because he frequently manifested his divine extraordinariness (performed miracles), people of the east (Shantung ) all followed him. He cleaned off and parceled out the earnest ones and cut off the pretenders. Hundreds of times he whipped them, and angrily insulted them. The unworthy fled.” (53)
After the death of Wang, it was up to the disciples to torture themselves. Let us now put ourselves in the hands of the Ch’üan-chen hagiographers to learn the torments which disciples inflicted upon themselves in order to accumulate merit and accomplish Perfection:
“[Ma Tan-yang] cultivated true merit and accumulated true deeds. He wore clothes made of paper and hemp. He ate coarse food. In the severe cold of mid-winter he exposed his body and went barefoot” (54)
“The teacher (Liu Ch’ang-sheng) hid his traces in Lo-ching (Loyang) and refined his nature in the midst of the intermingling of the dust. He nurtured his simplicity amidst the clamor of the shops and market places. [Sounds of] wind and string instruments did not disturb his inner harmony. Beautiful sights did not arouse his essence. His mind was like ashes, and because of this he regarded coldness as a benefit. His body was like a tree, and therefore did not act in lewd ways. If people gave him food, he would eat. But if not, he showed no traces of resentment. If someone asked him something, he would answer with hand gestures.” (55)
“After mourning [Wang’s death] in a graveside hut for two years, [Ch’iu Ch’ang-ch’un] entered the P’an-hsi Gorge in the fall of the chia-wu year (1174). He lived in a cave and begged for one meal per day, going about wearing a grass mantle. People called him ‘Mr. Grass Mantle’ . For six years he went day and night without sleeping. After this he hid himself in Mt. Lung-men in Lung-chou (in Kansu ) and performed acts of suffering like he did in P’an-hsi.” (56)
“After this, [Wang Yu-yang] went back and forth between Teng [-chou] and Ning [-hai] (both located on the north coast of the Shantung Peninsula). At night he would return to the Cloud Radiance Grotto (a grotto on Mt. Ch’a where Yu-yang trained), where he stood at the entrance on one foot facing the great sea on the east for nine years, not once falling asleep. People called him ‘Mr. Iron Leg’ . Perfected Man Ch’iu [Ch’ang-ch’un] praised him saying, ‘In the summer he stood facing the sun. In the winter he slept embracing the snow.’ He trained his body like this for nine years and entered into the great marvelousness (57).
“The teacher (Hao Kuang-ning) roamed about Ho-pei. In the yi-wei year (1175) he was begging in Wo-chou when he suddenly understood the secret words of [Wang] Ch’ung-yang. [His insight] widely opened up. Consequently he went to a bridge and sat silently and motionlessly upon it. When he got hungry or thirsty he did not seek [food or drink]. Amidst coldness or heat he did not change his attire. If people gave him food, he ate. If they did not give him food, he would not [eat]. Even when there were people who insulted and ridiculed him, he did not get angry. His will was [concentrated] on forgetting his body. He was like this for three years. People called him ‘Mr. Speechless’ .
One evening when the sky was dark, a drunkard accidentally kicked the teacher while crossing the bridge, knocking him down under the bridge. [Hao] said nothing and did not come out from under the bridge for seven days. People did not know what had happened and thus wondered where the teacher was. It suddenly happened that when a traveling official was trying to cross the bridge on horseback, the horse became startled and started to buck and would not advance even when whipped. The traveler got off his horse and asked [people] left and right, ‘There must be something strange under the bridge. If not, why is my horse frightened?’ He ordered [people] right and left to go and look [under the bridge]. They found a Taoist (Hao) sifting properly (upright in a meditative position) in a relaxed manner. When they questioned him he speechlessly wrote on the ground with his hand, ‘I have not eaten for seven days’. The commoners of the district heard of this and hurried forth to offer him food, burn incense and beg him to come out [from under the bridge]. But he only waved his hand and refused. He just sat under the bridge for three more years. Water and fire overturned, yin and yang came together and the Merit of Nine Cycles (58) was completed.” (59)
“For months, [Sun Ch’ing-ching] slept lying in the snow. Frostbite damaged her appearance but she did not regard it as suffering.” (60)
One can notice from the above passages that while all of the disciples were credited with putting demands on their physical endurance and will power in degrees ranging from the arduous to the ridiculous, the specific methods and the environments which they chose also varied. This variation for each individual was and remains an important characteristic of Ch’üan-chen Perfection Cultivation. Not only was diligent individual effort required, but one was also supposed to be able to use his or her own judgment and creativity to pursue the type of methods and environments which were the most effective for bringing about his or her Perfection. Thus the disciples, rather than sticking together and training themselves in a communal fashion, chose to disperse, as each one had a different strategy towards Perfection in mind. The biography of Ma Tan-yang in Chin-lien cheng-tsung hsien-yuan hsiang-chuan (Golden Lotus Orthodox Sect Portraits and Biographies of the Source of the Immortals: HC) tells us that after Wang Ch’ung-yang died in Pien-ching (Kai-feng), the four disciples Ma, T’an, Liu and Ch’iu carried his coffin to Liu-chiang Village at the foot of Mt. Chung-nan in order to bury him. They then rebuilt the meditational hut in which their master had resided during his years of training. After this they gathered together to discuss what was to be done next:
“The master (Ma), together with the three masters T’an, Liu and Ch’iu stayed at the Chen-wu Shrine in the town of Ch’in-tu . On a moonlit night, each proclaimed his will. The master (Ma) said, ‘I will combat poverty.’ Tan said, ‘I will combat this.’ Liu said, ‘l will combat my will power.’ Ch’iu said, ‘l will combat relaxation.'” (61)
It seems as though Ma was vowing to live a life of poverty, T’an was vowing to fight off the temptations which surrounded him in whatever environment that he was in, Liu was vowing to test the limits of his will power, and Ch’iu was vowing to combat his laziness, or perhaps even to abstain from sleeping. The approach to be taken was dictated by the amount of merit and deed points that one had accumulated in present and past lives, and by one’s degree of intelligence, strength, vitality and stamina. Ma had the largest accumulation of merit and deeds and was already in his later middle age (as were T’an and Sun). Thus he seems to have concentrated primarily on meditational methods practiced in seclusion in his hut, and did not resort to methods that were quite as extreme as those of some of the others. Ch’iu, Yu-yang and Hao, on the other hand, felt (or were perhaps told) that they were inferior in terms of their points that they had accumulated; moreover, they were still young. Thus they seem to have submitted themselves to physical ordeals of a considerably more arduous nature.
Recently (December, 1988), 1 had the pleasure of visiting the San Francisco branch temple of the Ching Sung Taoist Association and talking to its minister, Reverend H. T. Yau . Reverend Yau told me that an aspiring Ch’üan-chen priest (I do not use the word “monk” here because the Ching-chung Taoist Association has abandoned the practice of monasticism) should spend a period of three to five years in training. During this training period, one’s time should be equally devoted to three activities; studying scriptures, meditating and performing good deeds (evangelism and charity). But most importantly, he told me, an aspiring priest was supposed to use his own judgment to discover the training regimen that is best suited for himself. The three-fold regimen of scriptural study, meditation and good deeds is merely Reverend Yau’s own suggestion. Realizing that the ascetic element was conspicuously lacking in Reverend Yau’s description, I reminded him of the arduous ordeals that his 12th-13th century predecessors underwent and asked him why such methods were no longer being practiced. His reply was that the original Ch’üan-chen masters were trying out such methods in order to open new paths to salvation for themselves and for others. Thus, what they did was appropriate and necessary for themselves and their contemporaries, but not necessarily required of or applicable to present-day practitioners.
Part of what makes religious Taoism such a unique and interesting religion is the fact that it is not just a set of beliefs and practices based on adherence to certain designated and uncompromisable dogmas. Very often, particularly in the case of Ch’üan-chen and other similar sects, the Taoist religion takes on the complexion of a sort of proto-science of salvation and Immortalhood. In other words, there was (and apparently still is) an attitude that always allowed for new developments in doctrine and practice based on newly discovered or revealed insights towards how suffering and death could be bypassed. There was a definite attitude of acceptance towards new ideas and ways if they seemed rational. Rev. Yau’s remarks point us towards the proper direction in understanding the role of the Ch’üan-chen masters within the history of the development of religious Taoist doctrine and practice. Within the development of this proto-science of salvation and Immortality, they seem to have perhaps been the specialists in “researching” the ascetic approach of “purity and stillness.”
As they each went about their experimentation in the ascetic approach towards Perfection, how were they supposed to know whether their efforts were having the proper results? To a great extent, they seem to have gauged their progress from the degree to which they could maintain an “unwavering heart” in all situations: the freedom from feelings such as desire (especially lust), fear, sorrow, and anger.
MTC tells of five tests put upon Lü Ch’un-yang by divine forces, each of which he passed with flying colors. The first trial took place when Lü was about to leave his home town to pursue the life of a Taoist beggar monk. Suddenly, all of the members of his family died of illness. However, Lü neither showed nor felt sorrow, simply gathering together the materials needed for their funerals. Thus he had passed the first test, and his whole family was miraculously brought back to life by the gods.
The second trial took place when a band of robbers plundered his house, leaving nothing behind. Lü simply watched it happen without saying or doing anything.
The third trial took place shortly after he had left his home town. He got lost, and as he wandered about he came upon a house in which a fisherman lived. The fisherman kindly let Lü stay overnight while he went out for some night fishing. While the fisherman was gone, a gorgeous young woman came knocking at the door and subsequently resorted to every method imaginable to try and seduce Lü. But Lü remained completely unaroused sexually all night long. He eventually woke up finding himself sitting alone under a large tree.
The fourth trial took place as Lü was crossing a river in a small boat. Lü remained completely unfrightened, and miraculously survived the storm.
In the fifth and final trial, Lü was staying at a travel lodge when he encountered a throng of demons and ghosts. One of them, the ghost of a badly cut and bruised prison convict, declared that he had been murdered by Lü during one of his previous incarnations, and that he wished to avenge his own death by beheading Lü. Lü calmly exposed his bare neck for the ghost to chop off. His life was spared when a loud shout was heard out of nowhere, and the demons and ghosts disappeared. The Immortal Chung-li Cheng-yang (who had let out the shout), seeing that Lü was ready, took him with him to Mt. Chung-nan to reveal to him the most profound secrets of Perfection Cultivation.
In much the same way, the lives of the Ch’üan-chen masters were filled with circumstances to test their “unwavering heart”. If they failed, it served as proof of their unworthiness. T’an Ch’ang-chen engaged in essentially the same training methods as Liu Ch’ang-sheng did, begging in the streets of Erh-tsu Town in Tz’u-chou (in Honan), exposing himself to all of the distractions and temptations of town life in order to improve his ability to maintain his composure under all circumstances. The following incident was perhaps his greatest moral victory:
“A drunk man asked the master (T’an), ‘Where do you come from?’ Before he could answer, [the drunkard] suddenly punched [T’an] in the mouth with his fist. His teeth were broken and blood was flowing, but with a very content expression he spat out his teeth into his hand and went off singing and dancing. People in the marketplace who saw this were furious. They made [T’an] report this [incident] to an official. But all that the master said [to the official] was, ‘He was only drunk.’ At the time, [Ma] Tan-yang was inside the Pass (was in Shensi). When he heard about this [incident] he praised [T’an] saying, ‘[By receiving] a single blow he has erased the karma of his entire lifetime!'” (62)
In TYL, Ma himself reminisces about a very similar personal experience:
“The master said, ‘When I first came inside the Passage and was going about begging, I arrived at a saloon. There was a drunk man [at the saloon]. Amidst the insults [that he was saying to me], I received a punch from him. Thereupon I ran, but he dragged me back and punched me again. All I could do was take it and bear it. Have any of you ever met with this kind of demonic hazard?’
A disciple answered, ‘No.’
The master said, ‘That’s good. If you do encounter [such a situation], do not fight back.'” (63)
Life for a Ch’üan-chen monk was seen as a series of “demonic hazards” which he had to react to in a completely calm and passive manner, much like Lu Ch’un-yang allowed his house to get robbed and exposed his neck to the vengeful ghost. Chinese society in general has never had a high degree of respect for ascetic holy men, unlike some other cultures, such as India. Thus by living as beggars, the Ch’üan-chen masters exposed themselves to constant derision and occasional violence. Here we see virtually the same thing happening to both T’an and Ma; and Ma speaks of this experience to his disciples as an example of a hazard that they themselves are very likely to encounter some day.
While the Ch’üan-chen masters had to deal with derision and violence at the hands of people while they trained themselves amidst the towns, they also had to deal with the natural hazards they encountered when in seclusion. Such was particularly the case with Ch’iu Ch’ang-ch’un and Wang Yü-yang. In the face of these natural hazards, they continuously tested their capacity to maintain their composure in the face of adversity and temptation. Yin Ch’ing-ho narrates the following episode involving Ch’iu:
“My Master-Father, the Perfected Man [Ch’iu] Ch’ang-ch’un went about straining his will power and encountering evils [dealing with evils and fighting off temptations]. Fearing only that his merit was lacking, he went to and fro carrying rocks on top of mountains in order to fight off his sleepiness. Only because he was yet lacking in good deeds was he unable to stabilize his mind. After this he encountered the evil of death twice. One time he exposed himself to the cold and almost died at his own hands. On another occasion, a flying rock hit him and broke three of his ribs and limbs. After this, he came close to death many more times. Demons of illness hit him and broke his arms three times. Amidst these demonic hazards, his heart did not waver. Throughout his life he strained his will power doing nothing but training himself.
If people have determination, they will overcome the evils. If one has no determination, he will encounter no evils. [If such is the case one] should experience an evil in order to acquire one layer of good merit. [Each time you encounter an evil], you can enlighten your mind and your [innate] nature can become numinous.” (64)
The various perils encountered were considered beneficial as long as they were ultimately overcome with an unwavering heart. Therefore Ch’iu deliberately exposed himself to life-threatening circumstances in order to create opportunities to accumulate merit. Yin Ch’ing-ho advised his disciples to do the same if they wish to be like him. Another life-threatening peril which existed in the wilderness was wild beasts, particularly tigers. Wang Chih-chin , a disciple of Hao Kuang-ning, tells us how Ch’iu dealt with this problem:
“In the past, when Perfected Man Ch’ang-ch’un was at the P’an-hsi Gorge, there were always tigers and leopards coming and going at night. On this particular evening, as [tigers and leopards] went in and out, one of the people (who was there training together with Ch’iu) became horrified, and in the morning wanted to build a wall (to keep the tigers out of the hut or grotto in which they were staying). [Ch’iu] thought to himself, ‘If one has a frightened heart and wants to guard and protect oneself in this kind of a situation, how can one hope to avoid life and death (reincarnation)?’ Thereby he stopped [the building of] the wall and got rid of [it]. Firmly, with determination he resigned himself to life and death (did not long for his life to be spared nor did he fear death). His fearful thoughts naturally no longer existed. Thus he got to where he was unwavering like a mountain amidst the surroundings of life and death. In a single moment he was emancipated from his various forms of attachment. This is going to places which are difficult to go to.” (65)
Fear in any situation was regarded as proof that one’s spirit still had attachments to the temporal realm and was incapable of attaining emancipation from the cycle of reincarnation. If one wished to be an Immortal like Lu Ch’un-yang, he had to be willing to “bare his neck” in the midst of life-threatening dangers. Of course, there is definitely a paradox here resulting from the fact that the Taoist ideal of Immortalhood had been equated with the Buddhist ideal of liberation from the cycle of rebirth (a development that considerably preceded the time of the Ch’üan-chen masters). While engaging in the life-long quest to overcome mortality, one was not supposed to want to avoid death, even though the Ch’üan-chen masters were in fact very much concerned with how to avoid disease and death and lengthen the lifespan. Ultimately, their ascetic and sometimes daredevil-like activities were thought to be a means by which the health of the mortal body could be better maintained. While they ultimately wished to avoid death, they did not allow themselves to think in this way, because the fear of death and the desire to live were themselves causes of disease and death. Even in their own time, this paradox was puzzling, and there is evidence that some of their believers may have taken the ideal of non-attachment to life much too literally without understanding the other side of the paradox:
“Hermit Liu of Mou-p’ing District (in Shantung) wanted to burn his own body. Thus I wrote the following poem quickly in order to save his life:
Mr. Liu, listen to my exhortation.
Studying Buddhahood and studying Immortalhood,
Is to rely on one’s knowledge and insight in order to cut off and abandon the mind’s dust.
It is not to be accomplished by burning and abandoning the body.
Intricately cultivate, refine and train the spiritual elixir.
Strive for the nine cycle completion of your merit and deeds.
Follow in the footsteps of Hai-ch’an, the brilliant Patriarch Liu. (66)
Whether this particular Mr. Liu contemplated resorting to burning himself alive as a result of the influence of Ch’üan-chen teaching, I do not know; but such could very likely have been the case. Ma attempted to change his mind by reminding him that he needed to keep his physical body intact in order to do what was necessary to become an Immortal like Liu Hai-ch’an.
Aside from the fear of life-threatening hazards in the temporal realm, a Ch’üan-chen monk also had to conquer his fear of gods and demons. This seems to have been particularly difficult for Ch’iu Ch’ang-ch’un:
“[Ch’iu] himself said, ‘I am not scared by fierce tigers, but when I see a clay statue of a god slaying [evil spirits, sinners(?)], I feel scared.’ Thus from time to time he went to look at it and sometimes stayed overnight in the shrine which housed that particular statue. It took him three years to overcome this fear.” (67)
This fear of Ch’iu’s may seem childish; but that only serves to remind us of the fact that the world as perceived by people back in the 12th century was filled with an infinite number of gods and demons, many of which were regarded as vicious bringers of misfortune. With the Buddhist concept of hell already well established in Taoist religion and in popular religion, men of faith had to struggle with the fear of damnation and punishment at the hands of the gods. For Ch’iu, this type of fear was rooted much deeper than any of his fears toward what we would call the real world.
The Ch’üan-chen masters thought that to have a completely enlightened spirit (free of all superfluous thoughts, emotions and attachments) meant by definition to be in complete control of one’s physical body and the ch’i that it is made out of. Thus the body’s inability to withstand strenuous physical exertion, sleepiness, hunger, coldness or heat was regarded as proof that there was still progress to be made. A particularly traumatic and embarrassing failure for a Ch’üan-chen monk was the ejaculation of semen under any circumstances. The way in which a truly determined monk was to react to such personal setbacks was simple: more discipline, more suffering and more hard work:
“Master-Father Ch’ang-ch’un said, ‘Looking at all of the [other] masters, I realized that they were all superior to me in their countenances of blessing and wisdom. Finally I exerted my heart. After three years my ambition was to refine my mind to the point where it is like cold ashes. After ten years of aspiring, my mind was beyond control and could not be subdued. I myself realized that my merit was lacking. Again I increased in my determination. Wearing a pair of sandals I tied them and untied them over and over again at night and ran seventeen to eighteen laps in order to keep my nature from getting darkened (falling asleep?). After fifty days of doing this I had an unwavering mind. My perfected heart was like a crystal pagoda.’
One day, [Ch’iu] fell [asleep (?)] and gave rise to thoughts. The Master-Father wept and wailed. It was from this time that [he knew that] his merit was shallow. Later, when a military general in Ch’ang-an summoned him to perform a chai ritual, he leaked [semen] three times during the night. The Master-Father himself realized that his merit was lacking and that he had been unable to accomplish the Tao. He experienced heavenly temptations and great temptations of the five emperors. Even when a flying rock broke three ribs and limbs, his heart did not waver. Later he reached the holy sages (the Immortals took notice of his gallant efforts) and heard a human voice (of an Immortal?) in the air say, ‘You will acquire the Tao on the 15th day of the second month.'” (68)
“Grand Master [Wang] Yu-yang from the time he was still living at home, did not know any erotic affairs. After leaving his home he never leaked [semen]. But later, one evening on Mt. T’ie-ch’a he suddenly had a leakage. He wailed and wept in extreme despair, and felt hungry (69). The [gods of] the various heavens thereupon spread about harmonious ch’i. Three days later he acquired his mind’s ground (70). From then on he underwent 1000 rigors and 100 ways of training. One time, he knelt in rocks and gravel until his knees became tattered to the bones. In mountains full of rough rocks and thorn bushes he went about with bare feet. This why [people of] the world call him ‘Iron Legs.’ In three years his old karma disappeared.” (71)
Ch’iu and Yu-yang as they are portrayed in the above passages epitomize the basic spirit of the first generation of the Ch’üan-chen sect. They trained and punished themselves to the point where they themselves could finally believe that they had done succeeded in everything necessary for attaining Perfected Man status. By enduring all these hardships, they proved to themselves and their believers that they were legitimate holy men. For Ch’iu, as we can see, realization of his own Perfection came when he heard the voice of an Immortal tell him that he would soon “acquire the Tao” .
The early Ch’üan-chen sect was a young, vibrant and highly inspired religious movement in which a group of deeply dedicated and motivated people devoted a tremendous amount of time, effort and hard work to create for themselves and others a path towards emancipation from the cycle of reincarnation and towards eternal life as an Immortal. We have seen how the Ch’üan-chen masters believed that in order to get rid of superfluous thoughts, gain control of the body, erase bad karma, and accumulate merit, it was essential to live a life of poverty and humiliation (supported by begging) and to intentionally engage in the necessary amount of gruelling, painful or even life-endangering activities, based on the amount of merit one had previously accumulated in present and previous incarnations. Without accumulating merit in this way, one was unqualified to be taught esoteric life-nurturing methods, one could not experience a mystical encounter with an Immortal, one could not acquire the power to perform miracles, and one was unworthy of performing important Taoist rituals. In the eyes of most believers, anyone who lived comfortably and was unable to maintain his physical health and mental composure under the most trying of circumstances, was a sad excuse for a Perfected Man.
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