A Folk Novel of China

Seven Taoist Masters (translated by Eva Young) is a classic novel by an unknown author that infuses Taoism in a narrative style which is very lucid and clear yet adventurous and articulate. Six men and women go through the tribulations and finally achieve their immortality by constant Taoist practices expounded by masters. What got my attention is the style and weaving of characters and situations to bring readers attention to detail of obstacles every one faces in their practices. The use of disguised mental disease is adopted by the 1st Taoist adept  to attain seclusion within the confines of his house to practice Tao. Given our times, this method has to change to suit modern days, as anyone disguising the above method may end in a mental asylum and be overdosed with drugs lest they should be smart to conceive newer methods, perhaps a distant profession or other alternatives that may suit their pursuit. The lady adept gets rid of her beauty is telling in that she had the guts to pursue this path by self-inflicting wounds to change her appearance from a beautiful women to one who is detested and never pursued for beauty – a remarkable feat to do the unthinkable to pursue Tao.  Time and again the story brings to attention how fate joins genuine and ardent pursuers with masters – be it physically by being nearer and helping them with timely lessons or in modern days where there’s no such master-disciple culture, perhaps introducing the right books to educate and right circumstances to materialize the path to pursue is comparable. Akin to mystic lore, story is replete with a master who can foretell his demise early on and instructing his disciples the place and time for his burial. Charlatan and snake oil sellers are present since time immemorial and there’s a duel where the impostor challenges the real adept for a 3 day nonstop meditation session and loses on day one to real one and was also unable to explain the alchemical principles of exotic Tao.  A quite interesting aspect of story is cave digging, 72 instances of such, and giving it to sages for their meditation and finally finding his final spot on ledge near a cliff and in it daily hangs himself to practice and returns back end of the day to have food. One adept among the six, who had more sexual craving decides to go to a brothel to understand more about his craving and ultimately gets rid of it. During his stay, he is visited by Bodhi dharma and also does a feat of heating food in his tan-tien when there was no firewood and it was cold outside. The lady adept was protected by heavenly spirits when two men pursued to violate her by flash floods and lighting that appears from nowhere. Finally one adept gets anointed by emperor to teach Taoism. In conclusion, a gentle read those who want to know more about Toa in the narrative. The following excerpt catches the main principles of Taoism and it’s practical method of attainment.

Taoism and it’s Practical Method – Excerpts

“If you want to get rid of the sickness of spirit and body, The primary cause of ill health is none other than must get to its cause. Craving creates the obstacles to health. These obstacles the cure. are desire for liquor, sexual desire, greed for riches, and bad Those who wish to cultivate health and longevity must first remove these obstacles. Sever all attachment to external Then the internal illness will disappear and the root of ill health will be eradicated. Once health is regained, the cultivation of the Tao and the attainment of immortality are possible. “First, let us discuss the obstacle of liquor. Many people know that liquor can disrupt reason and therefore want to abstain from it. Others abstain because they are persuaded to do so by friends and relatives. Yet others abstain because the law forbids it. However, when they see liquor or when they see others drink, they desire it. Even if no liquor has touched their lips, the very craving shows that they have not overcome the obstacle. Craving originates in thoughts. Even before the thought becomes action, craving already exists and the damage has been done. Getting rid of the obstacle of liquor requires the absence of craving in thought as well as in action. “Now, take sexual desire. Many people know that sexual desire drains the generative energy and want to abstain from it. However, when they see an attractive person they fantasize about having sex or secretly desire sexual company. When these thoughts arise, even if one is not engaged in sex physically, one is already prey to the obstacle. You now understand that the cause of craving after liquor and sex lies in the mind. If you want to remove these obstacles, you must start with eradicating the thoughts of desire from your mind. Tame the heart [mind], and the intentions will not run wild. When the heart is emptied of desire, the cause of ill health will disappear. Cut the attachments externally, and the internal injuries will be healed. Your heart should be clear and calm like a still lake reflecting the light of the moon.

If ripples appear on the water, then the image of moon will be distorted and the Tao will never be realized in you “How does one go about eradicating the desire for liquor and x? The ancient sages offer this advice: If it is not propitious do not look at it. If it is not propitious, do not do it. If it is in front of you, behave as if you saw nothing. If it is spoken to you behave as if you heard nothing. The Buddhists teach: “Forget the other, forget oneself, forget everyone.” The Taoists teach: “Look but do not see it; hear but do not listen.” That is, if you are not attached to the liquor or the sexual attraction, those things will lose their attractiveness. Attraction is not in the object itself but in the attitude that we carry around with us.] If you can do this, then you will have eradicated the desire for liquor and sex. “As for riches, this is a difficult obstacle to overcome. There are those who are poor and need to work hard to earn a living for themselves and their family. Therefore, they do not have much choice but to focus their attention on acquiring money. People in this condition must live with their karma and wait for another lifetime to relinquish their ties with money. Then there are those who crave riches so that they may display their wealth and earn the respect and admiration of others. Yet further there are those who crave riches for a life of luxury and waste. And then there are those who accumulate riches because they wish to exploit misfortune and see others suffer. It is these latter kinds of craving for riches that prevent one from discovery of the Tao.

“Temper is the result of emotions running wild. There are positive and negative feelings. Positive feelings like compassion, empathy, and humility are to be cultivated, but negative feelings such as anger, bad temper, and cruelty should be dissolved. Bad temper is the result of self-importance. Bad temper is harmful to health because it creates bad ch’i in our bodies. Verbal arguments, competitiveness, aggressiveness, impatience, frustration, annoyance are all manifestations of bad temper. How can people with these dispositions attain the Tao? “If you wish to eradicate the bad temper and the desire for riches, listen to the sages. They give good advice. The Confucianists say, ‘Riches that do not rightfully belong to me I see as as the floating clouds. Take control of your reason, and will not lose your temper.’ The Buddhists say, ‘Do not crave rewards. Virtue comes from the ability to resist provocation.’ The ‘Know the illusion of material goods. Cultivate Taoists say, compassion, and your temper will be calmed.’ Take these words of advice and you will be able to eradicate bad temper and desire for riches. “To eradicate the four obstacles to health—liquor, sexual desire, riches, and bad temper—one must cultivate the heart. Once the heart is tamed, the cause of ill health will disappear. The Confucianists tell us to ‘awaken.’ The Buddhists tell us to ‘understand.’ The Taoists tell us to ‘act intuitively.’ First, we need to awaken to the fact that we have fallen prey to the obstacles. Second, we need to understand what the obstacles are and their causes. Lastly, we need to act intuitively, that is, to act spontaneously from a heart that is tamed of desire and craving.

If you can do these things, then you will have no problem attaining the Tao.” Ma Tan-yang and Sun Pu-erh asked about meditation. Wang Ch’ung-yang said, “In meditation all thoughts must cease. When the ego is dead, the spirit emerges. When you sit, sit on a cushion. Loosen your clothing. At the hour of tzu (11:00 P.M.), cross your legs gently and sit facing east. Clasp your hands together and place them in front of your body. Your back should be straight. Strike your teeth together and swallow your saliva. Place the tongue against the palate of your mouth. You should be alert in listening, but do not be attached to sounds. Let your eyes drop, but do not close them. Focus on the light that you see in front of you and concentrate on the Lower t’an-t’ien. In meditation it is very important to stop thinking. If thoughts arise, the spirit will not be pure, and your efforts of cultivation will come to nothing. In addition, you should drop all feelings. Once feelings arise, the heart will not be still, and the attainment of the Tao is impossible.” Wang Ch’ung-yang continued, “Sit on a cushion and you will be able to sit long and not feel tired. Loosen your clothing so the movement of internal energy will not be constricted. The hour of tzu is when the first ray of yang appears. Face east because the breath of life flows in from the east at the hour of first yang. Clasp your hands in the t’ai-chi symbol, because it symbolizes ness of form. Sit with your back straight, because only with vertical spine can the energy rise to the head. Close your and place the tongue against the palate so that the internal energy cannot dissipate. The ear is associated with generative energy. Being attached to sound will dissipate this energy. Do not close your eyes, for they let the light in to shine on your spirit. If you close your eyes, the spirit will be dimmed. If you open them too wide, the spirit will escape. Therefore you should lower the lids but not close them. Concentrate on the lower tan t’ien as if to reflect the light of your eyes on it because here is the mystery of all things. Minimize speech, as this conserves vital energy. Rest your ears, as this conserves generative energy. Dissolve thoughts to conserve spiritual energy. When all these energies are not dissipated, then you will attain immortality.” Ma Tån-yang and Sun Pu-erh thanked Wang Ch’ung-yang for his instructions. Wang Ch’ung-yang added, “Staying on the path of the Tao requires discipline. should take this knowledge seriously and practice it all the time. Otherwise, even though you know what to do, you will accomplish nothing.”

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Zen Stories that caught my Attention

As I was reading “Zen masters of China”, it started off with Bodhidharma and traced most of the lineages that taught Zen Buddhism with little but piercing stories full of wisdom. Two stories that caught my attention, copied here:

CAOSHAN BENJI
During his time with Dongshan, Caoshan received the “Five Ranks,”and these became the basis of his own teaching. The work he did in passing on this tradition eventually resulted in the establishment of the largest of contemporary Zen traditions, the Caodong school. Its name is taken from the “mountain” names of these two masters. In Japanese, where the teachers’ names are Sozan Honjaku [Caoshanl and Tozan Ryokai [Dongshan], the school is known as Soto. Caoshan composed the following commentary on the five ranks: “The absolute is not necessarily void. The relative is not necessarily actual. There is neither turning towards nor turning away. When mental activity dies down and both the material world and emptiness are forgotten, there is no concealment. The whole is revealed. This is the relative within the absolute. Mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. No names; nothing can be compared. This is the absolute within the relative. Clean and naked, bare and free, the face in full majesty. Throughout heaven and earth, the only honored one. This is coming from the absolute. The ear does not enter sound. Sound does not block the ear. The moment you go within, there have never been any fixed names in the world. This is arriving in the middle. No mind, no objects; no phenomena, no principle. It has always been beyond name or description, beyond absolute and relative, beyond essence and appearance. This is unity attained.”

GUIZONG ZHICHANG
The governor of Jiangzhou Province once visited another disciple of Mazu, Guizong Zhichang, in order to discuss a passage he had found in one of the Buddhist sutras regarding Mount Kunlun (Mount Sumeru, the mythical peak at the center of the world). “It’s said in the sutra,” the governor said, “that there’s a poppy seed within Mount Kunlun, and that within that poppy seed is Mount Kunlun. Now I can understand how there could be a poppy seed within the mountain, but it’s nonsense to suggest a poppy seed could contain a mountain!” Guizong said, “Governor, I’m told that you’re a well-read man.” “I believe I am,” the governor admitted. “I’ve been told you’ve read as many as ten thousand books.” “That’s very likely true.” “But your head is no bigger than a coconut, how could it possibly contain the contents of ten thousand books?” The governor had no reply.