Wednesday, February 22, 2012
The death of a young Taoist
Recently I came across a strange Taoist text of MouShan School (茅山宗, nowadays famous for their practice of spiritual combat 神打 whereby a practitioner is possessed by a higher spirit and be able to withstand pain). The text is called The spiritual underworld adventure of Mr. Zhou (周氏冥通记). The protagonist Taoist Zhou ZiLIang (周子良) was not a high-level Taoist master. Zhou, with pre-Taoist spiritual lineage in the family, at age 12 became under the discipleship of famous Taoist master Tao HongJing (陶弘景456－536) due to a downfall in family fortune. Zhou a soft, shy and quiet youth began to be visited by known spirits (Immortals) during dreams when he was 19 and he committed suicide about a year later in a spiritual way. He was advised of the fact that he was selected to be a high level Immortal with definite responsibility, and it was with a definite timetable, i.e. about a year later, to accept the offer. On the first visit by the Immortals, Zhou got this message. He did try to negotiate for more years, but his counter-offer was briskly declined.
On the surface of it, it looks like a simple tragic story of a young man who got this suicidal intention and carried it out in real life. The story, as written by Zhou himself, was not really dramatic. It talked about different Immortals visiting Zhou separately, nearly all urging him to accept the offer, and threatened him should he chose not to accept it (in other words, not committing suicide). There had been arguments within the Immortal ranks that which level Zhou should fit in (first lower level, then progressing to higher), and Zhou eventually visited the spiritual world (without much detail). The only interesting things are perhaps Zhou was asked not to reveal his spiritual encounters with anyone (including Tao) and that Zhou was taught some practice to facilitate his transformation into an Immortal upon death (unfortunately such practice notes he later burned).
It would be foolish for his Master, the famous Taoist Tao, to advocate the act of suicide in the name of spirituality, in particular to young dedicated Taoists. In Master Tao's message to the emperor (emperor Liang 梁武帝, a famous emperor dedicated to Buddhism and a learned Buddhist himself, and he had great respect for master Tao), he said that he regretted that he didn't notice the change in his disciple and therefore he couldn't stop the tragic event from happening. Having said that Tao noticed that most Immortals that came to visit Zhou were known spiritual figures (from dreams of some famous Immortals, being sanctified into a sacred text by Tao himself: "True Message" 真诰). Tao suggested giving Zhou's text the same sacred status and the emperor concurred.
According to Tao, Zhou burned away many pages before he committed suicide (Zhou, like many external alchemist of his time, was very knowledgeable on chemical substances; and it was likely that he took ancient psychotic drugs to facilitate his vivid dreams). And Zhou buried the rest in a famed mountain, as according to the then Taoist tradition of passing on secret knowledge to fellow Taoist (by chance or the wish of higher spirituality). It is likely that Zhou had burned away those practical teachings (or meditative techniques) that were supposedly for training people into Taoist Immortality. Of course, it is only speculative in nature. Tao found Zhou's text that was buried in a cave of famous Taoist Mount.
Whereas the text itself is not too interesting, the whole episode, as my reading goes, has its mesmerizing mythical character.