The Taoist Eight immortals are a huge part of Taoist folk lore. Many of the immortals have contributed much to the world at large in the way of enlightened thinking, including everything from meditation, martial arts, politics, and philosophy and helping the human condition in general.
Lu Dong Bin is my favorite “Immortal.” He was a neo-Taoist from the Tang dynasty (618-905 C.E.) believed to have been born about 646. Taoism was originally a philosophy but later it became adulterated with Confucianism and religious Taoism. Neo-Taoists came later on and endeavored to return Taoism to its core values studying the old classics and resurrecting Taoism. It is because of Lu Dong Bin (and other neo-Taoists) that we have the Complete Reality School of Taoism. This sect has produced some my favorite books, paving the way for modern Taoist thought; books like Understanding Reality, The Book of Balance and Harmony, and one of the greatest classics in the Taoist cannon, The Secret of the Golden Flower. Ancestor Lu’s work had a huge influence on Taoist and the integration of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist thought.
A very colorful man, he is always depicted with his sword and usually wearing a “Taoist blue” robe. Ancestor Lu earned an interesting reputation as a wise sage yet being somewhat of a rascal, he was known to have pension for wine and women. Lu Yen (his given name) was a brilliant man born to a scholarly family and had plans of taking the very difficult civil service exam and entering into government as a Confucian scholar. Thankfully, fate intervened and he was directed towards Tao.
Back in those days, there were many inns along traveling routes like today, but back then, these were actually fairly enlightened places. Travelers are generally open to meeting people and exchanging ideas and so these inns became famous as networking hubs for different people and philosophies. Many fascinating people would hang out in these places like the Taoist wizard Chung-Li Ch’uan. Spiritual Alchemy was a high level Taoist practice and Chung-Li was an adept.
So here comes this man Lu Yen with his brilliance in full bloom, passing through town, with dreams of getting a cushy government job and he runs into this Taoist “wizard” in a bar… Now Master Chung-Li is always looking for an enlightened protege, and when he meets Lu, he sees a look in his eyes that he knows is the root of something special. After using a poem as a riddle to test Lu, he decides he has found a potential disciple. Master Chung-Li gets Lu off alone and after some conversation, they put on a pot of millet to cook and he offers Lu a pillow so he can get some much-needed rest. This famous encounter is a perennial Taoist tale of how they met.
The story goes that Lu has a dream, in the dream he goes to the capital, passes his test, and becomes a successful scholar and over time moves up into a coveted government job. He works his way up over decades, and marries a woman from a wealthy clan and he raises a large and prosperous family.
After forty years, he reaches the pinnacle of his career, is appointed prime minister, and holds this office for ten years amassing much wealth and power. Then at the very zenith of his life he is charged with a crime, is defamed and stripped of his rank and all his property. He then looses his wife and children (in some stories they are killed) and finds himself wandering in the mountains starving and alone. Eventually he find himself knee deep in snow, freezing to death in the frozen windswept wilderness. Finally, he lets out a sigh that may be his last exhalation…then he awakens.
Dazed and confused he looks up to see the mysterious stranger Chung-Li at the inn waiting for the millet to cook. Chung-Li says, “The cereal isn’t even done and you have dreamed your way to paradise”
Lu looks at him and asks him, “You know what I dreamed?”
Chung-Li says, “In the dream you just had, you experienced fifty years of up and downs, all in a short while. Whatever you got is not worth rejoicing over, and whatever you lost is not worth regretting.” These words left Lu stunned. Chung-Li continued, “There is also a great awakening, after which you realize this human world is one big dream.”
After hearing all this and reflecting on his dream Lu Yen, a Confucian scholar, was ready to quit his ambition for everything he has imagined his life would be. He realized he has just met a Taoist adept, a master of spiritual alchemy, and immediately asked the stranger for guidance in Tao, to be taught “the art of transcending the world.”
Chung-Li could tell that Lu was still not ready to receive the teaching as he had only just now awakened from his dream, telling him that it would take “several generations to transcend the world.” Lu begged for even the smallest lesson to get started on the way but Chung-Li refused. Lu was devastated and the two went separate ways and Lu began to find his Way alone. Some say he went into isolation and abandoned his career. It would be several years before the two would cross paths again, and when they do the next part of the story evolves.
Check back later for Part 2