Ancient Cultivation Stories: He Zhizhang and the Old Taoist Wang

Chinese folklore is full of ancient stories of cultivation, immortals and taoists. These stories reflect the depth to which the concept of cultivation permeates the whole of Chinese culture, tradition and history. These stories are not directly related to Falun Gong, but are included on Clear Harmony because they are of interest to western people, providing an insight into the deep cultural tradition of cultivation practices in China.

He Zhizhang lived on Xuanping Lane in Xijing [today’s Changan City]. Across from his home stood a house with a small plank door. He would often see an old man riding a donkey and coming and going through the small plank door. Five or six years passed, but the old man’s complexion and clothing remained the same; it seemed that the old man never changed in his appearance. He never saw any of the old man’s relatives either. When he asked his neighbours about this old man, everyone said that the old man was called Wang, and that his only job was to sell ropes to string coins in the West Market.

After careful observation, He Zhizhang found the old man to be an unusual person. He Zhizhang often went to visit the old man during his own leisure time. The old man welcomed him very respectfully. The old man only had one servant boy and when He Zhizhang asked about his job the old man just answered him vaguely. As they came to know each other more deeply they gradually grew to respect each other more and more and the topics that they discussed gradually grew more and more profound. The old man told He Zhizhang that he was good at cultivating the Tao [Also known as "Dao," a Taoist term for "the Way of nature and the universe"] and making pills that enable one to attain immortality. He Zhizhang had always respected and believed in cultivation of the Tao, so he wanted to formally acknowledge the old man as his teacher. One day, He Zhizhang and his wife came to the old man holding a bright pearl. They told the old man that this pearl came from He’s hometown and that they had treasured it or many years. He Zhizhang said he wanted to present it especially to the old man and asked the old man to teach him the Tao and the Fa [Law and principles in the Buddha School]. The old man accepted the pearl, and immediately gave it to the servant boy and asked him to go to that market and to trade the pearl for some buns. The boy came back with 30 sesame buns, and the old man treated He Zhizhang with the buns. He Zhizhang was very unhappy about it. He felt that the pearl was a special gift to the old man that was highly valuable. How could the old man just use it so arbitrarily and trade it for just 30 sesame buns? The old man then said: "The Tao or the Fa can only be gained by sacrificing ones heart. How can one vigorously pursue it? If the attachment to money and personal possessions is not gotten removed, it is impossible to achieve the Tao. You should go to a desolate and barren mountain area to cultivate the Tao diligently and with great devotion. It’s difficult to achieve the Tao if you live in the city.” He Zhizhang was very enlightened by his words. He thanked the old man sincerely and left.

A few days later, the old man disappeared. Soon after He Zhizhang abdicated his official position, and returned to his hometown to cultivate the Tao.

Note: He Zhizhang, also called Jizhen, was from Yongxing, Huiji (today’s Shaoxing). Since his childhood he was well known for the essays and poems that he wrote. He earned the rank of Jinshi (a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations) and later was promoted to a Taichang Doctor. Zhizhang was unconventional all his life and became even more so during his old age. He took the pen name of Four Siming, or “Demented Scholar.” He usually wrote poems after he was drunk, and once he was in this state he would be able to write very good poems and very quickly. He was also good at both cursive script and official script. People collected his writings and regarded them as treasures. In the beginning of the reign of Tianbao, he resigned and went back to his hometown to be a Taoist. The emperor circulated an imperial edict that awarded him a piece of music named “Mirror Lake and Shan River”. The emperor also wrote a poem to commemorate his leaving. The crown prince came down and shook He Zhizhang’s hands to see him off. He Zhizhang died at the age of 86. Emperor Suzong respectfully awarded him the title of “Minister of Ministry of Rites.” His poems like "Coming Home" and "Chant the Willow" etc. are widely read and recited.

(Taiping Guangji)

Translated from

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