Ancient Cultivation Stories: The Three-Life Stone

In the late Dali era of the Tang Dynasty, there was a monk named Yuanguan whom stayed at the Huilin Temple at Luoyang. He was skilled in horticulture and was quite wealthy. He was also a practised musician. People at the time called him “rich monk.” But no one knew where he came from.

Li Yuan was born into a distinguished family. He spent all his time sightseeing, attending banquets, partying, and drinking. During the reign of Emperor Tainbao, his father Li Cheng was a general guarding the border of the empire. General Li Cheng was captured by enemies and never heard from again. This depressed Li Yuan to the extent that he gave up his life of luxury. He moved to the Huilin temple and donated all his possessions to the temple. The temple allowed him only one bowl of food, one drink, and did not provide a servant for him. He was completely isolated from the outside world. He became such good friends with monk Yuanguan that they kept no secrets from each other. They often sat and talked from morning to night together. People at the time teased them because Yuanguan was a monk and Li Yuan was an everyday person. They lived like this for thirty years.

One day, they decided to take a trip to Shuzhou to visit Daoists and alchemists in the Qingcheng and Ermei Mountains. Yuanguan wished to first visit the capital city Chang’an and then go to Shuzhou via Xie valley, while Li Yuan wanted to visit Jingzhou first and then go to Shuzhou via the Three Gorges. They argued for half a year without coming to a compromise. Li Yuan said: “I’m now someone who has left the secular world behind. How could I visit to the capital?” Yuanguan said, “It looks like it’s not up to us to choose which road we travel. Let’s go through the Three Gorges then.”

Therefore, they travelled to the Three Gorges via the Jing River. Their boat stopped at the foot of the mountains in Nanji where they saw several women in bright clothes fetching water from the river. Yuanguan broke into tears and said, “The reason why I didn’t want to take this route is because I was afraid of seeing these women.” Li Yuan was surprised and asked him, “We’ve seen lots of women since the Three Gorges. Why are you crying because of these women?” Yuanguan said, “There is a pregnant woman named Wang among them. I’m going to reincarnate as her baby in my next life. She’s been pregnant for three years and couldn’t give birth precisely because I’m still alive. Today I’ve seen her; thus I know the end of my life is near. I’m going to go on my path of reincarnation, just like Buddha said.”

He then told Yuan Li, “Please recite the magic incantations for me so I’ll quickly reincarnate. You can stay here for a few days and bury me at the foot of the mountains. Please visit Wang’s family three days after the baby’s birth. If the baby smiles at you, he acknowledges you. Twelve years later we’ll meet on the Moon Festival night, at Tianzhu Temple in Hangzhou.”

At that moment Li Yuan regretted taking this trip. He was very upset. He called the pregnant woman over and told her to prepare for the new baby’s birth. The woman happily went back home. Soon her relatives arrived and worshipped by the river with dried fish and alcohol. Yuanguan took a shower and put on new clothes. He died and the pregnant woman soon gave birth to a baby.

After three days, Li Yuan visited the newborn baby. The baby was wrapped in a blanket and seemed to know him. The baby smiled at him when Li Yuan held him in his arms. Li Yuan could not help bursting into tears. He told the story of his friend to the mother of the baby. She held a big funeral for Yuanguan and buried him. Li Yuan didn’t want to stay at Qingcheng Mountain any more. The next day he headed on the boat for his journey back to Huilin Temple.

Twelve years later, in August, Li Yuan travelled to Hangzhou for his appointment with Yuanguan. At the night of the Moon Festival, the rain stopped and the moonlight was radiant everywhere near Tianzhu Temple. Li Yuan didn’t see Yuanguan. All of a sudden, he heard a shepherd boy sing the Zhuzhi song on the bank of the Gehong River. The boy sat on the back of an ox and tapped its horns. He had two buns on his hair and wore short clothes. He soon arrived at Tianzhu Temple. Li Yuan greeted him and said, “How are you, Yuanguan?” The boy said: “You kept your word very well. Now, you go your way and I go mine. We should not be near each other. Your predestined life is not over yet. I hope that you can be a diligent cultivator. If you cultivate diligently and are not dissuaded, we’ll meet again some day.” Looking at Yuanguan, Li Yuan cried because he was not able to continue their previous friendship.

Yuanguan sang the Zhuzhi song again and left. Li Yuan could hear this song, no matter how far away the boy walked. Before Yuanguan arrived at the temple, he sang, “I am the very spirit on the Three-life Stone [1]. I do not want to talk about matters concerning sentimentality any more. It is great that an old friend can pay me a visit. My flesh body changed, but I am still me.” Another song said, “It had been a long story after I left the world. When it comes to predestined relationships, I was heart broken. I searched around in the mountains and rivers in Wu and Yue, but finally had to turn to Qutang Gorge (a gorge in the Three Gorges)”.

Three years later, the emperor tried to appoint Li Yuan as the remonstration officer. Li Yuan had already seen through the vanity of life and did not accept it. He died at the age of 80 in a temple.

[1] The Three-life Stone is located at the junction of the South Lotus Mountain and Flying Mountain, and it is one of the sixteen historical sites at the West Lake. It is said to be the place where monk Yuanguan and Li Yuan met. This stone is about 10 meters high, and over 2 meters wide. It is steep and a great site to see. On the stone, there is seal with three Chinese characters that say “The Three-life Stone,” and each character is rather big. There is a description “The remarks of Monk Yuanze’s three-life stone in the Tang Dynasty” on the stone, telling the origin of the story. Many other stone inscriptions from the Tang and the Song Dynasty became indecipherable, except those of Yang Yu and Zhang Zhu, written in the first year of the Zhizheng era in the Yuan Dynasty (September 1341). Yuanguan was also called Yuanze. In the book Ganze Yao, the monk’s name is Yuanguan. But in Monk Yuanze’s Story written by Su Dongpo in the Song Dynasty, the monk’s name is Yuanze.

References:

Ganze Yao, Monk Yuanze’s Story (Seng Yuanze Zhuan) and Loyal People in the Tang Dynasty (Tang Zhong Yi Zhuan).

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