Ancient Cultivation Stories: The Huayang Hermit

Tao Hongjing, who styled himself as "Tongming," also called himself "The Huayang Hermit" at a later stage of his life. He was born in Mo Lin in Dan Yang (today's Jiangning County, Jiangsu Province) in the Southern and Northern Dynasty of ancient China.

Even in his childhood, Tao Hongjing had very unusual ethics and aspirations. At the age of six, he was able to understand philosophical teachings and to write articles. When he was seven years old, he was able to read tens of thousands of words of classic works, including The Classic of Filial Piety, The Classic of Poems, and Lun Yu. At the age of ten, his hometown friend gave him a classical book authored by Ge Hong called Stories of Immortals, which recalls stories about the immortals and their cultivation practice. "Reading these stories makes me have soaring aspirations to cultivate and to become an immortal," he sighed with emotion. Day and night, he studied the book and sought for the truth behind the book. He made up his mind to cultivate and to learn the Tao () in order to become an immortal. "Looking up at the sky and sun, I feel like they're no longer too remote to reach," he once told others.

By the time he was seventeen years old, he had read over ten thousand volumes and was good at playing various kinds of musical instruments as well as Chinese chess. He was also an expert at Chinese calligraphy. Because of his outstanding talents, many ministers in Southern Qi highly recommended him to tutor royalty. As a result, Tao Hongjing was promoted to be the Left Military General of the Palace. Later he was promoted by Song Emperor Shundi (of the Song Dynasty) to preside over the morning meetings between the emperor and his ministers. During his twenty-year-long government service, he always took fame and gain lightly and never played up to those in power. Reading the emperor's rulings at every meeting, he was mostly in charge of the etiquette system and the laws and regulations.

At the age of 37, he submitted his resignation to the emperor in order to cultivate the Tao on Mao Mountain. The emperor accepted his resignation and honoured him with a large quantity of silk. All the government officials went to the Pavilion of Zhenglu for a farewell party for him. With many tents, they held such a grand party for him that the road was packed with carriages. It was said that such an event had never happened before in the history of the Song and Qi dynasties. People all spoke highly of Tao for his great aspirations and high moral values, and believed he deserved to be prestigiously honoured.

Tao Hongjing lived on Mao Mountain in seclusion. He stayed in a home made of hay and named himself "Huayang Hermit." Shen Yue, a renowned writer and historian, happened to serve as the governor of Dong Yang prefecture where Tao lived. Admiring Tao's talents, Shen Yue wrote to Tao several times to invite him to serve in the government, but his invitations were all declined.

After learning of Tao's great reputation, Xiao Yan, the inspector in Yongzhou, often sent his envoys to consult Tao, who gave him great advice in many cases.

The founder of the Liang Dynasty, Xiao Yan, then the Liang Emperor Wu (of the Liang Dynasty), greatly promoted the study of Confucianism and respect for Buddhism. To that end, he spent a tremendous amount of money and manpower to build temples. However he paid little attention to cultivating morality and character. Witnessing what was happening, Tao Hongjing anxiously sent his disciples to advise Liang Emperor Wu. As he advised: "To respect Gods and Buddhas, one must cultivate one's compassion and one's heart. Rulers must govern with compassion, while the ruler's subjects must pay attention to morality and cultivate themselves." This great and sincere advice deeply touched Emperor Wu.

In appreciation of Tao Hongjing's great support, Liang Emperor Wu truly wanted Tao to come out of seclusion and help him govern the dynasty. He personally wrote a royal letter and dispatched two generals to invite him to be the prime minister. The letter said, "Sir, what are you attached to that prevents you from coming back to serve the dynasty?" Bringing with them ten Jin of Tuckahoe (a precious medicinal herb) and five Dou of white honey, the two generals went to the mountain to extend the emperor's invitation. Tao declined, saying, "Please ask Emperor Wu's forgiveness. I'm determined to remain a hermit, studying the law of the Tao and the techniques of medicine. In return for the emperor's precious presents, I can offer only this poem." He then wrote down his poem,

"What is there in the mountain?
It is full of white clouds.
They can only be enjoyed, instead of giving to sir as a present."

Reading the poem, Emperor Wu again praised him, but stopped sending him any more invitations. Nevertheless, whenever there were major events, he always consulted Tao. As a result, Tao Hongjing was then respectfully referred to as "Prime Minister on the Mountain."

Xiao Gang, who later became Liang Emperor Jianwen, was the inspector in Southern Xuzhou. Admiring Tao Hongjing's deeds and talents, Xiao invited Tao to his office. They talked for several days. Xiao Gang respected the Tao so much that he considered him to be an extraordinary person.

While visiting masters searching for the Tao, and diligently cultivating himself, Tao Hongjing paid a great deal of attention to ordinary people, and wished for social stability and prosperity and harmony among the people. He did a lot of good deeds. Back then, due to the lack of good doctors and medicine, many people died without any treatment. He diligently studied medicine, compiled a few practical medical books, cured many patients, and saved a lot of people. He left behind many precious works, such as The Record of Preserving Health and Prolonging Life. He never charged a penny for picking or planting herbs and sugarcane for others and treating patients. In fact, he saved the lives of numerous people. In appreciation, people named where he lived "Tao Mountain." Because Shamen Mountain was believed to be where he cultivated and became immortal, it was named "Door to Immortal Mountain." Even today, a trace of people's admiration can be found in an elegiac couplet on Tao Mountain Temple, which states,

"As water the empires of six dynasties are gone.
Still named after Tao (Hongjing) is the ancient famous mountain."

His whole life Tao Hongjing searched for the truth--the ultimate truth of life. And with compassion he always cared about sentient beings. He was modest, understanding, sharp-eyed, and always conformed to etiquette regardless of his reclusive life or being a high-level official. He was honest, calm, and unperturbed regardless of what was happening. The stories of his cultivation and great deeds will forever be remembered.

In today's world full of materialistic ideology, are we upholding a piece of pure land in our hearts? Are we brave enough to shoulder the mission and responsibility to safeguard truth? In the long history of reincarnation, are we really aware of the truth of life and understanding what we have been looking forward to? Pure compassion is the the origin and destination of life. The most precious opportunity is right here today. To follow "Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance," the characteristics of the cosmos, is to chose a splendid future for oneself.

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