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Taoism Fundamentals

with Eva Wong


Eva Wong is a practitioner of the Xiantianwujimen (Primordial Limitless Gate) lineage of qigong, the Quanzhen (Complete Reality) lineage of meditation, and the Wudangshan (Wudang Mountain) lineage of martial arts. She is the author and translator of over fourteen books on Taoism.


In her own words:


Tales of the Taoist ImmortalsTales of the Taoist Immortals

Growing up in Hong Kong and brought up in the Chinese culture, I developed an interest in Taoism when I was about nine years old. My first introduction to Taoism was through stories of Taoist immortals (realized beings) told to me by my grandmother.

My interest in the stories of the Taoist immortals did not stop when I became an adult and moved to the United States. Whenever I returned to Hong Kong, I'd visit the parks where the storytellers gathered on summer evenings. There, under the banyan trees on makeshift benches, the storytellers would weave their tales, their voices taking on the characters in the stories. The audience would be spellbound, their familiar reality suspended. And for a while, we would be taken to exotic lands, meet extraordinary people, and witness heroic and magical deeds. As my training in the Taoist arts deepened, I realized that the stories of the immortals were not just fantasies fabricated to entertain our imagination, but wellsprings of Taoist teachings. The immortals were mortals once. They learned their lessons in life as they tamed their minds, nourished the qi in their bodies, and cultivated virtue and compassion. How they lived and how they became realized beings became the inspiration of my two books Tales of the Taoist Immortals and Tales of the Dancing Dragon.

Tales of the Taoist Immortals was written to introduce the reader to the most well-known Taoist immortals. Who were these people? What walks of life did they come from? How do their lives and deeds teach us about Taoism? Of all the Taoist immortals, perhaps the most famous was the group known as the Eight Immortals. There was Lu Dongbin, the scholar who, after failing the civil service examinations several times, saw through the illusion of fame and fortune to become a practitioner of the Taoist arts of health at the age of sixty. There was Han Zhongli, a military commander who met a shaman when he was lost in the western deserts of China. He, too, saw through the illusion of power and fortune, and quit his military career to become a Taoist practitioner. There was Lady Ho, the daughter of an aristocrat who traded a life of glamour and wealth to live as a hermit in the caves. The rest of the book is devoted to stories of Taoist immortals ranging from sages to diviners, magicians, and alchemists. You will meet people who, before they became immortals, were princes, herbalists, sorcerers, beggars, housewives, ministers, and artists. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, intellectual or uneducated, they had the following in common: they tempered their bodies, stilled their minds, and “lived” virtue and compassion in their everyday lives.


Tales of the Dancing DragonTales of the Dancing Dragon

Stories of the Tao

Tales of the Dancing Dragon is the companion book to Tales of the Taoist Immortals. I decided to take the history of Taoism and render it as stories. The history of Taoism had for long time been a subject of interest to scholars, but not to the public. I wanted to make the history of this spiritual tradition accessible to the everyday reader. This history is filled with extraordinary people and epoch-making events. Some stories will delight, others will shock; but all contain some aspect of the teachings of Taoism presented in a way accessible to even those who have little exposure to Taoism. These tales not only provoke insight, but are also fun to read.

I have divided Taoism’s history into epochs, beginning with the legendary times when history is woven with myth and legend. Here the stories tell how the universe was created, how the early sages of China taught the ancient people wisdom, gave them knowledge, and honed their survival skills. They tell of how early Chinese society was formed, and how enlightened sovereigns governed the nation in peace and harmony. The next epoch saw Taoism being drawn into social and political movements, first as a victim and later as a force in shaping society and government. The third epoch in the history of Taoism is often called The Golden Age of Taoism—a time when the major lineages of Taoism were founded and developed. The impact of these developments are still seen in the Taoist practices today. The next epoch coincided with the a time when Chinese power in Asia was at its height. During this period, Taoists became advisers and confidants to emperors. In the last epoch, which continues to our modern time, Taoism’s loss of influence in politics led the lineages and schools to turn inward to strengthen their philosophical basis and practices. A large network of temples and monasteries emerged, in China and overseas, and it was this new development in Taoism’s history that allowed it to survive a political and social upheaval that could have wiped out the entire spiritual tradition.


Four HutsFour Huts

Asian Writings on the Simple Life
translated by Burton Watson

What a delightful little collection! Burton Watson’s translation of four pieces of Asian literature describing living simply and harmoniously with nature is like four impressionist paintings in that they are personal yet unsentimental, humorous yet poignant. The book conveys the best picture of a Taoist lifestyle: living in a simple dwelling surrounded by the natural world.

To live in harmony with the natural world without a lot of accessories is the essence of the Taoist lifestyle. In our modern society, where “large” and “more” are the buzzwords of today’s real estate, it is refreshing to share the delight of living the quiet and good life with these four writers.

In “Record of the Ten-Foot Hut,” a Japanese Shinto priest describes his retirement home: “As my years have grown in number, my houses have gotten smaller and smaller. . . . It measures ten feet square and less than seven feet in height. . . . Two carts would hold it all, with no other expense than the labor to pull the carts. . . . In summer I hear the cuckoo. . . . in autumn the cicada’s cry fills my ears. . . . In winter, I watch the snow pile up and melt away again. . . .”

In “Record of the Pond Pavilion,” a minister of the Japanese imperial government who was trained in Chinese literature and calligraphy, and who is also an expert in divination and Chinese geomancy (feng-shui), finds a quiet rural village to live in retirement. He built several simple structures: a small house for his wife and children, a meditation room, and a private study. He even designed the landscape according to feng-shui principles, placing gardens, ponds, trees, bushes, and gazebos in their most auspicious locations. Of the kinds of features people want in their dream homes nowadays, the author of “Record of the Pond Pavilion” has this to say: “Though the expenditure runs into many millions in cash, they manage to live there barely two or more years. . . . Ah, when the wise man builds a house, he causes no expense to the people, no trouble to the spirits. He uses benevolence and righteousness for his ridgepole and beam, ritual and law for his pillar and base stone, truth and virtue for a gate and door, mercy and love for a wall and hedge. . . . When one has such a house to live in, no fire can consume it, no wind topple it, no misfortune come to threaten it, no disaster happen its way. . . .”

As a feng-shui practitioner, I find that after all the technical expertise I provide, the most basic advice I give is this: energy circulates best in a simple house that does not have useless features, that is built in harmony with the land, and that uses designs that are not harmful to its occupants and neighbors. I find the collection in Four Huts to be little gems, the kind of writings that you will turn to periodically to evoke sanity and delight in simple living.



Finally, I recommend Lao-Tzu's Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Henricks. Most people know this first book of Taoism by its familiar title Tao-te Ching. Why does Robert Henricks’s translation switch the order of Tao and Te, Way and Virtue, in the title? In the 1970s, the tomb of a prominent Chinese was excavated, and in it was a version of the text that predates the one used in all the existing translations of this Taoist classic. The title not only places “Virtue&rd before “Way,” but chapters 38 through 79 comprise the first half of the text, while chapters 1 through 37 make up the latter half. There are also some differences (not major) between this older text and the newer known one.

Henricks’s translation is lucid and accessible to nonacademic readers. While it excels in scholarship, it uses neither the archaic idioms characteristic of the older translations nor the self-help clichés found in some other renderings of the text. This classic of Taoism contains some of the most profound teachings of this wisdom tradition. If you want to know what lies at the base of the philosophical and spiritual tradition of Taoism, the Te-Tao Ching is a must-read. The title itself carries the message that the Natural Way and Virtue are inseparable. If not, why are these two characters used to together in the title? Henricks’s translation will give you an idea of what it means to cultivate virtue, rule a country, nourish life energy, tame the wayward mind, and live a simple and contented life.

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