Over 25 years ago, from 1985-6, my Taoist master used to send me to White Cloud once or twice a week. He gave me meditation practices, which I did at two spots here. At the time I lived only a 15 minute walk away.
The Eight Immortals
Upon arriving at the temple with my family, we bought two small statues of Liu Dong Bin and Lao Tse for a future retreat center. We looked around and saw a small temple of the 8 Immortals upon whom the martial art called 8 Drunken Immortals is named. For those who don’t know, the eight immortals are He Xiangu (Immortal Woman), Cao Guojiu, Tieguai Li, Lan Caihe, Liu Dong Bin, Han Xiang Zi, Zhang Guo Lao, and Zhongli Quan.
Next to the temple of the 8 Immortals is the Liu Dong Bin temple. Liu Dong Bin was the leader of the 8 Immortals. It was his methods that I followed when studying to be a Taoist priest in the 1970s. During the 1980s I used to come to the Liu Dong Bin temple to sit, practice, and leave, rarely talking to anyone, except on rare occasions.
Back then sat on a small bench inside the shrine room, but today there was no seat inside, only a new bench outside. So I sat there and began to meditate.
Meeting with a Taoist Monk
After a while, an old Taoist monk sat next to me. I felt him, opened my eyes and we began chatting. We hit it off immediately. He asked if I had been here before. I told him a bit of my history and the conversation got lively. My wife and son came over, and he took a shine to them. When she asked for a photograph we took a bunch.
It is highly unusual for an old Taoist pries to talk to people so freely, virtually unheard of in the 80s. The Monk was 69 years old. As is common with traditional elders in China, he asked exactly what the difference was between the temple then and now. In China age is traditionally associated with wisdom. I let him know my reflections of Beijing and the temple.
After a while of talking, he invited me over to a tree (“White Tree”) that he said was over a hundred years old. We took a series of pictures with every combination of him and us next to this tree. We promised to get him the pictures later after printing them out. He really took a shine to my son and repeated over and over that he would live to be 100 years as well as his parents.
This is what most would call a rare and mystical meeting. The old man came from Hunan and I could only half understand him, as his accent often was almost impossible for me to understand. We chatted for almost an hour.
My wife then remembered she had a tasty power bar she had brought from the U.S. and, like all good moms who want people to be happy and well-fed, gave it to him. He smiled, talked a bit more and then went inside the Liu Dong Bin shrine. From the alter he brought out a load of tangerines which he gave us – again something Taoist priests rarely, if ever, do. He wanted to continue chatting, but I had made previous appointments.
Karmic Connection or Yuen Fen
I returned the next day and could not find the Elder Taoist Monk. After about half an hour of going all over the place, I found his small room and he invited me inside.
It was an extremely tight space, with a television set, clock, two water bottles, a bed, two chairs and a desk. There were a few pictures on the wall, including him in his youth with a giant tiger from somewhere in Yunnan province.
Yesterday’s power bar was still unopened. I gave him a bag of Hawaiian macadamia nuts. He was still in feeding people mode and kept filling my bag with a load of peanuts.
After some time of talking he brought out his pictures from his desk. He gave me several of them and said he only did so because I was a teacher. He then said we had a karmic connection, which the Chinese call “yuen fen.”
After some time, a young Chinese man also came. He said he was a friend but not a student. A conversation ensued and the thing was getting the young man a pair of warm shoes for the arriving freezing winter. After they worked out the details and how much it would cost, I offered the money to pay for the shoes but the old Taoist monk took the money back and said we had yuen fen and refused the money.
He then out of his minimal money gave to the young man, who had to stop him from giving too much. I was glad the young university graduate came, because he could understand the old man’s provincial accent which I couldn’t half the time, just as the old man couldn’t fully understand me. With a middle man who spoke some English to boot, it all worked out.
It turns out the Elder Taoist monk was from the Quan Zhen (fire) sect. He made a major point that they were celibates and never married (in this context married implies having sex). He was ordained a Taoist monk/priest around 1980 in Hunan province and came to the White Cloud temple in 2008.
I asked him about the inner practices of his sect of Taoism. He bemoaned that the young monks didn’t practice much and often slept rather than practiced. In general, they were not very spiritually awake. He said they wanted the fruits of practice without putting in the internal work. I responded by saying what they said when I was learning in Taiwan, “No practice no good” and he smiled and put his thumb in the air.
Taoist Meditation Practices
After some time he expressed that unless you practice sufficiently and go deep enough into your heart, the light inside the brain won’t awaken. I then mentioned that one of my practices in the Liu Dong Bin shrine in the 1980s, I experienced for the first time that light, not only in my brain, but the entire inside of my body. He closed his eyes, contemplated, and when he opened them smiled and gain gave an thumbs up in affirmation.
Later I asked if the minds of practitioners in his sect went outside their bodies to other dimensions and outward towards the stars. This again elicited another lament about the young monks’ lack of practice. Slowly, however, he came about and said if you go deep inside your heart sufficiently, this practice can also be accomplished.
After the young man left, we chatted for a while and he asked if I would be returning to Beijing, and six or seven times we went back and forth with me saying I don’t know and him repeating it. He said it would be nice to also see my family again. After we did more a bit more talk, I said I had to go and would practice at the Liu Dong Bin shrine before I left. We then did a traditional Taoist bow reserved for good friends. Palms over palms, thumb touching the palm of one hand, we bowed down, so our hands went between our legs and then came up, bowed, crossed palms moving toward each other.
I meditated at the Liu Dong Bin shrine for an hour or so. Since I had meditated often here it was easy to reconnect to the energy of the shrine.
San Xin Deities of Taoism
Next I sought out the San Xin, where I also used to sit and do meditation homework assignments for hours on end. On the second floor of another temple within the White Cloud Temple complex, the San Xin are what you could call the three big deities of Taoism that are responsible for the turning of the seasons on the earth and, by extension, the universe.
There was no bench or chair as there always was in the 1980s. I talked to the priest in charge to see if I could sit and meditate there and he asked why. Then we had a confusing conversation that eventually got cleared up. I told him I had became a Taoist priest in Taiwan in the 1970s and used to practice in the San Xin temple in the 1980s. He got confused because the Bai Yun Guan was closed to the public in the 1970s. He asked me this in English and said he was the only one around who understood English.
Anyway, after explaining I practiced there 1984-6 it made sense as the temple was open then and he said okay. He left me in peace and I preceded to meditate until leaving.
The White Cloud Temple is an amazing spiritual treasure. If you ever come to Beijing and are interested in Taoism it is one place you don’t want to miss.
Until the next post… Bruce