Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Daoist In A Pickle

 By Ken Cohen 高漢

I still have a newspaper article from 1980 that discusses the 142 year old Daoist (also spelled "Taoist") Wu Yunqing 吳云青 who had lived most of his life in a cave, but with a wooden floor to keep out the damp. He was a practitioner of Nei Dan (Interior Alchemy), and his advice for longevity is great and classically Daoist:

Wu Yunqing's Lifestyle
Early each morning he practices Taiji Quan.
He gardens and rides his bicycle each day.
He eats small vegetarian meals (no meat or fish), with his main meal of the day at lunch.
LIke many other centenarians in China, in addition to fruit and vegetables, his starches are rice, corn, and sweet potatoes.
No tobacco or alcohol.
Drinks mostly broths, little water.
He sleeps soundly and takes several brief naps each day from a meditative posture.
And perhaps most important of all is his advice about mental health:
"You must be open minded and optimistic in your outlook. Avoid petty squabbles with others, be friendly and try to help others when you can."

Summary of Key Points
Practice Taiji Quan (also spelled Tai Chi)
Exercise in nature
Small vegetarian meals, main meal early in the day
No recreational tobacco or alcohol
Sound sleep
Be open minded, optimistic, and of service.

When did this "Immortal" (Xian Ren) die? 1998, at which time, according to his disciples, he was 160 years old. Is it true? I know you would like to believe this. But I must report that he died at the documented, young age of 102. And that's not so bad.

It is common for Daoists to exaggerate their age and abilities, so please always keep your skepticals on. I know a Daoist priest who tells students he was born 24 years before the date of birth on his passport. Once, more than 25 years ago, during an enthusiastic conversation with a Chinese Daoist colleague, when asked my age I mistakenly said, "Liu Shi San" (63). I think that he was about to ask to become my disciple, when I immediately corrected myself and said, "Sorry, I meant to say San Shi Liu (36)." I remember the look of disappointment.

The latest chapter in this story occurred just last April (2015), when Wu Yunqing's undecaying body, in seated meditation posture, was put on display in a crystal display case with seams sealed with cement. Tourists and monks visit or venerate this miraculously preserved corpse in Lingquan Monastery, Anyang, Henan Province, China. He is stylishly wrapped in a golden cloak and wears a mala (Buddhist prayer bead necklace). His skin is a shiny reddish brown.

There are many stories of Buddhist and Daoist saints who became Rou Shen Xian 肉身仙, Flesh Body Immortals, or Rou Shen Fo 肉身佛, Flesh Body Buddhas, the technical term for this self-mummification. The theory is that their bodies are so cleansed of physical and spiritual impurities during their lifetimes, that their bodies do not rot after death. Is this another example of the religious propensity for exaggeration? Maybe. In the case of Wu Yunqing, experts at the Henan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine believe that the body was preserved with formaldehyde, a chemical that destroys the enzymes that cause decay. Essentially, the Immortal was skillfully pickled and dried.

It is an interesting custom that may encourage some to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Yet, I cannot help feeling that the attempt to preserve the body after death, whether chemically or spiritually, goes against the basic tenets of both Buddhism and Daoism. The Buddha taught anicca, impermanence. We suffer because we greedily attach to phenomena or try to capture in a bucket the flowing and ever-changing river of life. The Daoist philosopher Zhuang Zi (3rd Century BCE) tells the story of a sage who chastises his disciples when they wail against his immanent death. The sage is content to surrender to the "transformation of things." "Who knows what the Creator will make of me next?" he wonders, "Will S/He turn me into a rat's liver, a bug's arm?" After all, shouldn't Daoists recycle? Including their own bodies!