Tales of the Taoist Immortals
Tales of the Taoist Immortals, told by Eva Wong. Shambala Publications Inc., Horticultural Hall, 300 Massachusetts Ave. Boston Massachusetts. 2001, 168pp, ISBN 1-57062-809-2
I originally purchased this slim volume because I had created a web based fictional artifact called The Reincarnation Cycle. It, The Reincarnation Cycle, is a collection of web pages that represent an eternal cycle of reincarnations in a vaguely Oriental setting. I thought that this book might be useful to me in my composition. I have hopes that it might be. Even if not, I am more than repaid by the charm of the book.
“As a girl growing up in Hong Kong, Eva Wong would visit the famous Storyteller,s Park, where she listened to and memorized many tales told b Hong Kong’s finest story tellers. She would also tune in regularly to a radio show featuring stories of the Taoist immortals. At bedtime her grandmother told her stories of these characters while she sewed.”
One of the misfortunes of America is that it has no Storyteller’s Park. We do have traditions of story telling. After all, story telling is one of the things that make us human. But our culture is too raw for us to have ancient traditions, and is now drowned in media. There is no longer a place for story tellers, and no real stories left to tell. Places like Harvard Square have street entertainments on a summer night; however these, charming as they are, are but faux folk art, atmosphere to be consumed by consuming yuppies.
Eva Wong has given us an exercise in nostalgia. She wanted to give us the stories as she heard them, and not as bits of scholarly pedantry. In the introduction she writes:
“You can also read about Taoist immortals in the Taoist Canon, the collection of books that form the scriptures of Taoism. Personally, I’ve never been thrilled by the way the immortals are portrayed in these biographies. The entries read like articles from an encyclopedia and the characters appeared dull and remote. After reading one, I always felt that I learned more about the immortals rather than from them. On the other hand, in the operas, radio plays, and stories told by my grandmother and the Banyan Tree Park storytellers the characters came alive. At the end of each story, I felt that I had not only met he immortals but had learned from them.”
The odd thing is that the stories themselves are short and rather flat when read as text. That is not the way to read them. Imagine them being narrated by a story teller in the middle of a park fragrant with blossoms and illuminated by paper lanterns; then they come to life.
I’m not sure that I rightly understand the Taoist conception of immortals. The immortals are not physically immortal; their bodies die. However they can leave their bodies, both before physical death and at the time of physical death. The immortals dwell in the immortal realm; however they can move back and forth between the immortal realm and the mortal realm.
There are several roads to immortality; some immortals were spirits of stars or animals; some were rewarded with immortality for doing good deeds; some attained immortality by cultivating body and mind; and some prepared and consumed a pill of immortality. I suspect that the list of ingredients for that pill have never been published.
In the Christian tradition saints and angels are pure of heart. In Buddhist tradition (at least in some versions) the enlightened have given up attachment to the affairs of the world. The Taoist immortals definitely had worldly interests; Taoist immortals were sages, magicians, diviners, alchemists, healers, teachers, politicians, scientists, scholars, poets, military commanders, aristocrats, entertainers, householders, and entrepeneurs.
If perchance this book should come your way by all means read it. Buy it if you can, read a friend’s copy if you must. Elsewise read some other good book instead.
This page was last updated December 1, 2004.