Part one: The Wandering Taoist
Part two: Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel
Part three: Gateway to a Vast World
When the story opens, we see Saihung as boy in 1929, attending the Festival of the Jade Emperor on top of Taishan, one of the holiest mountains in China. Kwan is a naughty boy who only cares about having fun at the festival and eating candy. He comes from a wealthy family and is attending the festival with his grandfather and relatives. It is during the festival however, that he meets the man who would eventually become his master, the Grand Master of Huashan, another famous mountain. As he grows older, he takes up Taoist training and goes against the wishes of his family to become a Taoist monk. He was renamed “Little Butterfly” by his master.
The book is full of memorable characters. There was another acolyte also named Butterfly who was like a big bother to Saihung. However, the older Butterfly takes up a life of crime and flees from the authorities. His crimes eventually threaten the monastery on Huashn and Saihung is sent to bring him back. He is finally brought back to face their master. Without a word, the Grand Master strikes the man in the heart and using the power of his chi, kills him instantly. The reader is left to believe that it was not just a punishment, but a mercy killing. It was quicker and more humane than what he would have received in the hands of the Chinese authorities. At another time, Saihung has a battle with another martial artist, an incredibly fat man. The fat man is very good, but Saihung seems quicker. The fat man has to resort to using his secret weapon, a stunning “fart” attack which ends the battle. Afterward, it turns out that the man is a friend of Saihung’s master and they all have a good laugh.
The book also teaches us about modern Chinese history. Through the story, the book shows us the changes and upheavals in China. The Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930’s divides the monastery, with some monks advocating non-involvement and others wishing to fight for their country. Taoists are not pacifists and are skilled martial artists. The Grand Master says it is up to each monk to decide for himself and Saihung leaves the mountain to fight. Later we see the coming of the Second World War and eventually the changes brought by the Cultural Revolution that result in Huashan being closed.
It is the story of one man on a path. Saihung faces many challenges on his path to personal enlightenment, none of more difficult than Saihung himself. His own personality often works against him. He is hot-headed, impatient, and overly prideful of his abilities as a fighter and martial artist. We see him many times stray from his path. It seems no matter how much he accomplishes, he still has more to learn. This is also why the reader can identify so well with his character and what makes the story so engaging. At one point, he gives up the life of a Taoist and takes up acting. He has decided to build the “mind palace” and fill it with beautiful images, experiences, and memories. He then meets two Taoist sages traveling the country and joins their company. They instruct him in meditation and internal alchemy and tell him in order to advance he must destroy the mind palace. Eventually, the pair are ready to “merge with the void”. It is a spiritual death and through meditation and power of will, send their spirits to heaven. Saihung is saddened, but also honored to have witnessed such an event. Later, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book, we see Saihung in America, impatient for immortality and weary of life on Earth. He decides he will send his spirit to the void just as the two Taoists did. He sends a letter to his master in China declaring his intention. His master forbids him from leaving before his time. He has not fulfilled his destiny. Saihung writes back that he will do it with or without his master’s blessing. His master’s reply is short. “No, I will stop you.” Saihung rips up the letter and starts the process of meditations to join with the void, but in the last stages, he is stopped by a loud radio blaring rock music. Who’s to say it wasn’t his master.
The story is also full of great philosophical nuggets and advice on how to live. Yin Yang theory is fundamental to Taoism. It is the swirls of black and white which represent the feminine and masculine principles respectively. Yin is dark and mysterious. Yang is bright and powerful. However, Master Kwan’s knowledge runs deeper. At one point he says while discussing the meaning of the universe in a parked car, “Yin is like all these moving cars and rushing people. Yang is like that phone pole.”
When asked for an explanation, he says, “Yin represents ambition, drive, movement. It is the female, the ultimate fertility. Yang, by itself is so strong, but in its pure form, it has no drive, no motivation. Thus it is static: Without yin, it cannot move. Without yang, yin will have neither direction nor form.”
This seems to go against the popular concepts of yin and yang. This is the difference between book knowledge and experience. Life is the only true classroom.
In another part of the book the Grand Master is instructing Kwan about destiny and fate. “Good and evil exist as destiny and fate.”, the Grand Master says.
“Aren’t they the same?”asks Kwan
“No, they aren’t. Destiny is that which you must fulfill in this lifetime. You are born with a task. During your lifetime, you must continually strive to identify it and complete it to the last detail…Fate is an active agent that exists solely to deter you from fulfilling your destiny. It struggles against you, impedes your path. Fate functions through illusion. It is temptation. It tricks you, fills you with grand notions and proud thoughts. Give and fate has won. Resist and it has lost.”
This book is a treasure. It brings the hidden and mysterious world of Taoism to life. The book is easy to read and moves along quickly. Deng Ming-Dao has done a wonderful job. Just as with an ancient Taoist text, you will get something new every time you read it.