Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tao Book: "Seven Taoist Masters" by Eva Wong

There are many books about Taoism, many of them translated from ancient Chinese texts, but few novels. Seven Taoist Mastersis both. It is a folk novel about Taoism written during the Ming Dynasty(around 1500). It's author is unknown. This book is a jem. It is a manual for Taoist training in the form of a popular novel. It is fiction, but all the characters were real historical figures from the Chinese middle ages. The story follows the life and development of Taoist Master Wang and also the lives of his seven disciples on their respective paths to the Tao. The book instructs about the Tao in two ways; first, directly as Master Wang gives several lectures throughout the book about different aspects of Taoist training. Second, indirectly through the story and the experiences of the masters in their pursuit of enlightenment.

Master Wang has seven disciples including one woman. MaTan-yang and his wie Sun Pu-erh both have an intense interest in Taoism. They decide to follow the Tao. After that, they no longer live as husband and wife, but remain friends and help one another. Each of the seven masters has different obstacles to overcome and follow different methods of training. For example, for Master Liu Ch'ang, it is sexual desire. He dreams of going to visit the Palace of the Empress of Heaven, yet unable to control his desire, he steals a glance of the court ladies out of the corner of his eye and therefore shows his unworthiness. To overcome this, he takes an unorthodox approach and lives in a brothel until he can control his desires and master himself. It is a story of the sacrifices each of the disciples must make, giving up wealth and comfort for their goal.

In one interesting scene, we are shown the dark side of the Tao; what happens to those you leave behind. Like many Taoist masters and Immortals, Master Wang starts out as a regular person. At the beginning of the story he is already middle aged. He has a family and some measure of wealth. He also is a community leader and serves in many local capacities. Later however, he feels and irresistible calling to follow the Tao. His family does not understand and finally he pretends to be deathly ill and then quietly escapes into the night. This is the life of a Taoist, to leave behind all attachments to the world on the path to enlightenment. Many years later, and after Master Wang has ascended to heaven, his disciples visit the hometown of their master. They see broken down buildings and abandoned farms. They meet a man who turns out to be Master Wang's cousin in front of a shrine dedicated to their former master. After Wang's departure his wife died of grief and his son moved away. The spirit went out of the community. His accomplishments as a great Taoist Master are well known including his saving local communities from fire and plague. But for the residents of his hometown, it is very bittersweet as the village slowly dies. It's ironic that in the pursuit of the Tao, one must be selfless and disciplined, but maintain a constant resolve in your ultimate goal above any commitments to community or family that is in a way, selfish.

Eva Wong has brought her mastery of translation here again. The book is easy and enjoyable to read and the story moves quickly. The only difficult part of the book is getting around all the Chinese names of people and places. Seven Taoist Mastersis a delightful book for anyone interested in Taoism or Chinese history. In addition, I highly recommend Eva Wongs wonderful translation of Lieh-Tzu, a collection of stories and parables and one of the greatest works of Taoist philosophy.

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