I believe a person’s ideas and dreams for the future often stem from the place they’re from, where they were born and how they were raised. One’s family and education are very important. For me, I was born at a time which was the beginning of China’s policy of re-opening relations to the rest of the world in the late 1970s. I am very grateful about this for it has given me the opportunity to travel to different nations and also host guests in my own country; to exchange ideas and experiences, and to build relationships of the heart which go beyond culture or knowledge.
I was born in a very traditional Chinese family that lived in a regional part of China in the pure mountains close to nature. My hometown is a very scenic and peaceful place, famous for its ancient heritage and being a place for hermits. The mountains there are called Zhongnan Mountains which originally meant ‘Mountains of the Moon’, also known as the South Mountain. It’s far away from the big cities placed in between the Western Peak Huashan in the north, and to the south, bordering the majestic Wudang Mountain. This area became known to the West after an American writer, Bill Porter, came in the 1980s and interviewed several hermits for his book Road to Heaven. In ancient times hermits would study and practice in the mountains to get their education directly from observing and being immersed in nature.
My family is a very traditional Chinese family. My father was a farmer and my mother a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. My father died when I was very young, only five or six years old, which was about the time that I began to develop clear memories of my childhood. It was also the time when I met my first Taoist master, Master Chang. He was from a Northern village originally but would wander through the land and help people in his travels, sick people. He gave them medicine, herbs and acupuncture and would show them practices to improve and maintain their health promoting Taoism and practices of longevity. He came to my family’s home to help my mother look after the family after my father’s passing. He was tall and thin, wearing a long sky-blue robe with a long beard and wise eyes. I vividly remember how relaxed and warm his demeanor felt. I felt very lucky at the time to have such a close connection with a true Taoist master with such good energy. At this age I had already been exposed to TV and was awestruck by shows about gong fu and martial arts. With the imagination and enthusiasm of a child I thought that maybe someday I could be a hero too, and travel around helping people like the hero’s I had seen on T.V. shows.
I got to observe Master Chang’s daily life, which opened my mind to many new and interesting things at such a young age. I saw him wake up very early in the morning and do practice by himself. He did cultivation practice, walking meditation, calligraphy and ceremonies, amongst many things. In my mind he really had the life of an artist, a blessing which really touched my heart. He noticed my enthusiastic curiosity, so it was not long before he began to train me in martial arts and introduce me to his practices. I started to study with the Taoist master in the mornings and evenings, and in the times where we weren’t training, or he was on his travels I would think about him a lot. After several years of training with Master Chang he moved on in his travels and I never saw him again. I have always carried in my heart an appreciation for the introduction he gave me to Taoist practices.
Later, when I was in early middle school, I saw a movie on television that really touched my heart. The movie was set in ancient times, about three or four thousand years ago in the Zhou Dynasty. It was about a hermit, a Taoist hermit named Jiang Ziya. The story was about him and how he helped people to manage the country and cultivate their spiritual lives. This movie really made me consider genuinely dedicating my life to a different lifestyle. I was thinking about the images of immortals and heroes that I saw on TV, and about the Taoist master who came to my home. I also began to think about the nature of education in a modern sense, from schools and universities. I don’t think my Master had ever studied at any university. Also, the masters in ancient times never studied in school, they never studied in university, but they were very clever, very wise. I started wondering, ‘How can they be like that and what do they learn?’ So, I started thinking, the Master; he must follow another Master, right? Maybe spends his whole life with his Master. Maybe many many years. What did he study? These sorts of questions about how to reach that level of mastery began to be my focus.
It’s not like now-a-days when we study in University and what we study is just knowledge. The knowledge that we learn now is information, it’s not wisdom. Therefore, the early years of formal education are without wisdom. We take too much information into our minds, increasing our desires and we lose ourselves. So now, when people get knowledge and fill up with information, what kind of information are they getting? It’s just concepts about very superficial things, they show you things that you can see and touch, and they tell you what this is and what that is and give thousands of names and meanings and translations. But these names and meanings aren’t constant, they can change, and this can make people really unsettled. My master and the ancient masters studied from the connection to essence, the education from nature and the patterns in nature.
Through modern education people have more of a capacity to lose their original relationship with nature. Originally, when we are born, we have everything. Babies breathe and respond to their environments naturally. But after they study and get older, they begin to lose everything, then the desires come and make them crazy and sick and suffering, and worried and angry, and sometimes even seem happy. But this happiness is only relative. It’s not true happiness. Essentially, it’s a momentary relief from a perpetual feeling of discomfort in disconnection to nature. Like we say that the sun and moon rise in the East and set in the West. You think that this is true. But it’s only because we’re watching it from this perspective here on the earth that it’s like that. We see it like this, and you think that this is ultimate truth, but this is not truth, it is only one perspective of the truth. Like when someone dies, people look at him and say he’s already dead, but they don’t know what death is. They don’t know that people are born in a new life again. When people are born, the start of life means the beginning of dying, and death is the beginning of a new birth, it’s only a transition. Being exposed to concepts like these made me realize that knowledge cannot really calm our hearts, nor can it really help our practice very much. This is when I gave up on studying at school and left home in search for the Tao.
Over many years I visited many mountains and studied with many masters. The first master I met was a Buddhist monk who was also a TCM doctor. He didn’t talk much. I followed him through daily life. When the sun came up, we woke up and we’d do chanting, pray and do ceremonies; then we’d clean the temple, do meditation, cultivation, and more practice. Temple life is very simple in ways, but it can also be very hard. Understanding the teachings and the many practices is not easy. You have to really discover yourself to find your original nature. After a while this master sent me to other masters and temples to learn. I learnt off very renowned masters, but they didn’t talk too much either. We just spent time together and would build a connection, observe, and just feel each other’s energy through an internal connection; a connection from the heart. We always get the most education from nature.
The masters always say that Heaven and Earth have a great beauty that is beyond words; you don’t need to talk about it. The four seasons have a very clear relationship; in temple life you don’t need to discuss it but rather be aware of it. It’s a very peaceful life. After I met and studied with a number of masters, I spent half a year by myself to practice and meditate in a cave in solitude. Spending time with nature calmed my heart and gave me a different insight into spiritual life. This is when I truly realized that we don’t need anything; Everything is in nature and everything in nature is in unity. The real education of the greater universe is from the peaceful and natural.
For me, I’m very happy to live in the Tao. It’s with a heart of gratitude that I can live in the education of Tao. Tao’s education is like the rain which falls everywhere and nourishes us in the spring, we all grow and develop in the Tao, in nature. Then, without knowing it, the time has suddenly passed, and we are peaceful and nourished. The feelings I have today are of gratitude and an extremely thankful heart. I hope that those in my company and others all over the world can live in the education of Tao just as I have and get a healthy and happy life from it. I have a great belief in the future development of Taoism. The future development of Taoism and of Taoist culture cannot be separated from the development of China. This is because the development of a culture is closely related to the development of the nation and the people, and the nation of China is founded through the amalgamation of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Right now, we see the development of China and its hopes for the future, and this is deeply connected to its cultural developments.
For the last decade I’ve been going to Western countries and have discovered that many Western people are very interested in Eastern culture. There’s more and more interest in Taoism, Traditional Chinese Medicine and traditional Chinese culture. People are even studying Laozi, Confucius, the Yijing (I-Ching), and every aspect of Eastern culture and philosophy. There’s also a great deal of interest in health and cultivation aspects. Since about 30 years ago you can go to almost any bookstore in the West and find lots of books about yoga. There are all sorts of different materials, books and DVDs and so forth, and now there are many people practicing Taijiquan and Qigong. People are starting to study the Chinese language, too. There is a lot of this kind of cultural diffusion now. So, I think that this is a foundation where, first and foremost, Chinese traditional culture is the foundation. From my travels to many countries I have formed new hopes for Taoist culture and the progression of the philosophies into a lasting reality. In Thailand or Switzerland, both very small countries, many of the people in these countries live lives like Laozi talks about in the Daodejing: Switzerland is a very pluralistic and international country. The natural environment is also very good.
I feel that the future of Taoism is rooted in building cultural bridges and centers across the world where people can learn the philosophies and practices of Taoism. Of course, they wouldn’t be exactly like a Taoist monastery in China, none the less, places where everyone can still their hearts, feel and understand nature and practice spiritual cultivation. It would be very wonderful if there were more opportunities like this around the world, embracing the growing appreciation of the benefits of Taoist teachings. The bridges built through associations like these open the doors for masters of all countries to share their wisdom through exchange programs breaking through language barriers and making the teachings available to all.
Bringing accomplished spiritual masters to Europe for exchange to give teachings, transitions and practice, and at the same time inviting Western people with interest in traditional and ancient Chinese culture to China. Helping to promote existing programs in China where foreigners can visit and be taken to sacred mountains and very special places to experience more of Taoist culture.
In Chengdu, Phoenix Mountain, we are currently building a Taoist center for international students of Tao to come and study with masters. I feel that foundations like this are an essential bridge that would help Taoism to develop more in the future through translation and experiences for people across the world. This is what I envision for the future of Taoism. I believe that in ancient Taoist culture there is a great wealth of learning about health and cultivation and many other things that can bring peace and joy through a harmony of all humanity.
Zhizhen Temple Abbot