1988 / 7月
Chung Po-ho /photos courtesy of Chung Po-ho /tr. by Peter Eberly
Lu Yen (courtesy name Tung-pin) of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) is perhaps the best known of China's Eight Immortals, or hsien-jen, and is honored by Confucianists, Taoists, and Buddhists alike.
The common people worship him as a god and have raised many temples in his honor, one example being Taipei's popular Chih-nan Kung, or Hsien Kung Miao. He is also the patron deity of various occupations, including barbers, fortune-tellers, ink makers, and even beggars.
A figure of such widespread renown has inevitably been the subject of many anecdotes and legends. Related here is the story of how he was tested ten times by Chung-li Ch'uan of Chunghsan Mountain before becoming an immortal.
In the first test, Lu returned home to find that his family had all taken sick and died. Untouched by grief or remorse, he simply prepared an elaborate funeral for them, and soon they all returned to life.
In the second test, he was selling things in the marketplace, but the customers would pay him only half the price. Instead of quarreling about it, he let them take the goods and go.
In the third test, he went outside on New Year's Day and met a beggar seeking alms. Lu gave him what money he had but the beggar was insatiable in his demands and cursed him abusively. Lu just laughed it off.
In the fourth test, Lu was herding sheep in the mountains when a hungry tiger attacked the flock. He single-handedly guarded the sheep from the tiger and led them down the mountain, and the tiger turned around and disappeared.
In the fifth test, he was studying in a straw hut in the mountains when he saw a 17- or 18-year-old girl of breath-taking beauty standing before him. She said that she had lost her way in the dark and asked to rest with him for a while. She tried every way she could to allure and entice him, but Lu remained unmoved and after three days she finally left.
In the sixth test, Lu returned home from the outskirts of town and found that all his property had been stolen by bandits. Without a trace of resentment, he took to laboring in the fields to supply his wants. There he dug up ten catties of gold, but he quickly buried them again without taking any.
In the seventh test, he found that a bronze vessel he had bought was really made of gold. He returned it at once to the seller.
In the eighth test, a crazy Taoist was peddling medicine, proclaiming that anyone who took it would die at once yet attain the Way in his next life. When Lu bought some, the Taoist said, "You'd better make funeral arrangements," but Lu took it without any harm.
In the ninth test, Lu and a group of people were crossing a river during the spring floods. When they came to the middle the wind and waves suddenly surged up. The rest of the passengers were terrified but Lu sat calmly and still.
In the tenth and last test, Lu was sitting alone in a room when a swarm of monstrous ghosts and demons rushed in as if to kill him, but he was absolutely unperturbed. Then a band of yakshas came in with a chained and bloody corpse who howled, "You killed me in your previous life, and now it's time to pay me back." "A life for a life," Lu replied, "fair enough." He stood up, picked up a knife, and was about to kill himself when a shout rang out overhead and the ghosts and demons disappeared.
A man floated down laughing and clapping his hands. It was Chung-li Ch'uan.
Tests are a common enough experience in everyday life, whether in school or on the job, but in this story they serve as a measure of spiritual enlightenment. Drinking an elixir, eating a magical fruit and acquiring a celestial book are well-known ways of achieving immortality, but the ten tests of Lu Tung-pin provide us with even more food for reflection on the weaknesses of human nature and the quest for spiritual attainment.