- A Ladder to HeavenA Day at the Five Immortals Temple
It is February of 2015. Here I am, at the bottom of White Horse Mountain (Baima shan 白马山), a tiny speck of life facing its glorious immensity. As it stands still at the end of winter, I can feel the deep breath of Mother Earth in its heart. The abrupt stone stairway reaches to the sky, immobile invitation to challenge and transcendance. I raise my gaze. Something ancient, unnamed, awakens in me, as I walk passed the last village gardens, tea bushes covered in outlines of snow.
White Horse Mountain is the most westerly peak of the Wudang range, famous across China as an important center for Daoist cultivation and internal martial arts, under the protection of a powerful deity, the Perfect (Zhenwu 真武)1. His aura resonates throughout the peaks and inspires reverence and awe for powers of spirit unconceivable to the common human mind.
Ascending toward Dao
Nature slowly unfolds, raw, and the cold air breaks into my lungs. I ground my breath in my lower abdomen, returning my awareness to the lower elixir field (dantian 丹田), and enter a solitary trance. With a full [End Page 152] backpack strapped to my back, I have an hour of climbing ahead to reach my Daoist home, the Five Immortals Temple (Wuxian miao 五仙庙). I begin to move. Step by step, my body warms and my blood starts to rush in my limbs. After a few hundreds steep steps, the stairway vanishes and I move on a small trail into the forest. Cedar and pine trees gracefully wave in the wind, wild grasses crumble under ice, and the silence grows deeper.
In late winter, insects and birds have not returned yet, and there is something striking to the stillness of the frozen forest. Little by little, the chaotic, noisy, polluted world of humankind fades below; I feel its demands leave my body as if a weight is taken off my shoulders. Gender, age, race, appearances, and social categories—my body is disencumbered of those constraints that always feel too small and becomes again the body of pure nature, of cultivation.
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Even though I have climbed the trail hundreds of times now, the walk up is still sacred to me. It purifies my being of accumulated layers of embodied experience and restores integrity and oneness. It is the path of returning to what is most essential, most meaningful, to my raison d'être or, as the Chinese call it, my reason for coming (laiyin 来因). Having lived for years of training has taught me to return to this body of cultivation at all times. It has transformed the ways I walk back into society, delivering into the world a truer, clearer, and more powerful version of myself.
I keep climbing and, at around 1000 meters or 3000 feet, the trail runs along a set of ancient fortifications—irregular stone walls in places covered by moss, between one and two meters high, extending through [End Page 153] the forest. Those old stones remind me of the origins of the temple under the late Song dynasty, at the time of the Mongol invasion.
It is said that five highly qualified scholars, coming from five different directions, were on their way to take the imperial examination in the capital, when they were stopped by Mongolian troops. On top of the mountain, they joined forces and built a sanctuary for people to take refuge during times of chaotic war. Men of knowledge and virtue, each had his own speciality.
The first was a sage of profound wisdom and compassion who could read the human heart-mind. The second was a fierce warrior, a master of the martial arts. The third was an alchemist who understood the course of the stars and of destiny. The fourth was a healer who knew the myriad secrets of Chinese medicine and grew hundreds of medicinal herbs on the mountain. And the fifth was a man of culture who taught calligraphy and the classics: his music was so heavenly that even the wild beasts of the mountain would come to listen