Going to Mt. Wudang to Relive a Journey in My “Previous” Life
One evening in 2006, my friends Xu Ying and Huang Kejian invited me to dine with some literati at Northeast Grand Hotel in Beijing. We had a great chat together. After that, I went back home and wrote an outline on the interpretation of traditional Chinese culture. This got me a job in Director Ang Lee’s team as one of the two script writers working to present a concept proposal for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. This collaborative effort lasted for several months. It was during these months that we wrote the scripts for Ceremonial Rites, Chinese Characters, Ambience, Silk Road, Chinese Operas, Tai Chi, and other programmes performed at the opening ceremony of the Games.
What exactly attracted Director Ang Lee and me together? Traditional Chinese culture. Although he lives in the U.S., he feels a profound and sincere love for traditional Chinese culture. And he himself is a master nurtured in this culture. From the way he behaves and directs movies, one can feel the distinct characteristics of Chinese culture — inclusive, gentle, humble and moderate, yet his gentleness radiates energy and freedom from restriction. In his heart, Chinese culture, like the Earth, is symbolic of tolerance, inclusion, conception and nurture. Hence he calls it the “Mother Earth Culture”.
Once, I followed Director Ang Lee and Mr. Don Mischer (executive director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games) to synthesize Chinese and English subtitles for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Games. I worked directly under Ang Lee’s guidance, and listened to his detailed explanation of how he was to direct the Tai Chi and Yin-Yangprogrammes. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and I thus knew how a director with deep cultural roots could elevate visual images to an unusual spectacle.
During this period, I heard incessant debates on how to interpret traditional Chinese culture. Much to my grief, I found that many artists and senior officials governing this sector were quite ignorant of Yin-Yang interactions, the Five Primary Elements, and oneness of man and nature. How then was it possible to present them to others? Thus, planning for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games opened up an opportunity for us to trace back to, visualize, sum up and clarify traditional Chinese culture. I believed (and still believe) that, of all treasures in traditional Chinese culture, Chinese medicine and Chinese characters are representative of it, for they have become vivid media through which people approach Chinese culture. In particular, Chinese medicine is a combination of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist thoughts, and it is closely related to people’s secular life, from its form to content, and at both metaphysical and physical levels.
Destined to Manifest the Tao through Practice of Medicine
Perhaps it was God’s will. It so happened that, when I was staying for months at a hotel working on a script for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games, I received an email from a reader of Sex and Stocks. I could feel an imagery of Chinese tradition from the words in the email. After that, we had a great chat over the phone. By the time we actually met up, I was quite amazed to find him a Buddhist monk named Shi Xin De (also called Yue Hou Sheng, hereinafter referred to as Monk Shi). How come a monk should be interested inSex and Stocks, a novel that describes the stock market and sex?
I then got to know that he was a true hermit, not someone who escaped into Buddhism because of unemployment, a broken relationship or other frustrations in life. He was quite an expert in finance and culture, and he wrote China’s first book on the Olympic industry. He had been in the army for years, and had converted to Buddhism many years before. Now he had the heart of a Buddhist monk, but was still involved in secular matters. Apart from being an expert in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, medicine and western religions, he was also quite accomplished in deciphering the political, economic, military and cultural sectors, and had already published books on all these themes. When he readSex and Stocks, he could feel a soul struggling to approach the “Tao”, hence our fateful meeting.
Not long into our chat, he looked at me and ascertained, “You have a bond with Buddhism, and Taoism as well. And you engaged in Taoist practice in your previous life.”
I laughed and asked, “How to prove your point?”
He said, “I felt it while reading Sex and Stocks. Now looking at your face, I find my judgment confirmed.”
He also pointed out a few specific places where I had engaged in Taoist practice in my previous life. I got more curious and we had a great chat. He then asked an assistant to get from his car A Collection of What’s Best in Taoism, and handed it to me as a gift. A monk sending me books on Taoism, wasn’t it odd enough?
Both of us are not biased in religion and believe that whether Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity, they are different paths leading to the same end. Oneness of man and nature is a prominent feature of Oriental culture, which makes up for what’s mostly missing in Western culture. And oneness was the theme we were working to present at the Games.
I asked about how he had become a monk and got to know his legendary life story. We continued our chat and were pleasantly surprised to find that we had come from the same hometown in Hubei province in central China. Our homes were just 10-15 kilometers apart, and we used to go to the same market place in an ancient town called Liu Jia Chang.
When we were about to bid farewell to each other, he said, “You should have a beard.”
“Why?” I asked.
He smiled and said, “A Taoist should have a Taoist look.”
So out of curiosity, I stopped shaving and began to grow a beard. Friends that hadn’t seen me for a long time would ask the moment they met me again, “How come you look like a Taoist now?”
A few months later, during the Chinese Spring Festival, I was alone in an American town. Suddenly I received a phone call from the monk.
“What are you busy with?” he asked.
“Writing a novel.” I replied.
“On Chinese medicine.”
He was amused to hear it and said, “I’ve just finished a book on Chinese medicine titled The Way of Medicine.”
I was also quite amused. What a coincidence! We had talked over an hour during our first meet but hadn’t come to the topic of Chinese medicine, yet we were heading in the same direction. During our second meet, naturally our topic turned to the Way of Medicine. We both believed that the Tao is embodied in Chinese medicine, Chinese culture is one that follows and manifests the Tao, and what Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and all ancient masters have been expounding is the Tao. We felt it deeply that we were unfortunate and yet fortunate to be born in this era.
Shi Xinde asserted, “You are destined to learn and practice Chinese medicine, through which you will manifest the Tao.” He advised me to follow my spiritual pursuit in the previous life, and best of all, stay at temples and monasteries along the way. Places on my itinerary were to include Mt. Wudang, Mt. Zhongwudang, western Hubei province, western Hunan province, and Baiyun Taoist Temple (White Clouds Temple) in Beijing. And he assured me that I would have magical encounters on the way.
“How could you possibly take such nonsense seriously?” you may wonder. Well, I not only took it seriously, I actually dropped all “important matters” and started off with my backpack right away.
And just like that, I began to rove alone and dedicated myself to the “unrealistic” mission of restoring the glory of Chinese medicine.