Lü Dongbin: China’s Taoist Immortal

Lü Dongbin is the most well-know member of the eight Taoist immortals, a group of legendary figures in Chinese mythology. He is often seen as a carefree trickster with miraculous powers. A wide variety of accounts present him as a poet, hermit, scholar, a warrior against evil, calligrapher, and of course, as an immortal. Perhaps one of Lü’s most significant contributions to Taoist tradition was the practice of inner alchemy.

Lü Dongbin is an interesting mix of historical and mythical. Historical records seem to indicate Lü Dongbin may have actually been a real person who lived during the Tang Dynasty around whom numerous myths and stories later arose. Spiritual practices and rituals surrounding Lü have not restricted to Taoist circles. He is seen by many people around the world as a healer, wonder worker, and a ‘patron saint’, so to speak, of various trades such as ink making and even prostitution. Lü Dongbin was adopted as the patriarch of Perfect Realization Taoism at the end of the twelfth century.

One of the most famous stories about Lü Dongbin is probably the one known as "The Yellow-Millet Dream." The story goes that one day Lü entered a tavern and met a Taoist adept named Zhongli Quan. Zhongli began to prepare some millet. While the meal was cooking, Lü fell asleep and dreamt that he passed the imperial examination and started his career in the capital. He continued dreaming about the rest of his life, about getting married, having children, and becoming a prime minister with great power. Then he suddenly fell into disgrace and became an outcast until he finally died alone in a snowstorm.

Lü awoke from this dream to find that the millet was still cooking. Zhongli Quan explained to him that life is just like a dream, not worth rejoicing over or grieving about. So enlightened by the experience, Lü Dongbin fell to his knees and asked that Zhongli Quan become his teacher. Many feel the story highlights that the pursuit of fame and fortune is of little consequence when seen for what it is, and that spiritual values and pursuits can bring a greater sense fulfillment when one’s life is complete.

Lü was accepted as a student of Zhongli Quan and was severely tested and was able to pass all of Zhongli’s tests. It is said that Zhongli Quan achieved his immortality and traveled on the clouds to heaven. When he did, Zhongli looked back to Lü and told him it would not be long until Lü also arose to the celestial palace of heaven. Lü Dongbin slyly responded he would not ascent to heaven until all sentient beings traveled with him.

The mythology of Lü Dongbin is that he did attained his immortality and for hundreds of years was seen around China battling demons, playing tricks on people, performing healings, assisting people in their own pursuit of enlightenment and so forth. And so, the historical man became more than a man, he became on of the immortals.

The Master of Inner Alchemy

Lü Dongbin is credited with becoming a master of "inner alchemy." Inner alchemy is a practice quite different from traditional Chinese "outer alchemy" or "laboratory alchemy". Outer alchemy involved the physical mixture and refinement of certain elements, such as cinnabar and mercury, in order to make the elixir of immortality. The historical practice of this kind of alchemy dropped off with the rise of inner alchemy of which Lü was a major proponent. The goal of inner alchemy is to create this elixir of immortality and enlightenment within the adepts own body using one’s own ying, yang, and ki. Inner alchemy involves the use of meditation and visualization in an effort to direct these forces and vital energies.

The practice of inner alchemy presupposes the human body is the same cosmology as the universe itself, and all the vital forces and energies that flow through the universe also flow through the body. In inner alchemy, the body is divided into three major sections – the head, the upper torso, and the lower torso – known as the three cinnabar fields. The most important part of the body is the head, because in the cranial cavity there are considered to be nine peaks. These nine peaks represented "yang" energy. Found within these peaks is a "numinous platform" from which an adept student can seek an audience with members of a ‘celestial hierarchy’.
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The figure of Lü Dongbin, the stories about his life, his poems, and his practice of inner alchemy, all served to challenge (and even subvert) traditional Confucian ideals which were the prevailing philosophical values in ancient China. Lü Dongbin and the rest of the eight immortals offered people a different path. People were presented with mystical spirituality and a different take on life from anything that had previously been known. Lü Dongbin, the myths of the Eight Immortals and Taoism as a whole with it’s unorthodox approach seemed to attract people. And, the antics of the Taoists, which were used as parables to present certain truths, offered people new paths to enlightenment and new religious practices. In time, the history of Lü Dongbin became mythology … and the mythology gained immense popularity among the Chinese people, eventually spreading across Asia and beyond.

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