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The Immortal Li Yuan

Over the years I’ve found myself drawn to stories about immortals. I think this attraction was due to having read Ge Hong’s (葛 洪) fourth-century work Master Who Embraces Simplicity (抱 朴 子, Bao Pu Zi ). In his book, Ge Hong makes credible arguments for the belief and existence of immortals, as well as describing the methods for attaining immortality.

As interesting as these tales of immortals may be, there are many other ancient works written on the subject of immortality and immortals, and what I’ve found useful and interesting in them are the many anecdotes and bits of wisdom they contain. The story I am about to tell is one of those tales, called “An Immortal Leaves Mount Hua” from the work Strange Tales of Taoist Immortals (仙 人 奇 怪 的 故 事).

The story about the immortal Li Yuan (李 原) took place during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (宣 宗), who ruled from 712–756 CE. Li Yuan lived in the foothills of Mount Hua (華 山, Hua Shan), a famous Taoist mountain in Shaanxi province.

Li Yuan only ate medicinal herbs, never eating regular food. He also loved drinking wine and peach brandy with his neighbors while creating and reciting poetry and laughing, all while enjoying the moonlit nights.

One day, Li Yuan was seen riding upon a white deer, waving and saying, “Farewell,” to his neighbors, telling them, “I am going east to live on Mount Tian Tai (天 台 山, Tian Tai Shan).”

Three of his good friends, older men, stood in the roadway attempting to block him from leaving. One of the elders said to him, “Master Li, here you have made good friends and get along well with all the locals, why then would you want to leave us so suddenly?” 

“My old friends,” Li responded, “when people get close to each other, they will surely find reason for separation. This is simply a Law of Nature. I certainly wouldn’t dare run counter to this law, so I must leave. It is time for me to leave and begin anew in a new place.”

When one of the other elders spoke out and said, “But you are used to eating all the wonderful medicinal herbs found growing here on Mount Hua. These herbs have given you great health and longevity. Are you not concerned that you will not find these herbs on Mount Tian Tai?”

Li answered, “There are herbs on Mount Tian Tai, as there are herbs on every mountain. Everywhere in nature there are herbs that bequeath health and longevity. This is just another Law of Nature. Everything we need is right before us.”

Certain that Li had made up his mind to leave, the three elders sat down on straw cushions and invited Li to sit with them and enjoy some homemade wine together one last time, and to say a few parting words to their friend.

Li then took his leave, but he left three pills with the old men and urged them to each take one right away. Li then mounted his white deer and rode away singing a happy song.

Later it was discovered that two of the three elders took the pill on the spot as Li advised, and each lived to be 150 years of age. The third elder decided not to take the pill and died just a few months later.

Since the entire village knew of this story they deemed Li Yuan as a true immortal, and so many of the later generations went looking for Li on Mount Tian Tai so they might acquire the longevity pills he gave to the three elders, but they couldn’t find him. They heard many tales from the locals living there that Li could sometimes be seen riding along the misty mountain paths upon a white deer and that he would sometimes appear in villages where he would leave behind his longevity pills to worthy people.

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What struck me about this story was Li’s statement that when people become close they find a reason to depart, that the medicines of immortality are everywhere, and that we should take the advice of our elders and teachers, otherwise we may meet an end just as the third elder suffered.

As fanciful as this story is of Li riding upon a white deer through the mountains, it is the actual wit and wisdom of what he deemed “Laws of Nature” that I found so interesting and useful.

—Stuart Alve Olson

Sanctuary of Tao

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