This legendary excerpt
is taken from Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China,
written by an anonymous 16th century author and translated by
Eva Wong (Shambhala 1990). See especially the story's theatrical
and modern-like conception of "mime dancers," as well as its Taoist teaching of strict physical discipline combined with limitless independence, possibility and creativity.|
Immortal Sister Sun Bu-er (Sun Pu-erh) was a 12th century
historical figure as well as the subject of many Chinese legends.
She married and had three children before completely devoting
herself to Taoist practices at the age of fifty-one. Eventually
she developed a large following of disciples. _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Sun Bu-er lived in the city of Loyang for twelve years. She attained
the Tao and acquired powerful magical abilities. One day she
said to herself, "I have lived in Loyang for a long time.
Now I have attained the Tao, I should demonstrate the powers
of the Tao to the people." Sun Bu-er took two withered branches
and blew at them softly. Instantly the two branches were transformed
into a man and a woman. The woman resembled Sun Bu-er, and the
man appeared to be a handsome man in his thirties. The couple
went to the busiest streets of the city and started laughing,
embracing, and teasing each other. Loyang was the center of high
learning and culture in those days, and such shameful behaviors
in public between a man and a woman in public was not tolerated.
Yet despite reprimands from the city officials and the teachers
of the community, the couple continued their jesting and playing
day after day. Even after the guards escorted them away from
the city they were found back in the busy streets the next day.
When the prominent members of the community saw that their efforts
to banish the couple from the city were in vain they took counsel
among themselves and approached the mayor saying, "Many
years ago, a mad woman took refuge in an abandoned house at the
edge of the city. We took pity on her and gave her food when
she begged. Now she is not only forgetting our kindness to her
but has become a nuissance to public peace and decency. We would
like to ask you to arrest this shameless couple and burn them
in public. We have come to this last resort because they have
ignored our pleas and our threats." One of the more powerful
community leaders added, "Sit, as the leader of this city
you are responsible for the good behavior of our citizens. You
must do something about this shameless couple." Not wanting
to offend the powerful citizens of the community, the mayor issued
a decree and had it posted throughout the city. It read:
"Madness is the result of losing reason. Without reason
all actions become irrational. For a man and a woman to embrace
and tease each other in public is to break the rules of propriety.
If they exhibit such shameful behavior during the day there is
nothing they cannot do at night. The streets of the city are
not places for jesting. To display such offensive behavior in
public is abominable. We have asked them to leave, but they have
refused. We have banished them from the city, but they have returned.
There is only one thing left for us to do. We shall arrest them
and burn them in public. Thus we can rid ourselves of these evil
Together with the city guards, community leaders, and a large
crowd, the mayor walked toward the abandoned house at the edge
of the city where the man and the mad woman were reported to
be staying. As they approached the house the mayor said, "Let
everyone carry along some dry wood or twigs. We shall pile them
around the house and burn the abominable place, together with
the mad woman and the shameless man." The crowds piled dry
branches around the building and set them on fire. Flames and
smoke engulfed the building.
Suddenly the grey smoke turned into a multicolored haze and the
mad woman was seen seated on the canopy of clouds, flanked by
the man and woman whom the people had seen jesting in the streets.
Sun Bu-er said to the crowds below, "I am a seeker of the
Tao. My home is in Shantung Province, and my name is Sun Bu-er.
Twelve years ago I arrived in Loyang. I disguised myself as a
mad woman so that I might pursue the path of the Tao in peace.
I have finally attained the Tao, and today I shall be carried
into the heavens by fire and smoke. I transformed two branches
into a man and a woman so that circumstances would lead you here
to witness the mystery and the powers of the Tao. In return for
your kindness and hospitality to me through the years I shall
give you this couple. They will be your guardians, and I shall
see to it that your harvests will be plentiful and your city
protected from plagues and natural disasters." Sun Bu-er
gave the man and woman a push and they fell onto the crowd below.
Instantly the couple was transformed back into their original
The crowd picked up the two branches , but when they looked up
at the sky all they saw was a small black figure growing smaller
and smaller as it flew higher and higher. The figure became a
black dot, and finally the black dot disappeared. The crowds
bowed their heads in respect and dispersed. For the next five
years, Loyang enjoyed a prosperity that was unmatched by any
town in China. Its countryside yielded bountiful harvests, and
livestock was healthy and plentiful. The rains came at the appropriate
times, and the city and its surrounding region seemed to be immune
to natural disasters. In gratitude to Sun Bu-er the citizens
built a shrine to her. In it was a statue of her likeness, and
beside her stood statues of the man and the woman she had created
from two branches. The shrine was named the Three Immortals'
Shrine. It was said that those who presented offerings with sincerity
received blessings from the three immortals.
After Sun Bu-er ascended to the heavens she returned to the earthly
realm. She wondered about the progress of Ma Tan-yang (her husband)
and decided to offer help if needed.
When Sun Bu-er appeared at the Ma mansion the servants could
not believe that the lady of the mansion was back. They ran to
tell Ma Tan-yang, and he hurried out to greet his wife. "Friend
of the Tao, you must have suffered much these years." Sun
Bu-er replied, "We who cultivate the Tao must bear whatever
hardships beset us. Otherwise we will not be able to attain the
Tao." That night, Ma Tan-yang invited Sun Bu-er to meditate
with him. Sun Bu-er maintained her meditation position through
the night, but Ma Tan-yang could not. The next morning Ma Tan-yang
said to Sun Bu-er, "Friend of the Tao, your meditation skills
are much more advanced than mine." Sun Bu-er said, "Brother,
I can see that your magical powers do not seem to be as strong
as they could be." Ma Tan-yang said, "You are mistaken.
My magical powers are strong. I can transform stones into silver
pieces. Let me show you." Sun Bu-er said, "I can transform
stones into gold, but I do not wish to do so, for gold and silver
are material things that we must leave behind. Therefore it is
not important whether they can be turned into silver or gold.
Let me tell you a story." Then Sun Bu-er related to Ma Tan-yang
a story about Immortals Lu Tung-pin and Chung-li Ch'uan.
When Immortal Lu Tung-pin was studying with his teacher Chung-li
Ch'uan, Chung li Ch'uan gave him a large and heavy sack to carry.
Immortal Lu carried the sack for three years without complaint
or resentment. At the end of the three years, Chung-li Ch'uan
told Immortal Lu to open the sack.
He said to Immortal Lu, "While you were carrying the
sack these years, did you know what was inside?"
Immortal Lu replied, "Yes, I knew that the sack was filled
Chung-li Ch'uan then said, "Do you know that the rocks
that you've been carrying around all these years could be turned
into gold? Because you have shown sincerity and humility and
have never uttered a word of complaint, I shall teach you how
to turn these stones into gold if you wish.
Immortal Lu asked Chung-li Ch'uan, "When these stones
have been transformed into gold, will they be identical to real
Chung-li Ch'uan replied, "No, gold that has been transformed
from stones or other objects will only last for five hundred
years. After that, they will return to their original form."
Immortal Lu said, "Then I do not wish to learn the techniques
of turning stones into gold. If the gold is not permanent, then
what I do now will have harmful effects five hundred years later.
I would rather be ignorant of a technique which may potentially
Hearing Lu Tung-pin's reply, Chung-li Ch'uan said, "Your
foundations are stronger than mine. Your level of enlightenment
will be higher than mine. As you have enlightened me, I now realize
that this technique of turning stones to gold or silver or precious
gems is not worth learning and not worth teaching."
After hearing Sun Bu-er's story. Ma Tan-yang felt ashamed and
said no more. Next day, Sun Bu-er invited Ma Tan-yang to take
a bath in a tub of boiling water. Ma Tan-yang looked at the bubbling
water, tested it with his finger and exclaimed. "This water
is so hot that I almost burned my finger. How can I sit in it
and take a bath?" Sun Bu-er jumped into the tub of boiling
water as if it had been merely lukewarm. Turning to Ma Tan-yang,
she said, "Brother, after all these years you should have
cultivated a body that is impervious to heat and cold. How is
it that you have not made much progress in your training?"
Ma Tan-yang said, "I do not know. We received the same instructions
from the same teacher. How come your meditation skill, your magical
powers, and your physical development surpass mine by far?"
Sun Bu-er dried herself, put on fresh clothes and explained to
Ma Tan-yang, "These twelve years I have lived in hardship.
My training was done under the most adverse of conditions. Moreover,
since I had to beg and live in the most meager shelters, my body
and mind were not distracted or dulled by comfortable living.
You, on the other hand, lived in a comfortable house, had servants
to tend your needs, and did not meet with hardships. Therefore
your senses, your mind, and your body became lazy, and you did
not train as hard as I did."
Ma Tan-yang said to Sun Bu-er, "You are right I shall leave
this place and travel. I shall seek the Tao in my journeys."
Late that night Ma Tan-yang changed into Taoist robes and slipped
out of his mansion. The next morning Sun Bu-er summoned the servants
and told them to sell the property and distribute the money and
household goods to the needy for she knew that Ma Tan-yang would
never return to his mansion and his lands again.