What is magic? My son loves to dress up in his wizard costume and wield his wand to make amazing things happen. It helps that he has a video camera that he can edit to make his effects more convincing. But what is real magic?
I submit that “real” magic is when we perceive something to be real, and yet we do not quite understand it. This week in class I will be introducing the famed but illusive “Pill of Immortality.” This is a form of Taoist magic believed to lengthen life and increase vitality.
The full moon and lunar eclipse we experienced this week is related to the pill of immortality through Taoist lore. A story from the ancient Taoist tradition speaks of this mystical concoction. And, as most of these stories, it begin: Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a land far away…
There was an haughty young archer unmatched in skill and practice. His name was Hou Yi. He had achieved fame when one day ten suns arose to scorch the earth. He successfully shot nine of them out of the sky and was applauded as a hero. He later went on a quest to find the famed “Pill of Immortality.”
He searched hi and low, far and wide, deep and shallow, up and down, etc. And finally, he came upon an old sage who remembered the day when the ten suns rose. He was so grateful to this young hero for finally explaining to him how they were felled that he gave him the very Pill that the youth was searching for.
One night on his journey back home he spied a lively rabbit under the light of the full moon. The thought occurred to him that it might make a delicious meal, and a lovely fur cap too. As he let loose his arrow the light of the moon began to dim and an eclipse began. At that very moment, right before the arrow struck home, a lovely young woman took the place of the rabbit. He ran to examine his quarry, and gazed into the dying eyes of this maiden.
Her beauty and purity was such that he immediately fell in love with her. And he was so handsome, brave and compassionate that she too was smitten. Though brief in their meeting, he offered her the magic pill that he had labored so hard and traveled so far to find. He hoped it would save her life. And it did! But then she explained that she had already been an immortal. She was the mistress of the moon and only came into a mortal form during a full eclipse. That was a time she could prance and play on the earth. But she had met with his arrow this time. And thought is made her immortal once again, it did not save her mortal life. They were able to share the rest of the full moon together, but as the brightness once again overtook the shadow, she told him that she would never be able to come back to earth as a mortal woman. She said she would wait for him on the moon. He must shoot an arrow at the moon with a silk thread attached to it on the night of the full moon during a total eclipse. That thread would create a magic bridge where he could come visit her. With that, she floated back up to the moon forever, to wait for him on nights of the eclipse.
The lunar eclipse is also an astronomical representation of the idea that even at the fullest and brightest time of the moon, the earth can still hide its glow for a few hours. The mystical extension of this event lies in the truth that at ones physical peak in life when Yang energy is at its greatest Yin energy can still eclipse the light. If one can survive the moments of darkness and re-emerge from the shadow of yin (which is a representation of life on this planet as we know it) then one’s spirit can be truly immortal and untouched by the earthly cycles of life and death.
There are at least two schools of thought on the topic of immortality in Taoism. One is from the “External” school, which teaches that there is some secret alchemical concoction that can be consumed that will lengthen your life. From the outside, this seems to imply that there is a secret recipe that one can cook up in order to make one immune to death.
Pragmatists such as myself come from the school of “Internal” thought that teaches a more practical, and yet no less mystical relationship with death. This discipline teaches that certain healing herbs, dietary practices and physical exercises can help us live a longer and higher quality of live as we cultivate an immortal inner self who will survive our inevitable outer decomposition.