Reading the four biographies of the immortals, one gets the sense that immortality is just one attribute they all possess, among many others. Other attributes that the immortals possess are control over nature, as in the third story, “Luan Ba,” and as in the fourth story, “Lord Gourd,” a superhuman strength and an ability to physically materialize objects. As all the stories point out, the individual who has been granted immortality and these other powers has received it because of their mastery of the “Way.
” All of the immortals that have gained the power of life over death use it in ways beneficial to humanity and although they have such awesome powers, they remain humble and true to the Way. In the first story, “The Old Man of Mount Tai,” the old man, who has gained immortality, has done so both through a specialized diet and certain charms. When Emperor Wu asks the man what can account for his youthful appearance, even though he is obviously old, the old man replies that he was instructed, by one who had already mastered the Way, to “not eat cereal grain, but to subsist on only atractylis root and water.
” This is the only of the four stories which advocate diet as an important part of mastering the Way and gaining immortality. But this story does have in common with one of the other’s the use of charms to aid in the attainment of the Way. In this first story, it was a magic pillow, in the fourth, “Lord Gourd,” Changfang, Lord Gourd’s disciple, was given a charm by his teacher which he then used to “summon ghosts and cure illnesses. ” Mastery of the Way both gives one great powers and also changes one’s appearance.
In the first story and the second, “Wu Yan,” those who have gained immortality have both the youthful appearance described above and also posses a color unlike that of mortal people. The old man of Mount Tai appears to have a “glow unlike that of ordinary people,” and Zidu, in the story about Wu Yan, had “above his head… purple vapors rising to a height of more than ten feet. This change in physical appearance gives mortals a sign that the person possessing these qualities has authentically mastered the Way.
One interesting aspect of all the stories involves the idea that those individuals that have gained immortality, have either done it for the benefit of humanity, or have lived so long that they see no purpose in attempting to benefit themselves and instead decide to benefit their fellow humans. This points us to the idea that Daoists who had gained immortality hold a special reverence in the minds of mortals and because they put their own ego aside, are viewed as role models for others.
The reverence felt by mortals is most clearly seen in the story “Wu Yan” when Wu Yan accepts Zidu’s name as his own. But there are other instances in each story that shown the compassion those who have attained immortality have for mortals. The refusal of material goods is common in stories that wish to portray enlightened individuals as role models. In the second story, Zidu at first refuses to tell the Emperor his secrets because of who the Emperor is.
In the story “Luan Ba,” Ba develops a reputation for filial piety and incorruptibility. In the fourth, Changfang uses his newly granted powers to help families drive away ghosts and to heal all those who are sick. The idea of immortality in Daoist thought at this time period is meant as a reward to those who follow as best they can the Way and live a meritorious life. These stories illustrate that if one lives a good life, benefiting others and putting their own selfish interests aside, they too can achieve the prize of immortality.