In the spring of 1999, I was 19 years old, and living as a wandering monk. In my travels, I came to the Zhongnan Mountains (钟南山) in Shaanxi Province. I visited Louguantai Temple (楼观台) where it is said that Laozi wrote the Dao De Jing.
When a Daoist goes to stay at a new temple, they are expected to register with the Daoist in charge of reception (知客). They will ask who you are and how long you plan to stay. They check your ID card, and ask your lineage and master’s name. Upon acceptance, you are allowed to stay in the temple for three days (挂短单). After three days, you can request to extend your stay for three more days, or ask to stay indefinitely (挂长单). Shortly after I registered, I was walking through the temple and heard the sound of a bamboo flute. I followed the sound and came across a young Daoist named Xiao Yao (逍遥) which means “carefree wanderer.” He was sitting on a small hill inside the temple compound playing his flute. He told me he was visiting Louguantai Temple from a nearby temple called Chengdao Temple (成道宫).
Xiao Yao told me that another Wudang Daoist was studying with his master. Since I was also from Wudang, I decided to travel there. The next morning, after breakfast in the refectory, I left the temple and caught a long-distance bus. After 2 hours I arrived at the town of Zu An. From there I hired a motorcycle rickshaw, which took me the 20-minute ride to Chengdao Temple.
The rickshaw driver and I arrived at the temple a bit before noon. To my surprise, the rickshaw driver would not take my money. He told me that his mother had been dying of stomach cancer. When treatment at the local hospital failed, he brought her to see Xiao Yao’s master, Doctor Ye. Doctor Ye treated her with massage and acupuncture, and her cancer went into remission. The driver told me that the local people had tremendous respect for Doctor Ye.
Chengdao Temple is where the Daoist sage Wang Chongyang practiced. He dug a cave and lived in it for three years, completely devoting himself to his spiritual practice. He called his cave the Tomb of the Living Dead (活死人墓)! Wang Chongyang is now recognized as the founder of the Complete Perfection school of Daoism.
When I entered the temple I met Doctor Ye, whose full name was Ye Xinqing (叶信庆). I also met the Wudang student Wu Yanzhou (吴延周) who was studying with him. Doctor Ye was middle aged, with a short beard and bright eyes. He had a thick Tianjin accent, and I found him difficult to understand. The two men were cleaning the temple courtyard when I arrived, so I helped them.
Chengdao Temple was small. There was a kitchen on one side, and a large bed on the other. The bed was a kang (炕), a traditional long platform bed made of brick that could be warmed up from underneath using wood or coal. The kang was long, but it was full of Doctor Ye’s patients. 12 or more of them lay side by side as they received acupuncture. When the patients didn’t have something to rest their heads on, they would take a spare brick from the pile in the courtyard and use it as a pillow. The first patient I saw Doctor Ye treat was a woman who came there with tooth pain. Doctor Ye put two needles in her jaw. A few moments later her pain was gone. I was in awe.
At lunch that day, people from the village came carrying vegetables for the temple. I chatted with Wu Yan Zhou. He said that Doctor Ye would not accept payment for his treatments. Some patients would make donations to the temple. Others would bring firewood, vegetables or meat. While many Daoists are vegetarian, Doctor Ye was not. Some villagers would bring cow or goat milk. The temple had an acre of land covered in wheat, and the local villagers would help with harvest every year.
At the time, there were only us three Daoists in the temple. There was also a villager who would cook for them, and a local college student who was volunteering in the temple. For dinner, we ate 4 dishes and noodles. After dinner, Wu Yan Zhou and I drank a glass of alcohol together. He told me that they had prepared the extra food just because I was visiting. Typically they ate just noodles with a few greens thrown in.
I spent three days at Chengdao Temple. The second day Doctor Ye saw over thirty patients. Every spare space in the temple was filled. Doctor Ye called me over to help. I followed him and held his box of needles as he treated patients. Before I left, Wu Yan Zhou told me that his master wanted me to stay and that I could learn medicine. I chose to leave. I was only 19 and not ready to stop traveling. When I left, Master Ye gave me 50 Yuan (about $6) to help pay for my bus fare. Wu Yan Zhou traveled with me to 8 Immortal’s Temple in Xi’an before returning to Doctor Ye.
My wife asks if I regret leaving Chengdao Temple. I do not. Perhaps I would have learned medicine. Perhaps I would still be living there now. I would not have regretted staying. I also do not regret leaving.
Doctor Ye is now 67 years old. Although he has suffered a stroke and no longer sees patients, he still practiced the Dao at Chengdao Temple, where he has been for over 30 years.