In 1999, when I was 19 years old, I stayed in the Jade Spring Temple (玉泉院) on Hua Mountain in Shaanxi Province. One of my closest friends on Hua Mountain was Zhong Faqing (钟法清) a Hua Mountain Daoist who I had met when he was visiting Wudang Mountain.
One evening after dinner, Zhong Faqing said he was going to see his master and invited me along. We followed a small river for about 10 minutes before we came to a cave. There was a small vegetable garden. A wooden door covered the entrance to the cave. Above the door was a wooden sign that read “Demon’s Cave” (恶鬼洞). My friend’s master had hung it there to discourage visitors.
The master was named Su Siming (苏嗣明) but everyone from the temple called him everyone called Grandfather Su (苏爷). Within the Daoist monastic community, we often call each other “grandfather” as a sign of respect. It doesn’t matter what age or sex we are. We may call Daoist nuns “grandfather” and in the temple some people called me “Grandfather Zhou” when I was in my teens.
Grandfather Su looked to be in his 60s. He had wild grey and white hair up in a messy top-knot, a thin beard and well-worn white robes. He was from Northern China, and spoke Japanese and English well. It was whispered in the temple that before he became a Daoist priest, he had fought for the Nationalist Army in the war against Japanese Aggression and had even been a prisoner of war. Grandfather Su greeted his disciple brought us inside his cave. It consisted of three tiny rooms. The front room was where he slept on a simple wooden cot. In middle room a small cooking fire. The inner room was where he kept his various personal belongings.
Grandfather Su was quick to laugh and equally quick to anger. He told me that he had 2 and a half disciples. When I asked about the half, he said that his third disciple was lazy, so he only counted as half. When we were talking I noticed that Grandfather Su’s abdomen appeared swollen. He told me he was suffering from liver ascites, which is an accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity often resulting from liver cirrhosis. The fluid needed to be drained once a week. He would do this himself, with a sterilized needle and plastic tube. I asked Grandfather Su why he was treating himself. He said that used to go to the hospital, but the medical staff there was not well trained, and did not insert the needle properly. One of my strongest memories of Grandfather Su are of him sitting outside his cave in a wooden lounge chair he had built, chanting scripture while a tube drained fluid from his abdomen.
When I lived in Jade Spring Temple I would often go visit Grandfather Su and help him carry water and weed his garden. He would sometimes come to the temple refectory for meals. Once I saw him walking near the temple carrying a large rock. I asked him what he was doing. He said that the rock was a mineral left over from when he had been practicing alchemy. He told me that in the mid-1990s he decided to practice alchemy (refining metals to create an elixir of life and achieve immortality). In order to devote himself to his studies, he moved to a cave higher up the mountain that could only be accessed by scaling steep cliffs. He carried up a pile of alchemical texts and collected money from his disciples to buy a tripod furnace and the mineral ingredients required. After a year of living there he had completed his preliminary research and was about to begin the alchemical experiments, when he became ill with ascites. Chinese medicine teaches that anger injures the liver. I believe his frequent anger was the reason for his illness. When he became ill, Grandfather Su had to move down the mountain, which is when he dug the cave where I met him. He preferred to live in the cave rather than in the temple, for the peace and quiet it provided.
The Daoists in the temple often told the story of when a group from the nearby city had traveled to find Grandfather Su and seek his wisdom. They came to his cave and called to see if he was inside. Grandfather Su had been cooking. Grandfather Su, emerging from his cave with his wild hair robed in a cloud of dark smoke, was too much for the city-folk, and they ran screaming!
Sometimes Grandfather Su and I would talk about Daoist practice. Grandfather Su asked me what the Dao was. I told him that while it was something I experienced, it was not something I could describe. He pointed at a tree and at the plants in his garden. They all have their own Dao, he told me. Each living thing has a pattern, a cycle of life, growth, and death that they must follow.
Every time I went to see Grandfather Su, he would grab my wrist and take my pulse. Chinese medicine uses the pulse to diagnose illness. Grandfather Su said I had a young healthy pulse. He told me about the different pulse points on the wrist, and how the pulse will be different in the different seasons, flowing like a river in the summer, and tighter in the winter. Once when I went to see him, he
was leaving to dig morning glory roots. He said he had been having trouble with constipation. I asked why he did not use rhubarb or morning glory seeds, which are more commonly used. He told me that each illness has many possible treatments, and that a herbal doctor had to look at each patient’s overall situation and choose the one that suited that specific patient.
Grandfather Su was also known for his fortune-telling skills. Once when I went to visit him, he seemed annoyed with me. He sent me away, saying that I was needed back at the main temple. I was disappointed, but on my walk back to the main temple I ran into a messenger who called me back for an important errand. None of the Daoists on the mountain had cell phones. But out there alone in his cave, Grandfather Su had somehow known I was needed back at the temple.
Eventually, I left Hua Mountain to travel to Tai Mountain in Shandong Province. Later, I heard that Grandfather Su had successfully treated his liver ascites and was living in a new cave at Qing Ke Ping, a large flat area below the cliffs of the main mountain. Grandfather Su left his mortal body in 2003.