Image by Şahin Sezer Dinçer
Narrated by Marie T. Russell.
I was born during the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25 CE-220 CE) into a family of ardent Daoists who were very much inspired by the teachings of the great sage Zhang Daoling, who had been instructed by the blessed Laozi himself, in a vision, to help free the world of falsehood and corruption, which had become endemic. Without a return to virtue, he warned, political and social instability would increase and cause much suffering.
It was true that the countryside around us was filled with poverty and misery, and Zhang Daoling inspired a vision of what we could create together to transform the world into a paradisal one. It was with much hope and passion that a small band of followers left their homes to create a community that would be ruled by Daoist principles, a community of people bonded by their commitment to a common ideal of equality and peace. I was fortunate to grow up in such an environment, where the ideals of the virtuous state were taught.
I was born after Zhang Daoling had already left the world, having mysteriously disappeared at the age of 123 years, leaving his son Zhang Heng and then his grandson Zhang Lu to fulfil his vision. Some say he died, but others say he ascended to heaven on a celestial creature. I chose to believe the latter and was fascinated by him from an early age, eager for any story.
The Way of the Celestial Masters
From a small band of followers, a movement grew called the Way of the Celestial Masters, or the Five Pecks of Rice Movement, because to join our community one had to offer five pecks of rice. Our movement continued to expand, and late in my childhood Zhang Lu, who had become the head of our religious community, formed an independent state called Hanning (Peace of Han).
My parents were active in the formation of Hanning and I, being the youngest of three children, was often left in the care of my maternal grandfather while they busied themselves with the small group of people charged with setting up the structure and laws of the state. After his wife died, my grandfather had become a hermit, living alone in one of the forests of the valley. He was a tall, thin man with grey hair that reached well below his waist, partly knotted up in a rather messy way atop his head. His face was weathered by age, but animating the lines and creases were two bright eyes that sparkled with joy, as if he was always on the brink of laughter.
To me, he was a beautiful sight. I never saw a worried or sorrowful expression on his face, and when he spoke there was always significance to his words. The community respected him greatly because as a young man he had known Zhang Daoling and had become his disciple. He was eager to share stories about the old sage with anyone willing to listen.
Often, when I would stay with my grandfather, he would relate magical tales while I rested my head on his lap, and these were among my fondest memories. One time, when I was about eight years old, I was lazily listening to him as I rested my head against his leg, when he suddenly stood up, jolting me. Taking me tightly by the hand, he led me through the skies to a mountaintop, where several bearded men and two elderly women sat in a circle.
Stooping down, he placed his finger on his lips to indicate that I should not ask any questions or speak, and then sat me down beside him. The group remained in silence while I rested my head upon his lap and fell asleep. When I awoke, I was in my bed in his small cottage tucked away in the woods.
Quickly I got up to find him. “Yeye (grandfather),” I called. He appeared in the doorway.
“What is it, child?’
“I dreamed I flew through the skies with you.”
“Where did we go?”
“To a mountaintop.”
He smiled enigmatically.
“It seemed so real, Yeye.”
“If it seemed real, then perhaps it was. What is so strange about flying? Sometimes it is the only way to travel.”
“Yeye, you are teasing me!”
“Am I?” Again, that enigmatic smile. “Come, I have fixed some food for you.”
That was the end of our conversation and I assumed that I had dreamed the whole event.
Some Magic Is Needed
A year or so later, I came down with an illness while staying with him. The medicinal plants that Yeye applied did not bring down the fever. “Some magic is needed,” he said mysteriously with a glimmer in his eyes. “Come, I have to take you to a hermit I know. He has the magical medicinal plants we need, but his place is not so close.”
“Magical plants?” He nodded. “Will we fly, Yeye?” This was the first time I had mentioned flying since that time of the dream.
He leaned close to me and whispered with a grin, “No, this time I will call my tigress friend and we will ride her, as this hermit lives deeper into the forest, not on a mountaintop.”
“Yeye,” I protested in a hoarse voice. “You are teasing me.”
“Am I? Get ready and we will leave.” Stepping outside, he issued a high call. As I followed him, a large tigress approached. I drew back in fear, but he pulled me forward by the hand. “Come, don’t be afraid. I know this tigress well and have ridden her many times. She is as swift as time that stops for no one.” Lifting me into his arms, he climbed onto the back of the animal and away we sped. Within a short time, we reached the entrance of a cave. The hermit was there to greet us with a handful of plants and a liquid mixture.
“I knew you were coming, so I made this medicine,” he said. “Here are extra plants. Feed them to her for three days and she will recover.” As we rode back on the tigress, I fell asleep, and sometime later I woke up in my bed.
In my feverish state I stared at Yeye, who was waiting for me to drink a liquid medicine. “Take this and you will soon feel better.”
“Yeye,” I whispered. “Did we really ride a tigress?”
“If that is what you saw, then that is what we did,” he responded with a small smile. “But a fever can cause one to see many things.”
The Cause of my Illness
I was too sick to ask any more questions. After I recovered, I asked Yeye why I had taken ill. In our way of thinking, it was wrong thoughts or behavior that brought illness. He replied that fever is a form of purification. “Your body was burning impurities. If you were older, I would tell you to fast for three days, but you are still too young for that and you have hardly eaten these last days.” Then in his teasing manner he added, “But perhaps it was your doubts that brought this illness.”
“Hmm,” he responded. “Do you have any doubts?” I shook my head.
“Good, then that is why the illness fled so quickly.”
My grandfather’s cottage was a magical place, and many of the stories he told me were of fantastical creatures, dragons and phoenixes and the like.
One day I asked him if he had ever ridden a phoenix.
“Of course, many times. Would you like to ride one?” I shook my head. I could never tell whether Yeye was serious or teasing.
“But one day, Yeye, when I get older, perhaps then I will ride a phoenix. Of all the creatures, that is the one I like the most. They are strong and beautiful and can take me up high in the sky, higher than a mountain.”
Leaning close to me, he replied, “I will make sure that you ride one.”
“Yeye, you are teasing me again! There are no such things as phoenixes. I know they are imaginary beasts.”
“If you would like to see one now, I can beckon it.”
“Yeye, why are you never serious?”
“Hmm,” was his reply.
One day when I was a little older and beginning to take an interest in mystical matters, I asked him to tell me a story about his teacher Zhang Daoling.
“Zhang Daoling,” he began, “was a rare man. One day when he was sitting in cultivation on a remote mountain, a goddess appeared to him and said she would show him the celestial world.”
I drew closer so that I would not miss a word he spoke. “He had already had glimpses in dreams and visions, but he wanted to see that world up close. He thanked her and, before he knew it, he was in a place of such beauty, such harmony, in the presence of such loving beings full of virtuous qualities, that he didn’t want to return to earth. His visit was meant to be brief because one cannot stay in the celestial world for long while in a human body, but he didn’t want to leave.
"The goddess saw his reluctance. She showed him the misery on earth—people without food, with disease, losing loved ones, corruption, greed—all the causes of suffering. His heart was moved, and she gave him a choice: ‘You can leave your body, die right now and remain here, or you can return and try to bring this vision to earth, but you must know that you won’t succeed, because humanity is not ready.’”
My grandfather paused and looked at me. “Do you know what he chose?”
“Is that when he died and was taken to the celestial world?”
“He didn’t hesitate for a moment. He told the goddess to bring him back to the human world so that he could implant the seed of a more virtuous world, a higher reality. Even if he didn’t see that seed come to flower, he would know that he had done his part. He opened his eyes and found himself sitting alone on the mountaintop.”
“He came back here for us?”
“For all of humanity. He lived another fifty years, trying to show people how to live in harmony with the Dao. He thought that if he could create a society where virtue ruled, this would be a model for the rest of the world. He knew his vision would not be fulfilled, but he also knew that he was planting a seed. Earth is not the celestial world and will not become like one, but we can cultivate a little more virtue, a little more goodness so that we come somewhat closer to the heavenly worlds.”
©2021 by Dena Merriam.
Reprinted with permission. All Rights Reserved.
Publisher: Sita Ram Press.
When The Bright Moon Rises: The Awakening Of Ancient Memories
by Dena Merriam
When the Bright Moon Rises is first and foremost a love story: love between the sages and the cosmic forces known as the deities, love of the sages for the people, and love between individuals seeking to express this universal force of love that exist within all of us. It is also a study of karma, the cosmic law of cause and effect. This narrative begins in Vedic India, around the 9th century BCE, with the meeting of two people and the seeding of a love that cannot be fulfilled but which comes to fruition nearly 10,000 years later during the Tang Empire in China, where they are reborn as the renown poet Li Bai and his poet wife. The awakening of her memories of previous births initiates an inner struggle that is only resolved under the guidance of her Daoist Master. This is her story.
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About the Author
Dena Merriam is the Founder of The Global Peace Initiative of Women, a non-profit that brings spiritual resources to help address critical global issues. She is the author of My Journey through Time: A Spiritual Memoir of Life, Death and Rebirth.
A long-time disciplined meditator, Dena’s access to her past lives brings a clearer awareness and purpose to her present life, and also overcomes any fear of death. Learn more at www.gpiw.org as well as at DenaMerriam.com/