Jiang Zhou, Qionglong Mountain.
The innermost courtyard of Shangzhen Temple was quiet, secluded, and pervaded with a hint of sadness. The early morning sun had lit up this corner nicely. With shuffling footsteps, a man entered the yard from the back rooms. He wrapped his clothes tighter around himself and started his physical training.
Striding out following the pattern of Gang of Divine Tiger, he swiped his fists forcefully across the air with a mighty momentum. A few moments later, his manner changed abruptly as he loosened his fists into open palms and his movements softened with it. Now, he was combining his force with a touch of softness and exerted a series of unbroken movements whose conciseness was complimented by an implicit subtlety.
The man was none other than Tan Chongdai, the abbot of Qionglong Mountain Sect. The exercise he followed was the refined version of a body-tempering technique Xiaozhai taught him. There were sixteen movements in total and the old priest trained himself diligently every day without fail; he would cut himself no slack.
Ready to wrap up after carrying out several sets of movements, Tan Chongdai was still in high spirits and landed his last palm strike on a tree. He had intentionally withheld his strength, but the trunk—so thick that one could just get their arms around—still shuddered, shaking down quite a few leaves with a rustle.
It was only then that he exhaled and finished his morning exercise. He felt his body full of vigor; he was glowing with health, which was in stark contrast to his old and feeble look of last year.
All cultivators had to some extent an awareness of when their time was up. Right now, he could detect distinctively that his aged body was revitalized, extending his time on earth for at least a few more years.
This achievement alone was more than enough for him to look past the grudge between him and Xiaozhai.
"Tap! Tap! Tap!"
Wiping away his sweat, Tan Chongdai was about to go back to his room and set the stove for his breakfast when a knock came from outside. The rusty brass knocker tapped against the wooden door, making a rather abrupt noise in the silent early morning.
"Who is it?"
Drawing back the bolt, Tan Chongdai looked up and found Qin Yunfeng, the chairman of the local Taoist association, outside.
Qin was a rotund sort of man. He wore glasses and looked nothing like a Taoist priest. He greeted Tan Chongdai at once. "Oh my, have I disturbed the senior priest's exercise? Good morning! Such a nice day!"
"What do you want?"
Tan Chongdai's face darkened; it was a look of utter disdain.
It was thanks to the instructions of this man that his Shangzhen Temple was contracted out. And because of Tan's unwillingness to cooperate, the old man had to endure quite a few shady games from the association. The regular allowance for Taoist priests, for example, was delayed on purpose all the time. Tan Chongdai had to visit the office in person and endure much bureaucratic crap from Qin Yunfeng to get the money.
Tan Chongdai's opinion towards this man could be summarized with a single word: disgusting !
Right now, however, Qin Yunfeng could not put on a smile wide enough as he handed over an invitation with cloud design and the eight diagrams. "I know, I know, I'm not welcomed here. But I've come to deliver this invitation for you. Please have a look."
Tan Chongdai was slightly surprised. He opened the card and saw that it contained three lines only.
"The Great Dao treasures human lives and kindness knows no boundary in saving other people.
Our humble sect is holding an impartment and blessing ceremony entitled 'Benefiting the world through the Great Dao, spreading the knowledge to all corners of the world' from June 20 to June 26.
The reputation of the great virtue of yours has travelled wide and far and we will be honored to have your high reputation and glorious name with us. We hereby send our invitation with respect."
His eyes then moved to the signature of the sender, which said "residence of the Celestial Master, Longhu Mountain"!
Tan Chongdai's heart lurched. He asked immediately, "Are all sub-sects of Zhengyi invited?"
"That's what I heard."
"But the ceremonies of previous years were never of such a scale. Why is this year different?"
"You've got me there. May I have a reply from you first? Are you going?" Qin Yunfeng asked.
After a moment of pondering, Tan Chongdai answered, "I will attend on time."
"Great! We'll arrange the transportation in due course. I'll leave you in peace, then."
Qin Yunfeng was forthright and left promptly after he got the reply.
The old priest latched the door again and returned to his back room. By now he was in no mood to cook breakfast. Spellbound, he stared at the invitation.
With Zhengyi and Quanzhen in charge of the Taoist sects of southern and northern China respectively, they each had their own set of rules.
In the sect of Zhengyi, for instance, for an ordinary person to become a Taoist priest, the first step was to be converted, which made them lay Taoists, or disciples, upon which they were permitted to live in a Taoist temple.
Then came the impartment. Official dispatches of transmission issued by the residence of the Celestial Master had pointed out explicitly that all disciples should be imparted in the honor of their patriarch master, so as to carry forward and disperse the Great Dao, benefiting the mankind.
It was equivalent to a formal certification. Only after this procedure could one be addressed as a Taoist priest and receive their Taoist titles, scriptures, and instruments.
The third step was the imparting register.
The "register" referred to the official dispatch recording everything from official positions of heavenly gods, names and titles of immortals of all the worlds, and service and summoning of heavenly officials to the exertion of powers and conjuring of spells. Only with an official registration could one obtain their Taoist rank and position, and receive the blessings of the gods.
The imparting register usually consisted of seven ranks. Initially, one was given a "Dispatch of the Uppermost Three-five Officer", which was of rank 6 or 7. After that was the "Dispatch of the Uppermost Ordination", which was of rank 4 or 5. From there, one could be promoted and given the "Dispatch of Five Thunders from Supreme Clarity", which was the secondary class of rank 3. Above that was the "Dispatch of Five Thunders from Three Caves of Supreme Clarity", which was the standard class of rank 3.
Moving up the chain was the "Dispatch of the Great Cave of Supreme Clarity", a standard-class rank 2 title, and the "Dispatch of Three Caves of Three Clarities", which was a standard-class rank 1 title and also the highest there was.
Each level was divided into three grades, making it 24 grades, each corresponding to the upper eight, middle eight, and lower eight views of the 24 spirits 1 . For instance, the title "Dispatch of the Uppermost Three-five Officer" at rank 7, lower grade, would be the lowest grade of all.
A lay Taoist would only become a Taoist priest after the impartment and only by passing the imparting register could a Taoist priest be called a Master. Masters were qualified to set up altars for prayer rituals, as well as establish temples of their own and take in pupils.
Therefore, in ancient times, the impartment and imparting register were carried out under strict rules. Of course, nowadays, such certificates were given out as if it was a wholesale trade, all one needed was a wad of money and the right connection.
As for the school of Quanzhen, they had a whole different set of rules.
The lay Taoist stage was the same, after which came the "Head-dressing", which qualified one as a Taoist priest. Moving on from there was the "Precept Follower" and one had to pass the three precept platforms for receiving the complete precepts to become one, with the three platforms being the "primary true precept", "middle pole precept", and "great precept of heavenly immortals", each more advanced than the previous one.
This was because Quanzhen was a precept-following sect. It required its disciples to live a religious life away from their secular homes. They were forbidden to marry, eat animal products, drink alcohol, etc. The belief was that if one could not abide by precepts while pursuing the Great Dao, one would never have the opportunity to join the immortals.
The initiation into priesthood was the responsibility of the abbot (Taoist abbot) of a Taoist building complex, who was called the Original Teacher of Initiation. Under the Original Teacher were the Impartment Teacher (the master responsible for interpreting scriptures to the precept-followers), the Disciplinary Teacher (the master responsible for supervising the precept platforms to maintain their dignified manner, as well as to stop the precept-followers from violating precepts), the Correction Teacher (the master in charge of the bearings and rules of precept-followers), the Chanting Teacher (the master in charge of reciting scriptures, leading mass, and affairs of the scripture hall), the Registration Teacher (the master in charge of giving Taoist names to precept-followers and filling in the " Immortal Record 2 "), the Guidance Teacher (the master to host major rites and hold position of high powers), the Duty Teacher (the errand-man to patrol the dwellings and to investigate and deal with precept followers who had broken the rules), etc.
The hierarchy was clear and the ordinance was to be obeyed without question.
Let's turn our attention back to the invitation Tan Chongdai had received. All sects and schools could carry out impartment on their own terms, but only Longhu Mountain was qualified to hold the imparting register ceremony. As a result, impartment ceremonies in the past were all celebrated individually by separate branches and no one had considered "broadening the scope".
This year, however, Longhu Mountain was unexpectedly trying to gather all sect leaders with this occasion. It did not take a genius to smell something fishy.
Being an "insider" of the issue, Tan Chongdai figured out right away that it must have had something to do with the spiritual essence and Taoist skills. He had no idea what tumult such a gathering would bring to the world.
After thinking it through, the old priest took in the back room with bare walls and sighed despite himself.
Being a branch of Shenxiao Sect, which was in turn a subdivision of Zhengyi, the sect of Qionglong Mountain was in fact closely connected to Zhengyi. Yet if he could speak his mind, Tan Chongdai would admit that he felt no affection whatsoever towards the latter.
We talked about the cold-blooded ordinary people all the time, but in fact, the Taoist world was no warmer—if not colder.
Taoist sects were experiencing severe polarization in their conditions, with the bigger ones indulging themselves with worldly pleasures while the smaller ones struggled to survive with their basic living standards threatened.
Especially those sub-sects that were independent from the main ones, who were entirely on their own. There would be no good Samaritans. Those set their minds on pursuing the Great Dao alone, such as our old priest here, and would not associate themselves with the corrupted, ending up living a miserable life.
Tan Chongdai smiled wryly as he patted his growling stomach. He needed some breakfast now.
"Tap! Tap! Tap!"
He was walking towards the kitchen when there came a knock on the door again. It was unbelievable. The Hall of Celestial Master forgotten by the rest of the world most of the time was flooded with visitors today.
The old priest had no choice but to answer the door.
The pleasantly warm morning sun hung high above the woods. Pulling open the two wooden boards, Tan Chongdai saw a slender shadow falling into the yard.
Gu Yu greeted him with cupping hands and a smile. "Senior Tan, it's been a while."TL/N: there is a Taoist belief that there are 24 spirits inside a human body, each occupying certain body part and corresponding to the 24 hours of the day. TL/N: a record on various personal details such as the date of birth, place of origin, name of the past masters, etc. of the precept-followers.