Book review - Chronicles of Tao; The secret life of a Taoist master

by Deng Ming-Dao (Harper Collins '93)


Without doubt this is one of the best books to give insight into the lives of past Taoist monasteries and the practices of the masters. It is set in the period before the civil war to the present day and chronicles the events of a young boy who is sent away by a wealthy grandfather to study in a monastery in the remote mountains of Huashan.

It chronicles the rebellious nature of Little Butterfly 'Saihung' who is always totally unorthodox in his dealings with the world and tries to find a different way of doing everything. In the monastery there are old masters who have survived through the use of Taoist practices for hundreds of years. It is a very descriptive and at times funny book which is interspersed with philosophy and drama.

During his studies he is expected to recite and learn scriptures, work in the gardens, study the martial arts and meditate daily. There are beautiful descriptions of the mountains of Huashan and its mysterious air. There are fairytale like masters like the Toad master who is shaped like an amphibian and demon spirits who inhabit the meditation caves which are used for advanced training in meditation.
During the book he details the process of meditation and the beliefs behind this ancient practice beautifully, without making the process sound like a car manual. There are spicy stories of heroism where the Butterfly is sent off to catch past students of the monastery who have strayed from the path and must be punished by the Grand Master. The latter is at all times revered and sometimes feared by his aloofness. He is believed to be over hundreds of years old and still alive today albeit in exile in a remote region of Nth China.

The book gives us an insiderís view of the warring periods in the 1930's and the brutality of the Japanese occupation. There are a number of questions which are partly resolved and asked over again. For example in the Japanese occupation Saihung fought in a special unit and bloodied his hands, and postulated the notion that Taoists do live in the world and get involved where necessary.

Throughout the book the Taoist philosophy is detailed and given real life by examples of everyday events and personal trials. The ending of the story is situated in the west where Saihung becomes an exile at the request of his teacher who gives him a task to perform and a riddle to solve. Here we see the marked contrasts of the old China of Saihungs' boyhood and the crass material nature of American urban life with its violence and dog eat dog creed. It is a thoroughly readable and thoughtful story.

Gerard Menzel



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