Once upon a time in ancient China,
there was an emperor who became very interested in Taoist alchemy. He
wanted to learn everything about it, and looked for opportunities to
discuss his ideas with knowledgeable individuals.
The emperor's minister did not share this enthusiasm. He felt the
emperor showered respect and attention to those who claimed knowledge
blindly. He looked upon such people with suspicion and skepticism.
One day, the emperor invited a Taoist monk from a distant land into the
palace for another one of his discussions. At one point in the
conversation, the subject of immortality came up.
The emperor asked: "Do you know of anyone who has mastered the secret of
"Yes, Your Majesty." The monk explained: "Among the advanced
practitioners of my sect, it is not a secret at all. We have perfected a
magic potion that stops aging. The man who drinks it at the right time
not only lives forever, but also maintains his youthful appearance
"How amazing!" The emperor was impressed. "Are you not exaggerating when
you speak of living forever? After all, a man who does not age can still
suffer mortal injuries or fatal wounds."
"Not so, Your Majesty." The monk smiled. "The magic potion cures all
wounds instantly. That is how it stops aging. You see, getting older is
merely a slow and gradual form of injury."
"I must see this for myself! How may I acquire this marvelous potion?"
The emperor was excited.
"You need but to ask, Your Majesty," the monk said. "I happen to carry a
flask of this potion, which I now offer to you as a present to celebrate
The emperor was delighted, and ordered bags of gold to be given to the
monk in return. The monk said it would not be necessary, but the emperor
insisted, so he accepted with thanks. Then, he suddenly remembered that
he had other pressing business, and therefore must take his leave.
"One question before you go," the emperor said. "You said one must drink
the potion at the right time. What time would that be?"
The monk explained that the potion was only effective during the full
moon, about ten days away, and one had to make extensive preparations
before drinking. He gave detailed instructions before making his
departure. Despite the heavy bags he was carrying, he traveled quickly
and soon disappeared from view.
The minister felt the emperor was making a big mistake. He had to talk
the emperor out of drinking the potion somehow, but he knew the emperor
had a contrary nature. The more he tried to discredit the monk, the more
the emperor would leap to his defense; the more he tried to speak
against drinking the potion, the more he would strengthen the emperor's
The night of the full moon came. The emperor followed the monk's
instructions to the letter. He bathed, meditated and went through an
elaborate ritual. Then, when he felt ready, he motioned the minister to
bring the flask to him.
The minister took the flask and turned to the emperor. Then, in a blur
of motion he uncorked it and drank it dry.
For a moment, the emperor froze with shock and disbelief. Then he shook
with rage: "You... how dare you drink my potion!"
The minister faced the wrath calmly: "Your Majesty, it is nothing more
than ordinary wine. That Taoist monk has tricked you."
The emperor considered the possibility and instantly dismissed it: "You
don't know that for a fact. You have stolen something of extreme value
to me, and for that I shall have your head!"
The minister remained calm: "Think about it for a moment, Your Majesty.
If the potion is real, then wouldn't it be useless for you to order my
execution, since I cannot die?"
The emperor roared with anger: "And what if I execute you and you die?
The minister smiled: "That will prove the potion to be fake, Your
Majesty. Then it will become clear to everyone that the emperor has been
The emperor sat down heavily and fell silent. After a long while, he
spoke in low voice: "Indeed, I will be seen as the fool... and since you
will be dead, I will have lost my most loyal advisor as well."
After another moment, the emperor stood up, turned to the minister and
nodded: "Thank you."
Who was the real
Taoist in this story? It was not the monk. He might have looked the
part, and he certainly knew how to sound convincing, but none of it was
genuine. He was little more than a swindler.
The emperor's interest in the Tao was genuine, but his interest did not
automatically grant him understanding of Tao principles, much less
mastery of them. His interest also did not protect him from being misled
down the wrong path.
The minister did not seem like a Taoist. He did not talk about the Tao
or express any interest in it, but his actions spoke louder than words.
He demonstrated qualities that made him the real Taoist, regardless of
how he might be labeled.
These three characters are archetypes. We see manifestations of them in
our world today. The monk is like the phony spiritual teachers who
appear pious and compassionate. In reality, they are more interested in
receiving gold from you than sharing golden nuggets of wisdom with you.
The emperor is like the people who fall under the sway of such
self-appointed teachers. Like the emperor, they are sincere in their
desire to learn, but they may not be able to tell what is authentic and
what is not.
The minister is the one we should emulate. He perceived the world
clearly, with a healthy dose of skepticism. He was not hardened and
cynical, but he was also not gullible and easily fooled. This is
perfectly in tune with the Tao, which is much more about practical
considerations than flights of fancy or wishful thinking.
If you find this a bit surprising, it may be because you have come
across people who want you to think about the Tao as something nebulous
and mysterious, rather than simple and down-to-earth. The more
mysterious they make it, the more easily they can set themselves up as
the guardians of proprietary secrets.
The minister demonstrated the meaning of honor by taking a risk to save
the emperor from his own folly. This is also perfectly in tune with the
Tao, because real Tao cultivators are much more concerned with others’
welfare than their own. When they see friends in need of assistance,
mentoring or protection, they do not hesitate. They take action, even if
they are disadvantaged or inconvenienced in the process.
Another attribute of the minister we should emulate is his way of
guiding the emperor back to the right path. He did not engage in a
shouting match or sacrifice himself as a martyr, because neither would
result in a harmonious outcome. Instead, he took the emperor through a
series of reasoning steps gently, yet firmly.
This is exactly how real Tao cultivators handle conflicts. They
understand that the aggressive, confrontational approach would only
drive away the people they wish to help, so they slow down and face
heated emotions with calmness. They know the truth will emerge when the
situation cools down sufficiently.
The most important point of the story is not explicitly stated, but can
be felt by those who are aligned with the Tao. The pursuit of physical
immortality was perhaps the biggest mistake of the Tao tradition in
Chinese history. Many practitioners, lured by the prospect of
everlasting life, pursued every crackpot scheme of alchemy imaginable.
They wasted their energy and effort in vain. Some of them even poisoned
We can learn from them as counter-examples. The true path of the Tao is
not about the immortality of the body, but the spirit. The way we
cultivate it is not through material means, but through clarity, honor,
and being of service to others. When you live this way of life, you
become like the minister – a real Taoist in a world of crafty deceivers
and naive believers.
Copyright 1998-2013 by Derek Lin
All Rights Reserved.
you've enjoyed this dharma talk, please consider supporting this web
site by telling a friend, or purchasing a