Genghis Khan’s spiritual education under 丘處機 a.k.a. 長春子

This account is summarized from The Travels of an Alchemist by Li Chih-Ch’ang, translated by Arthur Waley, which records the journey of the Taoist Master 丘處機 (Qiu Chuji) or 長春子 (Chang Chun Zi) from northern China to Afghanistan at the summons of Genghis Khan, who was interested in extending his life. The translations are all by Arthur Waley.

長春子, located in Lai-chou in northern China, received a visit from Genghis Khan’s Chinese personal minister, Liu Wen, who delivered the Khan’s request for 長春子 to come visit him in the West. 長春子 reluctantly agreed after failing to negotiate for Genghis to come visit him after he returned from his campaign.

Later on, 長春子 received a message addressed “from the Emperor Chingiz to the Adept, Master Ch’iu,” which praised the Tao of 長春子 above that of the Three Philosophers and further said, “Now that your cloud-girt chariot has issued from Fairyland, the cranes that draw it will carry you pleasantly through the realms of India. Bodhidharma, when he came to the East, by spiritual communication revealed the imprint on his heart; Lao Tzu, when he travelled to the West perfected his Tao by converting the Central Asians. The way before you, both by land and water, is indeed long; but I trust that the comforts I shall provide will make it not seem long. This reply to your letter will show you my anxiety on your behalf. Having learnt that you passed safely through the severe heat of autumn I will not now trouble you with further friendly messages.”

As he made preparations to leave China, 長春子 received a messenger from Genghis Khan’s brother Temuge, requesting that 長春子 visit him as well if he went to the West. When this came to pass, Temuge asked him about extending his life. 長春子 told him that these matters could only be told to someone who had fasted and observed certain rules. Temuge, not wanting to keep 長春子 for too long while Genghis was so eager to see him, let 長春子 continue on his journey and gave orders for him to be brought back after he returned from his journey.

There were some minor disagreements between 長春子 and his escorts during the journey. 長春子 wanted to stop and remain somewhere for the winter, but this was not allowed. Not far from where Genghis Khan was, 長春子 received an invitation from Genghis’s second son Chagatai to come stay with him. 長春子 refused because of his vegetarian diet, which he had heard was unsustainable in the area where Chagatai resided, to the south of the Amu Darya.

長春子 received a message from Genghis Khan: “Adept! You have spared yourself no pains in coming to me across hill and stream, all the way from the lands of sunrise. Now I am on my way home and am impatient to hear your teaching. I hope you are not too tired to come and meet me.”

長春子 crossed the Amu Darya to meet Genghis Khan. Their dialogue, presumably carried out entirely through interpreters, was as follows. Genghis said, “Other rulers summoned you, but you would not go to them. And now you have come ten thousand li to see me. I take this as a high compliment.”

長春子 replied, “That I, a hermit of the mountains, should come at your Majesty’s bidding was the will of Heaven.”

Genghis asked Changun to seat himself and order food to be served. Then he asked, “Adept, what medicine of long life have you brought me from afar?” 長春子 replied, “I have means of protecting life, but no elixir that will prolong it.”

Genghis was pleased with 長春子 and had tents set up for him and his disciples to the east of his own tent. The interpreter came and asked 長春子 if he had chosen the name “Tängri Möngkä Kün” (Heavenly Eternal Man) for himself, or if it had been given to him by others. Later the interpreter came and asked on the Khan’s behalf what he had been called formerly. He explained that he was one of the four disciples of Chung-yang, and that the others had all grown wings so that only he remained in this world. He said he was generally called hsien-sheng (“senior”).

Genghis asked his servant Chinkai, who had escorted 長春子, what to call the Master. He decided on “holy hsien.”

Genghis had to go deal with some rebellious mountain bandits. 長春子 requested to go back north to his previous residence until Genghis was ready to see him again. After some disagreement, Genghis complied.

Upon returning, more regular meetings began between 長春子 and Genghis Khan. They did not bow or kneel before Genghis, but only placed their hands together and inclined their bodies upon entering his tent. Genghis suggested that 長春子 have all his meals in his company, but 長春子 declined on the grounds that he was “only at ease in quiet places.” Liu Wen and Chinkai, having taken great pains to bring 長春子 to Genghis, were given permission to sit in on his discourses.

Genghis Khan sent for 長春子 continually and was delighted with his teachings. He ordered for the Master’s words to be written down in Chinese characters and thus preserved from oblivion. He said, “You have heard the holy Immortal discourse three time upon the art of nurturing the vital spirit. His words have sunk deeply into my heart. I rely upon you not to repeat what you have heard.”

Genghis Khan and 長春子 journeyed back eastward together, and during this journey 長春子 constantly taught Genghis Khan of the mysteries of the Tao.

On November 19th, 1222, the following (here abridged) sermon was delivered:

            “Tao is the producer of Heaven and the nurturer of Earth. The sun and the moon, the stars and planets, demons and spirits, men and things all grow out of Tao. Most men only know the greatness of Heaven; they do not understand the greatness of Tao. My sole object of living all my life separated from my family and in the monastic state has been to study this question.

            When Tao produced Heaven and Earth, they in turn opened up and produced Man. When man was first born he shone with a holy radiance of his own and his step was so light that it was as if he flew. The earth bore fungoids that were moist and sweet-tasting. Without waiting to roast or cook them, Man ate them all raw; at this time nothing was cooked for eating. The fungoids were all sweet-smelling. Man with his nose smelt their scent and with his mouth tasted their taste. Gradually his body grew heavy and his holy light grew dim. This was because his appetite and longing were so keen. Those who study Tao must learn not to desire the things that other men desire, not to live in places where other men live. They must do without pleasant sounds and sights, and get their pleasure only out of purity and quiet. They must reject luscious tastes and use foods that are fresh and light as their only delicacy. If there is any attachment the follower of Tao will fail to understand it or its operations. If the eye sees pleasant sights or the ear hears pleasant sounds, if the mouth enjoys pleasant tastes or the natural state is perturbed by emotions, then the original Spirit is scattered and lost…

            The male we call Yang; his element is fire. The female we call Yin: her element is water. But Yin can quench Yang; water conquers fire. Therefore, the Taoist must above all abstain from lust. It is true that in providing himself with food and clothing a man expends a good deal of worry and fret, which leads to a loss of Original Spirit. But the loss in this case quite small; whereas a licentious life wastes the fine particles of the soul and leads to a considerable loss of original spirit. Tao split up into two forms. The one, light and pure. This became the sky. The sky is male and belongs to the element fire. The other form is heavy and unclean. This became earth. The earth is female and belongs to the element water.

            Man rises to Heaven and becomes a hsien, just as a flame goes upward… If common people, who possess only one wife can ruin themselves by excessive indulgence, what must happen to monarchs, whose palaces are filled with concubines? I learnt recently that Liu Wen had been commissioned to search Peking and other places for women to fill your harem. Now I have read in the Tao Te Ching that not to see things which arouse desire keeps the mind free from disorders. Once such things have been seen, it is hard indeed to exercise self-restraint. I would have you bear this in mind.

            [Here Arthur Waley mentions that 長春子 gave a brief account of his early life and association with Ma Yu, Tan Chang-chen and Liu Chang-shen. This was followed by a brief sketch of Taoist history.]

            Now all people from Emperors and princes down to the lowest classes, however different their lives may be in other ways, are alike in this, that they posses a “natural state.” All Emperors and monarchs are heavenly beings who have been exiled from Heaven. If they are virtuous on earth they will, on their return to Heaven, be allotted a higher place than before.

            Try sleeping alone for one month. You will be surprised what an improvement there will be in your spirits and energy. The ancients said: ‘To take medicine for a thousand days does less good than to lie alone for a single night’. Chingiz has already produced a numerous posterity and can afford to husband his strength.

            [Arthur Waley next summarizes 長春子‘s political advice to Genghis, which involved not taxing certain provinces in the northern China region for three years in order to help them recover from the ravages of warfare. 長春子 suggests using a Chinese agent to facilitate this, and brought up the example of this working well in the previous century. In conclusion, 長春子 recounts how (in 1188) he had visited the Jin emperor Shih Tsung, who was in a very weak condition because of his debauchery, and how by following the same advice that 長春子 gave Genghis he was able to fully recover his strength and vitality.]”

(For anyone interested in hunting for a full translation of this sermon, its title is Hsüan Fēng Ch’ing Hui Lu.)

長春子 found it uncomfortable travelling with the army, so he was granted permission to travel a reasonable  distance from it. As he travelled, he saved many lives by giving whatever food he could spare to the poor and hungry.

Genghis Khan asked 長春子 what the reason was for calamities such as earthquakes, to which 長春子 responded, “I have heard that in order to avoid the wrath of Heaven you forbid your countrymen to bathe in rivers during the summer, wash their clothes, make fresh felt or gather mushrooms in the fields. But this is not the way to serve Heaven. It is said that of the three thousand sins the worst is ill-treatment of one’s father and mother. Now in this respect I believe your subjects to be gravely at fault and it would be well if your Majesty would use your influence to reform them.”

Genghis Khan then said, “Holy Immortal, your words are exceedingly true; such is indeed my own belief.”

Genghis had 長春子’s words written down, and ordered their meaning to be communicated to his subjects in general. He summoned his sons and other nobles and officials, and said to them, “The Chinese reverence this holy Immortal just as you revere Heaven; and I am more than ever convinced that he is indeed a Being from Heaven!”

Genghis then repeated everything he had been taught by 長春子 over their sessions, and said, “Heaven sent this holy Immortal to tell me these things. Do you engrave them upon your hearts.” 

Later, 長春子 was quite eager to return to China. He wanted to hurry on ahead, yet Genghis wanted him to remain longer. He said, “My sons are soon arriving. There are still one or two points in your previous discourses which are not clear to me. When they have been explained, you may start on your journey.”

Genghis Khan went hunting and his horse fell while there was a boar before him. He was later reproached by 長春子, who told him that life is a precious thing, and that he was old and should go hunting as little as possible. He further said that this fall had been a warning, and that the failure of the boar to gore Genghis was an act of divine intervention. Genghis replied, “I know quite well that your advice is extremely good. But unfortunately we Mongols are brought up from childhood to shoot arrows and ride. Such a habit is not easy to lay aside. However, this time I have taken your words to heart.” 

Turning to Kishlik Darkan (a very loyal companion of his), Genghis said, “In the future I shall do exactly as the holy Immortal advises.” He did not go hunting again for two months.

Genghis Khan had some farewell interviews with 長春子, in which Genghis gave him the farewell gift of an edict exempting his pupils from taxation.

Months later, after they parted, 長春子 received a letter from Genghis: “Holy adept, between the spring and summer you have performed no easy journey. I wish to know whether you were properly supplied with provisions and remounts. At Hsuan-te and the other places where you have lately stayed, did the officials make satisfactory provision for your board and lodging? Have your appeals to the common people resulted in their coming over to you? I am always thinking of you and I hope you do not forget me.”

In China, 長春子 received another letter: “Holy adept, now that you are in China, convert the people with your pure doctrine, and each day recite the scriptures on my behalf and pray that I may live long. Your noble teaching should be set in excellent surroundings. Establish yourself where you would best like to live. I have told A-li-hsien that you are now very old and that he is to be very careful of you. Do not forget what I told you before.”

The next letter was received two months later: “Since you went away, I have not once forgotten you for a single day. I hope you do not forget me. If there is anywhere in my whole dominions where you would particularly like to be, you have only to say so, and shall live there. I wish your disciples to recite the scriptures continually on my behalf and to pray for my longevity.”

長春子 died on 23 July 1227, roughly a month before Genghis Khan. The impact of his teachings on Genghis’s level of brutality are debated.


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