Cultivation Stories of Ancient Chinese Poets: Wang Bo

Mei Songhe

PureInsight | February 27, 2003

[] Wang Bo was a poet who lived from 650 to 676 A.D. Wang Bo, also known as Wang Zian, was one of the "Four Outstanding Poets of the Early Tang Dynasty." They were Wang Bo, Yang Jiong, Lu Zhaolin and Luo Binwang. Wang Bo's poems are refreshing in style, but it was his odes (a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style) that have truly made him stand out as a poet during the early Tang Dynasty. Wang Bo collaborated with Lu Zhaolin and other poets to improve the style of the poetry of his time, which was described as "excessive pursuit of fine structures that has turned poetry writing into detailed carving work."

"The Preface of the Poetry Collection of the Teng Wang Pavilion" which Wang Bo wrote at the age of 27 is a famous piece of poetry. The poem that he wrote at the end of the Preface titled "Poetry of the Teng Wang Pavilion" is widely recognized as one of the finest Tang Dynasty poems. The style of this poem greatly influenced later generations of poets. His poem, titled "Seeing Du Shaofu off to His Post in Shu Zhou", is widely recognized as one of "The" masterpieces of poetry of the Tang Dynasty. The line in this poem, "A bosom friend afar brings a distant land near," has become a famous and frequently quoted phrase throughout the ages. It has touched the hearts of ancient and modern people.

Wang Bo was born of a family of scholars whose members had been civil court officials for generations. Wang Bo's grandfather, Wang Tong, was an outstanding student of Xiu Cai of the Sui Dynasty. [Xiu Cai is the lowest degree conferred upon successful candidates under the former civil service examination system]. Wang Tong once worked as secretary of Shu County and tutor of the feudal lord of Shu County. On his retirement from the government he stayed at home, concentrating on teaching at Longmen School and writing books. His literary works include "The Classics of Yuan" (or "Yuan Jing") and "Zhong Shuo." Both received commendations from scholars of their time. Wang Bo's father, Wang Fuzhi, had served in many important posts in the state government. In his later years, he became interested in metaphysics, a form of cultivation at the time.

Wang Bo was born as an extraordinarily bright and intelligent child with an outstanding enlightenment quality. In fact, he was a child prodigy. Wang Bo wrote excellent essays at six years of age, pointed out, at the age of nine, the mistakes in The Book of the Western Han (or Han Shu), and easily read through the Six Classics (or Liu Jing) in a month at the age of ten. Even his friend Yang Jiong, also a child prodigy, thought that Wang Bo was already born highly knowledgeable in classical Chinese literature. At the age of fourteen, Wang Bo was nominated as a candidate for the civil service examination because of his reputation as a child prodigy. He topped the civil service examination and was granted the official position of San Lang in the royal court. When he was sixteen, the feudal lord of Pei County recruited him for the position of court writer, and admired his talent very much. When Wang Bo was eighteen, cockfighting was popular, especially among the royalty. Wang Bo teasingly wrote an article, titled "A Cock that Charged a Crusade against the King Ying Wang." The Emperor was so offended by the article that he ordered the feudal lord of Pei County to expel Wang Bo from the court without delay.

After he was expelled, Wang Bo traveled extensively within the Sichuan Province. The beautiful natural landscapes helped nurture Wang Bo's mind nature and gave him literary inspiration. From that point on, Wang Bo began to make rapid progress in poetry and essay writing. As if being helped by a divine power, Wang Bo's writing improved daily. He impressed the nation immensely with each article he wrote during that period. "The Epigraph of the Confucius Temple in Yi County" was especially regarded as "the most magnificent and greatest treasure of all times." Later on he was given a government post, but his decision to give the death sentence to an official's servant almost cost him his own life, and resulted in his father's demotion. Therefore, Wang Bo resigned his official post and stayed at home, concentrating on his writings. At the age of 27, he drowned when crossing a river to visit his father in Jiao Zhi.

Although Wang Bo lived a short life of only 27 years, it was a rich and colorful life. As a gifted child prodigy, Wang Bo was more mature in thought than people of his own age, and even scholarly adults so few people understood or accepted him. It would be easier to understand Wang Bo's life if we imagined him as a person who lived for 81 years, but had compressed his life into a third of the time. Wang Bo's amazing talents and accomplishments formed such a contrast with his extremely short life that for hundreds of years those who studied him pitied the briefness of his life. However, from the perspective of cultivation, Wang Bo's life was as natural as it could be. There is no need to feel sorry for him, because a cultivator's path of cultivation is always arranged perfectly. Many young cultivators who have reached consummation left this world in the form of so-called death. In his short and unpredictable life, Wang Bo led a rich and colorful life of cultivation.

Since childhood, Wang Bo was full of filial goodness. His father was a very affectionate man, and often taught him such as: "The ancient sages consider that a son without medical knowledge to be far from filial." Wang Bo kept these words firmly in mind, and secretly searched for a good doctor to study medicine and fulfill his filial responsibility. In 661 or 660 AD Wang Bo was about eleven or twelve years old. He met an outstanding physician, Dr. Cao, from Chang An, the national capital at the time. Dr. Cao's full name was Cao Yuan Daozhen. Like the famous doctor Bian Que, Dr. Cao could tell from afar a person's health just by looking at the complexion, and had the ability to see the patient's internal organs. He also performed open heart surgeries like another famous doctor Hua Tuo. After Dr. Cao took Wang Bo as an apprentice, he told Wang Tao about his family's history of practicing medicine. It turned out that he had learned medicine from the Classics of Eight One Types of Diseases of the Yellow Emperor, a secret book of medical records, passed from Bo Qi to the Yellow Emperor, who then passed it down to his successors. The book had been passed down for 53 generations when it was handed to Dr. Cao. The 36th heir, Bian Que, was the first to understand the meanings of the content of the book. Hua Tuo, another famous physician, was the 46th heir of the book. Though Dr. Cao was an extraordinary medical doctor, he was very guarded and discreet. He kept his life very private, so very few people knew him. When he first met Wang Bo, he lightly patted Wang Bo on the shoulder and said, "I have no desire to take a disciple." When Wang Bo bowed to Dr. Cao and sincerely begged to be his apprentice again and again, Dr. Cao finally agreed to take him in as a student. However, Wang Bo kept his medical education a secret from even his family. It took Dr. Cao fifteen months to teach Wang Bo Selected Chapters from the Book of Changes, Yellow Emperor's Questions and Answers, The Classics of Complicated Diseases, and other famous medical texts such as San Cai Liu Jia and Ming Tang Yu Kui. When Wang Bo's medical training was completed, Dr. Cao left and his last words to Wang Bo were, "The principles of Yin and Yang must not be mentioned casually to others. The art of acupuncture must not be casually passed to others. You must not be carried away by success and you must not show off. You should silently improve yourself." Wang Bo abided by with his teacher's instructions and quietly studied for another five years on his own. Eventually Wang Bo developed the wish to cultivate and to attain eternal life (enlightenment). He eventually felt that he was cleansed from all the filth within, and he was purified.

Six years later, Wang Bo acquired the extraordinary ability to see the internal organs of a human body. Perhaps due to the vision granted by his super ordinary ability, Wang Bo began to feel that "the human world was filthy", and everyday people were filthy. As a result, he detested the human realm and wished to distance himself from the human world. He admitted openly that he had grown weary of human society, and sought to cultivate in a secluded environment. His desire of doing so was intensified by the mystical cultivation stories told by some of his fellow cultivators who would often visit him. Sometimes he even traveled with deities in his dreams. He wanted to leave the human world behind, and join gods and deities in the mist and clouds. Wang Bo heard that the Taoists believed that eating "marrow of stone" would help them fly, so he was very tempted to follow that practice.

Wang Bo also realized that there was a contradiction between his life and his ideology. At the age of 20, Wang Bo wrote "Preface to Touring the Temple at the Mountain", which mentioned that he frequently studied the Deities' Scriptures and Taoist books methodically and in detail. Yet, to take care of his parents and family, he had to earn a living. He was fully aware that if he worked as a government official, he would be earning fame and wealth, but risk ruining his true nature and his inborn enlightenment quality. All things considered, Wang Bo was a cultivator with a strong faith in the Tao, and had faith that he would eventually meet the requirements of deities. He resolved to be pure and tranquil, and to uphold the Tao. He was determined to ignore gain and loss in the human world, and to follow the Tao until he was certain that he had returned to his original self and was completely within the Tao. It was the Tao that was truly precious and it has always been the Tao that he was searching for. He deeply felt that the Tao was so deep that it was beyond measurement.

In his early twenties, Wang Bo already stood out for his literary talents. It was a perfect time for him to seek honors and accomplishments. However, he had seen beyond wealth and fame. He valued cultivation in the Tao and dismissed pursuit of wealth and fame. Certainly, it would be more natural and less challenging for an elderly person, who had gone through the ups and downs of life, to embrace the Tao. But for a young scholar at the prime of his life who was assured wealth and fame to forgo such gain and accept the loss of benefits from the everyday people's world and maintain a steadfast belief in the Tao was truly precious and inspiring.

Wang Bo said, "I first studied the Rites of the Zhou as a child. Although I also enjoyed reading books from the Confucian School, I found at times that the Tao School thoughts were closer to my nature." His acclamation of Confucius in "The Epigraph of the Confucius Temple in Yi County" is indeed food for thought, "The teaching of the sages could transform one into a god or an evil being. One will gain all sorts of mystic power in cultivation." In this epigraph he also quoted from The Book of Changes, "The sage (Confucius) taught the principles of gods of the Tao school, and all men should submit to them." (Note: Wang Bo tried to elevate Confucius to a Taoist master, but later generations, especially those after the Song Dynasty, tried to drag the teaching of Confucius down to a very low level, which became today's Confucianism, while thinking that they were doing a great service to Confucius).

The first thing that Dr. Cao taught Wang Bo was Selected Chapters from the Book of Changes. As a result, Wang Bo mastered the art of the Changes, which included such skills as divination and calculating calendar of ten thousand years, which were very difficult for everyday people to comprehend. He even calculated a calendar of a thousand years, titled The Calendar of the Tang Dynasty of One Thousand Years for the Tang people to use for one thousand years. However, none of these skills allowed him to make faster progress in understanding the Tao, or advance faster in his cultivation.

Wang Bo developed a deeper understanding of the Tao only when he thought of applying principles in the Book of Changes just the opposite way than practiced by everyday people. The story of this major breakthrough was as amazing as his encounter with Dr. Cao. One night, when he deeply studied the art of Changes, Wang Bo dreamt that Confucius told him, "Yi (Changes) has Tai Chi. That is your hint." When he awoke, he contemplated upon those words over and over until he finally arrived at a better understanding. After that he wrote many articles with breakthroughs on the art of Changes, such as the five volumes of Deduction of the Art of Changes and Deduction of the Art of Changes, A Sequel. Unfortunately those works are now lost. Yet fortunately, one can still find traces of his understanding in some of his works that still exist today. Wang Bo wrote in the Eight Theories of Divination, "When you don't have any human notions, and when you are not attached to anything, you are not far away from the realm of Tai Chi; Everything in your eyes comes from the Two Polars. When you become oblivious to everything, you have attained the realm of Tai Chi." Everyone who has read the Book of Changes knows that "Tai Chi leads to the Two Polars; the Two Polars leads to the Four States." However, ordinary students of the Book of Changes simply followed "tree branches" laid out in the book and memorized all the "Gua" (or "Signs") in order to apply the theory in the Book of Changes to daily life. In other words, they still focused on using and applying a theory only for their benefit. This is why Lao Zi said, "Simplicity is a cultivation." Cultivators need to restore their original selves, and refrain from "using anything to their benefit." Therefore, one must travel the branch "up" from the 64 "Guas", the Four States, the Two Polars, to Tai Chi. Tai Chi means "Existence", "The One", and "Simplicity". This process happens to echo the "crazy words" of Zhang Sanfeng's Taoism teaching, "Norm is ordinary. Against the norm is divine. The opposite of ordinary people is the Tao." More than 1000 years before Zhang Sanfeng, Wang Bo, a man in his early 20's, had such a deep understanding of the Tao, especially of the art of Changes. This ability would certainly embarrass many Taoists after Wang Bo's time.

At this stage, it should be obvious that Wang Bo was truly a cultivator. He studied medicine, then Taoism, and raised his understanding through The Book of Changes. Guided or having received hints in a dream by people who had transcended the mortal world, Wang Bo saw through the secular world, gave up fame and wealth, and had a steadfast belief in Taoism. Without a doubt, he became a cultivator in the Tao School. Yet Wang Bo surprised everyone again when he then converted to the Buddha School and cultivated unreservedly in the Buddha Fa!

Although we found more evidence of Wang Bo's earlier lives studies and thoughts, very little was recorded about what made him decide to cultivate in the Buddha School. We could only find bits and pieces of it in the Collection of Wang Zian's Works, published at the Year of Geng Chen, during the reign of the Emperor Chong Zhen in the Ming Dynasty. We are unable to determine the exact time when Wang Bo decided to cultivate in the Buddha Fa. According to the Collection of Wang Zian's Works, we know that Wang Bo was not yet a student in the Buddha school at the age of 20. It is therefore logical that Wang Bo started cultivation in Buddha Fa between the age of 20 and 27. All the ten pieces of epigraphs he wrote were written for the Buddha temples, except the famous "The Epigraph of the Confucius Temple in Yi County." The last two articles in the Collection of Wang Zian's Works are the "Story of Sakyamuni's Cultivation" and "Poem for Buddha Sakyamuni." The "Story of Sakyamuni's Cultivation" was a long poem, which described Sakyamuni's determination to cultivate and his path to enlightenment. Due to the frequent use of the Buddha School terminology in the poem, it was very difficult for everyday people to understand the poem. The famous monk Hui Wu in Qiantang City wrote detailed notes for the book. The epigraph, including the notes, was twenty-six pages long. "Poem for Buddha Sakyamuni" was a short one that praised Buddha Sakyamuni. The last two sentences in this poem are: "I wish to attain to the level of Bodhisattva, and reach consummation at death." These phrases described Wang Bo's determination to cultivate in the Buddha Fa. In the notes for the "Story of Sakyamuni's Cultivation", the monk Hui Wu also mentioned two additional essays of Wang Bo regarding the Buddha Fa. They were titled "the Description of Sakyamuni's Statue" and "the Epigraph for the Picture of Li Bai," and were also very famous and popular at the time. It's a pity that all of them are now lost. In addition, Wang Bo wrote a preface for The Biography of Xi Fen Lu Zon, a book that described Eight Righteous Principles of the Buddha School. The book had one hundred thousand words in total.

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