The Taoist and the General

Since the substance of mortality is trial and vitality appears to burn itself out in effort, some have speculated that immortality may be defined by the inverse principle, namely peace. This is the rationale of the Tao: submission to the current of nature and complete retraction of will. More than any other system of religious philosophy, I view Taoism as the most inimical to earthly existence. Struggle is so central to being that it would be impossible to conceive a life in which it would be even momentarily absent. Taoism is a refutation of everything that we would typically associate with living and offers instead a means of transcending common existence.

Taoism is vanishing in modernity, but for much of the last millennium it was one of the most widely practiced religions in the world. Taoist priests were believed to possess mystical knowledge of mortality and the natural world. Learning in 1219 AD that Taoists had mastered the secret of immortality, Genghis Khan summoned to his court in Mongolia Qiu Chuji, a disciple of Wang Chongyang and one of the most important holy men in Northern China. The invitation must have seemed astonishing to Qiu Chuji. The Mongols had their own religion, based on the worship of the sky and the earth, and Taoism would have been just one of a multitude of foreign creeds practiced by a conquered people whom the Mongols considered their vassals. The allure of immortality was too great for the Mongol emperor who knew that no matter how many battles he won and territories he ruled, death would one day prevail and wrest his kingdom away from him.

Qiu Chuji arrived in Mongolia on February of 1221 only to find that Genghis Kahn had embarked on a campaign to conquer central Asia the summer before. Rather than returning home he followed the Mongol hordes over the Altai mountains and through the Tein Shan. He visited the famous city of Samarkand and crossed the most treacherous and inhospitable deserts and mountain ranges in the world. Qiu Chuji finally reach the army’s bivouac in the Hindu Kush several years and over three thousand miles later.

In audience with Genghis Kahn Qiu Chuji explained Taoism and shared several secrets for prolonging one’s life. Though he did not offer the treasure of eternal youth, Genghis Khan was impressed with the priest. He gave him the title “Spirit Immortal” and put him in charge of overseeing all of the religions in the empire. Taoism was given special status in China and the safety of all Taoist temples was guaranteed by the emperor himself.

It is fascinating that a man willful and assertive enough to nearly conquer the entire world should find so much to favor about Taoist passivity and surrender. Perhaps he saw in supreme capitulation the same sort of abandon to which one is given over in the act of excessive and overwhelming aggression. Perhaps Genghis Khan found in the serene and acquiescent Qiu Chuji the first person he had met since he was a teenager who did not outwardly fear him. Then again, maybe he shrewdly recognized that promoting Taoism among his new Chinese subjects would make them docile and disinclined to revolt.

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