Zhang Ling was a Taoist master during Emperor Han’an’s reign. Legend has it that the red-faced, green-eyed master had vast supernatural powers, including being able to drive out demons. In the first year of Emperor Han’an’s power (A.D. 142), Laozi descended from heaven and imparted Taoist scriptures to Zhang and gave him the title of Celestial Master Zhang. Zhang went on to found the branch of Taoism known as Tian Shi Dao.
Celestial Master Zhang successfully cultivated in the Taoist order and developed the power of curing illnesses. Many people were drawn to his grace and kindness and became his students. Celestial Master Zhang had tens of thousands of disciples in Shu (modern-day Sichuan). He established institutions in each district to serve his students and to take care of local affairs.
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He coordinated many community projects, including building roads and bridges, trimming trees and weeding in common areas, practicing cultivation, doing good deeds when the opportunity arose, and encouraging a culture of consideration and kindness to others. Celestial Master Zhang had a way of inspiring a sense of honor in people, preferring to appeal to their better nature rather than forcing them to participate. By encouraging people to act from within, he hoped that they would change their behavior and their true nature of kindness would emerge.
At the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, a great and unrelenting plague came across the land and thousands of people died. Celestial Master Zhang’s reputation as a great healer brought people to his door, desperate for his help.
He asked the sick people to remember what mistakes they had made in life. He told them to write a list of these deeds and to throw the list into the river, all the while swearing to the gods that they would never do those things again. If they repeated any of their evil acts, they would die. With this method, the sick people sincerely repented their mistakes and their illnesses were cured. The epidemic ended soon after.
After the plague, people had true respect for the gods. They paid attention to their moral character and cultivated virtue. If someone made a mistake, they would silently reflect on the error, ask the gods for forgiveness, and sincerely repent. Society became harmonious as a result, with people being very kind and considerate toward one another.
Celestial Master Zhang cured the plague
How could Celestial Master Zhang’s ordinary method cure disease and a plague? In ancient times, people believed that a plague was caused by an evil atmosphere. He Xiu, a well-known economist during the Eastern Han Dynasty, said: “The plague has been caused by evil air.” When the leaders made mistakes in governance or declined in their moral standards, the atmosphere deteriorated and epidemics would occur.
Whenever there was an epidemic in ancient times, the emperor and government officials would meet to discuss aspects of their administration: Had they been disrespectful to the gods? Had they surrounded themselves with evil and repelled decent people? Were the people suffering undue hardship?
An ancient saying states: “There are deities three feet above your head, watching you at all times.” When people are truly sorry for their mistakes, the deities and the universe will see it. With kind thoughts and true repentance, the gods will transform the evil atmosphere for you. The manifestation of true kindness and cultivation of virtue will disperse plagues and heal diseases.
Upon reaching 123 years of age, Celestial Master Zhang finally ascended to Heaven and became an immortal on Mount Yuntai. Before his ascension, he passed Taoism onto his son, Zhang Heng, who passed it down to his son, Zhang Lu.
Zhang Lu dedicated himself to passing on his grandfather’s teachings, encouraging people to be honest, reflect on their mistakes, and ask the gods for forgiveness. He taught that if someone broke the same rule three times, they would be punished, but they would be forgiven as long as they truly repented their mistakes.
Celestial Master Zhang’s Way of Tian Shi Dao created a happy and harmonious society during a time of political turbulence and the ravaging plague, a true miracle that helped many people and saved many lives.