Searching for Daoist Master Guo Gao Yi

An Old Daoist Master living in a cave and cultivating the Dao


Translated by Simon Cox

  Daoist Master Guo Gao Yi practicing sword in the snow

Daoist Master Guo Gao Yi practicing sword in the snow

This snowy picture was taken 20 years ago in Shennnongjia at the Great Dragon Pond.  In the picture, the snow covers a cliff cave hidden along the mountain ridge - a cave once used by a Daoist devotee to live in seclusion.  This Daoist was the first president of the Wudang mountain Daoist association: Guo Gao Yi 郭高一.

The winter that year in the Shennongjia range brought with it a great snowfall.  Someone told me that master Guo had long ago entered seclusion deep in those very mountains in a mysterious cave.  I was deeply surprised to hear this.  Someone of such renown in Wudang mountain martial arts, a possessor of consummate skill, someone who had made great personal contributions to Daoist theory, a master of the highest attainment - why would such a person retire from Wudang?  Why would he leave behind all things worldly to stay in a cave poised on a dangerous precipice and live a hermit’s life?  Bearing my doubts and puzzlement with me, I was determined to search out this mysterious Daoist master.   

A secluded cave from the sacred mountains of the immortal realm

Master Guo’s secluded mountain cave was situated north of the Great Dragon Pond in Shennongjia - along the spiraling eastern trail at an elevation of 2450 meters.  Climbing up the mountain with a friend as guide, walking past the bamboo grove of the mountain forest, past the snow-draped cypress trees, with mountain mist hovering over every ridge, I was soon overwhelmed with a feeling of having transcended this mortal life and mundane world.  Strolling through deep valleys and circling along mountain cliffs, suddenly a wide panorama opens before one's eyes - under a huge cliff stands a single mountain cave.  Quickly arriving at the mouth of the cave I saw him, white beard and broad chest, a Daoist master of unusual temperament, perched on the cliff’s edge, gazing into the distance.  Master Guo turned to look at me and was suddenly overcome with happiness.  Afterall we had already met once at Shennongjia Liao Wang pagoda.

The cave was spacious and peaceful, at least 30 square meters.  In the middle of the entrance was a sacred image of the God Shennong Di Jun 神農帝君.  Also on the altar was a spirit tablet honoring Jiazi Taisui Jinbian Da Jiangjun 甲子太歲金辨大將軍.  On the left side of the entrance was the mouth of the inner cave with brick frame and wooden door built in it.  On either side of the door there was a rhyming couplet written by master Guo, “Suddenly turning around in the vast boundless ocean and climbing to the other shore; urgently leaving behind emptiness and beholding the clear sky.”  Suspended next to the cave door was a Wudang green dragon treasure sword.  In the cave an incense burner let out pure sandalwood smoke to mix with the clouds and mist of the mountain forest.  How very much this place causes one to feel like it exists for no other purpose than the cultivation of gods and immortals...absolutely not the dwelling of an ordinary person, with imposing cypress trees jutting up from the cliffside, clouds and mist pervading the mountain peak.  It really gives one a feeling of having entered the sacred mountains of the immortal realm.    

  The author in a picture with master Guo

The author in a picture with master Guo

At this time master Guo pushed open the crude wooden door of his cliffside mountain, inviting me to enter his dwelling to see the inside of the cave.  It was not large, with only space for two or three people to stand.  The inner part of the cave was serene - hidden and dark.  Water seeped through a crack in the rock, making the entire cave moist.  In a depression in the side of the cave there was a wood-burning stove.  To the side there was a desk about 2 meters long, made out of limestone bricks, piled with everyday items.  Turning to the left there was another small cave in which was carved a small window facing due East.  A bed was pressed up against the wall, with firewood next to it.  Only a faint light shone into the depths of the cave.  It was a perfect place for hiding away and cultivating immortality.  It was here that master Guo faced the wall and cultivated, stilling the mind and realizing the Dao in this place of secret hidden spirits.    

Master Guo’s cave was permeated with the spirit of Wudang

Going outside, master Guo grabbed some things from the cave entrance for me to see.  First were several ancient coins from various times.  Then he showed me some green and blue china bowls.  He pointed ahead at a part of the cave wall that had been blackened by smoke and said, “These marks are all from the beginning of the Qing dynasty, it’s how I found this place.”   I responded, “They’re treasures!”  In this moment master Guo looked very tranquil.  He took me to the cave entrance and pointed toward a small path leading from the cave.  “These steps are man-made.  Because the mouth of the cave faces the sun and the cave has a natural water supply, there have been other people who have lived here before.  In honor of these features, I have named it Xiangyang Dong 向陽洞 (Sun-facing cave).”  I replied, “Before this was a nature reserve, I came here to photograph the golden snub-nosed monkeys who live in the area.  Under this very mountain peak there are ancient ruins - houses, relics, and tombs, now covered over by shrubs.  I remember the dates on the tombstones placed them all in the Qing dynasty.”  Master Guo said, “The great people of Shennongjia are sparsely located.  In ancient times the common folk would retreat to the mountains during wartime to avoid chaos and conflict.  There were also outlaws who would come here to avoid the soldiers and police, seeking a life deep in the mountains and forests...”     

At this point in the conversation I felt master Guo had a favorable impression of me - that he trusted me.  But it seemed like the cave still bore some secret and hidden hardship from his innermost heart, and that my intimate friend still had more to say.  So I asked, “Would it be alright to take some pictures of you?”  Master Guo thought for a second about our situation, then looked up in an amused spirit and laughed.  In master Guo’s smile I glimpsed of the delight of an ordinary person, simultaneously feeling the gaze of a wiseman.    

  Master Guo demonstrating a graceful Wudang posture

Master Guo demonstrating a graceful Wudang posture

In accordance with my requests, master Guo changed into his Daoist clothes.  Grasping a Wudang straight sword in his hand, he began to practice his Gongfu in the mouth of the cave, doing vivid movements, spirited postures.  His skill was truly extraordinary!  Master Guo told me, “Wudang martial arts stress the movement of Qi and blood through the meridians.  In training, one must reach a state of total relaxation.  This is a cultivation process that takes a long time.”  Taking this rare opportunity, I asked master Guo’s advice on several moves.  In high spirits, master Guo departed the cave, facing toward the mountains of Shennongjia.  With his back toward the high mountain he demonstrated the Wudang Taijiquan form.  Here in this singular location, beautiful and secluded, away from the world, amidst master Guo’s interchanging stillness and motion, I took many photos of his martial arts movements, recording them on the film in the camera, at the same time eternally fixing the images in my memory.  After taking some pictures, the atmosphere between us grew even more harmonious, and the topics of our conversation opened to become even more far-reaching.  

Recollecting old times in deep realization.  Cultivating reality and realizing Dao requires one “return to the Real” (i.e. to die).

Soon thereafter master Guo brought out some photo albums.  I stood by his side and looked on.  Pointing toward a photo, I said, “At Wudang mountain your martial skill was brought to perfection.  Many public figures and disciples came under your influence.  Truly admirable.”  After I blurted this out, the Daoist master’s face grew solemn.  Appearing to sense my next question, he said, “Originally Wudangshan was peaceful and quiet.  In a very short time it has become a tourist destination.  It has lost the tranquility it once had.  As Daoists we have to cultivate the real and realize the Dao.  Cultivating the real does not involve cultivating other things...When you’ve left everything behind in order to clean your mind and realize Dao, it is very natural to walk the sort of path I’m going down.”  I asked, “Giving everything up, becoming isolated from the world; is this the way to clean the mind and realize the Dao?”  He replied, “Surrendering everything is the most beneficial thing one can do in the midst of this worldly life.  One can only come to know the mind of the Dao by making it the most important thing in his or her life.  But there is still the greatest difficulty that one dwelling the mountains must face: returning to the real (death).  In returning to the real, the ultimate destination of the mind, where is it that the mind goes?”  

Normal people who conduct their everyday lives in the city may wonder how one can have the strength to leave the world of man for the sacred mountains, to dwell deep in a mountain forest or live in a dangerous cliff-side cave as a hermit.  How could one bear the immense loneliness and quietude?  The sort of mundane person who thinks like this, infatuated with notions of “riding on the white clouds, arriving at the land of the celestial emperor,” naturally has no way of comprehending the life of the Daoist recluse.  To my mind, a successful hermit must actually already be quite nearly a Daoist immortal.  In Daoism, the basic goal of cultivating in seclusion is the realization of the heavenly impulse (悟天机), far from the world of dust.  After abandoning distracting thoughts, one's numinous spirit can separate from the material body and rise up.  Being able to understand even this small amount, one is already very fortunate.

By this time twilight was gradually coming on.  Master Guo invited me to stay and spend the night in the cave.  Following this he went in and arranged a bed on top of the stone table.  Eating dinner together, we conversed for what seemed like ages.  I don’t even remember when we fell asleep.  Master Guo sat down in meditation and slept right there.  One thing I remember from that evening was master Guo saying that it doesn’t matter what you are doing now - when you are finished with it, you must let your heart/mind rest, even if it is just 3 or 5 minutes.  If you sit in stillness for 15 minutes, you can cast everything away!  In this way you can slowly work to restore your original pure and clean heart.  And this is something that cannot be bought by gold or money.  Did I understand what master Guo was saying?  When I look back now, I’m not sure.  All I knew that day was that at Shennongjia’s Great Dragon Pool, on the winding trail to this cliff-side cave, I intended to spend a day as “hermit deep in the mountains.” This I remember with clarity.         

All things living and non-living are possessed of spirits

When the morning arrived, I saw master Guo sitting in front of the cave altar with crossed legs in meditation.  Rising, he lit some incense, bowed, and kowtowed.  He then busied himself for a few minutes cleaning up the cave entrance area.  Following this he invited me to follow him out of the cave.  Pushing aside a large rock he revealed to me a small cave that had been sealed for some time.  I put my head in to look around, finding it pitch black inside.  My flashlight did little to help.  Even throwing a rock into the cave did nothing to illuminate how deep it went.  I turned back toward master Guo and excitedly said, “This really seems like a karst cave.  If this area is ever opened for tourism, it will surely attract a lot of people.”    

Master Guo shook his head and said, “Everything in the world - whether living or nonliving - is possessed of a numinous spirit.  If this is truly a karst cave, would opening it up to tourism not drown out every last bit of the numinous Qi of heaven earth?”  Saying this, he moved to seal the mouth of the cave.  He then covered it over with a thick layer of weeds.  Seeing this really helped me understand.  This cliff-side cave was truly master Guo’s ideal place to perform secluded cultivation of the Dao.  But at this time Shennongjia was gradually opening up to become a tourist destination.  I didn’t know how the ancient world of a hermit might interact with the development of contemporary society.  Is it possible for this sort of Daoist culture to enter into the modern world?

  Master Guo gazing into the distance

Master Guo gazing into the distance

At this time master Guo moved to stand on the cliff edge outside the cave.  Grasping his binoculars, he gazed outward.  Looking into the distance, one could clearly distinguish the cedar forest on Shennong Peak, as well as the winding road under the Golden Monkey Mountain ridge.  Above the valley a lone goshawk circled in the sky.  At this point master Guo said to me, “Quick, look!”  Right in front of us, in the mountain forest, stood two wild mountain sheep.  I took the binoculars and looked out, seeing the two animals in the snowy forest - one ahead, one behind.  Their bodies were relatively large, and they stood very still while I carefully observed them.  This place, at this time, was a world of pure white.  No dust, no impurity, no noise or clamour.  Attaining this sort of purity in my life, just for this brief moment, I forgot about all my worldly troubles.  In Daoism there is a saying, “Jumping out of the three worlds, no longer subject to the five elements.”  One who attains such a state is considered an immortal.  In this place of seclusion and cultivation, I had the feeling of being in the realm of the immortals in the very midst of human life.  

When it was time for me to descend the mountain, master Guo gave me a traditionally bound copy of the Tai Shang Ganying Pian 太上感應篇, along with two signed pictures.  I was very moved, and in my heart of hearts was reluctant to leave.  

Although my above account records my experience of this mystical cave for posterity, it’s reality remains hidden in the depths of my memory, as it has been for over twenty years.