Alchemists, Mediums & Magicians: Stories of Taoist Mystics
translated and edited by Thomas Cleary
reviewed by David Rankine for the Esoteric Book Review
This is an extraordinary book whose contents range from the humorous to the bizarre to the profound, demonstrating the nature of the material within it – the lives of Taoist sages. Thomas Cleary is well known as one of the foremost translators of classical Taoist and Buddhist works, and here he once again demonstrates his scholarship and understanding. His very helpful footnotes elaborate on terminology, and the names of places and individuals mentioned, making the material more easily accessible to the reader.
The book is a translation of a collection of sketches by the fourteenth century Taoist priest, Zhang Tianyu, and portrays more than one hundred characters from a two thousand four hundred year period covering the eleventh century BCE through to the thirteenth century CE.
The poetry and quotes from many of the illuminated Taoists within provide food for the spirit and the mind. If you are inspired or moved by lines like “Stillness and silence are the house to safeguard virtue; purity and calm are the garden where the spirit may roam” (Yang Xiong), or “Roaming in the void, I escape the high winds; Walking in the miraculous, I have no form or place. The experience of completeness lights the dawn haze; Nine phoenixes sing in the morning sun. Spreading their wings, they dwarf the Milky Way” then this is definitely the book for you.
Although it may be viewed superficially as a collection of sketches of lives, ranging from a paragraph to several pages for each of the sages, there is so much more here. The collection is itself an illustration of the magic and mysticism of Taoism in action. From this perspective even the shortest life sketch may be read as a doorway to open the horizons of the mind and allow the spirit to soar. This is a book to dip into with joy, to inspire and even to guide, and the Thomas Cleary is to be congratulated on his excellent work in making it available.