The Chinese philosophy Taoism emphasizes the harmony of the universe and following the Tao, or the "Way." The Tao can be understood as the pervasive spirit of the universe that we must align with in order to live a good life. Also prevalent in Taoism are Immortals (hsiens) who have transcended physical limitations, attaining superhuman powers and the ability to travel to other worlds. The idea of immortality, however, has changed over time. In particular, there is what we can call "worldly immortality" as well as "otherworldly immortality." The change of otherworldly immortality to worldliness is explained in this paper:
From "Life and Immortality in The Mind of Han China" by Ying-shih Yu (1965):
"The whole development of immortality both as an idea and as a cult from its beginning in the late Warring-States period down through Han times may be best characterized by one word: worldliness...The process of the worldly transformation of immortality is particularly well illustrated by the changing views on the life of hsien immortals. In pre-Ch'in literature the hsien is portrayed only as a secluded individual wandering in the sky, in no way related to the human world. But in Han literature we begin to find that the hsien may sometimes also enjoy a settled life by bringing with him to paradise not only his family but also all his chattels of his human life."
First of all, for a sense of context, the Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China that lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD, though much of what is spoken of here is applicable to other periods of Chinese history.
To understand immortality, we must first look at longevity. Longevity is one of the most ancient desires sought after by the Chinese people. They have studied longevity and have striven to create drugs and other practices to prolong life, such as certain exercises (e.g., what is known as fetal breathing), abstaining from certain foods, meditation, and, strangely, by metamorphosing into a bird. This, however, is not the same as the later concept of a Taoist Immortal. Longevity is about extending your life to enjoy earthly things, even if it involves helping others or learning more; it is not about leaving the world to go to a higher place.
Such is the concept of "worldly immortality," extending our mortal life and what we have in it. It may involve living for long periods of time, hundreds of years, perhaps, though not indefinitely, so it's technically not immortality, though it was still called immortality in some periods. Magicians and philosophers such as the fangshi (see my previous post on the fangshi) were highly sought after by Emperors and princes who wanted to prolong their life, offering them such things as "drugs of no death" and promises of becoming immortal if they followed the guidance of the fangshi.
In contrast, "otherworldly immortality" involved becoming a true Immortal. Taoists believed that the Tao, or Heaven, produces life, and that the Earth nurtures it. The Earth is often associated with Te, or virtue, which is the way people must act in order to live in accordance with the Tao. Te is our inherent nature, which is tied to morality. When we truly live in accordance with our inner nature, we can become immortal, because the Tao is eternal, and aligning to the Tao can lead to personal immortality. Those who sought otherworldly immortality wanted to eventually leave Earth and live as a hsien immortal in higher worlds. These sages studied the esoteric arts, the hexagrams of the I Ching, and most often became recluses living away from human society in mountains or caves as they meditated and reflected upon the world. They could develop super-human powers, such as the enlightened monks who practice kung-fu, as commonly seen in movies where they have super-powers including the ability to fly.
The most well-known Immortals are the Eight Immortals, seen in the picture below:
The idea of true immortality came into existence much later in China than longevity, around the fourth century BC. Some people believe this idea was imported from other cultures (India? Egypt? I'm not entirely sure), though others hold the belief that it arose from extending the prevalent ideas of longevity. Attaining immortality and longevity often involved similar practices, such as meditation, martial arts, and the exercises previously spoken of. Yet otherworldly immortality focused on leaving the world rather than extending one's life within it. There is, however, a large overlap between the two notions.
During the Han period, the concept of worldly and otherworldy immortality blended together, largely due to the popularization of immortality by the fangshi, with promises that people could live forever by taking elixirs or engaging in peculiar activities. Thus, the otherworldly immortal became more "worldly," as we saw in the quote. Much of the spiritual nature of true immortality was lost by those engaging in elaborate means to become immortals while still retaining all their power and wealth on Earth. There was little interest in the otherworldly life of the true immortal. For example, the emperor Ch'in Shih Huang thought that there was a land of immortals past the Eastern sea, which he sent envoys to search for. This is different from the traditional idea of hsien immortality, which was not about finding a place of immortality on Earth, but ascending beyond it. In addition, Emperor Ch'end-ti had 683 sacrificial halls built with the hopes of meeting gods and hsien there. It is also thought that Emperor Han Wu-ti expanded his empire westward in order to find Mount K'un-lun where immortals lived, and he went to conquest the city Ferghana because they supposedly had "Heavenly Horses" which he believed could communicate with the hsien immortals for him. The traditional view of a reclusive, ascetic immortal was thus changed to someone who could still pursue worldly pleasures. So, as the author says, "the demarcation line between otherworldly and worldly immortality had become increasingly blurred." Indeed, even people who lived exceedingly long lives were often called immortals, which only furthered the shift of otherworldly to worldly immortals.
Yet despite this tension between the desire for worldly and more transcendent immortality, the concept of the true hsien immortal has been carried down through history. It is also similar to many other traditions that depict spiritual adepts with superhuman abilities, including the ability to live forever, in some cases, remaining in this world, or, in the ideal case, venturing beyond to a higher place.
Most ancient religions and philosophies have a secret "esoteric" doctrine revealed to a select number of initiates, as well as an "exoteric" doctrine that is revealed to the common people. When it comes to Buddhism, the esoteric and exoteric principles are very similar, though there are some details of esoteric Buddhism that you won't see in most Buddhist texts, for example, what is known as the Septenary Constitution of Man, or the seven principles that constitute a human being. I read about this in the book Esoteric Buddhism by the Theosophist A. P. Sinnett. One particularly interesting quote is:
From A. P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism (1883):
"All things, not man alone, but every animal, plant, and mineral have their seven principles, and the highest principles of all--the seventh itself--vitalizes that continuous thread of life which runs all though evolution, uniting into a definite succession, the almost innumerable incarnations of that one life which constitute a complete series."
So first of all, what are the seven principles? Although they can be listed out as distinct principles, they are all intertwined, so bear in mind that listing them out fails to capture the connections between them. I'll call them by their English names and give the Hindu words in brackets:
1) The Body (Rupa)
2) Vitality (Prana or Jiva)
3) Astral Body (Linga Sharira)
4) Animal Soul (Kama Rupa)
5) Human Soul (Manas)
6) Spiritual Soul (Buddhi)
7) Spirit (Atma)
The first principle is simple: it's just the body, containing our organs, the molecules out of which they're formed, all the way down to the basic constituents of matter (mostly protons, neutrons, and electrons). On this level, everything is material: it is the matter that forms a human, the same matter that forms all physical objects such as plants, human or animal bodies, ice-cream, mountains, the air.
The second principle, vitality, is the start of life. It is organic matter. Like the body, it is still physical: it is the energy or force of a human. If we think of matter (m) and energy (E) as interchangeable (thank you, Einstein: E = mc^2), then the principle that vitalizes the body isn't distinct from the body, and is material as well. When the body of the living creature dies, the vitality is no longer united in the body but dissipates among the particles out of which the body was formed. This is because the higher principles that "hold the human being together" leave the body to reincarnate elsewhere, whereas the vitality doesn't undergo reincarnation.
The first, second, and third principles all perish when a human being dies, though the higher principles, which we will look at shortly, are reincarnated in this world or another, continuing our spiritual life.
The fourth principle is the animal soul, also known as the vehicle of will. It isn't developed in living beings like plants, but only in animals (and hence, us). It includes emotions, passions, instincts, and sensations. It is focused on the material world and how we can gain pleasure and avoid pain. It is the instinctual part of our mind, the "id" if we're using Freudian terms. There is no intellectual thinking here, just instinct born of the natural world we live in.
The fifth principle, the human soul, involves thinking and individual consciousness. This is where our reason and memory lie. Those who are more enlightened have a more fully developed fifth principle. Most people are unable to connect with this part of themselves, or if they are, then it is rather as a slave to their fourth principle than as the rightful master over it. Yet just as individual people can be more fully evolved than others during the same time period, so too does the human species as a whole develop by evolution, and so as a whole, our species is still in the process of developing our fifth principle.
The sixth principle, or spiritual soul, is our spiritual consciousness that connects us to everything in the world, as well as forming the source of our morality and compassion. It is our individual soul, our "higher ego". Since our fifth principle is undeveloped, it goes without saying that our sixth principle is as well. The spiritual soul is the vehicle for the seventh principle, so can be seen as a more individualized spirit, because as we go down to lower principles, we become more individualized and more material.
The seventh principle is the spirit itself. It is undifferentiated, and in essence, is the same spirit in everything. It could also be considered to be God, Buddha, or the One, the most abstracted part of us. We cannot describe it, for to describe it as anything but simple and pure would be to assign characteristics to it, and as it has no counterpart in the physical world, we will always fall short in our descriptions.
There is much more that can be said about each of these principles, but this is the general idea.
Now, the quote above touches upon how the principles are linked. The seventh principle, the universal spirit, is what binds the principles within us. What makes all these principles constitute a human being (or whatever other creature your higher principles are incarnated in) is the seventh principle, because the lower principles can be seen as particular instances of the universal spirit. The higher principles are bound together through multiple incarnations, though the three lower ones (body, vitality, astral body) are different for particular lives.
To use a common analogy from many occult traditions, it is like white light being dispersed by a glass prism: although it is in essence pure white light, it can be split into many colours. Likewise, the universal spirit can be "dispersed" into many spiritual souls, which can then be further dispersed into human souls and so on. Although things like plants and minerals don't have their human and spiritual souls developed, these principles are still present, only in a dormant form.
This also provides the answer (at least, part of the answer) to the age-old question of how something immaterial (e.g., the soul) can interact with something material (e.g., the body). It is because they are all made of the same "stuff", but just in different proportions, with matter at one end of the spectrum and spirit on the other. This is what Sinnett referred to as matter existing in other states that we can't perceive by the five senses. And since the same kinds of thing can interact with themselves, as we see in the physical world where matter interacts by the four forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force), the different principles can also interact with one another.