The Great High Old Gentleman approaches the Han Pass. He is carried in an cart driven by a blue ox and accompanied by his disciple Xu Jia and one other. Meeting him with offerings is the guardian of the pass, Yin Xi.
The Great High Old Gentleman, surrounded by a heavenly host, receives supplication.
I originally met the Daoist master Liu Zhenzi while in police custody. This was during my first trip to Yu County. I’d tried to stay in a hotel in Warm-Springs township, only to have a police corporal show up and tell me politely that I couldn’t, these hotels were not permitted to accept foreigners, I would have to return to the county seat. “I don’t want to,”I told him. “This is the law,” he said. “I’ll pitch a tent on the street,” I countered, bluffing. A lot of phone calls went back and forth between him and the police headquarters. “You can stay one night.” Two nights later a man came knocking at my door as I was about to sleep. He was a swarthy fellow with bulging cheeks and long front teeth that gave him a canny, beaverish look. “I want to take you for a ride,” he said. I told him, “fuck off,” and slammed the door. The next morning I awoke to him knocking. “I want to take you for a ride,” he repeated. I stormed out and went to the owner of the hotel, a friendly lady with a perm. “Who is this asshole?” I asked her. “Oh that’s Mr. Feng,” she told me. “He’s the chief of police for our town.”
Mr. Feng drove me up to the Daoist monastery that sits in the upper part of Warm-Springs Township, on a spur of land beneath the mud walls of the Northern Officials Fort. From the ceiling of the Daoist master’s living quarters hung long paper streamers like wintry jellyfish. The Daoist makes them for officiating at funerals, where he burns them on the grave. If you examine the streamers closely you will find that each long paper strand had been delicately cut with the repeated figure of a dead man, his mouth slightly opened in an expression of surprise and his sharp white fingers clasped across his breast. On the wall are hung calligraphic scrolls of nonsense characters.
The Daoist’s name is Liu Zhenzi 劉真子, “Liu the True Master”. He is a little man with bad teeth and a scraggly beard who obviously takes his job seriously, and dresses the part. He read my fortune by pulling bamboo slips from a jar (抽籤) and then led me and Mr. Feng up into the courtyard of the temple. The temple is called the Monastery of the Old Gentleman (老君觀). In the front there’s pavilions for bells and drums, beyond this a Hall of the Three Purities (三清殿) and behind that another Hall of the True Warrior (真武殿). In the courtyard between the two halls there stands a tree hung with red votive scraps of cloth, and a little plaque affirming that the tree is over 800 years old. Inside on the walls of the Hall of the Three Purities there are murals depicting a story called the Old Gentleman’s Eight-One Transformations (老君八十一化). Liu Zhenzi led me in and gestured at the drawings: here the Old Master arose from the primordial chaos and split into two, and then into three, and then cut open the world and separated sky and earth and sea, taught men the hundred trades and then departed through the Han pass to the west to convert the barbarians… After this Mr. Feng and I went out again and drove off to get drunk with some of his coal mining friends, and eat horse hoofs and camel ears.
A few weeks ago out of curiosity I printed out a block-print text of the Eighty One Transformations story, which was appended at the back of a monograph by Florian C. Reiter called “Leben und Wirken Lao-Tzu’s in Schrift und Bild: Lao-chûn pa-shih-i hua t’u-shuo”. This I had shameless scanned. The exact date of this text seems hard to know; this little summary on the website of the Australian National University where the text is held suggests that it dates from the Yuan or early Ming. This seems dubious to me; Hu Chuntao (胡春濤) on much better evidence puts the date of the text’s printing somewhere between the Kangxi and Qianlong reigns of the Qing (1661-1799). (It should be noted here that the following discussion is going to depend heavily on two very good things by Hu, his PhD thesis from the Xi’an Arts Academy 西安美術學院 “Researches on the Illustrated Old Gentleman’s Eighty-One Transformations” “老君八十一化圖研究” and an article “A Survey of the Frescoes in the Hall of the Three Purities in the Old Gentleman Monastery, Warm-Springs Township, Yu County, Hebei, and Researches into Related Questions” “河北蔚縣暖泉鎮老君觀三清殿壁畫的考察與相關問題的研究”. The electronic text of the scripture below was got from the comparative lists in his thesis, which was immensely helpful.)
Anyways I printed this book out and brought it over to Liu Zhenzi at the Old Gentleman Monastery. He was delighted, leaped up out of his study, and we zoomed right into the Hall of the Three Purities where he began to go through the whole story again, comparing the book against the images on the wall. I will regret to my dying day that I didn’t think to film this, but I did scratch down some notes at the time and then filled them out from memory that afternoon, so I’ve tried to reproduce below his literally off-the-wall commentary as best I can. I’ve translated the first thirty-four scenes of the story, which can be divided into roughly three sections:
(1) The Cosmogenesis, in which Laozi percolates out of the primordial chaos, splits apart heaven and earth, invents writing, agriculture, fire, and morality, and teaches them to humans.
(2) Passing out of China and into the west, in which Laozi arrives at the Han Pass, casts off his previous disciple Xu Jia as unworthy, obtains a new one in the guardian of the pass, Yin Xi, and teaches the Dao De Jing.
(4) Converting the Barbarian Kings, in which Laozi practices a series of miracles to impress the king of a Central Asian country called Kophen, and eventually founds Buddhism.
The remaining forty seven transformations after this mostly recount various stories of Daoist miracle working, and are not as interesting. Liu Zhenzi’s commentary is in italics, while my occasional notes are in brackets. There’s going to be a second part of this coming that compares the style of this book to the frescoes in Liu Zhenzi’s monastery, and discusses some related pictorial traditions around Yu County. I’ve translated 道 Dao as “Way”, 氣 Qi as “Energy”, and Jing 精 as “Essence”.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE OLD GENTLEMAN’S EIGHTY-ONE TRANSFORMATIONS
Arising from the Beginningless: The Great High Old Gentleman arises from the beginningless and is born from the causeless. Of all the Ways he is the first, and he is the ancestor of the original Energy. In the vast, empty, primordial chaos, where there are no lights, forms, sounds, or colors, amidst the fine and delicate he is naturally born.
Revealing the True Body: Amidst the Great Emptiness, the Great High Old Gentleman gathers his Energy, congeals that which is true and strong for his appearance, and displays his immortal face. He changes into a body of flesh, the degree of which is unfathomable, and naturally gains a complete form.
The Honored Lineage: The Great High Old Gentleman desires to open and illuminate the great Teaching and transform all within the ten thousand directions. He says, “The Way cannot be without honored masters! The Teaching cannot be without its lineage heads!” Therefore the master Old Gentleman,the master Great Way, and the heavenly worthy Primordial Beginning came into being.
Liu Zhenzi: “This of course is from the Dao De Jing. ‘One gives birth to Two, Two gives birth to Three, and Three gives birth to all of the myriad things,’ from the forty-second section. This is like how you Americans have a trinity in Catholicism. Both Catholicism and Daoism teach the same Way although obviously Daoism appeared much early than Catholicism. The appearance of the Great High Old Gentleman can be affirmatively dated to roughly eight thousand years ago and this is the original foundation of Chinese history. Usually Chinese history is quoted as being five thousand years old but in fact it is eight, dated from the beginning of the world. How old is America? Washington united America during the war of North and South. China of course is older.”
Giving Calendar to the Motion of the Eras: A kalpa is the name for Heaven and Earth coming into being and then passing away, and the number of years it takes for Yin and Yang to be exhausted and used up. The Breath of Heaven reaches its utmost in the sun, the Great Yang. When Yang reaches its limit it overflows and the essence becomes that of water. The Breath of the Earth reaches its utmost in the moon, the Great Yin. When Yin reaches its limit it becomes bare, and the essence becomes that of fire. Fire burns and water swirls. Beneath the Three Pure Ones and within the Nine Lands, there is nothing whatsoever that does not flow for five kalpas and then, having made a great circle, return once again to the beginning. The Great High Old Gentleman governs the numbers of these partings and rejoinings, and controls and sets in motion a hundred million kalpas.
Liu Zhenzi: “Here you can see we’re getting to the part where ‘Three produces all of the myriad things.’ The separation of heaven and earth is the separation of Yin and Yang, male and female, north and south, etc. etc.”
Separating Heaven and Earth: In Heaven and Earth, those things which have form are large. Form springs from not-form: therefore that which is able to split apart Heaven and Earth is not-form, and not-form is the Way. The Great High Old Gentleman is the ancestor of the primordial chaos and the father and mother of Heaven and Earth. Therefore he is able to separate out the clear and the muddy, and split open the positions of sky and ground, Heaven and Earth.
Liu Zhenzi: “Here you can see the nine suns that once orbited the earth. No they’re not houses, they are suns, nine of them to be exact. When the earth was created there were nine suns not one, and thus there was never any night. The Lord Archer Hou Yi shot them down out of the sky at the beginning of things, and now we have only one sun, which is more scientifically suitable to growing plants and the process of the water cycle.”
The Concealing the Dark Spirit: On the third day of the ninth month of the Geng Yan year, in the Valley of Pears on the Mountain of the Heavenly Dipper Spirit Mirror, in Northern Dark Kingdom of the Tuoyubei Heaven, the Great High Old Gentleman enters into the womb of the Dark Spirit Saintly Mother.
Receiving the Jade Images: In the first year of the Emperor on High, the Great High Old Gentleman goes out travelling on the Western River. Here he meets the heavenly worthy Primordial Beginning riding on an Eight-Resplendent Jade Palanquin. The Old Gentleman bows his head down to the ground and says, “Long have I humbly hoped to receive teachings from the Heavenly Book of Jade Characters with Twenty Four Pictures. Today I have met your heavenly worthiness, I hope that I may achieve this wish.” Thereupon the heavenly worthy grants Old Gentleman the jade marks of the dark and profound inner gaze. The Old Gentleman practices the teachings of the Three Bodily Areas and the Eight Resplendencies and is able to see the Heavenly Book of Jade Characters with Twenty Four Pictures.
Transforming the True Literature: In the first year of the Dragon-Hero reign, the Great High Old Gentleman is in country of Yubei. This is located south of the Central Great Prosperity Hall Country, east of the Southern Pole Red Brilliance Country, west of the Eastern Pole Fuli Country, and north of the Evil King Country. The Great High by means of essence of the five-directional true Energy gathers together and creates precious characters. They are as large as a foot on each side and octagonal. The characters are resplendant and move as do tendrils of cloud. They assume the appearance of flying birds and walking beasts.
Handing Down the Scriptures and Teachings: In the first year of the Middle Emperor the Great High Old Gentleman orders the Blue Youth Gentleman to examine the writings of heaven, and to create a Treasured Classic in three hundred scrolls, seven thousand chapters of orders and images, and nine thousand rhyming formulae. And again in the first year of Dragon-Hero reign he writes the Profound Primordial Scripture in twelve sections. In the first year of the Red-Brilliance reign he hands down the Profound Dark Scripture in twelve sections. In the first year of the Opening Emperor’s reign he releases the Profound Spirit Scripture in twelve parts. [All of the scriptures mentioned above appear in the Daoist Canon 道藏, – ht]
Liu Zhenzi: “There is an important question which we ask ourselves in Chinese culture. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In Daoism we know that the egg came first. The egg congealed out of the primordial breath and was nurtured by the light of the sun and stirring of warm vapors. Out of it hatched a snake with the head of a woman. Her name was Nvwa and she is not pictured here, which is incorrect.”
Transmitting the Arts of the Five Lords: After the reign of the Middle Emperor, the Great High Old Gentleman travels upon the Yellow River, trasmitting the practice of the arts of the Five Lords to the Thirteen Sages of Emptiness.
Liu Zhenzi: “The Five Lords refers to the Five Phases or Elements. The number five is extremely important in the world, and allows us to see how all of the myriad things are connected. Humans have five fingers and five toes, as well as five principal sense and five principal orifices. There are five major organs in the body, five principal grains, and there are five directions in the world, being north, south, east, west, and center. Indeed at the beginning of things after Nvwa made humans out of clay the people of the world were divided into these directions, and they later became the various races. Thus we Chinese belong to the Yellow race and the Filipinos are Blue. You Americans belong the White race, the Europeans are black, and the South Africans are red. All things are connected.”
Praising the Primordial Yang: During the time of Fu Xi, the Great High Old Gentleman discourses simply to the people on the separating of pure and muddy. [Note, I’m pretty sure the text is corrupt in some way here. This is a guess. – ht] In the first year he is called the Master of Abundant Splendor, and he speaks the Scripture of the Primordial Yang. Fu Xi practices this. He is able to draw the Eight Trigrams, and create characters for writing. He contemplates the images of the trigrams and uses this as his laws. Thus he is able to regulate the marriages of men and women, and teach the proper relations between humans.
Erecting the Firing of Pottery: During the time of Zhu Rong, the Great High Old Gentleman acts for the people, who are eating raw and cold food. During the first year of the Heavenly Hero reign, he is called the Master of Broad Longevity. He speaks the Massaging-to-Achieve-the-Essence Scripture. Zhu Rong practices this. Thus he is able to rub sticks to create fire, and bake pottery to create utensils.
Liu Zhenzi: “After this one of you Americans developed matches and lighters. Of course that took place much later.”
Teaching Sowing and Reaping: During the time of the Spirit-Farmer, the Great High Old Gentleman acts for the people of the world, who are catching and eating birds and beasts. In the first year of the Pure Hero reign he is called the Master of Great Achievements. He lives in North-of-the-Ford, and teaches the Great Second Primordial Essence Scripture. Spirit-Farmer practices this. He propogates the hundred grains to replace killing and boiling, and harmonizes all of the medicinal plants in order to cure plagues and sicknesses.
Beginning the Use of Tools: In the time after Fu Xi, the Great High Old Gentleman shows to the world how to give law and governance to ritual and music, how to create clothes and robes, how to erect palaces and houses, how to build boats and carts, as well as the delineation of inner and outer coffins, the making of bows and arrows, the erection of punishments and prisons, the cultivation of books and letters, the domestication of cows and horses, the use of mortars and pestles, and how to hold markets at noon around the double gates (?).
Liu Zhenzi: “Here you can see rich men, poor men, temples, houses, carts, tools, food, and weapons. You Americans of course are much more adept at making weapons than we Chinese. Have you seen the old guns they used to use before you Americans brought us rifles? You couldn’t hit anything with those guns. Completely useless.”
Residing on Kongtong: During the time of the Yellow Emperor, the Great High Old Gentleman is known as the Master of Broad Accomplishments. He lives on Kongtong Mountain. The Yellow Emperor comes to see him there and ask how to achieve the Way. The Old Gentleman says to him, “The physical quality of the one who is asking me – it is enough even to achieve the Way!” Thus the Yellow Emperor lives in seclusion for three months and then once again travels to entreat the Old Gentleman. He approaches on his knees and asks the correct way to govern the body. The Old Gentleman says, “Good! You have asked how to achieve the essence of the Way; far it is, and dark! You have asked how to achieve the utmost of the Way; obscure it is, and silent! It cannot be seen and it cannot be heard. You must recieve the spirit and become quiet, and practice self rectification.” The Yellow Emperor hears that which the Master of Broad Achievements has to say.
Serving as the Imperial Master: In the age of Shao Hao, the Great Dark Jade Woman is a person who lives in the province of Sichuan on the Mountain of Long Pines, practicing the Way of Long Life. When she hears that the Great High Old Gentleman and a flock of immortals have risen up to a great rock on left side of the mountain and are emitting a glowing spiritual brilliance, she drives her chariot towards them. The Great High Old Gentleman grants her the Eight Hidden Texts.
Granting the Hidden Texts: In the times of Shao Hao, Zhuan Xu, the Emperor Ku, Tang Yao, Shun of Yu, and after the fall of the Xia dynasty the emperor Tang of the Yin, all of these receive Scriptures from the Great High Old Gentleman.
Giving Birth to the Saintly Sun: In the Geng Shen year of the reign of the eighteenth king of the Yin Dynasty, Yang Jia, the True Subtle Jade Girl takes a midday nap. She dreams that she swallows the essence of the sun, [This sounds even dirtier in Chinese than it does in English, -ht] which becomes a flowing pearl of the five colors. Thus she becomes pregnant. This lasts eighty one years, until the reign of the twenty second king, Wu Ding. On the twenty fifth day of the second month of the Geng Chen year, because the saintly mother grips onto the branch of a tree, her left armpit opens and she gives birth. Another version is given in the “Dark Middle Primordial Record”, which tells that Li Spirit-Flight is cultivating the true Way. He does not attend his wife, who is of the Yin family. While taking a midday nap, she dreams that the heavens split open a few feet, and she sees the Great High descending down to her, riding the essence of the sun and driving nine dragons. This becomes a flowing jewel of the five colors, which she swallows and becomes pregnant.
Acting as the Pillar-Official: During the reign of King Wen of Zhou, the Great High Old Gentleman is known as the Master of Changing Settlements. He lives on Branched Mountain. The King of Zhou hears of this, pays him homage and gives him the title of Official of the Treasury. He teaches the Red Essence Scripture. When the house of Zhou conquers the Shang Dynasty, homage is made to the Old Gentleman and he receives the title of Official-Beneath-the-Pillar. He grants the Big Dipper Scripture. In the reign of Lord Becomes-Healthy of the Zhou, the Old Gentleman is once again made the Official-Beneath-the-Pillar.
Casting Off the Titles of Zhou: The Great High Old Gentleman passes through the era of lord Becomes-Healthy of Zhou, after which he retreats from public life and returns to the infinitessimal. In the time of King Zhao he sees a black vapor of inauspicious import. He grants the Hidden Text of the Eight Heavens to King Zhao, but the King is without faith. After this the King suffers the disaster of the glued-together boat.
[To elucidate this point we turn to Baidu Baike, which quotes Huang Fumi’s 帝王世纪 “Records of the Eras of Emperors and Kings”: “昭王德衰,南征,济于汉,船人恶之,以胶船进王,王御船至中流,胶液船解,王及祭公俱没于水中而崩” “King Zhao’s virtue had failed. He set out on an expedition to the south and needed to ford the Han river. The boatmen hated the king, and so presented him with a boat that was held together by glue. The king piloted the boat into the middle of the river’s flow, whereupon the glue liquified and the boat came apart. Thus the king and all of his officials sunk beneath the waters and perished.” – ht]
Crossing Through the Han Pass: The Great High Old Gentleman [wishes to cross] the Flowing Sands. Preceding him through Han Pass comes a vermillion vapor. The guardian of the pass, Yin Xi, sees the vapor. He gives offerings, fasts, and waits. Afterwards on the twelfth day of the sevent month, the Great High Old Gentleman arrives riding on a cart driven by a blue ox. Yin Xi says, “A sage has arrived!” The Old Gentleman replies, “How do you know?” Yin Xi tells him, “Last winter a comet was seen in the heavens, traveling west on high. This fall a warm wind thrice blew from the south-east and a perfect vapor was seen, in the form of a dragon. These were the signs that a perfected being was to arrive.”
Testing Xu Jia: The Great High Old Gentleman says to his disciple Xu Jia, “I wish to journey into the Western Regions, and thus we have come to the Han Pass. As a secret test he orders Xu Jia to graze the ox. Then he takes auspicious herbs and transforms them into a girl. The girl goes to the place where Xu Jia is grazing the ox. Xu Jia desires her, and thus abandons his vows and seeks payment from the Old Gentleman for his years of service. The Great High Old Gentleman says, “Long ago the span of your life was finished, but you lived because into you I put the Mark of the Great Dark Life.” As soon these words have been said, the mark flies out of Xu Jia’s mouth, and immediately his body returns to whitened bones. Yin Xi bows his head down to the ground, and begs that Xu Jia’s crime be forgiven. The Great High Old Gentleman once again puts the mark back within Xu Jia, and his appearance is restored to what it was before.
Teaching Yin Xi: The Great High Old Gentleman goes west but he meets Yin Xi, who invites him to come to the Mountain of the Ends of the South, which was Yin Xi’s former home. Yin Xi weaves grasses together to make a tower, and invites the Old Gentleman to rest there. Yin Xi begs the Great High Old Gentleman to write a book, so the Old Gentleman grants to Yin Xi the five thousand words of the Classic of the Way and its Power. This great alchemy lays out the the necessities of regulation and release.
Ascending to the Great Infinitessimal: In the twenty sixth or Jia Yin year of the reign of King Zhao, or according to the “Veritable Records” the twenty fourth year, the Great High Old Gentleman decides that he is going to ascend to heaven. He tells Yin Xi, “After making a pure offering at noon, search for me leading a blue sheep in the market of Chengdu.” After the Old Gentleman speaks this suddenly he is no longer to be seen. Yin Xi knocks his head against the floor and says, “Please grant that I may glimpse you again!” And then he looks up, and sees the Great High Old Gentleman seated on a resplendent cloud, with the appearance of a golden person, ascending to the Great Infinitesimal amidst a host of all of the immortals.
Meeting the Blue Sheep: The Great High Old Gentleman’s transformed body descends to the land of Sichuan, where he enters into the womb of a woman of the Li family. On the Ding Si year, Yin Xi arrives in Sichuan, and begins to search through the markets. He sees a man there leading a sheep. Yin Xi understands in himself: a blue sheep in the city market is the meeting that the Great High One ordained. Therefore he asks the man leading the sheep where he is going. The man replies, “I’m going home.” Yin Xi follows him. When it is reported that Yin Xi has arrived in this place, he mounts up to the Jade Bureau. There he sees the Great High Old Gentleman transformed into a body of white gold, sitting amidst the Jade Bureau. The Great High One grants Yin Xi the title “Master of the Primordial Writings”.
Traveling Across All of the Heavens: The Great High Old Gentleman and Yin Xi ascend to the court of the Primordial Origin, and travel to the homelands of all of the emperors. They ascend to the Palace of Heaven and meet the Heavenly Emperor. He rides a palanquin of the nine spiritual forces, shaded by a roof of the seven primordials. Here they instigate the holiday of pacifying demons (?). The Heavenly Emperor welcomes the Great High Old Gentleman, and seeks to know from him how to obtain the Way.
Entering Kophen: The Great High Old Gentleman recieves the Great High Old Gentleman’s order [sic] to convert the Western Regions. He enters into Kophen and dwells there in a mountain grotto. One day a barbarian king is out on the hunt when he sees a rainbow passing across the sun. Therefore the King comes upon the Great High Old Gentleman, and asks him who he is. The Old Gentleman answers, “I am a man cultivating the Way.” The King says, “I have not heard of this ‘Way’.” The Old Gentleman tells him, “The great Way is extremely profound. Your highness should convert himself and fittingly propogate and receive the Way.”
[According to William Tarn’s “The Greeks in Bactria and India”, Chinese Ji Bin 罽宾 refers to the toponym recorded in Greek as Kophen or Kophene. It’s not clear precisely where this was, but it seems that the Chinese used it broadly to refer to the Kushan empire, eastern Afghanistan, and Kashmir. -ht]
Converting the King: The king of Kophen along with seven of his retainers arrives in the place where they last met the Great High One. They make obesiences and the king says, “I was born in these border regions, but am lucky enough to meet a sage. I beg that you teach me the Way of existing in peace.” The Great High One says, “It is fitting that you cultivate the necessities of the Three Obediences and the Six Infinitessimals. Protect the interior for yourself, and the exterior will become harmonious.” The King and his attendants bow their heads, receive the teaching, and practice it.
Gathering Together the Host of Immortals: The barbarian king and a mass of followers once again come up to the mountain. They bow their heads to the ground and the king asks, “The Way that you told to us was deep and profound. We have not yet come to believe it, and seek marvels. What method then should we practice?” The Great High One says, “Yesterday I commanded you serve the Buddha. I will convert you via an offering of lunch!” The king gathers together his entire nation for a meeting, and after seven days they disperse once more. The king invites the Great High One to attend the midday-meal offering. Thereupon the Great High One summons a hundred thousand spirit people of the six achievements who arrive at the offering continually throughout the whole month, until the King’s storehouses are completely exhausted and nothing is left. The feast is not even half over and still the spirit people come without cease.
Giving Off a Golden Glow: The barbarian king says, “Great High one, the mass following you is so great that it has caused my storehouses almost to collapse. How can these be people who follow the Way? When I examine them I think that they must be devils! If I do not make some plan now, then I fear they will greatly diminish us and do us damage. It is suitable in this emergency that we burn them!” The barbarians pile up kindling. The soldiers surround the Great High One, but of his own will he enters the fire. All of the people of the nation see that the Great High One’s body emits a brilliant light, and in the midst of the fire he speaks the Golden Light Sutra.
Arising on a Blue Lotus: The barbarian king’s wrath is now exceedingly great. He has the Great High One boiled in a giant cauldron for three days and three nights, but the Great High One gushes out of the cauldron’s broth on the petals of a lotus. He sits there on the lotus flower and speaks the Lotus Sutra. He says to the barbarian king, “The spiritual power of this sutra is unimaginable, it can save one from fire or from being boiled. You should recieve it and practice it.”
Being Held Up by a Spirit Dragon: The barbarian king becomes even more enraged. He orders that the Great High One be drowned in water. Once again the Great High Old Gentleman is obedient and he enters into the water but he cannot be sunk. A spirit dragon holds him up on the surface of the water, and he speaks the Nirvana Sutra.
Frustrating the Cuts of Swords: The barbarian king sends message to all of the neighboring countires, saying, “within my nation there is an old man, who transforms ceaselessly and has no constancy. I ask that you raise hosts and assist me.” In a very short time, the armies of the barbarians have all surrounded the Great High One. But the Old Gentleman defeats them, for his Great High body emits a fiercesome glow. Lighting flies out like a flood and a sound is heard like thunderclaps. The arrows and stones of the barbarian armies all fall back down in the midst of their hosts. The barbarian kings all throw themselves to the ground and make obeisance to the Old Gentleman. The bow before the Way, and take refuge in the Teachings.
[Somebody’s probably done this already, but there’s an interesting essay to be written here about the uses of the words hua 化 and bian 變, both meaning roughly “transformation”. Since the discovery of the Dunhuang Library in the early 20th century everyone’s been arguing about the exact meaning of the words “transformation image” bian xiang 變相 and “transformation text” bian wen 變文. In the oldest versions of the Old Gentleman story (~3rd century AD), the text was called “The Old Gentleman Converts (hua 化) the Barbarians” Lao Jun Hua Hu 老君化胡. By the time of the emergence of the first pictorial versions of this story (according to Hu, ~7th century AD), the title of the text has changed to “Illustrations (tu 圖) of the Eighty One Hua (Transformations? Conversions?)”. Thus the meaning of the title seems to have shifted under Buddhist influence; hua 化 no longer prosaically means “to convert” but has come to mean whatever it is that Buddhist bian 變 “transformation” means. Otherwise there’s no other way to understand the title of the text; the Old Gentleman after all neither converts eighty-one people nor transforms his body eighty-one times. Thus one can only turn to Victor Mair’s famous definition of the word bian 變: “the representation (whether verbal or pictorial or sculptural) of a narrative moment or locus in or a succession of narrative moments or loci”, which also has content related to performance, manipulation of reality, and miracle-working (神變). When the barbarian king exclaims that the Old Gentleman is “transforming” bian hua 變化 without cease, the meaning seems to be something of this nature. -ht]
Speaking of the Buddha: The Great High Old Gentleman orders Yin Xi to become the Buddha. Yin Xi speaks to the barbarian kings, saying, “I have already reported to your armies that your sins have been forgiven.” Therefore all of the barbarians welcome Yin Xi. At this time the Great High One speaks the Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters. Then he sends apsaras and heavenly kings to lead those people of the nations whose hearts have become joyful. They shave their beards and hair, free their robes on one side, clasp their hands on their chests, wear red clothes, and worship the Buddha. The sramanas recieved this, and called it the Teaching of the Buddha.