Inspiration from the Story of Zhang Guolao Riding a Donkey Backwards
(Clearwisdom.net) Stories about Zhang Guolao were probably first documented in Ming-huang Za Lu. Both old and new versions of Tang Shu documented stories about Zhang Guolao. During the Qing Dynasty, Taoist Wugou wrote a book called Complete Biography of The Eight Deities, which comprehensively documented Zhang Guolao's life, including his steadfast faith in seeking a meaningful existence by cultivation and experiencing all kinds of hardships over a long period of time.
Zhang focused his attention on seeking the Dao, and did not pursue all the splendor in the world. Emperors of the T'ang dynasty (Tai Tsung and Kao Tsung) often invited Zhang Guolao to court, but he always declined these invitations. Once, when personally asked by Empress Wu Zhetian, he could not find an excuse to refuse. He just played dead in front of a temple. It was in summer. His body was seen decomposing, but he was later seen, alive and well, on the mountains of Heng. Emperor Xuan Tsung called him to his court several times, in an attempt to find the secret of immortality. When he saw Zhang Guolao's old appearance, he asked, "As a person that has attained the Dao, why do you look so old, with sparse teeth and hair?" Zhang said, "There is no Taoist magic arts that resist old age, that's why I look so old. I feel ashamed for this. However, if I pull out my remaining teeth and hair, will new teeth and hair grow?" So he pulled out his hair and teeth. Xuan Tsung was very worried by his act, so he asked him to go away for a rest. Shortly, Zhang came back to court, and looked like a completely new person, with black hair and white teeth. Therefore, all the high officials and noble lords visited him, seeking the secrets of renewing their youth. Zhang Guolao turned down all their requests. He proved that he was different from ordinary people. Seeking the Dao is not the same thing as seeking ordinary people's skills.
Once Xuan Tsung went hunting. He pursued a big deer, which was different from an ordinary deer. When he was about to kill the deer, Zhang Guolao stopped him and said, "This is a celestial deer, and it is over one thousand years old. Once Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty went hunting, and I followed him. He also caught the same deer, but he let it go." Xuan Tsung asked, "How big the world is. How can you be so sure that this is the same deer?" Zhang replied, "When Emperor Wu released it, he put a bronze plate under it's left horn." So Xuan Tsung asked people to check it, and sure enough, under it's left horn, there was a bronze plate. Zhang said, "The plate has a eight hundred and fifty two year' history." Xuan Tsung then asked people to check if what he said was true or not, and it turned out that it was true. It is seen from this story that Zhang Guolao had already attained the Dao. Enlightened people don't disclose heavenly secrets, so they usually teach people a lesson and inspire people from an distance. Maybe he wanted to employ the proof left from eight hundred years ago to tell Xuan Tsung that ordinary people can overcome the rule of birth, old age, illness and death instead of just idling their time away.
It is said that Zhang Guolao rode a white donkey backwards, and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles a day. His donkey neither ate grass nor drank water. When the sun set Zhang patted his donkey, and it turned into paper. Then Zhang put it away. The next morning, he took the paper donkey out of his pocket, blew on it, and it became a live donkey again.
There are always deep meanings and heavenly secrets in Chinese ancient cultivation stories. If ordinary people only focused on what happens before them, without seeking the deeper meanings of life, they will miss the great opportunities of knowing the truth. At the same time, they will lose the essence of the five thousands years' of Chinese divine Culture. With the story of Zhang Guolao riding a donkey backwards, which the author heard in childhood, people might ask themselves: " Why did Zhang Guolao do this? As an enlightened being, he must have had a reason. If so, what is it?"
In Analects of Confucius(Lun Yu), there was such a story. One day, Zi Gong, a disciple of Confucius, asked Confucius: " Not flatter though being poor, not arrogant though being rich. What do you think of it?" Confucius said: "It is not bad. But it cannot be compared with 'Enjoy himself though poor, cherish good virtue though rich'."
Perhaps in Confucius' time, people did not cherish the nature of being simple, kindhearted and acting dutifully. He saw the downward trend of morality, so he advocated "contain oneself and revive good nature". At the same time, he told his disciples that in different social classes, there were different moralities. He saw the downturn of morality, but he tried to prevent it from deteriorating below a certain baseline. However, in modern China, good virtues no longer exist. People used to live a simple life, which is a good virtue, however, now people spend money without thinking. People used to think that corruption is evil, however, now people think that it is a skill. People used to do things based on moral standards, however, now people can do whatever it takes to make money. Cheating, lies, and violence is prevalent. TV programs are full of violence, sex and incest. Gangsters are collaborating with the Communist Party, inverting good and evil. Morality has decreased to such a degree that it cannot decline any further.
Think about it. Enlightened beings who attain the Tao are seeking virtue. If back then they predicted what would happen in modern society, it is not difficult to understand why Zhang Guolao rode the donkey backwards. It was a warning for both himself and people nowadays. In Zhuan Falun, there are two places that mention Zhang Guolao.
"He realized that going forward was actually going backward, that people are going further and further away from the nature of the universe." (Zhuan Falun Lecture 9)
"He had realized that going forward was actually going backward, so he rode the donkey turned around." ( Zhuan Falun Lecture 3)
It is true. The further people move away from the Tao and from "Truth-Compassion-Forbearance", the more evil people are and the worse society becomes. Formation-stasis-degeneration-destruction of the universe does exist and is now in it's final stage. "Thousands of years of reincarnation has a reason." It is sincerely hoped that more and more people can realize what enlightened beings predicted and understand the great meaning.