Michael McGrath of North Adams in China

Daily Life at Five Immortals Temple

By: - Oct 03, 2019

Situated in the Wudang Mountain Range of Hubei Province, China, White Horse Mountain (Baima Shan in Mandarin) hosts the small and secluded Five Immortals Temple.  Accessible only by a 1500 meter climb up stone steps with a 20 kg backpack of supplies, the temple is a place of worship, learning and magic.

I lived there as a monk and studied with its Abbott, Li Song Feng, or Li Shifu as we call him, a renunciate priest who has presided over the temple and the mountain for a quarter century.  I consider him a true wizard, a learned man, fully devoted to the mountain and temple, and dedicated to teaching what he has learned so it does not die with him. I am Cheng Tong, the name he gave me, and I belong to the current generation, the twenty-fourth I believe,  in the temple’s lineage that traces back centuries.

These photos offer a brief glimpse of the physical presence of the temple and surrounding mountains.  They tell the limited story only of what is there. Just as it is difficult for this child of the 60s to tell his three daughters what it was like in the Summer of Love and the Summer of Woodstock . . . the scenes, the tastes and smells, the feel of being 19 and 20 during those times . . . I can not tell you what life at the temple is like other than to tell you what we do each day.  

We practice qigong, taiji, gongfu, and sword; we clean and maintain the temple buildings and grounds for the worshipers who climb the mountain each weekend; we work in the gardens where we grow our own food; we eat a communal vegetarian meal in the family room; we study herbal remedies, Chinese medicine, Daoist internal alchemy, and Daoist philosophy; and, we meditate each night inside the temple for a couple of hours.

Each entering student comes to Baima Shan for their own reason, whether it is simply to discover, or to find their path in life, or to heal.  Each entering group arrives as strangers, but for those who don’t wash out in the first few weeks and complete that first year, a family is formed, bonds that do not break even though all are scattered to the world’s corners after.  

The days are long and arduous, the training, in rain or shine, warm or cold, difficult.  The toilet is a trench. There are no bathtubs or showers - a face cloth bath with boiled water is as clean as you get.   Everything comfortable and familiar in your life disappears, left below at the base of the mountain. Day, date and time dissolve in the mountain mists during the climb, and all you are left with is the moment, one after another.

Yet, the single most important lesson one learns is how truly little you need to live a meaningful life.  The biggest question we all had at the end of that first year was whether once we’d returned to society we would live what we had learned on the mountain.  But then again, isn’t that the test we all take each day? Can we live what we have learned in our life through yesterday?

Life at the temple is quiet, contemplative, simple.  It is the life I live now in the mountains of the Northern Berkshires.  And sometimes, again, it is the life I live when I return to China each year.  Stillness cultivated, stillness lived, moment to moment.

Michael McGrath is a monk who lives and teaches in North Adams in the Berkshires. This summer he constructed a platform for training. He cleared the area and planted a garden as a space for peace and reflection.