IMMORTAL SISTERS: Secrets of Taoist Women

IMMORTAL SISTERS: Secrets of Taoist Women

Thomas Cleary, translator and editor
Shambhala, 1989; paperback.

At first glance, this little book feels like a collection of scattered bits without cohesiveness or much coherence. But on repeated returns to it, the reader keeps finding little gems from another world and another time, which entitle this slim volume to a special place in an esoteric library.

There are six immortal sisters, dating from the third to twelfth centuries, and their work, along with Cleary's valuable notes, is presented in three sections: Sun Bu-er's poems and secrets; “Poetry of Female Real People: Alchemical Secrets of the Feminine Tao,” and a very brief section on “Spiritual Alchemy for Women.”

Several features may endear Thomas Cleary's work to a variety of tastes. Besides the obvious references to Confucianism, Chan Buddhism, I Ching, and other Taoist themes around openness and breathing, there are echoes of kundalini, devas, Sufis, and Mahatmas. The constant is the alchemy of immortality. For present-day feminists there is the editor's long introduction on the importance of Chinese women in Taoism from several centuries back, including the intriguing concept of an inner and outer Mysterious Female (p. 63).

It is from the six chosen women's writings, chiefly short and highly symbolic poems, that the material presented in English for the first time is drawn. The explanatory notes are a requirement to clarify a symbolism dating back several hundred years and differing richly from metaphors more commonly used in the West. An example of this is in multiple representations of yin and yang as spirit and energy, as jade and gold, as dragon and tiger, as clouds and wind, to name a few. Also linked to these complementing rather than contrasting doubles is the concept of concentration as gentle or intense. Drunkenness used as a metaphor for enlightenment (p. 80) gives pause, but the picture of “holding a full bowl” (p. 88) when care to avoid mental and physical waste of energy is meant, has a rightness about it. The color yellow, naming the dominant river of China, also symbolizes the spinal sushumna (p. 98), and Yellow Court (p. 88) is related not only to the legendary Yellow Emperor, but also to the metaphysical concept of perfect poise.

Thomas Cleary himself is identified on the cover as a Harvard Ph.D. in Oriental languages and civilization, with much work in translation to his credit. It would be good to know more about him, and to find in the book some information on the source of its content, reasons for selection, and particularly the context of the all-important notes which aside from the first introduction appear to be part of the translated material. Only in the striking explanations of the twentieth-century Chen Yingning is a commentator identified, leaving the reader with a curiosity to know more about him, too.

The book is recommended, especially to students of the esoteric. It is a vivid reflection of the ever intertwining strands of religious conceptualization in a millennium of Chinese history.


Summer 1990