What is an immortal?
Daoism’s most basic purpose of practice is to obtain the Dao and become immortal. All immortals are Zhen Ren (true humans) who have cultivated and who obtained the Dao (become an immortal). All humans were once immortal. When desire or attachment arises in the heart, an immortal is born back into a human body and has the opportunity to cultivate to regain immortality. An immortal can either have always been an immortal or has cultivated to become pure yang such that when death (separation from the physical body) occurs, the spirit can go to the world of yang, to merge with the Dao, rather than returning to the world of yin for recycling.
In order to achieve immortality we must cultivate Xing (essential nature) and Ming (eternal life) together. Daoism believes immortals exist. We believe we can achieve immortality through cultivation. We believe that the purpose of life is to go to heaven (the world of yang) and that to do so we must cultivate the Dao.
There are four stages of human to immortal transformation.
Stage 1: Ordinary human – in this stage we are ordinary humans who follow nature, live a normal length of life, suffer from illness, attachment and desire, and go to the world of yin upon separation from our physical form.
Stage 2: Extra-ordinary human – in this stage we are doing our cultivation practice to refine our spirit and to create a healthy body. Once we reach this level of cultivation we no longer suffer from illness and we live a long life. When we die, we go to the world of yin, but just to the highest levels and briefly.
Stage 3: Immortal on Earth – An immortal on earth has achieved the Dao but continues to reside on earth in order to continue cultivation or to teach or for other heavenly purpose. Death is merely a relinquishing of the current physical form.
Stage 4: Immortal in Heaven – An immortal in heaven is a being who has achieved sustained union with the Dao and who no longer has need of a physical body. They join or resume their position within the pantheon of immortals in heaven and serve the larger purpose of virtue.
Once immortality is achieved, the individual is as a god. Immortals are sometimes tasked with returning to earth to teach us how to become immortal. Unless you treasure life, enjoy life, improve the quality of life, you cannot achieve immortality. To just live is not enough, you must enjoy and treasure life and live well. Daoism dislikes death. With sufficient practice you can become an immortal on earth, and have no death.
Since the Qin and Han dynasties there has been a belief in immortality. During the first Han Dynasty Zhang Dao Ling formalized the Taoist religion. At that time immortal beliefs and longevity theory emerged to perfect the Daoist theory system. They believe living is one appearance of the Dao. They dislike death and look forward to longevity. At the least the purpose of practice is for longevity. Others have not had or earned the opportunity the opportunity to learn about Daoism.
Through physical and mental cultivation material life can be extended and spiritual life upgraded until the individual achieves immortality. Daoist priests and ordinary humans throughout history have sought shortcuts. The theory and practice of Daoism is the result of 2000+ years of practice as documented over the millennia. The primary spiritual motivation is “My Life is in My Own Hands, Not Heaven’s”. Each of us is responsible for our own cultivation and spiritual practice. As we proceed along the path and achieve the different levels of cultivation, immortals will come to us in the guise of teachers to help us along the path, but each step and each day, the practice is in our own hands.