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Doctor Li Hollow Eyes

Doctor Li  Hollow Eyes

Chung-tsu, the most distinguished follower of the founder of the Taoist religion, Laotzu, wrote: “Confucius walks within society whilst I walk outside it.” These two approaches to life are evident in this story which seems to blend the Confucian emphasis of social duty with the notion of individual salvation. There are strong overtones of sorcery here too, reflecting perhaps the influence on Taoism of the animistshamanist religion brought to China by the nomadic tribesmen of North Asia. The sheer but believable goodness of Doctor Li is what I find most striking and it explains why he is so well-loved a legendary figure throughout China.

Doctor Li 
was a portly man of dignified, gentle and intelligent countenance. Now, for professional and spiritual reasons it was his habit to occasionally leave his body. When he did this his ghost would search the mountains of the west and other realms of interest where few mortal men can go. In these out of the way places, beside icy streams and in sunny meadows on distant plateaux, on cliff edges and sheer slopes, he would gather wild flowers and herbs with medicinal properties. From these he would draw nectar and put it into his spirit bottle, which was rather like a simple leather flask.

The doctor was hardly up to such steep climbs and long journeys in his physical self, which he would leave soundly sleeping in the charge of one of his trusted disciples. It was vital for this young man to guard the doctor from evil spirits, for such creatures might try to occupy the temporarily vacant body, putting it on and running off with it as a thief might steal a coat. This was a dreadful prospect and one that troubled the doctor considerably. Indeed, he left orders to his guardian- disciples to cremate his body after one week, if for any reason his spirit had not returned to it by then.

The day came when one of Li’s spirit journeys gave cause for grave concern. It was the fifth day of the doctor’s journey and there was no sign of his return. Usually the doctor was back within two or, at the most, three days. The very best of Li’s disciples sat watching over his body, and he was more than a little worried.

Then a messenger arrived with word that the disciple’s mother was seriously ill and might well be dying. A man of considerable medical knowledge himself, having learned so much from Doctor Li, the disciple felt he might be able to help her but he was honour-bound to continue his vigil. Torn and miserable, he waited, hoping that Li would return at any moment and release him.

By the morning of the sixth day the doctor had still not returned and another messenger came to say that the disciple’s mother had grown worse in the night. She was not expected to survive and her fondest wish was to see her son once more before she died.

The disciple passed the next few hours in an agony of doubt and indecision. His anxiety intensified when only 12 hours of the deadline remained. If his mother should die now and the doctor still did not  return, his vigil would have been in vain on two counts. He looked closely at Doctor Li’s body. It was stiff, cold and lifeless in a way he was sure it had not been before. The disciple made up his mind, and with great reluctance but much ceremony, he burned the doctor’s body.

The doctor’s spirit returned shortly after the disciple left for his mother’s sickbed. All it found was a pile of ashes, still warm and intermixed with the remains from the funeral pyre. A terrible sense of urgency struck Doctor Li. He must find a body to occupy before his spirit faded way on the wind. Rushing to a nearby forest he searched for the body of any dead creature he could reanimate. The first dead things he found were an ant and a bee. He passed on – he could not practice medicine as either of these, nor as the parakeet he came across next. In the few moments remaining to him, he was willing to gamble, though. His spirit was growing dimmer and he knew his time had almost expired. Desperation mounting, he pressed on. Then he glimpsed something that made him start with joy. In a ditch beside the road was a human body, partially covered in leaves and dust.

The body was that of a beggar recently died of starvation. There was no time to examine it. The doctor raced towards the cold flesh, and settled into it with only a few seconds to spare, sighing with relief. For several minutes he simply lay inside it, experiencing the sensation of fleshly existence. After a while he began to move the arms, legs, hands and feet. Warming and revitalizing his new shell, he discovered that it was intact, just, and that it was male and not so very decrepit as to be useless.

Shakily climbing to his second-hand feet, the doctor swayed momentarily before setting off determinedly. He knew as an absolute certainty that if his disciple had burned his body before the agreed deadline it must have been done for nothing less than a dire emergency. Doctor Li had a good idea of the nature of this emergency.

Moving his now thin

 bowed and twisted carcass as quickly as he could, he hurried off to give assistance where he was sure it was needed. The eyes of his new body were deep-set, dark and glinted as new minted coins, yet they shone too with the doctor’s former gentleness and care for others. His future was as his past: to continue his work as a much loved and greatly respected man of medicine. 

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