Iron Crutch Li ranks first among the Eight Immortals. He was originally named Li Xuan and was also called Li Ningyang. It is said that he was from Baguo during the Zhou Dynasty. Iron Crutch Li had special features and a special disposition, and he was bright and wise. At the age of 20, he already understood the profundity of the universe. He roamed, visiting many places in search of Lao Zi, his ancestor and Supreme Old Lord, to fulfil his quest for enlightenment.
One day, Iron Crutch Li came to Mt. Hua, which was enveloped in the mist and had towering trees and flying geese, like a paradise in the mortal world. Supreme Old Lord was aware that Iron Crutch Li would eventually become an immortal. When he suddenly felt a fresh breeze blowing while debating the Tao with Wan Qiu, he knew Iron Crutch Li had arrived at Mt. Hua. He sent two young servants to welcome him, and he taught him Taoism.
Upon hearing Supreme Old Lord teaching him Taoism, Iron Crutch Li was elated. He felt refreshed and enlightened. Supreme Old Lord explained the Tao to him and asked him to put what he learnt into practice before bidding him farewell.
On his journey back from Mt. Hua, Iron Crutch Li ruminated on Supreme Old Lord’s words. He was even more determined in his quest for enlightenment. As he became an accomplished practitioner of Taoism, many people who were keen to cultivate their minds asked to become his disciples.
A lesson from an eagle
One day, Iron Crutch Li was teaching Taoism when he saw an auspicious light at the door of his cottage. He stared at it for some time and said: “This is extraordinary. We’ll be expecting a visitor who is an eminent figure.” He then went out for a walk on his own.
When he looked up, he saw a golden eagle flapping its wings at the summit of a mountain. He could not help but lament: “In the Book of Poetry, there is this verse: A little oriole is resting on the corner of a mound. This eagle knows that is the best spot to perch.”
He said: “A boorish man can only look at the eagle and lament since not even the most intricate trap can capture it. People fight over fame as tiny as the tentacles of a snail, and pursue wealth as small as a fly, only to realize on their deathbeds that they can bring nothing with them to the other world. They regret having lived their lives in vain. Even an eagle knows where to perch. People who pursue wealth and fame are worse than an eagle. This should serve as a lesson for me.”
Then Iron Crutch Li recited a poem: “Ask not for more. What those piercing eyes are for? In the sky I soar. The mundane world is ignored.”
The eagle does not have secular pursuits. Its piercing eyes look beyond what it can see. When it flaps its wings and flies across mountain ranges, nothing in the mundane world can hold it back as it aspires to soar high above the earth.
A celestial visit with Supreme Old Lord
As soon as he finished reciting the poem, an auspicious cloud came rolling and floating by. Supreme Old Lord had come on a crane with Wan Qiu. Iron Crutch Li quickly went up to welcome him.
Supreme Old Lord smiled at him. “I see that you’ve come to comprehend my words.”
Iron Crutch Li sought further guidance from him on the practice of Taoism. The latter reminded him to get rid of more of his anxieties in order to attain spiritual stability. By having few desires and a noble spirit, and showing benevolence towards all living creatures, a person would come to appreciate the beauty of altruism. Supreme Old Lord arranged to make a celestial visit to Heaven with Iron Crutch Li ten days later.
Time flew. After ten days, Iron Crutch Li summoned his disciple Yang Zi to come forward. “I will be away on a celestial visit to Heaven. My physical body will stay here. If I do not return in seven days, you may cremate my body. During these seven days, you are to guard my body and protect it from all harm. Make sure you follow my instructions.”
After that, Iron Crutch Li sat in the lotus position, and his spirit left his body to go on a tour with Supreme Old Lord to meet other immortals.
Disciple broke his promise for kinship
Yang Zi guarded his master’s body closely and with utmost care. But on the sixth day, he was asked to go home right away, as his mother was very sick and wanted to see him before she breathed her last. Yang Zi cried: “My mother is dying, but my master is not back yet. If I leave, who will guard my master’s body?”
His family said: “He’s dead. No way will he come back to life. And it has been six days. All his organs must be decaying. Isn’t it stupid to continue guarding it? You’re bonded to your master by loyalty, but to your mother by blood.
“You have stood guard by your master’s body for six days. Though it is not seven days yet, nobody will blame you for breaking your promise.
“But if you do not go home now and your mother passes on, you will live to regret it. You should just cremate your master right away and go home to see your mother.”
Yang Zi was still not sure if he should do that. But he was left with no choice. So he did as his family said. As he cremated Iron Crutch Li’s body, he could not stop crying.