P'eng-lai (The Isles of the Blessed)

Doctrines Part of the search in China for longevity and physical immortality was the quest for the Isles of the Blessed. The legends concerned with these islands are closely interwoven with the Taoist theories of immortality. The most famous of these was the island of P'eng-Lai (the others being Tai Yu, Yuan Chaio, Fang Hu and Ying Chou). These islands of immortality were not necessarily considered as allegories, as in Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu. They were seen as real places to which serious, but ill-fated expeditions were sent - including one initiated by the Emperor Ch'in Shih Huang-ti (247-220 B.C.E) in 219 BCE.
The Isles of the Blessed were believed to be the islands opposite the coast of Kiangsu in the Eastern sea, and the mountain of Kunlun in the West. Once, so the traditional Chinese story goes, the five islands drifted on the oceans. Eventually they were secured by great turtles after Taoist Sages living on the Isles of the Blessed petitioned the highest Gods to prevent the islands drifting. Then two of the turtles were captured by a giant, and were carried north (Tai Yu and Yuan Chaio), while the other three islands (P'eng-Lai, Fang Hu and Ying Chou) remained in the Eastern sea.
On these island were believed to be plants that had the gift of restoring life to the dead and renewing youth, mushrooms of immortality (believed to be a species of Agaric), waters or wells of life and life prolonging trees. Everyone that ate the mushrooms or the fruit of P'eng-Lai renewed their youth and acquired the power of floating from island to island.

History The precise origins of the P'eng-lai cult are unknown. It is possible that the cult derived from stories and legends recited by fisherman and traders about other cultures. Our knowledge of the place of P'eng-lai in the Taoist tradition derives principally from folk tales. The number of folk tales supporting the legend of P'eng-Lai demonstrate the faith the early Taoists had in the possibility of physical immortality. One theory for this faith in the existence of P'eng-Lai and the other islands of immortals suggests that the inspiration may actually have been the wonderful gardens created by Emperor Ch'in Shih Huang-ti (247-220 B.C.E). Another explanation is that the Chinese eastern coast occasionally experiences amazing mirage effects when on-lookers can see what appear to be islands and trees in the distance - which would explain the confidence the Emperors and mariners had in their optimistic but unsuccessful expeditions to P'eng-Lai in the past.
Other legends may have their origins in actual expeditions. One record of an unsuccessful mission to discover the Island of P'eng-Lai dates back to the fourth century B.C.E. during the reign of Duke Wei of Ch'i (357-320 BCE). Another legend tells of a mariner called Hsu Fu who actually arrived on the island, but he was sent back to China by a sea god in order to return with youths and maidens. The story says that the Emperor sanctioned an expedition with thousands of young men and virgins, who set sail with Hsu Fu, and who never returned. Other Chinese Emperors are said to have tried to reach the Isles of the Blest, and irritated by lack of success had their magicians and scholars put to death. There is also some possibility that the legends may allude to historic attempts to colonise some of the islands of Japan. In later Taoism the legends appear as allegories of the spiritual search.

Symbols None.

Adherents It is impossible to determine the size of the cult.

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