Quite a number of Daoists in the West do not understand the term, ‘Daoist immortals’ or ‘Dao Xian’, possibly confused by various explanations given in Western books and/or in forums which largely depend on the knowledge of each author. It is alright, nothing to worry about. After praying to Daoist deities for a few decades, one had only understood the real difference between a Daoist deity (Shen) and a Daoist immortal (Xian) about fifteen years ago.
A learned individual needs to cultivate both essence and life to become an immortal. Deities need not go through the same process – a candidate may not be as learned, he or she may not have cultivated both essence and life – they could have led an exemplary life or had done something great for the people. And the people at the time build temple(s) in their honor and started to pray for the deity’s blessings. (Think Guan Gong – the God of War.)
For those with a passing interest in Taoism and want to know a bit more about immortals, reading what a renowned Daoist has to say is better than gleaning from Western books and Tao forums.
According to Zhong LiQuan, one of the eight Daoist immortals (Baxian), there are three types of immortals. In his text, the Secretly Transmitted Complete Numinous Treasure Skills of Perfect Man Zhengyang, he indicated that there are human immortals, earthly immortals, and heavenly immortals depending on their attainments. Apparently the text was transmitted by his student, Lu Dongbin, and comprised of three volumes each depicting what can be achieved by man (ren):
“If students can accomplish the “Four small vehicle ways for happiness and prolonged life”, they can become human immortals.
If students can step up to accomplish the “Three middle vehicle ways for immortality”, they become earthly immortals.
Finally if they can accomplish the “Three great vehicle ways for attaining sainthood”, they become heavenly immortals.”
[Source: Taoist Culture and Information Centre, Hong Kong. Click ‘Quanzhen/Taoism’ under Resources for website link, if you wish to read the details and the Chinese in ‘the Daoist Scriptures’ section.]
I had first heard about earthly immortals (DiXian) from my Daoist friend several years ago. He learned about them from his ancestor master, a heavenly immortal (TianXian). Probably human immortals (RenXian) are those who have reached the Center, who are happier and live longer than others. (Think Sages and the wise.)
In the Shurangama Sutra (Leng Yen), Buddha had indicated a few more types of immortals which include Buddhas, various deities, and ghost kings.
Over the decades, through mediums, one had opportunities to speak to Daoist deities, a heavenly immortal, and Buddhas. If you have the opportunity, do not miss the chance to ask any of these divinities, it is good for experience and knowledge. Just do not ask frivolous questions. You may get a knock on the head by the Daoist immortal – immortals are a bit sterner than the others. Like the Yi, if you know what I mean. (Think Hexagram 4 Meng / Youthful Folly.)
Daoist heavenly immortals certainly know more of the Yi than you and me. A reason why they are in heaven!