When Zi Yuan told him it was time to advance into the next stage of his training, Li Yundong was so worked up that he nearly leaped off the couch.
Excitement coursed through his veins, and he could actually feel his blood pumping faster.
Zi Yuan just smiled and gave him a small nod.
"Um… I've actually been meaning to ask you when I can proceed to the next stage of training," he said sheepishly.
Zi Yuan sighed. "Technically, you could already proceed to next stage right after you passed the Zhuji phase. Once your Vital Orb forms, you're physically ready to move into the Shentong phase. However..." Zi Yuan looked at him pointedly. "Your foundational knowledge in Cultivation Theory was severely lacking back then, that's why I didn't teach you right away."
Li Yundong chuckled. "Hence the speech you gave me during the haircut."
Zi Yuan nodded. "As you move into more advanced phases of Cultivation, the need for conceptual understanding becomes greater. Otherwise, your progress will stall." Zi Yuan looked at Li Yundong. "You'll get stuck."
"Right. Do more research, and work on improving my understanding. Got it," Li Yundong said. "So. Can we start now?"
There was a moment of silence.
Then, Zi Yuan chuckled. "So impatient." She stopped laughing and shot him a glare. "You'd likely fail than make progress if you train in your current state of mind."
Well. That didn't sound too good.
"Why is that?" he asked warily.
Zi Yuan sighed. "You're too eager. Too excited. You need to calm yourself. At your current state?" Zi Yuan rolled her eyes. "You'll likely run into difficulties with basic Qi control, let alone the more advanced stuff."
Li Yundong's cheeks heated up. "Oops." He cleared his throat. "Sorry."
Li Yundong closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then mobilized his Qi to his Lingtai. When that familiar wave of calmness washed over him, seconds later, he slowly opened his eyes again.
"There," he said. "I'm good now."
Zi Yuan was still sitting in a meditative posture on top of the donut-shaped cushion on the floor. She seemed very relaxed, like some kind of Zen grandmaster—peaceful, yet commanding.
"First, tell me what you understand about the Shentong phase."
"Um... I suppose… It's a phase where a Cultivator starts to gain magical abilities?"
Zi Yuan pondered his answer for a moment. "Okay. But what are magical abilities? Where do they come from? Or better yet, what is magic? What does that term even mean?"
Li Yundong paused to consider those questions, which, admittedly, he hadn't a single clue how to answer.
Then again, Zi Yuan saved him from having to answer the questions when she spoke again about a minute later.
"You can't exactly define it as supernatural abilities, can you?" Zi Yuan asked rhetorically. "After all, everything you've done by far seems pretty supernatural, yet they didn't involve magic at all. Except for the tantric mudras, of course. But those involve a different kind of power that we'll talk about some other time."
Li Yundong looked down at his own two hands. Zi Yuan was right. His understanding of how magic is defined was superficial and incomplete. What is magic? What about Eryue? Mingmu? Xianjue? None of those had magical origins even though their effects were clearly supernatural. Why was that the case? What was the missing criteria here? Did it have something to do with the Vital Orb?
"So. Any ideas?" Zi Yuan said after a while.
Li Yundong shifted a little to get comfortable.
"Well… everything I've done so far can be somewhat explained physically?" Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan. "Like, they have some kind of physiological basis..."
"Mm-hmm. Go on."
"For example, all that stuff in the Ningshen phase can be understood in terms of our minds' ability to process sensory information more efficiently. And the Lianqi phase has to do with Qi control, which can also be understood physiologically, since Qi is part of our bodies, not to mention a key concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine."
Li Yundong held Zi Yuan's gaze for a moment. The woman's expression was as unreadable as ever.
"At least let me know if I'm on the right track?" he asked.
"Yes, you are."
Okay. Good to know.
"So... Based on these observations, magical abilities seem to be those abilities that do not have physical origins... Like, they have a non-physical source."
"That's correct," Zi Yuan said with a nod. For a moment there, he thought she was smiling, but he couldn't really be sure. Zi Yuan could give Zhou Qin a run for her money when it came to Ice-Queen behaviors.
Silence spread between them. Zi Yuan was staring at him as though she was still waiting for him to say something, in which case he had run into a huge problem.
"Um... That's all I've got."
"Oh. Right." There was a pause. Zi Yuan looked as though she was trying to choose the best way to proceed. "Well, you seem to have gotten the gist of it. But let's get the terminologies out of the way first," Zi Yuan said. "Whenever you perform spells, or use a magical object's special abilities, you'll be expending something inside your body. You can think of it as spiritual energy or spiritual power, but in Cultivation, we usually just call it magic."
"Oh. It's kind of like mana, right?" Li Yundong said.
"What?" Zi Yuan looked utterly confused.
"Er... Mana points? Like, in video games, it usually requires mana points to use skills..." Li Yundong sighed and lowered his gaze. "Never mind." Video games probably weren't part of the standard curriculum back at the Zhengyi School. Li Yundong looked up suddenly. "So how do we obtain magic then? I mean, it's some kind of power source, so there has to be a way to produce it, right?"
"We'll get to that part later," Zi Yuan said with a light shake of her head. "Right now I want you to list out the different forms of magic, or spiritual abilities."
For a moment, Li Yundong just sat there, thinking about the question. Based on the stuff he'd learned from both the Surangama Sutra and the Records of the Pure Heart, he knew that the question didn't have a straightforward answer.
Li Yundong frowned. "Again, it seems like the Taoists and the Buddhists hold different views regarding what constitute spiritual abilities."
"Mm-hmm. What are their differences, then?"
"Well, the Buddhists believe that there are six types of spiritual power: the Heavenly Eye; the Heavenly Ear; Heart Binding; the Divine Foot; Metasamsara; and finally, Nirvana."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Do you know what each one means?"
"The Heavenly Eye sees all, and the Heavenly Ear hears all. Heart Binding gives one the ability to read minds and to be aware of another's intentions. The Divine Foot allows teleportation at will. Metasamsara gives one the ability to recall things from one's past life. Nirvana implies true enlightenment and the ability to free oneself from the karmic rebirth cycle."
"Good. And what about the Taoist view?"
"The Taoists believe in five forms of spiritual abilities: cognizance; sorcery; spirit possession or mediumship; the undead; and animism."
A small smile graced Zi Yuan's features. "Very good. Now. Tell me what you know about each one?"
"Cognizance basically refers to knowledge and awareness," Li Yundong said. "Personally, I don't quite get this part. How does having deep knowledge and wisdom give a person spiritual powers? But anyway, that what's stated in the books. There are a lot of historical figures who attained spiritual powers through knowledge alone. Lao Tzu from the Qin Dynasty. Confucius. Mencius. Wang Yangming from the Ming Dynasty. These are just a few examples.
"Sorcery is pretty much self-explanatory. It involves the use of spells. Mediumship involves using one's body as a container for the spiritual beings, like deities, ghosts, etc." Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan. "The art of Shenda is probably some form of mediumship. The undead is pretty self-explanatory as well. It involves evil spirits and demons. And animism... It is believed that non-human objects such as plants and animals all possess a distinct spiritual essence. This spiritual essence can be cultivated into higher forms until they can eventually come to life and even take on human forms. This is very common in animals like chinchillas, hedgehogs, wolves, serpents, and..." Something tugged inside Li Yundong's chest. "And foxes."
I wonder how she's doing...
"Indeed," Zi Yuan said. "Those are the five forms of spiritual power. In Cultivation, we deal more with the last four than the first. Nevertheless, allow me to explain the first one to you." Zi Yuan paused to give him a look. "You said you don't understand how knowledge and wisdom can grant a person spiritual powers?"
With a sigh, Li Yundong shoved his thoughts about Su Chan aside. "Enlighten me, then."
"Do not underestimate the power of knowledge," Zi Yuan said, "for it is also a way to attain unity with the Tao. Bear in mind what the Tao fundamentally represents. The Tao reflects the natural order of things, and knowledge makes you conscious of the natural order." There was a pause. "Wisdom takes one beyond the norm; it allows one to transcend the boundaries of mediocrity. And guess what happens when you grow your intellect to Lao Tzu or Confucius's level?" Zi Yuan smiled.
"Um... Become a Shenxian?"
"That is one possibility, yes," Zi Yuan said. "But even if you don't become a Shenxian, you'll still be able to tap Nature's vast Qi reserves, you see? Demons and evil spirits fear those who are in possession of great wisdom and knowledge."
"Wow..." Suddenly, Li Yundong smirked. "Think I should start moving some of my stuff into the university's library?"
"That's not necessary," Zi Yuan said dryly. A second later, her expression shifted into a pensive look. "I wonder if you've heard of an old Chinese saying..."
"Beautiful women can be found within books..."
Li Yundong snapped his fingers together. "And books hold the key to a house made of gold."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Yes, that's the one. But..." Zi Yuan's gaze zeroed in on his face. "I'd argue that the saying is incomplete."
"Okay? How would you make it complete, then?"
"Perhaps add another line that goes like this..." Zi Yuan leaned back slightly. "Books are the stairway to heaven."
Li Yundong stared at her. "Right," he said dryly. "Because they either bore you to death, or they're so difficult to understand that they make you wanna kill yourself…"
"Moving on..." Zi Yuan shot him a glare, though he could tell that she was fighting back a smile. She cleared her throat. "How many phases of Cultivation are there?"
"Nine," Li Yundong answered almost instantly. Su Chan had told him this before.
"Correct." Zi Yuan nodded. "And the Shentong phase is the fifth phase of Cultivation." She looked into his eyes again. "Why do you think that's the case? Why is Shentong the fifth phase of Cultivation?"
Li Yundong opened his mouth to answer, but then froze when he realized that he couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer. His mouth clicked shut.
Why was Shentong the fifth phase?
"I..." Li Yundong opened his mouth again. After a while, he shook his head. "I have no idea..."
So much for research. And spending hours going through all those books.
Zi Yuan smiled as though she'd already anticipated his reaction. "Well, the answer is actually quite simple."
Li Yundong stared at her in disbelief, then sighed. "Fine. Why then? Why is Shentong the fifth phase?"
Zi Yuan was still smiling. She looked like she was totally enjoying herself here. Good for her.
"Are you aware of the Chinese idiom, jiu wu zhi zun?"
"Jiu wu…" Li Yundong mumbled. "Nine and five?" He looked towards Zi Yuan for confirmation.
Zi Yuan nodded. "Yes. In Chinese culture, the numerals nine and five outrank all others in terms of importance."
There was a moment of silence as Zi Yuan studied his face. She was probably checking if he was paying attention.
Li Yundong sat up straighter.
"That's what jiu wu zhi zun means," Zi Yuan continued. "Literally, it means the venerable nine and five. But figuratively, the phrase refers to an emperor's status.
"That's right," Zi Yuan said. "But the key here, of course, is why the numerals nine and five are so important."
Something clicked inside his mind. He raised his hand. "I think I can answer that."
Zi Yuan smiled. "Go ahead."
"The ancient Chinese believed that the Heavens consist of nine layers with the ninth layer being the highest; and because nine is the largest single-digit number available, it represents supremacy and supreme power. Then we have the number five, which occupies the central position on the spectrum. And since it sits right in the middle, it is the glue that holds the two extreme ends together, thus allowing everything to exist as one coherent unit. The number five represents harmony." Li Yundong shot Zi Yuan a glance. "That's why the numerals nine and five are associated with the emperor's status, isn't it? Nine represents supreme power, and five represents a harmonious temperament. Both are qualities that an emperor must have in order to build a nation that thrives."
"Hmm..." A grimace appeared on Zi Yuan's face. "You're no doubt on the right track, but your answer is still incomplete."
Incomplete? Li Yundong frowned.
"Hold on, let me try again." Li Yundong leaned backwards until he felt his back touch the couch. He raised his gaze and stared up at the ceiling.
What did I miss?
"Want a hint?"
His eyes instantly went from the ceiling towards Zi Yuan's face. The grimace was gone, and she was smiling again.
"By all means," he said with a chuckle, then shook his head. "I'm pretty much grasping at straws here to be honest."
"In the context of ruling a nation," Zi Yuan said, "The numeral five is more important than the numeral nine." She paused and raised a brow at him. "Why do you think that's the case?"
The number five is more important than the number nine? Li Yundong looked up at the ceiling again. Why indeed...
When it all clicked, Li Yundong leaned forward so quickly that his butt nearly slid off the couch. "Because it involves a nation, not just the emperor himself," he said. "A nation can only flourish if its emperor has the ability to unite its people and bring harmony to the nation. An emperor with supreme power might be able to rule out of fear, but his nation will be weak at its core because its people are divided." Li Yundong looked towards Zi Yuan and held her gaze. "Fear creates discord, not harmony; and lack of harmony leads to division. A divided nation is bound to fall."
A tiny smile graced Zi Yuan's features. "Very good," she said with a nod. "Now. Try to apply the analogy in the context of Cultivation. In particular, the Shentong phase."
Li Yundong went silent in thought. How did Cultivation relate to ruling?
Obviously, any form of governance would involve two roles: the ruler; and the people being ruled.
The ruler was clearly analogous to the Cultivator...
But what does a Cultivator have command over?
After a moment of thought, Li Yundong came upon the obvious answer to that question: the forces of nature; a Cultivator has command over the forces of nature.
He looked towards Zi Yuan. "Every spell must belong to one of the five elements of nature, right?"
Zi Yuan shook her head. "It depends on the form of spiritual power that the spell taps into."
"Spiritual powers can manifest themselves in five different forms, remember?"
"Ah. Right. Cognizance, sorcery, mediumship, the undead, and animism."
Zi Yuan nodded. "If the spell involves sorcery, then yes, the spell will be tied to each of the five elements." Zi Yuan suddenly stopped talking as though she'd just remembered something. "Except for the Five Thunders Spell, that is. The Five Thunders Spell involves a different kind of force."
Li Yundong nodded and went back to his thoughts.
Okay. Time to list out the facts: the Shentong phase gives a Cultivator the ability to use spells; most spells are associated with the forces of nature (as represented by each of the five fundamental elements of nature).
Inference: the Shentong phase gives a Cultivator command over the forces of nature.
"The fifth phase..." Li Yundong whispered. "That's why it's represented by the number five, isn't it? Because five represents the most important criteria to become a great emperor..." He looked towards Zi Yuan for confirmation. "Right?"
"Exactly." Zi Yuan's smile widened just a tad. "The Shentong phase teaches a Cultivator how to command over the forces of nature. In a way, it's like becoming the emperor of Heaven and Earth."
"Wow. I thought the Zhuji phase is big deal." He chuckled. "But it turns out that the Shentong phase is an even bigger deal."
"Well, the Zhuji phase is a huge deal," Zi Yuan said. "The presence of the Vital Orb is the foundation upon which everything else is built. However, the Zhuji phase only gives you the necessary tools. It doesn't teach you how to use those tools to rule over the five elements." Zi Yuan arched a brow. "Those who have mastered the Shentong phase will have the power to move mountains and part oceans with a mere flick of a finger."
Li Yundong was instantly reminded of how Ao Wushuang had kicked his butt back then. Spell after spell after spell she had thrown at him, and there wasn't a single thing he could do to counter them. Even with the Jindan, he had been a sitting duck.
Killing him was probably easier than shooting fish in a barrel.
Li Yundong gave Zi Yuan a look of determination.
"So what's the first step?"