The Taoist tradition has many folklore about immortals coming to the human world. They would disguise themselves as a bum, a beggar, a hermit or a crazy person. The purpose of such trips to the human world is to spot potential disciples with certain qualities which make them ready for a spiritual transformation. Sometimes, the immortals also disguise themselves to test the prospective disciple to see if s/he is really worthy.
Taoist sages never appear in the form of a successful business man or a Confucian scholar. They always take the form of a social reject, living at the margin of society. The legendary “living Buddha,” Ji Gong, of China is such a character. He was always unkempt, dirty, crazy, half-human and half-immortal. Although he was a monk, he ate meat and drank wine, thus breaking the precepts. At the same time, he healed people of their diseases and taught the dharma.
The Taoist sage is therefore always a kind of “Hippie” and a representative of the counterculture. I have lived in the US for over forty years. The only time I felt the presence of such immortals was when I was living in the dormitory in Washington Square in Greenwich Village. I was a graduate student at New York University then. My dormitory was in Judson Hall on West Fourth Street. I had a window which overlooked the Square. In the 60s and 70s, the Square had a Bohemian atmosphere. Starting from the 80s, the place was “cleaned up” and became more tidy and business-like. Gradually, Greenwich Village’s urban Hippie culture turned into a Yuppie culture. As the “bums” disappeared, so did the artists, Jazz players and street performers.
Attached is a photo of the Piano Man that I once saw while living in Washington Square. I miss him. He was so spirited. The real Taoists are more like “dharma bums.” They are never “successful” people in business suits. But they know how to live life to the fullest, according to their nature and true passion. We need more such people instead of bankers and finance types.