His Life in a Nutshell
Below is an abridged version of his story written by a Cao Đài historian.
Li Bai was born at the height of the Tang dynasty after his mother saw a star fell into her pregnant body in a dream. Like many young scholars, he was well educated in Confucian, Taoist, and other philosophies of the hundred schools. What set him apart was his extraordinary talent for poetry which has been resonating throughout history. Such talent coupled with fondness of nature and escapism elevated him to an immortal name.
His close friend recommended him to the head of the civil exam but he was despised and failed. Later, when a Korean ambassador sent a letter to Emperor Minghuang, no one in the court could read it. A mandarin recommended the emperor to summon Li Bai. Li refused to help because of being failed. Minghuang immediately granted him a court role and good wine. Thanks to his ability, the ambassador left in satisfaction, and the tie with Korea was improved. Minghuang would like to promote him but he turned down. His probity and Taoist traits distanced him from the muddled complications of the royal court.
On one occasion, he was asked to write poems for the king's concubine. A eunuch was requested to help take off his shoes who took offense and talked ill about him to the concubine. She then tried to cut off the king's favor. Li eventually left the court to return to his hometown.
On his way home, he stopped over in a district whose mandarin was known for corruption. After learning about his role, the mandarin pleaded for his mercy. This news spread to other districts, leading other mandarins to correct themselves.
In some way, Li's life was closely entwined with the fate of China. The An Lushan rebellion soon plunged it into chaos. He was again summoned to help a new king. This involvement caused him to be exiled when the king was overthrown. Li again wandered the Yang Tze valley to be immersed in its gorgeous scenery and poetry.
Life in the world is but a big dream
I will not spoil it by any labor or care.
So saying, I am drunk all the day,
Lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.
I draw my sword to cut water which won’t stop flowing
And I raise my cup to douse my sorrow, which grows stronger.
Ah, life is such a sad thing that tomorrow
I will undo my hair and sail away in a little boat.
One night, when he was drinking on a boat, music resounded in the sky and the moon glittered in the water. Holding out to grasp the moon, he fell into and was gone with the river.
His Life retold in Art and Poetry
Here is an amazing video depicting his life through art, poetry, and stage performance. Although it is highly romanticized, the historical accounts and poems vividly reflect the ups and downs of this legend.
His Role as the Cao Đài Divine Pope
His role is explained in the following speech by His Holiness Hộ Pháp:
On this occasion, I will speak about His accomplishments as the First Solemn/ August One. He forced Himself to take on the role of the Divine Pope of the Great Faith, that is, the eldest brother of the entire Holy Body of the Supreme Being.
At the embryonic stage, the religious polity was lacking. Under repression by secular powers, I did not know the meaning of the Supreme Being's mission... His Great Immortal Li taught and counseled us many times. He came to govern the Faith organization. Because of His immense love for the Supreme Being, He followed His Will to become the Divine Pope of the Great Faith. However, when He wanted to punish any Divinely Ordained Dignitary, the Supreme Being complained, reproached, and told us not to lose our bond. They hardly read the Holy teachings of the Supreme Being and only plotted to damage the Faith. Hearing the reprimand of His Holiness Li, the Supreme Being was so sad that He composed this poem:
How can I be happy when my children suffer
Who doesn't hurt to have part of them cut off
Giving them power, it may just tear them apart
How much I want to rid Myself of this king's outfit.
How can He be happy when His Holiness Li reproached His children. I knew that the Supreme Being and our eldest brother were at odds with each other... As the Supreme Being was afraid that I would follow the words of His Holiness, He intervened at every seance. "Listen to Me for everything; do not follow Li Bai." If I had not followed Him, the Faith would have been destroyed. Internally, we were in disorder; externally, political parties sabotaged the true religion of the Supreme Being. He showed me the danger facing the Faith and how everyone was conducting themselves. He told me to follow His words to change the situation; otherwise, the Faith's polity would be reduced to nothing. There was no unanimity: on one side were the teachings of the Supreme Being; on the other were those of our eldest brother. I did not know whom to follow and was confused for six months... I was caught in the middle. He kept me at a seance from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., not letting me go anywhere. He forced me to read His words about the danger. Unless I made a proper decision, it would have been better for me to leave the Faith. I understood that He forced me to follow. When I did, He was overjoyed. I hardly understood why He was joyful; probably because I learned the dharma of Divine Power...
Once I followed His Will, the Supreme Being was disappointed. Our Great Merciful Father knew that He could not protect the disobedient children, and that His Holiness was determined to expel devils from the religion. He knew sect formation was inevitable which would bring disorder out of control. After I followed His Holiness, the Supreme Being stopped coming for three months. When the Supreme Being proclaimed the re-inaugural ceremony for our Pope, He Himself summoned His Holiness. His Holiness resigned from the role. Alas! It was a time of many changes. When He could persuade His Holiness to return, the Supreme Being could not oppose Him anymore. He reminded the Sacerdotal Council to hold a great ceremony for the inauguration. I think no king can deliver a speech like His. In the Collection of Divine Messages, there are four poem lines:
"Cửu tử kim triêu đắc phục hườn,
Hạnh phùng Thiên mạng đạo khai nguơn.
Thế trung kỵ tử hà tri tử,
Tử giả hà tồn chủ "tịch hương".
The first line means that His Holiness was disincarnated a long time ago but is revived today in the Holy Body. The second line: He is happy to undertake the Divine mission to usher in a new Cycle. Why did He say that? I already explained that between the last period of the Third Cycle and the first period of the Fourth One, He comes for a reason. The third line: people are afraid of death but do not know what death is. He posed the question and said that females are the source of vitality for mankind. If they were to perish, why did He come to lead them?
Now, let us talk about His authority. He Himself wrote:
"Ánh Thái Cực biến sanh Thái Bạch,
Hiện Kim Tinh trọng trách Linh Tiêu.
Quyền năng vưng thửa Thiên Triều,
Càn Khôn thế giái dắt dìu Tinh Quân."
The first line means that when Taiji exploded and illuminated, that light is Him. The Supreme Being performed the Dharma... The second line: all the realms and planets receive His light; the governing light is Him. The third line: His power is in line with Divine Laws. The fourth line: all the realms in the universe are guided by Him.
Once hailed by the Investiture of gods
He was reborn during the Tang time
TaiBai governed a dynasty
The world visited by an Immortal
China was blessed by a drunk poet
Who leads the Xian Way in Heaven
His return is bid by Providence
To pronounce the Amnesty for salvation.
Questions for Contemplation
Why are you going after a certain role, if any? For those working in public roles, what mission are you pursuing?
What do you think the Divine Will is in this Third Amnesty? What is the Tao?
How can one tell apart devilry from divinity?
Trần, Văn Rạng. Đức Lý Thái Bạch - Giáo Tông Đại Đạo. The Cao Đài Sacerdotal Council, 1973.
Li Bai – Official Video. China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater, 2021.
His Holiness Ho Phap. Collection of Sermons by His Holiness Ho Phap. Center for the Study of the Cao Đài Religion.