Jing, Qi, & Shen (精氣神)

Jing-Qi-Shen.jpgLet’s look at the basic concepts of “jing”, “qi”, & “shen”.  These are collectively known as the “Three Treasures” (sānbǎo, 三宝) of internal alchemy.  They are often translated as “body”, “breath”, & “mind”, which is a good trio but not really a complete translation.  It’s helpful to understand these terms, and the view behind them, to effectively practice Daoist cultivation.

Jing (精) is vital-essence – the tendency for form & substance to appear in the world, our tendency to become embodied creatures.  We receive jing from our parents at conception and from our mother during gestation.  Jing is associated with fluids and contains our ancestral DNA; the Chinese consider it to hold our fate or destiny – “Heaven’s command” regarding our unique capacities and pre-dispositions.  The quality of our jing depends on the quality of our parents’ jing during conception and gestation, as well as our own conduct in life, particularly our movement and nutrition.

Qi (氣, pronounced “chee”) is vital-energy – movement, breath, time, change.  The ever-revolving walk of Dao.  The unfolding movement of our jing.  Qi is associated with wind and fire.  But it is also often used as a shorthand for everything, including jing & shen.  Qi can refer to different kinds of energy in different contexts.  In internal alchemy it generally refers to heat and movement.  We have internal qi, and there is also the qi of the environment and cosmos.

Shen (神) is vital-spirit – awareness.  The experience of jing-qi.  According to Daoism, we have 5 kinds of shen, associated with the 5 phases/elements (Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, & Water).  The 5 shen are different aspects of consciousness.  In the Daoist view, shen is not entitative in nature but is more like drops from a boundless ocean.  Our original shen emerges fresh and pure from the unborn origin, but as it splits into 5 it takes on conditions based on our jing & qi, as well as how we manage our mind.

Jing, qi, & shen are all really the same “stuff” – just different parts of a tripartite spectrum.  Jing is the most coarse, shen is the most fine.  These correspond to Earth, Humankind, & Heaven, respectively.

Jing, qi, & shen exist in two states, known as xiantian & houtian.  Xiantian (先天) translates as “before Heaven” or “pre-celestial” and refers to our innate nature before being shaped by the winds of Heaven.  Houtian (後天) translates as “after Heaven” or “post-celestial” and refers to our acquired condition based on how the winds have shaped us and how we have conducted ourselves.

The Three Treasures collectively comprise our life.  The three traditional deities of ritual Daoism – San Qing (三清) or Three Purities – are simply symbolic representations of the Three Treasures in their pure, unmanifest form.  What appears to be deity worship in Daoist ritual is actually a way of re-calibrating our post-celestial jing, qi, & shen to their original, pure condition.

There is a lot more we can say about these terms; this post is simply intended to present basic definitions for reference in future discussions.

Heaven, Earth, & Humankind

Tien-Di-RenThe fundamental triad of Chinese philosophy is Heaven, Earth, & Humankind.  Let’s look at what these terms mean as a whole and individually, and how they relate to meditation & qi-cultivation.

Heaven (tiān, 天) in the manifest world is the wide-open sky, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yang – the creative source.  Pure motivating light.  It’s not some special place where believers go but rather is the original impetus of all manifestation.  It relates to spirit/awareness.

Earth (dì, 地) in the manifest world is the solid ground beneath our feet, but in Chinese philosophy it refers to pure yin – a wide-open field.  Earth receives the motivating activity of Heaven, enabling it to manifest.  While it relates to material like the planetary earth or our body, the meaning is more like the mother that receives a seed from father and nurtures it to life.

Humankind (rén, 人) – or what I prefer to translate more broadly as “sentient beings” – is the fruit of the union of Heaven & Earth.  While in the manifest world Heaven is above and Earth is below, the understanding in Chinese philosophy is that first Heaven initiates, then Earth nurtures, then life emerges forth.

Collectively, Tian-Di-Ren represent the vertical structure of the cosmos.  But structure isn’t really the correct word, because the Chinese view of the cosmos is not material but energetic.  A more appropriate word would be process – the vertical process of how things come into being.

Heaven acts in the field of Earth, then Earth processes it and gives birth to some resultant thing.  All life springs up from the Earth below, it doesn’t just fall from Heaven.  Even birds nest on the Earth.  But just as mother must be fertilized by father, the Chinese understand this springing up of life as an upward bounce from the descending qi of Heaven.  (Hence the lines of the Zhou Yi Jing start at the bottom and then rise upward).

In Laozi’s meditation & qi-cultivation, we model our practice on Dao.  As Laozi says, “the motion of Dao is return”.  So a primary aspect of Daoist cultivation is returning human beings to pure yang.  Shifting from the generative to the returning direction is called neidan or internal alchemy.

To embody the returning motion of Dao, we first align ourselves with the vertical axis of Heaven & Earth – in sitting, standing, and/or moving forms.  Then we become empty like Earth and let the qi drop all the way down.  “Empty the heart-mind and fill the belly.”  With regular practice over a period of time, qi will eventually stir in the lower dantian and start to rise on its own.  This is the reverse bounce.  According to neidan, a true human is one who not only lives as a result of Heaven acting upon Earth, but who can reverse the generative process of Heaven & Earth – drop the qi all the way down and bounce back to Heaven.

The Image of Increase (益)

Yi - Increase - Gu Shen YuThis image comes from the Zhou Yi Jing, Hexagram 42.  It’s a very old version* of the character “yi” (益), which translates as “increase” or “profit”.  It reminds me of the Nei Ye (內業) – a chapter from the 4th-century BCE Guanzi treatise – which is considered the oldest writing explicitly about qi-cultivation practice.

The Nei Yi is all about how to comport ourselves (ye) internally (nei) to be an “abode for Dao”.  It discusses posture, movement, breathing, eating, and managing the emotions.  This is a really important text for Daoist cultivation.  I recommend Harold Roth’s book “Original Tao”, which is about this text.

The image of yi features a horizontal line below, representing a stable base.  One of the most important elements of qi-cultivation is establishing stability down below.  In sitting meditation, this means dropping the qi to the lower dantian.  In Taijiquan, it means developing “root”.  Fundamentally, it means establishing stability amidst the incessant fluctuations of our heart-mind.

Two legs represent yin & yang.  Stability doesn’t mean no flow.  There is a continuous give & take, expansion & contraction, as we breathe in & out, eat & shit, push & yield, and as the qi rises up & down our spine.  These internal changes mimic the external changes of the days and seasons.

The bowl shape represents the notion of vessel, which is the whole basis of the Nei Ye – how to be a vessel or abode for Dao.  As the Nei Ye describes, this depends on staying calm and regulating our conduct so that our internal environment provides a space for Dao to enter and abide.

The three dots above represent jing, qi, & shen – all the ingredients that infuse our body.  On one hand this can represent post-celestial jing, qi, & shen (embodied essence, vital energy, and spirit) – all the internal stuff of our daily life.  On the other hand this can represent the primordial trinity of pre-celestial jing, qi, & shen (represented in Daoist ritual as the Three Purities) entering our body from above.  They collectively represent Dao (the Nei Ye interestingly uses all these terms interchangeably).

The handles on the side represent the fact that this vessel is in our hands – it is our own conduct and practice that shapes our vessel and determines whether Dao can enter and abide.

May this image help our practice.

 

*Thanks to LiSe Lotte Voute for introducing me to this old character.

One Thing

Daoism has a great many fascinating conceptual principles and practice methods.  But our Daoism is really only about one thing – bringing in the raw, creative power of Dao.

If we’re always doing this or doing that – even if it’s some fascinating and profound spiritual practice – Dao will just keep yielding to our movement forever.  It’s not very assertive – it just sits back, staying hidden and silent, allowing us to do as we please.

But if we take up the mantle of yin – empty ourselves completely – this provides a space for the shy power of Dao to come through.  As Laozi suggests, it’s like we have to become a passive, quiet, and submissive maiden to encourage the reluctant Dao to bring forth its own yang.

If we’re not clear about this one thing, then it really doesn’t matter whether we can perform the myriad methods – we’re simply technicians operating in the dark.  But if we are clear about this one thing, then we can use the myriad methods to effectively support our practice.

The raw power comes down from above and enters though the top of the head.  The entry point is the soft spot just in front of the crown – the fontanel.  We want to keep this spot soft like a newborn baby’s.  We also want to avoid too much thinking or exertion and just let the incoming power settle down to the lower dantian.  From there it will gather and grow, rebounding to reach the fingers and toes and every pore of the skin, pervading the entire body.  It’s like bathing in a sweet elixir all the way through.  Foundational practices are so important to enable us to receive this power without collapsing or going crazy.  Keeping the head open and the base stable in formal practice and the moment-to-moment informal conduct of our daily lives is the central method of wuweidao.

Hexagram 42

“Yi” (Hexagram 42) courtesy of LiSe Lotti Voute.