深則蓄 蓄則伸 伸則下 下則定 定則固 固則萌 萌則長 長則退 則天
天機舂在上 地機舂在下 順則生 逆則死
Deepen then store
Store then expand
Expand then descend
Descend then stabilize
Stabilize then densify
Densify then sprout
Sprout then grow
Grow then withdraw
Heaven pivots up
Earth pivots down
Comply then live
Oppose then die
Check out this old piece of jade inscribed with a pithy guide to qi-cultivation from the Warring States period, around the time of Laozi. It seems to have been some kind of pendant or a knob on a staff. The inscription describes the process of internal qi-cultivation and warns of the peril of improper practice. Chances are this piece was transmitted along with detailed oral guidance. This inscription is considered one of the oldest artifacts evidencing qi-cultivation, and I would also say it pretty clearly addresses the process later known as Neidan (internal alchemy), as it succinctly describes the alchemical process. Many of the characters are also used by Laozi and later Neidan texts. While it could be that this guidance was written specific to a particular practitioner, it appears general enough to apply to all practitioners.
As per traditional writing, the characters start at the upper right and go downward, the columns then proceeding to the left. The two short horizontal lines (meaning “two”) at the lower right of many of the characters are doubling marks, used in Zhou-era script to indicate repeating the character. The stone is cut into twelve sides, with three characters on each side – so there’s a total of 36 written characters, however including repeated characters there are 44 (yikes! an inauspicious number, perhaps this is why doubling marks are used). I have rendered the characters horizontally from left to right, have inserted the repeated characters, have inserted spaces between phrases, and have broken it into three sections. Let’s look at each phrase in detail as it relates to our practice of Zuowang & Neidan.
Circulate qi (xíng qì, 行氣)
This first phrase serves as both the title of the script and its first line. Xing (行) means to move or circulate – this is the character used for the Five Elements or Phases. Qi (氣) here may apply to moving or sitting practices alike. Whether moving or still, qi circulates. While we may interpret this and each subsequent phrase as instruction for what we “ought to do”, in our tradition of wuweidao we view this inscription – as well as most Neidan instruction – as describing what happens effortlessly of itself when we just “sit & forget” regularly over a period of time. Correct circulation of qi is the natural function of Dao, we don’t need to make happen through effort or intention. Yet guidelines for correct circulation are invaluable, given human beings’ tendency to mismanage our qi.
Deepen then store (shēn zé xù, 深則蓄)
Regular qi-circulation deepens (深) the qi, just as water flowing in the same place over time cuts a channel in the earth. In both Zuowang & Neidan, the qi turns inward, going deep into the dantian. While this inward shift isn’t about strenuous effort, we do need to give it the chance to happen – this is the whole purpose of formal practice. Otherwise the “deep channels” manifest as karmic entanglements thieving away the qi. Such thieving and qi-mismanagement is addressed in important Daoist texts such as the Yinfu Jing & Qingjing Jing.
“Ze” (則) refers to sequencing – this, then that. While we could approach these sequences by deliberately shifting gears in practice, our tradition reads these transitions as natural progressions of a single practice, not instigated by intention.
So, just like water flowing into a pool, as we let the qi flow deep inside, we naturally store (蓄) it up.
Store then expand (xù zé shēn, 蓄則伸)
As we store up the qi, of itself it expands (伸), just as water in a pool rises higher & higher. This expansion exerts a positive pressure in every direction.
Expand then descend (shēn zé xià, 伸則下)
As the qi expands, it naturally becomes both heavier & lighter at the same time, exerting more pressure downward (下) at the base of the channel even while feeling freer to roam. One thing we want to watch for here is that the expanding qi doesn’t just float away. Keep it down.
Descend then stabilize (xià zé ding, 下則定)
As we let the qi sink – and let it keep sinking & keep sinking – it becomes stable (定). Ding is the term used to translate the Buddhist word “Samadhi”. But for Daoists it’s more about stabilizing qi rather than fixing the mind. The Tang Dynasty scriptures Dingguan Jing & Zuowang Lun go into more detail about the process of stabilization. Ding is also a homophone for cauldron, a Neidan reference to the lower dantian.
Stabilize then densify (dìng zé gù, 定則固)
As we continue to abide sunken and stable, the qi of itself becomes very, very dense (固). As though the entire universe is being compressed into a single point. But this is not about strenuous focus! The body remains limber and at ease, the mind remains calm and open. At this point not only do we feel the lower dantian densifying, we may also feel it in the bone marrow throughout the entire body. Deep, stable, dense.
Densify then sprout (gù zé méng, 固則萌)
This densification causes a kind of grinding feeling that excites an internal movement like a pressure cooker – referred to here as sprouting (萌). Sprouting might manifest as subtle internal thunder or jerking spasms in the torso or limbs, as we are talking about a lot of power here. These spasms may have a blissful quality as this is an internal stirring of jing (embodiment-essence). This is where keeping our practice effortless and natural is really important. It’s also important that we not actively try to sprout the qi – the emergence of young yang happens of its own, inevitably, if our densifying practice is correct. Zhang Boduan, in his seminal Song Dynasty Neidan work, Wuzhen Pian, referred to this stage as the emergence of the Mysterious Pearl. Precious.
Sprout then grow (méng zé zhǎng, 萌則長)
If we stay with this cultivation as described above – and don’t let the sprouted qi spill outward too much – the sprout grows & grows (長). This character has a homograph that means constancy, but I think grow is meant here as it follows sprouting. But this is not an external expansion – it is growing in an internal direction. And rising upward from a stable base.
Grow then withdraw (zhǎng zé tuì, 長則退)
As the sprout grows inward & upward, eventually it reaches the mountain peak. This means withdrawing (退) from manifestation. This character includes the radical for movement (辶) as well as the 7th trigram (艮, ☶) – so we can literally translate it as the qi “goes to the mountain”. Mountain refers to the baiwei at the top of the head. The character for mountain shows an eye gazing inward – suggesting the practice of neiguan (inner observation). “Going to the mountain” is also a term used for going on retreat or becoming a monk.
Then Heaven (zé tiān, 則天)
I’m not sure why the character for withdraw isn’t repeated here – it may be due to a rhyming pattern. Most translators add it in. As the qi withdraws to the mountain, it reaches the sky. Heaven (天) doesn’t really mean the manifest sky but rather the pure yang creative force referenced in the Yijing. This ascension is not like strenuously climbing a steep staircase – it is rather like rising mists that float effortlessly upward when conditions are correct.
Heaven pivots up (tiān jī chōng zài shàng, 天機舂在上)
Earth pivots down (dì jī chōng zài xià, 地機舂在下)
These lines are tricky to translate. It’s not just “Heaven is above, Earth is below.” 機 is a mechanism or pivot (the character suggests a sharp wooden tool and is an important term in the Yinfu Jing); 舂 means to grind in a mortar. So we can say Heaven processes things upward (上), Earth processes things downward (下). I think the meaning here is that returning to Heaven “hinges” on the process outlined above.
Comply then live (shùn zé sheng, 順則生)
Oppose then die (nì zé sǐ, 逆則死)
Following (順) the process outlined above leads from Earth (pure yin) to Heaven (pure yang). Returning to Heaven means eternal life (長生) – but it’s important to understand that we are not talking about enabling our emergent identity to last forever. As Liu Ming says: “an immortal self would be like eternal pollution.” Immortality (仙) refers to a person who has withdrawn to the mountain – the character shows a person (亻) and a mountain (山).
Opposing (逆) this process leads to certain death (死) – ever disconnected from Heaven. The Yinfu Jing & Qingjing Jing further address these perils.
These lines resonate with Laozi’s saying “the sage leaves that and takes this” from Dao De Jing Chapter 12. This is the basis of precepts in Daoism – parameters for correct practice and qi-management. By correct, we mean natural alignment with the Dao of Heaven.
This twelve-sided stone includes pithy, simple guidelines – yet quite a bit more complex than our instruction in Zuowang. We don’t need to remember all this. But we do need to make sure our practice is correct. It’s not really enough just to sit without some sense of what happens when the qi is cultivating properly. This is where some engagement in Neidan teaching & practice can be really helpful for Zuowang practitioners. It’s also a good idea to engage in discussion with experienced practitioners about what is happening with our practice. I hope this work helps to illuminate what is happening with the qi in your practice.