Xing Qi (行氣) Jade Inscription

Xing Qi Jade Inscription

Xing Qi Jade Inscription - flattened

行氣

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

 

 

Circulate qi

 

Deepen then store

Store then expand

Expand then descend

Descend then stabilize

Stabilize then densify

Densify then sprout

Sprout then grow

Grow then withdraw

Then Heaven

 

Heaven pivots up

Earth pivots down

Comply then live

Oppose then die

 

 

Commentary

 

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 (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.

Three Kinds of Internal Cultivation

In our school, as is common in Daoist traditions, we take three distinct approaches to internal cultivation: neigong, neidan, & neiguan.  The term for internal cultivation is neixiu (內修) – nei (內) means internal; xiu (修) means to study, repair, or cultivate.

The notion of internal cultivation holds prominence in Chinese traditions, particularly Daoism.  But exactly what “internal” means isn’t always clear, and different traditions often define it differently.  Distinguishing internal from external requires that we establish some threshold, some barrier between inside & outside.  As far as I can tell, there is no absolute barrier; it just depends on where we define the threshold.  I have heard people define internal to mean anything from arts that emerged within the borders of Han China, to esoteric traditions that maintain secret teachings reserved for insiders, to martial arts that cultivate the use of qi instead of li (brute strength).  All of these have relevance within Daoism, but the one we’re most concerned with here is the cultivation of jing-qi-shen.

Each approach to internal cultivation has its own distinct view, method, & fruition.  They don’t all necessarily lead to the same result.  It’s a good idea to be clear about what our view is, and what approach we are taking in our various practices.

Neigong (內功) means internal work, practice, or skill.  It means to practice with an inward focus, with the intention to develop some improved state.  Gongfu is a special skill developed by arduous practice.  The purpose of neigong is to improve or maintain our internal condition – nourishing jing-qi-shen to support our health and vitality, and to promote longevity.  It’s like the idea of yangsheng (養生) – nourishing life, which we often refer to as qi-hygiene.  Qigong, Taijiquan, & Yoga are all forms of neigong, but we can also practice natural walking or any other moving or still activities as effective neigong once we are familiar with its principles.  The best neigong is that which is appropriate for our condition right now, and this changes with time and is not the same for everyone.

Neidan (內丹) means internal elixir or alchemy.  Neidan is not only about improving our internal condition, and it’s not merely about well-being or longevity, but returning our experience to the state before birth.  This transformation is similar to the idea of transforming delusion into enlightenment or sin into holiness.  It is a gradual, progressive process with clear concepts and distinct stages, and a precious, exalted goal.

Neiguan (內觀) means internal observation.  To look inside.  The character for guan shows a heron’s gaze, suggesting keen observation.  Guan also means “view” and is the word used for Daoist temple.  It is the word my teacher chose as the title for his Dao De Jing translation, as our tradition considers Laozi’s text to be the central view-teaching manual for the practice of neiguan, which we refer to as Zuowang.  Neiguan differs from the other two in that it isn’t fundamentally goal-oriented.  It’s not about improvement or transformation.  We can make it about these things, but that “making” is extra baggage from the perspective of our practice.

How do these approaches relate to each other?  Generally, a beginner or someone recovering from illness or injury is well-advised to cultivate neigong to build up their internal health and vitality.  When jing-qi-shen is smooth and abundant, then practicing neidan is possible.  We are well-advised to continue practicing neigong as long as we have a body, as it provides a base for life and neidan.  Neiguan is not part of this progressive spectrum.  Neiguan is relevant for the beginner – it is probably a good idea to introduce neiguan from the very beginning, as it sets the stage for proper neigong.  Neiguan also helps us to perceive our internal state to understand our needs.  Then when we start working with neidan, neiguan is there as a neutral source of support and stabilization.  As our practice of neidan comes to fruition, there we are in neiguan just as we were at the beginning.  Our tradition says proper neiguan brings about neidan effortlessly, and neidan simply culminates in an empowered state of neiguan.

I invite you to consider your practice methods and make sure you are clear about which of these you are practicing and why.