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.
I had the pleasure of conversing with Stuart Goodnick & Rob Schmidt, owners of Many Rivers Books & Tea in Sebastopol, on their radio program, the Mystical Positivist, on March 23, 2019:
One of my favorite stories that Zen Master Seung Sahn used to tell is about a monk in Korea several hundred years ago named Sok Du, which means “Rock Head”. Not the shiniest head in the monastery, but he had a very strong question. He couldn’t understand sutras so he tried Zen, but even Zen was too difficult for him, so he just practiced working around the monastery.
One day he told the resident Zen master he was tired of being so dull and confused. The master told him he needed to ask a good question. So Sok Du asked “What is Buddha?” The master answered “Juk shim shi bul” which means “Buddha is heart-mind”, but Sok Du heard “Jip shin shi bul” which means “Buddha is grass shoes”.
Huh? Sok Du was stuck. What could this mean? He didn’t understand. He didn’t bother asking the master for any explanation. In his dim-witted sincerity, he only kept this question as he continued working around the monastery. Three years later he had a major breakthrough and returned to his teacher, who verified his experience.
Zen Master Seung Sahn used this story to demonstrate how little conceptual understanding we need to wake up to our true nature. He often said: “Understanding cannot help you.”
I like this story because it demonstrates the non-conceptual nature of paths like Zen. This story would be ridiculous in conceptual schools, which require very meticulous understanding of the finer points of the teaching and very precise instruction on the correct methods of practice, often requiring many years if not decades of careful study.
Sok Du may not have realized it, but he was practicing the correct method of gong-an/hua-tou style Zen. This isn’t the same practice as wuweidao – I don’t want to conflate them, however the view is quite similar even if the qi-posture is quite different. Gong-an practice takes our aggressive energy and re-directs it toward awakening, whereas wuweidao relaxes aggression at the source. But they are both non-conceptual practices that do not rely on a sophisticated understanding of sutras or scriptures.
Recall that Laozi distinguishes Dao from learning – they are not the same thing. If our spiritual practice is based on adding layers of understanding, we are not practicing Laozi’s wuweidao.
I suppose this reads as a sort of manifesto for stupidity. A better word is probably simplicity. Laozi observes that our nature conceals itself from cleverness but reveals itself in simplicity. What are we to do?
Eat, breath, move, rest.
A question sometimes arises in people who enjoy Laozi’s laissez-faire teaching: why would we need to practice sitting meditation or any other formal practice? To be sure, Laozi’s teaching does not mandate any formal practice. Fundamentally speaking, in fact, the teaching itself need not arise.
But it does arise – this indicates the need for teaching, or at least some appetite for teaching. Laozi doesn’t recognize any grand fall from grace, but he does recognize that human beings have a tendency to lose our way. Thus, teaching & practice (Hygiene, Meditation, & Ritual) appear.
The teaching simply points to our own natural, uncontrived experience. It shifts our qi-orientation back to what is so of itself (Dao-De).
According to my wuweidao lineage teacher, we have four mandated practices: breathing, eating, moving, & resting. Everything else is details. Options for how to cultivate these mandates.
So no, we don’t need to practice sitting meditation. We don’t need to chant. We don’t need any altars, any scriptures. We don’t need any Taiji forms. We don’t need fengshui or astrology or divination.
Yet there are ways to breathe, eat, move, & rest that bring about discomfort, disease, and death before our time, and there are ways to breathe, eat, move, & rest that support natural comfort, ease, and longevity. So we sit, we chant, we keep altars, practice Taiji forms, adjust fengshui, study astrology, cast yarrow stalks to inform our conduct… we practice the myriad methods with the view of wuwei. The forms are empty, but when we cultivate them without attachment or struggle, they somehow bear unexpected fruit (View-Method-Fruition). I don’t understand, but I can say the fruit is sweet.
There is no pressure to accomplish anything in wuweidao, just methods to stay with our own uncontrived nature – which is constantly abiding, effortlessly of itself. It doesn’t need our practice. But it does seem to like our attention. Firm discipline is an expression of reverence for Dao, but it’s not about struggle. It’s just about bringing the qi back home. As our practice matures, what may appear to others to be uptight discipline, actually feels easy, maybe even a bit indulgent on the inside.
This ripening comes from a relaxed view and disciplined practice. So let’s forget about necessary or unnecessary and just settle into the ease of practice. That’s what it’s here for.