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.

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.

Staying with Reality – A Look at Dao-De (道德)

Let’s look at the term Dao-De.  This is of course the title of Laozi’s Dao De Jing, the pithy seed-text that inspired one of the most complex & elaborate – and insightful – religious traditions in world history.

Dao-De translates directly as “way-virtue”.  It is commonly translated as “the Way and its Virtue” – but that translation is a bit lofty and remote.  What does it mean?  Let’s look at each character and come up with a fresh translation.

The character Dao (道) consists of 3 parts: grass + itself + walking.  Grass growing by itself.  I see this image as a metaphor for the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures from the primordial origin – the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death.  The Great Thoroughfare.  The character can also be read as an eye & foot, suggesting constant awareness through changing conditions.  Dao is not some remote cosmic power but the very process of our own experience unfolding moment-by-moment, of itself.

The character De (德) also consists of 3 parts: upright + heart + stepping.  Stepping with an upright heart.  Upright suggests verticality, which in Chinese means alignment with Heaven.  Stepping on Earth in alignment with Heaven means conducting ourselves moment-to-moment in accordance with the unfolding Dao, with acceptance, humility, and benevolence.

Dao-De then is staying with the natural movement of Dao, letting ourselves dissolve into the Great Thoroughfare.  Keeping our heart aligned with Heaven amidst the changes of Earth.  This means not straying into the past or future, not wanting things to be other than as they are, simply staying with reality.  Not resisting reality is what Laozi calls “wuwei”.

In the context of meditation & qi-cultivation, this view of Dao-De means our practice methods are not geared toward reaching any particular destination but rather are ways to walk on the very ground beneath our feet.

How do we stay with reality?  The Daoist tradition gives us 10,000 methods, but central to them all: watch your step.  “Sitting quietly, doing nothing – spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”