Saturday, April 21, 2007

Key Terms from Daoism

People who don't have access to a good Daoist teacher will often hear some pretty mysterious terms. I've spent decades studying the subject, so I thought that I'd share my own understanding of the following words. I will admit that I am not the final authority on the subject, but I have yet to hear any better discussion of the terms. Hopefully these will help others avoid wasting some of the time I have---.

Qi Gong (Nei Dan): Most people don't know that the term "qi gong" or "chi kung" is actually a modern invention. Until the Republican revolution in China, these practices were called "Nei Dan" and were specifically spiritual in nature. They were part of a religious system called "internal alchemy" and were designed to help a Daoist refine their spiritual essence through a three-stage program of refinement. This sort of alchemy was not designed to change lead into gold, but rather to change an ordinary human being into a much better person. Since the initial stage of this three stage process is to increase human vitality, they are often very good exercises for human health. The Republican government wanted to retain the health value of these practices while it rejected any religious overtone. As a result, they created a new name "Qi Gong" and tried to get rid of the alchemaical elements.

Immortal: People often talk about the idea that the goal of Daoist practice is to become an "immortal" with the idea that some people literally do not die and live forever. But if you take a look at both the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, they both "pooh pooh" this idea. In the Laozi there is a passage that says "to die and not be forgotten, that is true immortality". Zhuangzi talks about "transformations" and mentions the death of great masters with the implication that while death may simply be one more transformation and nothing to be feared---it is still inevitable. My understanding is that the word for "immortal" (xian) may also be translated as "realized man" or "shaman" or "mountain man" or "alchemist" or "wizard". I would suggest that any idea of physical immortality is something that has crept into the meaning of the term because non-Daoist outsiders spread wild rumours about old men in the mountains that have been there "forever". (In a society with a very low life expectency, anyone who lived into their 60's or 70's could easily have seemed to be immortal to outsiders!) Certainly, my understanding is that all mature Daoists accept the inevitability of death and seek through their studies the realization that would make them unafraid of their eventual demise.

Jing: This term is often translated as "sperm", but I think a much better term would be something like "life energy" or "vitality". The term used is important, because many people take the term to literally mean seminal fluid, with the result in a wide range of weird sexual practices ranging from celibacy through to tying weignts onto the testicals! The important issue is that someone should conserve their Jing through practicing a healthy lifestyle.

Qi or Chi: This is often translated as "breathe", but I think that it is better understood as "consciousness" or "bodily awareness". When we practice neidan the point is that we need to be aware of what is happening in all the different parts of the body. This is what it means to "project the chi" into a specific part of the body. This fits in with the way other religious systems use the breath as a word for the "essence" of what it means to be a human---such as "prana" in Hinduism and "pneuma" in Christianity. This is a much more productive way of understanding the term than when we think of "qi" as some sort of weird, cosmic force that people can never really explain.

Shen: This is very rarely mentioned by Westerners, who tend to focus more on Qi. But the traditional understanding of Nei Dan practitioners is that Jing turns into Qi which turns into Shen. Usually it is translated as "spirit", but I think it is more useful to think of it in terms of "wisdom" or "integrity", since those are words that mean a lot more to most people. The process of studying nei dan is ultimately not to have weird powers or to live forever, but to become the best human beings we can possibly be. And the process of being more and more aware of the world around us is how we become wise. And this is only possible if we treasure and conserve the gift of life.

The greatest truths in life are quite humble, yet they require a lifetime of practice to understand. Thus we come back to the basic truth of Kung Fu.


David said...

Good explanations!

It's unfortunate when people attempt to practice Qi Gong outside the scope of Daoism. It loses a lot of its effectiveness. I would mention, though, that there are many different types of Qi Gong that relate more to jing than qi.

I have to clear up the piece on immortality though. Agreed, it has nothing to do with the western imagination's idea of physically living forever. Rather, it's the end result of internal alchemy. Don't think the purification and refinement of jing to qi to shen is an end in itself -- that's just the preparation. Then it's time to cook. The steps of and following that essentially allow the transfer of spirit out of the physical body, thereby enabling "immortality" since the spirit is no longer tied to a mortal body. The physical body will still die when its qi has dissipated.

Bill Hulet said...


Thanks for the comments. I have to admit that part of my comments about neidan come from my own personal fixation with trying to become a wise person. That's been pretty much my own personal goal from square one, since it struck me that only a wise person would know what a wise person should be trying to achieve. ;-) I've also read quite a few scriptures that wisdom is the most important thing for anyone to seek.

Having said that, I do appreciate the value of what Zen Buddhists call the "mysterious realm" and thought I'd do a posting about that some time.

Great to hear from you!