Daoist Neidan: Lineage and Secrecy Challenges for Western Adepts
By Michael Winn
October, 2002. I’m sipping tea with Chen Yuming, vice abbot of Mt. Hua. We’re in Qingkeping monastery; above us sheer granite cliff rises up three thousand feet to West Peak. It’s my fourth visit in four years to this sacred Daoist mountain, and we are now good friends. He’s arranged hidden caves for me and my neidan students to meditate in, but I’ve carefully avoided ever asking him about his personal neidan practice. Today, I casually ask if he would like to meditate with me.
Chen Yuming flips open his cell phone. He must get permission, he informs me. He calls his neidan teacher, and after an animated discussion, permission is finally granted. I ask him if the concern is that meditating with a “foreign devil” might pollute him spiritually. He smiles, and replies, “I am not allowed to meditate with anyone outside of our very small circle of initiates. It’s to avoid any disturbing influences”.
We meditate for several hours in silence. The qi field, in my perception, is “cooking”. Afterwards, Chenyuming says with obvious surprise: “That was fantastic!” I share with him the Seven Dao Formulas for Immortality of hermit One Cloud I’ve been exploring for twenty years. He shakes his head. “Those are very deep secrets. Very few in China know these methods”.
He had difficulty grasping that these inner alchemy methods are being offered to anyone in the West who wishes to study them. On Huashan, outside of small private circles, there is little public discussion of the deeper aspects of Dao. As a small example, I am told that Daoist cosmology is not something that would be casually discussed or debated at meals amongst the monks.
Daoist internal alchemy lineages are amongst the most secretive in Chinese culture. They rely on one-to-one or small group transmission and loyalty to lineage. Many Daoist adepts belong to what is called the “School of Seclusion, or Hidden Secrets”. The premise: after admission to a tiny club of initiates, the adept is taught most people are not worthy nor capable of receiving the transmission. Because each adept must pass on their knowledge to only one worthy student – which is a lengthy process that doesn’t always happen – neidan within China is in danger of being slowly strangled into extinction by the School of Seclusion.
Secrecy is a huge barrier to the appropriation of Daoist spiritual technology by Western seekers. Westerners are considered untrustworthy, and face cultural racism as well. I once heard a Chinese teacher declare “Westerners are incapable of experiencing qi, because they can’t speak Chinese”. But learning Chinese doesn’t much improve your chances of piercing the veil of secrecy. Chinese texts describe secret neidan practices, but they are “protected” by obscure alchemical code words only initiates can understand. Only close friendship and trust opens the closed doors of neidan.
Why all the secrecy? Ostensibly, to protect the purity of the lineage and prevent corruption by selfish people who might abuse the spiritual power gained. “Do not leak the secrets of the universe” is an ancient adage. One fear is that the secret methods will be used by power-hungry demon immortals to obstruct the will of Heaven. Other Daoists in China tell me: “We don’t know why the ancients kept it so secret. We just imitate them”. If this secrecy poses a steep challenge to ordinary Chinese, it is a quadruply high barrier for Westerners.
The most visible counter-force to this secrecy has come from Thai-Chinese teacher Mantak Chia, the most prolific modern appropriator and publisher of Daoist esoteric methods. (Ni Hua Ching, based in Los Angeles, has published more books than Chia’s thirty-plus books, but rarely gives away detailed methods). I was editor of Chia’s Healing Tao Books for fifteen years, and ghostwriter or co-author of the first seven books that established his fame. Looking back, I was culturally very naïve. I didn’t realize the impact the appropriation process would have on Chinese people. I was shocked to discover how Chia was disliked, even hated, by some Chinese for revealing their “national treasures”.
Example: an “inner door” student told me he spent ten years groveling before his Chinese sifu in New York city to get his “daoist secret of secrets” – which turned out to be the “Small Heavenly Round” (a.k.a. Microcosmic Orbit). The student was flabbergasted to discover far more complete information on the Orbit in Chia’s $12. book Awaken Healing Energy Through the Tao (Aurora,1983). Its publication, he told me, caused his sifu to lose face and undermined him economically.
The publication of Healing Dao neidan materials forced other Chinese teachers in the West to publish their secrets or at a minimum, become more open in revealing their methods. Market competition exerted strong pressure on the flow of spiritual technology. That pressure is today amplified by the growing power of the web, where seekers expect to find open disclosure of what is being offered.
A Chinese man once indignantly asked Chia: “why are you revealing these precious Chinese methods to foreigners?” Chia, perhaps to save face, lied by assuaging him: “I don’t give foreigners everything – I keep the most important part secret”. The truth is that Mantak Chia, like myself, are “new world” Daoists who believe in openly sharing the appropriated technology as widely as possible, to advance a tradition of Dao liberated from the stifling secrecy of China. This conflicts with traditional Chinese esotericism, even as it fulfills the experimental nature of Daoist culture by spreading it to the West.
Healing Dao’s success in the West, at its core, is the offer of an “open architecture” of esoteric Daoist practices that are not owned by anyone, and do not require allegiance or obedience to someone “controlling” that lineage in far away China. After receiving qigong or oral neidan transmission – often by audio or video – each adept must take responsibility for the integrity of their practice and life. Unfit students get screened out during the long progressive training.
This openness has attracted people from all paths eager to embrace the inner nature of their body as mapped by Daoists. Many Westerners are attracted to Healing Tao methods by a desire to better manage their sexual energy or heal a physical ailment with qigong. But this quickly deepens into the realization they must deepen their relationship with the entire qi field, and often leads to study of One Cloud’s Seven Alchemy Formulas for Achieving Immortality.
I believe the time for secrecy is over; we live in a different era. It’s a far greater danger to Earth to not empower a spiritually hungry and more educated public. Powerful spiritual technologies are needed to balance the domination, environmental degradation, and possible destruction of the planet by abuse of material technology. If “demon immortals” are the hidden movers behind this out-of-control application of technology, they have already nearly succeeded in chaining humanity to a polluted and greed-ridden existence.
Deep respect must be granted to lineages who guarded the secrets of heaven in centuries past. But the decision to reveal secret methods is a responsible choice in the present moment of time. Daoist lineages ultimately trace their power to their “original ancestors” – direct communion with deep earth, sun, moon, planetary and star beings. A modern adept must respond to the needs of the whole of nature, not to a single human transmitter in China bound by obsolete cultural or spiritual imperatives.
The problem is not simply one of information sharing. It is a truism in neidan that one cannot learn internal alchemy from a book. The eyes and brain filter the energetic transmission and reduce it to mere conceptual information. But I have found that oral transmission is workable by recorded audio. Voice transmits into the ears, bypasses the brain filter and imprints directly into the jing/kidney level where deep bodily transformation happens.
Transmission is the heart of all neidan lineage. A vibrational frequency is energetically transmitted from teacher to student. But in my experience as a neidan teacher, there is no actual “sending”. You cannot force transmission on someone. The teacher creates a field that is alchemically charged with the potential for transformation. It is the student who must “choose” to resonate with or surrender to the vibrational qualities of that transmission. Mantak Chia recently told me “I am happy if twenty percent of the students who come to me can catch my frequency”.
Fifteen hundred years ago in China, ownership of a hand-copied Daoist scripture (usually channeled) was itself proof of spiritual authority and hence ability to transmit a lineage. Later, mass production of books undermined that authority. This forced seekers to evaluate a teaching based on personal resonance with the teachers de or virtue..
In modern mass culture, the initial transmission may occur through a video or audio recording. But the core transmission process may not be that different. Even though a Daoist text may be multiplied out into a million books, or a teacher’s image/voice projected to thousands of people via audio-video recordings – only those who are able to “pick up the frequency” will really get a transmission and be attracted to seek deeper teachings from live connection with the teacher. It’s a self-selecting process, just happening on a mass scale. Critics who claim recordings reduce spiritual teachings to a material commodity miss the point. The Daoist principle behind all alchemy, resonant rapport (gan ying), is still operative even when the training materials are mass-produced.
Although some Westerners seeking Daoist training feel imitation of the Chinese model is the only gauge of authenticity, in my opinion they will have to travel to China to get it. They will suffer the limitations of the School of Seclusion. I have seen no evidence that Chinese Daoist temple or uniformed monastic culture, including the neidan School of Seclusion, will achieve much success in the West.
Quanzhen, the dominant Daoist sect in China today, was designed to harmonize tension after the Mongol Invasion. It synthesized Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Its rapid growth was due to Mongol-Imperial state backing. Today the communist government maintains a similar influence, choosing the abbot of each monastery, and paying a stipend to each registered monk. This state-backing and tri-religion synthesis are irrelevant and not transferable to Western culture.
Western neidan adepts are finding their own way, their own language, and a level of openness suitable to their culture and needs. Chinese Daoists have taken notice of this Western interest in neidan. On my 2004 trip to Huashan’s caves and other Daoist sacred mountains, scholars David Palmer and Elijah Siegler interviewed many Chinese Daoists about their feelings towardsWestern Daoists. They found that the Chinese felt the Western interest in Dao elevated their own status in China and validated their own choice of spiritual path. They did repeatedly express one concern: did our neidan teachings originate from a lineage in China?
Your Modern Unsecretly Seeking Taoist-Daoist,