The focal point of Daoist worldview (Menschenbild) is the attainment of immortality or transcendence, which can be understood on three levels that are also applicable to Qigong practice today. These levels are: harmony with nature, perfection of nature, and transcendence of nature. First, it is an ideal of immortals not to meddle with the course of nature, to go along with the changes and patterns that nature prescribes.(1) Then again, immortality is understood as the perfection of nature, finding the perfect order inherent in the Dao. On a third level, finally, immortality is the transcendence of nature, the realization of the supernatural, a state which implies the conscious separation from normal society and ordinary human habits.
To attain these three levels, which can also be described as successive stages of Daoist attainment (Vervollkommnung), practitioners first identify their particular station in the grander scheme of things, note their specific physical makeup and geographical situation, and adjust to the natural rhythms of yin and yang as they manifest in their surroundings. They take care to eliminate any potential diseases or disorders, ascertain that their vital energy is strong and flowing smoothly, and move in fruitful accordance with the patterns of life. Second, they use more subtle forms of nourishment to refine their bodies, often substituting regular foods with crude or refined drugs, and align themselves in even more detail with the patterns of the cosmos, absorbing the energies of the sun and the moon at the proper times and following not only the obvious but also the inherent tendencies of the various forces of the universe. Doing so, they match themselves to the powers underlyig nature and thus reach a state of higher and subtler naturalness.
Third, Daoist seekers take food unfit for normal people and refuse normal ways of nourishment, completely replacing grains with drugs, minerals, and qi. They also enter into a direct relationship with nonhuman cosmic agencies, such as the gods who govern and control nature, but are not themselves part of it. Practitioners’ bodies become residences and pathways of the divine, their spirits become parts of the larger universe, and their true abode is no longer the earth but the sky with its planets and celestial palaces. Death at this point is avoided: even though there may be the appearance of death, the vital structures of the corpse still continue to function, and the immortal does not languish in the underworld but ascends to meet his celestial partners on high.(2)
Taking these three levels or models together, we find that there is a certain degree of contradiction within them. That is to say, if the decay of the human body is unavoidable and if one is not to meddle with the course of nature, how can one ever strive for immortality? If the first two levels are the key focus, if one is bound by the laws of nature and all one can attain is a slowing-down of the natural decay, there is no room for transcendence or immortality. Turning this around, it means that immortals, in order to achieve the very goal of their lives, must meddle with nature, overcome nature as a continuous, inescapable process.
It is at this junction, at this point of contradiction, that the medical and immortality practitioner part ways, that we see different levels and directions of health and religious practices. The physician and the longevity master accept decay as inevitable and do all they can to slow it down and make it smoother and easier. They devise exercises and take or prescribe medicines to make people stronger and healthier, but there they stop–right where the religious practitioner starts. His incentive is less to live as healthily and for as long as possible, to enjoy this life as much as he can. Rather, he wishes to attain a more perfect, a more enduring life, one that is found in the higher subtlety of the natural world, but ultimately rests beyond it.
All three levels of healing, extension of life, and transcendence of nature, are essential in both traditional Daoism and the modern practice of Qigong Yangsheng. How do they work together? How are they realized within the human being? What do people have to do to work on one or the other of them?
QI AND THE SOULS
To begin an answer to these questions, let us first look at the ancient theories of the human body and soul. The classical belief was that human beings consisted of qi or vital energy. Qi is the material aspect of the Dao, which accumulates to create life. The softest and weakest force in the world, this vital energy yet constitutes all; it makes beings what they are, causes the sky to be high and clear and the earth to be low and turbid.
The Xisheng jing (Scripture of Western Ascension, DZ 726), a fifth-century Daoist mystical texts in the tradition of the Daode jing, describes the process of creation as depending entirely on this cosmic energy or qi. It says:
Qi is the ground of all life: it comes together, coagulates, and gradually becomes solid.
Thus there are different tastes and various shapes, such as sweet, bitter, pungent, salty, and sour.
When qi moves, there are the many and the few; the strong and the weak are not the same.
They arise together, yet differ in name and appearance. Each follows its own intention in being born.
Thus they have different inner natures and natural movements, develop different bodies and selves.
They are raised through the Dao of yin and yang; thus following separate ways they are yet akin. (5.4-5.9; Kohn 1991)
As all things are created and animated by qi, so are people. Within the human person, moreover, this qi was understood to come in two basic forms: a yang part that was provided by heaven and appared as the hun soul, and a yin part that was given by earth and manifested as the po soul.(3) The gestation of the human embryo was defined as the coming-together of these two types of qi, the death of the person as their dispersal.(4) At death, the two souls go their separate ways. The hun or heavenly part ascends back towards the sky and gradually–over five to seven generations of ancestor worship–dissolves into the greater atmosphere of the universe.(5) The po or earthly part remains with the body and is buried in the soil, where it gradually will merge back into the earth.
Both souls are forms of qi, vital energy moving at different rates of oscillation, so that they are–to speak in our terms–both spiritual (geistig) and material at the same time.(6) The hun is fast moving, more subtle qi, it is more spiritual; the po is slow moving, somewhat grosser qi, it is more material. But both have the potential to become ghosts and specters and have to be cared for properly after death. Both also have the potential to be transformed into higher forms of energy constellation and attain the state of immortality. Immortality, when seen from this perspective, can be described as the transformation of all the person’s qi into hun or heavenly qi, as which the person then, after the body falls away, ascends to the celesial realms above.(7) Death at this stage is no longer a major break-up of the souls or the qi, but the transformation of a more embodied qi-state to a less embodied one, the transition from a materially bound qi to a free form of vital energy that flows along in harmony with the greater powers of the cosmos.
How, then, do people attain this death-free state? And how, on the contrary, do they come to die? The answer lies in the way people deal with the pure qi they receive at birth.
Everyone, by being endowed with qi from heaven and earth, has a basic, genetically determined inner disposition and reservoire of health. As this qi is given by the cosmic forces, it is called original or primordial qi (yuanqi). Within this qi, the person’s instinctual and intellectual tendencies are deposited, and it also determines what is the ?natural? length of his or her life. As a Daoist text of the ninth century describes it:
People are born between heaven and earth. Thus they are endowed with qi that might be pure or turbid, soft or hard….
A person of pure qi is clever, alert, wise, and intelligent. One of turbid energy is unlucky, harsh, dumb, and foolish. Someone endowed with hard qi is haughty, strong, vigorous, and violent. One who has mostly soft qi is compassionate, benevolent, honest, and magnanimous.
In the same sense, a wood-type character tends to be energetic and impulsive. An earth-type is benevolent and harmonious. A water-type tends to be modest and cautious. A fire-type is fierce and violent. And a metal-type is severe and abrupt.(8)
Whatever their inborn tendencies and character, people have three choices or ways of dealing with their primordial endowment of qi–which is sometimes envisioned like the money in a savings account:(9) they can waste and squander it, they can keep it on level (ausgewogen), and they can increase, strengthen, and purify it.
By wasting it, they invite personal and social problems, health difficulties and chronic diseases, and end up not living up to their natural lifespan but dying an early or violent death. These are the people in need of medical attention, the focus of Chinese medical practices. Keeping the primordial qi on level, the second group of people waste some of it in social and personal activities, but then compensate for this loss by practicing longevity techniques and forms of personal cultivation. They may have to face certain illnesses and various ups and downs of life, but will succeed to live to a healthy old age and die when their natural span runs out.
The third group of people will not only keep their vital qi on level but increase and purify it. They are the ones determined to become immortals, and they begin by transforming their bodies and minds into subtler entities, thereby first reaching a longevity far beyond the normally expected lifespan. If therefore, a person’s natural life expectancy was, say, 80 years, and he chooses to stay on level, he will die around that time. If he squanders and wastes his vital qi, he will be sick and unhappy, and die maybe around age 50 or 60. If he enhances his qi through the practice of longevity and immortality techniques, he will live to maybe 120 or even 200, and then avoid death, instead casting off the body and ascending to the realm on high.(10) By choosing to keep the qi at least on level and even replenishing it, people move away from death and towards life. This is where Qigong Yangsheng practices have their place.
MIND AND SPIRIT, BODY AND PHYSICAL FORM
However, how do these practices work according to the larger theoretical framework of Daoist worldview (Menschenbild)? Why don’t people, once equipped with good, heavenly qi, not just keep it naturally?
In answer to this question, Daoists propose a detailed and fairly subtle theory of the human mind and body. They assert that when people are first born, with their store of cosmic, primordial qi intact, they consist of pure spirit (shen) and physical form (xing) (Leiblichkeit?). As such they participate in the fundamental patterns of the cosmos, joining the cosmic workings of spirit.
All creation, according to Daoist cosmology, is nothing but the ongoing process of spirit’s self-realization through the medium of physical form, which can appear as body, shape, or any kind of matter.
At first, there was only spirit, which was radiant light, pure and alone. It developed and wanted to perfect itself. For this purpose it embodied itself in physical bodies, shapes, material beings, and the human being, too, came into existence as the perfect replica of the cosmic pattern. In people, therefore, spirit and physical form are joined and continue to develop. Spirit gives birth to physical form, and physical form completes spirit. Together they attain the luminosity and radiance of celestial purity.(11)
However, in people this purity is soon lost–mainly through the development of mind and body. The purity of the spirit is compromised by a limited, personal consciousness that engages in the senses and emotions, described as the mind (xin); the purity of the physical form is destroyed by the increasing power the idea that one is identical with one’s material form and has control over it, described in the literature as the personal body (shen).
The mind, then, is the ruler of the emotions and the seat of knowledge. In the former function it is close to our idea of the heart, in the latter it is very much like what we would define as intellect. In both instances it is above the senses and yet linked to them. It reacts with emotion to the input received from the senses, as the fifth-century Xisheng jing has it: ?When the eyes see something, the mind is agitated? (11.2).(12)
On the basis of sensory input, the conscious mind then develops an abstract knowledge, which in turn has to be communicated and expressed with the help of language and signs, i.e., again through the senses. In both these respects, the emotional and the intellectual, the conscious mind is harmful for the preservation of vital qi and considered useless for cosmic purposes. It can heolp only if properly trained and controlled, and through its powers of active imagination (Vorstellungskraft), which guides the qi smoothly through the body.
Similarly, the personalized body is defined in terms of psychological ego-identity and emotional afflictions. Frequently authors in this context go back and quote the Daode jing, which says:
The personal body is the reason why I have terrible vexations.
If I didn’t have a body, what trouble would I have? (ch. 13)]
This passage is cited in the fifth-century Xisheng jing and interpreted by Li Rong. He says:
Having a personal body means having vexations and adversities.
Frustrated by sight and hearing, tortured by taste and smell, one is subject to pain, irritation, heat, and cold (7.8).
As soon as there is a body the hundred worries compete to arise and the five desires [of the senses] hurry to make their claims (17.8).
Here we find the personal body defined as the conglomerate of the senses. It encompasses the various human sensations and feelings together with the evaluations attached to them and the passions and emotions arising from them. We can therefore understand shen as the ?personal body? or the ?extended self.? The term in this context obviously implies much more than what we mean by ?body,? even though it does neither deny nor replace it. It is still predominantly physical in intention, so that a purely psychological rendering of the term, such as ?identity? or ?personality,? will not suffice.
The conscious mind and the personal body are the reason why people squander their inherent qi and get sick and die early. It is not entirely possible to avoid having some sort of a personal consciousness and identity when alive in the world, but longevity practices, as they are undertaken as part of Qigong Yangsheng, will loosen their power and alleviate the harm they can do. In the long run, however, anyone who wishes to firmly retain his or her inherent qi and even attain a state of immortality, must overcome both of them. An early text describing this is the Zuowang lun (Discourse on Sitting in Oblivion, DZ 1036), which is found first in an inscription dated to 829. It says:
Laozi says: ?If I did not have a body what vexations would I have??
But if one does not have a body and thus returns to annihilation,
shouldn’t that be called the loss of the basis of eternal life?
Yet I answer: What you would call ?not having a body? does not refer to not having this particular physical form. It rather means that the bodily structure is unified with the Great Dao, that one is never influenced by glorious positions and does not seek after speedy advancement. Placidly and without desires, it means to forget that there is this body dependent on all kinds of things.
And, we could add: It means to forget that there is this mind continously craving intellectual pleasures and emotional satisfaction. Both the personal body and the conscious mind, in their close dependence on the senses and the instincts, have to be refined and overcome in favor of a restoration and empowerment of the pure spirit and physical form that we were all born with.
How, then is one to do this? What kind of self-identity and understanding do Daoists propose as the basis for a healthy, extended life and the attainment of immortality?
There are two words for ?self? used in classical Chinese: ji and zi–the two together make up the modern compound ziji.(13) They are clearly distinct: The graph for ji originally represents ?the warp and weft of a loom? and shows ?two threads running transversely and another running lengthwise? (Fazzioli 1986, 34; Wieger 1965, 217). This indicates an organized structure, something one can see on the outside, something that can be made and controlled. Grammatically ji is used primarily in the object position (Dobson 1974, 414-15). One can ?right one’s selfhood,? conduct oneself, compare others to one’s self, and search for humanity or virtue within it.(14) Ji as the self is therefore an object among other objects, it represents an organized person among other people.
In contrast, zi indicates an individual’s spontaneous inner being, the qualities one is endowed with by nature. Like the physical form, the spontaneous self is cosmic. It is the way one is spontaneously, the natural so-being of oneself, the way nature or heaven has made people before they develop ego-consciousness and desires for objects.
The graph goes back to the pictogram, which shows a human nose (Fazzioli 1986, 29; Wieger 1965, 325). The nose is the most protruding part of the face and as such a person’s central characteristic. Still today, people in East Asia point to their noses when they want to indicate themselves. And yet, the nose, however much it represents oneself, cannot be seen or known. One can only guess at the shape of one’s own nose with the help of a mirror. It is something one is equipped with by nature, something one feels and uses, but cannot shape or control. The nose, as the center of oneself, is part of one’s basic makeup; it points back at one’s natural so-being, at the spontaneity of one’s existence.
Grammatically zi is used exclusively in the reflexive position, i.e., before the verb. It never occurs as in the object position (Dobson 1974, 751). Whatever one does, if done by the zi, is done of itself, by the self as a spontaneous, independent organism, not by an organized object-centered self. In this sense, the zi can give rise to an inner feeling of shame, it can have a spontaneous inclination towards good or back fortune, it can develop spontaneous knowledge, or attain true spontaneity within.(15)
These two types of self as defined in traditional Daoism can be related to the modern understanding of the self as proposed by Arthur Deikman. He suggests that people have both an ?object self? and an ?observing self? (1982). According to him, the object self unfolds together with human consciousness, when infants begin by understanding the world through the medium of their bodies and the first abstract, yet humanly fundamental concept emerges that object = body = self (Deikman 1982, 68). One’s very own body, the agent that processes the sense data and translates them into needs and desires, is seen as an object in itself, as one more object from which to receive stimuli and toward which to direct wishes.
Consciousness of the object self can be divided according to three distinct functions: thinking, feeling, and acting. The thinking self contains one’s conception of who and what one is. It is a ?me? defined by society and culture, bound by relativity and the dependence of opposites, based on measurements and comparisons, on the establishement of catergories and classifications. The feeling self contains the emotions: anger, fear, worry, sadness, joy. All these are reactions of feeling toward a given object or objective. They are intimately linked with desire and classify the world according to whether it is at any given moment desirable or undesirable and reacts with feelings and emotions accordingly.
The acting or functional self contains all that we do. It is an awareness of oneself as an acting individual. I know that I do; I realize the capacity I have to act in the world. I feel my body as an instrument of outer activity; I direct my feet and hands, my facial muscles, as well as my vocal chords in a particular direction, producing a particular effect. The acting self manipulates the world around it. It pulls objects and objectives toward it or pushes them away (Deikman 1982, 92-94).
The development of such an object self is a necessary stage of human development, an evolutionary phase that is essential for survival of both individual and culture. On the other hand, as children develop, so evolution proceeds further, and eventually the object self can and must be overcome for the greater attainment of the higher stages of life. These, according to Deikman, are approached when another mode of consciousness is first learned–the ?receptive mode,? a way of perception which diminishes the boundaries between self and world and gives people a sense of merging with the environment (Deikman 1982, 71).
This mode is realized in the observing self. Originally at the center of one’s being, this self is the deep inner root of one’s existence, an ultimate and transcendent sense of being alive within. It is there, yet cannot be consciously known, felt, or manipulated: it cannot be objectified in any way. Rather than thinking, feeling, and doing things actively and with regard to an object, the observing self allows things to happen spontaneously. Instead of as objects, people then see themselves and the world as flowing streams of energy, intensely alive and perfectly individual, yet ultimately interconnected in a cosmic whole. The observing self has no limits; it is transcendent and yet most deeply immanent in all.(16)
Although perception in the receptive mode of consciousness is unifying and free from classification, thinking still takes place. Only, instead of clearcut value judgments and the evaluation of things as objects, there is now a sense of fluidity of values, an openness to other points of views. Similarly, there is still feeling, but there are no emotions that are intrinsically related to the desires of the ego. Rather, emotions are now replaced by compassion, charity, kindliness, and perhaps sadness about the shortcomings of life (Maslow 1964, 82). Also, people in this state still can and do act in the world. But their actions are not based on single-minded categorizations nor on ego-centered emotions.
Instead, they give service to others and hope to aid them in their health and longeivty. In Daoist terms, therefore, people who have realized their observing self flow along with the Dao and live in harmony with themselves and others, never wasting but only nurturing and even increasing their inner qi. This self, moreover, becomes the main stepping stone for the attainment of immortality, the complete dissolution of all personality into the cosmic flow of the Dao, the attainment of oneness with the cosmos and its never-ending life.
The heir to several millennia of Daoist and longevity practices, modern Qigong Yangsheng is also deeply rooted in Daoist worlview (Menschenbild) and the vision of the attainment of immortality. Even though few people today believe in the gods–whether in the stars, on earth, or in the body–and immortality is not a pronounced goal of Qigong, many of its traditional characteristics are valued highly. These characteristics include lightness and freedom of the body, extended longevity, powers of healing (even at a distance),a nd various supernatural faculties. These characteristics and other success attainedin healing and longevity, however, are achieved through the practices only inasmuch as the psychology of the individual is transformed, as he or she learns to be more identical with a continuous flow of qi rather than with a solid, emotion-based mind and body.
The psychological transformation form a solid into a more fluid qi-entity, moreover, as it occurs on the three levels of Qigong and Daoist practice (healing, longevity, immortality), is immediately reflected in the practices. That is to say, certain practices that are useful in healing may be superfluous in the attainment of longevity, while some applicable for immortality may even be harmful when healing is the main focus. Take breathing as a simple example. When healing or extending life, natural deep breathing is emphasized, with the diaphragm expanding on the inhalation.(17)
When moving on to immortality, however, reverted breathing is advised, which means that the diaphragm contracts on the in-breath. Undertaking this kind of reverted breathing too early or at the wrong stage in one’s practice can cause complications, from diiness to disorientation or worse.
Again, the point is made clear in the case of sexual practices. In healing, sexual activity with a partner is encouraged in moderation and measured ways, with both partners reaching regular orgasms. In longevity practice, sexual activity may still be undertaken with a partner, but ejaculation and other loss of body qi is avoided and the sexual stimulation is used to raise the awareness of the positive flow of qi in the body, which is the redirected to relieve stress and increase vitality. Through the practice, as Mantak Chia says, people ?become more aware that all living things are one? (1974, 171). In immortality, finally, sexual practices are undertaken entirely within one’s own body and without a partner. They serve the creation of an immortal embryo through the refinement of the sexual energy jing first into qi, then into cosmic spirit shen. Ni Hua-ching emphasizes accordingly that in advanced attainment sexual energy should not be used to have fun or beget children, but must be sublimated into spiritual energy, which will then give birth to the spiritual embryo and help people to attain the immortal state (1992, 110).(18) He says:
It is hard for people to establish the correct goal of life. Typically people are looking for emotional happiness in the form of lots of pleasure, fun, stimulation or excitement. For spiritual people, it is necessary to avoid pleasure, excitement, stimulation and fun. Actually, those four things have a healthy and unhealthy level. In other words, some fun is all right, because it does not harm your life being. However, even on a healthy level, if fun is overextended, it can become negative and damage your energy being. (Ni 1992, 111)]
Immortality is thus the creation of an inner spirit being and means the avoidance of ordinary joys and excitements. Practices associated with it are not only unsuitable (and probably impossible) for people on the levels of healing and longevity, but may even be harmful if attempted improperly.
The same point, that practices of a similar nature vary significantly among the three levels, can equally be made for diets and fasting, gymnastics and qi-infusion, quiet-sitting and imaginative visualization. Generally Qigong Yangsheng serves to guide people from a wasteful and neglecting attitude to their own bodies and minds towards a more wholesome, healing, and caring way of dealing with themselves. It ?ermoeglicht das bewusste koerperliche Erleben des Zusammenwirkens widerstreitender Kraefte? (von Brunn 1999, 85) and increases the mental awareness of oneself as part of a larger flow of energy which rises and ebbs, comes and goes, moves and halts.
As one reaches a state of mental quietude and greater stability in one’s heath, the practice leads on towards a more encompassing understanding of self and world, which also includes a sense of wonder, of gratitude towards the natural world and the greater universe (see Middendorf 1999, 90). The tense, ego-bound self loosens and a sense of open qi-flow takes its place. Healing moves on to longevity, and as cosmic awareness increases, even to immortality.
1. This is reflected in modern Qigong in the emphases placed by Jiao Guorui on the ?Nat?rlichkeit als ?bergeordnetes Prinzip.? See Lienau 1999.
2. I first formulated this outline of the understanding of immortality in traditional Daoism in a review of Ute Engelhardt’s book (1987). See Kohn 1988.
3. A description of this soul, with illustration, is found in Schlicht 1999, 57.
4. Accumulation of qi as the reason why people come to life is already expressed in the Zhuangzi, which says: ?Human life is a coming-together of qi. If it comes together, there is life; if it scatters, there is death? (ch. 22; Watson 1968, 235. For a scholarly discussion of the various early theories of qi and the soul, see Y?u 1987.
5. David Jordan in his anthropological research asserts that, according to Chinese beliefs, the ancestral spirit does not die but dissolves into the qi of the universe at the same rate as the descendants forget the original person of the ancestor. When no one remembers him anymore, he is gone. See Jordan 1972.
6. The modern master Ni Hua-ching speaks about them as the two spheres of spiritual energy. ?One sphere is higher, lighter energy. Even though it uses the foundation of sexual energy, it is light and it has the freedom to fly anywhere. The other kind of spiritual energy is heavy energy, the so-called ghost or sinking energy. It tends to be vulgar or is considered evil? (1992, 110-11).
7. In inner alchemy, this process is described as the creation and ascension of the immortal embryo, which is created from the various internal qi of the person in an alchemically defined cultivation. See Lu 1970; Ni 1992; Robinet 1999.
8. Yongcheng jixian lu (Record of the Host of Immortals of the Walled City, 783), 1.5b.
9. Since the Song, there has been the notion of the celestial treasury, which will provide people with a certain sum at birth. The exhaustion of the funds means the end of life, an overdraft means punishment in hell. See Hou 1975.
10. For details of the immortals’ path and their various forms of ascension, see Kohn 1990.
11. For a more detailed discussion of these concepts, see Kohn 1991.
12. A more extensive discussion of the intimate relation between the eyes and the mind as seen in traditional Daoism, is found in a treatise by Wu Yun (d. 778), called ?On Mind and Eyes.? See Kohn 1998. The importance of the eyes is also emphasized in modern Qigong literature, notably by Jiao Guorui. See Hildenbrand 1999, 10.
13. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see Kohn 1992.
14. These expressions are found in classical literature, e.g., Mengzi 2A.7, Lunyu 5.15, 13.20, 1.8.
15. These expressions occur in Lunyu 12.23, Mengzi 2A.4, Zhuangzi, chs. 4, 15.
16. The observing self as Deikman describes it is in many ways similar to Abraham Maslow’s concept of Being-cognition. Being-cognition is the opposite of Deficiency-cognition. Where the latter is constantly aware of something missing, something needed, the former is content and calm, receptive as it were, and merely observing. See Maslow 1964, 83.
17. The importance of natural breathing is also emphasized by Jiao Guorui. See Middendorf 1999.
18. This practice goes back to traditional inner alchemy. In women, it meant that the reservoire of qi in the breast area is no longer depleted through menstruation, but kept intact. Menstruation ceases (the decapitation of the red dragon), and the growing qi energy can be converted into an internal spirit embryo. See Despeux 1990.
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