Dr. Jampa Mackenzie Stewart,
Senior Healing Tao Instructor,
FOUNDATIONS OF TAOIST PRACTICE
When you try to define Taoism, you immediately run into trouble. The great Taoist philosopher and author of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, begins his first chapter with the warning words,
The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
Thus Westerners are not the only ones who have a hard time defining Taoism; the Chinese have had difficulty time agreeing on just what Taoism is for millennia. Taoism is sometimes defined as a ritualistic religion, as a philosophy, as Chinese folk religion, as alchemy, as a system of magical lore, or as a series of health practices similar to yoga. The adherents of each school often look with disdain on the others as being heterodoxy, heresy, or simply incomplete portions of the great Tao.
The Chinese word Tao (pronounced “dow”) means “the way, the path.” In the common sense it refers to the way of doing anything, or the pathway to some destination. In its higher meaning, Tao refers to the way of the universe, the way things are. As a spiritual system, Tao means the way to achieving a true understanding of the nature of mind and reality, to the way of living in harmony with the changes of Nature. Thus the Tao is the goal, the path and the journey all in one.
A Taoist then, is “a follower of the Way,” the same title by which the early Buddhists and Christians dubbed themselves. The earliest Taoists appeared at least four thousand years ago in a time when people lived close to Nature and were awed by its power and its mystery, whose agricultural lives and deaths were intimately intertwined with the fluctuations of floods and droughts, heat and cold, day and night, and the changing of the seasons.
Just as the Judeo-Christians believe that God created humanity in the image of God, so too did the Taoists conclude that each person is a microcosm of the universe, and that the patterns of human society are a microscopic reflection of the cosmic patterns. These early Taoists saw that Nature was in a constant state of flux and change, and that these changes followed certain discernible and orderly patterns. They reasoned that by watching the changes in Nature and by understanding these patterns, they could apply Nature’s principles to their own lives and thus move into harmony with the flow of the universe, with the Tao, with themselves. The person who attains highest union with the Tao is called a hsien or immortal, one who has “Returned to the Source,” to the true ground of being.
Over the centuries many branches of Taoist teachings grew, all aimed at integrating the various activities of one’s daily life with the Tao. These include such diverse disciplines as meditation, dietary guidelines, Chinese medicine, Qi Gong, martial arts, sexual practices, military strategy, astrology, outer and inner alchemy, divination, magic and talismans, ritual, Feng Shui (geomancy), sacred architecture and the arts. Yet the Taoist arts were originally designed as a wholistic, mutually supportive and interdependent framework within which one could cultivate oneself to achieve the fruit of immortality.
As in Tantra, Taoists have always viewed knowledge as power, and are usually secretive and discriminating about who receives the full transmission. Even if a capable disciple meets an accomplished master, it still takes decades (if not a lifetime) to practice and master the many aspects of Taoist study. As a result, nowadays most people calling themselves Taoists study and practice only one or two branches of the Taoist arts. The late 20th century teacher Cheng Man-Ching was highly lauded as a “Master of the Five Excellences” because he had achieved skill in just five of the Taoist arts: martial arts, Chinese medicine, painting, poetry and calligraphy.
Thus, the Taoist arts have become divorced and isolated from the trunk and roots of Taoism. Moreover, most of the arts have become secularized. Clinically, Chinese medicine in modern practice is usually applied more to remedial care than to promoting spiritual super-wellness. Meditation has become largely a stress management tool. Chinese astrology, divination and geomancy are nowadays used more for gaining success in business, romance and home siting than for achieving spiritual breakthrough. Contemporary people more often study Qi Gong and the martial arts for health, fitness and personal power than for laying the groundwork of immortality.
Despite the achievements of health, wealth and love, the only certainty in life is that it will end in death. Maintaining health and wealth is of limited value if one’s life lacks meaning. I believe that while the aforementioned benefits of the Taoist arts are both real and good, the ultimate goal of Taoism is immortality. Immortality is synonymous with enlightenment, conscious union with the universal mind, and with the attainment of a spiritually transformed body that will last forever like heaven and earth.
Therefore the purpose of this article is to examine the various Taoist arts from the perspective of the Taoist yogi on the path to becoming an immortal, to see how all of these branches relate to the trunk of Taoist beliefs and goals.
THE BASIC VIEW OF TAOISM
Although there are many diverse arts flowing from the wellspring of Taoism, all of these different arts are grounded in the same set of principles, what Taoists see as the fundamental laws of Nature applying to all things, high and low. These principles form the core of Taoist “general systems theory.” By developing a working knowledge of these natural principles, you will have the master key to open the mysterious portals of the Tao.
In the beginning, nothing existed. In Chinese this is called Wu Ji (meaning absolute nothingness). Wu Ji is synonymous with the Buddhist word sunyata, meaning emptiness, the void, pure openness, no boundary. Wu Ji is also sometimes referred to as the mystery, the nameless, the great mother, the source. Thus Lao Tzu says, “That which can be named is not the eternal name.” Words cannot describe Wu Ji; it is beyond any thought, idea or concept, yet it can be directly experienced. Conscious realization of Wu Ji is called “Returning to the Source.”
The first principle to manifest out of Wu Ji is primordial energy. The Chinese call this energy Qi. Qi (pronounced “chee”) means breath, air, wind, or energy, and is similar in meaning to the Sanskrit word prana, the Hebrew word Ruach (breath of God), and to the Tibetan word rLung.
Qi is the force of all movement, from the movements of waves and sub-atomic particles to the movement of stars and planets. Qi is the force moving world systems into creation, existence and destruction; everything manifests out of Qi, exists as a form of Qi, and returns to Qi. In living creatures it becomes the life force and source of all metabolism. Qi is even the root of the movement of consciousness, of thought, sensory awareness and emotions.
The activity of Qi is what holds things together: atoms, molecules, our bodies, the earth, the solar system. When the pattern of Qi becomes exhausted, death occurs, the life force leaves, buildings disintegrate, change occurs.
Yin And Yang
The nameless is the mother of heaven and earth.
As soon as Qi appeared, it moved as Yin and Yang. The Chinese character for Yin depicts the shady side of a mountain, while the character for Yang depicts the sunny side. Thus some characteristics of Yin are earth, receptiveness, darkness, cold, moisture, heaviness, descension, contractiveness, stillness. Yang, by relative contrast, is heaven, creativity, brightness, warmth, dryness, lightness, ascension, expansion, activity.
Everything in the relative world of existence can be viewed in terms of Yin and Yang. However, Yin and Yang are not separate; they are like the two poles of the same magnet. Thus, nothing is entirely Yin nor entirely Yang; each contains the other. The interdependent existence of Yin and Yang is known as Tai Ji (the Most High). Tai Ji and Wu Ji are seen as inseparable.
Yin and Yang create each other; as soon as you have a front, you must also have a back. Yin and Yang check and balance each other; if something is too hot, you balance it by adding cold. Yin and Yang also transform into one another; activity naturally transforms into rest, night transforms into day.
Life is peaceful when Yin and Yang are in harmony and balance, when the transitions from Yin to Yang and Yang to Yin are gradual and even. When either Yin or Yang becomes too extreme or when the transitions from Yin to Yang are unusually sudden and abrupt, harmony and balance are lost. These imbalances may appear as health problems, relationship difficulties, trade deficits, or unseasonal weather; all the changes in the universe can be analyzed by understanding Yin and Yang.
Wu Hsing – The Five Phases
Yin and Yang are further subdivided into Wu Hsing. Wu means five, while hsing means form. Thus Wu Hsing is translated as the Five Forms, Five Phases (of Qi transformation) or most commonly as the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The Five Phases describes in more detail the stages of Yin and Yang changes.
The first phase is Wood, the lesser Yang, the phase of generation.
Wood is associated with new plant life and growth, with spring time, with the planting and sprouting of seeds, with the east and the dawning of the new day.
The second phase is Fire, the Greatest Yang, the phase of expansion and radiance. Fire is associated with the full bloom of plants, with summertime, with the south and with mid-day.
The third phase is Earth, the balance of the Yang and Yin forces, and the phase of stability. Earth is associated with the ripening and maturing of the seeds and fruits of plants, with late summer, with the center and with late afternoon.
The fourth phase is Metal, the lesser Yin, the phase of gathering. Metal is associated with reaping the harvest, with autumn, with the west and dusk.
The fifth phase is Water, the greatest Yin, and the phase of storing and contraction. Water is associated with storing the harvest, with winter, with the north and with mid-night.
When the Five Phases are in balance, they work in two ways: they generate and nurture each other and they control and restrain one another. The Generation Cycle (Sheng Cycle) occurs when the phases interact in their natural order: Wood nourishes Fire, Fire creates Earth (ashes), Earth generates Metal (the distillation of minerals), Metal creates Water (condensation), and Water nourishes Wood. This is also called the mother – son cycle.
The Controlling Cycle (K’o Cycle) occurs when every other phase relates: Wood restrains Earth (plants prevent soil erosion), Fire controls Metal (a blacksmith’s forge), Earth restrains Water (a dam), Metal controls Wood (screws and nails, a woodworker’s tools), and Water controls Fire. The following chart illustrates other correspondences of the Five Phases. Of particular importance to the Taoist yogi are the relationships to the internal organs of the body, and the emotions.
The Pa Kua
The Pa Kua or Eight Trigrams are a further differentiation of Yin and Yang. The Pa Kua are represented in octagonal configurations corresponding to the eight points of the compass. The I Ching (Classic Book of Change) is based upon the 64 possible combinations of the Pa Kua, and represents a more minute analysis of the stages of change in the universe.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see its manifestations.
Thus all existence unfolds from the emptiness of Wu Ji into Tai Ji, the dance of Yin and Yang. From Yin and Yang things are further differentiated into the Five Phases and the Eight Trigrams. From these all of the myriad forms of existence come into being. Dazzled by the various appearances, we forget who we are and where we come from.
Taoist spiritual practices seek to reverse this process. All phenomenal forms can be summed up in the eight trigrams, the eight trigrams can be simplified to the Five Phases; the Five Phases can be reduced to Yin and Yang, and when Yin and Yang come into equipoise, one can perceive Wu Ji.
San Bao – The Three Treasures
Another way of describing the coming into existence and the Return to the Source is in terms of the San Bao or Three Treasures within each of us: jing, Qi and shen.
Jing corresponds to our physical body in general and our sexual energy in particular. Jing, too, circulates throughout the body via the eight extraordinary channels, and is stored in the kidneys.
Qi also circulates throughout the body via the twelve ordinary acupuncture channels, and is stored in the lower abdomen and the internal organs. There are two categories of Qi in our bodies. The first is hereditary Qi, which is our constitutional strength inherited from our mother and father through the union of egg and sperm. The second type is acquired Qi, which is the energy that we draw from the air we breathe and the food we eat.
Shen corresponds to spirit, consciousness, and mind. Although it pervades the entire body through the blood, shen is housed in the heart in particular and in the internal organs in general. In fact, shen is totally insubstantial, and pervades not only the entire body, but the entire universe!
Emptiness gives birth to shen, spirit. Shen gives birth to Qi, energy. Qi gives birth to jing, essence or form. Form gives birth to discrimination, to desire and aversion, and to confusion about who and what we truly are. Thus the Taoist yogi seeks to transform jing back into Qi, to transform Qi back into shen, to transform shen back into emptiness.
The Three Dan Tians
The Three Dan Tians (Cinnabar Fields, Elixir Fields) are the inner alchemical cauldrons where transformation of the Three Treasures takes place. Jing is transformed into Qi in the Lower Dan Tian (also called the Yellow Court), located in the space between the navel, kidneys and sexual organs. Qi is transformed into shen in the Middle Dan Tian (also called the Crimson Palace in reference to the heart), located in the center of the chest. Shen is transformed into emptiness in the Upper Dan Tian (also called the Crystal Room) in the center of the brain.
The Three Bodies
Our physical body corresponds to jing, essence. Our energy body is our subtle body whose structure is composed of the Three Dan Tians, the internal organs’ energy fields, the energy channels and the Qi flowing through them.
The spirit body is the subtlest of the three, and is composed of the energy of purified mind, shen.
The Three Forces
On the macrocosmic level, shen or spirit corresponds to the Yang energy of heaven, jing corresponds to the Yin material form of earth, and Qi corresponds to the atmospheric energies as the product of the intercourse between heaven and earth. You can also see the Three Forces as different forms of Qi: Tian Qi (Heavenly Energy) of the stars, sun, moon and planets; Di Qi (Earth Energy), and Da Chi (Atmospheric Qi). Through learning to connect our Three Treasures with the Three Forces, we can enhance and strengthen our bodily energies, restore our health and vitality, and prepare ourselves to return to the Source.
Meditation is the central pillar of Taoist practice. Without meditation, the other Taoist arts are empty vessels. There are many types of Taoist meditation, including the inner alchemical meditations for circulating, balancing and transforming the Qi; visualization methods; purification techniques; chanting the scriptures; dream practice; astral flight; and following the breath. Taoist meditation can also have different goals — spiritual, health promotion or curative.
Ritual and magical rites are also encompassed under the category of meditation. Ritual and ceremony can be seen as a form of externalized group meditation. During Taoist ritual and ceremony, many of the same processes of purification and harmonization of Yin and Yang that take place on an internal level during solo meditation are extended out to socially harmonize the congregation and their environment, restoring the people and their homeland to balance and harmony.
Magical rites often involve meditation on talismans, invocation of one or more of the pantheon of Taoist divinities, or the extension of one’s Qi beyond one’s body for healing, subduing negative influences or attracting positive forces.
While we ordinarily think of meditation as a sitting practice, Taoists also do standing meditation, walking meditation, lying down meditation, sleeping meditation and moving meditations. These help one to integrate meditation into the changes of one’s daily life.
Taoist meditation always begins with relaxation techniques to put one into a receptive state for the main body of the meditation session. Then one focuses the mind upon the object of meditation. The object of meditation varies with the practice; it may be a visualization, the inhalation and exhalation of breath, a specific area in the body, a talisman, the circulation and refinement of Qi, or the nature and quality of one’s mind.
Of particular interest are the Taoist inner alchemical meditations, where instead of focusing the mind upon a mantra, a koan, or a visualization, one uses one’s own Qi as the object of meditation. Lieh Tzu said, “The mind leads and the Qi follows.” By focusing the mind upon specific energy centers in the body, the Qi is automatically activated there. Qi can then be felt through the classic sensation of tingling, heat, expansion, pulsing, vibrating, distension or effervescence.
Commonly these meditations begin by focusing on the lower Dan Tian, where the Original Qi is stored. Once activated, the Qi can be directed through the acupuncture channels in the body until it flows strongly without blockage or obstruction.
At this stage it is also vital to conserve the Qi we already have, to seal the “leaks” in our energy bodies.
The five colors blind the eye. The five sounds deafen the ear. The five flavors dull the taste Too much thinking weakens the mind. Desires wither the heart. —Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching,
The chief “thieves” that rob us of our Qi are: excess negative emotional indulgence, too much sensory input, and our reproductive system. Negative emotions are necessary and even essential, but when they become chronic they are extremely debilitating. Sensory input can be pleasant, but too much outward sensory fixation results in addictive and compulsive stimulation which drains the Qi of the internal organs. More will be said later about losses of Qi through the reproductive system.
At the same stage that the Taoist meditator focuses on activating and moving the Qi, the process of refining the Qi begins as well. It is not enough simply to have ample Qi: one’s Qi must also be conserved, purified, balanced and transformed into virtuous Qi. As I said earlier, all movement of the mind as well as of the body is motivated by Qi; Qi is the mount upon which the consciousness rides. To have a virtuous and illumined mind, one must have virtuous Qi.
In Taoist alchemy, the Qi is refined by bringing it to various centers and channels in the body where it is combined, balanced and transformed, purifying the negative emotions and giving birth to the positive virtuous attitudes. These virtuous attitudes are the foundation of the immortal body. Certain Taoist meditations also work on “reuniting the mother and son,” on reconnecting the Qi of the sensory organs to their respective corresponding internal organs.
It is primarily through meditation practice that jing is transformed into Qi, Qi into shen, and shen into emptiness. All of the other practices can be seen as supports to meditation.
Qi means energy or breath, while gong means skill. Thus any Taoist exercise that works with breath training could be called a Qi Gong practice. The most important training is allowing the breath to become very natural. The qualities of natural breathing are for the breath to become quiet, soft, smooth, even, long and deep.
Each thought and emotion registers in the breath. For example, we hold our breath when concentrating on a math problem; we pant when sexually aroused; we sigh and breath laboriously when depressed. Conversely, each change in the breath influences the mind. Returning the breath to its natural resting state activates the relaxation response, highly beneficial and healing to both body and mind. This deep relaxation allows the true “inner breath” to emerge, creating virtuous Qi as the energetic steed for wisdom mind.
Taoists practice Qi Gong for different reasons: for improved health and fitness, healing, to improve martial arts skill, and for spiritual development. For the Taoist adept, Qi Gong serves to nourish the Three Treasures. The more physically active Qi Gong exercises strengthen and repair the subtle “wiring” of the energy body, and develop a strong and supple matrix for the movement and refinement of Qi. Certain Qi Gong standing postures also help to “ground” one’s energy as the foundation for tapping into the limitless reserves of transpersonal Qi in Nature.
Like the Native Americans, the early Taoist shamans saw that through connecting to the animal powers they could restore outer balance and harmony with the forces of nature. The Taoist emperor Y? the Great, of the early Hsia dynasty, ecstatically danced the movements of a bear to harmonize heaven and earth and to stop the floods in his land. His dance was known as “The Pace of Y?,” and is still ritually practiced by Taoists today.
It was not long before Taoists transferred this same reasoning to the microcosm of their own bodies. Of the earliest know Qi Gong forms, many were derived from the movements of animals. The Qi Gong Classics (Tao Yin Tu), discovered in the tomb of King Ma in 1973 and dating back to the second century BC, illustrated over 40 Qi Gong postures used for promoting health and healing specific illnesses; over half of these postures were animal movements. Hua T’o, the renowned second century Taoist physician, wrote, “Flowing water does not become stagnant; active door hinges do not rust.” Therefore, Hua T’o devised a series of Qi Gong exercises for his patients know as the Wu Jin Xi (Wu Chin Hsi) or “Five Animal Frolics,” based upon the movements of the crane, bear, monkey, deer and tiger.
Unlike Western exercise, which focuses primarily on muscular development and cardiovascular fitness, Qi Gong exercise is concerned with strengthening all of the internal systems. There are specific exercises for nourishing each of the internal organs, the sensory organs (eyes, ears, etc.), the tendons and ligaments, and the reproductive organs. There is even a whole system of Qi Gong exercises for strengthening the bone matrix and marrow.
Regular Qi Gong exercise has been scientifically determined to enhance one’s ability to emit high levels of electrical, magnetic and sub-sonic charge. This ability of Qi Gong practitioners is being used extensively in China for healing; there are now hundreds of Qi Gong hospitals and clinics throughout China where ailments ranging from arthritis to cancer are being successfully treated with Qi Gong therapy, either by itself or in conjunction with acupuncture, herbs or Western medicine.
Spiritual practices take a long time to bear fruit. Good health and long life are an essential foundation for successful practice. Thus the venerable Taoist Ko Hung wrote in his famous alchemical text, the Pao-pu-tzu, that “there was no one among the Taoists who did not practice the medical arts along with the Taoist arts.”
Firstly, in order to live away from society and meditate, the Taoist had to be self-sufficient and know the healing arts simply to survive in good health.
Secondly, the internal organs have energetic, emotional, spiritual, earthly and cosmic correspondences as was illustrated in my earlier discussion on the Five Phases. Like the Dineh or Navajo people of the southwestern United States, the early Taoists saw health not only as an internal balance, but also as a balance between the individual and the forces of Nature and the cosmos. Knowing how to strengthen the organs and maintain the balance and flow between them can compensate for inherent weaknesses that may make one more vulnerable to adverse seasonal and astrological influences.
Disease and natural disaster are a sign that the people have fallen out of harmony with the Tao. The cure is to reestablish a correct relationship with Nature, with society, and within the individual. The early Chinese character for doctor depicted a feathered shaman holding a quiver full of arrows and doing an ecstatic dance. The arrows, presumably, were to drive off evil influences. Later this concept was extended to the use of acupuncture needles. Many, if not the majority, of these shamans were women. They would go into trance and journey to the spirit world, or channel divinities to diagnose the cause of the problem.
Chinese medicine later grew to incorporate the diagnostic frameworks of Yin and Yang, Qi and Blood, the Five Elements and their inner organ correspondences, the Three Treasures and other frameworks as well.
Chinese medicine also divides the causes of disease into External Factors (environment, climate, astrological influences and spirits), Internal Factors (the seven pathological emotions of excess anger, joy, worry, pensiveness, sadness, fear and shock), and Neither External nor Internal Factors (overwork, excess sex). Treatment modalities include meditation, diet, herbal medicine, Qi Gong,, acupuncture, moxibustion and massage.
Martial Arts and Military Strategy
While fighting and war may sound contradictory to spiritual work, knowing how to protect oneself was vital to survival in China where outlaw bands roamed the forests and mountains preying on wandering travelers. Furthermore, because of their wisdom the Taoists were often sought as advisors to kings and emperors when their empires were threatened by invasion. Lao Tzu himself devoted more than a few chapters of the Tao Te Ching to military advice, while Sun Tzu’s manual on Taoist principles of military strategy,The Art of War, has been studied for over 2,000 years by generals of many nations, including General George Patton.
Taoist martial arts are renowned throughout the world. People practice these arts not only for self-defense, but for health and fitness as well as spiritual development. Taijiquan (T’ai Chi Ch’uan), the most famous of the Taoist martial arts, is based on the interplay of Yin and Yang and leads to a profound understanding of these principles. Similarly, Xingyiquan (Hsing-I Ch’uan) is based on the Five Elements, while Baguachang (Pa-Kua Chang) is a study of the eight trigrams in movement. These three martial arts strengthen the body, cultivate the Qi and breath, develop suppleness and openness of the acupuncture channels, and focus the spirit. Thus in Taoism the martial arts are an important adjunct and support for spiritual practice.
Sexual Practice (Jing Gong)
Sexual practices have been part of Taoism from its earliest records. Over 4,600 years ago the Taoist Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, achieved immortality through sexual yogas. After reigning successfully for 100 years, he is said to have “ascended to heaven in broad daylight.”
Since then, Taoism has included many practices for working with sexual energy. These practices are often grouped according to purpose.
Central to both medicine and alchemy is the necessity of both strengthening and conserving the jing (sexual energy) for health and immortality. For men, jing is lost primarily through ejaculation, while for women, jing is lost through menstruation and childbearing. Therefore the arts of male sexual Jing Gong center around methods for ejaculation control as the foundation for conserving, strengthening, circulating and transforming sexual energy. For women, Jing Gong emphasizes exercises to control the menses (known as “slaying the red dragon”).
Sexual fitness and hygienic practices were aimed at a general audience; celibate monks, householders and yogic adepts alike benefited from learning how to keep their reproductive systems healthy. These practices include Jade Egg exercises for strengthening the vaginal muscles and increasing orgasmic potential in women, breast massage, and testicle massage.
Taoist literature and oral tradition also includes practices for attaining enhanced sexual pleasure and harmony with one’s partner. These teachings were written primarily for house holders, and were called fang-chung (“bedchamber art”) literature. Like the Kama Sutra of India and the “pillow books” of Japan, they included variants of position and techniques for stimulating one’s partner, genital reflexology, ejaculation control for men, and ways of enhancing arousal in women.
Men are seen as Yang; like fire, men are generally quickly heated and quickly cooled. By contrast, women are seen as Yin; like water, women are slow to boil, but then stay hot for a long while. To achieve balance, men need to learn the art of maintaining their fire long enough to bring their women to the boil; women need to learn how to boil more quickly and fully and to not extinguish their men’s fire too soon. This is the Taoist art of Yin and Yang balance.
Taoist adepts have a wholly different emphasis than the householder. Their goal is immortality, not pleasure alone. Therefore, Taoist male and female adepts engage in sexual union as an expedient practice to exchange, enhance and balance their yin and yang energies. Although many Taoists achieve immortality as celibates, dual cultivation or “grafting” (borrowing Yin or Yang energy from one’s partner) is viewed by many as a rapid path of inner alchemical transformation.
Food is one of the primary sources of Acquired Qi, and thus diet cannot be ignored by the Taoist yogic practitioner. However, diet is considered a support practice and not a central cornerstone of spiritual development as it has become for many modern day fanatical followers of dietary regimens.
Taoist dietary guidelines are both gentle and flexible. In fact, the nuclear trigrams of the 27th hexagram of the I Ching, Nourishment, are all Yin lines, indicating the 2nd hexagram, The Receptive. This indicates that the core idea of diet is flexibility. Rigid dietary teachings were never part of Taoism. Moderation is the foremost rule; neither too much nor too little. Overeating and overdrinking dull the mind and strain the body. Otherwise, there are few general prohibitions; alcohol, caffeine, even tobacco were permitted in moderation by those able to be temperate. In fact, there are even ancient collections of Taoist drinking songs in praise of the fine qualities of wine.
Dietary guidelines vary with the individual, depending on one’s constitutional makeup, strength, and the season of the year. There are several ways of classifying foods. One way is dividing foods into building foods and cleansing foods. Building foods are those that help to build the body’s substance; foods such as meats, grains, and the more starchy vegetables and fruits are building foods. Cleansing foods are the more watery fruits and vegetables; foods such as green leafy vegetables, celery, bok choy, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and the like. In general, a diet should be made up of both categories to stay in balance, with a higher ratio of building foods eaten during the fall and winter to provide warmth and energy, and a higher ratio of cleansing foods eaten during the spring and summer for cooling and flushing.
Another system of food categorization is by the Five Phases. Ideally one should a variety of foods encompassing all of the five flavors (sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty) each day. The proportion of each flavor would vary according to season and to one’s own constitution.
Lightly cooked foods are preferred to raw foods. Eating raw foods is compared to burning green wood: hard to burn, lots of smoke and waste, and little heat.
The mountain yogi, undisturbed by the hectic pace of the city, living in the pure air and sun with few distractions to stir the passions and emotions, usually eats a pure and light diet of simple vegetables and fruit, and eventually consuming only tonic herbs. The older Taoist classics advocate the elimination of grains, meats, garlic and onions for the yogi. Grains were considered to feed “The Three Worms” which reside in the Three Dan Tians and gradually devour one’s life force. The energy in grains is heavy, and one doing extensive meditation would naturally incline to give them up. Meat was avoided; the beneficial spirits residing in the adepts body “have a horror of blood, the Breath of which wounds them, causes them to flee, and thus shortens life.” Onions and garlic turn the outer breath foul, and are considered to have a similar polluting effect on the inner Qi.
Total fasting is generally avoided, as it tends to weaken and slow down one’s digestive system, like letting the fire go out. One exception, however, is for the Taoist adept preparing for a long out-of-body journey. Here the yogi must become a true breatharian for weeks or months before leaving the body. Otherwise food left in the intestines would putrefy or harden, causing serious problems upon the adept’s return to the body. Another advantage of becoming a breatharian is the ability to remain in meditation retreat in the mountains for lengthy periods of time without needing supplies.
In general, the appropriate diet of a city Taoist must be quite different from that of a mountain yogi on retreat. In the Pao-p’u-tzu the great second century Taoist alchemist Ko Hung cautions, ” If you consider it inconvenient to break with the world, abandon your household, and live high on a peak, you will certainly not succeed in abandoning the Five Savors. If you would not distress yourself, it is best not to dispense with [eating] starches but merely to regulate the diet, for which there are about a hundred methods.”
If a city person tries to eat too rarefied and pure a diet, he or she may become overly sensitive to the gross influences of the city environment and may be too easily thrown out of balance and become ill. Thus city dwelling Taoists often practice “strategic impurity,” ingesting very moderate amount of meat, alcohol, caffeine, white flour or sugar in their diet. Again, moderation is the key word, and this is never to be construed as advice for those with a propensity for addiction.
Feng Shui (Geomancy)
The art of choosing a suitable place conducive to spiritual practice is a major consideration for Taoists. Qi moves over and through the earth just as it moves through the body. Certain spots are known to be sacred because they have powerful balanced energy that can greatly aid the meditator’s quest.
Feng means wind, while shui means water. Thus feng-shui implies the art of discerning the flow of Qi in Nature. Taoists seek quiet sites that are protected from fierce winds, floods and landslides, have an ample supply of water, possess beautiful views and inspiring rock formations. The place for a retreat should also be near enough to a town or village to get supplies when needed, yet far enough away to assure solitude. There should be a balance between sun and shade, warmth and coolness. Ample pine trees are a great asset, as pines give off a rich qi that Taoist yogis can absorb.
When the environment is not perfectly balanced (which it rarely is), geomantic cures can be applied to correct geomagnetic imbalances. Commonly used cures are mirrors, lights, talismans, red ribbons, and Pa Kua symbols.
The directional correspondences of the Five Phases and the internal organ Qi are also vitally important to Taoists. Taoist yogis draw the Qi of the five directions into the body to strengthen and balance the internal organs. There are also animal spirits associated with the five directions. The Taoist adept can shamanically summon these animal spirits to form a protective shield against evil influences.
The Eight Trigrams correspondences are also considered vital when orienting a building, placing rooms and designing the interior. Geomagnetic compasses (lo-pan) are often used to interpret the specific influences of directional orientations. These orientations are interpreted differently for each member of the household based upon their astrological birth chart.
There are auspicious times for practice as well as auspicious places. Chinese astrology relates the movements of the heavens to human anatomy and physiology. Each day is divided into twelve two-hour periods, during each of which the Qi flows more strongly through a specific acupuncture channel in the body. For example, from three to five in the morning, the Qi flows strongest in the Lung meridian. The lungs are considered “the master of Qi,” since they are the organs through which we draw in the breath of life. Therefore, the hour of the lungs is the time when one can get the optimum benefit out of Qi Gong practice. It is also the best time to treat lung problems with acupuncture.
The sun has powerful Qi and has an obvious effect on earthly life. The sun is the essence of Yang and corresponds to the heart and the Fire element. The yearly revolution of the earth around the sun is called the Yellow Route. Taoists divide this 365 day cycle into 24 solar periods of about 15 days duration, each considered a mini-season. Internally these periods correspond to the 24 separate vertebrae of the spine. There is a Taoist practice of 24 Qi Gong sets, each set corresponding with a specific solar period and practiced during that time to connect with the unique Qi of that mini-season. Other Qi Gong practices can be practiced just after sunrise and just before sunset for absorbing solar energy.
Despite this solar breakdown, the Chinese calendar is lunar, beginning on the first new moon during the reign of Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor. The moon is the essence of Yin, and is related to the kidneys and the Water element.
There are specific days when the sun and moon energies are particularly potent and accessible. During the solar solstices and equinoxes, the sun seems to stop. Taoists call these days Doors, and according to ancient lore the Taoist seeking immortality must pass through these Doors at those times to be received by the lord who grants the fruits of immortality unique to each of these celestial regions.
There are also key holy days for gathering the solar essences which are related to the lunar months following the Spring Equinox (called by the Taoists the Golden Door), and key days for gathering the lunar essence following the Fall Equinox (called the Eastern Well).
In general, the very best days for gathering the solar essence are the solstices and equinoxes, while the best days for gathering the lunar essence are the new and full moon.
The planetary energies are directly related to the five viscera, as is seen in the Five Elements correspondence chart. These energies can be drawn at will by the adept for healing oneself and others.
The stars and constellations are also vital to Taoist practitioners. Individual stars and constellations each have their own unique Qi and bodily links. For example, the stars of the Big Dipper, known as the Bushel, correspond both to the seven bones of the skull and to the internal organs. The 28 constellations in the four quadrants of heaven are correlated with the Five Elements, the Five Seasons, the Five Directions and the five viscera.
The North Star is of particular importance, as it is the gateway of the Nine Heavenly Realms. The energy of all Nine Heavens issues through the North Star and can be absorbed through the crown of the adept as violet light, nurturing, purifying and balancing the Yang force in the body.
THE FRUITION OF TAOIST PRACTICE
By following the Tao throughout one’s life, living a path of simplicity and moderation in harmony with the patterns of Nature, one can eventually realize the Tao.
“When he achieves salvation, the adept will wear a feathered garment, will ride on light and straddle the stars, or will float in empty space. He will have wind and light as a chariot and dragons as steeds. His bones will shine like jade, his face will be resplendent, his head will be circled with a halo, and his whole body will radiate a supernatural light as incandescent as the sun and moon. He will be able to realize all his desires and will enjoy an endless youth and a longevity equal to that of heaven and earth. Moreover, he will know the future, will be able to travel a thousand li in a single day, and will be able to immerse himself in water without getting wet or walk through fire without getting burned. Neither beasts nor weapons will have any power over him. He will command the forces of nature and the spirits.”
There are different stages and levels of immortals (hsien). In the Pao-p’u-tzu, Ko Hung describes three levels. The first is “the deliverance from the corpse” (shih chieh), wherein the adepts are unable to transform their bodies sufficiently during their lives. Thus they either shed their bodies at the moment of death, or continue their refinement after death until the body disappears and the coffin is left empty. They transform the physical Five Elements of their bodies into the subtle energetic dimension of the Five Elements, and avoid the hell realms.
“Earthly immortals” achieve an immortal body, but are unable to ascend to the heavens, and thus inhabit sacred mountains, distant isles, and paradisial regions on earth. Even though they are not at the highest level of perfection, earthly immortals still enjoy great powers.
“Heavenly immortals” are said to ascend to the heavens in their metamorphosized bodies in broad daylight. They are also called “flying immortals.” Nonetheless, there are also the “Masters of the people of the world,” who although capable of transcendence do not return to heaven but continue to incarnate indefinitely in order to preserve and transmit the Taoist teachings.
In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something new is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less, until wu-wei [effortlessness, not-doing] is achieved.
Nothing is done, yet nothing is left undone.
At first it seems contradictory that so many complex practices were devised by Taoists to attain natural simplicity. Isn’t natural simplicity our birthright? Well, a good Taoist answer is: it is and it isn’t. Taoists call our natural state of being “the Uncarved Block.” That is our true nature, innocent and pure as a newborn baby. Yet how many of us have maintained that natural state of innocence in our bodily movements, in our energy flow, and in our hearts? What most of us call natural is not natural at all; it is merely habitual. We have lost touch with nature, both in our interrelationship with the natural world and with our own true pure and holy nature.
With any art it takes years of disciplined training to achieve effortless and perfect skill. Effortlessness is a process of refinement, of getting rid of all that is extraneous until only the pure essentials are left. I once saw a film of Picasso, in his eighties at the time, painting an entire beautiful mural on a wall in less than ten minutes! He made it look so easy, yet we know it took decades of disciplined training before Picasso refined his skills enough to quickly produce such a marvel of balance and beauty with nothing excess, nothing lacking.
If it takes so long to master the art of painting, how much more to master ourselves, to let go of our unbalanced habits of body, speech and mind, to Return to the Source, to become the Uncarved Block! Still, as my old Tai Ji master, Shing, once told me, “The time is going to go by anyway; so, you might as well be learning something!”
Thank you for a very detailed look at Taoist practice. I would only note that you don’t seem to mention any actual religious activities: no Deities, no worship, no prayer, no temples, no altars, etc. It’s as if you would perform a sacred dance around a raging fire without actually acknowledging the fire. This is probably more of a statement than a question, for which I apologize. Any comments?
A. Dr. Jampa Mackenzie Stewart
Where IS the raging fire? To answer, I quote here not Lao Tzu, but Kabir?
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, not in synagogues, nor in cathedrals: not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God [Tao]?
He is the breath inside the breath.
Cassandra, I have had much personal exposure to Taoist practice and practitioners, but very little personal exposure to religious or courtly Taoism. Therefore, I have not said much about it. All the deities and altars can be found within one’s own body.
Q. Sun Vin
Dr. Stewart I have very much enjoyed your lecture and hope that you can speak further on the 28 constellations in the 4 quadrants which correlate with the 5 elements, 5 directions and 5 viscera. As I live in North America, this area of the quadrants are of paticular interest, but am also wondering if all areas can still be benifical and accessed thru qigong meditative visualization. Thank you
A. Dr. Jampa Mackenzie Stewart
Dear Su Vin,
I apologize for taking so long to respond to your question. Yes, the constellations are still accessible in visualization and meditation. The major correspondences relate to the four directions: north, east, south, and west, and to the 5 element corresponding animal constellations in those sectors: Black (or Blue) Tortoise constellation in the Northern Sky, Azure/Green Dragon in the Eastern Sky, Red Phoenix in the Southern sky, and White Tiger in the Western sky.
In meditation, the North corresponds to the Water element and the Kidneys. You can strengthen the spirit of your Kidneys and Water element by visualing drawing in the power of the Black (or Blue) Tortoise as luminous and bright blue or black light from the Northern sky, feeling it filling your kidneys, and strengthening your Water element and the virtues associated with the Wate element: gentleness and Wisdom. Wisdom is like water on a calm and clear winter night. Calm water reflects what is outward like a mirror, without distortion. Calm water also allows the sediment to settle, and becomes clear. So, when you can see outwardly without distortion, and inwardly into your own depths with clarity, that is surely wisdom. Visualize with confidence that the blue/black light heightens your own qualities of gentleness and wisdom. You can do the same with the other constellations.
The best English text that I’ve found so far that explains the 28 constellations is in Master Ni, Hua-Ching’s translation of the I Ching. You might check this out for detailed information. In the Healing Tao system, we begin to explore meditation on the 28 constellations at the level of the Greatest Kan and Li meditations. We teach these in America during the summer retreats in Big Indian, New York. You can get more information on these retreats at www.healingtaousa.com. Also refer to the links from there to International Healing Tao (now Universal Tao, I believe. Best wishes in your journey.
In the Tao,
Dr. Jampa Mackenzie Stewart Q. Wayne
Is it possible to be ” a follower of the Way ” and only be interested in Tao as a spiritual system?
Is it possible to leave out ” such diverse disciplines as meditation,dietary guidelines, Chinese medicine, Qi Gong, martial arts, sexual practices, military strategy, astrology, outer and inner alchemy, divination, magic and talismans, ritual, Feng Shui (geomancy), sacred architecture and the arts”?
A. Dr. Jampa Mackenzie Stewart
Thank you for your letter. I’m responding to your question: “Is it possible TO BE ” a follower of the Way ” and only be interested in Tao as a spiritual system. Is it possible to leave out ,” such diverse disciplines as meditation, dietary guidelines, Chinese medicine, Qi Gong, martial arts, sexual practices, military strategy, astrology, outer and inner alchemy, divination, magic and talismans, ritual, Feng Shui (geomancy), sacred architecture and the arts? ”
A Taoist does not need to practice all of the traditional Taoist arts to be called a “Taoist”. However, most “followers of the Way” at least practice the contemplative arts to cultivate themselves. As I mention in my article, meditation is really the root and trunk of the tree, and all of the other Taoist arts are branches which support the trunk and root. Meditation may include not just sitting practices, but also standing meditations, lying down meditations, dreaming meditations, walking meditations, Qigong movement, and Tai Chi). Also, from my understanding, all Taoist novices read and re-read Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu many times, and seek guidance and clarification on these books from their seniors. Most Taoists also study some form of healing or medicine, according to Ko Hung. All the Taoists that I know also practice some form of Qigong and martial art as well.
But remember, “The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao.” To paraphrase, “the Taoist that can be defined is not the ultimate Taoist.” There are many different types of Taoists. In the China of old, there were traditionally courtly Taoists, mountain Taoists, and Taoist scholars. Courtly Taoists were usually ordained priests who practiced ritual ceremony and magic for their living. Mountain Taoists were like yogi hermits; although some were priests or monks, still others had no formal title, nor did they care for any. They practiced what their teacher taught them, and lived close to nature, far away from the decadent influences of civilized society. Taoist scholars studied the works of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and possibly the I Ching as well. They were the upper class literati, often said to be “Confucian in the court, Buddhist in the home, and Taoist in the bedchamber.” Since the living Chinese tradition of Taoism is almost non-existent in the West, many Americans have been tempted to create their own “Taoism” according to their personal romantic fanciful notions of what Taoism is. Who is there to correct them? Thus, Taoism has been declining, not only here, but in China as well. Part of the blame for this can be placed on the mountain Taoists, who have kept their practices secret and their writings cryptic to avoid persecution and exploitation.
So, what does Taoism as a spiritual system mean to you? In the Bible, James writes, “Faith without works is dead.” You may believe in the words of Lao Tzu and other Taoist writers, but how do you put them into practice? How does Taoism affect the way you live your daily life? And where is the Tao found, if not in your daily life? When the Tao begins to be found in your daily life, then you can call yourself a “follower of the Way.” In the Tao,
Jampa Mackenzie Stewart