July 30, 2006 at 12:17 am #15960
“Embodying Perfection: Self-Cultivation in Pre-modern China,” sponsored by the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (Thursday, March 9, 7:00 PM)
The Background of the Idea of “Refining the Form” (lianxing)
in Inner Alchemy
This paper is nothing more than a first attempt at understanding the background of the idea of “refining the form” (lianxing) in neidan (inner alchemy). Among several issues that surround the notion of xing or “form” is its relation to ti or “body.” The existence of a difference, at least on a theoretical level, between xing and ti is suggested by the fact that, in the neidan and self-cultivation practices, one “refines the form” (lianxing) or “nourishes the form” (yangxing) rather than “refining the body” or “nourishing the body.” However, instead of attempting to define the difference between “form” and “body” in a theoretical way, I have tried to examine the views on “form” in some sources belonging to four different areas: Daoist thought, early cosmology, Han-Six Dynasties schools of religious Daoism, and (to a minor extent) meditation in the tradition of the Huangting jing. While each of these areas has its own history and set of doctrines, one can describe all of them as historical and doctrinal antecedents of neidan.
The classical statement on form in early Chinese thought is in the “Xici” appendix to the Yijing: “What is above the form is called the Dao; what is below the form is called an object”. In his commentary to Laozi 11, Du Guangting (850-933) quotes this sentence adding a theoretical explanation of why one should transcend form to attain to the Dao. The key point in Du Guangting’s explanation is: “Although the form dwells on the boundary between the Dao and the objects, the form is above the objects and is not in the Dao”.
In these and similar statements, form is a threshold between the Dao and the objects. The arrangement is vertical (“above,” “below”), since the purpose is to establish a hierarchy among the components of the world that illustrates their ultimate origin in the Dao. The frequent use of the word sheng (“to generate”) or bian (“to transform”) to describe the relation between one component and the next shows that this hierarchy is not only ontological but also genealogical. At least to some extent, therefore, it can also be represented as temporal, in the sense that it implies a sequence of stages that can be projected into the indefinite past to produce a cosmogony.
Accordingly, various works describe form as an intermediate element in the shift from the Formless (wuxing) to the “ten thousand things”. The same is when the transmutation from the Dao to the cosmos is narrated with the addition of more stages to the description. For instance, a first or second century apocryphon on the Yijing imagines the shift from the Dao to the cosmos as happening in four stages. The first is undifferentiated “chaos” (hunlun), while the other three see the emergence of pneuma (qi), form, and matter (zhi), respectively.
At the end of the cosmogonic process, form continues to play its intermediary role as a lodging for spirit (shen). In this way, says the Huainanzi, form becomes one of the three major constituents of life with spirit and pneuma. Form and spirit are said to require each other: cultivating one’s form makes one’s spirit “complete” (quan), while the separation of form and spirit results in death or in the appearance of “numina and demons” (ling and gui).
After this, I have examined some sources that use a specific term in their descriptions of the cosmogonic process, liu or “flowing.” One of them is Zhuangzi 12, which describes the shift from Non-being to the One, and from the One to forms, as happening through a “flowing movement” (liudong). Essentially the same idea is in the “Tuanzhuan” appendix to the Yijing, although here the term is “flowing into the form” (liuxing). Other early texts apply “flowing into the form” to the generation of the embryo. In Shiwen 4, from Mawangdui, “flowing into the form” may refer to the gestation or to the cosmogonic process, and indeed to both. Here “flowing into the form” is said to produce life, but “when flowing into the form produces a body (ti) […] death occurs” (trl. Harper, ECML, 393).
The Shiwen thus distinguishes the rise of the form from the rise of the body, saying that the generation of the form leads to life while the generation of the body leads to death. To invert this sequence, one should cultivate one’s pneuma in order to fill one’s form with the “culminant essence of heaven and earth.” The Shiwen concludes that, after doing this, “spirit then flows into the form. […] The person who is capable of it invariably becomes a spirit (shen). Thus he is capable of achieving release of the form (xingjie)” (trl. Harper, 394, 398).
I have then tried to consider “release from the form” as an instance of undergoing bianhua or “metamorphosis,” suggesting that this wider context may give clues on the relation between the ideas on the background of Shiwen 4 and the practices of the medieval Daoist schools and, later, also of neidan. Besides the Shiwen, “release from the form” occurs in other sources. In the Zhuangzi, one obtains “release from the form” as the result of receiving a teaching, in the Shiji through the performance of magical methods, and in the Shangqing revealed scriptures through meditation practices to achieve invisibility. “Release from the form” therefore does not refer to a single practice or event, but denotes in a general way the idea of transcending one’s ordinary state as a human being.
An early commentator of the Shiji took “release from the form” to mean shijie or “release from the corpse.” Although this gloss probably does not apply to the passage in question, “release from the corpse” pertains to the extremely wide notion of bianhua. “Release from the form” in the first place implies transcendence, of which “release from the corpse” is one aspect.
Undergoing “release from the corpse” and “refining the form” are closely related to each other in the Han and Six Dynasties schools of Daoism. Among the Celestial Masters, the designated place for this postmortem purification is the Palace of Taiyin or Great Darkness. The Xiang’er commentary to the Laozi (ca. 200 CE) describes Great Darkness as “the place where those who have accumulated the Dao refine their forms” before they obtain rebirth (fusheng). Lingbao Daoism had rites performed to ensure that the dead persons could refine their form in Great Darkness and their cloud-soul(s) (hun) in the Southern Palace (Nangong).
After some years, the refined body and the purified cloud-soul(s) would reunite for rebirth. In Shangqing Daoism, adepts ensured the same benefit to their ancestors through meditation practices. This allowed one’s ancestors to bathe in the Water of Smelting Refinement (yelian zhi shui) and “receive a new embryo” (gengtai). Shangqing provided its living adepts with other practices designed to ascend in meditation to the Court of Flowing Fire (liuhuo zhi ting). The alchemical images of these ritual and meditation practices are apparent: refining form and spirit in the Court of Flowing Fire, bathing in the Water of Smelting Refinement, generating a new embryo.
Elsewhere, the Xiang’er criticizes those who try to “refine their form” through visualization practices, thinking that the inner gods are forms taken by the Dao. In fact, a passage of the Huangting jing says that “hiding” oneself (fu) in Great Darkness results in “seeing one’s own form” (jian wu xing) or in “achieving one’s own form” (cheng wu xing). The “arts for refining one’s form” (lianxing zhi shu) are also mentioned in Ge Hong’s Baopu zi neipian in passages which allude to methods of inner meditation close to those of the Huangting jing.
This initial overview on some ideas and practices related to “form” shows that:
1. In early Daoist thought and in cosmological thought, xing is a cosmological notion. It represents a threshold between the Dao and the objects, a stage in cosmogony before the rise of matter, and a lodging for spirit.
2. In the Daoist schools of the Han and the Six Dynasties, xing is the locus of refining, either in life or in the postmortem.
3. In Daoist meditation practices, meditation on one’s inner gods is also described as “refining one’s form.”
These different trends of thought and religious practice independently provided neidan with doctrinal notions, technical terminology, and textual authority for its theories and practices. Beyond their different backgrounds, they share the view that to achieve transcendence one has to go beyond one’s body, and that to do so one must “refine one’s form” or achieve “release from the form.” The human body, therefore, is neither seen as immediately related to the Dao, nor as simply a replica of the cosmos as we know it (a microcosm). The relation of the body to the Dao occurs through the mediation of the xing, which in turn is an intermediate stage in the cosmogonic process.
These views paved the way for the doctrines and practices of “refining the form” in neidan. In neidan, “refining the form” allows adepts to trace back, in sequential order, the stages of cosmogony, merge one’s spirit (shen) with the Dao, or generate the inner embryo of immortality. As Huainanzi 7 put it, the person who attains to the Dao is “without form” and “without body” (wuxing, wuti).August 7, 2006 at 11:13 am #15961
Interesting piece. I subscribe to the SSCR but didn’t see that piece – can you send the link?
I’ve been waiting for Pregardio to come out with his translation of the Triplex Unity, but he tells me it is slow and difficult (China’s oldest alchemical text).
He is using or quoting “Dao” in contexts which differ markedly from some other translators, as being separate from creation. The schols that interpret Dao as process would not make this separation.
Nonetheless, xing/ inner form is seen to be mediating between body and formless in most cosmologies I’ve read.
The mistake practitioners make is to try to abandon or escape their body in search of the formless.
This is the theme i clarify in the Greater Kan & Li, whichincludes embracing and refining the outer world of forms, summarized as:
Embrace the Earth, and Heaven will chase you.
michaelAugust 7, 2006 at 1:39 pm #15963
Embrace the Earth, and Heaven will chase you.
I like this easy to remeber phrase…seen alot of other people also crash and burn with reversal of that ala..chasing heaven.
As a side comment do these obviously intelligent scholars that translate these alchemical text have the practical expierence meaning: I understand the process of translating chinese-English. I have personally translated variant forms of my practices back into Traditional Chinese to understand the vibration, the message differently and it has added a enjoyable element poem, mantra, song element to it; and have had many Asian teachers do the scrutinizing for accuracy.
I have practiced seriously since 1983…with my elementary level of translation skills and with help of a chinese cultural center teacher, I can see the difference from just straight translation into flowing english. It feels that some translaters make it so stale in their writing/translation skills and lack the mileage of practice.
I read the section about the translater(Louis Komjathy) trying to tag you as this or that; I have read alot of his Daoist translations, and I have read and practiced many works by you there is a definite difference meaning~you can tell you have the mileage and it is for sure not a thinking process .
Dont understand why certain insitutions embrace these translators as “expert” when they lack the “cultivation skills”; I would have to say these teachers are important, but it would be more useful to collaborate with a Cultivator teacher” that has acutual expierence and write more complete thesis, dissertation, books…
My Wah, wah, wah for the week
SnowlionAugust 8, 2006 at 1:07 am #15965
Louis K. is among the young generation that has practiced qigong and some meditation, enough to drive him to do a thesis on neidan in complete perfection tradition. But of course they are academics first and foremost, otherwise they would choose to become teachers of the practice rather than school teachers. I am glad someone is willing to spend the time to understand classical chinese.
If you are interested in his thesis, contact me for details.
AS far as I know, Pregadio is not a practitioner. Most are not. Livia Kohn meditates and does qigong, yoga, she is the bold exception. But her meditation background is mostly vipassana, not taoist. But she loves the wuji form, learned it from the dvd I gave her….
Institutions always protect their own, have to justify paying them.
mAugust 9, 2006 at 10:14 pm #15967
Ok…here is the link it was a maze of links trying to find it again, sorry for delay, if anything else worthwhile pops up in my history will post it…Snowlion
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