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The Taoist Traditions

 Two millennia ago, some early Chinese Taoists –– later characterized by John Blofeld as the first hippies [1] –– abandoned mainstream society and moved to remote places, where they could commune with nature. They left the bustle of the cities and towns to seek the goal of many Taoists then, as now, which was to experience the nameless truth that reveals itself only through quiet and solitude. Immersed in the stillness away from humanity’s caravan routes, the conditions were right to observe their thoughts, breath, and energy flow. From this pristine vantage point, they developed mind and body exercises to harmonize with the flow of nature and attune mind and body to the perennial wisdom of the primordial Tao; the nameless source beyond words.

The present chapter includes a general introduction to Taoist physical and mental yoga and is not intended to be a scholarly discussion of Taoism or Taoists. However, since this chapter and those that follow include an overview of practices that are generally labeled as “Taoist,” such as Taoist meditation and Taoist qigong, it is necessary to include a few words on what I mean by the term Taoist. 

At first glance, it would seem that defining terms like Taoist and Taoism would be a simple task, but there is more debate about the meaning of “Taoist” and “Taoism” than the casual reader of these subjects might suspect. Moreover, various sinologists continue to debate the meaning of these terms, further muddying the waters with each new distinction.

The religion, philosophy, and collection of practices that are generally labeled as Taoist trace themselves to the primary text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (道德經). A general meaning of the term Taoist is suggested by distinguished sinologist and historian, Nathan Sivin, who writes that for the common observer, the term Taoist denotes:

Nothing more specific than a frame of mind-nature-loving, perhaps, or mystical in a naturalistic way, or unconventional––in discussions that are meant to be about a religion––an association of persons who hold a body of beliefs. [2]

 

However, as Professor Sivin continues, distinctive qualifiers of the meaning of “Taoist” and Taoism are elusive. Consider, for example, depending on use, that the term Taoist might in any given instance be sentimental, intellectual, social, or bibliographical.

Taoism is neither a unified religion nor a single philosophical stream, and some practices described as Taoist are not exclusively so. For example, individuals and practices labeled as “Taoist” might refer to those casually ascribed to the philosophy of Taoism. Furthermore, there were, and remain, not only Taoist shamans and priests, but other entirely different sets of practitioners that may be considered Taoist or have Taoist leanings, such as the inner and outer alchemists. Adding to the discussion, not only are there practitioners of Taoist magic and rituals, there is even a historical category of a type of Taoist mystic called “Far Roaming,” who believed that through meditative trance, they could travel beyond the confines of their bodies and visit far and distant lands. Furthering the confusion toward a meaningful definition of Taoists and Taoism are the fangshi, (方士), “master of the recipes,” meaning shaman, who practiced arts like astrology and divination. [3]

However, the present work does not join in the academic arguments over what constitutes a Taoist or Taoism, nor does it pursue the variant definitions thereof. Designed for the casual reader, in the pages that follow, the disciplines and practices referred to as Taoist are those that are generally represented as such. Those are the traditions that, loosely or otherwise, trace their roots to the respective writings attributed to Lao Tzu [4] and Chuang Tzu in the sixth or fourth century BCE. However, it should be noted that, as Sivin points out, these are not be thought of as a single unified group emerging from a common line, but instead “a handful of authors scattered throughout history.” In discussing such writings, Sivin explains how they:

Meant one thing to their writers, another to their compilers, another to each reader, and quite another to moderns. None of these brings the same assumptions to them, and each finds different original meanings in them. [5]

 

“Inner” and “Outer” Alchemy as Referenced in the Present Work

At its most basic level, Taoist yoga is a collection of tools that the initiate applies toward the mastery of mind and body. As the writer on Taoist practices Hedemi Ishida explains, the traditional Taoist yogic-meditative view is that control over the body leads to control over the emotions, and that this ultimately leads to tranquility and “emptiness of mind.” [6]

 

Restated, the aim of Taoist internal yoga is first to control the body, which in turn leads to control over the emotions, and ultimately “tranquility and emptiness.” [7] Both active and passive Taoist yogas are considered in the present work, and later, the Taoist quietest-contemplative tradition will also be considered.

Taoist Inner Alchemy

 The Chinese internal alchemy-yoga tradition is called neidan. As with the basics of TCM discussed in Section II, the Taoist neidan tradition is likewise concerned with three aspects of the body’s energy system. They are the energetic elements of jing, qi, and shen. Jing is nutritive and reproductive essence. Qi, in context of the tripartite jing, qi, shen representation, refers to both the energy that moves through the channels and organs, but is also the energy of metabolism, respiration, mobility, and immunity. Shen refers to the most etheric and refined aspect of human energy, and aspects of human experience characterized as psyche, spirit, and emotions.

The earliest references to inner alchemy appear around the same time Buddhism was making its way into China. Although correlation does not prove causation, this may account for what some scholars see as the influence of Indian religion, particularly Buddhism, on the development of the Chinese internal, neidan, tradition. On this note, Isabelle Robinet, whose specialty is Shangqing Taoism and inner alchemy, suggests that the Taoist neidan traditions might have developed as a Chinese (national) and Taoist (philosophical) “reaction to Buddhism.” [8]

Dating back to the second century, the oldest known book on Chinese inner alchemy is the Cantong qi (參同契). Although the date when the doctrine and systematized practice of neidan inner yoga emerged is debated, it is generally accepted to have developed as a recognized tradition from the eighth century, with two main branches emerging between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. [9]

The Southern and Northern Schools comprise the two main branches of the neidan tradition. The Southern School focuses on first cultivating one’s existence or ming (), and then cultivating one’s xing (), with Ming referring to the physical body and xing to the mind. The Northern School, on the other hand, focuses first on one’s cultivation of xing. The Taoists taught that such cultivation could be achieved through “clarity and quiescence” (chingjing, 清靜). [10]

According to Robinet, what ties the neidan authors together is the concern for training the mind as much as the body, and the tendency to synthesize various Taoist currents with Buddhist speculations and Confucian lines of thought, making references to the Yijing (Book of Changes) and incorporating alchemical practices.[11]

For the Taoist yogi, the goal was simple: return mind and body to their inherent pristine state. For a Taoist alchemist, the ideal state of xiantian (先天), or “primordial (also transliterated as “earlier”) heaven,” was a goal that could be realized by the expert practitioner, who refined mind and body energy and became sensitive to, and harmonious with, nature’s rhythms. Although the practice of physical and mental yoga to maintain health predates the Taoists, they are most probably drawn from shamanic dances designed to influence the weather. [12] [13] For the purposes of health, longevity, and sometimes as a quest to attain immortality, the Taoists created passive and active yogas.

Their quest led to the development of physical and mental yogas (note, as detailed below, “mental yogas” are distinct from meditation), many of which are still in use today. Some of these yogas were, and are, active, while others were, and still are, practiced as passive exercise. Through the accounts of the early practitioners who documented their experiences in order to pass on the traditions to later generations, the Taoist yogis compiled an invaluable record that reveals essential secrets of the nature of internal energy, along with the myriad ways to master one’s life force.

Active, or “movement,” exercises of the Taoists -- including stretching and breathing art forms -- were designed to manage, enhance and balance internal energy within the body. However, as mentioned earlier, the range of practices embraced by the Taoists also included passive yogas or the holding of static postures, which, rather than utilizing physical exercise in order to stimulate and revitalize the body’s energy, relied upon the power of focused awareness directed to locations within the body. In today’s parlance, they unlocked the power of attention to consciously influence the nervous system.

Whether engaged in active or passive (moving or static) yoga, the first task for an initiate was to gain some awareness of his or her life force. In both active and passive examples, the practitioner’s primary goal was to become sensitive to the flow and rhythm of internal qi, or nei qi (內氣), [14] within the body. Blofeld describes the Taoist yogi’s pursuit as one to “discover whether life had meaning, if so what, and then live in frugal but happy accord with nature’s rhythms.”

Since the 1950s, both active and passive yoga have generally been categorized under the umbrella term qigong (氣功). However, over the course of millennia, they were known by other names. Other terms for Chinese health-energetic exercise include nei gong (內功), meaning “inner work,” and yang sheng (養生), “nurturing life,” exercise. Relatedly, yang xing (養形) pertains to the cultivation of the body, while exercises directed to the maintenance of mind and spirit are called yang xin (養心) and yang shen (養神).  

When employed as a physical discipline, the practice of Taoist exercise and posture holding falls into the category of dao yin (導引), “pulling and stretching.” Other terms that sometimes apply are an mo (按摩) and xing qi (行氣). An mo refers to massage and xingqi translates as “moving the qi.” [15]

Although the term qigong dates back only to the 1950s, [16] references to qigong-like practices can be found as far back as the fourth century BCE. Note that there are currently hundreds of traditions/ schools/methods of qigong with various names, many of which trace their lineage to legendary or historical founding masters.

Active vs. Passive Forms of Taoist Yoga / Qigong

On those distinctions between “active” and “passive” subtypes of Taoist yoga, in general, “active forms” include aspects of the previously mentioned physical forms of dao yin. Translated as “twisting and pulling” (or alternatively, “guiding and pulling”), physical forms evolved into branches of self-healing gymnastics and contributed to the development of martial arts like t'ai-chi ch’üan (taijiquan). Interestingly, there is some suggestion that these disciplines, and in particular those that teach that health could be influenced by means of posture and the holding of specific body positions, might have contributed to the development of western gymnastics. [17]

In contrast to active yoga, this section also introduces some techniques that involve the practitioner learning to focus attention within the body, known as neiguan (內觀), or neishi (內視). Both are synonyms for “inner contemplation,” and for the purposes of the present chapter, they are collectively referred to as neiguan, with nei meaning “inner” and guan holding several meanings. Guan can refer to a kind of watchtower, or a Taoist monastery or abbey, but, perhaps more fittingly, the term can also apply to breathing exercises inspired by the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation. 


[1] John Blofeld’s description of the Taoists as the first hippies is too elegant to paraphrase, and is included here in its entirety:

As for Taoism being the progenitor of the first hippies, close on fifteen hundred years ago there flourished some widespread taoistically-minded communities known as the Light Conversationalists. Their prescription for discovering whether life had meaning, and if so what, was to live in frugal but happy accord with nature’s rhythms, which generally involved fleeing from places where man-made laws imposed artificial limitations of people’s spontaneity. They rather hoped to discover true understanding of life’s meaning by seeking it in the stillness of their undisturbed minds; meanwhile, just in case life might offer nothing meaningful to understand, they enlivened their days with widely unconventional behavior and by conversing at deliberate fantastic levels for the fun of it.   

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[2] Sivin,[10] The practice of chingjing is described in the Tang Dynasty’s (618-907 CE) Classic of Clarity 清靜經, which presents the principles in a in Buddhist-like framework.

[12] Nathan Sivin, in his introduction to Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, Volume 6 writes: “Physical and meditational techniques of self-cultivation, we now know, pre-dated the Taoist movements, were widely practiced by non-initiates, and were not in any sense peculiar to Taoist masters.” Nathan Sivin (Editor),

Later in the same text, Professor Needham speculates that Taoist health exercise regimens may have derived from the dances of ancient rain-bringing shamans. Needham writes, “but in any case, they were associated with the idea, as old in Chinese as in Greek medicine, that the circulatory system was liable to become obstructed, thus causing stasis (yü) and disease.”

[14] As covered in Chapter One, the word / character qi has many uses in the Chinese language, and variations on the usage can refer to emotion, the weather, breathing and many other things. When preceded by the word nei, or “inner,” the meaning refers to the “inner qiof the body’s channel and organ system. More detail is provided below.

[15]  Referring to the practice of circulating qi, Professor Needham writes, “There were two ways of making it circulate. Concentrating the will to direct it to a particular place, such as the brain, or the site of some local malady, was termed hsing ch’i [xing qi]. Visualizing its flow in thought was ’inner vision’ (nei shi)…”     [17] Professor Needham writes, “There is considerable reason to believe that information about practices from Asia influenced the growth of calisthenics in modern Europe. This influence was marked from the eighteenth century onwards.”

An additional comment on this subject by Professor Needham can be found in Volume 5, where he also makes a note of the apparent influence of Taoist tao yin [dao yin] exercise on the development of Western gymnastics. The suggestion is based on the work of Stockholm, Sweden based P.H. Ling. Ling, a former fencing teacher and pioneer of western gymnastic theories which included his approach to development of health maintenance exercise. See