Taoism and Self Cultivation by Wang Zhi Gang
Translated by Tao Ming Hua
It goes without saying that maintaining good health and enjoying a long life is desired by all. Although there are certain people who are blessed by nature and live healthily and happily to a great age, the number of those favoured in such a way seems few and far between.
Centuries ago in China, the ancient Taoist Masters (founding fathers) discovered ways of maintaining good health and preserving life through long years of experimentation and practice in enhancing and harmonising the energy of the individual with that of the universe. It is from this ancient research that the modern arts of acupuncture, herbal medicine, acupressure, Tai Chi Chuan (Taiji Quan) and Chi Kung (qigong) energy mastery have their origins.
The development of Taoism is precisely based on the classic “The Canon Of Morals” by Lao Tzu, a famous ancient scholar (Spring and Autumn period, 770 476 B.C.) who summarized the preservation exercises practised only by emperors and ministers in the confines of imperial palaces, and recorded the principles of the exercises in the classics in the form of characters.
The central core of Taoism is considering one’s soul as the dominating factor, and one’s body as the house where the vital energy resides. In order to remain youthful with an abundance of health and vitality, it is important to maintain and control the body’s energies at an optimum level. Once the body the house is damaged, one’s vital energy will have no place to reside, and health problems may occur. Based on this core theory, Taoism lays great emphasis on preserving life to enable the individual to express their full potential.
One of the earliest books on Taoism, The Tai Ping Jing, written during the Eastern Dynasty 25-220A.D., points out the importance of utilizing and maximizing our life energies for the duration of our earthly life. Traditionally people were urged to make a careful study of the classics and teachings passed down in written and oral form by the ancient ones. The Tai Ping Jing not only illustrates the importance of preserving life but also explains the methods to achieve it.
Essentially, the principles of preserving a long and healthy life are quite simple and not at all mysterious. The key is to have self respect, self love and inner joy, and an attitude of valuing all forms of life, at the same time lovingly distancing oneself from anything harmful, cruel and fierce. Only when one remembers at heart these principles as a foundation is it possible to avoid interference by anything harmful, and remain peaceful in order to gain the greatest benefit from life preserving exercises.
Taoism advocates that it is not heaven or other factors but one’s own individual self that is the dominating factor in life. The essence of this view is to encourage self responsibility for all our creations, i.e. our thoughts and attitudes and consequent actions, and to perform self preservation exercises actively, progressively and persistently while at the same time guarding against lethargy, non supportive attitudes and destructive, judgmental feelings towards oneself and others.
The famous founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, commented “It is I who should adopt the Yin and Yang essence from heaven and earth to increase my vital energy. My vital energy should not be dispersed and absorbed by heaven and earth”.
Many of the ancient teachings were lost as a result of historical and narrow-minded cultural attitudes, but a small number of precious Taoist theories were passed down through successive generations, either in either in written form, or secretly, orally, and individually.
Originally, Taoism had no schools, for Taoism emphasises calmness and nihility, searching neither for fame nor gain, so schools seemed unnecessary. Later on it was because people wanted to learn Taoism more easily that many types and branches of schools derived from Taoism, named according to their place of origin, such as Lung Fu Shan and Mao Shan, or to their features such as Wu Dang, Qing Chen, Er Mai, Lao Shan, Chang Bai and so on. There were certain schools with special features.
A typical example was the type called Tian Shi, which taught that while practising, the practitioner must chant to calm and forget himself so that he will be able to reach a state of nothingness. It was said that extraordinary actions are possible in internal energy has been gathered over long periods of persistent practising (Those who wander from place to place earning a living by apparently magical acts and mystical trickery are certainly not among them). Another school of Taoism which has a mysterious nature was called Chang Chuan. It was quite different from the others in that it uniquely combined Wushu (martial arts health preserving exercises and chanting.
Later on, the school of Chang Chuan was changed to Pai Jiao and finally, a special emphasis was placed on the medical aspects and the school became known as Zhu You Ke.
Throughout the dynasties of experimentation and development of self cultivation and life preservation by the various schools of Taoism, two major branches emerged. These branches became known as Nei Dan and Wai Dan, or ‘internal’ and ‘external’ development.
According to the records written from chapters sixty five to seventy one of seven volumes collectively named Yun Ji (Song dynasty 420 479 A.D.), and also the boo Bao Pu Zi by Ge Hong (Jin dynasty 265 420 A.D.), the Wi Dan art is none other than the Jing Dan art (Gold Dan Art).
Records show that this art introduced a way of making a kind of medicine, using gold, plants and animals as the raw materials, to be chemically combined and made into pills, which are said to be able to cure disease and prolong one’s life. Any mistakes made in the process of making these pills would cause the pills to be poisonous, and for this reason it is rare to find anything regarding this subject passed down.
One other lesser known school of Taoist self cultivation is the exceptional art of Fong Zhong Shu, which is chiefly the art of practising qigong whilst making love. Male and female absorb vital energy from each other, and through this sharing of energies they are able to enhance and preserve their lives. There is a detailed description of this theory in the book called Han Shu, listing many methods and practices relating to this subject. The methods are recorded by Yong Chen, who was recognised as the teacher of Emperors according to the book “Li Man Biography.”
The Nei Dan school (internal art) of Taoist of self cultivation is the richest in terms of records available, and a small number of Masters are still able to authentically transmit this ancient knowledge. This school absorbs Yin and Yang from heaven and earth through breathing, strengthening the vital energy. Gradually the energy will gather in the lower part of the abdomen (Dan Tian) and finally form a Oi sphere. Once one has developed the Qi sphere (Qi vital energy) one will be full of vigour and able to eliminate potentially damaging imbalances by combining unlimited Yin and Yang from heaven and earth with Yin and Yang in one’s own body. Since a person can absorb endless Yin and Yang energies from nature as the motivating force of all life activities, one may provide more vital energy for the five major internal organs and thereby optimise their absolute potential.
In relation to this one may read such books as Tai Gong Lu Taos, Yu Je Shu, Bao Pu Zi and Zhe Yi Can Dong Qi. In all the books the changes of Yin and Yang in the body are explained, the state of nihility and concentration of the mind in the internal body is advocated, and the guiding methods of inhaling and exhaling are described. All these theories and methods are illustrated by eight trigrams, (which are of course contained in the famous book of changes or I Ching).
Additionally, there are a number of famous books on the subject of Taoist self cultivation written throughout the centuries, notably the Po Mi Zheng Dao Ge (Song of Eradicating Superstition) by Han Zhong Li and Tai Xi Jin (The Theorv of the Fetus) author unidentified, which specify ways of enhancing the vital energy of the body, and consciously guiding the increased energy to improve health and cure diseases. Moreover, there are numerous methods and theories, which have been passed down orally only, from Master to disciple from generation to generation, and no records in written form are available.
Wudang Shen Quan qigong (WSQQ) is a branch of the Nei Dan school of Taoist self cultivation which I have been practising, and with the consent of my teacher, making available to students in China, Thailand, Japan, U.S.A and England.
This method of practice is like a bright pearl shining amongst the various schools of Taoist qigong. It originated in the Song dynasty (960 A.D.) and became famous around the lifetime of its foremost practitioner, the legendary Zhong San Fong (Chang San Feng the founder of Tai Chi Chuan Taijiquan) in the fourteenth century. In gratitude and respect for WSQQ and its teachers, the Emperor built a temple on Wudang mountain, Hebei province, during the Ming dynasty. In the later decline of the Ming dynasty, and in order to avoid the destruction of the Wugang Temple during a time of war, the monks agreed to disperse to other areas and continued their practices secretly.
The reason why WSQQ was relatively unknown compared to other schools is that apart from historical reasons usually wars WSQQ must be passed down from Master to disciple. Additionally, Taoists showed great self respect, searching for and only abiding by natural law and not seeking undeserved reputation or private profit. So although WSQQ in the past suffered the chaos of war, even today it has not been revealed or spread ona large scale in public. Only with the consent of my Master two years ago did I break the strict rule of WSQQ and make it known publicly to benefit people at home and abroad.
The core of the WSQQ Taoist teachings is, “obeying the law of the revolving changes of nature.” It holds that because people are born and live between heaven and earth, they actually contain a small heaven and earth within them. Concerning this view, there are many interesting statements, such as: “because the sky is round and the earth is flat, so a person’s head is round and their feet are flat”, “because there is yin (moon) and yang (sun) in nature, so there are male (yang) and female (yin) in mankind”, “because there are five elements in nature metal, wood, water, fire and earth (the five elements held by the ancients to compose the physical universe and later used in traditional Chinese medicine to explain various physiological and pathological phenomena) so people have five organs heart, liver, lung, spleen and kidney”, “because there are twenty four solar terms, so people have twenty four ribs”, “because there are changes of weather storm, lightning, wind, and cloud, so there are changes of feelings happiness, anger, sorrow and delight”. Therefore, according to Taoism, people should live in harmony with natural law.
The ancient Taoists advocated that the lifespan of a person could last more than 200 years, as stated in the book Huang Di Nei Jing (The Imperial Inner Jing). It also states that once a baby is born, he will begin to consume his energy during his lifetime by eating too much, thinking too much, working too much or failing to control his strong feelings too often. As a result his five inner organs will be impaired, and his blood and vital energy will be used up more quickly than they can be stored. So little by little, with growing age, and especially with old age, the person will be exhausted by all kinds of diseases because of a shortage of vital energy, which will shorten the life span he might have enjoyed.
However, through consistent practice of qigong, one’s health will be improved, and enlightenment may be realised, hence the famous saying in Taoism that it makes no difference to an adherent whether one is a new born baby or a grown up.
The method of Wudang Shen Quan qigong has been transmitted by mind and soul, orally and individually, from Master to Disciple down through the centuries. I was taught this method by my teacher, Grand Master Zhang who lives in seclusion with my two brother disciples in the mountainous region of An Hui Province in Central China.
Two of the required and essential aspects in the practice of WSQQ are ‘smoothness’ and ‘softness’, without which only limited progress can be made. Both these aspects are wholly incorporated in the Chinese word Sung which has a much more profound and deeper meaning than relaxation.
What is ‘smoothness’, and what is ‘softness’? As long as people live in the world, they will have endless things to deal with, such as business affairs, social activities, and family and personal matters. It is true that it is not easy to keep a calm and quiet mind while coping with so many things in life. We may worry that we might not enjoy a long life because of the tremendous, pressure of all that we have to do, which will exhaust the vital energy we could have stored and therefore used to live a long and healthy life, or because one may have already suffered from various diseases and vital energy has become exhausted. In fact, things could go a quite different way.
You may change your health situation by yourself. You should first stop worrying about your health condition, and then spend some time sitting quietly or practising qigong in a way that is suitable for you, remaining in a state of calmness and nihility, letting your soul rest in your body. In this way, your vital energy will not be consumed quickly but will be strengthened and even stored little by little to improve your health.
There is also a Taoist way of dealing with things. It holds that if you meet with extraordinary events, trying to maintain a calm state is what you must remember, for you should know that the unexpected will happen anyway, since undesired events do not always depend on your emotional feelings. Furthermore, if unusual things do occur which you are unable to solve for the time being, you might as well put them aside for a period of time. You may be surprised to find that some of these things will not get any worse, even though you ignore them purposely for quite a period of time. Therefore, remaining in a calm state of mind despite meeting with extraordinary events will on the contrary help you constantly to keep a clear mind and quick reactions in solving all kinds of problems.
What has been described above is maintaining a clear mind while living in this busy and mortal world. If you have learned the Taoist breathing regulation methods, you may benefit a lot by just practising some of the exercises for a little while when feeling exhausted or when energy is low. This is the methods of smoothness.
What then is softness? According to the experiences of the ancestors who incorporated into their lives the practice of WSQQ, softness, in essence, is the foundation of smoothness. In nature softness is actually more powerful than hardness. People may not believe this, but there are many typical examples: the constant dripping of soft water wears holes in hard stone, big hard trees are broken down by storms while soft grasses are not, hard teeth drop easily while soft tongues do not. The theory that softness is more powerful than hardness is also evident in daily life. A loving attitude can dissolve harsh thoughts and behaviour towards oneself and others.
So abiding by one of the principles of natural law softness one should practise qigong softly, naturally, step by step according to one’s own energy and health condition. Do not over practice or practice aggressively. In general, as long as you try your best to take some time away from your busy life, remaining in a calm and quiet state of mind, combined with practicing WSQQ, you may attain a state of mind as if you were just born and you may reap great benefits.
If you have experienced this comfortable state of mind, through proper practice methods at a suitable time daily, with good results, are you not already on the way to leading a happy and long life? I wish all of you success.
Wang Zhi Gang is Director of the Shanghai WSQQ Research Association. Tao Ming Hua is a Lecturer at Shanghai Institute of Physical Education and a member of Shanghai WSOO