The Chinese regimen culture involves lots of Chinese concepts, the majority of which are too abstract and often can only be understood through metaphysical thinking. However, the practice of regimen has to be actualized through self-cultivation of the physical body. When theories have to be expressed in terms of real and specific physiological structures and phenomena, we encounter semantic confusion arising from confusing over-simplified theoretical illustrations (quan shuo) with real entities. This is common in Chinese medicine and inner alchemy, and is also apparent in day-to-day regimen exercise, like Taiji Quan. Today, if we want to internationalize the good tradition of regimen self-cultivation culture, such culture, apart from being complementary to Chinese philosophy, tradition Chinese medicine and application of divination, seems to be required to be synchronized with information in the fields of, among others, biotechnology, behavioral psychology, sports physiology, anatomy, genetic medicine and neurology. This paper attempts to discuss, from daily practice and self-cultivation, the internationalization of practical regimen activities, which tends to and must require the modernization of regimen culture.
Key words: Regimen, Inner Alchemy, Self-cultivation, Modernization
The two schools of Chinese philosophy, Confucianism and Daoism, both put a strong emphasis on life, and Daoism even requires improving the quality of life. The idea of “treasuring life (gui sheng)” has created many self-cultivation methods and regimen practices (yang sheng shu). However, ancient regimen practices involved many abstract concepts that cannot be easily understood. In this day and age, we are bombarded by knowledge made available through computer networks. If we want to promote globally Chinese regimen self-cultivation as a regional culture, we must increase its added value by mastering the world’s advance knowledge in order to modernize such culture.
The global financial crisis has brought quite a few benefits to China. The emergence of China’s economic power is self-evident, but the elevation of China’s national strength, the attention paid to Chinese culture, and the awakening of this sleeping dragon in response to such arousement are actually the best among all benefits. In the past, if you asked a foreigner: What do you know about Chinese culture? Without doubt, he/she would say: Taiji Quan, Chinese martial arts, acupuncture, dietary supplements (tang shui), Chinese medicine, breathing techniques (qi gong), Chinese geomancy (feng shui), tea drinking and dim sum. These are what foreigners appreciate in Chinese culture, and these are all interwoven with Daoist culture, in particular, the regimen culture.
The scope of Daoist regimen practices is extensive, including, among others, inner alchemy (nei dan), breathing techniques (qi gong), Taiji Quan, expiration and inspiration (tu na), gymnastics (dao yin), oral medicine (fu er), Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, dietary therapy (shi liao) , ingesting breath (fu qi), fasting (bi gu), talisman (fu zhou), sexual pleasure (fang zhong), and Daoist philosophical thinking.
I. Regimen Concepts too Abstract
Chinese traditional culture, in particular the culture of “qi” supporting the Daoist regimen practices, involves many metaphysical concepts. For instance, what exactly are the “entering into tranquility” (ru ding), “being elusive and impalpable” (huang hu), “Heaven and Man in unison” (tian ren he yi), etc. required for inactive practices? In Western countries, they will introduce brain wave equipment to track the changes in the brain of a foreigner who is meditating with crossed legs in order to ascertain the regimen benefits from meditation; contrarily, we just wait quietly for the arrival of the “mystical threshold (xuan guan)”, longing for the day when we become the Golden Immortal of the Great Overarching Heaven (Da Luo Jin Xian). Another example is, the Chinese practise expiration and inspiration (tu na), and often use the “qi sinking to the lower abdomen (dan tian)” to describe the depth of such practice. But, what is meant by the “qi sinking to the lower abdomen (dan tian)”? What is the difference between the “qi” that is being replaced during expiration and inspiration and the “qi” in the lower abdomen (dan tian)? How does “qi” sink? Where is “dan tian”? To Westerners, they may find all these Chinese concepts difficult to fathom. Nevertheless, we cannot underestimate the application of such abstract concepts in our daily life. When we sing, we have to let the “qi sink to the lower abdomen (dan tian)”; when we whistle, we have to use the “qi” from “dan tian”; when we weight lift in a gymnasium, we have to emphasize on “dan tian”; even when the movers lift heavy items, they pay attention to the “qi sinking to the lower abdomen (dan tian)”. Relatively speaking, foreigners only know there are the small and large intestines, bladder, uterus, prostates, etc. in the lower abdomen, the air that we breathe in only stays in the lungs, the breathing function is assisted by the diaphragm, but there is no capacity for storing “qi” in the lower abdomen. For those who practise Taiji Quan, they should be familiar with the “qi sinking to the lower abdomen (dan tian)”, and strangely enough, when the master mentions this, the majority of the students seem to understand what it means.
II. Rational Interpretation is Required for Foreigners
However, when we teach Chinese boxing in Western countries, such way of teaching will inevitably create a lot of confusion. I taught Chinese boxing in the U.S. and South Africa during the 1980s. Whenever I explained such kind of Chinese boxing theory, I had to turn to daily concepts as an aid for illustration. For example: breathe in, expanding fully your belly; breathe out, slowly and lastingly to the extent possible; contract your belly; raise your anus; tightly contract the group of muscles in the lower abdomen instantly to facilitate muscle vibration, etc. To give another example, I was practising Chinese medicine in South Africa in the early 1990s, treating people with acupuncture. There was an unforgettable experience. A lady patient asked me before I inserted the needles: You insert needles into my body and cure my disease, are you asking some evil spirit to enter my body? I was so flabbergasted upon hearing this. She said she was a Catholic and thought acupuncture was a kind of spiritual activity. At that time, I hesitated: Should I explain to her with the most fundamental meridian-collateral theory and the concept of “qi”, or to use a more scientific method so that she would better understand? I found that it was impossible in terms of the short medical consultation time to use Chinese concepts and Chinese semantics; and as a matter of fact, to correct such misunderstanding--strictly speaking it was prejudice--is a very arduous task. I then decided to reply this way: When a needle is inserted into a body, the cells near the tip of such needle are activated, and included therein are the nerves, blood and lymph; such cells will react instantly, and since the nerves have a transmission function, the information of the insertion of a needle is being transmitted via the nerves to the brain and then reflected to the corresponding zone or organ, which will react accordingly to wake up the self-healing function of the body. I used a concept which was more adapted for her sake to explain this principle of “curing disease with qi”, and only this way I could get rid of her doubt and fear.
III. Regimen Must Draw on Modern Knowledge
The emergence of China is first in terms of economics, and then in terms of culture. If Chinese culture has to be more popular, moving positively towards world harmony, it must first have a set of more consummated, more rationally tested language and approaches. This is the major trend. Today, the regimen culture, apart from being complementary to Chinese philosophy, tradition Chinese medicine and application of divination, seems to be required to be synchronized with information in the fields of, among others, biotechnology, behavioral psychology, sports physiology, anatomy, genetic medicine and neurology, and to face the world.
“The Dao that can be described is not the eternal Dao.” There are indeed many parts in traditional metaphysical concepts that cannot be and should not be explained clearly, but there are also many parts that can be and should be explained more clearly. Setting aside the unknown part of religious faith, today, with the assistance of modern civilization, including, among others, neurology, biotechnology and psychology, when trying to decipher in a retrogressive manner the abstract concepts of the sages, it is not difficult to find that some parts which were originally indescribable are only so because of impediments from imperfect scientific knowledge. At least, advancements in science can close up the gap separating the unreachable metaphysical realm; or in terms of the achievement of quantum science, modern science has, to a certain extent, merged into the unknown non-material world. With the incessant advancements in science, and the incessant expansion of online knowledge, the modernization of regimen practices is inevitable. Therefore, when we talk about the regimen effects of self-cultivation through Taiji Quan, it should not be as “shallow” as emphasizing only on “running water is never stale”, “a door-hinge is never rotten”, and “strong circulation of qi and blood”. We can also inject elements from sports physiology and psychology, pointing out that the slow Taiji Quan exercise can trigger off α-wave in the brain attributed to the function of the parasympathetic nerves. The increase of endorphin and serotonin may be a more correct way of describing the regimen effects of Taiji Quan. Also, active practices which require stamina, like the Eight Silken Brocade (Ba Duan Jin) and the Untroubled Ease Steps (Xiao Yao Bu), may activate more NK cells, thereby destroying those cells infected by viruses and improving the immunity function. The “vital energy (zhen qi)” or “elixir (dan)” referred to in inner alchemy perhaps is a general description of the secretion of some healthy hormones in the brain and their general interaction with each internal organ inside our body. The “mystical threshold (xuan guan)” may be a kind of description of the state in which the supraliminal nerves are inhibited and the subliminal nervous system is then motivated. Moreover, “true intent (zhen yi)” could be the conscious state under such condition because the supraliminal nerves are then inhibited. A practitioner seems to be conscious but vague, and has no ability to control the operation of the subliminal nerves. Such kind of vague condition, in which there seems to be intent (yi) but not quite, or there seems to be no intent but not quite, is true intent (zhen yi). The brain, perhaps, at such time, is already shifting uninhibitedly between subconsciousness and consciousness. True intent (zhen yi) has activated the information storage system of the brain -- the hippocampus and its related networks. If so, then it is not difficult for us to understand why ancient alchemists used this as the foundation for cultivating the inner elixir (nei dan). All mystical self-cultivation conditions start from here and that is why our predecessors said the emergence of the elixir seed (dan tou zhong zi) was the gate leading to Dao, which, come to think of it, is not unfounded. However, when meditating, the prefrontal lobe of the brain is in a resting state and temporarily stops making rational judgment and stops censoring all images projected from the hippocampus, the result of which leads to the projection of illogical and irrational images and information. Then, the amygdaloid, which responds to emotions, will respond to those irrational and horrifying images, and strong fears will lead to the “kundalini psychosis” (zou huo ru mo) generally referred to in the self-cultivation of inner alchemy. And the “mercury” (gong) referred to in the self-cultivation of inner alchemy may as well be the function of the thymus gland, with the participation of white blood cells and T-cells; the “cultivation of the spirit for reverting to voidness” (lian shen huan xu) involving the “palace of nirvāna” (ni wan gong) in the upper elixir field (shang dan tian) may also be directly related to the increased secretion of melatonin. If so, the convergence of Lao Zi’s “reverting to an infant” with the “innate energy (xian tian qi)” of the Dao of Alchemy (Dan Dao) is absolutely able to “confirm the diagnosis” of why highly spiritual inner alchemists cultivating themselves through pristine practice (qing xiu), apart from cultivating their minds to having “little selfishness and few desires” (shao si gua yu), also experience the phenomenon of cultivating their bodies to “retraction of a horse’s genital” (ma yin cang xiang) .
IV. Confusing Over-simplified Illustrations with Real Entities
The discussion of regimen in traditional Chinese medicine, irrespective of whether it is the application of herbal medicine or the meridian-collateral theory applied in acupuncture, has stemmed from the entire philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine. Yin and Yang, the five elements (wu heng), the five evolutive phases and six climatic factors (wu yun liu qi), the twelve regular meridians (shi er zheng jing) and the eight extra meridians (qi jing ba mai), and others are all being fully applied. I believe, the majority of the theories in traditional Chinese medicine are established on abstract metaphysical concepts, and when discussing and explaining the pathogens and pathogenesis, specific physiological structures are often mentioned, and hence, the originally metaphysical concept of “qi” and the abstract structure of Yin and Yang and the five elements encounter overlapping thinking in terms of real organs and abstract concepts. During the process of annotation, such abstraction and real entity, and such over-simplified illustration and substance, can easily create confusion. The most common example being, the maintenance of health in traditional Chinese medicine starts with the kidneys, which are classified into kidney-Yin (shen yin) and kidney-Yang (shen yang). In general, kidney-Yang refers to the functions manifested by the kidneys as organs, which is determined by the kidney-Qi (shen qi). Then, what about kidney-Yin? The symptom of the deficiency in kidney-Yin is the surging of deficient fire (xu huo). The so-called deficient fire (xu huo) means the heart and the kidneys fail to maintain dynamic equilibrium, whereby the deficient kidney-Yin fails to match up with all the heart-Qi (xin qi), which is manifested in the loss of excessive heart-Qi. Heart-Qi belongs to the element of “fire”, the excessive heart-Qi runs wild and surges upwards, creating the phenomenon of the so-called “flaring up of deficient fire” (xu huo shang kang). If we dwell on this section about the philosophy of the “disharmony between the heart and the kidneys” (xin shen bu jiao), the consequence of deficient kidney-Yin is not the phenomenon of deficiency manifested by the kidneys as a basic unit, but is illustrated by drawing on the changes manifested by other related organs. Only the flaring up of heart-Yang is the true nature of the deficiency in kidney-Yin. However, when a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner has to determine whether or not a patient is suffering from deficient kidney-Yin, he/she will rely on whether or not there are such symptoms as, among others, sore throat, dry mouth, heavy headedness, insomnia, high blood pressure, which are exactly covered by the heart organ (xin guan). It can be seen that, the entire Chinese medical theories are manifested fully in philosophy, in which, what are being referred to in many concepts are only symbols, and not real entities, designed for the sake of over-simplified illustration. Similar semantics can often be found in the literature for traditional Chinese medicine, and a reader will easily fall into the trap of misinterpretation as a result of confusing over-simplified illustrations with real entities.
To present regimen in such an academic manner is admittedly a model required for the continuation of culture. However, to ordinary folks who do not know much about Daoism, the Daoist religion or even other religious philosophy, they will only be concerned with regimen techniques that are more specific, more adapted to daily life and more self-beneficial. For instance, when they have mastered one or two formula for dietary therapy (shi liao), they will find their bodies less susceptible to influenza. When they have tried fasting (bi gu), they will not indulge in gourmet food. When they have practised expiration and inspiration (tu na) in the morning, they will be amazed that their bodies are no longer tired after a full day’s work. When they have applied the “bellows effects (tuo yue xiao ying)” in Taiji Quan, they will understand the true delivery of power. When they have practised inner alchemy, they will know it is not that difficult to have good complexion. When they are in the middle of an argument with friends, they will suddenly think of the parable in Zhuang Zi’s Adjustment of Controversies (Qi Wu Lun), and will immediately step back, remembering “tolerance makes space”, and avoid the risk of having a stroke.
The actual benefits of regimen self-cultivation are admittedly the core for the development of regimen practices. However, if regimen practices are to be beneficial to future generations in a long-lasting way, then they must be supported by theories. If regimen practices are to be beneficial to other races around the world, then a set of language and concepts adapted to the current universal cultural consensus is all the more required. The physiological structure of a human being is the same irrespective of whether such being is of the yellow race, a Caucasian or black. We all have four limbs, nine apertures (jiu qiao), and five organs and six entrails (wu zang liu fu). The regimen self-cultivation of the Daoists is not exclusive to the Daoists. It should be a life maintenance practice that transcends race and culture, only that it is nurtured in this territory of Chinese culture. Of course, in ancient times, the phenomenon of culture straddling national boundaries did not exist. Today, economic development, knowledge and material supplies are all moving towards the development of globalization. Chinese-style regimen practices too are affected naturally in this mega trend. Nonetheless, we cannot be completely detached from tradition and develop by following the rational path of Western knowledge. Chinese regimen practices are rooted first and foremost in Chinese semantics and philosophical thinking, just like the concept of “qi”, which has led the Chinese people for three thousand years. Developing horizontally from the concept of “qi” is a vast cultural structure, including, among others, Chinese philosophy, inner alchemy, astrology and geography, each is deeply rooted. The focus of the Chinese people in perceiving this world has always been different from the West. Interesting enough, if we try to talk about cultural characteristics in terms of the thinking involving the five elements, we may say the East belongs to the element of “wood” and the West belongs to the element of “gold”. The nature of “wood” is vertical, whilst the nature of “gold” is horizontal. Being vertical can shuttle back and forth the metaphysical and physical worlds, and can connect Man with Heaven. Being horizontal on the other hand can be manifested in all kinds of vessels and rules, the organization of which is orderly and logical. Therefore, the “wood” nature of the East may create “everyone can become a Buddha, everyone can become an immortal through enlightenment of Dao”. The West on the other hand is strong in physics and science, everything has to be rationally analyzed. This is the directional positioning formed by the self-revolution of the Earth, which is the law for setting the direction of regional cultures, and cannot be shifted or violated, unless the Sun is rising from the West. To recap, discussing cultural characteristics in terms of the five elements has again fallen into the inherent way of thinking of the Chinese people! This is sufficient to prove that our habitual thinking is subject to unobtrusive and imperceptible influence, and will always be there. Further on directions, the Chinese compass (luo geng) is set with the North at the bottom and the South at the top; they are reversed in the West, where a map is set with the North at the top and the South at the bottom. Also, regarding the air that we breathe in or the location for the reserve of “qi” mentioned earlier, the Chinese uses “dan tian” whereas the West uses the lungs. More interesting still, the writing of Chinese characters is from right to left, and the origin of such characters is from images, like the right cerebral hemisphere; in the West, their writing is from left to right, and the origin of letters is from symbols, like the left cerebral hemisphere. Such applications in daily life are indeed irreversible, not only that they cannot be assimilated, they are necessary because of different cultural uniqueness emerging from different geographic regions.
Therefore, Chinese regimen should retain the characteristics of regional culture, but in this millennium era in which we are faced with the integration of global knowledge, it must be equipped with the semantics and interpretation skills that can take up the challenges from modern rationality and science, so that our excellent regimen self-cultivation can be more capable in advancing with time and converging with civilization. Such added transformation or regulation is necessary. Expression and recognition are only a kind of tool, which will not cause any change in regimen benefits. Nevertheless, transformation of such tool will definitely make our regimen practices more popular and more beneficial to more people.
Author: Dr. Hong-chau Yuen (Hong Kong)
This paper was presented on September 20, 2009 at the “First International Top-level Forum on Lao Zi’s Daoism and Culture” in Beijing.
Translated by: Joanna S. Y. Yau, MCIL (U.K., H.K.), NAATI accredited (Australia), HKTS (Life Member)
Lao Zi (《老子》) discusses “Dao”, and rarely discusses “qi”. Zhuang Zi-Knowledge Rambling in the North (《莊子•知北遊》) says: “A human being is born as a result of the gathering of qi. When qi is gathered, there is life, when qi is dispersed, there is death.” The discussion of “Dao” in terms of “qi” emerged after Zhuang Zi, and the Daoist religion was established in the East Han Dynasty, thereafter, the creation of all beings was discussed in terms of the concept of “qi”, and it was established that the cultivation of “qi” was a means for regimen and for becoming an immortal through enlightenment of “Dao”.
Inactive practice means self-cultivation not involving any action of the physical body, mainly in the form of meditation.
An Immortal of the Great Overarching Heaven (大羅仙, Da Luo Xian) is an immortal of supreme ranking.
A practitioner of Taiji Quan should be familiar with the “qi sinking to the lower abdomen (丹田, dan tian)” because in terms of Chinese boxing theories, Taiji Quan requires the “qi” of a practitioner to gather at the lower abdomen, where all movements are delivered by expanding the diaphragm (鼓盪, gu dang), and hence the saying: “Force comes from the root, commands from the hip, and manifests through the fingers.”
See Verse 1 of Lao Zi.
The parts of metaphysical concepts that can be explained more clearly means some concepts may draw on modern science in aid of interpretation, and not be purely treated in a mystical manner.
Here mainly refers to the part on faith, for instance, among others, the debate on whether or not divine immortals exist.
Referring to the “yellow bud” (黃芽, huang ya).
See Verse 28 of Lao Zi: “Knowing one’s masculinity, yet maintaining one’s femininity, being the river feeding this world. Being the river feeding this world, constantly without departing from virtues. Constantly without departing from virtues, reverting to an infant.”
Referring to the retraction of the male genital after a prolonged period of self-cultivation in inner alchemy.
“Deficiency in kidney-Yin” is a common concept in the fundamental theories of traditional Chinese medicine, and is also an expression frequently used by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, but it was not mentioned in the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic (《黃帝內經》, Huang Di Nei Jing).
The “bellows effects” means the effects of a wind box. The term “tuo yue (橐籥, bellows)” comes from Verse 5 of Lao Zi: “In between Heaven and Earth, it is much like a bellows; hollow, yet with fortitude; active, yet with increased magnitude.” Here it means the “bellows effects” can be applied in Chinese boxing, once the “qi” mechanism inside the body is activated, it will never stop.