About Qi, Lu Dongbin, Immortality, and Self-Cultivation
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About Qi, Lu Dongbin, Immortality, and Self-Cultivation
By way of introduction: In my fascination with Chinese culture I join an illustrious list of self-sinicized scholars, adventurers, rulers, and merchants; from Sogdian traders to Kublai Khan, from Robert van Gulik and John Blofeld to Sidney Rittenberg. The list is long. Ever since I first visited China with my family in 1998 I continued to go back, both with my students and by myself, as though to quench some mysterious thirst. Also at that time started my fascination with Chinese language, which I have been studying without much progress, but with a growing appreciation of its unique grammar, tones, calligraphy, and poetry. I approach Chinese culture like an amateur. The Latin and French root of amateur means “for the love of.” I love hundreds of uniquely Chinese inventions from chopstics to silk and firecrackers but two concepts, in my mind, are the most profound: the concept of Qi - life energy of the universe and the Chinese concept of immortality.
“The Tai and the Chi.” My first visceral experiences of Qi as a vital life force came from studying with master John Leonard in Red Hook, the predominantly Black and Puerto Rican ghetto neighborhood in New York City. After I finished my MFA and got married I was looking for a place to exercise and to have a common activity with my new family and adopted son. I signed up for a trial class at the local YMCA on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn where master John was teaching Tae Kwon Do. Master John was an African American man with very little formal education. But despite his illiteracy, or maybe because of it, master John was a profound teacher who made a lasting impression on my life. Master John learned Tae Kwon Do from a Korean instructor and Tae Kwan Do became his way of life. I never knew what master John meant by “the Tai and the Chi.” Words were not the most important element in master John’s teaching, but he used the expression “the Tai and the Chi” often as some mysterious validation for our experiences in martial arts and in the art of “Deep Breathing.”
“Everybody has a fountain of youth,” master John would tell us. “With deep breathing you can cure any disease or discomfort.” As master John explained, the fountain of youth was located below the naval. ”Take a deep breath and push your stomach out!” urged Master John. ”Push hard and hold it for a few seconds and then completely relax and let the air out.” Master John’s faith in deep breathing was boundless. Inspired by his example, deep breathing became for us a way of healing, meditation and prayer. Deep breathing helped my family and me many times as we had our fair share of life-threatening situations in hospitals and ER rooms . “The best thing about deep breathing,” would say master John, “is nobody needs to know you are doing it. You can do it standing in line in a grocery store, or any other place; it is your own private business.” I learned from Master John that breath carried life. Is it Qi, Chi, or Ch’i? Writing Chinese words with a phonetic alphabet is a daunting task. First of all is the problem of phonetisation of a non-phonetic language, and then, since Chinese is a tonal language, the same spelling but with different inflection of qī, qí, qǐ, qì would mean different things. It seems it would
be easier to just write 气, but then only people who know Chinese would understand that. At the present time there are in use at least three major systems of Romanization: Wade-Giles, Pin Yin, and Yale. Wade-Giles is a system introduced by European Sinologists Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles in mid 19th century. Chinese linguists introduced in the 1950-s PinYin, which means spell sound. Then there is the Yale system created during World War II for use by US military. To complicate things further, some writers use the mixtures of all three systems. After being sufficiently baffled by all this complexity I’ve decided to use Pin Yin and in Pin Yin, Qi is pronounced as “Chee”. The etymology of Qi 气 points to a gaseous connection. As French Sinologist L. Wieger wrote: “Curling vapors rising from the ground and forming clouds above.” The traditional Chinese idiogram has the radical 米 mi (rice) added to 气; so the etymology could be interpreted as: nourishing steams rising from rice as it cooks. Most directly, Qi is connected with breath.
Qi: what is it, where to get it, and how to keep it? There are certain words that are untranslatable, especially words that are used often and embody the essence of a culture. Qi, also called Ki, Prana, Rlung, Breath of Life, Force, or Energy, is a universal concept. In Japanese a polite expression of good wish is: “ki o tsukete kudasai,” which means: “please take care and guard your qi.” A study of Qi through the lens of Chinese culture, Daoist cosmology, and Tai Ji practice can bring therapeutic benefits and a greater intellectual and somatic understanding of this important natural phenomenon. A common dictionary will include 10 or more definitions of Qi. The difficulty of translating Chinese is rooted in the Chinese language itself. While in English the content is defined grammatically through words that are discretely nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, in Chinese the same word could be a noun, verb and adjective. Meaning in Chinese is contextual. For example Qi is often compared with water, but this might mean water, or watering, or watery. This quality of Chinese language refuses to separate object from action, subject from object, and sees the world as
a process rather then manifestations of discrete phenomena. The advantage of sinicising English language with words like Qi, is that it stimulates a new understanding of familiar concepts, like energy, force, or life. In my attempts to understand Qi I am excited by the process of translation and closely examine familiar words and their meaning. For example Lao Tzu says in chapter 42 of Dao De Jing: 道生一 一生二 二生三 三生 萬物 萬物負陰而抱陽 沖氣以為和 Dào gives birth to one, one gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, three gives birth to ten thousand things. As ten thousand things are stretched between Yin and Yang, the flow of Qi creates harmony.
I have translated the word chong 沖 as “flow,” but the word chong means so much more. Chong is composed of the radical for water 冫and the word
zhong 中 that means balanced or centered. In earlier versions of Dao De Jing this verse was often written with the word zhong. Then the translation would be “centered Qi.” With the water radical 冫added, chong could be translated as flushing, penetrating, submerging, permeating, and bursting. So Qi creates harmony by flushing, penetrating, submerging, permeating, and bursting… How to find one English word that can carry all these qualities? Chinese cosmology envisioned that Qi permeates the entire universe: all things are made of it, exist in it, and share it. Heaven and earth, gods, humans, animals, plants, and minerals all have Qi. Although the quality of Qi ranges in these various forms they are all connected through Qi. Qi is the cause and effect of life in the universe. Perhaps an understanding of Qi could be gained obliquely by examining how the word Qi was used in the past by philosophers, poets and artists.
The famous Tang philosopher, statesman, and poet Táng Hán Yòu ( 唐韩 愈) wrote in the 8th century about Dragons, Clouds and Qi: lóng
qì chéng yún,
云, yú long yě 。
lóng chéng shì qì ，
yáng qióng hū xuán jiān。
fú guāng jǐng， gǎn zhèn diàn，
薄 日 月， 伏
shén biàn huà
下 土， 汩
líng guài yǐ zāi.
云 亦 灵
怪 矣 哉。
Dragon, Cloud, and Qi Dragon exhales Qi, and Qi becomes cloud. Cloud certainly is not as supernatural as dragon; Although dragon can fly this Qi (cloud) Through boundless ocean of dark space, In subsiding light of weakening sun and moon, Creating thunder and lightning, Spiritualizing transformation, Watering earth, Carving valleys and hills; Cloud is also a supernatural being! How extraordinary this is!
Xie He, in 532 CE defined essential qualities of good painting and art in 绘画六法, huìhuà liùfǎ. He wrote: 气韵生动, qi yun sheng dong, resonant qi awakens movement.
One of the most extraordinary examples of a painting that is full of Qi - Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh
In cultivation, Qi is usually connected with two other treasures: Jīng 精, or essence and Shén 神 that is usually translated as spirit, like spirit that in-spires. Lao Tzu says in chapter 10 of Dao De Jing: concentrate your qi to be supple, become like a child; zhuān qì zhì róu, néng yīng ér hū
氣 致 柔,
能 嬰 兒乎
Most obviously Qi is connected with breath. 11
Breathing connects us with cosmos and with the world of living. Being pliable and resilient means life, being calcified and rigid means death. Cultivating Qi can stop and reverse aging, and help a person to become an immortal. Immortality: Confronted with their own mortality, people of all cultures struggled with the fact that death signified an end to personal existence. Ancient Egyptians mummified the corpses of pharaohs, concubines, and important ministers along with cats and domestic animals. I don’t know if ancient Egyptians foresaw a future where genetic engineering would be advanced enough for DNA reconstitution of identical living organisms, but all cultures had beliefs that extended life beyond the gates of death. In addition to personal immortality, one could also consider immortality of ideas and deeds, or immortality of spirit, or immortality of the genes carried by children of our children into a distant future. I feel it is important to make a disclaimer that immortality of life after death is not the same as the life of a human being who is an immortal. The radical idea of personal, physical immortality 12
was developed by Chinese culture very early on. From about four thousand years ago Chinese culture developed a unique belief that the physical process of aging could be slowed, reversed and stopped through self-cultivation. Tis self-cultivation included meditation, diet, physical exercise, study of medicine, and cultivation of Qi. Chinese history and mythology recorded stories of male and female immortals who transcend death and are continuing to roam the realms of the visible and invisible universes. Although there are hundreds of such stories and historical accounts, the most famous stories revolve around the figures of Eight Immortals, or Ba Xian (八仙). Ba (八) means eight and xian (仙) is composed of ideograms for human (ren 人, or 亻) and mountain (shān 山) The word Xian is translated as fairy, or immortal and could be understood as a human being in the mountains.
Eight Immortals crossing the sea Lǚ Dòngbin (呂洞賓) is one of these eight enigmatic, jolly characters. Lu is often portrayed with a magical sword that can serve him either as a flying device, or a weapon in conquering demons. In mythology a sword is traditionally a symbol of wisdom that is discerning truth from falsehood, like the sword of Manjushree in Buddhist mythology. 14
There are many recorded stories about Lu Dongbin, ranging from stories canonizing his noble deeds and character, to popular stories about his supernatural abilities and amorous encounters with prostitutes. A story describing Lu’s love affair with White Peony (白牡丹 bái mǔ dān) is retold in many operas and erotic films. One of the famous stories about Lu Dongbin describes how he decided to give up a career as a civil official to follow a teacher in the cultivation of immortality. In this story, set around the year 800 CE in Tang Dynasty, Lu Dongbin was traveling to the capital to take his imperial examinations. As evening was approaching Lu Dongbin decided to stop at an inn to rest his horse and to spend the night. In the inn, another traveler, a rugged old man, was getting ready to brew a pot of tea. The old man invited Lu Dongbin to join him. While the old 15
man busied himself with the burner to boil water for tea, LuDongbin dozed off for a few minutes. He dreamed that he had successfully completed the examinations, receiving honors from the emperor, and an important position in the government. He also successfully married and had children. As his fame and fortune continued to grow so did grow slander against him and the gossip of envious ministers. Lu Dongbin was wrongly accused and banished into exile; his estate was confiscated, his wife committed suicide and his children scattered throughout the world traveling as homeless beggars. Lu Dongbin awoke with a start from this frightening dream and saw the old man laughing: “ You slept but a few minutes, yet your whole life passed in front of you.” At this Lu Dongbin recognized that this was not an ordinary old man. In fact the old man was the immortal Zhōnglí Quán (鐘离權). Lu Dongbin asked Zhonglí Quán to accept him as a student to study the arts of self-cultivation. That is how Lu Dongbin and Zhonglí Quán became friends and how, later on, Lu Dongbin himself became an immortal. Sometimes this story is told with Zhonglí Quán cooking Yellow Millet instead of tea. There is even a famous opera “The Dream of Yellow Millet” 16
(Huang liang meng) inspired by this story. Other stories tell how Lu Dongbin practiced selfcultivation in a cave with his wife. His name Lu (呂) is an ideogram of two mouths symbolizing that he perhaps had two mouths to feed. It is curious to note that there is a grave attributed to Lu Dongbin in Yongle Gong temple, which contains the bones of a man and a woman whom archeologists assume to be husband and wife. Whether they are the bones of Lu Dongbin will probably always remain a mystery.
Unruly Gods, Divinity and Society in China, Ed. Meir Shahar and Robert P. Weller, University of Hawai’i Press, 1996 (page 95) 17
Male and female monks at morning Tai Ji practice in Ba Xian Temple, Xian
When I was planning a visit to Xian, my friend suggested that I visit the temple of the Eight Immortals (八仙宫 Bā Xiān Gōng). The temple was built on the site of the original inn where Lu Dongbin met Zhongli Quan and had his prophetic dream. This jewel of a temple, located not far from the city center, became a favorite of mine and on several other occasions I made sure to pay a visit to the temple and to pay homage to Lu Dongbin. During one of the visits I was able to arrange an interview with the abbot, who turned out to be a friendly young man with long, eloquent fingers. 18
I was so surprised by his youth that I could not restrain myself from asking how he became an abbot at such a young age? The temple administrator, who arranged the interview, said that he would like to answer my question instead of the abbot. “The abbot,” he said “is my teacher because he is wise. In Daoism wisdom is not a function of age.” This answer made good sense to me because one of the goals of Daoist self-cultivation is to reverse age. “Daoism,” continued the administrator “is a paradoxical religion. Studying Daoism is like planting rice. To plant rice you need to walk backwards in the flooded field and although you are bending down you see the sky.” My conversation with the abbot of Ba Xian temple surprisingly focused on contemporary issues. The abbot talked about the importance of opening Daoist temples as centers of study for all people. I was amazed at how aware and concerned the abbot was with environmental degradation and the lack of harmony between human values and nature. “Daoism,” said the abbot “is founded on seeking harmony with nature and seeking understanding inspired by nature. Daoist understanding of psychology and physiology could be an inspiration in human health care.” For me one of the most treasured attractions of Ba 19
Xian temple is the stone stele carved with the 100 word poem of Lu Dongbin on cultivation of Qi. Lu Dongbin is a patron of poets, doctors, alchemists, merchants and scholars. Many of his poems could be understood as metaphorical maps for selfcultivation and for evolution of consciousness.
Lu Dongbin’s 100 Word stele in Ba Xian Temple, Xian
百字碑 1。养气忘言守， 2。降心为不为。 3。动静知宗祖， 4。无事更寻谁？ 5。真常须应物， 6。应物要不迷。 7。不迷性自住， 8。性住气自回. 9。气回丹自结， 10。壶中配坎离。 11。阴阳生反复， 12。普化一声雷。 13。白云朝顶上， 14。甘露洒须弥。 15。自饮长生酒， 16，逍遥谁得知。 17。坐听无弦曲， 18。明通造化机。 19。都来二十句， 20。端的上天梯。
One Hundred Words Poem 1. Cultivate Qi, forget speech keeping, 2. Quiet heart, act effortlesly. 3. In movement and stillness know your true self, 4. There is nothing to want for; who is searching? 5. The eternal self must respond to the world, 6. When responding, don’t get attached and lost. 7. If not lost, mind dwells on itself, 8. When mind is settled, Qi returns. 9. When Qi returns, Dan Tian is reconstituted; 10. Fire and water arise in center of cauldron, 11. Yin Yang are continually reborn, 12. The mundane is transformed in one clap of thunder. 13. White cloud rises to head’s top, 14.Sweet dew sprinkles the celestial mountain. 15.Drink wine of immortality, 16.Be at leisure; who is going to care. 17. Sit and listen to string-less melody, 18.Gain understanding through Nature’s secrets. 19.This poem is in 20 lines, 20.Now its up to you to climb the heaven’s ladder
upright stone tablet
jiàng xīn 2。 降 心 lower
wèi 为 acting
1. Cultivate Qi, forget speech keeping, 2. Quiet heart, act effortlesly. ________________________________________
为 不 为 “act effortlessly” is a very important concept in Chinese thinking. A common expression 无为 wú wèi, or in traditional characters 無 為
without effort. As Lao Tzu says in chapter 37:
無為, 而 無不 為
dào cháng wú wéi, ér wú bù wéi Dao is forever without effort, yet nothing is left undone. 23
dòng 3。 动
wú 4。 无 no
zǔ 祖 ancestor
3. In movement and stillness, know your true self, 4. There is nothing to search for; who is looking?
zhēn cháng xū 5。 真 常 须 true
yìng 6。 应 respond
wù 物 things
yào 要 want
bù mí 不 迷 not lost
5. The eternal self must respond to the world, 6. When responding, don’t get attached and lost.
bù mí 7。不 迷 not
xìng 8。性 nature
zhù qì zì huí 住 气 自 回. dwells
qi self returns
7. If not lost, mind will dwell on itself, 8. When mind is settled, Qi returns.
bear fruit (settle)
9. When Qi returns, Dan Tian is reconstituted;
yīn yáng shēng fǎn 11. 阴 阳 生 反 yin
pǔ 12. 普 common
huà 化 transform
fù 复， again
yī shēng 一 声 one
léi 雷 thunder
11. Yin Yang are continually reborn, 12. The mundane is transformed in one clap of thunder.
Tai Ji diagram shows continued movement of Yin Yang as they are renewed and transformed. 普 (pǔ) is common, or ordinary, like the expression: 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà) - common speech.
Light is dramatically separated from darkness in the image of world’s transformation.
Gustave Dore’s (1866) engraving illustrating the Story of Creation in the Bible.
yún cháo dǐng shan 云 朝 顶 上
xū mu 须 弥。
13. White cloud rises to head’s top, 14.Sweet dew sprinkles the holly mountain. ________________________________________ In Daoism human body is seen as a reflection of cosmos. In the head is located the Upper Dan Tian, where 9 mystical mountains with sacred cavities are located. The spine is seen as ridges of mountains. The mystical mountain, Mount Me Ru is the image of the human body with the base in Lower Dan Tian and top in the head in Upper Dan Tian.
Nei Jing Tu (Diagram of Inner Cultivation), a drawing from the stele in Ba Xian temple, Xian
zì yǐn cháng shēng jiǔ 15。自 饮 长 生 酒， self drink
xiāo yáo shuí dé zhī 16，逍 遥 谁 得 知。 be free
15. Drink wine of immortality, 16. Be at leisure; who cares? _________________________________________ 逍 遥, xiāo yáo is a part of the name of the famous first chapter of Zhuan Zi, 逍遙遊, xiāo yáo yóu,
Free and Easy Wondering.
zuò tīng 17。坐 听 sit listen
míng 18。明 understand
wú 无 without
tōng 通 through
xián 弦 string
qǔ 曲， melody
zàohuà jī 造化 机。 Nature
17. Sit and listen to string-less melody, 18. Gain understanding through Nature’s secrets.
_______________________________________ Many cultures speak about the silent music of the cosmos. Legends tell us that Pythagoras could hear the music of the spheres. People believed that there was an intelligent design in the creation of the world and Goethe said that “Nature, is an open secret.”
zuò tīng wú xián qǔ 17。坐 听 无 弦 曲， sit listen without string melody míng 18。明
zàohuà jī 造化 机。
17. Sit and listen to string-less melody, 18. Gain understanding through Nature’s secrets.
dōu 19。都 all
èr shí 二十
duān dì shàng tiān 20。端 的 上 天 after all
jù 句， sentences
ti 梯 ladder
19. This poem is in 20 sentences, 20. Then go up on heaven’s ladder.
Mark Chagall’s litograph of Jacob’s dream ascending a ladder to heaven.
Many cultures have stories about a ladder that connects heaven and earth. When I talked with my friend Arthur about Lu Dongbin’s poem he said that the poem could be understood as a conversation at a drinking party. As if Lu Dongbin says: “I told you about my self cultivation practice in a poem of 20 lines. Now it is your turn to tell us how are you going to ascend the ladder to heaven.” 36
Yin Yang Pas De Deux Pas de deux is a French expression that means a dance for two. Often the expression “Yin Yang” is written: “Yin and Yang.” The particle “and” implies that there is a Yin and there is a Yang, like there are good things and there are bad things. But this is a distortion of the Yin Yang principle. In the traditional story Fu Xi 庖牺, the legendary Chinese cultural hero, invented Yin Yang principle by observing the ways of Heaven and Earth. Fu Xi observed that a hill was partially illuminated by the sun and partially in shade. Fu Xi conceived Yin Yang as two sides of the same hill. When I told this story to 4th grade students in a lesson about Chinese culture, the nine-year-old Patrick wrote a poem about Yin Yang:
Yin Yang Poem In the darkness of cosmos there are planets of light. On the planet there is a mountain, One side light, one side dark, One whole mountain. On the mountain there is a tree, One side light, one side dark, One whole tree. On the tree there is a bird, One side light, one side dark, One whole bird. Inside the bird, there is darkness, In the darkness, there are planets of light.
Yin Yang principle is one of the most important concepts in Chinese culture. My teacher, master Xu asks his students: “When we sit in the classroom, what is Yin and what is Yang?” “ With coffee in my cup, what is Yin and what is Yang?” Some say that in the Dao De Jing verse quoted on page 7 of this booklet “two” symbolize Yin Yang and the line from this verse: “two give birth to three” could be understood that Qi is born from the interaction of Yin Yang’s pas de deux. The concept of Yin Yang was conceived by Fu Xi about 5000 years ago. Fu Xi also invented Ba Gua, the system that explains universal changes and transforamtions of Qi.
To understand qualities and transformation of Qi it is important also to study 五行, wǔxíng, commonly called 5 elements, but more accurately translated as the system of 5 phases.
A study of Qi would also involve a study of Feng Shui, 风 水 or in traditional characters, 風 水. It is said that water, shuǐ 水 absorbs and collects Qi and wind, fēng 風, disperses Qi. Specific exercises that foster a healthy renewal of Qi are usually called qì gong 氣功, or “Qi work” A common expression says: 意 到, 气 到, yì dào, qì dào，this could be translated as: “Qi follows Intention.” 40
Everything has Qi. Chinese culture is a culture of Qi. Qi defines Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), philosophy, religion, cosmology, and all arts, including martial practice, environmental design, Feng Shui, calligraphy, and divination. Everything has Qi. I am reminded about a conversation I had with a traditional leader of the Skokomish people. He said to me: “Hirsh, we believe that everything has hwei: rocks, trees, clouds, people, all have hwei.” Daoist spirituality is alike in this way to Native American spirituality that sees the world as animated, living, transforming, spiritual being. I want to conclude my brief exploration of Qi with an ancient character for qi that etymologically expresses Qi as a fire that does not burn; an expression in Daosit liturgi says: dào qì cháng cún May the Dao of Qi Continue Forever!
This Qi booklet was composed by Hirsh Diamant in Summer of 2008