In my youth, I, like most Westerners, considered China to be a mysterious place. Contributing to personal curiosity, my father was born and raised in Li Ling, China by Christian missionary parents until the age of 12. I even grew up with 4 beautiful Chinese scrolls hanging on my living room walls, the magnificent remains of my grandparent’s time there.
At the age of 23, I began studying Tai Chi with Master Ni, a 60-year-old native of mainland China – perhaps inspired on subliminal levels by my background. Learning the complicated movements of the Tai Chi form was the only focus initially. After about 5 years, Master Ni taught a Taoist meditation class in which he introduced many sophisticated Chinese concepts. Some of these ideas were integrated through osmosis. Yet, most of what he said was baffling, as it was outside my cultural context.
Due to his authenticity and charisma, Master Ni attracted many high level students over the years. One of these exceptional individuals was Gary Kukuk, a revolutionary Zoroastrian. He provided me with what I deemed the Monkey Book. Immediatelyblown away by the Chinese novel, I began sharing the episodes with family and friends.
One of these friends was Bill Powell, a fellow Tai Chi student and Professor of Religious Studies at UCSB. Fluent in both Chinese and Japanese, his specialty was East Asian religions, Chinese religions in particular. Upon hearing my rendition of one of the episodes, he invited me to audit a class he was teaching on this very same book the next quarter. However, instead of examining the 250-page novel that I had read, his class was going to focus upon the 4 volume 2000 page original called Journey to the West. It seems that my abridged book only contains about 40 shortened chapters, while in the original there are 100 full-length chapters.
The lectures and supplementary reading for Professor Powell’s class proved inspirational. I began writing a chapter-by-chapter analysis of Journey to the West from the perspective of Taoism’s Inner Alchemy. In support of my project, Bill began loaning or directing me to relevant books. He also offered invaluable advice and helped to refine my understanding of subtle concepts.
The investigation and research led inevitably to Taoism. I made a casual comment to Cathy Albanese, another of my Tai Chi classmates, that Taoism seemed to be connected with the fertility cults of the Paleolithic. A professor in UCSB’s Religious Studies department who had achieved some renown for her study of New Age religions in America, Cathy said would love to read the research that supported that perspective. Eager for a sophisticated audience, I embarked on an investigation into the roots of Taoism.
Digging ever deeper into the past for these elusive origins, I finally reached homo habilis and homo erectus, the precursors to modern humans. After reaching the beginning, I decided to explore the historical development of China through to modern times. My initial purpose was to better understand alchemical Taoism and the Chinese roots of Master Ni’s Tai Chi and meditation classes. But the effort expanded in scope to include an investigation of Chinese history and culture. Eight hundred pages and 3 volumes later, I was rewarded for these efforts beyond my wildest imagining. I’m excited to present my findings as the Tao of China.
The express purpose of this work is to uncover the roots of my Chinese interests. The book attempts to answer 5 questions. 1) Which trends, historical and otherwise, led to the development of Tai Chi? 2) Which philosophical and religious traditions are at the foundation of Journey to the West? 3) What are the historical and religious roots of Taoism’s Inner Alchemy? 4) What was the historical context from which modern day China emerged? And last, but not least, what pearls of wisdom can we extract from ancient Chinese wisdom that might inform our modern life?
What do I mean by Inner Alchemy?
My initial exposure to Inner Alchemy was via The Inner Teachings of Taoism. At the time, I was auditing a class by UCSB Professor Bill Powell on the Chinese novel, Journey to the West. He assigned the work to assist his students to understand the Journey’s philosophical background. Inner Teachings is Thomas Cleary’s 20th century translation of Liu I Ming’s 19th century commentary on Chang Po Tuan’s 11th century work, 400 words on the Gold Elixir, which itself was an explication of earlier writings on Inner Alchemy. This Taoist strain has a two millennia long written tradition with roots deep in prehistoric times. It is this Taoist strain that I refer to as Inner Alchemy.
The initial chapter electrified me, perhaps due to its perfect resonance with my personal philosophy and life experience. The chapter and then book provided me with a language and intellectual structure with which to describe my own perceptions. Besides applying directly to the metaphorical symbolism behind Journey to the West, these same mental constructs underlie Master Ni’s Tai Chi, as I was to discover much later. As such, the precepts of Inner Alchemy link Taoism, Journey, Tai Chi and my personal philosophy in one cohesive package. The confluence of commonalty between these diverse elements was so great that the psychic resonance eventually inspired this book.
As might be apparent, this text is not meant to be a scholarly work. The inspiration for research and writing was purely to better understand my own relationship with Chinese thought and culture. In this regard, the French philosopher Foucault’s quotation is a particularly apt. “All history is the history of the present.” – in this case, my present.
Who is this work meant for?
Ideally, it should be of interest to anyone with any kind of curiosity about China. However, the work is aimed at a special kind of person.
In Chinese there are a few words for person or human. One is rén and the other is zî1. Rén has a simple symbol, a presumed stick figure of a man with two legs and nothing else. Rén represents the common ordinary man, any man, every man, who lives and dies.
The Oxford Chinese-English Dictionary defines rén as “human being; man; person; people”2. The word is associated with concepts of humanity, populations, and the human world. Hence rén tends to refer to the bulk of humanity. This book is not meant for the bulk of humanity. It is not meant to be a best seller, palatable for the masses. Instead it is meant for a special individual, although not necessarily a specialist.
The other type of person is represented by the Chinese word zî.
Zî has many meanings. Let us look at its definitions to get a sense of its deeper implications. Zî is defined as:
“I 1. son; … children
2. seed; egg…
3. something small and hard …
It is associated with seeds, small animals, grandchildren, words and characters. Hence the son and children represent the seeds of the future generations. Zî represents the seed person. It does not represent every-man nor does it represent the master or the king. Instead it represents a person who has growth potential, a seed for future generations.
An incredibly important book in Chinese history is the Kong zî, which is normally translated as The Sayings of Confucius or Analects of Confucius but could just as well be translated The Seeds of Confucius. Nearly each sentence begins with the two words, zî yuê, normally translated as ‘Confucius says’.
However zî does not mean Confucius, but instead refers to Confucius, like a pronoun would. However as we’ve seen, the word zî, refers to a person with growth potential. These sayings are the seeds of Confucius, who is a growing person.
Further Confucius regularly refers to jün zî, which is normally translated as Great Man or Superior Man.
In our dictionary, the phrase is translated “a man of noble character, gentleman.” Jün by itself refers to an exalted person.
Westerners tend to think in terms of fixed points, while the Chinese tend to think in terms of process. Hence we think of someone as possessing a noble character, while the Chinese think of someone attempting to behave nobly. The translation ‘Great Man’ implies that the person has reached the state of greatness, while the phrase ‘Growing Person’ implies someone who is in process. Hence the Seed/Sayings of Confucius are intended to instruct the individual on how to be a seed person, a growth person, with lots of potential. Hence this is not a state that we are attempting to reach, but instead a way of being that we are attempting to cultivate in order to maximize our growth potential. The translation Great Man or Superior Man creates a idealized human who is almost beyond reach, while the translation Growing Person, can apply to all of us immediately. Most of us seed people seek to increase our growth potentials. This is different from the common people who just seek to live and die.
Hence this book is addressed to those who are seeking to increase their growth potentials, to the Seeker who is open to change, curious about maximizing personal possibilities, and whose cup is not full. It is not addressed to the general population, rén, those who are content to just live and die.
It is also not addressed to those whose cup is already full, the masters and experts. Our Potential Reader, the Seeker, is only a seed person and hence needs water in order to grow. This volume is intended to be the water that nourishes the seed person and allows them to grow intellectually and interpersonally. This study of China and her ways is intended to stimulate our seed persons potential for growth. Nothing more.
If you are tired of entertainment and abstract facts and are primed for personal transformation and growth, this book is for you. If your cup is not too full and you would like to explore spiritual essence through China’s prism, read on to discover the tao of the inner kingdom.
1. The symbol ‘^’ is used in place of the bowl shaped symbol to indicate the intonation of the Chinese word.
2. Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary, Anthony Paul Cowie, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.369
3. Concise Chinese English Dictionary p. 588.