In our exploration of ancient Chinese wisdom, we have encountered many philosophies, but no practices. The Tao te Ching and the Chuang Tzu refer to both the insights and behavior of ‘true’ humans, but only hint as how to become one. What process leads to this elevated state? Both Confucians and Taoists practiced self-cultivation.1 But what does this mean?
Those of us with word-addicted minds tend to believe that understanding verbal constructs is the essence of wisdom. We read many books to understand philosophy and solve many equations to become adept at mathematics, the tool of science. However, Taoists typically attempt to transcend the abstractions of words to have a direct experience of reality. How is this achieved?
Late in the 20th century, a text was rediscovered that sheds light on these practices. It is called the Nei-yeh. Harold Roth wrote a landmark book on the historical significance of the text. He translates the title as ‘Inward Training’. Russell Kirkland, another noted Taoist scholar, translates it as ‘Inner Cultivation’. According to Kirkland:
“[The Nei-yeh’s] continuities with later elements of Taoism are far more easily discerned than is the case with the Chuang-tzu or even the Tao te ching.”2
Why? Because it concerns practices rather than ideas.
The Nei-yeh, like the Lao Tzu, consists of rhymed lines that are 4 and 5 characters in length. Most scholars suggest that these rhymed phrases facilitated memorization in a pre-literate society. Perhaps the master would recite some passages that the disciple would memorize. This practice continues unto the present day.3
Due to the striking similarities between the Lao Tzu and the Nei-yeh in terms of both content and form, many scholars believe that they belong to a common genre and tradition. While the Chuang Tzu has an entirely different form, it employs phrases that are identical to those in Nei-yeh.4 The question arises as to which text was first.
Roth argues convincingly that the Nei-yeh could easily have been a foundational source for the Chuang Tzu, as well as other Taoist texts written around the same time. Due to such evidence, it seems highly likely that the Chuang Tzu, the Lao Tzu, and the Nei-yeh, all belong to the same tradition of self-cultivation that was eventually named Taoism. Indeed the very existence of the Nei-yeh as an instruction manual for self-cultivation techniques could have been a plausible reason as to why the compilers of the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu didn’t feel impelled to delineate these practices.
Most scholars believe that the Nei-yeh, like the Lao Tzu, was an accumulation of the wisdom of multiple authors over an unspecified length of time, rather than the work of a single author. In fact, some authors suspect that the poetry was employed as a teaching device in an oral tradition long before it reached a formalized written form5. In other words, an ancient self-cultivation tradition probably inspired the books rather than vice versa. Rather than a single individual, it is most likely that a line of masters passed on the practices from generation to generation.
The Nei-yeh was probably first transcribed into ideograms from its oral form at the Chia-hsia Academy in the state of Chi during the Warring States Era. The Chia-hsia Academy was a think tank comprised of Chinese philosophers from both north and south of the Yangtze River. An enlightened Chi leader, King Wei founded and began funding this scholarly institution about 320 BCE. According to historical records, King Wei provided 76 noted scholars ‘official positions without specific administrative duties and comfortable living quarters’6. The king presumably gathered these scholars together to discuss how to prevent social disintegration and the breakdown of traditional Chou society. The Chia-hsia Academy lasted from about 320 BCE to about 264 BCE with only a few interruptions.
The scholars included many famous personages, including the influential Confucians: Mencius (390-305 BCE) and Hsün Tzu (330-245 BCE). As an indication of the freedom of expression, Mencius argued that humans are inherently good, while Hsün Tzu argued the opposite – that humans are basically evil. Also at the Academy were many northern and southern philosophers in the Huang-Lao tradition, which eventually became a significant strain of Taoism.
The renowned Tsou Yen (305-240 BCE), the systematizer of ‘naturalist’ (yin-yang and Five Phases) cosmology’7 also resided for a time in this fertile intellectual atmosphere. He is said to have extracted the structure of his theory from the writings of Academy scholars who belonged to mystical, rather than philosophical, traditions.
Individuals from the self-cultivation traditions, many from the southern state of Ch’u, were also at the Academy. It was this last group who might have transcribed oral traditions to produce the Nei-yeh. Earlier, abbreviated versions of the Lao Tzu have been discovered at gravesites. However it was at the Academy that the much-discussed feminist layer probably found its place in the Tao te Ching, as we know it. In turn, these interrelated Taoist classics may have exerted a heavy influence upon the author and/or compilers of the Chuang Tzu, who may have also resided at the Chia-hsia Academy.
“Some scholars have … argued that the Nei-yeh was produced by people from Ch’u who had traveled north to Chi [to be at the Academy]. … Scholars generally agree that it came into being during the period 350-300 BCE … and apparently predates the Tao te Ching as we know it.”8
In the catalyzing environment of the Chia-hsia Academy, the Nei-yeh probably exerted an influence upon Mencius, the prominent Confucian. The cultivation of the heart-mind is a prominent feature of Mencius’ philosophy that was picked up by later Confucians. This concept is central to the Nei-yeh.
At one point in his writings, Mencius speaks of the importance of cultivating a ’flood-like ch’i’. The context of this phrase has mystified generations of scholars. But the phrase is a direct quote from the Nei-yeh, which provides a more complete context for an understanding of Mencius’ meaning. Scholars are in agreement that both Mencius and the compilers of the Chuang Tzu borrowed concepts and actual verbal content from the Nei-yeh. This evidence exhibits how influential the text was to members of the Academy.
It seems that many philosophical ideas belonging to a wide range of Chinese traditions encompassing what was to become the Chinese Empire crystallized in the Academy’s intellectual ferment. During these decades, many of these concepts attained a permanent or at least a more complete written form that was to last until current times. It is hard to overstate the importance of the Chia-hsia Academy in the development of Chinese philosophy. Many profound thinkers from a diversity of traditions were able to discuss, debate and refine their ideas in an unguarded intellectual atmosphere. As we shall see in 212 BCE, the First Emperor slammed the door shut on the tolerant conceptual environment that was embodied by the Academy. It is no wonder that Chinese scholars formed a permanent animosity for this man.
It seems that the Nei-yeh was an incredibly influential work that circulated among important scholars at the highly significant Academy. Yet during the subsequent centuries, the book was somehow lost to future generations. What happened?
The Nei-yeh seems to have reached its final form, perhaps at the Academy, in the 2nd half of the 4th century BCE. It “fell out of general circulation sometime before the middle of the second century BCE, when it was incorporated into a larger collection known as the Kuan Tzu.”9
Han bibliographers placed the Kuan Tzu in a ‘miscellaneous’ category due to the diversity of its works. The categorization stigmatized the collection as unimportant to later researchers. The work was eventually included in the enormous Taoist Canon. Because of the general content of the Kuan Tzu texts, the entire collection was eventually labeled ‘Legalist’ during the Sui Dynasty. Due at least in part to both being buried in a large collection of unrelated works and this mis-categorization, the work was ‘lost’ to Taoist thinkers of the Modern Era.
”This later classification [Legalism] further buried the text of Inward Training because most people who consulted the Kuan Tzu were interested in it for its political and economic thought. Scholars and adepts looking for material on Taoist cosmology and self-cultivation would have –and generally did– turn to works like the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu for their inspiration.”10
It was only late in the 20th century when scholars began plumbing the contents of these miscellaneous collections that the Nei-yeh was ‘rediscovered’ and ultimately deemed a significant text in the self-cultivation tradition that was eventually labeled Taoism.
Due to shared themes, common vocabulary, and similar styles, the Nei-yeh definitely seems to belong to the same tradition as the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu. For instance, each of the texts speaks about the importance of aligning with the Tao and cultivating te, which is most commonly translated as virtue. However, the Nei-yeh employs these words in a very different manner. Due these differences, it is evident that the terms do not have a specific definition that is common to those belonging to the self-cultivation tradition.11
The Lao-tzu speaks about the general features of the Tao and the Chuang Tzu refers to the positive features and interactions of those who have aligned with the Tao. The Nei-yeh reveals the type of self-cultivation practices that will attract and retain the Tao.
“While the Lao Tzu has general descriptions of the Way’s activities, there is virtually nothing in the Lao Tzu to parallel the concrete representation of the Way [Tao] in terms of the early physiological concepts of vital energy [ch’i] and vital essence [ching] found in Inward Training [Nei-yeh]. Perhaps also related to this is the strong emphasis on the mind and on the practice of inner cultivation in Inward Training, an emphasis with few parallels in the Lao Tzu.”12
‘Retaining the Tao’ is not a permanent state that is achieved in an instant of self-realization. Instead, the Nei-yeh stresses the importance of daily practices, both mental and physical, for renewing the vitality that is associated with the Tao. Unlike the practices of Mahayana and Zen Buddhism that presumably lead to enlightenment and release from suffering, the purpose of the Nei-yeh’s self-cultivation practices is to sustain vitality in our day-to-day lives.
“In the Nei-yeh, the Taoist life … is a very active life of specific practices, which must be carefully learned and properly performed if one is ever to bring such elusive forces as tao into one’s being. In this context … the Taoist life involves personal responsibility, dedication to a life of constant self-discipline, and conscientious daily practice. Moreover, it involves purification and proper ordering of one’s body as well as one’s ‘heart/mind.’[hsin].”13
Students work to understand the material in their classes. With enough study, they grasp the concepts on a more or less permanent level. For instance, the ability to perform basic computations is a relatively permanent life long talent.
In contrast, housecleaning is never permanent. Instead it must be performed on a relatively daily level to keep the ever-falling dust under control. In similar fashion, we must engage in daily mental practices to keep the ever-falling red dust of cultural conditioning from distorting the Mirror of our Mind. Plus we must engage in regular physical practices to keep our bodily channels open so that the ch’i, our vital energy, can flow freely.
This discussion indicates that the Nei-yeh does not merely provide descriptions of the Tao and those who have attained it. Instead the Nei-yeh describes the necessary conditions and practices that attract the Tao. The aim of these self-cultivation practices is a tranquil mind and an aligned body. This emptying provides a place for the Tao to settle.
The Nei-yeh consists of only 26 verses, less than a third of the length of the Tao te Ching. Each of the verses is loaded with information that the reader must unpack. As such, the Nei-yeh is a condensed pamphlet rather than a book.
In general, the Nei-yeh suggests methods and processes that are designed to increase personal vitality. The processes articulated by the Nei-yeh are developmental rather than instantaneous. For instance, we must develop and cultivate our inner power (te) in order to stabilize ch’i at our center (zhöng). With a stabilized ch’i, we can take full advantage of the Tao’s capabilities and potentials.
The techniques are linked to a clearly delineated energy network. These energies don’t seem to be purely biological. Instead they permeate the cosmos. While diet and exercise enhance our biological energy, the strategies articulated by the Nei-yeh are designed to enable us to tap into these cosmic energy sources in order to enhance our vitality.
The Nei-yeh offers advice as to how to best utilize these energies – how to tap into their power. These energies are innate to humans. As such, they are accessible to any and everyone, not just the elite – priests, shamans or the ruling class.
Tapping into these cosmic energies has many advantages, primarily physical vitality and mental clarity. Many, if not most, humans engage in behavior that blocks the manifestation of these higher-level energies. The Nei-yeh provides suggestions as to how to both cultivate and avoid blocking the innate power of these energies.
All systems of thought are rough approximations that attempt to make sense of a confusing reality. The Nei-yeh employs the spirit metaphor to understand the unseen and mysterious forces of Heaven and Earth. For instance, the verses frequently repeat that these spirits can’t be seen, heard or sensed. However, we can perceive their effects in the world around us. Rather than being ghosts, these spirits can be likened to positive energies that will increase our vitality.
According to the Nei-yeh, we must attract these positive spirit energies, whether Tao, jing, ch’i, or shên, to us rather than actively pursuing them. Although accessible at all times, we can’t just tap into these powers through force of will or physical exertion. Instead we must create the proper conditions to entice them to us.
Romantic love provides us with a familiar example of this process. Instead of purchasing it at a department store or online, we must attract love to us. We go to locations with potential and even attempt to look physically attractive in order to entice the right someone to be our romantic partner. After meeting a potential love mate, we then attempt to stabilize the relationship by engaging in proper behavior.
In similar fashion, we must both attract and stabilize these cosmic energy forces in our center. We entice them by providing an empty space for them to reside or abide. While mental disturbance repels them, a tranquil mind attracts them.
Many Southeast Asian households have spirit houses and shrines complete with water, food, flower garlands and even pictures. These spirit houses are designed to attract positive spirits, most frequently the spirits of their ancestors. According to the Nei-yeh, we must create an internal spirit house to attract these vital energies. Indeed the ideogram for this space (shé) looks like a spirit house.
The advantages of these energies, such as vitality and inspiration, don’t arise merely from a good diet and proper exercise, but instead require internal emptiness. Daily practices are necessary if we are to create the empty space that attracts these elusive cosmic energies. According to the Nei-yeh, we must both align our body and cultivate a tranquil mind in order to stabilize the cosmic forces at our center. Once stabilized, these energies are the source of vitality.
If these techniques, stages and energies were just a relic of the past with no current relevance, then the Nei-yeh’s subject matter would be only of interest to scholars. However the ideas and concepts introduced in the Nei-yeh are still alive and well in both China and the West over 2 millennia after this work reached its current form. This continuity of thought lends validity to the notions presented in the Nei-yeh.
This brief introduction just scratches the surface of this important instruction manual. (For an in-depth textual analysis, check out Nei-yeh 1>3.)
1 Taoism, the enduring tradition, Russell Kirkland, Routledge, 2004, p.xviii
2 Russell Kirkland, p. 40
3 Master Ni employed a similar technique to teach Tai Chi and Sword forms. Each week, he would teach a new sequence of movements that we, his students, were meant to memorize.
4 Harold Roth, Original Tao, Inward Training (Nei-yeh), p. 153, Columbia University Press, 1999
5 It is a common practice in many pre-literate traditions to finally transcribe oral teachings centuries after the origination. For instance, most scholars believe that Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey was recited over campfires for many centuries before the story reached written form. The same process holds true for India’s Mahabharata. The Buddha’s words were also transmitted orally for centuries before being transcribed into text.
6 Roth, p. 21
7 Roth, p. 21
8 Russell Kirkland, p. 40
9 Kirkland, p.40
10 Roth, p. 19
11 Kirkland, p. 47
12 Roth, p. 147
13 Kirkland, p. 48