1. The Golden Pill
  2. Vital Breath (Chi)
  3. Breath Regulation
  4. Embryo breath
  5. Consolidation of the base
  6. Refining of the drug
  7. The Hour of Hai-mo Tzu-ch’u
  8. Taking a bath
  9. Temperature
  10. The Secret
  11. “Capturing the yin to replenish the yang”
  12. The Dual Cultivation of Nature and Life

E. 12 Main Concepts of Taoism during the Ming Dynasty
or Taoist Reflections

Because and because …

A vineyard with too much water

Yields a large grape,

Whose wine lacks body and substance,

While just enough moisture,

Produces a smaller grape

With great character and flavor.

Let the emanation

From the Center of the Clear Light of the Void



Let us discuss the 12 Main Concepts of Taoism during the Ming Period in China as elaborated by Liu Ts’un-Yan in Taoist Self-Cultivation in Ming Thought. We will not be discussing these concepts from a scholarly standpoint. Hence much of what it said will be wrong. Instead these concepts of Taoism will be examined under the burning fire of a late 20th century illumination. Hopefully this mud will reflect some light.

1. The Golden Pill

“This is the internal pill which was highly esteemed by the Taoists in their cultivation of the chi and is to be differentiated from the external pill.”[i]

Although the internal pill is different from the external pill the notion of the internal evolved from the external. The external pill is the ultimate multiple vitamin. The Taoists alchemists spent great quantities of time distilling substances, which would confer longevity or, on the magical side, immortality.

“Take this pill and you will live forever. Take this vitamin and it will arrest aging.”

The school of the external pill is making big money today with its emphasis on the importance of external nutrition as the key to health. In modern times, the external school dominates on all levels.

For those who could See, however, it was apparent that external vitamins alone were not the key, hence the shift to the internal pill. The internal pill is developed inside the body. It too would confer longevity of immortality. The devotees of the internal pill in 20th century West believe that by putting the body in balance that it will naturally produce health without the need for external vitamin supplements. This is not to say that the devotees of the internal pill neglect what goes into the body. On the contrary, what goes into the body is of utmost importance. However the idea, from this school, is that natural foods, unadulterated, will be converted into proper nutrition by the body without the need for the external pills. For the higher level initiates, however, the Golden Pill is the key to personal transformation, not just an element of health or longevity.

Either way, immortality or transformation, the emphasis becomes the internal creation of the Golden Pill. How is this inner source of vitality to be created? Liu Ts’un-Yan says: “The cultivation of the chi is, therefore the most important characteristic in the study of the internal pill.”

What is this chi that needs to be cultivated to produce the Golden Pill?

2. Vital Breath (Chi)

“Before we come to the Taoist cultivation of the chi, we must first understand the Chinese belief that the chi naturally tends towards diffusion, and consequently must be regulated and conserved. Thus in individual cultivation the problem is to prevent its indiscriminate emission, and especially through breath control to hold it in,” says Liu Ts’un-Yan

Or as Master Ni once said: "Internal Chi is life force; external chi is money." One can earn, save, spend, invest, squander and waste internal and external chi in the same way. Hence the Chinese idea is that once you’ve spent the last of your internal chi, you die. The stronger one’s internal life force, the more alive one is. Therefore to further one’s internal life force, it is necessary to earn chi, not to squander it, to conserve chi, not to waste it, to spend chi wisely, not frivolously.

The idea of earning and spending chi is only a metaphor. It implies that by meditation or by Tai Chi that one generates chi power. In actuality these practices do not generate chi, instead they subdue the chi, in order that it manifests itself more perfectly. Chi is lively, like a puppy, and will wear itself out if not constrained. Chi is everywhere in everything. Therefore one does not actually generate chi, although living beings have it to spend and therefore can also conserve it. Man’s pure chi energy is effortless. Non-action is pure action, not immobility.

Wu Shou-yang (c. 1563-c.1632), from a chapter called The subjugation of the chi in his book, The true principle upheld by a heavenly immortal, says:

“The great pass which divides life and death is chi. The difference between a sage and an ordinary man is [in the concept of] subduing the chi.…For [an ordinary man] does not understand that subduing the chi is a means for its animation, nor does he know the practice of subduing it.”

Chi will manifest itself. If we push chi it will manifest wastefully and excessively. If we let chi alone then it will dissipate itself naturally. If we attempt to contain or subdue the chi, then it will manifest perfectly. How is chi to be subdued?

3. Breath Regulation

On the gross level the way chi is to be subdued is through the regulation of breathing. However on the more refined level Wu Shou-yang explains:

“In name it may reluctantly be called regulating the breath, but in fact it should be as empty as the Great Void, so that it can be consistent with quietude and concealment in the pre-primordiality.”

The problem is that the discriminating mind is too active attempting to satisfy limitless desires. Chain the mind to the breath to drain off its excess energy. However the real goal is to be as empty as the Great Void. Breath control is only the means to this end. Achieving absolute quietude and concealment in the pre-primordiality is the end, breath regulation is the means. The pre-primordial condition is pre-cultural and genetic conditioning; the idea is of transcending one’s history.

Upon the idea of concealing the chi in the pre-primordiality: Some children upon receiving their allowance, immediately devise a plan to spend it. Others save up their allowance to spend it upon something more substantial. In the second case the child is not saving money just to save it but with the intent of waiting for the right moment to spend it. Therein lies the idea of subduing the natural inclination to immediately dissipate any amount of chi that is accumulated. Hence subduing the chi through breath regulation is simply a metaphor for moderating the natural urge towards dissipation. The natural tendency of internal chi is to manifest, just as the natural tendency of money is to be spent. Subduing this natural tendency means that one will save the chi for the right moment. When is the right moment? Only by achieving absolute quietude will the chi manifest naturally, effortlessly. The human focus is to subdue it in preparation for manifestation. Concealment in the pre-primordiality.

4. Embryo breath

The idea of striving for absolute quietude is related to the breathing of an embryo. Again we quote Wu Shou-yang:

“When the embryo is fully developed, it does not breathe with mouth and nose, but simply follows the tempo of the respiration of its mother, through the connection of its umbilicus with her body. … This is what may be called the condition of the true breath of an embryo.”


Again comes the idea of effortless breathing. This is not the idea of not breathing, just as the idea of non-action does not mean not moving. Non-action means busily doing nothing and is most active, just as embryonic breath is the most active breathing because one is breathing with the whole body not just with the lungs and mouth. In this context breathing with one’s lungs only is akin to trying to move a horse with arm strength alone. The depth of embryonic breath is thorough, circulating throughout the entire body, while lung breathing only fills the lungs incompletely. Embryonic breath is based upon the smallest circles, conserving energy throughout, while lung breathing is characterized by a relatively discontinuous in and out movement, which wastes energy in so much movement. In the adiabatic heat chart in Physics, the more movement the greater the dissipation of the total energy of the system; the same applies here. Hence tuning into the tempo of the respiration of the Mother allows the individual to draft upon the energy of Creation rather than dissipating his own life force.

5. Consolidation of the base

Before beginning upon the quest for transformation, the base must be consolidated. The base in Taoist terms are the three forces we spoke about, mercury, lead, and earth, which is equivalent to sperm, breath, and spirit Ň jing, chi, and shen. The three become one behind true intent, the Mission. The discriminating mind, instead of slashing indiscriminately, becomes the servant of true intent. One of the tasks of true sense, the discriminating mind is to tame desire by focusing its energy upon the Mission. These three forces must be consolidated behind true intent before the journey may begin, else they pull the body in different directions, dissipating energy, getting nowhere.

On the contrary side, consolidation of the base is not enough. It is only the beginning. For many, the quest is to consolidate the base, to achieve balance. through meditation, exercise, diet, right thinking, right action, money. Unfortunately from balance comes the necessity of extension. Just as imbalance needs to balance itself; balance needs to extend itself. The extension of imbalance is a distortion while the balance of balance is extension. Extension leads to imbalance, which needs to balance itself, which needs to extend itself. Hence there is no True Peace only momentary peace.

6. Refining of the drug

In Taoist cultivation, the term ‘drug’ indicates the formless, vital sperm. It is the yang line at the bottom of 5 yin lines in the Hexagram, Fu, which Wilhelm calls Return. This hexagram is at the beginning of the cycle of 12 sovereign hexagrams. The yin lines have completed their cycle; the yang lines have begun their cycle again; they have begun to return. The point of emergence of the yang is the ‘drug’. Because it is at this pivot point, there is the greatest possibility of control. The smallest push of the swing at the turning point will produce a much greater effect than a hard push any other place on the cycle. The swing has begun to return. Hence refining the drug is exceptionally important because it has just begun its cycle and so is much more amenable to control. Starting to instill proper values when the child is a teenager is too late. It is important to start immediately at the beginning of life, when it is formless.

Remember that the drug is the yang line at the bottom of the hexagram Fu. In Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching page 98, we read about this line.

“Nine at the beginning means:

Return from a short distance.

No need for remorse.

Great good fortune.

Slight digression from the good cannot be avoided, but one must turn back in time, before going too far. This is especially important in the development of character; every faintly evil thought must be put aside immediately, before it goes too far and takes root in the mind. Then there is no cause for remorse and all goes well.”

Hence the Taoists reverse the swing image. Instead of pushing it, they are damping its swing. It is most important to damp the swing when at the beginning of the vibration before it takes root in the mind-patterns. Subdue the potentially violent oscillations of the chi energy before they get out of control. Hence extreme awareness is needed in order to perceive the emergence of imbalance. Liu Ts’un-Yan says

“The Taoist alleged that ‘since there is the drug and a natural mechanism of life, there should be an enlightenment for one to perceive the coming of the drug. The enlightenment should be the substance for the refining of the drug while emptiness and humility are the function of the refinement.’”


The enlightenment is based upon consciousness of cycles. One must be sensitive to the emergence of the drug. Hence absolute quietude and emptiness is called upon in order to facilitate Listening. The false drugs move forward with great effort while the Real Drug is in rhythm with the Mother and hence is effortless. Humility is important to distinguish the false and true drugs. The false drugs disguise themselves in pride. They are dazzling in appearance, but their motive force is exterior to the subject of transformation and hence have no internal motive force; no momentum. The Real Drug is dull on the outside while sparkling intensely from within. The drug is the life urge, which must be cultivated in order to achieve transformation.

7. The Hour of Hai-mo Tzu-ch’u

This hour in the day between 11PM and 1AM corresponds to the hexagram cycle beginning with Fu, described above. This is a good time to meditate because the yang force is just beginning to emerge and hence is most receptive to refinement. On an annual level it also corresponds to the time just after the Winter Solstice, when the solar power is just beginning to rise again. Hence we make New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of the year to ‘refine the drug’ for the year. The idea is that timing is very important. Being in rhythm is based upon extreme quietude at the beginning. Hence meditation, small or large, in minutes or sections of hours, is very important at the Beginning, when the swing begins to Return.

8. Taking a bath

“When water and fire come to supplement each other, the confusion of thoughts will automatically cease. This is exactly what Po Yu-ch’an has said: “Cleansing the mind and removing one’s worries from it is what is meant by ‘taking a bath’.”’ says Liu Ts’un-Yan

Naturally desire inspires the mind, which creates the goal of fulfilling the desire. Hence the three internal forces serve desire as their master. In the concept of ‘taking a bath’ this cycle is reversed. The discriminating mind uses its excess energy to tame desire to put it at the service of the true Mission. The idea is here expressed alchemically. The fire of the discriminating mind is redirected below the water of desire in order to distill it. Then the water, after boiling, rains down and cleanses the fire of the mind. Thus instead of a dissipation cycle, we have a rejuvenation cycle. The sexual energy, which is water, instead of being immediately dissipated in sexual intercourse, is transformed into steam, rising up the spinal cord. It then condenses as dew down the front and gives the fire of the heart/mind a bath (actually a shower.) The idea is to take a bath in emptiness to cleanse the false fire of the heart-mind of distracting thoughts. Naturally the water is below the fire; desire leads the mind. Hence here is a moment of Reversal.

9. Temperature

The heat of the fire cooks the brew. Its temperature is of utmost importance. Wu Shou-yang says:

“If one earnestly employs his mind to increase its temperature, then he will have paid too much attention to the temperature itself, and will have forgotten that the drug is easily exhausted. If one becomes too negligent of the temperature and is unaware of its existence, then he will easily fall asleep or be distracted. When the temperature is cooled down and the fire extinguished, the drug tends to be dissipated and is no more. Then the great drug can never be produced. If the temperature is not attended to continuously, then the drug may become spoiled even if it would have been produced otherwise.”

If too much mind energy is produced it burns the mixture. If the mind-fire is not attended however, the fire goes out. We must not forget the fire, nor must we forget the mixture. We are cooking up our soul for transformation by the fire and mustn’t lose sight of the goal. ‘A watched pot never boils; but an untended fire goes out.’ The direct light of consciousness is too hot; instead approach the issue peripherally. Be aware, but not too focused. Assemble the ingredients carefully, light the fire, and then wait patiently for the mixture to cook. Make sure the fire doesn’t go out, nor does it get too hot. Drunkenly spinning, approach the Gate and stumble through. Too much awareness burns the mixture.

10. The Secret

The Taoist secret is to reverse the natural order of things. As Liu Ts’un-yan says:

“The practice of Taoist cultivation in order to prolong one’s life has been compared … to the strategy of ‘stealing a march on heaven’. For the Taoist philosophers believed that the practice of their principle was to live by entirely reversing the natural course which carries us on from cradle to grave, so that death, as the natural consequence of life, could be averted.”

Hence comes the idea of reversal. The natural way leads to dissipation and death, while the way of reversal presumably leads to rejuvenation and long life.

11. “Capturing the yin to replenish the yang”

The yin here is the female, while the yang is male. The balance of this statement is also a functional element of alchemical transformation. ‘Capturing the yang to replenish the yin.’ These concepts point to the mixture of male and female. They are based upon the trigrams Li and K’an and involve exchanging an interior yin line for an interior yang line, thereby increasing vitality.

On the gross exterior level, the old Taoist wizard would suck the vital energy from a young woman in order to augment his vital strength to increase longevity. This is related in notion to the Vampire myth of the west, where Dracula sucks the blood of young women in order to live.

On the more subtle levels, this points to a vital process of reversal. Naturally the woman replenishes her female-yin by the absorption of yang-semen from the man in sexual intercourse. In reality this yang from the man is so powerful that it actually produces a new life in the woman. Thus naturally a woman replenishes her yin with yang. In reversal the man replenishes himself with the vaginal juices of the female. Hence male and female are reversed. While the female loses some of her yin juices to the yang, she replenishes this loss with the male yang-semen. While the male loses his yang-semen, he replaces it with the yin-vaginal juices of the woman. Temperance in the Tarot deck, Mixture in Aleister Crowley, the balance of male and female.

On the deeper levels, it has to do with exchanging male and female energies upon the spiritual emotional levels, nothing physical exchanged. Culturally it relates to men getting in touch with their feminine sides and conversely, women getting in touch with their masculine side. Interpersonally it has to do with breaking, exchanging, and mixing roles. On the highest manifestations sexuality is transcended because the blend is so refined. This is not just an idea but a state of mind attained after lots of physical and spiritual-emotional mixing has already occurred.

12. The Dual Cultivation of Nature and Life

Liu Ts’un-Yan says this about its two meanings:

“First, its general meaning is always the union of the spirit (shen) and the chi within one’s own body. Second, it denotes exclusively the dual cultivation of male and female through sexual intimacy, in which ming (life) is male and hsing (nature) is female.”

We will take the dual cultivation to mean the balance of opposing elements, the physical and mental, the material and the spiritual, male and female, yin and yang. Neither one nor the other should be neglected or focused upon exclusively. Instead one needs to transcend the polarity by cultivating both sides, yin and yang, or hsing and ming. In terms of generalities, the Taoists focus upon chi/ming/life force, while the Buddhists focus upon hsing/mental discrimination/nature. The dual cultivation attempts to balance the two.

Let us further elucidate the difference between hsing and ming.

Ma Chueh (c. 1183), one of the seven earliest disciples of the founder of the Chuan-chen sect of Taoism in the north, once said: “The spirit and the chi may be called the hsing and the ming. The hsing and the ming are the dragon and the tiger, the lead and the mercury, the water and the fire, the Baby and the Amazed Maid, the yin and the yang. Therefore, the true yin and the genuine yang are but the spirit and chi.”

Hsing and Ming are therefore associated with lead and mercury. (See Lead, Mercury and Earth for a discussion of this alchemical interaction.) (See A Nature's Worshipper's take on Taoism for a different perspective.)

[i]Taoist Self-Cultivation by Liu Ts’un-yan, from Self and Society in Ming Thought edited by William Theodore de Bary, p293

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