Nei-yeh (Chinese Self-Cultivation Manual)

Text: Ambiguities, Overview & Recontextualization

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The Nei-yeh is a Chinese self-cultivation manual written in the 4th century before the Common Era. The express purpose of this document is to illuminate the relevance of this brief text for the scientifically oriented individual of the 21st century. To achieve that end, we must translate ancient Chinese words and ideas into a contemporary Western context.

There are many innate difficulties associated with finding modern relevance in a text written over 2 millennia ago. On the most basic level, the ancient culture that produced the text is entirely different from our own. Further Chinese, their written script, belongs to a language family that is distinct from English, the script of this text. Due in part to the linguistic differences, the Chinese mindset is unique from the Western mindset.

Due to these innate problems, there is some inherent ambiguity associated with translating this ancient Chinese into modern English. More daunting in some ways is communicating the ancient Chinese mindset to the Western reader. Despite these problems, I have found the Nei-yeh to be strikingly relevant to my life.

To provide context, the following article explores these problematic areas in more detail.

Inherent Ambiguity of Ancient Chinese Texts

This investigation is fraught with innate ambiguity for a variety of reasons. 1) The Nei-yeh is over 2000 years old. The meanings of words, ideograms and concepts inevitably shift over significant periods of time. 2) The energy network that the Nei-yeh explores is complex. As mentioned, even Taoist works don’t interpret the key concepts in a consistent manner. Instead there is wide latitude of meaning associated with the terms, for instance the word ‘Tao’. 3) The translation of modern Chinese into English is subject to error due to cultural misunderstandings. The ancient Chinese language compounds this potential for error. Even scholars disagree as to the translation of key passages. 4) Commentators, even if they attempt to be objective, can’t avoid perceiving meaning through their own personal and cultural filters.

Harold Roth is the author of Original Tao, the first book that provides a complete translation and commentary on the Nei-yeh. The subtitle of his book - Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism – most likely reveals his personal filter. His commentary makes it quite clear that he interprets the Nei-yeh’s meaning through the filter of mysticism.

Written before there were self-identified Taoists and before the entry of Buddhism into China, this seminal work can be interpreted from a variety of arguably valid perspectives. Instead of attempting to be ‘true’ to the original meaning, which is shrouded in the uncertainty of both history and human bias, our intent is to convey an understanding of the Nei-yeh that is relevant to our fellow 21st century human beings.

In my case, the ancient Chinese wisdom contained in the Nei-yeh and related sources have proved to be particularly relevant to me as a writer, musician, and Tai Chi practitioner. More importantly, the insights have informed my life as an ordinary human being – someone who is plagued by everyday problems. These problems include the typical concerns for those in my social network, including family, friends and community; the psychological turbulence associated with the anxieties and fears of modern times; and the normal issues of aging, for instance flagging energy, waning cognitive skills and declining health in my mid-60s.

Our interpretation of the Nei-yeh will be informed by a variety of sources, including a number of texts. These texts include both Confucian and Taoist works, as well as a modern compilation of sayings by Master Ni, a 20th century Taoist and my Tai Chi teacher. These additional sources will assist us to fine-tune the meaning of this important text. Reciprocally, the Nei-yeh provides both a philosophical framework and insight that may assist us to understand the perspectives of these other works. Cross-referencing these works may help us form a sophisticated 21st century understanding that represents the current relevance of an amalgam of Chinese wisdom.

Nei-yeh Overview

Before getting into the specifics of the text, let us present a brief overview of the Nei-yeh to provide context for the discussion that follows. The Nei-yeh consists of only 26 verses, less than a third 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 in order to stabilize ch’i in our center. 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 best utilize these energies – how to tap into their power. These energies are innate to every human. 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.

An Attempt to Re-contextualize the Nei-yeh for the 21st century

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 of only interest to scholars. However over 2 millennia after this work reached its final form, the ideas and concepts introduced in the Nei-yeh are still alive and well in both China and the West. This continuity of thought lends validity to the notions presented in the Nei-yeh.

The Nei-yeh, a written repository of ancient Chinese wisdom, presented ideas that took on a life of their own. Although ‘lost’ for millennia, Taoist masters have passed on both its mental and physical concepts and practices to students, who have in turn passed them onto their students in an unbroken chain from ancient times to the present day. In fact, we will employ the teachings of Master Ni, a 20th century Chinese Taoist, to elucidate the text. While there have been some slight evolutionary variations in terminology and philosophy over time, the Nei-yeh’s energy network remains primarily intact.

In the textual discussion that follows we will attempt to provide the current relevance of these concepts to the contemporary science-oriented mind. This re-contextualization serves 2 purposes: validating Chinese wisdom and connecting this ancient system of thought with modern times. In contrast, scholars have typically narrowed their focus to determining the original meaning of the texts. While relying upon their research, our intent is to broaden the focus to encompass its relevance to the 21st century. We believe that the core of its relevance lies in its ability to provide us with a practical guide to maximize the quality of everyday living.

Indeed the Chinese view their classic texts from this perspective. Instead of attempting to determine the original meaning, Chinese scholars regularly re-interpret the classics to provide meaning for their age. To understand the process, Chinese employ the weaving metaphor. The classic text is the warp, i.e. the length-wise weave, while the re-interpretation is the weft, i.e. the cross-weave. Our intent is similar – to extend and enrich the Nei-yeh’s tapestry by providing the 21st century weft for the warp of a 2000 year old classic.

As well as revealing our explicit intent, this chapter has provided an overview of both the Nei-yeh’s context and purpose. This brief introduction just scratches the surface of this important instruction manual. The following chapters provide a more in-depth textual analysis.


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