Nei-yeh (Chinese Self-Cultivation Manual)

4. Tests of Tao: Daily use of Te & Surging Vitality

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  1   Clear! as though right by your side.

  2   Vague! as though it will not be attained.

  3   Indiscernible! as though beyond the limitless.

  4   The test of this (Tao) is not far off.

  5   Daily we make use of its inner power (te).

  6   The Way (Tao) is what infuses the body.

  7   Yet people are not able to fix it in place.

  8   It goes forth but does not return,

  9   It comes back but does not stay.

10   Silent! none can hear its sound.

11   Suddenly stopping! it abides within the mind (hsin).

12   Obscure! we do not see its form.

13   Surging forth! it (shêng) arises with us.

14   We do not see its form,

15   We do not hear its sound,

16   Yet we can perceive an order to its accomplishments.

17   We call it "the Way (Tao)".


The first 3 verses of the Nei-yeh provide an introduction to jing, chi, and hsin. These are 3 of the key word-concepts of the influential Chinese behavioral technology that underlies the Nei-yeh, an ancient Chinese text. The following 3 verses focus upon the Tao.

Verse 4 highlights some innate features of the Tao.


Lines 1-3:

  1   Clear! as though right by your side.

  2   Vague! as though it will not be attained.

  3   Indiscernible! as though beyond the limitless.


The Tao is evidently somewhat enigmatic in that it is both ‘clear’ and ‘vague’. Further its essence cannot be discerned in that it is ‘beyond the limitless’. The word that Roth translates as ‘limitless’ is wuji. Wuji frequently refers to the primordial chaos that precedes order. According to traditional Chinese cosmology, wuji, the undifferentiated chaos, inevitably differentiates into yin and yang. The Tao is beyond chaos.


Lines 4-5:

  4   The test of this is not far off.

  5   Daily we make use of its inner power (te).


Although difficult to categorize, i.e. name, there are some tests that identify the Tao. Daily use of te, which Roth translates as ‘inner power’, seems to be an identifying feature of the Tao. A traditional Taoist scholar typically would view this ‘inner power’ as the result of achieving an exalted state associated with the Tao. However, the Nei-yeh provides us with an opportunity to consider a credible alternative to this view. Due to a careful analysis of this classic text, some 21st century scholars now view te as an essential feature of Chinese self-cultivation practices.

We suggest that te is associated with regularly exercising self-restraint. Perhaps self-restraint is so important that it must be practiced daily. In this context, te must be more about habit than an exalted state.

This is the first verse that links Tao and te, but not the last. The original name for Taoism was Tao-te Chia – the School of the Way and its Power.1 Another example of the close relationship between these 2 terms is the Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching.

There are 2 interpretations of the relationship between Tao and te. A traditional perspective holds that this inner power arises within the self when the Tao is present. This interpretation implies that the Tao is some kind of entity or special state of being that enters into one’s psyche.

The Tao can also be perceived as the ideal Way or method of being. Under this perspective, Line 5 can be interpreted as: If we are on the Path [Tao], then we will employ te, self-restraint, on a daily level. In other words, the ideal self-cultivation practices epitomized by the Tao include regularly employing te.

The Great Learning, a classic Chinese text, provides us with yet another way of viewing the relationship between Tao and te. From the perspective of this brief document, an essential feature of the Way (the Tao) is exerting te (personal power) to harmonize the community. Put in the context of this verse, working regularly to bring peace and balance in our world is evidence that the Tao is flowing through us. We will examine this document in more detail in subsequent chapters.

Lines 6-9:

  6   The Way (Tao) is what infuses the body.

  7   Yet people are not able to fix it in place.

  8   It goes forth but does not return,

  9   It comes back but does not stay.


Sometimes the Tao infuses the body, presumably a good thing, but we can’t keep it there. It suddenly stops within us, but then leaves just as inexplicably. Besides being unnamable, the Tao is also elusive.


Lines 10-13:

   10   Silent! none can hear its sound.

   11   Suddenly stopping! it abides within the mind (hsin).

   12   Obscure! we do not see its form.

   13   Surging forth! it (shêng) arises with us.


For emphasis, the Chinese will frequently double the ideogram of an idea or process. Roth indicates this emphasis with an exclamation point. He employed this technique in both the current lines and in lines 1-3.

To render these lines more intelligible to Western sensibilities, Roth converted Chinese gerunds into the subject-object form. Employing the Chinese gerund-like sentence structure yields the following translation. While perhaps clumsier, it conveys a slightly different meaning.


Silent! Not hearing its sound;

Suddenly stopping! Abiding within the mind (hsin);

Obscure! Not seeing its form;

Surging forth! Within us emerging vitality (shêng).


Why does the Nei-yeh state that the Tao is impossible to hear or see? From the initial lines, we know that the Tao’s essence is ineffable. Yet evidence of the Tao’s existence within the mind (hsin) can be inferred from the emerging vitality that surges forth. It may be useful to view this emerging vitality as an infectious enthusiasm for life.

This verse provides a second test for the presence of the Tao within the mind – the notion of personal vitality. The text seems to suggest that we test the existence of the Tao by identifying behavioral evidence of its underlying influence. Recall that the first behavioral test was employing te on a daily level – regularly exercising will power.

Lines 14-17:

   14   We do not see its form,

   15   We do not hear its sound,

   16   Yet we can perceive an order to its accomplishments.

   17   We call it "the Way (Tao)".


These lines clearly echo a sense of the Tao’s ineffable essence. However experience provides us with evidence of the Tao’s ordering influence upon our lives and the world around us. Although the Tao can’t be sensed directly, inner vitality (shêng) and inner power (te) provide indirect evidence that the Tao is within both hsin, our heart-mind, and our body. The Nei-yeh seems to be suggesting a boundless enthusiasm (shêng) for all that Life has to offer and regularly exerting control (te) over our external and internal environment are two indications that the Tao is flowing within us.

Tao: Ideogram

Due to the importance of the Tao in the Nei-yeh, let us examine its ideogram and definitions to better understand its flavor. Following is the Tao's ideogram.

On the bottom is the symbol for foot. As the foot seems to be walking, it frequently signifies a journey - a process. The inner pictogram, the one that is surrounded as a whole by the symbol for journey, is the ideogram for shöu. In the Chinese/English Dictionary cited above, shöu is translated as: 1) head; 2) leader, head, chief.

Shöu’s pictogram derived from a horned animal, perhaps with antlers. Perhaps a shaman/leader wore a horned headdress to tap into the animal’s raw energy. In ancient times, the ideogram came to signify a general, complete with two antler/plumes, at least according to some sources. Regardless of origin, the ideogram for Tao suggests a path of authority – of someone that is in control. The military nature of the leader suggests that it requires discipline and guidance to remain on the Path. 

 =                    +         
Tao     =          Journey         +          Leader

The Nei-yeh employs the word-concept Tao in this manner. As we shall see, the verses regularly suggest that we consistently employ te (restraint) & yi (intent) to prevent drifting off course.

The inner ideogram has three parts.

     =               +          +         
Leader   =   8 directions +         Man    +          Eye

The bottom represents the eye; the middle two lines are the symbol for human or man; while the top two antenna-looking protuberances are the radical/symbol for the number eight. Many times eight represents the eight directions, the primary directions, forward, backward, left, right, and the four diagonals. Hence the eight directions are representative of everywhere. The leader or head looks everywhere and sees everything. This leader observes, but does not speak. Sometimes simply paying attention is enough to keep people on track. Roughly speaking, the whole ideogram for the Tao suggests a journey that is led by a general or chieftain, who sees everything.

Tao as load-head, magnetic attractor

The ancient Chinese employed a component of the character "tao" to indicate the (load) head. Understood as the metallic lode that functions as a magnet for the compass "needle," the load-head creates a course to be followed. The lodestone sees, but does not speak. These characteristics are totally in line with the ideogram's pictorial meaning.

For many, the ‘journey’ associated with the Tao has mystical or even supernatural connotations. To see what it means for the Chinese reading this symbol, let us look at a Chinese/English dictionary. The Concise Chinese English Dictionary provides us with these definitions:

dào: (as a noun)

   1) road, way, path.

   2) line.

   3) way, method.

   4) doctrine, principle

   5) Taoism, Taoist


The same ideogram for tao simultaneously means method, purpose, path, doctrine and Taoist. The context of the use determines the emphasis, but does not eliminate the other meanings. The Chinese are specialists in ‘both/and’ reasoning, rather than the Western ‘either/or’ mentality. Tao means both path and Taoist, not one or the other.2 However, the definitions don’t seem to include the mystical connotations that are commonly associated with the Tao. In this sense, the Tao could be any method, process or way, not only a mystical path. For instance, understanding the ‘tao’ of chickens enables me to better take care of and understand the needs of my small flock.

The Tao as Energy

How do we understand the Tao in the context of the Nei-yeh? Due to its ineffable nature, many place the Tao in a transcendent, other-worldly, mystical category like God or spirits. However the ultimate materialism of Physics provides us with a means of conceptualizing the Tao.

While we can see atoms and hear the effects of subatomics, energy is elusive. Although we may think we know what energy is, Nobel Prize Winner Richard Feynman states unequivocally that no one knows what energy is. We may not be able to perfectly define the essence of energy, but that does not prevent us from being able to perceive its effects. In similar fashion, we can perceive the results of the Tao without defining its essence.

According to the Nei-yeh, inner power (te) and inner vitality (shêng) are evidence of the Tao’s existence. A healthy enthusiasm for the variety of activities that preoccupy daily human life can be viewed as the positive results of this inner power and inner vitality. In the Nei-yeh’s context, it can be productive to conceptualize the Tao as a form of energy. While Science teaches how to tap into material energy, the Nei-yeh teaches us how to tap into the Tao, a unique form of energy that invigorates us as humans.

Te: Ideogram

As mentioned Tao and te are frequently linked. This linkage occurs in both the Nei-yeh and the title of the Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching. Let's examine the ideogram for te to better understand the connection.

On the left is a simplified symbol for a 'foot'; on the upper right is the modified character for ‘straight or upright’; and on the lower right is the symbol signifying 'heart' (hsin).

The "(foot) stepping" symbol here is different than the "walking (foot)" symbol in Tao. Rather than a journey, it suggests steps towards a goal. As with the Tao, te seems to be more of an ongoing process than a fixed state.


One meaning could be: follow the path of an upright heart, perhaps our innate nature. The Chinese, Taoists in particular, believe that we are born pure and then corrupted in the process of growing up. Through self-cultivation practices, we attempt to return to te, our natural virtue.

In contrast to the traditional meaning that 'virtue' is innate, fixed and determined from birth, the Nei-yeh regularly implies that we strengthen te by exercising self-restraint. Further it is possible to interpret hsin, our heart-mind, to mean our innate inclinations, including our emotional tendencies.

Under this perspective, the ideogram suggests that te is the process of rectifying hsin in order to shape and regulate our innate tendencies. This shaping could include engaging in self-cultivation practices rather than becoming a victim of our emotions and desires. Te is the action, i.e. daily practices, of aligning hsin, i.e. making the heart-mind upright.

Both Tao and te include radicals that indicate an ongoing process rather than a state of being. Tao, as the Way of ideal self-cultivation practices, includes regularly exercising te, our self-restraint muscle, to shape our innate tendencies, hsin, in order to remain on the Path.

For fun, let’s take this journey yet one more step. According to the traditional view, te is an innate state that is developed through acts of cultivation etc. The inner power (te) developed in this fashion could be likened to charisma. The power of the person’s aura automatically harmonizes the surrounding world. The individual who possesses this charisma orders the world without doing anything (the essence of the Taoist concept of wu-wei, non-action within action).

Could te be both an innate state and a process? If so, the te process of restraint contributes to the te state of inner power. Te both enables and is enabled by the journey of being on course, Tao. From this perspective, te is both the state of ‘inner power’ that arises from the process of self-control and the process of self-control that gives rise to the state of inner power/charisma.

In such a way, even state and process circle each other, like the black and white fish in the yin-yang symbol. The black and white eyes of the two fish signify the interactive feedback between process and state. State exerts an influence on process and vice-versa. While separate ideationally, ‘state’ and ‘process’ are inseparable functionally in these ‘living’ situations. Exercising self-control (the process) strengthens our personal presence/charisma (the state), which in turn increases the probability that we will exercise self-control. This interactive 2-way feedback loop negates/neutralizes cause and effect, thereby order.

This innate feature of living systems transcends the linear logic that characterizes matter so perfectly. This interactive feedback indicates that living systems consist of more than just matter. The Nei-yeh, as well as Chinese thought in general, supports this perspective.

Tao: Both Ideal Practices & Mystical State

The same analysis applies to the Tao. It is both the ideal self-cultivation method/process and the enlightened state of alignment with the Universal Wave, i.e. attuned to cosmic principles (li). The Nei-yeh’s use of the ideogram ‘Tao’ certainly reflects both connotations.

As ‘way or method’, the Tao could represent the ideal practices that put an individual onto the Path that presumably leads to Sagehood. Indeed Tao is frequently translated as ‘the Way’, not ‘a way’. One purpose of the Nei-yeh is to reveal the general self-cultivation practices that both take us to and keep us on the Path.

While the Tao represents the method to attain Sagehood, the Sage is also aligned with the Tao, i.e. in midst of the Universal Flow. In this context, the Tao could mean the state of perfect balance and/or an exalted, altered state of consciousness, for instance a mystical or inspired state of consciousness.

In contrast to the Western vocabulary, the Chinese language embraces a fungible approach to words. As such, the meanings of Chinese word-concepts tend to be ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’. For instance, ch’i is both breath/blood circulation and a cosmic energy source that permeates the universe. Jing is both our individual sexual energy and the universal source of life. Similarly the Tao can mean both the ideal self-cultivation practices, the Path, the Way, and alignment with the mystical Flow. The Nei-yeh employs the Tao in each of these fashions.

Tao and te form a gestalt (a fully integrated, yet separable, network). Te’s process of self-control is a feature of the Tao’s ideal self cultivation practices that lead to te’s inner power that accompanies alignment with the Tao’s Universal Wave.

Te & Contemporary Science

How do we make sense of the Chinese word-concept ‘te’ from a 21st century scientific perspective? Te’s associative words, i.e. ‘charisma’, ‘inner power’, ‘constelling force’, ‘emanating from the center’, ‘ordering the world without acting’, seem to be too mystical or nebulous to be studied from a scientific perspective. What possible contemporary psycho-physiological counterpart could there possibly be that mirrors the ‘inner power’ associated with ‘te’?

Cognitive scientists have begun exploring a human trait deemed ‘deferred gratification’. This trait is associated with a successful life in terms of career, finances, emotional regulation, and relationships.

Studies have also shown that this virtue shows up very early in infancy. Some think that it is genetic, i.e. innate. Others believe that it can be developed to some extent. Indeed one of the tasks of parenting is to exercise, thereby develop, this mental muscle in their offspring. Discipline is primarily administered to train children to both refrain from performing some kind of inappropriate behavior and to direct them towards more constructive activities.

These psychological studies fit neatly with the ancient belief system of the Chinese ruling class. It also dovetails with our notion that te is a mental muscle associated with self-restraint. ‘Deferred gratification’ like ‘te’ can be developed through use. Further this mental muscle from the 2 systems is associated with success or the inner power that leads to success.

We mentioned that the Nei-yeh presents a testable behavioral technology that is relevant to 21st century humans. Te’s state of ‘inner power’ could be defined and studied in terms of a ‘successful life’. Te’s process of ‘self-control’ could be likened to contemporary science’s ‘deferred gratification’ muscle. The Nei-yeh states that exercising self-control leads to inner power. 21st century experiments have shown that the ability to exercise ‘deferred gratification’ is positively correlated with a ‘successful life’. At least in this way, it seems that the Nei-yeh and contemporary psychology have isomorphic structures, in the sense that they have parallel cognitive constructs that are associated with parallel results.


Verse 4: We use the Tao’s te on a daily level. The Tao comes and then departs. Although we can’t sense the Tao, we can perceive its effects. The daily use of te (personal power) and surging vitality are the two tests that the Tao is present in our mind and body.


1The Spirit of the Chinese Character, p.20. This book supplies many of the ideograms and analysis for this series of articles on the Nei-yeh.

2 The ‘both-and’, ‘multiple meanings’ feature of the Chinese language makes their poetry particularly difficult, if not impossible, to convey in European languages.

3 Barbara Aria & Russell Eng Gon, The Spirit of the Chinese Character, Chronicle Books. San Francisco, 1992, p.20


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