Nei-yeh (Chinese Self-Cultivation Manual)

7. Heaven, Earth & Humans: Ruling Principles & Features

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1  For Heaven, the ruling principle is to be aligned (cheng).

2  For Earth, the ruling principle is to be level.

3  For human beings, the ruling principle is to be tranquil (ching).

4  Spring, autumn, winter and summer are the seasons of Heaven.

5  Mountains, hills, rivers and valleys are the resources of Earth.

6  Pleasure and anger, accepting or rejecting are the devices of human beings.

7  Therefore the Sage (sheng):

8  Alters with the seasons, but does not transform,

9  Shifts with things, but does not change places with them.


Verse 7 introduces an important traditional Chinese abstraction. Neither a word-concept nor even an isolated idea, it is instead a relational mental construct for understanding reality. The almost technical abstraction consists of a triad of interactive symbols: Heaven (t’ien), Earth (ti), and Humans (jen). As an indication of the triad’s significance, the I Ching’s hexagrams are divided into 3 parts that correspond with this division. (We will discuss the underlying logic behind this relational abstraction after the Commentary).

In order to avoid confusion with Biblical Heaven, Roth translates the ideogram for t’ien as 'the heavens'. We prefer simply 'Heaven', the traditional word choice. This term has already entered the Western lexicon. For instance, Wilhelm employs Heaven for t’ien in his famous translation of the I Ching. Another familiar instance of this word-choice is the 'Mandate of Heaven (t’ien)', a well-known Chinese idiom.

In these contexts, Chinese tend to employ Heaven as a technical, not descriptive, term. For instance, Heaven and Earth symbolize above and below, while humans are in the middle. Rather than exclusively descriptive terms that are associated with our physical planet, the ‘heavenly’ firmament of constellations, and people, the Heaven-Earth-Human abstraction has a consistent symbolic meaning that borders upon the technical. For these reasons, we will employ the word 'Heaven' as the translation for t’ien. (We will discuss the underlying logic behind this relational abstraction after the Commentary).

The first three lines identify some of the symbolic meanings for these terms. These meanings are only casually related to their actual meanings.


Lines 1-6:

  1  For Heaven, the ruling principle is to be aligned (cheng).

  2  For Earth, the ruling principle is to be level.

  3  For human beings, the ruling principle is to be tranquil (ching).

  4  Spring, autumn, winter and summer are the seasons of Heaven.

  5  Mountains, hills, rivers and valleys are the resources of Earth.

  6  Pleasure and anger, accepting or rejecting are the devices of human beings.


This song-poem delineates the ruling principle behind each of these principles/processes: Heaven aligned (cheng); Earth level; and Humans tranquil (ching). Further Heaven consists of seasons; Earth has its geography; and Humans have anger and pleasure (emotions) that they can accept or reject.

The Heaven/Humans/Earth triad tends to symbolize the interactions between fundamental natural forces and humanity. The Nei-yeh associates the triad with three basic self-cultivation processes – aligning, stabilizing and tranquilizing, i.e. calming. Associating them with this all-encompassing triad further emphasizes their importance. In developmental fashion, the next verse explains how these processes are crucial if we are to attract jing to our core, and presumably become Sage-like.

The rich symbolism of the triad can be interpreted in many ways. Here is one plausible interpretation of the initial lines of the current verse. The term cheng (alignment), in its raw form means to be upright in the sense of vertical. Connecting the symbolic dots: Heaven symbolizes vertical in parallel opposition to Earth’s ‘level’, i.e. flat. Humans, in a plant-like fashion, cultivate tranquility to reach vertically to Heaven, while rooting in the flat Earth.

Each principle also has a significant feature that is also important. Heaven has its invariable seasons that organize time; Earth has its unchanging geography that organizes space; humans have the ability to choose, in this case whether or not to cultivate emotional tranquility. In other words, we can choose to organize our thoughts.

Lines 7-9:

  7  Therefore the Sage:

  8  Alters with the seasons, but does not transform,

  9  Shifts with things, but does not change places with them.


The verse ends by stating that the Sage is able to flow along with the seasons without being transformed by them. He shifts but does not change place.

What does this mean?

The text identifies the characteristics of Heaven, Earth and Humans that distinguishes them from each other.  While Heaven and Earth go through seasonal transformations and topographical/material variations, as is their nature, the Sage adapts to them.  By adapting, he avoids the emotions of the non-Sage, and thus maintains the constancy of the tranquil Tao in his heart-mind, the essence of his humanity. Alignment and balance are acquired as a result of his tranquility.

Correspondence Logic

Relational correspondence between two seemingly unrelated groups.

The Heaven/Human/Earth triad provides a great example of a particular kind of Chinese logic. Rather than inductive or deductive reasoning, it has been deemed correspondence logic. Roughly speaking, this type of logic establishes a relational correspondence between two seemingly unrelated groups.

General features mapped onto Individual context

The relationships of a general abstraction are mapped onto an individual context. For instance, the relationships between A, B and C correspond with the relationships between X, Y, and Z. If the ABC triad represents the more abstract universal symbols, in this case Heaven, Humans and Earth; then the XYZ triad would represent the individual context, in this case alignment, balance and tranquility.

Chinese have many symbolic templates

The Heaven/Earth/Man triad is but one of many symbolic relational templates that the Chinese philosophers employ to understand life. Yin-yang theory and 5 phases theory are other Chinese templates belonging to this category. The meaning attributed to each of these symbolic systems is based in correspondence logic.

Contextual relationship, rather than causality, determines meaning.

Contextual relationship, rather than causality, determines meaning. Rather than attempting to establish a causal relationship between the general and the particular, Chinese philosophers seek to find the parallel logic between the general symbols and particular instance.

2 scientific correlates

To better understand correspondence logic, let us explore some correlates in scientific thought. Although not common, it is at the basis of some highly significant ways of conceptualizing existence. There are two concepts in particular that reflect the importance of correspondence logic to science: isomorphism and the conceptual metaphor.

Isomorphism: Mapping that preserves structure

It could be said that correspondence logic is based in an isomorphic relationship between two systems. Isomorphism is a term employed in mathematics, logic, philosophy and information theory. It refers to a mapping that preserves the structure of the mapped entities. This structure frequently has an interactional component.

Structure of Heaven/Human/Earth triad

What are some of the significant structural features of the Heaven/Human/Earth triad? The triad encompasses the entirety of existence, i.e. the sky above, the earth below, and humans in-between. The inclusion of humans as one the symbols indicates that the triad specifically concerns humanity. Further, the relationships between the 3 symbols are more important than their content. Residing in the middle, humans, in particular, are bound by the features of these cosmic entities. The overall components of this relational structure are preserved when the triad is mapped onto an individual context.

Mapping HEH triad onto self-cultivation taos attributes significance

For instance in this verse, the Heaven/Human/Earth triad is mapped onto the principle self-cultivation methods (taos), i.e. alignment, balance and tranquility. Insufficient individually, each of these taos must be employed in conjunction with the others to optimize results. By relating the individual triad to the universal triad, the Nei-yeh is attributing a fundamental significance to each self-cultivation tao. Further by assigning the title ‘ruling principles’ to this triad, the Nei-yeh is further asserting the crucial importance of these practices. (The following verse discusses the relationship between these taos in more detail.)

Conceptual, not literary, Metaphor

In addition to isomorphism, correspondence logic is similar to, if not the same as, science’s conceptual metaphor. Neuro-linguists are in almost complete agreement that humans employ conceptual metaphors and their blends to form most, if not all, mental abstractions. Conceptual metaphors are entirely different from literary metaphors, the kind that most of us are accustomed to. A literary metaphor links two entities based upon qualities that they seem to share in common. For example, ‘my love is like a red, red rose.’

Conceptual Metaphor: common inferential structure

In contrast, a conceptual metaphor is a linkage between two systems that share a common inferential structure, i.e. the components of the two systems interact in a similar fashion. For example, our sensory experience of physical warmth from a nurturing mother when we are young translates into associating the word ‘warmth’ with loving emotions and conversely the word ‘cold’ with uncaring emotions. In this case, our sensory-based experience of temperature is translated into a description of an emotional experience. (The mapping of structure upon structure links the more abstract isomorphism with the conceptual metaphor.)

Sensory experience of HEH mapped onto related experiences

We can easily imagine the sensory beginnings of the Heaven/Earth/Human triad. Most of us have had the common experience of looking up at the firmament of the sky, feeling the ground beneath our feet, experiencing our personal existence between the two; then sensing our intimate relationship to the cosmos. This shared interactive relationship is then mapped onto many related human experiences that share a common inferential structure, self-cultivation in this verse. In such a way, the ancient Chinese philosophers found the Heaven/Earth/Human triad to be a useful abstraction, i.e. conceptual metaphor, for organizing and thinking about human existence in particular.

Context provides individual meaning to the general abstraction

Whether Western science or Chinese philosophy, the particular instance provides the context that provides meaning to the general abstraction. The Heaven/Earth/Humans triad, i.e. the members and their relationship, take on significance or value only when a context has been established – hence this triad’s usefulness in the I Ching. The triad can be re-contextualized 64 times if not more.

Lines 4-6 focus upon features of general abstraction

Re this particular verse: lines 1 to 3 establish a highly significant context for meaning, i.e. self-cultivation practices. Lines 4 to 6 focus upon the nature of the general structure rather than an individual context. These lines identify some important and seemingly innate features of the 3 symbols.

Heaven’s order, Earth’s physical boundaries, Humans emotions & choice

Heaven stands for orderliness/regularity (cheng), which is symbolized by the seasons’ rotations. The absolute regularity of the constellations probably also contributed to this association. Earth is linked with geography, i.e. the relatively unchanging features of our planet. In almost startling contrast, humans are connected with emotions and choice. The Nei-yeh’s clearly stated context gives an equal standing to Heaven’s immutable laws, Earth’s physical boundaries and our decision-making capacity.

Final lines provides individual context: Sage chooses to remain unchanged

The verse’s concluding lines provide the individual context for the triad’s general features. While limited by natural and perhaps even cultural restrictions, humans can choose to react emotionally to these restrictions or to remain calm. The Sage chooses to remained unchanged, i.e. tranquil. This is a key theme in the Nei-yeh – the human ability to mitigate disturbing emotions by choosing to control our thoughts and actions.


Verse 7 identifies the ruling principles of Heaven, Earth and Humans: alignment (cheng), balance, and tranquility (ching). The verse also identifies their significant features: Heaven has seasons; Earth its geography; and Humans have choice. The Sage goes along with these heavenly and earthly limitations but presumably chooses not to be changed emotionally by them.


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