Nei-yeh’s Enduring Influence

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King & Don edit entire chapter: Part III

Umbrella of Chinese Philosophy covers Taoist & Confucian Texts

To complete our elucidation of the Nei-yeh, let us explore its direct influence upon significant Chinese texts that were written centuries later. This will lead to the concept of innate nature. In some ways, establishing, aligning with, and stabilizing innate nature is the Path. Nothing else really matters.

Before proceeding forth into this juicy topic, let us recall where we have been. Our text has examined the meaning of the Nei-yeh through a variety of lenses. Initial chapters established its historical context, i.e. the time period and why it was written. In this light, we also compared and contrasted the Nei-yeh with relevant contemporary texts, i.e. the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang-tzu.

To tease out the NY’s literary meaning, the bulk of the book was devoted to performing a line by line analysis of the text. To assist understanding and reduce ambiguity, the middle section also deconstructed the pictorial imagery of significant ideograms.

To dig even deeper into its meaning, the most recent chapters employed the Great Learning (a Confucian text) to illuminate the Nei-yeh (a Taoist text) and vice-versa. This technique is appropriate as they are parallel texts. Why parallel? The two works explore the exact same constructs (ideograms), but with a slightly different twist. This is a bit odd in that the Nei-yeh is considered to be an obscure proto-Taoist text, while the Great Learning is a classic Confucian text, whose influence can’t be overestimated.

Rather than belonging to two distinctly separate traditions, these two classics seem to belong to the same Chinese tradition. This historical chain of thought concerns itself with human psychology, i.e. how to align yourself to be the best person you can be in a social context. The context can range from rulers, as in the Great Learning, to ordinary individuals, as in the Nei-yeh. Rather than focusing upon individual enlightenment or building a powerful nation, this Chinese-style psychological tradition is more concerned with answering a societal question. How can we align with the Tao in order to better harmonize human culture?

Our exploration of the Nei-yeh’s influence upon later texts must be viewed in this light. Rather than limiting themselves to a specific tradition, each work addresses topics that are both associated with Taoism, and those that are typically Confucian. Rather than either Taoist or Confucian, they seem to be under the umbrella of Chinese philosophy.

Nei-yeh’s Direct Influence upon Techniques of Mind

King edit 8-4-22; Don edit 7-30-22

Preceding chapters examined the Nei-yeh through a variety of filters: historical context, textual meaning and its parallels with the Confucian Great Learning. Was the Nei-yeh merely one of many documents that expounded a general Chinese philosophy? Or did it have a unique message? And did this unique message exert any kind of influence upon subsequent texts?

Most, if not all, of the historical facts and scholarly speculation in this section and those that follow are from ‘Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought1 by Dr. Harold Roth. Recall that Roth is the author of Original Tao, the source for this book. Although my interpretations and applications are my own, thank you Dr. Roth, for your excellent scholarship and unique perspective.

The Nei-yeh was not an obscure text, but actually exerted real influence upon later generations. We will examine it in relationship to three significant Chinese texts: Techniques of the Mind I and II (Hsin-shu shang, hsia) from the Kuan Tzu collection and the Huai-nan Tzu. Like the NY, each was written before the Common Era.

There is a great amount of scholarly ambiguity as to the exact date that each work was published. This ambiguity arises for at least 3 reasons: 1) the antiquity of the texts (over two thousand years old), 2) the First Emperor’s book burning, and 3) the Chinese reverence for the past. This reverence includes a tendency to attribute authorship to prestigious individuals who lived centuries before the book or text could have existed, e.g. Confucius or Lao Tzu. Rather than relate irrelevant scholarly alternatives, we will instead employ Roth as our source.

The Kuan Tzu is a collection of texts whose authorship was traditionally attributed to Kuan Chung, a famous 7th century BCE prime minister. Hence its name. Although Kuan’s touch imparted prestige, a closer scholarly look at topics and style reveals that the texts were written centuries after Kuan Chung died. Further, the individual texts were written over centuries rather than by one author or in one time period. Rather the collection was probably first compiled as a dynastic bibliography – perhaps works that were important at the time.

The earliest extant version was compiled in 25 BCE. At this time during the Han Dynasty, the collection was classified as Taoist. For this reason, we will refer to these as Taoist texts. However, over a half-millennium later during the Sui Dynasty, the compilation was re-classified as Legalist. Due to this misclassification, scholars of Taoism ignored this compilation for centuries.

It was only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that scholars have reexamined these ancient texts in their original context. This reexamination was motivated by their burning desire to understand the historical roots of Taoism.

A scholarly consensus has gradually formed that the Kuan Tzu compilation contains a diversity of significant texts that were accumulated over centuries. They were not necessarily written during the Han Dynasty. Included in the collection are the Nei-yeh and Techniques of Mind I and II.

The Nei-yeh is considered the oldest of the texts. As Roth states, “There are no compelling reasons not to attribute it (Nei-yeh) to someone at Chi-Hsia (during the 4th century BCE.).” In subsequent centuries, Techniques of the Mind I and II were probably composed, perhaps by the same author.

There are two reasons for this scholarly timeline. First, the NY is not addressed to rulers or even the patriarch of a clan. This political, ruler-oriented theme is believed to be a later development. In contrast to the NY, Techniques of Mind I and II were composed centuries later to develop the principles that lead presumably to good leadership.

Second, 65% of Techniques of Mind II are direct quotes from one third of the NY. This direct copying of verse is a conclusive indication of the NY’s major influence upon later texts. Techniques of the Mind II, however, arranges the lines in a different order. This new arrangement is presumably to reinforce the political concepts that are dealt with in Techniques of Mind I. It is apparent that the purpose of Techniques of Mind is to recontextualize the ideas developed in the NY for a political context.

A primary addition in this regard is the concept of wu-wei (action within non-action), as applied to leadership. Roughly speaking, wu-wei epitomizes the notion that less, even nothing, is more. The ruler is instructed to act from a state free from bias (non-action) to do the most good. The implicit notion is that right action flows from a ruler who carefully tempers his subjectivity through self-cultivation practices.  

It was easy to adapt the Nei-yeh to this political orientation. The NYs song-poems suggest that aligning the body, regulating the breath and calming the heart-mind are a prerequisite for effective thoughts, words and deeds. This personal cultivation could be viewed as the ‘non-action’ that leads to right action – behaviors that will harmonize society, rather than disrupt it.

While the NY is applicable to anyone, this notion of self-cultivation for right action is particularly applicable to the ruling class. Because leaders exert a greater effect on far more people, subsequent texts tailored the lessons of the NY to patriarchs or rulers. Both the Confucian Great Learning and the Techniques of the Mind from the Kuan Tzu collection are addressed to rulers with constructs developed first in the NY.

Huai-nan Tzu builds upon Techniques of Mind

Two centuries after the Nei-yeh was composed, another significant work appeared– the Huai-nan Tzu. This work extended and expanded the notions developed first in the NY (≈ 4th century BCE) and then politicized in Techniques of the Mind (≈ 3rd century BCE). Recall that these texts were both contained in the Kuan Tzu collection. The evidence indicates that the authors of this newer work were both aware of and influenced by Techniques of the Mind. While the NY clearly provides the fertile background, the most obvious indication is that the Huai-nan Tzu specifically references Techniques of the Mind multiple times.

In contrast to the Kuan Tzu texts, the historical background of this text is well documented. About 150 BCE, Liu An assembled and funded scholars/shamans at his court in Huai-nan2. The group produced 20 essays. Lui An wrote a 21st essay that summarizes the rest and provides a rationale for the order. Named after the city of origin, the collection of essays is called Huai-nan Tzu. Not only do they reference our Kuan Tzu texts, the essays extend their ideas about government, cosmology, and what Roth calls, physiological psychology. This thread eventually culminated in Taoist Inner Alchemy (nei dan).

An instructive aside: Liu An was uncle to Emperor Wu. He shared the Huai-nan Tzu with his nephew in 133 BCE, probably as a source book for the principles of good leadership. Seventeen years later, this harmonious relationship turned sour. Wu-ti sent an army to put down an insurrection that had been organized by Liu An. Facing an unpleasant reality, Liu probably committed suicide. A great example of how wisdom is overrated.

The Huai-nan Tzu is more directly oriented in a Taoist direction than the earlier Kuan-tzu texts. While the Kuan Tzu virtually ignore the Taoist classics, the Huai-nan Tzu quotes the Lao Tzu over 50 times. The essays effectively add the Kuan-tzu physiological psychology into the Taoist mix. Emerging from this fusion is Inner Alchemy.

In addition to blending physical embodiment into classic Taoism, the Huai-nan Tzu is of great significance for another reason. It is the first Chinese text to fully embrace the Yin-Yang/5 phase theory.

“After the Lao Tzu, the next most pervasive influence on the Huai-nan Tzu is the Yin-yang/Fives Phases philosophy, [Naturalism]. In the Huai-nan Tzu this philosophy appears for the first time in Chinese intellectual history as an all-encompassing paradigm for phenomenal change. As such it is relevant to the complete spectrum of human endeavors.” (p.629)  

The Yin-yang/5 Phase construct for organizing and understanding reality was developed at the Chi-Hsia Academy along with the Nei-yeh. (As an indication of its antiquity, the Nei-yeh doesn’t even mention yin-yang or 5-phase theory). The construct was originally applied to specific situations, particularly medicine and healing. In contrast to earlier treatments, the Huai-nan Tzu expands Yin-yang/5 Phase theory into a governing and organizing principle of the entire universe. Rather than useful in specific situations, it becomes applicable everywhere.

Due in part to this universalizing treatment, Yin-yang theory permeates Chinese thought. For instance, 21st century Master Ni said that health comes when yin-yang is balanced. When out of balance, sickness arises. While 5-phase theory is still primarily Chinese, the yin-yang construct has even crept into Western lexicon. Many Westerners have come to understand the importance of balancing yin and yang.

Summarizing the textual linkage: the Nei-yeh exerted a powerful influence upon Techniques of the Mind. Mind Techniques politicized the NY by pitching its physiological self-cultivation practices to rulers. Techniques of the Mind then influenced the Huai-nan Tzu. Expanding upon these earlier texts, Huai-nan Tzu universalizes the yin-yang theory that has become pervasive in the modern world – east and west. Rather than an obscure or trivial text, the NY is actually part of a centuries-long textual chain that provides a solid foundation for modern philosophical inquiry.

However, there is another side of the Huai-nan Tzu that interests us far more than its historical relationship to the NY and its universalization of the yin-yang theory. While the other is interesting, what is coming fascinates us.

Why? It is related to necessary conditions for personal growth, i.e. staying on the Path. More than any other text, the Huai-nan Tzu develops the concept of innate nature. Further, the text raises innate nature to the highest level of importance in terms of aligning with the Tao and nurturing vitality. This is the side of the Huai-nan Tzu that fascinates us most.

Physiological psychology distinguishes NY’s literary chain

There are many other Chinese texts that speak about innate nature. What makes the Nei-yeh’s treatment special? What feature distinguishes the NY literary chain from other Chinese literature?

In his aforementioned Harvard paper, Roth draws attention to, and establishes a connection between, the above texts. He highlights one particular feature that joins the 3 texts as a group. His article establishes fairly convincingly that our 3 texts, written over 3 centuries, all focus upon what he calls “physiological psychology”.

None of the other significant texts from the era ever address this topic.

“Despite these scattered references none of the major Warring States philosophical texts explore the physiological basis of human psychology. This is particularly surprising of the Taoist texts, because in them the process of self-cultivation does seem to involve such mental disciplines as ‘fasting of the mind’ (hsin-chai) and 'sitting and forgetting' (tso-wang). It is also surprising in light of later developments in Taoism. Despite this apparent absence in the early Taoist tradition, the physiological basis of human psychology does play a major role in the theory and practice of the nei-tan, or 'physiological alchemy’, which emerged somewhat later when Taoism became institutionalized and took on many of the characteristics we usually ascribe to  religion.” Roth, pp. 62-3

The list of major Warring States texts referenced by Roth includes the Taoist classics, i.e. the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu, and works attributed to Mencius and Confucius. However, while these texts don’t develop the techniques of physiological psychology, the texts don’t ignore the unique content of the Nei-yeh chain either. Rather, the NY’s physiological techniques seem to be an unwritten, but assumed foundation of classic Chinese philosophy. Why speak about something that everyone already understands? Fish don’t think about water. It’s an underlying assumption.

Physiological psychology? What do these intriguing words mean?

Webster defines psychology as: “1) The science of the mind in any of its aspects, operations, powers and functions. 2) The systematic investigation of mental phenomena, especially those associated with consciousness, behavior, and problems of adjustment to the environment. 3) The aggregate of the emotions, traits and behavior patterns regarded as characteristic of an individual or type.”

Broadly speaking, the first definition addresses the category of academic experimental psychology, the second addresses the category of therapeutic psychology, and the third addresses the category of how we identify people.

In the NY’s context, we are primarily interested in the 2nd category – therapeutic psychology. As the definition implies, there is something wrong with the individual, i.e. ‘problems of adjustment to the environment’, that must be fixed. That is why the individual goes to a therapist, because s(he) has a problem coping with social demands. The therapist is there to provide guidance as to how to transcend the patient’s difficulties in dealing with life’s ever-changing conditions.

Freud’s psychotherapy epitomizes this perspective. The psychotherapist uncovers mental traumas that occurred in childhood. Exposing these traumas presumably leads to breaking down the emotional armoring that blocks us from the ‘open’ joyous experience of living. Based upon ideas, this approach could be called ‘ideational’ psychology, which contrasts with ‘physiological’ psychology.

Rather than just limiting psychology to problems, Roth broadens the definition of psychology to include the study of how humans are to best realize their potentials. In the West, Maslow’s concept of self-actualization embraces this positive approach to therapeutic psychology.

Western psychology has typically approached both healing and actualization through essentially mental (ideational) channels. For instance, talk therapy frequently focuses upon past experiences that have influenced our present behavior. As the name suggests, the patient talks out the problems, perhaps venting frustrations that are blocking personal growth. Solutions come from insight into one’s personal psychology. These mental insights presumably result in positive behavioral changes, especially if combined with regular practice.

The writers of Eastern Asia led by China take a different approach to self-actualization. Rather than focus upon the mental world of thoughts and ideas, they focus upon the physical world of the body in order to best fulfill potentials. Ultimately the problems and goals of both approaches are the same, or at least very similar. They each propose solutions as to how we are to harmonize ourselves and by so doing harmonize our social environment.

Because of this similarity in purpose, yet difference in orientation, Roth deems the Chinese approach – physiological psychology. The Nei-yeh and the literature that it inspired epitomizes this approach. Indeed, the body orientation is what joins our texts in a chain. Further, the well-studied classic Chinese texts, while full of ideas as to how best to understand the nature of reality, mostly ignore self-cultivation techniques. While they seem to be aware of the NY’s physiological techniques, this is not their focus.

Nei-yeh’s Literary Chain: How to embody the Tao

To make it more understandable to Westerners, Roth identifies the underlying linkage between our 3 texts as ‘physiological psychology’. If they were to name the unique contribution of the Nei-yeh’s literary chain, the Chinese would more likely have called this commonality ‘embodying the Tao’. Rather than focusing upon thoughts or ideas, this approach focuses upon a body solution to psychology.

Not all Chinese texts address this embodiment of the Tao. The Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu speak at great length about what identifies the Tao’s presumably positive manifestation in individuals, leadership and states. Confucius and Mencius write about what it means for the Tao to flow through society. Only the Nei-yeh and the subsequent texts (Mind Techniques and the Huai-nan Tzu) teach how to embody the Tao. Or more correctly put, they teach us how to set up conditions that will attract the Tao with its accompanying benefits to our body.

In stark contrast, the Southern Asian religions and philosophies, i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism, tend to deny the reality of the body and attribute everything to the mind. Following this body-denying approach, Christianity, the monastic tradition in particular, attributes reality to a God that transcends the physical world.

In this context, the NY’s literary chain provides a unique body-oriented approach to emotional well-being, vitality, enlightenment, and even inspiration. Body techniques for incorporating the Tao can even precede mental clarity and insight. How is it possible to think clearly when our physical channels are blocked?

This physiological perspective permeates Chinese culture. Cultivating our body (structure, breath and energy channels) and our hsin/heart-mind (thoughts and emotions) will presumably harmonize our words, actions and community.

Is the Nei-yeh’s body solution enough?

Is this physiological prescription for internal harmony sufficient? Is physical alignment really enough to align the mind? Are there any limitations to this approach? Is the body-approach enough in and of itself? While the Nei-yeh’s physiological techniques certainly open us up to the Tao, they seem to ignore the effects of nefarious cultural conditioning.

Might it also be necessary to examine the coals of past conditioning to prevent them from flaring up in inopportune moments? Indeed, wrong words and deeds at the wrong times can have potentially disastrous consequences. Is body alignment, breath regulation and calming the heart-mind sufficient to eliminate the momentary insanity that afflicts us all from time to time due to familial and cultural conditioning?

It seems not. Cultivating quietude is very effective at generating a general mental tranquility. However, whenever emotional triggers are pushed, our reactive mind with all its preset behaviors takes over. Despite our usual calm due to our regular practices, we are tempted and sometimes even compelled to do something stupid. In order to escape these destructive habits, it seems necessary to delve deep into our psychic roots. Indeed, Liu I Ming, a 17th century Alchemical Taoist, writes that the term ‘battle’ refers to the constant struggle with this conditioning that plagues our behavior.

Rather than only mending the body, it seems that we must also rectify the habit-patterns of the mind. Meditation and body alignment, while helpful, don’t seem sufficient to eradicate these almost hard-wired habitual reactions. Blending the physical practices of ancient China with the modern insights of Western psychology would seem to be a more powerful technique. In addition to aligning our body and calming our mind, it would seem fruitful to also examine the neuroses that inhibit our personal growth. If we are to realize our innate nature – the real focus of this part, both sides seem essential.


1 The article was published in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol 51; No. 2 (December 1991). Thank you Professor Bill Powell for passing it on to me.

2 Recall that the Chi-Hsia Academy which produced the Nei-yeh was organized in a similar manner to the academy at Huai-nan – a prince assembled and funded scholars and shamans to produce written wisdom. These are marvelous examples of how an enlightened ruler can exert a lasting positive influence upon subsequent generations, in this case – me over 2 millennia later.


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