Huai-nan Tzu: 4 Principles of Action & Innate Nature

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King & Don edit entire chapter: Part III

4 Principles of Action puts us on the Path

Let us complete our examination of the Chinese approach to innate nature by analyzing a verse from the Huai-nan Tzu. This early Han collection of articles (2nd century BCE) deals more thoroughly with this complex construct than any text before or after, East or West.

Let us begin with Roth’s translation of the relevant text.

“When one gets to the Source of Heaven, orders the techniques of the mind, makes likes and dislikes conform to natural guidelines, and acts in accordance with one’s true condition and nature, then the Way of order is comprehended.

When one gets to the Source of Heaven, then one is not deluded by good or bad fortune. When one orders the techniques of the mind, then one is not led astray by pleasure and anger. When one makes likes and dislikes conform to natural guidelines, then one does not desire what is useless. When one acts in accordance with one’s true condition and nature, then desires do not exceed their appropriate limits.

If one is not deluded by good or bad fortune, then in activity and stillness one will conform to natural guidelines. If one is not led astray by pleasure and anger, then rewards and punishments will not affect one. If one does not desire what is useless, then one does not interfere with one’s nature by desire. If desires do not exceed their appropriate limits, then one understands what is sufficient to nourish one’s nature.

Of these four principles of action, do not seek them from outside, and do not borrow them from others. Return to the self and they will be attained.” (Roth, p. 632)

Let us unpack this dense and juicy verse.

According to the final ‘paragraph’, the verse spoke of ‘four principles of action’. Rather than seeking them outside ourself (in written words or books?) or borrowing them from others (a master?), the text counsels us to ‘return to our self’ (our innate nature?) in order to ‘attain’ (manifest) these important principles of action (directives that should guide our behavior).

What are these ‘four principles of action’? While the verse does not enumerate them, they are contained in the very first paragraph. Following is my paraphrase of Roth.

Why paraphrase? As mentioned in an earlier chapter, Roth’s translation (and most others) deliberately ignore the gerund-like, process-oriented construction of the Chinese language to make the them more intelligible to the Western mindset. In contrast to Chinese, our Aryan languages tend to be subject-object destination-oriented. This shift in orientation distorts the meaning. Rather than being on the Path, one arrives at a destination.

Although perhaps a bit clumsy and stilted, we prefer the gerund-like construction in order to convey the original Chinese meaning. The following is my paraphrase of Roth’s translation of the first sentence. To emphasize the verse’s intrinsic logic as a song poem, we have presented it in stanza-form. For clarity, we include a numeration of the Huai-nan Tzu’s 4 action principles.

My paraphrase of Roth first paragraph

“1) Getting to the Source of Heaven,
2) Practicing techniques of the heart-mind,
3) Making likes and dislikes conform to natural guidelines,
4) And behaving in accordance with one’s true condition and nature,
Is comprehending the Tao’s pattern."

In other words, engaging in the 4 numerated processes is comprehending the patterns of the Tao. What are these four special processes and what makes them so special?

The middle section of the song-poem clearly and logically spells out the advantages of engaging in these processes. The verse repeats the exact same logical structure for each of the four principles. Specifically: Participating in a principle (#1 for instance) results in a specific process, which results in yet another process. Further many of the resulting processes share many of the same constructs.

Due to these interlocking conceptual similarities, we suggest that the song-poem is describing a holistic network of mutually interdependent processes that are associated with being on the Path – Taoing. Put in the negation: the song-poem is not describing an atomistic system, where we can isolate individual constructs, i.e. reductionism. Rather we can only understand the individual processes through their relationship to the whole, i.e. the entire network.

Before proceeding into textual analysis, one last disclaimer. In the attempt to recontextualize ancient Chinese wisdom in a modern 21st century context, we are attempting to convey what this song-poem means to us. What the text ‘really’ meant to the ancient Chinese doesn’t concern us. Rather than textual ‘truth’, current relevance is our primary aim.

#1. Returning to the Source to Transcend Good & Bad Fortune

Let us tackle ‘the four principles of action’ and their consequent processes one at a time. (Note we have reordered the text in order to group the processes that are relevant to each principle.)

1) Getting to the Source of Heaven,
Then one is not deluded by good or bad fortune.
If one is not deluded by good or bad fortune,
Then in activity and stillness one will conform to natural guidelines.

In the context of innate nature, the Source of Heaven suggests our original unpolluted Self – our purified heart-mind – our Buddha-nature (Heaven as the source). If we engage in returning to the Source of Heaven (innate nature), then we are ‘not deluded by good or bad fortune’.

This profound statement goes against the grain of many religious philosophies. According to some religions, e.g. the Biblical traditions, those who are virtuous are rewarded; and those who sin are punished by good or bad fortune respectively. For instance, Abraham is rewarded by God for his virtuous action by becoming the father of a nation.

In contrast, this song-poem states that if we engage in the process of expressing our innate nature, then we are not distracted by ‘good or bad fortune’. In other words, fortune, whether good or bad, is a distraction from the Path.

Our fortune is not a Sign of divine retribution or Karma from a past lifetime. Rather we should ignore this signpost as meaningless. Put another way, coming from our purified Buddha nature leads to the realization that life’s circumstances as viewed by society are ultimately inconsequential.

‘If undistracted by fortune, then we conform to natural guidelines in activity and stillness.’

The phrase ‘natural guidelines’ refers not to cultural mores, but rather to the universal order. The ideogram li that Roth translates as guidelines refers to the natural order that permeates the cosmos. Aligning state, family, or self with li (natural guidelines) is akin to swimming with, rather than against, a river’s current.

Summarizing the processes associated with the first principle of action: Returning to our purified heart-mind (our Buddha Nature) means that we won’t be overly distracted by good or bad fortune. Undistracted by the trivial, our behavior naturally aligns with the universal ‘current’ (the Tao). Obviously, the only place to be.  

#2 Practicing Inner Cultivation to temper Emotional Excess

The Huai-nan Tzu’s second principle of action addresses emotions.

2) Practicing techniques of the heart-mind,
Then one is not led astray by pleasure and anger.
If one is not led astray by pleasure and anger,
Then rewards and punishments will not affect one.

The second principle, i.e. ‘practicing techniques of the heart-mind’, is a direct reference to the earlier Kuan-tzu documents, that in turn were based upon over 50 direct quotations from the Nei-yeh. The Nei-yeh, and by extension Mind Techniques, delineates multiple practices for calming hsin (the heart-mind). Quieting hsin is linked to restoring our natural vitality. These techniques include employing music and poetry to moderate disturbing emotions and desires.

According to this verse, pleasure and anger (emotions) will not lead us astray if we practice the Nei-yeh’s heart-mind techniques. The implication is that strong emotions, whether positive or negative, can steer us off the Path. For instance, becoming angry can easily disrupt a creative session or lead us to say offensive words that do more harm than good.

If we regulate disruptive and distracting emotions via the Nei-yeh’s heart-mind techniques, then rewards and punishments will not affect us. In other words, by controlling our emotions we are able to transcend the influence of Pavlovian psychological behaviorism. This influential psychological trend held that human behavior was exclusively determined by positive and negative reinforcements – rewards and punishments.

Although the reasoning behind this notion is not explicit, the Huai-nan Tzu states unequivocally that practicing the Nei-yeh’s self-cultivation techniques does allow us to escape the nefarious effects of social-cultural conditioning. Rather than enticed by Amazon/Google’s algorithmic manipulations, we can remain calm and resist the urge to click on a time-wasting link or buy a useless product. Escaping cultural conditioning is one of the prime thrusts of Taoist Alchemy, which was probably informed, at least in part, by the NY’s heart-mind techniques.

#3 Confining Desires so that they won’t interfere with Inner Nature

While the second principle tackles emotions, the Huai-nan Tzu’s third principle of action addresses desire.

3) Making likes and dislikes conform to natural guidelines,
We do not desire what is useless.
Not desiring what is useless,
Desire does not interfere with one’s nature.

The third principle of action is captured in the first line: ‘making likes and dislikes conform to natural guidelines’. Societal rewards and punishments can tend to distort an individual’s ‘likes and dislikes’. Societal guidelines can be considered ‘unnatural’ in the sense that the social voice can make it more difficult to hear your inner voice.

The word ‘conform’ clearly suggests the need for restraint. The notion of ‘natural guidelines’ provides a moderating influence upon our emotions and attachments. Rather than either surrendering to or eliminating emotional preference, we are keeping to the middle path, neither denying nor indulging in desire.

The Zen document, Truing the Heart-Mind, has an entirely different take on ‘preferences’. Rather than moderate, the Hsin-hsin Ming counsels us to eradicate attachment to our likes and dislikes. It is potentially useful to recognize that attachment to desires is a major cause of suffering. However, is Zen’s complete eradication of attachment really the solution?

A little attachment to survival can give us the strength to surmount obstacles. Attachment to innate nature enables us to resist negative influences. Holding on can be the difference between life and death – between fulfilling potentials and sighing our life away. Zen Buddhism’s orientation towards eliminating preferences is significantly different from the Chinese philosophy of moderation as presented by the Huai-nan Tzu.

Rather than eliminate desire or relinquish attachment, the Huai-nan Tzu counsels us to keep our likes and dislikes within natural guidelines (li). We imagine that the Pandava brothers’ desire to protect Draupati, their collective wife, from outrage and disgrace would have fallen within these natural guidelines. Rather than attempting to be beyond the influence of the emotional world, this Chinese text counsels we are to be of this world by embracing our emotions … just don’t get too carried away.

Let us move on to the outcomes that are associated with this third principle of action. If we can keep our ‘likes and dislikes within natural guidelines (li), we won’t become distracted by useless desires’. For instance, failing to curb insatiable appetites, we will waste our valuable time on the pursuit of the unnecessary. Rulers will crave territory that belongs to others. The wealthy will crave power even at the cost of wide-spread suffering and impoverishment of the soul. It’s easy each one of us to become distracted by the glitter of ‘useless’ pursuits when our time and energy could be devoted to more natural, healthy appetites and desires.

Second result of the third principle of action: not desiring what is useless, desire won’t interfere with the fulfillment of our innate nature. The implication is that useless desires interfere with the expression of our original birth nature. Again stupid cravings distract us from the Path. For instance, the desire for the brief endorphin rush associated with new information (news) and/or experience (cute puppies) can lead us down the digital rabbit hole – throwing a vast amount of valuable time in the trash.

Summarizing the third principle of action: moderating our preferences to be within the natural order, and we won’t desire stupid things. If we don’t desire the useless, then misdirected desires won’t interfere with the expression of innate nature.

#4 Behaving according to Innate Nature keeps Desires in Check

The Huai-nan Tzu’s fourth principle of action addresses what it means to manifest our innate nature.

4) Behaving in accordance with one’s true condition and nature,
Then desires do not exceed their appropriate limits.
If desires do not exceed their appropriate limits,
Then one understands what is sufficient to nourish one’s nature.

Behaving according to our innate nature is the fourth principle that leads us to the Tao. When we behave in this fashion, our “desires do not exceed appropriate limits”. Again, it is proper to be motivated by desires as long as these desires just aren’t excessive or inappropriate. They are instead related to the healthy desires and urges that accompany our inborn inclinations.

For instance, my Muse (embodiment of my purified heart-mind) wants me to finish this book. Rather than detach from this desire, I will ride it to the finish line. Rather than drive myself crazy obsessing with perfection, I will moderate the desire within appropriate limits. Hopefully this balanced approach will put me within the natural guidelines (li). If so, the words will flow naturally, effortlessly, and with a minimum of stress.

Keeping desires within appropriate limits nourishes our innate nature. The converse implication is that inappropriate desires distract us from and deplete our inborn nature. For example, an excessive desire to fit in with the group could distort or even abort our natural urges. Rather than paint a picture, we might go along with the crowd to whatever mass amusement is currently the rage. After repeating this sheep-like behavior enough times, the urge to paint or engage in any other creative endeavor is completely blunted.

Summarizing; if we manifest our innate nature, then our desires are appropriate. In turn, manifesting appropriate desires nourishes our innate nature.

Shên (Spirit) & Hsing (Innate Nature)

Expressing hsing (our innate nature) has many benefits. According to both Taoist Huai-nan tzu and Zen’s Truing the Heart-Mind, aligning with hsing is the Path; manifesting innate nature is the Tao. When we follow this Way, good and bad fortune do not phase us; rewards and punishments do not distort our behavior; emotions and desires remain within li (universal guidelines).

To accrue these advantages, we must purify hsin (our heart-mind) via the Nei-yeh’s inner-cultivation practices. By so doing, we will be able to distinguish true from false (innate nature from cultural conditioning: the right from the wrong Path).

Not only is hsing intimately linked to the Tao and its benefits, expressing innate nature is also associated with shên. Loosely translated as ‘spirit’ by us common folk and ‘numen’ by the scholar class, shên tends to be coupled with cognition and critical thinking skills. Do not be misled into thinking that shên is sheer reason, e.g. deduction and induction. The prestigious I Ching states that shên transcends yin and yang – the digital on and off of computer logic.

Shên is much more than pure reason. It is also linked with intuition, inspiration, and even insight into the future. In such a manner, shên is connected with the mental states linked to mystical and psychedelic experiences. Some authors even claim that shên is the force that organizes our life. Under this schema, jing energizes, ch’i circulates, and shên organizes: the complementary functions of life’s three jewels.

The Huai-nan Tzu, in addition to focusing upon hsing, also emphasizes the importance of shên. In fact, the following passage suggests that cultivating shên is a prerequisite for cultivating our innate nature.

“The Superior Man puts his person in order by nourishing shên (spirit).
The next highest nourishes the physical form (the body).
            When shên is clear,
            Attention is in equilibrium,
            And the hundred joints are all in repose,
This is the foundation for nourishing hsing (innate nature).” (20,8b11)

This idea makes a lot of sense. Our cognition must be clear if we are to stay on the Path. When the clarity of our consciousness is muddied, e.g. excessive alcohol, our accumulated cultural conditioning will assert dominance; we will react emotionally and mindlessly to circumstances; and we will drift off, even forget, the Path.

How are we to cultivate/nourish our spirit (yang-shên)? The same way that we nourish our innate nature (yang-hsing); the same way that we nourish our life force/sexual energy (yang-jing) and purify our heart mind (hsin). The answer is identical in all cases. Practice techniques of the heart-mind (hsin), as enunciated by who-else, the Nei-yeh. Regularly engaging in this type of inner-cultivation nourishes the entire network of cosmic energies that result in vitality, inspiration, and ultimately alignment with the Tao. Not a bad harvest.

While the self-cultivation practices are the same for each of the internal energies, shên has some potential excesses that are specific to it. Anticipating The Unfettered Mind, the great Zen work composed by the 17th century Japanese Buddhist monk Takuan Soho (1573-1645)1, the Huai-nan Tzu also warns against letting shên (spirit) get stuck in any one spot.

“If someone’s attention is lodged in something and his shên (spirit) is consequently tied up in it, then even if he stumbles over tree roots or bumps into tree limbs when taking a walk, he remains unaware of what has happened. If you wave at him, he cannot see you; if you call to him, he cannot hear you. It is not that his eyes and ears have left him. Why, then, can he not respond? It is because his shên has lost its hold. Therefore, when lodged in the small, it forgets the great; when lodged in the inside, it forgets the outside. When lodged in the upper, it forgets the lower, when lodged in the left, it forgets the right. When there is nowhere it does not infuse, there is nothing in which it does not lodge. Therefore those who value emptiness take the tip of an autumn hair as their mansion.” (Huai-nan tzu 1.17a3)

Generally speaking, the verse is cautioning us against getting too focused upon any one topic at the expense of the whole, e.g. forgetting the outside when obsessing about the inside. This passage has particular relevance to me. Recently I crashed into a parked car while riding my bicycle and broke my hip. Had surgery from which I am still recovering some 5 months later.

Why did I run into this stationary and unmovable object? Trying to avoid rampaging children or a runaway dog? No. I wish it was an act of heroism that caused the collision. Rather I was concentrating so deeply upon an audio book about how cells produce energy that I lost touch with the outside world of reality. A tough lesson to be sure on the harms of allowing my shên to become lodged in a specific topic at the expense of the whole.

What solution does the Huai-nan Tzu pose to the problem of an overly concentrated shên? After enumerating the many obsessions, the text finally addresses the problem in the last few sentences.

“When there is nowhere it does not infuse, there is nothing in which it does not lodge. Therefor those who value emptiness take the tip of an autumn hair as their mansion.”

The solution is a bit confusing as it is phrased as two double negatives. To clarify, we rephrase the second to last sentence in the positive:

“When shên infuses everything, it does not lodge in anything.”

In this way, the last sentence makes more sense. When shên is not attached to anything (values emptiness), the smallest thing (the tip of the autumn hair) becomes everything (the mansion). In other words, when our purified shên, i.e. unattached to desire or emotion, is allowed to float, it naturally shifts to the most significant (the mansion).

Simply speaking, rather than getting stuck on a particular topic, allow shên expand to fill the universe. In such a way, it will naturally shift to where it is needed most. For me in particular: rather than concentrating upon ideas, I must direct my awareness to the overall environment, especially when biking.

Innate Nature: A Juicy Topic?

In the introduction to this chapter, we casually mentioned that innate nature is a ‘juicy topic’. Why did we characterize it in such a way? What makes innate nature ‘juicy’?

There are a variety of reasons for applying this ‘spicy/titillating’ adjective to our prime focus. They all revolve around the notion that innate nature, as we have interpreted it, violates entrenched conventional wisdom. Indeed the notion of a unique birth nature defies convention on many fronts – religious, philosophical, and even scientific. Let’s see how.

Innate Nature = Individual’s Unique Proclivities in relation to Self & Society

Each of us has an inborn nature that is unique to our Person. Expressing this personal inner calling is to be on the Path – to align with the Tao – the best course to take. This interpretation is supported by Chinese wisdom as expressed in traditionally labeled Taoist and Buddhist texts. Further, the literature of all the major religions has examples of heroes who are extolled because they pursue their individual path despite social resistance to the contrary. Put simply: To be the best Person we can be, each of us must express our unique individuality.

1) Solution to Problem of Expressing Innate Nature = Individual (not Generic)

Violation #1: Internal, Not External, Guidance. This interpretation of innate nature implies that there is not any one Path to self-actualization that is applicable to all humans. Rather than ‘one size fits all’, each of us must look inward to find our own solution to our unique inborn condition. Further, as this inner landscape is regularly changing, even our personal recipe for success is dynamic, i.e. not fixed.

Some may enter a monastery to seek alignment with these inner urges, while others may enter the political fray, become artists, athletes, or even a parent in a menial job. Because of the individual nature of these urges, one person’s recipe for success, whether Buddha or Jesus, might be entirely inappropriate for another. Rather than looking to external authorities for truth, we must cultivate inner tranquility and body alignment. Only then will we be able to hear this uniquely personal Inner Calling above the Tumult. This individuality of expression is ‘juicy’ in that it stands in opposition to the notion that there is a general, collective Path to a successful life, whether enlightenment, fame, or happiness.

2) Fortune = Distraction; Not an indication of Success or Failure

Violation #2: Fortune a Distraction. If we follow this Inner Path, good and bad fortune are mere distractions. Rather than taking personal circumstances as a sign of Divine Judgement, Karma or Misalignment, they are only external commotion that are to be ignored. Fulfilling personal potentials is raised to the highest level.

3) Cultivate & Moderate (Not Eliminate) Desire to express Innate Nature

Violation #3: Good & Bad Desires. Besides minimizing the importance of Fortune, the notion of innate nature validates certain types of desires. Rather than attempting to eliminate desire as a source of suffering, as in Buddhism and Hinduism, we aim to cultivate our desire to fulfill our birth potentials. If we can keep this desire within ‘appropriate limits’/balanced, then useless, i.e. unproductive and even destructive, desires will lose their hold upon us.

4) Pain & Pleasure not a Behavioral factor when Expressing Innate Nature:

Violation #4: Pain & Pleasure not a Behavioral Factor. There is yet another ‘juicy’ feature of innate nature. If fulfilling our birth urges becomes our sole focus, then pain and pleasure cease to influence our behavior. This perspective contrasts with the views of a significant branch of psychology which holds that our behavior is determined by positive and negative reinforcement. In opposition to this somewhat deterministic stance, the Nei-yeh’s derivative texts hold that the desires to avoid suffering and enhance happiness lose their hold upon us when we are on the Path determined by our innate nature.

5) Rather than Reacting, Intentional Relationship with Information to remain on or return to the Path

Violation #5: A Right & Wrong Path, not all the Same. My favorite violation concerns the tenets of scientific determinism. The biological version of this belief system holds that Life is merely an emergent feature of chemical processes. This perspective, which seems to be in vogue amongst the educated, completely ignores our intentional relationship with information, which is essential for survival. Rather than interact, inanimate chemical processes react. Further Matter does not have a right and wrong path, as surviving and thriving do not apply to molecular interactions.

The very existence of innate nature violates this materialist model. In contrast to this somewhat nihilistic perspective, innate nature implies that we have a capacity for choice along with meaning and purpose. There are right and wrong choices. Choosing to align with our birth nature places us on the Path – the Tao. Conversely, choosing to ignore this internal calling, inadvertently or intentionally, takes us off onto a Side Path – a course to avoid.

Summarizing: Rather than pursuing happiness or attempting to eliminate desires, the focus of our lives should be upon body alignment and emotional quietude. Rather than relying upon authority or taking our Fortune as a sign, the best course is to consistently attempt to express our innate nature regardless of consequences. This model certainly resonates with my own Life experience.


1 Takuan Soho wrote this document for his disciple, Miyamoto Musachi, who many consider to be the greatest sword master of all time. In his text, Takuan warns Musachi against letting his mind/attention getting stuck in any one place, including his opponent, the sword or even his spiritual center (the lower dan tien). For at the moment his mind is lodged in a particular spot, he is vulnerable. His opponent could take this opportunity to slay him.


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