Master Ni Excerpts #5: Chinese Alchemy, the Monkey & the Goddess

Master Ni: Internal chi is life force; external chi is money.

“Before we come to the Taoist cultivation of the chi, we must first understand the Chinese belief that the chi naturally tends towards diffusion, and consequently must be regulated and conserved. Thus in individual cultivation the problem is to prevent its indiscriminate emission, and especially through breath control to hold it in,” says Liu Ts’un-Yan

Or as Master Ni once said: “Internal Chi is life force; external chi is money.” One can earn, save, spend, invest, squander and waste internal and external chi in the same way. Traditional Chinese believe that once you’ve spent the last of your internal chi, you die. The stronger one’s internal life force, the more alive one is. Therefore to further one’s internal life force, it is necessary to cultivate chi, not squander it – to conserve chi, not waste it – to spend chi wisely, not frivolously.

The idea of earning and spending chi is only a metaphor. It implies that by meditation or Tai Chi that one generates chi power. In actuality these practices do not generate chi, instead they subdue the chi, in order that it manifests itself more perfectly. Chi is lively, like a puppy, and will wear itself out if not constrained. Chi is everywhere in everything. Therefore one does not actually generate chi, although living beings have it to spend and therefore can also conserve it. Man’s pure chi energy is effortless. Non-action is pure action, not immobility.

Wu Shou-yang (c. 1563-c.1632), from a chapter called The subjugation of the chi in his book, The true principle upheld by a heavenly immortal, says:

“The great pass which divides life and death is chi. The difference between a sage and an ordinary man is [in the concept of] subduing the chi.…For [an ordinary man] does not understand that subduing the chi is a means for its animation, nor does he know the practice of subduing it.”

Chi will manifest itself. If we push chi it will manifest wastefully and excessively. If we let chi alone then it will dissipate itself naturally. If we attempt to contain or subdue the chi, then it will manifest perfectly. How is chi to be subdued? (See Breath Regulation for the answer.) (Excerpted from Chinese Alchemy: 2. Vital Breath (Chi))

Only the empty mind is light enough to cross the River

“The Tai Chi Classics say that it is important to know the commander of the waist. Who is the commander of the waist?”

Master Ni: “The mind. Only the mind is light enough.”

To illustrate what he means let us look at an example from the Journey to the West. Tripitaka and his disciples float across the Sand River on a raft constructed from the skulls of prior scripture pilgrims. Although every other object sinks to the bottom of the river, these skulls float because they are light. Solely focused on the spiritual quest = true earth = pure intent, they are empty of thoughts – or, at least, detached from the usual worldly concerns, which weigh us down. Only the empty mind is light enough to float across the Sand River and continue the journey to Spirit Mountain.

Similarly lightness is the highest level in Master Ni’s Tai Chi (Principle #1). Using muscle power in Tai Chi is the lowest level - too dense to float and easily manipulated. Even chi power, although better, is too heavy and will sink – not quick enough. Only the light mind, empty of word-thoughts, is quick enough to follow the opponent’s moves, sticking to the body by changing directions when necessary. Only an empty mind is light enough to empty the body of substantiality – so that your opponent has nothing to push against, pull down, grab or strike. Only an empty mind is able to float above life’s changing circumstances without sinking. Only with an empty mind is light enough to transcend fate and fulfill destiny.

As soon as one acquires substance, whether physical or mental, one can be manipulated. An opponent can push against, slide over, grab or go around a hard muscle or a hard thought. Although we rarely engage muscle against muscle in day-to-day life, we have thought battles regularly. The only way to lose a thought battle is to have a hard thought. The Tao has no compassion for these hard thoughts. Indeed the Will of Heaven is to soften us up with regular poundings. Those with hard rigid thoughts either soften up or else suffer the consequences. Due to a lack of mental flexibility they are unable to adapt to circumstances and are afflicted by misfortune, injury, sickness, or disease – as their rigidity is inadvertently internalized.

Some negative side effects of hard or heavy thoughts are the pride/anger complex and the fear/anxiety complex. Both are based in the misconception that we are our Person – on our attachment to who we think we are. By pushing buttons an opponent can easily exploit these negative emotions. The Universe throws us off balance with a hostile glance or an unfulfilled expectation. Unless we lighten up we are doomed to a life filled with disappointment, anger and anxiety. Unable to float above our misconceptions we sink below Life’s surface – unable to cross the River and continue our Journey. Mental heaviness dooms the Quest. (Extracted from Chinese Alchemy: Chapter 22)

To realize the Buddha-nature immanent in all beings


Early on in their Journey the travelers reach a beautiful spot. Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk, thinks they must be close to the end of their quest. Monkey immediately responds that it is far too early and that instead they have 108,000 miles to go. Discouraged Tripitaka asks when they will arrive. Monkey responds:

“You can walk from the time of your youth till the time you grow old, and after that till you become youthful again and even after going through such a cycle a thousand times, you may still find it difficult to reach the place you want to go. But when your perceive, by the resoluteness of your will, the Buddha nature in all things, and when every one of your thoughts goes back to its very source in your memory, that will be the time you arrive at Spirit Mountain.” JW V2 p 464

This passage summarizes the quest for enlightenment. Tripitaka just wants to be there. He doesn’t want to go through any more trials. But he can walk forever, study forever, meditate forever, eat vegetarian food and practice austerities, but will never achieve enlightenment until 2 conditions are met. First he must perceive … the Buddha nature in all things. And second his thoughts must continually return to their source.

Interestingly enough Master Ni, my Tai Chi teacher, while very silent and mostly non-verbal, once presented me with a handwritten note in English and Chinese. The English said: “To enlighten the mind and realize the Buddha-nature immanent in all beings.” Because of the scarcity of his communications this little missive immediately attained an almost sacred nature to me.

There are few aspects to the directive. First it neutralizes judgment because everybody and everything contains the Buddha-nature. And second it is a call to discover and magnify its essence, refining it from the false. The only way to differentiate the true from the false is by enlightening the mind through a combination of meditation and physical practices - thereby purifying mind and body of hindrances to perception.

It is also necessary to realize the Buddha-nature in life’s trials and tribulations. Awakening to the Buddha-nature inherent in all beings doesn’t lead to bliss and around-the-clock happiness. On the contrary the divine seed exists in unpleasant emotions as well. For instance my wife and I visited our daughter at college for a week over spring break. When we returned home we both experienced the emptiness associated with death and dying. Neither of us had done anything wrong – unless loving your children is a fault. The point was to recognize the Buddha-nature in the pain - to embrace this sense of emptiness and futility - be aware of the feeling of meaninglessness and lack of purpose – to feel the agony of lost vitality and everything that goes with it, including depression and pain. To regret or interrupt these myriad emotional states - our internal roller coaster of moods - would be a denial of this God essence within the grief. The feeling of death and despair was in response to the excruciating love that we felt. The agony and the joy that preceded it, both contain the divine. Recognizing the Buddha nature does not bring continual ecstasy - but is instead an acceptance of the God-like nature of each and every emotional state from joy to despair that we might be feeling. Awareness extends to the negative as well as the positive. (Excerpted from Chinese Alchemy Ch. 24)

Joining the Internal and External lights

To gain a deeper understanding of Ni’s missive let us take a brief look at the calligraphy of the four ideograms in the above transmission – specifically ming. Ming represents the joining of the internal and external lights. It takes this to ‘enlighten the mind’.

What does this entail? Opening the eyes and consciously allowing the light of the external world into the original cavity of the head – without effort – somewhat like a sponge soaking up water. This union of the external and internal lights neutralizes the extraneous thoughts that dissipate chi, the life force. As these omnipresent thoughts, which distract us from essence, are eliminated we spontaneously and naturally recognize the Buddha nature immanent in all things – the exquisite beauty inherent to ordinary driftwood.

This is one reason that Master Ni suggested that we always look at our nose – that we meditate with our eyes slightly open – and that we watch our hands or sword tip when we practice forms. He even said one time that he had heard that the blind could reach enlightenment, but he didn’t see how. This is how important light is to him.

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