As an indication of the importance of the following words they are the beginning notes of Master Ni’s first lecture in a once a week 6-session meditation seminar given February 10, 1978.
Master Ni: “Most pursue happiness and long life. Target of Taoist Alchemy is Immortality. How? Fire & Water purify the 10,000 things. Spirit practices intention.”
What does he mean when he says ‘Fire & Water purify the 10,000 things.’ This is a technical statement from Taoist Alchemy. The ‘10,000 things’ represent everything – in this case all those things that block us from perceiving clearly and manifesting cleanly.
WATER & FIRE are necessary to purify our Mind of these accretions of cultural conditioning – ‘the red dust’ – the sludge that builds up like plaque, which prevents our ‘spirit from practicing intention’ – an essential ingredient for achieving ‘Immortality’, the ‘target of Taoist Alchemy’. Purification by both FIRE & WATER ensures that the Metal is Pure when the Firing Process is complete and the cast is finished. Immortality is only achieved if the Metal is Pure.
FIRE & WATER are related to the ba gua (the 8 trigrams of yin-yang theory, the philosophical foundation of the I Ching).
FIRE is related to the Intellect. Ironically FIRE is the tool needed to rectify the damage that FIRE has done. The intellect provides us with misconceptions that only the intellect can undo. Rigorous examination of emotional states to discover their cause is how FIRE purifies.
On the other hand WATER, as flowing and undifferentiated, represents the Non-Duality - the Vortex. Only by immersing oneself in this space beyond judgment can one neutralize the hierarchy created by thoughts – the polarity of good and bad. Sniffing a flower, tasting a sauce, listening to music, and sex are all forms of taking a bath in the Non-Duality to cleanse the Mind of the mental impurities that cause such grief.
Another equally plausible interpretation: Purification by FIRE occurs when we proceed down the difficult path – tackling the challenging task. Purification by WATER has to do with caring, connecting and integrating. The unconditional love that transcends all boundaries knocks down the walls created by Mind. Only in this way can Being (the original Mind) manifest freely. This is what it is to practice the Tao.
If Fire & Water purify the 10,000 things, how does this apply to Tai Chi? FIRE, as intellect, breaks the Form into parts and then purifies each section of the degeneration that inevitably sets in. This erosion normally takes the form of sloppiness – the circle becomes an oval and the square disappears altogether. Entropy takes over. It is necessary to employ FIRE to reverse entropy through differentiation. Burn away bad habits through diligent awareness. FIRE is the Square that encloses the Circle – the boundaries that both hold things in and define limits.
Alternately WATER is the force of integration and continuity. While FIRE breaks things into parts in order to eliminate the bogus, the inessential, the aberration, WATER unifies – bringing things together. It’s the force that connects the Circle with the Square – uninterrupted continuity, effortless movement, the path of least resistance. WATER is the Circle inside the Square. The Flow.
While WATER is the ultimate goal of any Tai Chi practitioner, it must be pure, not polluted. And it is purified is through FIRE. Thus WATER & FIRE alternate as forces of purification. FIRE without WATER is jerky, abrupt, and angular – dissipating energy unnecessarily. No Flow. WATER without FIRE is sloppy and uncontained. No power.
The teacher employs FIRE when correcting and rectifying specifics, and employs WATER through example, signpost and caring. FIRE is related to words and instruction – WATER to example and demonstration.
As an instructor Master Ni emphasized WATER, through the wordless repetition of forms. In his love for us he wanted to take us right to the Source. However he always devoted about 15 minutes of the class to FIRE – instruction and rectification. He taught the new movements (≈ 6 steps) first ‘with interrupt’ and then ‘without interrupt’ – immediately moving to WATER. His relentless attention to detail was always preceded, followed and balanced by the uninterrupted flow of movement, presumably unaccompanied by thought. In Master Ni's 12 stages of Tai Chi, the 11th stage is pure conscious awareness, while the 12th stage is no thought – exactly opposite. This is the transition from FIRE to WATER.
The five elements or phases of Chinese philosophy are fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. As metal was the latecomer; we will begin by examining the connection between the other four elements. We’ve seen Fire with Homo Erectus. The Fire granted him protection from the elements and wild animals. It established a home base and quite a few lessons, including don’t let the fire go out, and don’t let it burn too hot, both associated with fuel conservation. Also fire was the first domesticated energy, and globally is still the most prevalent.
More importantly for this discussion, the use of fire pointed to the phase theory. While water, wood, and earth can exist independently, fire is dependent on fuel or wood for its existence. Thus inherent to fire is phase theory.
First fire transforms wood into heat energy. After the fire has used up all the life energy of the wood, it vanishes. The wood has been transformed into earth. Under this analysis, the two components of wood are earth and fire energy. Once the fire energy has been used up all that is left is earth. Before and after the fire, water and earth combine to produce the wood that fuels the fire. Hence under this equality water is growth energy while fire is refinement energy. Water applied to earth yields wood, while fire applied to wood yields earth. This complementary aspect of water and fire becomes very important in the philosophy of Taoist Alchemy.
(Excerpted from Tao of China Chapter 42)