The Ancient Taoist Secrets To Long Life And Good Health

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Hidden away at the back of the White Cloud Temple in Beijing are two of the most important pieces of Taoist history, which together are believed to hold the secrets to a long, healthy and happy life.

They are stone tablets set into the temple wall. Nothing marks them out as special, but they have been studied by Taoist practitioners over thousands of years.

One is carved with the Diagram of the Inner Circulation (Nei Jing Tu) and the other with the Chart of the Preservation of the Primary Vitalities (Xiu Zhen Quan Lu). They use symbolism from the natural world, and from the poetry of Taoist sage Lu Dong Bin, and are extraordinarily detailed.

I was lucky enough to see them for myself recently, and I stood for some time, just studying them and soaking in the atmosphere. In fact, you could spend a lifetime studying them and still have plenty more to learn!

The 2 together are really texts for internal cultivation practice – that is, the development of ourselves on all levels – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Taoists throughout the centuries have developed tools and techniques, derived from their observation of the natural world, for just this purpose of self-cultivation, and the 2 carved stone tablets are a road-map and instruction manual.

As you’d expect from a philosophy that looks to nature for the answers to human problems, there is imagery of mountains, rivers, forests, paths and stars, and these are all linked with the phases of the moon, the I Ching, the organs of the body, and the vital energies or ‘three treaures’ of Jing, Qi and Shen.

The carvings show us that all aspects of our body are linked, and also that our bodies are linked to our minds, emotions, and spirituality, and our whole self is a part of a much bigger system of energy interplay the encompasses the whole universe.

There are so many lessons contained in these 2 carvings, and I’m sure that I myself can only grasp a small number of them.

True Holistic Thinking


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The simplest ideas are sometimes the most important or profound. The first thing to come to my mind as I studied the stones was that if we want to cultivate ourselves and achieve better health, a longer life, and find peace and happiness (and who doesn’t?) then we have to address the WHOLE SYSTEM. Body, mind, emotions and spirit are all just aspects of the same thing. Neglect any part and the whole suffers.

So it’s no good to meditate and pursue spiritual goals, but neglect your body. Or at the opposite end, to train for physical strength and fitness but ignore your spirituality. Similarly, no amount of psychological work on yourself will make you whole, unless you attend to your physical health too. You can see the point.

Sounds obvious but I frequently meet people who become laser-focused on just one aspect of their overall health, but lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’

We’re All Part Of Bigger Systems

And then, looking wider, the same is true of us and our relation with what’s outside of ourselves. We must also cultivate and develop our relationship with others around us, and the world we live in.

How can we thrive if only at the expense of other people, or the very planet that sustains us? Individual cultivation is also collective cultivation. This means also thinking of our friends, family and community, and the natural world all around us. As part of both the human and ecological systems that surround us, we cannot see ourselves in isolation. What we do effects the world, and what happens in the world effects us.

This also suggests the Taoist idea of ‘going with the flow’ and being in harmony with the natural changes of day and night, and the ebbs and flows of the seasons… but that’s another post 🙂

If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like my free mini-course ‘Conscious Cultivation’ in which I talk about exactly these kinds of ideas… Check it out, here: Conscious Cultivation

Part 2 – The Detail

I got lots of interest in original draft of this post (which you’ve just read, above) and requests for more detail. So here’s part 2. The casual reader can skip this section, but for those who want the detail on the 2 carvings, read on…

The Neijing Tu In Detail

This carving is essentially a roadmap to the practice of the Microcosmic Orbit, or ‘small heavenly cycle’, which is the circulation of Qi along the Ren Mai (conception vessel) and Du Mai (governing vessel)

In this practice, Qi flow is directed up the spine along the Du Mai and then down the front of the body along the Ren Mai to form a continuous circuit.

The 3 dan tiens (AKA ‘elixir fields’) are represented here, and also shown are the three passes (sanguan) , which are the places where Qi flow is most impeded, and which need the most work during practice of the Microcosmic Orbit:

1st Pass: ‘Gate Of Destiny’ – The Ming Men, between the Kidneys
2nd Pass: ‘Spinal handle’ between the shoulder blades
3rd Pass: ‘Jade Pillow’ at the occiput

The image should be ‘read’ from the bottom up:

In the lower section, a boy and a girl (representing Yin and Yang) work on a treadmill to send the water (Jing) up the spine – this is the first stage of the Microcosmic Orbit practice. We quickly see flames bursting out of a cauldron, showing that the water has been energised by the Yang of the body.

The lower Dan Tien is represented here by the four Yin-Yang symbols. We also see the ‘iron buffalo plowing the earth’ which represents the intestines.

At the center is the middle Dan Tien at the level of the heart – you can see it as a spiral. Nearby is the herd boy holding the constellation of the Big Dipper. We also see the Weaving Girl below him.

The 2nd pass, the ‘spinal handle’ is also located on the spine here, at the level of the Weaving Girl.

The upper part of the picture represents the upper Dan Tien.

The twelve-storey pavilion represents the trachea. Above and behind it is the 3rd pass – the jade pillow. The old man is Taoist sage Lao Tzu, and the man holding his arms to the sky is a ‘blue eyed barbarian monk’ believed to be Bodhidharma who is credited with bringing both Buddhism and martial arts to China.

The two dots in place of eyes represent the Sun and Moon.

For more on the Neijing Tu,  a full translation and commentary can be found here:

The Xiuzhen Tu In Detail

This time we see a person from a front view, with lots of text and imagery.

The figure is surrounded by thirty black and white circles that represent the lunar cycle during the month.

The organs are represented by their traditional animal spirits and by trigrams: dragon (liver), turtle and snake (gallbladder), two-headed deer (kidneys), red sparrow (heart), white tiger (lungs), and phoenix (spleen).

In the lower part of the picture, on the right, we see a circle containing two small dots joined together, and either side are the Kidneys.

Below the throat are a number of leaf shaped images, which represent the heart, lungs, liver and gallbladder. They also contain terms that further relate to the lunar cycle.

Below these, roughly in the centre of the image, is a sort of cross shape containing text, images and trigrams.

In the top of this section is an infant, the word Qi and the trigram Li ☲ (Fire). Also seen at this level are a monkey (representing the mind) and a horse (representing the intention yi). This indicates that we must use our minds and set our intention to practice internal cultivation.

In the lower section of the cross is a standing infant, with the character jing  and the trigram Kan ☵ (Water).

In the middle of the cross is the trigram Qian ☰ – this is the position of the middle Dan Tien.

At the top of the image, we find the names for the Muddy Pellet (niwan, the upper Dan Tien, corresponding the acupoint Du20) and the Celestial Eye (tianmu, between the eyes, the extra acupoint also called yintang ).

The large circle above the figure’s head represents the upper Dan Tien. In the center we can see the ’Realized Man of Original Destiny’ who represents the enlightened state of oneness with the Tao.

This image also clearly shows the spine, curving out to the right. The 24 circles along the spine indicate the 24 traditional periods that divide the year, each one lasting 15 days. Just like in the Neijing Tu, the Three Passes are also represented by the three large circles.

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