- Internal Cultivation in the Daode jing
The first time I picked up Laozi’s Daode jing 道德經, I truly could not understand one single sentence. I found this interesting, as I already had a solid foundation in classical Chinese literature. The very first sentence, “The Dao that can be Dao’ed is not the constant Dao,” initially felt like a maze to me. I used my knowledge of classical Chinese to interpret the meaning as “The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.” Still, I felt slightly puzzled.
Over many years of dedicated inner cultivation practice, I have continued to pick up the book again and again and I have found that my understanding grows a little each time. For example, when reading the first sentence now, I find a different, deeper level of interpretation: “The Dao, discussed in any language, loses its original meaning.” In other words, we cannot truly understand the Dao simply through words alone. The way to access the Dao is through direct bodily experience. In order to gain experiential knowledge, you must be seriously committed to your inner cultivation practice.
I have had a concentrated focus on qigong, internal cultivation, martial arts, and other internal cultivation practices since the 1970s. Still, I continue to come back to the Daode jing again and again. Each time, I gain insights based on the layers of meaning that reveal themselves to me through the wisdom that resides deep within my body. Currently, the very same opening sentence reveals to me that the entire book is not a text that merely passes philosophical truths to us. Behind the words is [End Page 164] a powerful teaching encouraging us to use our cultivation practice to connect with the Dao and immortality (xian 仙).
Over the last twenty years in particular, I have prepared a personal commentary on the Daode jing from the perspective of qigong and internal cultivation. In this article, I will share a small piece of my project with you.
“Purple Qi Comes from the East”
This phrase, zhiqi donglai 紫氣東來, is often used as a prayer or charm in China. It is very common for people to post or carve it above the entry-way to their homes or to a temple, where it serves as a blessing and for protection. In contents it goes back to the story of the original transmission of the Daode jing:
According to this, in the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–256 BCE), there was a famous astronomer named Yin Xi 尹喜. One evening while he was reading the sky, he noted a mass of purple-colored qi accumulating in the east. He was astonished by this natural phenomenon and recognized it as an omen indicating that a great sage or truly enlightened master was traveling from the east. He divined the master’s travel route and found that he would pass through Hanguguan 函谷關, a major mountain pass near Huashan, the sacred mountain of the west, and would eventually reach a place called Louguan 樓觀 in the Zhongnan range.
Yin Xi subsequently traveled to Louguan and built himself a hut to wait there for the master’s arrival. After several days, an old man with long gray eyebrows and a thick beard neared his hut. He was riding on a gray colored ox. Yin Xi immediately understood that this was the person he had been waiting for. He invited the old man to be his guest in his hut, hoping that he could study with the old master. The old master, Laozi, saw that Yin Xi was seriously committed to his own inner cultivation and agreed to spend some time teaching him.
After three months had passed, Laozi decided he was ready to resume his journey. Yin Xi humbly requested that the master write down some teachings for him before leaving, so that he could continue his studies even if they would never have the opportunity to spend time with each other again. Laozi consented, extending his stay to write what [End Page 165] we now know as the Daode jing for his student. Yin Xi continued to live a hermit’s life in Louguan, dedicated to his cultivation practice...