Inspirational Instructions on Internal Cultivation from Sun Bu-Er

[Learn About Dao]

Inspirational Instructions on Internal Cultivation from Sun Bu-Er, Taoist Adept of the Complete Reality School

By Jill Gonet 

A Brief Overview of Attainments in the Art of Cultivation

religious_daoism_daojiao95e395f14d382b307eaaThis article is excerpted from the author’s newly released volume, Riding the Phoenix to Penglai: Poetry By Taoist Adept Sun Bu-Er.  Sun Bu-Er was a Complete Reality School adept, who lived between 1119-1182 C.E. in Shandong Province (in Northern China) during the Jin Dynasty.  The poetry sequence to which this article refers presents an orderly course of study and practice for internal cultivators, one that includes guidance and instruction on breathing styles, points of focus, lifestyle decisions and choices, development of the elixir, and the way of spiritual development.

Recalling the Mind

Sun Bu-Er was a stellar cultivator, and it comes as no surprise that she describes a series of great divides in her sequence of poems, these great divides being the signal attainments that separate great cultivators from good ones. The first attainment in the winnowing process she describes is the ability to recall the mind back home. How does this happen?

Sun Bu-Er did not, herself, automatically recall her own mind on day one of her life as a Taoist. She began by cultivating her Qi. Without awareness and enhancement of Qi, meditators often end up experiencing a rush of energy up to the top of the head and then out of the body altogether. It is essential to ground one’s energy before engaging in long meditation sessions or quiet sitting, and to have trained oneself to monitor one’s energy and how one is feeling. Over time, one works through the obstacles to practice and meditation, including those that come from within.  All it takes is one experience of successfully recalling the mind, and there’s no going backward. It feels good.  Like a meal and a nap by a fire on a winter night just when one was hungry and tired and cold.  So one keeps going, and then gets lucky and has the same experience again. One doesn’t do something, one just sits there! One is accomplishing so much even as one appears not to be. Dao2

Recalling the mind happens, at first, as a glimpse that feels so good and so empowering that the cultivator resolves to get the knack of it. As the intent is solidified, the mind, heart, and the Qi become more synchronized, and the attentive cultivator will discern losses of energy and attention, and keep training herself or himself to bring mind, heart, and Qi into ever-deepening focus and teamwork, rather than being distracted by wayward thoughts or sudden waves of emotions. Thus the way is laid out for increasing ability to be present, and to focus all of one’s resources on furthering this conservation and enhancement of Qi.


静极能生动, 阴阳相与模。

风中擒玉兔, 月里捉金乌。


鹊桥重过处, 丹气复归炉。

Taming the Dragon (poem 4)

Great stillness generates movement,

Yin and Yang posture and pattern in relation to each other.

Catch the jade rabbit from the wind

and clutch the gold tortoise from the moon.

Become aware of the subtlety of warmth and timing.

Listen attentively at the crossroads of following and going against.

Once past the place of the magpie bridge

the elixir Qi returns to the stove again.

                                                             (trans. Jill Gonet)


The second major attainment in the winnowing process Sun Bu-Er describes is taming the dragon, or mastery of the sexual energy flows. Poem four has much to say on the technical side of the subject, specifically related to the cultivation of the liver/gallbladder and lungs/large intestine energies. These are seen as the core of cultivation once these sexual/reproductive energies are put to higher use.

Westerners are probably familiar with the classical distinction between Eros and Thanatos, in which Eros is seen as the drive for life and love, while Thanatos is seen as the drive for death.  It is a compelling distinction, and one on which Western writers have expended much ink for hundreds of years.  But from many a Taoist’s perspective, Eros is Thanatos, for the serious cultivator would see endless and repeated expression of one’s lively sexuality as an inevitable unfolding of Thanatos.  From such a point of view, the body, and its hormonal/sexual beingness, must at some point be brought into a higher alignment of energy flows, or else cultivation will not bear fruit (the elixir).

One may feel Qi, or enhanced sensations of Qi, but continued expenditure of one’s Yuan-Qi will only lead to the usual conclusion. This remark is not to be taken out of context and applied to those who are not serious cultivators of the Tao; for these people, Eros, a happy marriage, a fulfilled libido, and continuation of the species is a great and fortunate blessing. This remark applies to cultivators at a point of no return in their commitment to their Taoist practice, where the Qi aligns with spiritual dimensions and spiritual reality.  It’s not that these Taoists disdain Eros; it’s more the case that Eros is elevated to its proper alchemical position and accorded a great dignity and extraordinary power.  Perhaps, in the case of highly accomplished Taoist masters we see the true combining in marriage of Psyche and Eros, where the mind, will, and spirit have unified with the primordial power of sexuality and have made their astonishing synthesis—the Taoist “elixir.”

Sexuality, and perhaps even the transmutation of the primordial power of sexuality, can have its place in relationship to a partner, though on this subject Sun Bu-Er has not opined.  We do know that she was, indeed, married, and that her husband Ma Da Yang was also a great Taoist adept and sifu. One imagines a relationship of mutual respect and support, a relationship with an altogether different basis: companionship in the Tao. This happens in a marriage or partnership when each partner honors the other, values one’s own cultivation of the Tao and supports it in one’s partner as well. Sexuality takes on a whole new meaning in a such a partnership, and is not limited to the sexual act—not when one is in touch with the erotic and fertile source of creation itself, and is able to sustain the connection and nurture the fruit of it.

This type of depth and meaning brings a warmth and prospect to a relationship that encourages the partners to be the best they can be, both for themselves and for each other.  It is a warmth that lasts, and allows each partner to give of themselves from a generous core.  In Sun Bu-Er and Ma Da Yang’s case, there was plenty to give to people outside of their relationship as well, as each had devoted followers and established schools.

Dao3Regarding the subliming of Jing, or raw sexual energies, it is necessary that this process be established.  So, for example, from a five-element perspective, in the spring season which is the season of liver energy/wood element, all of creation naturally swings into mating activity; however, for cultivators who have developed an energetic system that balances out excesses of any one element and harmonizes that element with a buffering or opposing element, the reproductive system and its Jing will not be “on-call” at all times, as the Jing is sublimed naturally into a higher-order expression of the reproductive system—i.e., its capacity for immortality.






Refining the Spirit (poem 9)

The existence of the mysterious pearl

in a short space of time enters into one’s bosom.

Carefulness, like carrying a very full bowl,

gentleness, like cradling a tiny infant.

The earth gate must be closed firmly,

the heaven gate must be opened first.

Wash the yellow sprout until it is immaculate

and the mountaintop rocks to the thunder shaking the earth.

                                                             (trans. Jill Gonet)

The third attainment in the winnowing process Sun Bu-Er describes in her poems is refining the spirit.  While Taoism has an appealingly exotic flavor in the West and to Westerners, there is little in Western culture that prepares Westerners for this ancient treasure of Chinese culture. There is a schism between these times and cultures which may make it difficult for Westerners to understand, absorb, or integrate Taoist instruction into the daily lives, into their mindset, and thus into their energy fields. Three areas come to mind where divergent expectations could cause internal conflict for Westerners: 1) the cultural imperative to be on-call and to be “productive” all of the time; 2) the cultural imperative to be sociable, and to eat in the presence and company of others (which can easily lead to food being viewed as entertainment or as part of an entertainment package); and 3) the West’s culturally permissive attitude toward and preoccupation with sex, which is amplified at a very loud volume by advertising and media industries.

The permissive attitude toward sex has been addressed in the above section on “Taming the Dragon.” The habit of regarding food as entertainment and social currency is a very challenging one for cultivators, who may find that so much memory and emotion is invested in the continuation of these attitudes and assumptions, that to change them would be nothing less than a revolution in eating, family life, and social intercourse. The would-be adept who is a layperson, attempting cultivation in an ordinary context will find ways to navigate the challenges involved in food holidays, food social events, and food entertainments. It is important to note that consumption patterns for successful cultivators in general may change, and come to more closely reflect the hollows and voids, where less is more. This contrasts rather starkly to ordinary consumerism, in which more is more, and the individual is always the destination of many messages that he or she is there to consume, and is, therefore, a consumer. Regarding the most appropriate choice of foods, please see the section below on “Nourishment.”

The cultural imperative to be on-call and to be “productive” all the time is often another challenging area for cultivators. To be on-call and productive at all times creates exhaustion and imbalance of the intellectual and intuitive intelligence systems, and is very different from the allowing and spacious act of recalling the mind.  The Chinese traditionally view the stomach as relating to intellect. Overuse of the intellectual faculties leads stomach Qi up to the head, which can block heaven energies from descending, as described in poem nine, “Refining the Spirit.”  To always have to be on-call doesn’t allow one to detach from the activities of the earth realm, and without that detachment, the heaven energies cannot descend.  As poem nine “Refining the Spirit” has told us “Wash the yellow sprout until it is immaculate/and the mountaintop rocks to the thunder shaking the earth.”  Sun Bu-Er is referring to energetic interactions between the stomach/pancreas and the lower dantian in that poem’s closing couplet. In order for those crucial interactions to occur, those organs must be in good balance, which means that one’s lungs, solar plexus, Wisdom Gate, stomach, and pancreas must be functioning at peak performance according to Taoist standards.  When a person over-uses intellectual reason, when the stomach energy rises, when the heaven energy hasn’t been given time or space to descend, the stomach and pancreas will not be able to perform their bridge functions.



The fourth attainment Sun Bu-Er describes is simple, but difficult, and is extremely important, as Sun Bu-Er has warned that ordinary peoples’ food will not allow the cultivator to “walk across the lake in heaven.”  Cultural imperatives around food, or that might lead one consciously or not, to regard food as a form of entertainment, can become a stumbling block for some cultivators, as attachments to one’s cultural standard leads one to continue to believe that one should be able to indulge in as many and as much of any and all foods as one believes one wants.  A good teacher will be able to help the cultivator’s stomach to wake up.  After a certain period of time engaging in Taoist practices, the body holds up a mirror to the mind and says “Hey, would you please look at what you’re doing to me?  Here—please feel my pain.”  And the Taoist practitioner actually experiences the distress of the overfilled stomach, or how it really does not want a particular food or combination of foods, or overly rich foods, for example. Without going into specific detail on the subject, let it suffice to say that what passes in many cases for food might come to be seen as unacceptable or inappropriate nutritional choices.  The body’s wisdom knows what it wants and the practitioner who learns how to listen to the body responds accordingly and thoughtfully.


Nourishment that is ideally suited to enhance the cultivator’s ability to be who he or she is, and to do what he or she is here to do, is to be welcomed and cherished, appreciated, and valued.  The ancestral home at the Wisdom Gate area supports this attainment, and as practitioners become familiar with this area, they may find that it is best approached through diet.  Indeed, eating less will be beneficial to the creation of space and the full participation of the digestive organs in the cultivation process.  The cultivation of stomach qi is an important part of building up an energetic infrastructure that will, eventually, allow for enhanced capacity and transport of energies through the Wisdom Gate area.

The connection between the Brain Gate (at the jade pillow area above the nape of the neck) and the Wisdom Gate area is key for cultivating the soul, and for cultivating the body’s energies of immortality.  Enhanced capacity and cultivation of stomach qi, and of pancreas qi as well, will create a solid foundation for cultivators who may then move from focus on the Wisdom Gate, “the place where the Qi appears in the East” (in poem three), to a focus including areas in the upper centers.  As Sun Bu-Er has written, “the mind needs to be clear, like water. . . .install the spirit to guard the jade gate” (in poem five), and as she has written (in poem nine) “The earth gate must be closed firmly,/the heaven gate must be opened first.”  With such an orientation, the cultivator will be well-situated to benefit from the further developing of Qi, for “When one has gotten a meal of spiritual Qi/the lungs feel surprisingly clean and cool,” as Sun Bu-Er relates in poem eleven.  At this level of attainment, the cultivator transcends ordinary attachments, and becomes a threshold dweller between the heavenly and the mundane.



Self-mastery is a large subject, but the fourteen poems of Sun Bu-Er’s first sequence of instructional poems shed much light on the process of achieving self-mastery, which is the fifth attainment and which also forms the focus of her second sequence of poems about mastery.

Having addressed, in the foregoing paragraphs, the great divides in the winnowing process of Taoist cultivation, there is still the issue of what makes Sun Bu-Er’s teaching important to female practitioners of the Tao.  Her teachings are also important to all practitioners of the Tao, not just to the female practitioners, for many men who engage in Taoist practices find themselves challenged in similar ways having to do with receptivity. By and large this is an enormous issue for female practitioners who can, like the princess in the Western fairytale of “The Princess and the Pea,” become sensitive to every little thing.  And many men also experience this same phenomenon, which arises as one’s Qi bridges to the external Qi in one’s environment, and suddenly it’s as if there’s no leathery hide between oneself and the world.  One becomes aware of how much one’s being had been designed to screen and filter out information that otherwise could come barreling in and feel overwhelming; or, one may become aware of how much one had responded to people, situations, and events without really understanding how energies were pulled from one’s self without full consent and conscious permission.

This sensitivity and receptivity is a stage, and it is a challenging and fascinating one. It can be viewed as an initiation in and of itself, in which one learns a lot about one’s environment and about other beings and creatures and about oneself, and about how information is zooming around in this environment just waiting for someone to pick up on it.  But it can also make a cultivator feel overwhelmed, which is where Sun Bu-Er’s guidance comes in, both for female and for male practitioners.

Feeling and sensing Qi is a great achievement, but in Sun Bu-Er’s teaching it is only the beginning, just a part of the foundation.  Her guidance regarding the internal organs and the three dantians applies equally to all cultivators.  And this is profound guidance, suitable for all aspiring adepts.  As one trains the mind and learns to recall the mind with greater effectiveness, it becomes easier to tame the dragon.  The mind is creating it all, whether one is male or female, and self-mastery is of the essence.  With greater self-governance, one’s understanding of what it means to tame the dragon will take on added depth and meaning, and experiential understanding.  It is a great adventure to create and participate in one’s own paradigm shifts, so that one will, eventually, be able to know one’s original spirit, and recognize it when it comes to visit.



Jill Gonet

Jill Gonet

Jill Gonet earned her B.A. at the University of Massachusetts, and then moved to Seattle where she earned her M.F.A. from the University of Washington, Seattle. She has resided in the Pacific Northwest ever since. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals over the years, including Poetry, Ploughshares, The New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Best American Poetry, among others. She is the recipient of awards from the Poetry Society of America, as well as grants from the Seattle Arts Commission. Interested in ancient Daoist classics since high school years, she has studied the Dao De Jing-the Way of Virtues, Yi Jing-the Book of Change, Ling Shu-the Spiritual Pivot, Zhuang-Zi,and Lie-Zi diligently. A meditator and Qigong practitioner with over 25 years of experience, she has combined her interests in writing, Chinese culture, and the art of internal cultivation by collaborating on many writings with Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun. She has just published her first Book entitled “Riding the Phoenix to Penglai, Poetry by Taoist Adept Sun Bu-Er” through Yi Ren Press (




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