Daoism and the Origins of Qigong, Part 2

Learn About Dao

Daoism and the Origins of Qigong, Part 2

by Livia Kohn, Ph.D.

Levels of Practice

The three levels of healing, longevity, and immortality can be seen as three different dimensions of practice within the same greater universe of the Dao. The Dao can be described as “organic order”— organic in the sense that it is not willful and order in that it is clearly manifested in the rhythmic changes and patterned processes of the natural world. Not a conscious, active creator or personal entity, but an organic process that just moves along, the Dao is mysterious in its depth and unfathomable in its essence. But beyond this, as order the Dao is also predictable in its developments and can be discerned and described in ordered patterns. These patterns are what the Chinese call “self-so” or “nature” (ziran), the spontaneous and observable way things are naturally. Yet while Dao is very much nature, it is also more than nature. It is also the essence of nature, the inner quality that makes things what they are. It is governed by laws of nature, yet it is also these laws itself.

In other words, it is possible to explain the nature of the Dao in terms of a twofold structure. The “Dao that can be told” and the “eternal Dao.” One is the mysterious, ineffable Dao at the center of the cosmos; the other the Dao at the periphery, visible and tangible in the natural cycles. About the eternal Dao, the Book of the Dao and Its Virtue says:

Look at it and do not see it: we call it invisible.
Listen to it and do not hear it: we call it inaudible.
Touch it and do not feel it: we call it subtle. . . .
Infinite and boundless, it cannot be named;
It belongs to where there are no beings.
It may be called the shape of no-shape,
It may be called the form of no-form.
Call it vague and obscure.
Meet it, yet you cannot see its head,
Follow it, yet you cannot see its back. (ch. 14)

This Dao, although the ground and inherent power of the human being, is entirely beyond ordinary perception. It is so vague and obscure, so subtle and so potent, that it is beyond all knowing and analysis; we cannot grasp it however hard we try. The human body, senses, and intellect are simply not equipped to deal with this Dao. The only way a person can ever get in touch with it is by forgetting and transcending ordinary human faculties, by becoming subtler, finer, and more potent, more like the Dao itself.

The Dao at the periphery, on the other hand, is characterized as the give and take of various pairs of complementary opposites, as the natural ebb and flow of things as they rise and fall, come and go, grow and decline, emerge and die. The Book of the Dao and Its Virtue says:

To contract, there must first be expansion.
To weaken, there must first be strengthening.
To destroy, there must first be promotion.
To grasp, there must first be giving.
This is called the subtle pattern. (ch. 36)

Things develop in alternating movements as long as they live. It is the nature of life to be in constant motion. It is the nature of things to always move in one direction or the other, up or down, toward lightness or heaviness, brightness or darkness. Nature is a continuous flow of becoming, whether latent or manifest, described as the alternation of complementary characteristics and directions that cannot exist without each other. This becoming can be rhythmic and circular or it can move back toward the source of life in the ineffable Dao, which at the same time is a forward movement toward a new level of cosmic oneness

In this larger cosmic vision, healing and longevity involve either the recovery or the maintenance of harmony with the visible and tangible patterns of the Dao, while spiritual attainments of enlightenment and immortality mean the overcoming of the natural cycles and the ultimate return to the Dao at the center of creation, the uncreated void at the base of all. The practice of Qigong and gymnastics can serve all three, supplementing, enhancing, or transforming the Qi that makes up both the body and the universe.

Seen in terms of the body’s Qi, the three levels of practice involve different scenarios and trajectories of Qi management. As is well known, the body consists of two forms of Qi: a basic primordial or prenatal Qi that connects it to the cosmos and the Dao; and a secondary, earthly or postnatal Qi that is replenished by breath, food, and interaction with objects and people and helps the body survive in everyday life. Both forms of Qi are necessary and interact constantly with each other, so that primordial Qi is lost as and when earthly Qi is insufficient, and earthly Qi becomes superfluous as and when primordial Qi is complete (as in the case of the embryo in the womb). People, once born, start this interchange of the two dimensions of Qi and soon begin to lose their primordial Qi, especially through interaction with the world on the basis of passions and desires, sensory exchanges, and intellectual distinctions—the very same features considered most harmful for cosmic interaction in the classical texts.

When people have lost a certain amount of primordial Qi, they get sick and eventually die. Healing, then, is the replenishing of Qi with medical means such as drugs, herbs, acupuncture, rest, gymnastics, and so on. Longevity or health enhancement, next, comes in as and when people have become aware of their situation and decide to improve their quality and enjoyment of life. Attaining a basic state of good health, they proceed to increase their primordial Qi to and even above the level they had at birth. To do so, they apply various longevity techniques, including diets, breathing exercises, gymnastics, massages, sexual practices, and meditations. These ensure not only the realization of the natural life expectancy but may even result in increased old age and vigor.

Immortality, third, raises the practices to a yet higher level. To attain it, people transform all their Qi into primordial Qi and proceed to increasingly refine it to ever-subtler levels. This finer Qi will eventually turn into pure spirit, with which practitioners increasingly identify to become spirit-people and transcendents. The practice that leads there involves intensive meditation and trance training as well as more radical forms of diet and other longevity practices. Unlike healing and longevity, where the natural tendencies of the body are supported and enhanced, immortality demands the complete overcoming of these natural tendencies and the body’s transformation into a different kind of energy constellation. The result is a bypassing of death, the attainment of magical powers, and residence in cosmic realms, such the immortals’ paradises.

Difference in application

Daoyin exercises as much as the other longevity techniques, therefore, can be used equally for medical, health enhancing, and spiritual purposes. When done for therapy, the specific direction toward which they are aimed does not seem to matter. When used to enhance overall health, there are some instructions on geographical orientation and astronomical constellations, with the east being the most common, as it corresponds to spring and rising Qi. Done as a preparation for higher spiritual attainments, the exercises are often combined with formal purifications and with rituals to the gods. However, their basic patterns remain the same on all three levels, so that similar sequences of gymnastic exercises are used in all cases.

Still, the exercises are not entirely the same. Certain practices that are useful in healing may be superfluous in the attainment of longevity, while some applicable for immortality may even be harmful when healing is the main focus. Take breathing as an example. When healing or extending life, natural deep breathing is emphasized, with the diaphragm expanding on the inhalation. When moving on to immortality, however, reverted breathing is advised, which means that the diaphragm contracts on the in-breath. Undertaking this kind of reverted breathing too early or at the wrong stage in one’s practice can cause complications, from dizziness to disorientation or worse.

Again, the point is made clear in the case of sexual practices. In healing, sexual activity with a partner is encouraged in moderation and measured ways, with both partners reaching regular orgasms. In longevity practice, sexual activity may still be undertaken with a partner, but ejaculation and other loss of essence and Qi is avoided and the sexual stimulation is used to raise the awareness of the positive flow of Qi in the body, which is the redirected to relieve stress and increase vitality. Through the practice, as Mantak Chia and Michael Winn state, people “become more aware that all living things are one” (1984, 171).

In immortality, finally, sexual practices are undertaken entirely within one’s own body and without a partner. They serve the creation of an immortal embryo through the refinement of the sexual energy jing first into Qi, then into cosmic spirit shen. Ni Hua-ching emphasizes accordingly that in advanced attainment sexual energy should not be used to have fun or beget children, but must be sublimated into spiritual energy, which will then give birth to the spiritual embryo and help people to attain the immortal state (1992, 110).He says:

It is hard for people to establish the correct goal of life. Typically, people are looking for emotional happiness in the form of lots of pleasure, fun, stimulation or excitement. For spiritual people, it is necessary to avoid pleasure, excitement, stimulation and fun. Actually, those four things have a healthy and unhealthy level. In other words, some fun is all right, because it does not harm your life being. However, even on a healthy level, if fun is overextended, it can become negative and damage your energy being. (Ni 1992, 111)]

Immortality is thus the creation of an inner spirit being and means the avoidance of ordinary joys and excitements. Practices associated with it are not only unsuitable (and probably impossible) for people on the levels of healing and longevity, but may even be harmful if attempted improperly.

The same point, that practices of a similar nature vary significantly among the three levels, can equally be made for diets and fasting. Thus diets on the medical and health levels involve abstention from heavy foods such as meat and fat, as well as from strong substances such as alcohol, garlic, and onions. Instead, practitioners are encouraged to eat lightly and in small portions. As their Qi increases, they will need ever less food, until—in immortality practice—all main staples can be cut out and food is replaced by the conscious intake of Qi through breath in a technique known as bigu or “avoiding grain.”

In all cases, longevity practices and thus Qigong and gymnastics serve to guide people from a wasteful and neglecting attitude toward their bodies and minds toward a more wholesome, healing, and caring way of dealing with themselves. Allowing the conscious bodily experience of the cooperation among all body and mind energies, the practice increases the mental awareness of oneself as part of the Dao, manifested as a flow of energy that rises and ebbs, comes and goes, moves and halts. As one reaches a state of mental quietude and greater stability in one’s heath, the practice leads on towards a more encompassing understanding of self and world, which also includes a sense of wonder, of gratitude towards the natural world and the greater universe. The tense, ego-bound self loosens and a sense of open Qi-flow takes its place. Healing moves on to longevity, and as cosmic awareness increases, even to immortality.

Historically, organized Daoists changed their attitude toward the application of longevity techniques after unification around the seventh century. Around the very same time when the medical tradition began to systematize and organize long life methods in their classics, Daoists integrated the practices of the immortals of old more actively and acknowledged their value. Looking at the Daoist origins of Qigong, there is, therefore, both a distinction and a continuity among the organized religion with its foremost focus on divinity and otherworldly powers and the tradition of life-enhancing practices that can be used on all different levels. It is thus not surprising that long life methods should be transmitted among Daoist texts and that Qigong to the present day serves as a key part of Daoist practice.

Daoist Techniques

So far, we have looked at daoyin as the key forerunner of Qigong—a practice that uses to a large extent the same techniques and shares the same worldview, that similarly reaches from health enhancement to spiritual dimensions. However, daoyin alone is not Qigong, and there are a number of practices commonly undertaken today that have a different origin, that in fact go back to more religious Daoist practices. In the last section of this presentation, I would like to point out a few of those, focusing mainly on the transformation of the body into a cosmic energy system, the visualization of animal nature and cosmic flow, and the impact of inner alchemy.

One of these practices is the cosmicization of the body through the ingestion of the so-called five sprouts, also known as the “method of mist absorption,” which involves partaking of the pure energies of the five directions. Part of medieval Daoist cultivation and described especially in the texts of Highest Clarity (Robinet 1989, 165-66), the practice begins with swallowing the saliva while chanting invocations to the original Qi of the four cardinal directions. Then adepts face the direction in question, usually beginning with the east, and in their minds visualize the Qi of that direction in its appropriate color. A general mist in the beginning, it gradually forms into a ball, sort of like the rising sun, then through further concentration shrinks in size and is made to come close to the adept. Eventually the size of a pill, the sprout can be swallowed and guided mentally to the organ of its correspondence. A suitable incantation places it firmly in its new receptacle, and gradually the adept’s body becomes infused with cosmic energy and partakes more actively of the cosmos as a whole.

The sprouts, as Isabelle Robinet points out, are originally the “germinal essences of the clouds” or “mist.” They represent the yin principle of heaven—that is, the yin within the yang. They manifest in human saliva, again a yin element in the upper, yang, part of the body. They help to nourish and strengthen the five inner organs. A Highest Clarity scripture known as On the Code of the Dao (Daodian lun) explains that they are very tender, comparable to the fresh sprouts of plants, and that they assemble at dawn in the celestial capital, from where they spread all over the universe until the sun begins to shine. Turning like the wheels of a carriage, they ascend to the gates of the nine heavens, from where they continue to the medium level of the world—to the five sacred mountains ruled over by the five emperors of the five directions—and finally descend into the individual adept. They thus pass through the three major levels of the cosmos (Robinet 1989, 166).

The virtue of these sprouts is twofold. They are “emanations of the highest poles” and as such full of the power of far-off regions, the fringes of civilization where the Dao resides in a rawer state. At the same time, they are “tender like freshly sprouted plants” and as such contain the entire potential of being in its nascent state. This growth potential, the small and imperceptible Qi in a state of pure becoming, is the main objective for the Daoist practitioner. “Sprouting” means inherent creation, purity, newness, return to youth. It also implies the prevalence of the soft over the hard and the power of yin over yang that Laozi describes in the Daode jing . Here yin is represented by the saliva that adepts absorb. The practice is undertaken at dawn, the time when everything awakens to life, yet another symbol of creative, unstructured potential. By ingesting the sprouts, the Daoist partakes of the inherent power of celestial bodies and feeds on the pure creative energy of the universe its most subtle form. It is thus not surprising that the absorption of the sprouts is also used as a preparatory practice for the “abstention from grains.” By and by the sprout intake replaces adepts regular nourishment and allows them to identify with the germinal energy of the sprouts. They thus can become lighter and freer, appear and disappear at will, overcome the limitations of this world, and attain immortality in the heavenly realms (Robinet 1993).

Another Daoist practice that has made its way into modern Qigong is inner observation or neiguan, the active, conscious introspection of one’s body and mind. As documented in texts since the Tang dynasty, and in particular in the Scripture of Inner Observation (Neiguan jing; see Kohn 1989), practitioners are guided to turn their perception inside and realize the realities of body energies and consciousness movements within. Soon they begin to understand how they function and react both physically and psychologically. With prolonged practice, they become aware of the subtler energies of life and see themselves increasingly in terms of Qi-patterns than ego-centered actions. As the Scripture of Inner Observation says, adepts come to see the body as part of Heaven and Earth, raised through yang and nourished by yin, helped and guarded by the spirit and material souls, organized in accordance with the five phases and the six musical tones, radiating with the power of the seven stars and the eight luminaries.

They learn that beyond their tangible Qi, they consist to a large extend of spirit (shen), the primordial, formless, and ever-changing force, which in connection with the physical body causes human beings to be alive. Manifested in the human mind, where it is often distorted to serve egoistic and one-sided needs, spirit is brought back to a state of rest as the mind is concentrated and relaxed. Adepts come to see that just as the Dao pervades the universe in utmost perfection, so spirit working through their mind can govern their life perfectly—that is, as long as it is observed and cultivated and not wasted on sensual amusements and the exertions of the senses. From confusion and defilement, adepts recover the primordial state.

Doing so, they come to realize the impermanent nature of the ego-based vision of self and body and replace this identity with one that consists of an assemblance of energy, essence, and spirit. They realize in their own lives the dictum of Zhuangzi that “human life is a coming-together of Qi. If it comes together there is life. If it scatters there is death” (Watson 1968, 235). Human life is only one part of the continuous natural transformations of Qi; it is merely borrowed from heaven and earth but since it resembles them closely in its structuring and undergoes the same transformations as all creation, it can be made just as perfect, just as flowing, just as eternal. Realizing this inherent nature of life and themselves, adepts see that there is no true master of body and mind and acknowledge how little conscious control they have over life’s transformations. Increasingly able to let life and the body go on changing as they please, they can forget themselves and dissolve into the higher patterns of the Dao.

This Dao, in the Daoist context, however, is not just a flow of energies, but populated by gods, spirits, and other supernatural entities. As the practitioner becomes more attuned to his life and body as the universe, he or she also comes to actively perceive the gods and spirits as inhabitants of the human body. The body and thus the self becomes increasingly a microcosmic replica of the starry heavens above, full of palaces and chambers, towers and terraces, gods and immortals. The deities who reside in the paradises of the otherworld are as much at home in the adept’s body, and again—as through the ingestion of the five sprouts—the adept comes to cosmicize his or her self, expanding identity into a larger sphere.

Along the same lines, the Daoist transformation of the self in the process of inner alchemy, reaching from essence through energy to spirit and the emptiness of the Dao, has become part of modern Qigong discourse and many techniques of inner alchemy are actively applied in practice. Not only perceiving of the body as an entity of Qi-flow and a replica of the universe, adepts of inner alchemy take active control of the energies and, through the systematic circulation and collection of Qi, transmutate the body into a cauldron for the growth of an inner elixir. Starting from a tiny seed, it blossoms forth and gives rise to the immortal embryo, which  then, over ten months of intense meditation, grows to completion. A primordial light begins to shine through the entire body, and adepts enter a state of deep absorption, allowing the tenuously growing spirit embryo to grow to fullness and take on a life of its own—moving about the heavenly realms in a new variation of the ecstatic soul journeys of Daoists of old.


To conclude, Qigong as practiced today has a long and varied history in Chinese culture. Strongly rooted in the medical tradition, it has continuously over the past two millennia been used for healing, curing, and health enhancement. By extension, it has helped people extend their lives and improve their capacity for enjoyment and vivacity. Beyond its clearly visible medical roots, however, Qigong has also been linked in various ways with the Daoist tradition—notably through the Qi-controlling practices of the ancient immortals and a number of exercises adopted into the modern repertoire from religious Daoist cultivation and ritual.

The main distinction between health and longevity on the one hand, and advanced spiritual or immortality practice, on the other, within the overall system of Qigong is the degree to which the body is aligned with the flow of yin and yang or the Dao on the periphery versus being transformed, transfigured, and energetically reorganized to a higher level—the ineffable Dao of creation at the center of all. Are we practicing to enhance nature or to overcome it? Is the goal of our efforts to become stronger, more vibrant, and more successful in this life or is it to transform ourselves completely into a mystical dimension of existence that reaches far beyond this body and this world? Whenever the goal of Qigong is transcendence, the practice has passed into the realm of the Daoist religion—a passage, however, that cannot be undertaken without first completing the medical curriculum and enhancing health to the utmost.


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[Dr. Livia Kohn is Professor Emerita of Religion and East Asian Studies at Boston University. A graduate of Bonn University, Germany, she has spent many years pursuing research on medieval Daoism and Chinese long life practices. She has written and edited over 25 books, taught many classes on Asian religions, and worked on a large variety of related projects.  In addition, she has practiced taiji quan, qigong, meditation, yoga, and other cultivation methods for many years. These days, she lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and is a Daoist freelancer. She  teaches workshops all over the world, runs international conferences on Daoist studies, and is executive editor at Three Pines Press and of the Journal of Daoist Studies. She has lived in Japan for a total of ten years and traveled widely in Asia, especially in China, Korea, and Thailand. Aside from her native German, she is fluent in Chinese and Japanese. To contact Professor Kohn, please e-mail liviakohn@gmail.com]
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