interrogating a section of text from “understanding reality.”

du xiu yi wu, zhuan ying ding,

alone cultivate one nature is the way to ensure success.

lao xing, an yin, jie fei dao,

working the body, bending and stretching, are all false paths,

fu qi can xia, zong shi kuang:

swallowing qi and eating clouds, all of it is false.

There is much to be discussed in regard to this passage from Understanding reality by zhang boduan, but what I want to focus on today is the question of what are the false methods of practice which he is discussing? And what does he suggest as a better method?

Lets start with the first admonition against what Zhang perceives to be incorrect practices:

“working the body, bending and stretching, are all false paths,”

This section deals with the concepts of physical exercise as a means of cultivating the Dao. “working the body, pushing and stretching” refers to Daoist yoga practices, sometimes called Dao Yin, but often called Nei Gong by modern practitioners. Zhang felt that these practices were not the real Dao because they did not do anything to cultivate the mind. Rightfully, they can be considered a type of physical preservation practice, but they do not have the basis of internal elixir, which is the practice of the mind and achievement of clear consciousness mixed with natural energy of the Dao.

“swallowing qi and eating clouds, all of it is false.”

Swallowing Qi refers to a type of ancient Qi gong practice that was originally used by the Tianshi Daoists, as well as other groups in order to cultivate the Qi of the internal organs. It involves various practices, but most importantly, the practitioner imagines that their breath is drawing certain colours into the five major organs of the body. They are green qi/liver, red qi/heart, yellow qi/spleen, white qi/lung, black qi/kidney. this is done in various ways, often including additional meditation on emptiness, various breathing exercises, physical movement or stillness, and prayer to the deities of the five directions.
Eating clouds should actually be translated as “Eating red clouds,” and refers to a similar type of visualization practice, and visualization practices in general.
Zhang felt that these practices were a waste of energy and not as good as holding the mind and body together as one.

Zhang’s idea is based on what is called “Pre heaven” practice in Daoism, a type of practice which is focused on using a sense of mental and physical oneness to cause the body and mind to seem to disappear into emptiness. The other practices mentioned would later come to be viewed as “Post heaven” practices, and although Zhang rejected them, many of them continued to be developed in other Daoist schools, and ultimately went on to become what we call Qi gong, Nei Gong, and Dao Yin today.

The key difference between these post heaven physical exercises and the pre heaven “internal elixir” method of Zhang Boduan is that all of those methods require the body and mind to be directed to more than one task, meaning that the mind must always be made alert and activated, meaning that it can’t relax fully and join with nature. Zhang’s method allows the mind to relax fully, since it only has one task, and as such, the body reverts to a natural phase of rest, recovery, and repair, building and replenishing energy in the body. Both types of exercise are good, but this passage of understanding reality essentially isolates the difference between internal elixir and other Daoist methods.

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