Middle School Nei Dan: fundamental principles and practices
Neidan is the art of energetic meditation in Daoism and represents the most direct route to cultivating the three treasures of essence, energy and spirit.
Neidan was formalised under the masters Lu Dongbin, Zhang Boduan, and Wang Chongyang before the thirteenth century, but it was further developed by many different masters in the years since then until our modern times.
In total, there are about ten major schools of thought in neidan, which include the Southern Ancestor school of Zhang Boduan, the Northern Ancestor school of Wang Chongyang, the Zhang Sanfeng school and many others. I would like to share a little about the Middle School of neidan called Zhong Pai. Zhong Pai neidan was created in the thirteenth century by a Daoist master named Li Daochun, who released the book called The Anthology of Central Harmony, which is a series of essays on meditation that detail his complex theoretical ideas on the subject of internal-energy cultivation.
Li Daochun was followed by other masters such as Yin Zhenren and Huang Yuanji who also authored their own important books. Yin Zhenren wrote Xing Ming Gui Zhi, the book that contains the largest collection of illustrations about neidan available in one book. Huang Yuanji was responsible for the Dao De Jing Chan Wei commentary, which is the only commentary of Laozi to be entirely based on neidan practices. Huang’s students left behind Le Yu Tang, a book which further illustrates his ideas.
Middle School key theory
The theory of the middle school of neidan is very complex but it is based around the central idea of being natural. Both of the earlier major neidan schools of Nanzong (southern ancestor) and Beizong (northern ancestor) have their own theoretical basis which is predicated either on first cultivating energy and then consciousness (Nanzong) or first cultivating consciousness and then energy (Beizong).
The middle school seeks to combine these two practices into a dual cultivation method called ‘life-and-nature dual cultivation.’ This dual cultivation takes the form of using an open and clear consciousness to cultivate energy and then to allow the energy to further clear the mind and make one able to achieve the level of ‘meeting immortality’. The idea of the Middle School is that after the energy moves in the body, it is better to allow it to behave naturally and go to the places it chooses to go, rather than trying to control it along one individual pathway. This means that the Middle School does not require the energy body to be built along a specific delineation of events, but rather allows one to build qi simply along the lines that one’s own body and mind allow for.
The Middle School is also uniquely suited to building strong energy along the central governing meridian of the chongmai, which runs from the perineum to the sky gate on top of the head.
Here are some key points from The Book of Central Harmony by Li Dao Chun:
- The place from which anger, affection, sadness and joy has not yet emerged is called the centre. All things connected to the centre are called harmony
This concept refers to the emptiness in the centre of one’s natural mind, from which no feeling, thought or emotion has yet emerged. It is the centre that Li believed practitioners should return their minds to in order to become stable and balanced. After that silent and empty centre has been achieved, then the energy in the body will move in harmony with it. Therefore, the term ‘Central Harmony’ in the name of Li’s book actually refers to the way in which the body and mind work together to create the harmony between silence and energetic movement.
- Quietude and stability
Quietude and stability describe how to anchor the mind in such a way that it comes to a stable resting point. This resting point is called ‘genuine intention’ and is the way that Middle School master Li Daochun explained the basic method of stopping the mind from ‘wild imagination’ and ‘wandering away’. This method of silent setting of the mind cannot be forced, but rather needs to be gradually developed, just like how a master sword maker gradually folds the metal over and over until the sword is sharp and perfect. The mind that can be brought back to quietude and stability in a constant manner will be able to develop a strong sense of spiritual energy and poise. This method is one of the keys to changing essence to energy and energy to spirit.
- Water and fire combine to create real taiji
Taiji is the harmony of yin and yang and water and fire at the form of yin and yang with mixed characters. The fire trigram is made up of two outside yang lines and one broken yin line in the centre. It represents the mind, which is considered in Daoism to be like fire. The mind has both strong yang fire and weak yin fire, just like the blue flame at the centre of an orange flame.
The water trigram is made up of two broken lines with a solid yang line in the centre and represents the essence in the body (jing) as well as the corporeal form of the body. The yang line in the centre of the water trigram is living essence, and the yin line in the fire trigram is considered by Li Daochun to be the qi energy of the breath, so when the breath and essence are directed together and the mind directed to quiet, Li Daochun posited that the yang line of the water trigram would move to the place of the yin line in the fire trigram, changing the body to the full yin earth trigram, and the consciousness to the full yang heaven trigram. This essentially means is that the spirit is not clouded by the thoughts and emotions (represented by yin energy) and that instead of being aware of the body, one is aware of the total spiritual illumination of the mind and is able to collect the ‘golden elixir’.
Li Daochun had many other ideas, but these are very important basic concepts and worthy of deep study.
Yin Zhenren added the concepts of a very clearly explained energy body, meditation on the
‘ancestor portal’ point between the eyebrows and a detailed path of achievement from the outset of practice to achieving Buddhahood and casting off the shell of the body.
Huang Yuanji further defined the earlier Daoist idea of the ‘single opening of the mystery gate’, which is a point between regular consciousness and the pre-heaven state. This is the time when the three treasures of the original essence, energy and spirit come together and develop as one, refining and building the spiritual energy of the body.
The Middle School of neidan has been one of the most influential schools in Daoist history and was a direct inspiration for the Western school of Li Xiyue, the Wu Liu school, and even the Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming.
The Middle School also had a strong effect on twentieth-century Daoist Master Chen Yingning and Cao Zhenyang of the White Cloud temple.
Although it is a very important school in neidan, the Middle School has not been clearly discussed thus far in the Western literature on Daoism. It is my hope that this article and others like it will eventually create more interest in this excellent method of study, so that more and more people are exposed to it.