Taoist Concepts of the subtle body and centers of Ch'i

Taoist channels and centers

Just as the knowledge of the subtle channels and vital force goes back to the very beginning of Indian mystical speculation - the earliest Upanishads - so does this same knowledge go back thousands of  years in ancient China.  Only the names are different.  Instead of "veins" or conduits (nadis) we find reference to "meridians"; instead of prana the universal life-energy is called ch'i; and instead of Ida and Pingala, solar and lunar, we have reference to yin and yang.  But the different attitudes and orientations of the Indian and the Chinese people - the different "folk-souls" (as Rudolph Steiner would say) or collective psyches of these respective races - gave a different direction to their knowledge.

Indian spirituality is other-worldly, the goal being the attainment of a state of eternal existence beyond the cosmos - nirvana or moksha (liberation).   The Indian ideal is the renunciate sage - the sadhu or sanyasin - who gives up the world for a life as a homeless yogi and holy-man, dependent on the offerings of others for sustanance.  Hence Indian Tantra is orientated to attaining a transcendent state of Liberation.

Chinese culture and spirituality is generally this-worldly.  The ideal sage is the Confucian "gentleman" or "superior man", who knows the best  way to respond to family, social, or political  situations.  And although there is a quietist element to the Chinese soul (just as there is an extrovertive one to the Indian) one finds that even Chinese meditation is this-worldly: the cultivation of the vital-force for health and longevity for example (Tai-Chi-Chuan), the search for alchemical immortality, or attuning oneself to the currents or flow of the cosmos (which is the true purpose of the martial arts).

Thus, whereas the Indian and Tibetan yogis cultivated the knowledge and manipulation of the subtle body for the purpose of attaining a transcendent state of liberation, the Chinese sages - the practioners of the Taoist "inner alchemy" - did so for the purpose of rejuvenation and spiritual immortality.  It may well be that "all roads lead to Rome" in the end, but the do so from very different directions.

Thus in addition to this purely mystical, reclusive Taoism of the Tao-te-Ching the one hand, and to village shamanism and magic on the other, there was a third metaphysical, occult tradition in China that has also been given the term "Taoism".  This is a tradition of yogic transformation of the vital-force; the so-called "inner alchemy", because it uses alchemical metaphors and purports to be a quest for immortality.  It is this esoteric Taoism which constitutes the native Chinese counterpart to Indian and Tibetan Tantra.

The basic premise of these esotericist and occultist Taoists is that man has only a limited store of vital-force (ch'i).  This leaks away through day-to-day activities, and when it's all gone, that's it, the person's dead.  But it is possible to make the ch'i go back inside, rather than outwards, and then up the spine to the crown.  This obviously is very like the Tantric Kundalini.  In ascending, the ch'i progresses through various stations, which are given exotic names like the Elixar-field, the Yellow Hall, the Heaven.  These are clearly similiar to the chakras.  Now comes the difference with Shakta-tantra.  Reaching the top of the head, the ch'i then descends down the front of the body, down to the navel, and then around again, forming a complete circuit.  This circuit is known as "The Circulation of the Light", or "The Microcosmic Orbit". Through rhythmic breathing and visualisation, the Taoist yogi can circulate the ch'i, harmonise the polarities of Yin and Yang, attain cosmic consciousness, become an immortal, and return to the Tao

Although there is no actual one on one correspondence to the chakras of Tantra (unless one consider the lower, middle, and higher tan tiens or alchemical cauldrens, which one can equate approximately with the navel, the heart, and the brow chakras), the path that the chi takes along the main acupunture meridians as directed during the Microcosmic Orbit does correspond in part to the chakras of Theosophy and the New Age movement and as described by Barbara Brennan - in other words the "secondary" rather than the "primary" chakras. The following two diagrams from the Ling-shu, an ancient Chinese medical text, describes the grand circulation or microcosmic orbit.

descending circulation

(above) The descending or involuntary circulation runs along the conception vessel meridian from the lower lip, through the chest abdomen to the tip of the spine.

ascending circulation

(above) The rising or controlled circulation runs along the governor vessel from the tip of the spine up the spine and over the top of the head to the upper lip.

both images from David V. Tansley, Subtle Body - Essence and Shadow, (1977, Art and Imagination Series, Thames and Hudson, London)

This same technique has been taught in a very clear manner by Mantak Chia, who, however, reduces the number of concentration points from those in the above diagram to a number more equivalent with the conventional model of chakras.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 18 May 1999, last modified 29 July 2004