Xing, Ming, and Turning the Light Around

Let’s start with a little literary history. This part may be exceedingly boring to some of you – but for those interested in reading these texts yourself, take note. For those interested strictly in the metaphysics, keep listening.

There are currently three English translations of what is known as The Secret of the Golden Flower or the Taiyi jinhua zongshi. It is by far the best-known and most widely translated Daoist alchemical text. It is, historically, a late text, first appearing in the late 1600s.

This text was translated first into English by Cary F. Baynes in 1931 from the German translation by Richard Wilhem (which contained both a foreward and a commentary by the influential psychologist Carl Jung). The second translation was made by Thomas Cleary in 1991, with the addition, “the Authoritative New Translation” over his name on the cover. There are certainly legitimate concerns surrounding the Wilhelm translation which we will not go into, however I find Cleary’s assertion that his text is the “authoritative” one to be dubious. Translation, I reckon, is both an art and a science. Some of Cleary’s commentary regarding Jung I find simply inappropriate. That said, it is a great translation over all and I recommend picking it up if you are looking for a translation of only this text. It’s a great place to start introducing oneself to the intricacies and the wisdom of the Daoist alchemical tradition.

The third and most recent translation was published in an anthology of alchemical texts by Fabrizio Pregadio in 2019. As I said in Episode 6, I don’t read Chinese and therefore cannot interpret the value of the texts relative to a personal understanding of the original language. That said, the Cleary is brief and concise, the Wilhelm is verbose with beautiful linguistic flourishes, and Pregadio’s translation is somewhere between the two. Personally, I trust Pregadio’s work above all others because he has devoted his career to translating in a straightforward fashion Daoist alchemical texts alone and his work is humble.

Now, to the metaphysics…

In The Secret of the Golden Flower, we are seemingly given a dualistic cosmology that puts the transformative value of yang over it’s counterpart, yin. This is not an uncommon motif in Daoism, as it is said that Heaven – yang – preceded the formation of Earth – yin. It is primary based on the sole fact that the unmanifest – yang – necessary must exist before that which is manifest – yin.

Yin and it’s psychophysical correlate, the po (associated with the Lung and with Metal in Chinese Medicine), is to be “subjugated” (Cleary’s translation) by the (yang) hun (associated with Liver and with Wood). Here we have an instance of yang overcoming yin in our psychophysical embodiment. Overcoming darkness with light is not a motif unique to Daoist alchemy and has corollaries in Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and other schools of thought. In a similar way, the “perceiving spirit” (Shishen) is to be brought to rest so the “original spirit” (Yuanshen), being more yang in nature, can take the throne as master of the dwelling. (Note here that this term yuan is the same one used in episode 2 when referring to “Source qi” or yuanqi.)

“The celestial mind is like a house; the light is the master of the house.” – 1.12, Cleary

This is of course also given the fact that it’s alchemy we are dealing with here. The Cleary translation says “the turning around of the light is the ‘firing process’.”

“The ancients’ method of transcending the world, refining away the dregs of darkness to restore pure light, is just a matter of dissolving the lower soul and making the higher soul whole.” (Referring to hun and po) – 2.14, Cleary

The method of reversal (nifa) – the circulation or turning around of the light – is the primary psycho-alchemical tool in The Secret of the Golden Flower.

“The whole work of turning the light around uses the method of reversal.” – 1.11, Cleary

This turning around, circulating, reversing, inverting, or returning process (all of which it’s descriptions have rendered in English), is the return to the Dao, to the Origin, to the Fundament. The analogous process in Hermetic alchemy is seen as an act of completion or purification (through separation and recombination, solve et coagula). In Daoist alchemy this alchemical method involves a return. The Daoist alchemists saw themselves as rewinding time rather than fastforwarding it. Our understanding that all things return to the Dao could imply that the source is the same regardless of how you get there. It’s a vortex, after all.

We are talking about information at the border between being and non-being, therefore polarity persists regardless of the recursiveness of the matrix. Language refuses to break down completelyperhaps this is why the Daoists wrote so much, despite holding the idea that the description doesn’t truly get at the thing-in-itself. “The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.”

Let’s get physical: the separation of yin and yang happens at the event horizon. This could be the surface of the proton or the membrane of a cell. Cosmologically, this is where the Dao is encircled by itself and where the first proton is born. It has occurred to me the possibility that what this book is talking about is in part an imaginal grasp of the surface of the proton. This process involves “seeing essence (xing) the original face.” (Cleary)

I contend that this is the mysterious opening spoken of in Daoist alchemy. This opening is really the boundary condition that separates the explicate order from the implicate order, in Bohmian mechanics – in other words that which can be perceived, measured, and described versus that which can’t but exerts an organizing influence on the former.

Xing and ming

Xing is translated as “human nature”, “essence”, and “logos” by Wilhelm and “essence” by Cleary. Pregadio renders it “Nature”. In a footnote in Wilhelm’s the reader is encouraged to stretch one’s imagination to consider human nature as a cosmological principle rather than something that is strictly human, per se. Here we have the Hermetic axiom – “as above, so below” – and a fractal cosmology peeking through. I would here invoke Genesis 1:28 – “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he was made.” In light of this, xing could be thought of as a fractal, organizing principle of archetypal scale (the kind of recursiveness that generates two mirrored hands and feet of five fingers and toes each, etc.).

In Daoism, Xing and ming are a mysterious principle pair. You can find these concepts translated, respectively, as consciousness and life, human nature and life, essence and life, nature and existence, or soul and energy. This is clearly a case where attempting to  translate these concepts into English will fail ot render the an appropriate representation of what is meant. Regardless, what we are presented with is a dichotomy of form versus function, respectively. In both the Wilhelm and Cleary, ming is rendered as “life”. Xing is the energy from which the hun is derived. Ming is the energy of the po.

Ming is also translated as “destiny” and in the Chinese language, to “lose one’s ming” is to die. Ming shares a relationship with both qi and with jing, as well as with the body itself. Ming is yin because of it’s associated with the po and vise versa for xing, yang, and hun. Ming is said to rest in the Kidneys or in the lower dantian. Xing is said to rest in the chest or in the upper dantian and is associated with the Heart. Xing is also said to correspond to the personality and with the yang of the heart, or the emotions. The character for xing is a combination of xin (Heart-Mind) and sheng (generation).

Xing and ming also share correspondences, respectively, with Heaven and Earth, the Sky and the Light, the Heart-Mind and the Three Treasures, Li (fire) and Kan (water), and to the flame of a lamp and the oil that burns.

It is said that the objective of Daoist alchemy is to “bring one’s form (xing) to completion by means of the Dao” and “extend one’s life (ming) by means of practice.”

Backward-flowing method

This image is from the 1962 edition (pg. 65) and it contains a footnote from Cary F. Baynes remarking that there is no reason not to include the residuals of “kuei” (gui) in the return to the Dao. This is a fantastic point, in light of my earlier remark that the text seems to value the yang ultimately over the yin.

The intellectual project I am embarking on is one of syncretism – I assume this same kind of correspondence can likely be found in other systems of thought and in other works on consciousness (the Upanishads, for instance). The very realm the Daoist’s enjoyed the most was the one where language breaks down and the ineffable seeks to express itself.

I suppose I’m not considered a Daoist insofar as the kind of gnosis I am after is one that is both expressible in words and visualizable, i.e. effable. The nature of the mystery does not 100% penetrate down to the level of human expression. It is, however, fundamentally an experience. The Daoist alchemists are not conceiving models of reality in order to build anti-gravitic crafts, they are doing it to experience first-hand the true nature of reality and become one with it. Mystical yet not without a firm grounding in the world as we know it.

“First establish a firm foothold in daily activities within society. Only then can you cultivate reality and understand essence.” – 1.7, Cleary

“You should know the great concealment
while you dwell in the marketplace.
What need is there of entering the mountains’ depths
and keeping yourself in stillness and solitude?” – Poem 5, Wuzhen Pian, Pregadio

…applied mysticism for the 21st century.


Conner Kees
Source For Well-Being – Black Mountain, NC
Making the Medicine Blog

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