One of the most interesting things about Daoism is that it does not draw a line between spiritual and physical health. Daoist martial arts, qigong, and meditation all make changes in the body as a form of spiritual practice.
One such Daoist art is bigu (辟谷) which means “avoiding grains”. Bigu is a fasting method where grains (wheat, rice, barley, millet, sorghum, etc.) are eliminated from the diet and the person survives on a small amount of highly nutritious superfoods including foraged raw foods, medicinal herbs and minerals. It is believed to slow down aging, detoxify the body, clean the digestive system, and balance the body’s energy.
Throughout history, different Daoist masters and lineages have had their own version of bigu fasting. By the early 4th century there were over 100 methods. Many of these diet plans can be found in the Daoist Canon. One Daoist text called the Biographies of The Immortals (列仙传) lists the bigu diet as containing seeds, nuts, resin, sap, bark, and roots. Historically, some also choose to drink talisman water (water mixed with the ashes of burned talismans). Legend has it that at the highest level, a master is able to survive on Qi energy alone.
The ancient Daoist text called the “Writings of the Masters of Huainan” says:
“Those who eat meat are brave but cruel.
Those who eat Qi have bright spirits and long lives.
Those who eat grains are intelligent but die early,
Those that do not eat at all are immortal.”
淮南子 (139 BCE)
In order to understand bigu, it is important to know its context. Bigu practice came about when political turmoil and the hope for a more peaceful life caused many to flee to the mountains, where they faced hunger and starvation. Unable to raise livestock or harvest crops, they foraged and gathered herbs order to survive. The diets that they followed also reduced the mountain-dwellers risk of contracting illness from parasites and bacteria. Some Chinese guru-types advertise bigu retreats as a form of weight-loss. However, it is first and foremost a spiritual practice, and is not compatible with the modern Western (or modern Chinese) lifestyle.
In 1994, when I entered the temple on Wudang Mountain, I met a Daoist named Master Mu (穆道长). I often saw him planning flowers around the temple. He hardly ever spoke and I never saw him come to the temple refectory for meals. When I asked about him, I was told that he practiced bigu. At that point he wasn’t eating, only drinking liquids. Last year at Wudang I saw him again. He was still gardening and hardly seemed to have aged at all. I asked about his practice, and told me he was still practicing bigu. That means he has been practicing it for over 22 years!
It would be wrong if me if I didn’t make a note here asking my readers not to seek out Master Mu if you happen to visit Wudang Mountain. He is a private person, and seclusion and quiet are necessary for his practice.