Many people around the world who enjoy Yangsheng (养生“life-nourishing”) wonder what is the differences  between qigong, Meditation, and Inner Alchemy? In comparing them, we can begin with their cultural origins, which are closely related to culture and religion. Religion is the palace of the soul, and those familiar with the religions of the east will naturally think of meditation, yoga, and qigong. Along with the transmission of Chinese Daoist culture, people are also beginning to become acquainted with Inner Alchemy (Neidan). From their external appearance, meditation, qigong, and  Inner Alchemy (Neidan) are very similar, but if we consider their cultural implications and origins, their goals and thought processes are completely different.

QiDong, Meditation, Inner Alchemy
             Qigong,  Meditation

Meditation is an important cultural component of Buddhism. From its origins in India and Nepal, Buddhism has promoted a culture of meditation. The reflection of meditation or Buddhist culture is visible also in other religions of these regions, such as in the yoga popular today.

In ancient times there were no stools or chairs, so when everyone gathered to eat or talk they would sit on the ground. There were also religious professionals who survived on donations of food. Monks would sit at the side of the road and receive the charity of believers and others. Over time this formed a culture of meditation, which combined with Buddhist thinking. Buddhism prizes emptiness. For Buddhist believers all the things in the world and in life are empty and illusory, all are produced from the mind, and so they must observe the emptiness, setting aside their desires. Through the process of meditation, they enter into stability (Ru ding 入定) and discover the true self.  

As Buddhism spread around the world it mixed with indigenous culture, forming different sorts of Buddhist culture, including meditation practices. In China, Buddhist meditation is comprised not just of Chan (Zen) meditation and entering stability, but it also mixed with indigenous Chinese body nurturing practices. Meditation also includes popular qigong practices like Tu Na (吐纳) breathing exercises, and the body meridian system. It also mixed in a few shamanic techniques, concentrative absorption, and visualizing beautiful objects when meditating, such as lotus blossoms.

Qigong is a type of body cultivation from ancient China, and while it was not extremely common in ancient Chinese medicine, qigong was created prioritizing a medical perspective on healing. Qigong uses the movements of the limbs to activate the body meridians, smoothing the flow of qi and blood. It uses Tu Na breathing to vibrate the five Zang (五脏)and six fu (六腑) organs, causing a kind of internal movement that assists in healing certain internal diseases and common joint ailments. The “Ancient Music” chapter of The Records of the Grand Historian records that in the tribal era of the distant past, due to frequently overcast and rainy skies, channels of water would be sluggish with silt, and marshes were everywhere. People who lived in damp and cold places experienced sluggishness in their blood and Qi, their tendons and bones would shrivel, their feet and legs would swell, and movement was difficult. Emperor Yao, the leader of the TaoTang tribe, created a kind of dance to use it to clear stasis in the blood and joints and taught it to others. There are many different methods of qigong in the modern world, and there are also more and more new kinds of qigong. The term “qigong” was rarely used in ancient times, practitioners would call their practice “Daoyin” (“guiding and pulling” 导引) After the Republican Period, medical professionals have used the term “qigong.”

Inner Alchemy(Neidan) is a system of thought that combines Yangsheng and philosophy. Daoists call it “the study of immortality” (XianXue 仙学), and is one method Daoists use to pursue long life without aging. Inner Alchemy(Neidan) is also a unique cultural aspect of the Chinese Daoist religion. Its origins can be traced to the time of the Yellow Emperor. In order to become an immortal, the Yellow Emperor visited an immortal to ask about the Dao.

Inner Alchemy/Nei Dan
Inner Alchemy/Nei Dan

Inner Alchemy(Neidan) is a kind of visual metaphor for the body’s natural healing abilities. Through focusing intention on one place we can gather the body’s healing abilities and nurture them, continuously enriching and amplifying them. After that, we can connect the Ren  and du  (conception and governing) vessels to form the microcosmic orbit (Xiao ZhouTian 小周天). After the microcosmic orbit is activated we can continue to activate the remaining six vessels, until all eight extraordinary vessels (QiJing BaMai 奇经八脉) are activated in the macrocosmic orbit (Da ZhouTian 大周天). After the macrocosmic orbit is activated we can use intention to convey the body’s natural healing abilities through the twelve meridians. After activating the twelve meridians we can continuously use these abilities to nourish our five Zang and six fu organs.

In our bodies, we have twelve meridians that pertain to our five Zang and six fu organs, but the eight extraordinary vessels do not connect to any of the organs. However, they are extremely important in our bodies. Their function is to transport the ability of the body to the twelve meridians and make the twelve meridians link with one another.

Author: Daoist Master XuanYun Zhou

Translator: Larson Di Fiori