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Tang Dynasty Taoist Li Daozi’s Seven Levels of Tai Chi Internal Cultivation Practice

           In the “Great Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Personalities,” only Li Daozi’s proficiency in “Nirvana Sutra” and “Abhidharma” is recorded. This matches exactly with the records in the “Biography of the Ten Powers,” which mentions his expertise in “Nirvana and Abhidharma.” However, the dictionary does not mention Li Daozi’s other areas of knowledge. In contrast, the “Biography of the Ten Powers” provides detailed accounts, describing him as proficient in literature, martial arts, medicine, and the Yi Jing, covering a broad range of skills including “Nirvana, Abhidharma, the Huang-Lao teachings, promoting the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.” Yet, there are no records of Li Daozi’s writings in historical materials. The “Biography of the Ten Powers” specifically highlights Li Daozi’s martial arts achievements, namely his creation of the “Wuji Life-Preserving Martial Arts.” It also details the theoretical foundation of this martial arts system, identifying it as crucial for understanding the origins of Tai Chi theory, which aids in the in-depth study of Tai Chi principles and techniques. As Chen Wangting mentions in one of his poems, “A scroll of Huang Ting is always by my side.” The significant value of the “Biography of the Ten Powers” lies in providing a clearer and more accurate understanding of the origins and evolution of Tai Chi, illustrating that it developed gradually through long-term accumulation. For instance, the health-preserving aspects of Tai Chi, including guided breathing exercises, can be traced back to the pre-Qin period. The discovery of these historical materials at Qianzai Temple reveals the traces of its evolution, from a simple health practice to a combination with martial arts techniques, a process that aligns with the historical development of martial arts.

           In June 2005, villagers in Tangcun unearthed a fragment of the “Northern Wei Monk Hui Statue Inscription” in a river. This stele, originally located inside the gate of Qianzai Temple, was erected in the third year of Wu Ding during the Eastern Wei Dynasty (545). The “He Nei County Annals” from the Daoguang period (1821–1850) contains the full text of this stele, which includes phrases like “thus able to spread the fragrant wind across the barren wilderness and strike jade chimes in the land of Wuji,” and “Qianzai Temple had the great monk Du Fa’en, who established wonderful causes from the initial heart, building pure karma in the old land of Wuji.” This shows that as early as the Southern and Northern Dynasties, Qianzai Temple in Tangcun was already known as “the land of Wuji,” indicating that the Wuji health-preserving methods incorporated both Daoist and Buddhist elements, not just Daoist practices. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that Wuji Life-Preserving Martial Arts (Wuji Boxing) originated from Qianzai Temple. However, based on current materials, the specific era of Wuji Life-Preserving Martial Arts (Wuji Boxing) can only be traced back to the Ming Dynasty.

Secret Teaching Song:

Formless and shapeless (forgetting oneself),
The whole body is empty (internal and external unity).
Responding naturally (as the heart desires),
Hanging chimes in the western mountains (boundless as the sea and sky).

Tiger roars and monkey calls (cultivating Yin essence),
Springs clear and rivers calm (the spirit lives when the heart dies).
Stirring the ocean (Qi flow),
Fulfilling nature and destiny (calm spirit and sufficient Qi).

These are the seven levels of internal cultivation practice of Tai Chi by the Daoist Li Daozi during the Tang Dynasty.

  1. The first level involves reverse abdominal breathing
                 During stance work, coordinate movements with breathing: inhale and contract the abdomen slightly lifting the anus, exhale and relax the abdomen naturally. The principle of matching movement with breathin  g is: inhale on rising, exhale on lowering; inhale on closing, exhale on opening; inhale on retreating, exhale on advancing; inhale on bending, exhale on stretching; inhale on looking up, exhale on looking down. That is: inhale to gather and store, to retreat and rise, to come in and collect and transform, drawing the soft Yin; exhale to release and strike, to extend and advance and drop, to go out and release and hit, attacking the hard Yang. Once the breathing matches the movement naturally, proceed to the next level of practice.
  2. The second level involves focusing on the Dantian
            While in stance, focus your intention on the Dantian, located about 1.5 inches below the navel, maintaining reverse abdominal breathing. Continue until a sensation of warmth is felt in the Dantian, then move on to the next level of practice.


The third level involves focusing on the heavy floor method
Focus is placed on the area below the Adam’s apple, 1 inch inside the Heavenly Rushing acupoint. Continue with stance work and reverse abdominal breathing as usual. The breath should be slow and even until it becomes inaudible, indicating readiness to proceed to the next level.

  1. The fourth level involves focusing on the life gate method
                While in stance, place your intention on the area directly behind the navel, targeting the life gate acupoint, until warmth is felt at the focus point. Then, proceed to the next level of practice.
  2. The fifth level involves internal Dantian rotation
                     This practice is divided into three steps. The first step, during Tai Chi practice, continue using reverse abdominal breathing. When the movement goes left, inhale and use your intention to guide the internal Qi from the lower area of the pubic bone, first left then right following the yin-yang fish path to below the navel, inhaling to the end. At this time, contract the abdomen, the diaphragm naturally descends, the anus slightly contracts, as if holding back a bowel movement, gathering Qi in the upper part of the Dantian. Then slowly exhale through the nose, using your intention to make the internal Qi gently move left in a semicircular arc sinking to the pubic area, the anus then relaxes, Qi sinks to the lower part of the Dantian. When the movement goes right, do the opposite. After mastering this step, proceed to the second step. The second step, regardless of the direction of the movement, when inhaling, use the intention to guide the Qi from the perineum forward then backward following the yin-yang fish path, rising to the middle between the navel and the life gate and stopping. When exhaling, move from this position in an arc forward, passing the Dantian to the perineum. When inhaling again, Qi moves backward along the yin-yang fish to the middle between the navel and the life gate, and when exhaling, it moves backward in an arc to the perineum. After mastering this step, proceed to the third step. The third step, with breathing like the first step, make the Qi move from the pubic bone left then right following the yin-yang fish path with inhalation, and with exhalation move left in a semicircle to the pubic area, then without distinguishing the direction of the movement, inhale again moving right following the yin-yang fish, exhale moving right in a semicircle down to the pubic bone, continue left and right without interruption until the practice is completed.


  1. The sixth level involves Dantian breathing

  1.               This breathing method is about ascending from below and descending from above, with the heart leading the Qi and the Qi moving the body, with internal focus and external ease. When inhaling, Qi travels through the three yin meridians of the hand and foot, then under internal visualization, hand three yin pass through the Heavenly Rushing and Ren meridian, foot three yin through the perineum, Qi Sea gathering below the navel in the Dantian. After inhaling, Qi shoots to the life gate at the back, lifting the anus, with a slight pause in breathing. When exhaling, Qi travels up through the Governor Vessel, Great Vertebra to the fingertips of the hand three yang, down through the Ring Jump to the ends of the foot three yang. After mastering, proceed to the seventh level.
  2. The seventh level involves meridian circulation
  3.            The seventh layer of practice involves the circulation of meridians throughout the body.
  4. With reverse abdominal breathing, during inhalation, the Qi moves from the Yongquan point through the three Yin channels of the foot to the Huiyin point, circles around the front of the Yin to the Changqiang and Mingmen points, ascends along the Du meridian to Baihui, passes through Tianmu (upper Dantian), Xuanguan, descends through Zhonglou, Tiantu, divides into the three Yin channels of the hand to Laogong, through Shaoshang, Shangyang, moves to Zhonglou, Tiantu along the Ren meridian. It then descends to the middle Dantian, lower Dantian, circles around the front Yin to Huiyin, divides to Huanjiao, moves through the three Yang channels of the foot, circles to the dorsum of the foot, toes, and back to Yongquan.

  1. Interpretation of the secret song:
  2. Formless and shapeless:


  1.              In martial arts, there is no strict definition of “form” and “image”; they generally refer to entities that can be seen or felt, leave an impression, and can be described. Physical movements can be seen as external forms, while internal practice can be felt as internal phenomena. “Qi moves through the membranes, tendons, and veins; strength comes from the blood, flesh, skin, and bones. Thus, those with strength are externally robust in skin and bones, which is the form; those with Qi are internally robust in tendons and veins, which is the image. Qi and blood work internally to make one robust; blood and Qi work externally to make one strong.” The basic characteristic of external martial arts is the enhancement of external bodily forms, while the practice process of internal martial arts starts from external forms and seeks internal forms and images without needing external forms; then reaches a state where even internally, forms and images are not needed. This dialectical relationship between presence and absence is one of the key differences between internal and external martial arts. When martial arts evolve from external to internal, a concept emerges: at advanced stages of practice, external forms are no longer important because one is in a natural and correct state, which is the so-called “form without form,” or “self-forgetfulness.” For internal practice, “formless” does not mean lacking an external form but rather being indifferent, not concerned with, and without a fixed form. Tai Chi combat training especially emphasizes moving from having form and method to being formless and methodless, from external to internal, achieving unity of internal and external. From the perspective of internal practice, although “spirit, intention, and Qi” are invisible and intangible, they can be felt, visualized in the brain, and controlled by the brain, especially Qi, which is the main subject of internal practice and the most important component. Whether it’s absorbing external Qi, circulating internal Qi, cultivating true Qi, or nourishing primordial Qi, these practices all have internal forms and images. Through the cultivation of spirit, intention, and Qi, special abilities can be generated in combat, such as the application of force; special effects can also be produced in fitness and health preservation, such as abundant internal Qi and vigorous spirit. When practice reaches the highest stage, internal forms and images are also unimportant, meaning all internal practices have become natural states, without deliberate pursuit or fixed forms, the so-called “intention without intention,” representing a higher level of “self-forgetfulness.” Tai Chi theory’s “guide the mind with the heart, direct Qi with intention, and move the body with Qi” is an explanation of being formless and imageless. At this time in combat, there’s no need to adopt stances or adhere to techniques externally; internally, there’s no need to think about how to circulate Qi or apply force. Thus, being formless and imageless is the Taoist principle of non-action pursued by Tai Chi, overcoming technique with the absence of technique, achieving a state of no external or internal, a unified natural state.


  1. The whole body is transparent:


  1.               This describes a feeling at the highest stage of internal practice, where the entire body, including all pores, should be open during practice, whether standing or practicing Tai Chi, allowing the body to communicate with nature, meaning internal Qi combines with external Qi, capable of connecting with the heavens above and the earth below. This feeling of open pores is based on an extremely soft and relaxed state of the body; on one hand, there’s a sense of expansion around the body, creating an aura; on the other hand, perception becomes extremely sensitive, and any slight changes or stimuli from the outside can be clearly felt. The ability to “be unseen by others while I alone know them” and “appear and disappear unpredictably” in combat stems from this. Achieving unity of internal and external means any external force can be integrated, dissolved, and controlled. The
  2.              opponent feels nothing when touching anywhere, and any attempt to move is restrained everywhere. Being fully transparent means the entire body is naturally relaxed, Qi and blood circulate very naturally and harmoniously, which is what is often referred to as all meridians being unblocked, including the health benefits. In terms of internal practice, it’s about moving from “self-forgetfulness” to “selflessness.”


  1. Respond naturally:


  1.                When one’s body and mind merge with nature, one can naturally respond to everything, embodying the Taoist principle of following nature. Master Wang Peisheng often uses the story of Teacher Huang Sihai’s apprenticeship to explain this phrase. The story tells of Teacher Huang’s early days of learning, where his teacher asked him to push a large stone roller up a mountain. Initially, he only used brute force and gave up halfway through each attempt. Over time, he gradually grasped the pattern and found the knack, allowing him to complete the task effortlessly. The central message of the story is that martial arts practice requires the right mindset, focused concentration, long-term perseverance, and rigorous training. “A rusty iron rod can be ground into a needle; with dedication, natural skill will emerge.” Once one’s skills are honed and patterns are discovered, one can naturally and calmly face any situation, adapting to changes, handling things with ease, and using them freely. In Tai Chi training, this means seeking and achieving a natural state, which involves naturally completing a thorough and comprehensive transformation of the body; achieving the states required by Tai Chi, both internally and externally, to a new natural level.


  1. Hanging chimes in the western mountains:


  1.                The western mountains refer to the chest, representing the western direction, Geng and Xin, associated with metal. The lungs belong to metal, and when the lung lobes are fully open and empty, they feel comfortable. A chime is an ancient percussion instrument that produces sound upon being struck, evoking the sensation of an echo in a valley. Chime also implies emptiness and completeness. Hanging means suspended in the air; if a chime is not hung, it cannot produce sound. Thus, “hanging chimes in the western mountains” means keeping the chest empty, akin to the internal training principle of emptying the mind. Being empty, like a suspended chime, produces a clear and pure sound upon contact, meaning that during Qi Gong or Tai Chi practice, the mind must be thoroughly emptied, and the chest completely relaxed without any tension for exceptional comfort. At the same time, the mind must be free of any distracting thoughts, approached with reverence and respect, to enable grand intentions, akin to the vastness of the sea and sky. Distracting thoughts cause tension in the mind, affecting both practice and push hands; a calm mind and harmonious Qi, free of distractions, lead to tranquility, unaffected by external disturbances, and relaxation enables Qi harmony. Only with a calm mind can Qi be harmonious; a disturbed mind leads to disharmonious Qi. One of the key points of internal training is seeking focused mental concentration and harmonious internal Qi, which is “calm mind and tranquil Qi,” the state “hanging chimes in the western mountains” aims to convey.


  1. Tiger’s roar and monkey’s call:


  1.                During practice, it’s essential to focus on the circulation of internal Qi rather than external breathing, and certainly not to synchronize movements with breathing. Through breath regulation practice, breathing naturally aligns with technical movements, allowing smooth, interconnected, and dynamic internal Qi circulation. Such practice naturally synchronizes breathing with internal Qi, driving technical movements, achieving “Qi and strength unity” and “moving the body with Qi.” In combat, a slight mental focus on this type of external and internal Qi application becomes the so-called throat breathing method. “Tiger’s roar” refers to exhaling with a thought of the throat, producing a deep, low sound reminiscent of a tiger’s roar. With this low-frequency sensation, the Qi from the Dantian is exhaled through the throat, essentially directing internal Qi along the Ren meridian downwards, enabling the projection of thick, long-lasting strength. “Monkey’s call” refers to the clear, distant sound of a monkey’s call during inhalation, thinking of the tip of the nose as if making a monkey’s call, which means inhaling from the tip of the nose, essentially raising internal Qi along the Du meridian, lifting the crown, creating a “full body light and agile” posture, aiding in sticking, lifting, and seizing techniques. The integration of this breathing method with combat techniques is “inhale for closing and storing; exhale for opening and releasing. Naturally, inhaling facilitates lifting and seizing the opponent; exhaling facilitates sinking and releasing the opponent. This is about directing Qi with intention, not forcing Qi with strength.” In internal training, “tiger’s roar and monkey’s call” refers to revitalizing Qi, meaning breath adjustment, the practice of using external breath to drive internal Qi, achieving the descent
  2. of turbid Qi and the rise of clear Qi.


  1. Springs clear and rivers calm:


  1.                 In internal training, “tiger’s roar” exhales, turbid Qi descends from the front; “monkey’s call” inhales, a sensation of Qi rises from the back. Thus, through tiger’s roar and monkey’s call, achieving a state of clarity above and turbidity below begins to enter “springs clear and rivers calm.” “Springs clear” refers to the sensation of water rising from the Yongquan point on the foot and descending from the Jianjing point on the shoulder, clarifying and purifying, ensuring the Yongquan and Jianjing points are aligned and unobstructed. “River” refers to the body’s meridians, and “rivers calm” means the body’s Qi and blood flow quietly and smoothly. The circulation of Qi and blood throughout the limbs, the twelve meridians, and the Eight Extraordinary Meridians, is all in motion, embodying the so-called circulation of the Great Heavenly Circuit in body cultivation. In combat, “springs clear and rivers calm” means internal Qi rises from the soles of the feet and descends from the shoulders, creating a sensation of relaxation from head to toe, providing exceptional comfort above the diaphragm and a sense of overall lightness from the stability below, integrating the body into one unit, experiencing the interplay of movement and stillness from the “movement within stillness, stillness within movement.”


  1. Stirring rivers and oceans:


  1.             “Stirring rivers and oceans” describes the turbulent flow of Qi and blood, allowing internal Qi to descend and then rise, ascending after descending. Initially, internal Qi circulation is combined with reverse breathing, the small Heavenly Circuit in internal training. At this point, “stirring rivers” means ascending from the back of the body, following a path from Yongquan to Weilu, ascending along the Du meridian, passing through Jiaji, rising to Yuzhen, penetrating Baihui. “Spreading seas” means descending from the front of the body, starting from Baihui, descending along the front via the Ren meridian, passing through Danzhong to Huiyin. Then, extending this internal Qi circulation from the torso to the limbs, circulating and ascending internal Qi through the Eight Extraordinary Meridians and the twelve meridians, represents the large Heavenly Circuit in internal training. The foundation of traditional health cultivation practices, achieving this through internal training, manifests the health and wellness effects of Tai Chi. In combat, it refers to the thorough integration and dynamic circulation of Qi throughout the body, distributing strength evenly, allowing the opponent to be controlled from any point of contact.


  1. Fulfilling nature and destiny:


  1.                  “Fulfilling nature and destiny” refers to the dual cultivation of essence and spirit. From the perspective of Daoist cultivation, essence pertains to the kidneys, also known as primordial essence, emanating from the genital root; the kidneys belong to Kan (Water), and the Qi within Kan is the water tiger. Spirit pertains to the heart, also known as the original spirit, emanating from the eyes; the heart belongs to Li (Fire), and the Qi within Li is the fire dragon. The core of Daoist health cultivation practices revolves around methods such as adjusting Kan to fill Li, achieving the cultivation of essence, Qi, and spirit. Thus, essence and spirit are two aspects of a unified entity, interdependent; without essence, spirit cannot exist, and without spirit, essence cannot stand. Since Tai Chi’s internal practice aligns with Daoist cultivation, the dual cultivation of essence and spirit represents the highest pursuit of Tai Chi’s internal practice. From a higher perspective on life, “essence” refers to the human spirit, encompassing mental realms, thoughts, and temperament, with “fulfilling essence” meaning the perfection of human nature through cultivation. “Destiny” refers to the human body, the tangible aspect of life, with “establishing destiny” meaning maintaining a healthy state of the body, extending life. Therefore, “fulfilling nature and establishing destiny” seeks comprehensive development and perfection in both mind and body, aspiring for the highest quality of life, representing the ultimate goal of Tai Chi practice. If we consider the routine practice, “essence at the tip of the nose, destiny at the Mingmen point,” resembles the character “乙” (Yi); one end is essence, the other is destiny. Once the small and large Heavenly Circuits are completed, connecting essence and destiny completes the circle, embodying Tai Chi. Essence and destiny, like the Yin and Yang of Tai Chi, are inseparable parts of a unified whole, with the essence of Tai Chi practice being the dual cultivation of essence and spirit.

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