The Idea of Immortality in Chinese Thought

And Its Influence on Taiji Quan and Qigong

Author: Arieh Lev Breslow, M.A.

Immortality is an age-old dream of human beings. Ancient and modern people, East and West, confront the same dilemma — the absurdity of death and the loss of personal ego. For most of us, it is an unsettling thought that we will grow old, become infirm, and eventually die. Western traditions have dealt with death in many ways. Judaic-Christian teachings promise the resurrection of the dead in the Messianic age. Against the specter of death, modern science has marshaled the technologies of cloning and cryogenics. In both the East and the West, there are an infinite number of products on the market that promise youth and vitality.

Chinese philosophers have always concerned themselves with immortality. Ko Hung and the religious Daoists believed that they could manufacture a pill that would keep them forever young and transform themselves into immortals. Through meditation and special exercises like Qigong and more recently Taiji Quan, Daoists wanted to purify their coarse bodies into subtle spirit and merge with the infinite and eternal Dao. This paper will examine the origins of immortality in Chinese thought and point to its influence on Qigong and Taiji Quan

Religion and Immortality in China

Throughout the centuries, religious attitudes and feelings have played a powerful role in Chinese society. In addition to Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, the central religious movements, various gods, each with his or her own turf, required prayers and offerings in order to safeguard family and home. In his classic study on Chinese religion, C. K. Yang described the result of this attitude on the environs of a traditional Chinese dwelling (Yang, 1961:28):

The influence of religion on the Chinese family life was everywhere

visible. Upon entering any house, one saw paper door gods…painted

on the doors for protection…On the floor was an alter to T?u-ti, the

earth god…T?ien-kuan, the heavenly official, was in the courtyard,

and the wealth gods, who brought well-being and prosperity to the

family, were in the hall in the main room of the house….

In addition to the gods and the various religious movements, ancestor worship exerted its towering presence over family life. This form of homage was the one universal and unifying Chinese religious institution. Ancestor worship fostered a binding relationship between the living and the dead, the former to offer sacrifices and the latter to bestow blessings. With such a powerful institution whose figures lived on in heaven and wielded their authority on earth, it is no wonder that the idea of immortality found fertile ground to grow.

The belief in immortality cut a wide swath across the various philosophical, religious and social camps in Chinese history. Emperors, peasants, merchants and soldiers could share a belief in and the possibility of attaining eternal life. This was possible because religion in China encouraged a dynamic flow between its multitudinous sects and groupings that was unknown in the West. In Europe, one was a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, or a Moslem. An individual could not claim allegiance to more than one religious persuasion simultaneously. In contrast, the Chinese usually did not belong to a specific group nor were they required to profess loyalty to a particular article of faith. Professor Laurence Thompson observed (Thompson, 1989: 2):

Except in the case of the professional living apart in monasteries,

religion in China was so woven into the broad fabric of family and

social life that there was not even a special word for it (religion)

until modern times, when one was coined to match the Western term.

Even the strict and uncompromising Confucians were not immune to the lure of immortality. Only the Buddhists, whose faith contained the doctrine of achieving nirvana or ego extinction, were unsympathetic to the transfiguration of the ego-self. Nevertheless, the Buddhists also allowed for a kind of immortality in the doctrine of reincarnation.

Of the many religious ideas, beliefs, and superstitions, the notion of immortality held a prominent and inspirational position in Chinese society, much like heaven in Western religions. Chinese folklore is filled with the stories of immortals who live forever and obtain supernatural powers such as walking through walls, flying through the air and communing with the dead. These immortals often returned to earth in order to right wrongs and to play tricks on the unwary. The Daoist sage Zhuang Zi (3rd century BCE) drew a vivid portrait of one such immortal (Watson (1964:27):

There is a Holy Man living on faraway Ku-She mountain, with

skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like a young girl. He

doesn?t eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew,

climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and

wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he

can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the

harvest plentiful.

The following piece of folklore is a typical tale of immortality, with a moral to boot (adapted from Van Over, 1984:197):

There once lived a man who claimed to have discovered the secret

of immortality. A Daoist priest decided to seek him out in order to

be his disciple. When he reached the immortal?s abode, he discovered

that the man was dead. The priest was greatly disappointed and left

immediately in great despair.

Now why was the priest disappointed? Was it because the man had

departed from this life? But to become immortal, one must first die.

Significantly, the influence of immortality spilled over into the martial arts. The immortal and Daoist priest, Zhang San-feng, was the legendary founder of Taiji Quan. One tale recounted that he was meditating in a cave when the principles and postures of Taiji came to him in a dream. Another version claimed that the postures suddenly appeared on the wall.

Zhang San-feng reputedly lived 200 hundred years in his physical body and then flew off to heaven as an immortal one. It was said that a Daoist monk taught him the techniques of immortality when he dwelled and meditated on the Wu-Dang mountains, probably the sight of his cave experience. During his mortal life, he performed many miracles and feats of strength that grew out of his knowledge of the shamanistic arts.1

The Origins of Immortality

The Chinese cult of immortality differed from the way people in the West generally viewed immortality. In Western religions, one lived forever and earned the reward of heaven by, for example, believing in the Divinity, performing good deeds and, in some cases, through predetermined selection. In China, those who sought immortality had to harmonize their mental and physical life-force with the eternal life-force of the cosmos. To achieve their goal, they developed a vast array of spiritual practices and alchemical formulas.

Historically, the example of the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) became the paradigm for attaining immortality. While presiding over the China?s legendary Golden age (2852-2255 BCE), not only did he teach the people how to use fire, to plow their fields, and to harvest the thread of the silk worm but he also devoted his considerable talents and resources to acquiring the secret of eternal life. By virtue of his interest in medicine and in nourishing his own vitality, it was a logical step for the Yellow Emperor to seek immortality.2 He reputedly experimented with metals and herbs and eventually found the formula for the golden elixir of immortality. After taking the drug, he mounted a dragon and flew away to the world of the immortals. Some legends recorded that he took his entire household of seventy people with him. Because such a revered figure as the Yellow Emperor was linked to immortality, it was difficult for later philosophers to deny its existence outright.

Following in the wake of the Yellow Emperor, the Fang-shih (magicians) were the keepers of the secret of immortality. These shamans practiced many mystical arts such as astrology, spiritual healing, and divination. The general populace believed in their powers to achieve immortality, to heal the sick, and to perform miracles. Occasionally, they obtained the patronage of the ruling class. One famous emperor, Shih Huang Di (259-210 BCE) sent a famous Fang-Shih on a quest to find the Isle of immortals and to bring back the elixir of immortality. He equipped a sea-faring expedition of three thousand men and women with ample supplies to accompany the shaman. They never returned. One legend recorded that that they found the isle of immortality and decided to remain there as immortals. Another tale averred that they found the Japanese Islands where the shaman crowned himself king and established a kingdom with his retinue. As for the hapless Emperor, he used to wander along the shore, gazing at the Eastern horizon in the hope of spotting the returning expedition.

Lao Zi and Immortality

From the 3rd century BCE, several streams of Daoism flourished. While certain later branches of Daoism became identified as seekers of eternal life, other Daoists did not focus their efforts on achieving immortality. On the other hand, all Daoists shared in common a reverence for the Yellow Emperor and the heritage of Lao Zi (6th century BCE) as their historical sources. Daoists were often called Huang Lao because they were followers of both Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) and Lao Zi.

Fung Yu-lan, the great twentieth century philosopher and historian, wrote that the best way to understand Daoism is to divide it into two distinct movements (Fung:3): Philosophical Daoism (Dao Jia) and Religious Daoism (Dao Jiao). Philosophical Daoists accepted certain ideas of Lao Zi such as Dao being the creative life force of the universe, a love of nature, and a rejection of war. Religious Daoists, on the other hand, transformed Lao Zi?s ideas into an all-inclusive belief system, with the Dao De Jing, his masterpiece, as their bible.

If the Yellow Emperor was the mythical inspiration for Daosim, Lao Zi was its intellectual progenitor. Writing in his own enigmatic and at times indecipherable style, Lao Zi advocated that the sage must strive to comprehend the mysterious workings of heaven and earth, that is, the Dao. Then, once these laws were understood as well as humanly possible, the sage must bring himself into harmony with them.

Lao Zi was aware that knowing the Dao was no easy task. In the first chapter of the Dao De Jing, Lao Zi informed his reader that the Dao cannot be named, that it is mysterious, and that it is ?darkness within darkness.?3 Yet this mysterious Dao held within it the secret of life, for it was life itself. Furthermore, the Dao was ?eternal.? Thus, later seekers of immortality claimed that the sage who unraveled the secrets of the Dao secured for himself the possibility of merging with it and attaining the gift of eternal life.

In the Dao De Jing, Lao Zi did not speak explicitly on the subject of immortality. Nevertheless, his words, often closer to poetry than a cogent philosophy, profoundly influenced those Daoists seeking immortality. They interpreted his work to show that he was indeed believed in immortality, pointing to several passages which, they held, supported their claim. In Chapter 33, for example, Lao Zi declared:

He who stays where he is endures.

To die but not to perish

Is to be eternally present.

According to religious Daoists, proper cultivation of the Dao would allow sage to live eternally, even after death. However, many other commentators, like the great Taiji master Zheng Manqing, understood the meaning of this phrase differently. According to Professor Zheng, even though the sage dies, his contribution to humanity (his Dao) lived on.4 In other words, his reputation and good deeds remained as his living testament.5

Another example where the religious Daoists uncovered the idea of immortality was found in Chapter 50. Lao Zi wrote:

Rhinoceroses can find no place

To thrust their horns,

Tigers no place to use their claws,6

And weapons no place to pierce.

Why is this so?

Because he has no place for death to enter.

It is noteworthy that Fung Yu-lan argued that doctrine of immortality contradicted the spirit of Lao Zi and his writings.7 Lao Zi believed that human beings should follow in the ?natural? course of things.8 Life was followed by death and the sage should calmly accept this reality with cold indifference. Religious Daoists, on the other hand, focused their efforts on achieving immortality, which was the avoidance of death and therefore unnatural.

The Dao De Jing also provided the intellectual and inspirational wellspring for practitioners of Taiji Quan. The book elaborated on the themes of Yin and Yang, Wu Wei (no unnatural action) and the relationship of hard and soft.9 In Chapter 43, Lao Zi postulated: ?The softest thing in the universe overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.? This idea forms the pivot on which the entire system of Taiji stands. Without this principle, one is not practicing Taiji but something else. As the Buddhists were fond of saying, ?Don?t be fooled. A brass monkey may look like a gold monkey, but it is still made of brass.?

Significantly, in Lao Zi, it is possible to see the confluence of Taiji principles with the ideas of immortality. In Chapter 76, he observed:

…the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.

The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Both practitioners of Taiji and seekers of immortality focused on the positive value of life as opposed to death. Each required a gentle touch, patience, sensitivity, and, at times, a merging of one?s personal ego with the greater Dao.

While Lao Zi?s words were easily interpreted in various ways, he remains a seminal figure in the historiography of immortality and Taiji. His pithy insights formed the intellectual framework for both the cults of immortality and the soft-styles of martial arts that followed him.

Public Morality versus Immortality

Not everyone wholeheartedly accepted the doctrine of immortality. Often its opponents cloaked their dispute in evasive language, seldom attacking the popular precept head-on. In this debate, what was not said was of equal importance to what was. This was the case with Confucius, the most influential of all Chinese teachers.

Confucius (b. 551 BCE), like Lao Zi, did not speak about immortality directly. Rather, he focused his attention elsewhere on the Dao (way) of humanity. He was concerned about public morality in the here and now. This meant that he stressed the principles of righteousness, justice, and benevolence and urged his students to weave these teachings into the moral fabric of normative society. Essentially, he was a social reformer, a radical conservative who wanted his followers to return to the traditional ways of the Chinese Classics. The following represents his down-to-earth view of the spirit world:

Chi Lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead.

The Master said: ?If you are not able to serve men,

How can you serve their spirits??

Chi Lu added, ?I venture to ask about dead??

He was answered, ?While you do not know life,

How can you know about death?? (Legge, 1971:241-42)


The subjects on which the Master did not talk were —

extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder,

and spiritual beings. (Ibid.:201)

The fact that he did not speak about ?spiritual beings? and immortality suggests that, at the very least, he found the idea problematic. His silence would be something like Thomas Jefferson refusing to comment on an important article in the Bill of Rights. Yet, in an interesting twist of logic, some later Daoists claimed that Confucius knew more about the spirit world than anyone else precisely because he did not speak about it (Fung, 1966:219).

Other philosophers, who followed Confucius, also preferred to ignore the issue of immortality. Yang Xing (53 BCE-18 CE), a philosopher who combined Daoism with Confucianism, was asked to expound on the ?actual truth? about immortals. He observed: ?I shall have nothing to do with the question (of immortals). Their existence or nonexistence is not something to talk about. What should be asked are questions on loyalty and filial piety? (Chan, 1973:290). In public, similar to Confucius, Yang believed that the sage should teach the Dao of humanity, presumably to establish a just and benevolent society. Notice that he did not deny the existence of immortals. Rather he preferred to deflect the question while emphasizing the Dao of humanity.

The Outer Elixir (wai-dan)

The path to immortality was divided into two streams with different emphasis and methods: the outer elixir (wai-dan) and the inner elixir (nei-dan). The two were not mutually exclusive, although the inner elixir gradually became the method of choice for the vast majority of Daoists. It is interesting to note that the inner and the outer method is the same classification used in defining the two major schools of Qigong.

To understand the mechanism of immortality, we must grasp the following important concept. The seekers of both the outer and inner schools believed that a person?s Qi or life-force was composed of the same stuff as the ?eternal? cosmic Qi of the universe. According to most Chinese thinkers, everything had its origins in the cosmic Qi of Dao, which was something like the mountain water-source of a great river.10 The great Neo-Confucian Zhang Zai (1020-1077) explained the unity of Qi in this manner (Chan:502):

When it is understood that the Vacuity, the Void, is nothing but

material force (Qi),

then existence and nonexistence, the hidden

and the manifested, spirit and eternal transformation,

and human

nature and destiny are all one and not a duality. 11

The followers of the outer school sought to produce the pill of immortality from metals and herbs through alchemical processes.12 Their goal was to bridge and unify the apparent duality of human Qi and cosmic Qi. The difference between the two Qi?s was one of appearance such as water, steam, and ice. Their essence or Qi was the same — H2O. These pioneers of the modern laboratory scientist believed that a pill of gold and cinnabar combined with other ingredients such as lead and water would restore, balance, and harmonize the individual?s personal Qi with the cosmic Qi. Cinnabar (red mercury ore) and gold were touted as the key ingredients of the elixir because they contained unique qualities of indestructibility and endurance.

The best known alchemist of the outer school was Ko Hung (284-364). He wrote the Pao-p?u tzu, a ?how-to? book detailing specific techniques and practices for attaining immortality.13 Ko Hung believed that only the pill of immortality could fulfill the promise of eternal life. Physical exercise, sexual yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation could prolong life but could not bestow the gift of immortality. Moreover, the pill could grant supernatural powers such as the ability to walk on water or to commune with the spirit world.

However, the pill alone could not produce immortality. Despite his belief in the elixir?s magic, Ko Hung was also a committed Confucian. In order to achieve immortality, the practitioner had to practice the Confucian virtues of filial piety, good deeds, loyalty, trustworthiness, and sincerity. This is an interesting point because Ko Hung viewed immortality differently from Confucius and Yang Xing who refused to talk about immortals. It also highlights a Chinese worldview that emphasized the unity of mind and body. The wholeness of the person — spiritual, physical, and moral — was required in order to achieve immortality. A thief, for example, could imbibe the elixir of immortality and not achieve eternal life due to his character deficiencies.

The Inner Elixir (nei-dan)

Later, by the Sung dynasty (960-1279), the quest for the elixir of immortality became increasingly understood in spiritual rather than physical terms. In part this evolution might be attributed to the lack of verifiable success regarding the outer school?s approach.14 Then, too, Neo-Confucian rationalists such as Qeng I and Zhu Xi, who came to dominate Chinese thought from the 10th century CE, did not take kindly to the notion of immortality. The rise of Buddhism was another factor. Because of its highly sophisticated meditation techniques, Buddhism challenged both Daoism and Confucianism to develop their own equally skilled methods of contemplation, which many seekers then applied to achieving immortality.

The objective of Daoist spiritual yoga was the liberation of the yang soul (Shen) from the hindrance of the yin or gross physical body. Traditionally, the Chinese understood that this separation occurred with death, but the Daoists came to believe it could happen while one lived. Taking their cue and terminology from the outer school, they sought to transform the body into an alchemical laboratory. For example, one early master of spiritual alchemy explained that the semen corresponded to lead, blood to mercury, kidneys to water, and the mind to fire. By mixing these elements together, the meditator created the elixir of immortality in the fiery cauldron of his own body.

Gradually the Inner school rejected the outer school?s terminology and developed its own framework known as the ?Three Treasures?: Jing (essence), Qi (vitality), and Shen (spirit). Each of the three treasures had two parts, an abstract and a concrete dimension.

Concrete Abstract Body

Jing (essence):

male sperm and creativity as genitals

female sexual fluids the seed of life

Qi (vitality):

air and breath internal energy stomach,

Dan Tien

and life force lungs

Shen (spirit):

ordinary conscious spiritual head and heart

thoughts and feelings consciousness

To preserve life and to attain immortality, the Three Treasures had to be conserved and blended into a balanced harmony. Through daily nourishment, seekers of the inner elixir sought to cultivate the natural growth of the Three Treasures. For example, the breath was not merely a means for maintaining life. If the breath were not regulated properly, the person?s life-force would be used up. Conversely, correct breathing techniques would greatly increase the life-force in the body.

Ejaculation was another example of body ecology and conservation. Daoists seeking immortality believed that the semen represented a major source of Qi and had to be preserved within the body, particularly as one grew older.15 During the act of lovemaking, through various techniques, the male would prevent ejaculation, thereby sending the semen (Jing) back through the spinal passage as refined life-force (Qi) and to the brain where it nourished the spirit (Shen).

The Daoist seekers of immortality believed that the bodily processes and functions normally leading to death could be ?reversed? by concentrating and purifying the Three Treasures.16 By reversing the life-to-death process with various meditation and visualization techniques, one could return to his or her state of ?pre-birth? and transform the coarse body into subtle energy. This was the same principle as utilized in sexual yoga — the transmuting of Jing into Qi and then Qi into Shen.

Qigong exercises and Taiji Quan were important vehicles to improve health and, for some, to attain immortality. These kinds of exercises were highly valued because they conserved and strengthened the life-force of the body, allowing the Qi to flow evenly and freely along the spine to the head.

The same principle used in immortality was also adopted by the Taiji Classics and became a hallmark in its concept of self-defense. The Taiji Classics extolled the principle of the ?suspended headtop? in order to promote a light and responsive body: ?When the ching shen (spirit) is raised, there is no fault of stagnancy and heaviness? (Lo, Inn, Amacker, Foe, 1985:47). In other words, the body reacts quickly and appropriately to the attack of an opponent because mind and posture have allowed the Jing and Qi to flow freely and to become Shen.17

Generally, in order to conserve their Qi and to prepare themselves for immortality, Daoists followed the Middle Path where they avoided excess in all things. Moderation was their by-word. Even Daoist exercises like Qigong were kept within the bounds of common sense. One of my Taiji teachers often reminded us to do our best but don?t overdo. The following is a Daoist checklist on maintaining moderation (adapted from Cooper, 1990:104):

1) excessive walking harms the nerves

2) excessive standing harms the bones

3) too much sleep harms the blood vessels

4) sitting too long harms the blood

5) listening to much impairs the generative powers

6) looking at things too long harms the spirit

7) talking too much affects the breath

8) Thinking too hard upsets the stomach

9) Too much sex injures the life force

10) eating too much damages the heart

Taiji masters also recommended that their students should follow the path of moderation. The Taiji Classics state (Lo, Amacker…:31):

It is not excessive or deficient;

Accordingly when it bends,

It then straightens.

In practical terms, this meant that, whether practicing the Taiji form or sparring with an opponent, one must hold to the center. ?Excessive? indicates that one should not to bend over too far and ?deficient? means not to lose contact with the opponent (Wile, T?ai Touchstones:117-18).

Pre-natal Breathing: A practical lesson

To understand the theory of the inner school, it might be helpful to examine a technique of breathing called ?pre-natal? or ?reverse? breathing. This technique is characterized by contracting the lower abdomen on the in-breath and the expanding it on the out-breath. According to the Daoists, each baby is born with pre-natal Qi, which is the life-force it receives before birth. Some babies are endowed with more Qi than others, depending on the health of the parents, genetic inheritance, and other factors. Before the baby is born, he takes in his nourishment and oxygen through the umbilical cord and stores the energy in his Dan Tien. Once the baby is born, breathing from the nose and mouth begins, which is known as ?post-birth? breathing. This transition marks the end of pre-natal breathing.

However, if we closely observe a baby breathing, we will see that, while he breathes through his nose, he is still using his stomach in the breathing process. We can actually observe the abdomen moving rhythmically with the breath. The Daoists noticed that, as one grows older, the diaphragm and the abdomen are employed less and less. The breath gradually moves higher in the lungs until it flies out of the mouth, culminating in death.

The Daoists hoped to accomplish two goals with the technique of pre-natal breathing. They wanted to reverse the upward pattern of the breath, so that it would remain deep in the lower stomach, that is, in the Dan Tien. In this way, it was thought that a person would not ?expire.? They accomplished this goal by harmonizing the movement of the abdomen and the breath.

Secondly, the Daoists believed that, when one?s Qi was depleted, the person died. Thus, if one could conserve, strengthen and nourish the prenatal Qi stored in the Dan Tien, then he or she would never get sick and die. The Daoists hoped to accomplish this by mixing the Qi from the air outside the body, a never-ending source, with the pre-natal Qi inside the body. This was done by simultaneously contracting the Dan Tien and inhaling of fresh air, joining them together in the area of the diaphragm, and then sending the revitalized Qi back to its storage place in the Dan Tien.

Immortality At Last

One who attained immortality became a ?Xian.? The modern pictogram for a Xian contained a man and a mountain, suggesting the correlation between the recluse and immortality. The earlier pictogram for Xian showed a man ascending toward heaven. Historically, the best known immortals in Chinese mythology were the Eight Immortals, who were often depicted in Chinese art. They represented the eight conditions of life: youth, old age, poverty, riches, nobility, common people, woman, and man.

Ko Hung divided immortals into three categories: celestial, terrestrial, and those who have given up the body. Celestial immortals fly to heaven with their bodies intact like the Yellow Emperor. Terrestrial immortals dwell in mountains or forests. Ko Hung?s death was reputedly an example of the third kind. When he died, he was placed in a coffin. Later when the coffin was opened, only his clothes remained. This passing to the spirit world represented a cross-cultural, archetypal image as it closely resembled the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament.

In Chinese folklore, the types of immortals appeared less clear than Ko Hung?s definitions of the Xian. Did the immortal one remain the same after achieving immortality, his or her Qi having reached the point of indestructibility, or did he or she die, dropping the physical body while the body/mind was transfigured into subtle energy? The answer was that the immortal one could do and be just about anything he or she pleased. Whatever precisely occurred, the immortal one was viewed as a power technician of the highest rank. This meant that he could transform his body and environment to the shape of his will. The immortal one often performed magic and miracles. This ability came from great personal power and a deep understanding of the way energy worked.

The following legends illustrate the above point and demonstrate the convergence of immortality with personal power and martial arts. When Zhang San-feng, the father of Taiji Quan, was on his way to the capital at the invitation of Emperor Huizong (1092-1135), he had to pass through mountains populated by dangerous bandits. That night Yuandi, one of the semi-divine immortals visited him in a dream and taught him certain self-defense techniques. The following day, Zhang was attacked and he reputedly killed more than a hundred bandits.

Another story about Zhang described his great personal power. Apparently, in winter, Zhang would walk out of the monastery to enjoy the hoary landscape. It was said that he left no footprints on the snowy paths. The legend does not say whether he flew or stepped down without leaving an indentation. Presumably, he could do either.

Immortality in the Modern Age

In the modern world, belief in the elixir of immortality has fallen by the wayside. Yet we have much to be thankful for its existence and those seekers who aimed for the stars but still reached the moon. Fung Yu-lan, for example, praised religious Daoism as heralding the spirit of modern science. Daoist alchemists accumulated a massive body of medical lore and laid the basis for modern chemistry, metallurgy, botany, herbalogy, and zoology. Traditional Chinese medicine was also greatly beholden to the seekers of immortality.

The search for immortality gave impetus to the belief that human beings can live healthier, longer, and happier lives. It offered an ancient and well-tested structure of exercise, meditation and visualization that enabled ordinary people to dramatically enhance the quality of their lives. While promising no guarantees regarding death and sickness, the Daoist health systems postulated that it is best to follow the Dao, to ?walk like a cat? so that one might live as a lion in winter.18 The Taiji Classics sum it up best: ?Think it over carefully what the final purpose is: to lengthen life and maintain youth.? (Lo, Inn, Amacker, Foe:66)


n 1935 John Blofeld met a Daoist monk at his monastery in the mountains. This was what that monk had to say about immortals (Blofeld, 1979:180):

Immortals not only break wind or belch like other people, they die….

Becoming immortal has little to do with physical changes, like the

graying of a once glossy black beard; it means coming to know

something, realizing something — an experience that can happen

in a flash! Ah, how precious is that knowledge! When it first strikes

you, you want to sing and dance, or you nearly die of laughing! For

suddenly you recognize that nothing in the world can hurt you.

                    • ******


1. For more about Zheng San-feng, see Breslow, Beyond the Closed Door, pp. 200-209.

2. The Yellow Emperor?s Classic of Internal Medicine, which consists of the Yellow Emperor inquiring about questions of health from his minister Qi Po, forms the basis for traditional Chinese medical practices.

3. All translations of the Dao De Jing come from Feng and English.

4. Lao Tzu: My Words are Easy to understand, in commentary, Chapter, 33, p. 119. Tam Gibbs translated the verse differently: ?One who does not lose what he has gained is durable. One who dies yet remains has longevity.?

5. This idea is echoed in other cultures. In Judaism, there is this adage: ?The righteous live through their deeds even though they are dead while the unrighteous are dead even though they live.?

6. This phrase should be compared with the wonderful story Robert Smith told when Professor Zheng encountered a tiger in the JAMA, vol. 6, no. 2, 1997, p. 66-68. Then, read the Professor?s commentary on Lao Zi (the one we quoted in the text) in Cheng Man-Ch?ing?s Advanced T?ai-Chi Form Instructions, trans. by Douglas Wile, p. 25.

7. Fung:3

8. See Dao De Jing, Chapter 25.

9. I am often surprised how few practitioners of martial arts, particularly students of Taiji, have studied Lao Zi?s masterpiece in depth. It should be read and reread along with the Taiji Classics and Sun Zu?s, The Art of War.

10. Dao De Jing, Chapter 42. The T?ai Chi Classics also state this principle: ?T?ai Chi comes from Wu Chi and is the mother of Yin and Yang.? (Lo, Inn:31)

11. Many great martial artists drew on their harmony with cosmic Qi for their spiritual inspiration and physical power. Witness the words of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Akido (Stevens, 1987:112):

Regardless of how quickly an opponent attacks or how slowly I

respond, I cannot be defeated…As soon as the thought of attack

crosses my opponent?s mind, he shatters the harmony of the

universe and is instantly defeated regardless of how quickly he

attacks. Victory or defeat is not a matter of time and space.

12. We should be misled into thinking that the pill is part of the inner school merely because it is ingested.

13. For more on Ko Hung, see Breslow, pages 132-33, Cooper in Chinese Alchemy and The Encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and Religion, p. 183.

14. How one verifies the existence of immortals or the success of such an endeavor is an interesting problem. Few mystics, East or West, are willing to put themselves to the test. Besides, spirits and immortals are known to be notoriously shy. Furthermore, the Daoists of both the inner and the outer schools were not interested in proving anything. They were simply doers, striving to achieve immortality, often recluses who were unconcerned with the cares of the world. They had nothing to prove.

15. Su Nu, the Yellow Emperor?s female advisor, suggested the following approach:

When a man loves once without losing his semen,

He will strengthen his body,

If he loves twice without losing it,

His hearing and vision will become more acute.

If three times, all diseases may disappear.

If four times, he will have peace of mind.

If five times, his heart and blood circulation

will be revitalized.

If six times, his loins will become strong.

If seven times, his buttocks and thighs

may become more powerful.

If eight times, his skin may become smooth.

If nine times, he will become immortal.

(?The Secrets of the Jade Chamber? quoted from Chang, 1977:44)

16. Today, teachers of Taiji and Qigong are more modest in their claims and tend to use the words ?halting? or ?arresting? the process of old age instead of ?reversing it.? Nevertheless, in some cases, I have seen people drop ten years by strengthening their Qi.

17. See Breslow, pages 282-83, 299.

18. The Taiji Classics tell us to ?Walk like a cat.?


Arieh Lev Breslow is a thirty-year certified practitioner of Taijiquan. He has taught Taiji and Qigong in Wellness Centers and Taiji gatherings throughout Europe, Israel and the United States. Recently he wrote ?The Tai Chi Falls Prevention Manual for Seniors and the Physically Challenged? and produced video that demonstrates the Manual?s exercises. The Manual and video comprise a complete program designed with the goal of improving the walking ability for those with balance problems. The Manual includes leg strengthening and Taiji balance exercises along with warm-ups and self-massage techniques.

Arieh has also written extensively in the field of Taiji and Qigong. ?Beyond The Closed Door: Chinese Culture and the Creation of T?ai Chi Ch?uan? was his first book. It has been acclaimed for its erudition and accessibility to the general public and is considered one of the best sources for the origins and history of Taiji. His second book, ?When Less is More: Using the Mind to Exercise the Body,? teaches meditation, Qigong and visualization exercises for health from both a theoretical and practical perspective. Accompanying ?When Less is More? is a video that demonstrates the Qigong exercises found in the book. He has also written numerous articles on Taiji including ?Tai Chi: The Cosmic Mobile,? and ?The Importance of Yielding in Push Hands? which appeared in the T?ai Chi Journal and ?Immortality in Chinese Thought and its Influence on Taijiquan and Qigong,? which appeared in The Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Recently an article on his work with Taiji and older adults appeared in Tai Chi Chuan, The Journal of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain.

His first novel, ?On the Wings of a Dragon,? has just been published and is a whodunit based on his extensive knowledge of Chinese immortality and martial arts. A new book of essays will be published soon called, ?In the Garden of my Teachers.?

Arieh is married to Anne who also teaches Taiji and Qigong along with dance. They have three daughters and live near Jerusalem, Israel.

Arieh can be reached at:

Phone: 972-993-3394 or 052-845-5101


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