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Nature (Xing) and Life (Ming)

a few words from stuart alve olson Jul 17, 2023

By Stuart Alve Olson

In Taoist Internal Alchemy texts, Xing (性) and Ming (命) are very important concepts. These two terms have varying definitions within Taoist texts, causing some confusion for those studying Internal Alchemy. In the simplest definition, Xing is a reference to our Nature, our mind, consciousness, or Spirit (神, Shen), and Ming is a reference to our Life, the energy and breath that animates all life and our body (氣, Qi).

Within Internal Alchemy teachings, two primary practices were developed:

  1. Cultivating the mind with the intent of removing the obstacles preventing the cultivator from “awakening to one’s true nature,” or sometimes called, “entering the Void or Tao.” Once awakened, one is seen as having obtained the Elixir (丹, Dan).
  2. Cultivating the Three Treasures—Essence (精, Jing), Breath (氣, Qi), and Spirit (神, Shen)—which are considered the ingredients (or components) of the attainment of Immortality (the Elixir).
    These two teachings are divided into Xing (#1) and Ming (#2).

But even with these two divisions made, the Internal Alchemy teachings all agree that Xing and Ming can only be realized (awakened to) in conjunction with one another.

A simple way of understanding this is, Xing is developed through the meditation practices of Sitting and Forgetting (坐望, Zuo Wang, Taoism) and Chan (禪, Zen Buddhism).

Ming is developed through the various methods of Nourishing-Life Arts (養生術, Yang Sheng Shu) of which cultivating the Three Treasures is a major part.

Internal alchemy also views Xing and Ming in terms of being foundational (體, Ti—Xing) and operational (用, Yong—Ming) respectively.

Meaning that Ming is the operational because it contains the practices. But none of that means anything unless you have Xing, the ability to have focus, this meditative aspect. That's why they say Taiji is meditation in motion. Anybody can move, but that doesn't mean anything if it's not grounded in the ability to go into deep states of focus and meditation.

The Ming is the movement of Qi in the body, Xing is the Spirit being awakened in the body. So Ming and Xing in turn are synonymous with Mind (心, Xin) and Body (身, Shen).

So when we read the old Buddhist adage, “First in the mind [Xing], then the body [Ming]; first in the body [Ming], then in the mind [Xing],” Taoist internal alchemy is Ming, and Zen is Xing.

In the book Jade Tablets on Nature and Life (性命圭旨, Xing Ming Gui Zhi) by Yin Zhenren (尹真人, first printed in 1615 CE), he said “Xing (性) is the Original Mind (元神, Yuan Shen) and Ming (命) is the Original Essence (元精, Yuan Jing).”

So, according to Yin Zhenren the two most important aspects of spiritual cultivation (Internal Alchemy) are dependent on the awakening of Spirit (Shen) and the development of Essence (Jing). For example, when we meditate the mental clarity required is Xing, and the attainment of tranquility of the body is Ming.

Both the Shen and Jing are reliant on the Qi, as Qi is required for the function of both Spirit and Essence. This is seen in the Internal Alchemy explanation of stages that “Jing is to be transmuted into Qi, and then Qi transmuted into Shen.”*

* The Four Stages of Internal Alchemy are: 1) Laying the Foundation or sometimes called “Replenishing the Three Treasures.” 2) Transmuting Jing into Qi. 3) Transmuting Qi into Shen. 4) Entering the Void. Stages 1 thru 3 are exclusively Taoist Internal Alchemy methods. Stage 4 belongs to Sitting and Forgetting, and Zen. Zen begins and starts with the 4th Stage without preparation of the body, mind, and spirit as does Taoist Internal Alchemy.

When Yin Zhenren uses the terminology "Original Mind and Original Essence" rather than "Mind and Essence" he's talking about the Mind and Essence in the Before Heaven (先天, Xian Tian) state. Whereas when one says Mind and Essence, they are referring to the Mind and Essence in the After Heaven (後天, Hou Tian) state.

We could also refer to these as the Celestial or Immortal states of being (the Before Heaven) or the Terrestrial or Mortal states of being (the After Heaven.

Therefore, the Before Heaven (what we inherited from our parents) is referring to the Hun (魂, Celestial Spirit) or Original Spirit, existing before your birth into this world. The After Heaven (what is acquired, which is a result of our cultivation) refers to the Po (魄, Terrestrial Spirit) or Conscious Spirit, which is cultivated in this world. The After-Heaven Spirit (Ming) is used to reveal and awaken the Before-Heaven Spirit, and the Before-Heaven Spirit (Xing) is what nourishes the After-Heaven Spirit.

It is through Ming that we can cultivate our mortal health and longevity, which then puts us directly on the path to the attainment of immortality.

The Before Heaven Mind and Essence are not found in worldly matters that we normally decipher through thoughts, feelings, and experiences (our senses), but instead, the Before Heaven Mind and Essence (Xing) are latent, residing deep inside of us, and can only be revealed or accessed during deep abstract meditation in silence (禪, chan) and non-action (無為, wu wei), leading to tranquility (靜, jing, or what Buddhists call samadhi, 三昧, san mei).

Ming is sometimes viewed as the “jing” or essence of the body, but Wang Chongyang (王重陽, 1113–1170 CE) in The Secret of the Golden Flower (金華宗旨, Jin Hua Zong Zhi) described “Qi” as the energy and breath of the body, and so he makes Jing an aspect of Qi.

Zhang Sanfeng (張三豐) in his work Refining the Elixir (鍊丹, Lian Dan) went on to elaborate Wang Chongyang’s idea by stating that Ming is actually Qi energy because Qi energy and Jing essence are paired together, with the Jing essence being the foundation of the innate energy of the body and making Qi the operation for circulating it throughout the body.

Taoist, Li Daochun (李道純, 1279–1368) related in his Middle Harmony Classic (中和集, Zhong He Ji) that Ming is actually the physical body (Jing/Essence) and the Qi (Breath/Vitality). The reason for this is because he interpreted Jing as being the physical origin of our body, so in his thinking, Jing essence would be contained throughout the entire physicality of the body and then be expressed through Qi. It is in this explanation that we see Jing/Essence being related to the idea of Water, and Qi/Breath as Fire. The Kan trigram is the image of Water, and the Li trigram, the image of Fire. The body is primarily made of Water, and the body is warmed and animated by Fire, the breath and Qi. So here again we have the Foundational (Xing and Jing/Water) working in unison with the Operational (Ming and Qi/Fire.

It can likewise be interpreted as Xing being Heaven and Ming the Earth, so they are represented as Qian, the trigram for Heaven, and Kun, the trigram for Earth. Images of three unbroken yang lines [Heaven] and three unbroken yin lines [Earth]. According to the movement of these images, cultivators of the Tao, Internal Alchemy specifically, must discover a way to return the Before Heaven Mind of Fire (two yang lines with a yin line inside) and Water (two yin lines on the outside with a yang line inside) back to their Original Natures of pure yin and pure yang in balance and harmony (called Tai Ji, 太極). This again is another way of looking at Xing and Ming as being of one essence and purpose.


Xing and Ming are, in the end, the Golden Elixir (金丹, Jin Dan). Hopefully, the reader can see after having read the above explanations of Ming and Xing from varying Taoist sources, that Xing and Ming are but one principle with many ways of understanding. If one truly understands Xing and Ming, mastering meditation and acquiring the Elixir is not difficult.

So whether your method of cultivating internal alchemy is from one main internal alchemy text or another, such as:

  • Secret of the Golden Flower (金華宗旨, Jin Hua Zong Zhi)
  • Jade Tablets on Nature and Life (性命圭旨, Xing Ming Gui Zhi)
  • Refining the Elixir (鍊丹, Lian Dan)
  • Master Embracing Simplicity (抱朴子, Bao Pu Zi)
  • Discourse on Understanding Reality (悟真篇, Wu Zhen Pian)
  • The Yellow Court Scriptures (黃庭經, Huang Ting Jing)

Or any of the other Internal Alchemy texts that have been produced over time, they all, in one fashion or another, are expressing the ideas of Xing and Ming. All Taoists begin their cultivation with the practicing of Ming which culminates into Xing, or it might be said, “All internal alchemy methods begin with Action (為, Wei) and end with Non-Action (無為, Wu Wei).




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