The One Opening of the Mysterious Barrier

Liu Yiming (1734-1821), Cultivating the Tao, Chapter 16

Liu Yiming, 'Cultivating the Tao: Taoism and Internal Alchemy'

Reproduced from:

Cultivating the Tao: Taoism and Internal Alchemy (Xiuzhen houbian)

Liu Yiming (1734-1821)
Translated by Fabrizio Pregadio
Golden Elixir Press, 2013

Divided into 26 short chapters, this book provides a comprehensive overview of the main principles of Taoism and an introduction to Taoist Internal Alchemy, or Neidan, written by one of the most important masters of this tradition.

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A scripture says:

        In the methods of the Way there are 3,600 gates:
        everyone clings to one of them as one's own root.
        You should know that the tiny Opening of the Mysterious Barrier
        is not among those 3,600 gates.(2)

The main point is that this Opening is the utterly mysterious and utterly wondrous Barrier. Here life and death part from one another, and here the saintly and the ordinary separate from one another. This is the secret transmitted from one Patriarch to the next one since ancient times until the present day; it is not something that can be known by means of random conjectures.

Translations from Cultivating the Tao

True and False Body and Mind

Precelestial and Postcelestial Yin and Yang

The One Opening of the Mysterious Barrier

Superior Virtue and Inferior Virtue

Translations from Liu Yiming's commentary to Awakening to Reality

Commentary to Poem 3

Commentary to Poem 7

Among the students of the later generations who have not encountered a true master, some have thought that this Opening is the mouth and the nose; some that it is the point between the eyebrows; some that it is the fontanel; some that it is the cavity of the Hundred Convergences;(3) some that it is the throat; some that it is the Spinal Handle;(4) some that it is the Caudal Funnel;(5) some that it is the opening of the heart; some that it is the Yellow Court;(6) and some that it is the Cinnabar Field, the Origin of the Barrier, or the Ocean of Breath.(7)

None of the above is the One Opening of the Mysterious Barrier. The Mysterious Barrier has no form and no image: how could it have a position? It is not form and it is not emptiness: how could it have a place? If it could be seen through its place or its position, it would be something provided with form and image, and we could not call it Mysterious Barrier.

This Opening does not not stick to the illusory body, and yet it is not separated from the illusory body. It does not stick to the illusory body because it is not a common thing provided with a form; it is not separated from the illusory body because it cannot be sought outside the body. In other words, it is neither something outside the body nor something inside the body. Therefore it can only exist in what is neither inside nor outside. There is a special celestial mechanism in this.

Neidan: Portrait of Liu Yiming (1734-1821)

Liu Yiming
Portrait by Qing-dynasty artist Tang Lian (唐璉)

For this reason, the ancients dare not describe it in writing, but they also dare not keep it secret and be silent about it. They spoke about it by means of metaphors, such as:

– Dwelling of Giving and Taking Life
– Gate of the Mysterious-Female(8)
– Altar of the Dragon and the Tiger
– Opening of the Turtle and the Snake
– Gate of wu and ji
– Barrier of Birth and Death
– Gate of Punishment and Virtue
– Door of Yin and Yang
– Gate of All Marvels
– Mansion of the Inaudible and the Invisible
– Land of the Immortals and the Buddhas
– Opening of Nature (xing) and Existence (ming)
– Chamber of the Original Spirit
– Cavity of Empty Non-Being
– Country of the Majestic Voice Kings(9)

It has many different names, all of which illustrate this One Opening.

Ziyang (Zhang Boduan) said:

        This opening is not a common opening:
        it is formed by the joining of Qian ☰ and Kun ☷.
        Its name is Cavity of Spirit and Breath,
        within there are the essences of Kan ☵ and Li ☲.(10)

These words entirely reveal the celestial mechanism. If someone does not understand them, what can be done?

Now I will not hesitate to speak, and I will give a true reflection of the spirit our ancestral masters, bringing forth what they did not bring forth and disclosing what they did not disclose. Joining them by means of my Spirit, being one with them by means of my Intention, I say to my companions:

        This Opening has a shape similar to Penglai:
        outside it is small, inside it is large,
        and its depth cannot be fathomed.
        It is not round and it is not square;
        within it, "the black and the white tally with each other,"(11)
        and darkness and light pervade one another.
        Its gate is fifty feet high and four feet wide,
        and has two panels:
        once they open, once they close.
        On its left coils a green dragon,
        on its right is couched a white tiger,
        above flies a vermilion sparrow,
        below rests a black turtle.
        Vague and indistinct! Dim and obscure!(12)
        A True Man lives inside it:
        his name is Spirit of the Valley,
        his appellation is Living a Long Life.
        At daytime, he eats a broth of millet;(13)
        at night, he drinks the liquor of the boundless.
        Sometimes he sings, clear and peaceful;
        sometimes he is motionless, and keeps his mouth closed.
        When he exhales, the gate of the Opening is wide open,
        when he inhales, the gate of the Opening is firmly shut.

Therefore the Scripture says:

        The Spirit of the Valley never dies:
        it is called Mysterious-Female.
        The gate of the Mysterious-Female
        is called root of Heaven and Earth.(14)

This is the opening that generates Heaven, Earth, and humans; this is the hometown of Saints, Buddhas, and Immortals. You arrange the furnace and set up the tripod here; you collect the Medicine and refine it here; you coagulate the Elixir here; and you deliver it here. Being is here, Non-Being is here. The beginning and the end of all operation are here.

This Opening is the place where the four elements do not stick: it is in the realm of Empty Non-Being, "silent and still."(15) Neither can you find it by using your intention, nor can you guard it by not using your mind. If those who cultivate themselves want to find this One Opening, they must begin by looking for it. Only when they truly know it and clearly see it, they can begin to collect the treasure of Heaven. Those who not know this Opening may strive in one thousand different ways and toil in ten thousand different manners, but they will never see any progress or improvement.

How could students not strive? How could they not exert their minds to inquire into the principles?


1. Throughout this chapter, Liu Yiming's text reads yuanguan 元關 instead of xuanguan 玄關, due to the Qing-dynasty taboo on the character xuan 玄.

2. These verses are quoted, with minor variants, from Li Daochun's (late 13th century) Zhonghe ji (The Harmony of the Center: An Anthology), ch. 2.

3. As Liu Yiming writes in Chapter 2, the cavity of the Hundred Convergences (baihui or baihui xue) "is placed in the sinciput and is the gathering point of the hundred vessels."

4. On the Spinal Handle (jiaji) see note 6 to Chapter 2.

5. On the Caudal Funnel (weilü) see note 8 to Chapter 2.

6. Yellow Court denotes the center of the human being. When the reference framework is the five viscera, it refers to the spleen. When it is the three Cinnabar Fields, Yellow Court may denote any of them, including the central one, which corresponds to the heart. As we shall see, Liu Yiming rejects both of these identifications.

7. Origin of the Barrier (guanyuan) is usually a name of the navel. Ocean of Breath (qihai) is usually a name of the lower Cinnabar Field (dantian), but can also denote the kidneys.

8. Here and below in the present chapter, Liu Yiming's text reads yuanpin 元牝 instead of xuanpin 玄牝.

9. The Majestic Voice Kings (Weiyin wang) are a series of Buddhas who lived in a primordial kalpa.

10. Jindan sibai zi (Four Hundred Words on the Golden Elixir), poem 7; see Cleary, The Inner Teachings of Taoism, p. 13.

11. Cantong qi (The Seal of the Unity of the Three), 56:2; trans. Pregadio, ☞ The Seal of the Unity of the Three, p. 102.

12. The expressions "vague and indistinct" and "dim and obscure" derive from the Daode jing; see note 2 to Chapter 1.

12. This alludes to the Elixir, one of whose appellations is "pearl sized as a grain of millet." See note 12 to Chapter 3.

14. Daode jing (Book of the Way and Its Virtue), sec. 6.

15. In Buddhism, the four elements (sida) are Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. The expression "silent and still" (jiliao) derives from the Daode jing (Book of the Way and Its Virtue), sec. 25; see note 3 to Chapter 3.