Liu Yiming (1734-1821)

Life, Works, and Teachings

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

Based on the Introduction of:

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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Liu Yiming 劉一明 (1734–1821) was one of the main representatives of Taoist Internal Alchemy, or Neidan. He was an 11th-generation master of one of the northern branches of the Longmen (Dragon Gate) lineage, and the author of a large number of works that present his teachings on Taoism and Neidan.


Liu Yiming was born in 1734 in Quwo, Pingyang (in present-day Linfen, Shanxi). Before he reached the age of 20, he was severely ill three times. After recovery, he began to travel, and in 1753 or 1754 he met his first master, whom he calls the Kangu Laoren (Old Man of the Kangu Valley). In 1757, he stayed in Beijing, where he studied ophthalmology following his father's wish. Five years later, he moved to Henan, where he lived until 1765 working as a doctor.

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

In 1766 he resumed traveling, and around 1768 he met the Xianliu zhangren (Great Man Who Rests in Immortality), who became his main master. The Xianliu zhangren (himself an earlier disciple of the Kangu laoren) gave Liu Yiming teachings on Neidan. As Liu Yiming reports in one of his works, it was under the Xianliu zhangren that he obtained the full awakening.

After the death of his father in 1769, Liu Yiming — who was then in his mid-30s — alternated periods of traveling (in Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, and elsewhere) and of seclusion for a decade. In 1779 or 1780, he visited the Qiyun mountains in Jincheng (present-day Yuzhong, Gansu) and settled there to practice self-cultivation. From that time, this mountain became his stable residence, even though he occasionally traveled elsewhere. His abode, called Zizai wo (Nest of Being by Oneself), is still extant in the present day.

Neidan: Portrait of Liu Yiming (1734-1821)

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

Liu Yiming devoted the second half of his life to teaching and writing. His biographies also report that he used his financial resources to restore temples, shrines, and other buildings; to buy and lease fields to poor farmers; and to provide burial ground to those who could not afford it. In 1816, he prognosticated an auspicious place for his tomb on top of the Qiyun mountains, and his "tomb cave" was built there. In 1821, on the 6th day of the 1st lunar month, Liu Yiming entered the cave, pronounced his final words to his disciples, and passed away.

Main Works

The main collection of Liu Yiming's works is entitled Daoshu shi'er zhong (Twelve Books on the Dao). His best-known works—all found in this collection—consist of commentaries to Neidan texts and of independent works on Neidan, including the following:

Main Commentaries to Neidan Texts

Cantong zhizhi (Straightforward Directions on the Unity of the Three), on the Zhouyi cantong qi (The Seal of the Unity of the Three)
Wuzhen zhizhi (Straightforward Directions on the Awakening to Reality), on the Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality)
Yinfu jing zhu (Commentary to the Scripture of the Hidden Agreement), on the Yinfu jing (Scripture of the Hidden Agreement)
Jindan sibai zi jie (Explication of the Four Hundred Words on the Golden Elixir), on the Jindan sibai zi (Four Hundred Words on the Golden Elixir), with additional poems by Liu Yiming

Main Works on Neidan

Xiangyan poyi (Removing Doubts on Symbolic Language)
Xiuzhen biannan (Discriminations on Difficult Points in Cultivating Reality)
Xiuzhen houbian (Further Discriminations in Cultivating Reality)
Wudao lu (Accounts of an Awakening to the Dao)
Xiyou yuanzhi (The Original Purport of the Journey to the West), containing a Neidan interpretation of the Ming-dynasty novel Journey to the West

Other Works

In addition, Liu Yiming wrote:

● Several books on the Yijing (Book of Changes), including the Zhouyi chanzhen (Uncovering the True in the Book of Changes)
● Little-known commentaries to the Daode jing and to Buddhist texts
● Works on ophthalmology, the subject he studied in his youth

Teachings on Taoism and Internal Alchemy

"Precelestial" and "Postcelestial"

The distinction between the "precelestial" (xiantian) and the "postcelestial" (houtian) domains (before and after the generation of the cosmos, respectively) is essential in Liu Yiming's teachings on Taoism and Internal Alchemy. The precelestial domain harbors Original Essence (yuanjing), Original Breath (yuanqi), and Original Spirit (yuanshen), which are all formless. Their operation results in the generation of the postcelestial domain. The precelestial state is Yang, and the postcelestial state is Yin. In the human being who lives in the postcelestial domain, Original Essence manifests itself mainly as semen in males and menstrual blood in females; Original Breath manifests itself mainly as the ordinary breath of inspiration and expiration; and Original Spirit manifests itself mainly as the thinking mind. The shift from one to the other state is seen as inevitable; however, according to Liu Yiming, the precelestial state is not erased, but only concealed within the postcelestial.

Above the precelestial and postcelestial domains, Liu Yiming places the Precelestial Breath of True Unity (xiantian zhenyi zhi qi). This state is beyond definition or description: "It cannot be compared to the postcelestial breath of inspiration and expiration, the thinking spirit, and the essence of the intercourse; and it also cannot be equated to the Original Essence, the Original Breath, and the Original Spirit" (Xiuzhen houbian, translated in Cultivating the Tao, p. 32). In alchemical terms, according to Liu Yiming, the Precelestial Breath of True Unity is the Golden Elixir. The Elixir, therefore, consists in the conjunction of the precelestial and the postcelestial domains, and grants access to the higher state of non-duality, or True Unity.

The Human Being

The Mysterious Barrier. The One Opening of the Mysterious Barrier (xuanguan yiqiao) is the spaceless and non-material center of the human being. Liu Yiming agrees with earlier Neidan masters in saying that this center is neither in the body nor in the mind. The One Opening harbors the Precelestial Breath of True Unity. With the shift from the precelestial to the postcelestial, the precelestial True Yang becomes concealed within the postcelestial Yin, and the recognition of the spaceless center is lost. In the images of the Yijing (Book of Changes), True Yang becomes the solid line (⚊) found within Kan ☵, surrounded by two broken Yin lines. The purpose of Neidan consists in recovering the Yang within Kan ☵ and in using it to replace the Yin within Li ☲. This allows Qian ☰ (True Yang) and Kun ☷ (True Yin) to be reconstituted and then newly joined to one another. Their conjunction occurs in the One Opening of the Mysterious Barrier.

Nature and Existence. Nature (xing) and Existence (ming) are the two main poles of one's life, and the core of Neidan: "The Way of the Golden Elixir is the Way of cultivating Nature and Existence". "Nature" refers to one's authentic, inner Nature, which is innately awakened. "Existence" refers to one's life as an individual being, including one's function in existence as a whole. According to Liu Yiming, the shift from the precelestial to the postcelestial involves that both Nature and Existence take on two aspects, which he calls "true" and "false". One's true Nature can be hidden by one's false personality; and one's true Existence (or "true destiny") can be concealed by "following the course" (shun) of life. The gradual process of Neidan provides a means for "inverting the course" (ni), making it possible first to "return to one's destiny," and then to "see one's Nature."

Body and Mind. (On this subject, see the chapter "True and False Body and Mind".) In Liu Yiming's view, the ordinary body and mind are "illusory" (huan). Their authentic counterparts are the "dharma-body" (fashen) and the "celestial mind" (tianxin). The celestial mind is "utterly empty and utterly numinous, silent and unmoving," and "pervades throughout by responding to impulses". The dharma-body (a term that in Buddhism means the awakened "body" of the Buddha) has "no head and no tail, no front and no back; it stands at the center and does not slant". With the shift to the postcelestial domain, "the dharma-body is buried and the illusory body takes charge, the celestial mind retires from its position and the human mind takes power". Neidan makes it possible to attain "the utmost of quiescence," which is a property of the celestial mind. The practice is concluded with the birth of the Embryo of Sainthood (shengtai), which in Liu Yiming's view is equivalent to one's dharma-body, or "true body".

Neidan (Internal Alchemy)

"Superior Virtue" and "Inferior Virtue". Concerning Neidan, Liu Yiming makes a fundamental distinction between two ways of self-cultivation, respectively called "superior virtue" (shangde) and "inferior virtue" (xiade). Superior virtue is the state in which the precelestial has not been damaged and the original state of Unity is unspoiled. The few persons who have an inherent potential to preserve this state only need to "protect it and guard it". This requires receiving the instructions of a master, but the method (fa) ultimately consists in following the Tao itself: there is no need to "do" a practice, and one operates by "non-doing" (wuwei). If this original state is not preserved, the precelestial is dispersed and the postcelestial takes over. To recover the precelestial state, one cannot anymore operate by "non-doing" and instead must "do": one needs a technique (shu) through which one can conjoin the True Yang and True Yin now found within the postcelestial Yin and Yang, respectively. This is the way of Internal Alchemy, which is the way of inferior virtue. However, Liu Yiming points out that when the way of inferior virtue has been fulfilled, it leads "to the same destination as superior virtue".

"Doing" and "Non-Doing". In parallel to the distinction between superior and inferior virtue, Liu Yiming also establishes a key difference between two aspects, or stages, of the Internal Elixir. These stages focus on the cultivation of Nature and Existence, and they correspond to the ways of superior and inferior virtue, respectively. Those who are able to follow the way of superior virtue perform the two stages simultaneously: "In superior virtue, there is no need to cultivate Existence and one just cultivates Nature: when Nature is fulfilled, then Existence is also fulfilled." Everyone else should perform the two stages in sequence, starting from the lower one and then proceeding to the higher one: "In inferior virtue, one must first cultivate Existence and then cultivate Nature; after Existence is fulfilled, one must also fulfill Nature". The way of superior virtue attains both stages instantly by "non-doing." Inferior virtue, instead, is the gradual way, and its practice is performed first by "doing" and then by "non-doing."

The Two Elixirs. The stages mentioned above correspond to two different Elixirs, which Liu Yiming calls Small Reverted Elixir (xiao huandan) and Great Reverted Elixir (da huandan). The Small Reverted Elixir "consists in returning from the postcelestial to the precelestial". This is the movement of ascent, the "inversion of the course" performed through Internal Alchemy. The practice, however, is completed only by compounding the Great Reverted Elixir. At this stage, one performs the complementary movement of descent, returning "from Non-Being to Being, and from the subtle to the manifest". Thus Internal Alchemy, through its gradual process, enables one to ascend to the precelestial, but its practice is concluded when the descent to the postcelestial is also performed. Then the precelestial and the postcelestial become one, and one operates by transforming (hua) the postcelestial into the precelestial.