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Hunyuan (Primordial) Qigong: Tracing Life to its Roots

Early draft published in the Dragon’s Mouth (Spring 2000), Journal of the British Taoist Association and this revision in The Empty Vessel (Winter 2008) © Kenneth S. Cohen

The Philosophy

Hunyuan is an ancient, central concept of Daoist philosophy and meditation practice. Hun means undifferentiated unity, the state of mind and being that occurs when one does not divide the world into concepts. In other words, hun is equivalent to inner silence. Yuan means origin or original. The importance of Yuan is attested by the fact that it is the opening word of Qian, the first chapter of the Yi Jing (The Classic of Change). “Original [Yuan], Penetrating [Heng], Auspicious [Li], Correct [Zhen].” This mantric phrase may be interpreted as four stages in the creation or evolution of an idea or phenomenon; or it may represent the four seasons.

Yuan is the root or antecedent of any action. It is the creative spark or impulse, like a seed planted in Spring which is just ready to sprout. Heng is the Summer, and represents germination and development. The character heng originally meant a sacrificial cup used to make offerings to the Gods. Most commentators explain heng as tong, penetrating or reaching to the Gods. Li means to cut grain, to harvest or reap the benefits of what was grown. It is thus the Autumn season. Zhen, which originally included the character for tripod means steady and correct. It also means divination. Zhen is the winter season, when the energies of life retreat back into the ground and people return from the fields to their homes. The spark of yang is hidden in the yin. Winter is a time for inner work rather than outer work, a time to perfect one’s character and prepare for the coming year by consulting oracles.

The character yuan was originally a composite of shang the word “above” with ren, the word “person.” Hence, yuan means the upper part of a person’s body, the head, or, as we say in English to go ahead, to be first. Interestingly, the Chinese character Dao also contains an element that means both head and first, shou. One of my Daoist teachers, the late B. P. Chan, defined Dao as “the path to the origin.” We could also interpret this as returning to the origin. When the body Returns to the Origin, it renews itself with the energy of life, the all pervading qi of the universe. It becomes like an uncarved block of wood– the Daoist symbol of a person uncorrupted by the stresses and worries of life. As Lao Zi says, “See the unbleached silk, embrace the uncarved block; reduce selfishness, lessen desire.” (When the mind Returns to the Origin, it becomes simple and pure like a newborn babe, able to perceive the world with a fresh innocence.)

Hun with yuan becomes the concept Hunyuan, the Primordial State of Being. The term is synonymous with the word Dao itself and also with Taiji (the Undifferentiated, as in Taiji Quan, a martial art and healing art that blends yin and yang, suppleness with strength). Philosophy and personal cultivation are not separate categories in Daoist thought. Thus, Hunyuan is the Primal Being (God) or Beingness that both precedes and underlies all creation. It is also the spiritual state of a person who practices Daoist meditation. That is, a meditator’s goal is to become Hunyuan. We see evidence of this in the two classic terms for Daoist meditation: xin zhai and zuo wang:

  • Xin Zhai, “the fasting of the mind” –the body fasts and is refreshed when it doesn’t eat; the mind fasts and is refreshed when it doesn’t think (Or as my old friend Alan Watts used to say, “If you are always thinking, you have nothing to think about except thoughts! There needs to be a break for experience.”)

  • Zuo Wang, “sitting and forgetting,” an old term found in the Daoist Zhang Zi classic: the mind forgets judgment and worries and returns to a state of peace and clarity

We find references to Hunyuan throughout Daoist literature. Zhang Boduan (983-1082), founder of the Complete Reality (Quan Zhen) sect of Daoism, learned “the Dao of Hunyuan”. Lao Zi, the founder of Daoist philosophy was known as Hunyuan Sheng, the Sage of the Primordial. (A famous biography of Lao Zi written in 1191 A.D. is titled Hunyuan Shengji, Chronicle of the Sage of the Primordial.) Lao Zi’s Dao De Jing is still the most important source for information about the philosophy of Hunyuan.

Dao De Jing, Chapter 25
There was something formed by the Primordial (hun) Born before Heaven and Earth So silent, so formless! It stands alone and unchanging It circulates and revolves throughout the Cosmos, without tiring We can consider it the mother of all under Heaven I do not know its name, but I designate it “Dao”
Dao De Jing, Chapter 42
The Dao [the primordial] gave birth to the concept of One The One gave birth to the Two (Yin and Yang) The Two gave birth to the Three (Yin, Yang, and Qi) The Three gave birth to all things. All things have yin on their backs And yang embraced within They blend with the Qi to find harmony.

My Commentary: The Hunyuan, also designated Dao, creates Two, a polarity of complementary opposites known as Yin and Yang. Two creates Three: Yang forms the heavens, Yin forms the earth; and Qi creates life. The three could also be considered Heaven, Earth, and Human, the famous trinity of Chinese philosophy. The interactions between the Three create all things. Thus, all beings have yang and yin aspects: front and back, inside and outside, positive and negative, light and shadow, obvious and hidden, masculine and feminine, and so on. When a human being wishes to commune with the Hunyuan, he or she has only to center the mind on Qi, the energy of life.

What is the meaning of “blend with the Qi”? To understand this phrase we need to grasp a basic principle of Daoist qigong exercises and meditations. The Yang of Heaven or shen exists in the body as the light of the eyes. Normally the light of the eyes rises like fire and moves outward towards things, “illuminating” them and bringing them into awareness. In qigong meditation, the eyes turn inward to observe the microcosm.

The Yin of Earth exists in the body as sexual vitality. In everyday life, it is natural that this energy seek expression; it flows down like water, toward earthly objects of desire. In qigong meditation, the yin sexual vitality is withdrawn; it is made to physically rise into the lower dan tian by a special breathing practice. This is sometimes called “The Yellow River reverses its course.” Sexual passion becomes a passion for spiritual growth, the power of perseverance and dedication. Thus Yang and Yin join, fire and water meet. When fire and water meet, they create steam. This steam, representing the unity of opposites, is the Qi, a Chinese character that shows steam rising from cooking rice.

The meaning of “blend with the qi” may be summarized as follows: In Daoist metaphysics the one creates the many. In Daoist meditation, the many returns to the one or to the Primordial. As Lao Zi says in chapter 40, “Returning is the movement of the Dao.”

Similar themes are found in Zhuang Zi.

Zhuang Zi, Chapter 7: The story of Mr./Ms. Hundun , a personification of Hunyuan
The Lord of the Southern Ocean was bright Yang. The Lord of the Northern Ocean was dark Yin. The Lord of the Center was Hundun. Yang and Yin loved to meet at Hudun’s home.
According to the story, Hundun was very hospitable to Yang and Yin, and to return the favor, Yang and Yin offered to drill seven holes in Hundun so that, like humans, he/she could see, hear, breathe, and eat. Each day they drilled an opening. One day a mouth, one day an ear, and so on. On the seventh day, as they completed their task, Hundun died.

My Commentary: If we are too much concerned with the world, qi leaks out, and, drained of life energy, we die. This is the meaning of the phrase: “if you let it flow, you die; if you reverse the current, you become an Immortal.” The senses are wonderful gifts, but they are tyrants if we lose the center, the Primordial foundation of being. A person who is aware of the center acts in a centered way. Lao Zi says in chapter 47, “Without going out the door, you can know the world.” The doors are the senses, the gateways of perception. We can paraphrase this sentence: “You can understand reality more deeply if you do not lose yourself in sensation and thinking.”

Primordial Soup Anyone?

Hunyuan, Hundun, and Taiji may all be translated “Chaos,” because they suggest a primal “soup” in which individual things cannot be distinguished. According to A. C. Graham’s translation of Zhuang Zi, “In Chinese cosmology, the primordial is not a chaos reduced to order by imposed law, it is a blend of everything rolled up together; the word is reduplicative of the type of English ‘hotchpotch’ and ‘rolypoly’…” (Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, p. 99).

At Chinese restaurants people routinely enjoy a manifestation of the Primordial in a most mundane form, hundun soup (Cantonese pronunciation: wonton soup)! This is the same hundun that we have been discussing. Here it means both Primordial and Dumplings. There is a proverb in Beijing that states that at winter solstice one should eat hundun soup. At winter solstice, the dark yin is exactly balanced with the light yang; as solstice passes yang is once more on the ascendancy, and the nights grow shorter. In the microcosm, we harmonize with the seasonal change by drinking/eating hundun soup, in which a variety of indistinguishable ingredients are cooked into the broth, and to more directly symbolize the Primordial itself, amorphous dumplings (the hundun or wontons) contain a mixture of minced ingredients. Professor N.J. Girardot writes in his inspiring work Myth and Meaning in Early Daoism, “Wonton dumplings, lumpy and wrinkled, contain the basic elements for life. They float across a primordial sea waiting for their sacrificial and consumptive contribution to the continuation of the human world of alimentation.” (p.30)

A similar ingestion of the Primordial occurred in ancient China around the time of the summer solstice, the period when yin and yang are again balanced. In southern China, it was customary to drink owl broth on the fifth or fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month (June). The owl was the creature of hundun and the night, the time of day when forms become indistinct. The number five and fifteen also have significance here. According to Daoist numerology, five represents the combination of yin (2) and yang (3). Fifteen represents the numerical sum of the energy of the five major organs and is thus the primal or embryonic state from which life emerges and to which it returns.

However, the preferred way for Daoists to enter the Primordial is neither through the digestive tract nor through philosophical inquiry. Rather, they practice ways of meditatively returning to the Primordial. They plumb the depths of their minds, bodies, and Being itself through qigong practice.

The Practice​

Hunyuan Gong, Primordial Qigong, is a system of twelve meditative exercises, generally attributed to the famous Daoist priest Hu Yaozhen (1879-1973) and his disciple, Chen Style Taiji Quan Master Feng Zhiqiang. Feng studied with Hu for approximately nine years. I learned this system originally from one of Master Feng’s senior Taiji Quan and Qigong students, Madame Gao Fu (1916-2005) and also from Master Feng himself.

Hu was equally versed in Daoism, martial arts (specializing in Liu He Xinyi), and Chinese medicine. Hu’s Daoist training came primarlily from Peng Tingjun, a disciple of Shanxi Province Daoist Priest Huo Chengguang. Hu was also a student of Zhang Qinlin (born 1887), another Daoist and martial artist, who had been initiated into the Golden Elixir School of Daoism under Daoist Zuo Laipeng and trained in Yang Style Taiji Quan with Yang Jianhou (1843-1917). In 1959, when Hu was 80 years old, he added a new technique to his repertoire, reporting that he studied Taiji Ruler with Zhao Zhongdao, then age 114! (Zhao passed on four years later).

Ken Cohen with respected Masters (left to right: Feng Zhiqiang and Gao Fu)

Among Hu Yaozhen’s famous writings are Wu Qin Xi “The Five Animal Frolics,” written in 1963 (a system he learned from Peng Tingjun) and Qigong Ji Bao Jian Gong “Qigong and Health Preservation Training” (1959). The latter work, reissued as Bao Jian Qigong “Preserving Health Qigong,” includes instruction in classical qigong systems, including Standing Post (Zhan Zhuang), Self-Massage (An Mo Gong), Qi Circulation (Zhou Tian Gong), Muscle-Tendon Transformation (Yi Jin Jing), Twenty Movements for Dispelling Disease and Lengthening Life (Que Bing Yan Nian Er Shi Shi), as well as advice on eating, sleeping, and spiritual cultivation .

I once met a Wudang Sect Daoist priest who showed me a series of exericses, which he also called “Hunyuan Gong,” nearly identical to what I had learned from Madame Gao. He stated that these exercises were part of his Daoist training on Mount Wudang. Thus, Primordial Qigong may be far older than Hu Yaozhen or his personal teachers. At the same time, it could be considered far more recent. Qigong, like other Chinese healing and spiritual arts, changes, evolves, and often improves over time. Feng Zhiqiang expanded on Hu’s teachings, combining his lifetime of experience and research into a system he calls Taiji Hunyuan Nei Gong (Undifferentiated Primordial Inner Work) or Primordial Qigong for short. In 1998, Master Feng published details of his system in Chen Shi Xinyi Hun Yuan Taiji Quan Jiao Cheng “Chen Style Mind-Intent Primordial Taiji Quan Instruction Manual” (Qingdao Publishing Company).

After practicing various qigong styles for more than 40 years, I consider Primordial Qigong to be one of the most powerful and comprehensive methods I have ever studied. Like other qigong systems, it focuses on well being and longevity, correcting all sorts of imbalance, whether the body is too yang (as in autoimmune disease or inflammatory conditions) or too yin (as in immune deficiency conditions or depletion). From my experience teaching many students and physician-referred clients, Primordial Qigong has the most dramatic effect on cancer. Several years ago a Boulder, Colorado-based radio station interviewed several students who had recently completed an eight week “Primordial Qigong” series with me. One reported complete remission from Stage 4 Breast Cancer and admitted to the radio journalist that she had not expected to even live to the end of the course. Another reported a 25% decrease in the strength of her eyeglass prescription. Other students noted a general improvement in energy and well-being.

Primordial Qigong has three roots, reflecting the three major facets of qigong: martial arts conditioning, health, and Daoist spiritual cultivation.

  1. Feng’s version of Primordial Qigong may be practiced as part of martial arts training (wu gong ) because it includes Chen Style Taiji Quan principles and skills. Master Feng relates movements in Primordial Qigong to the Thirteen Postures (fundamental postures and skills in Taiji Quan) and to various Taiji principles such as zhong ding “central equilibrium,” xu ling “empty and alert,” and song chen “relaxed and sunk.” The connection between Taiji Quan and the philosophy of the Primordial has a historical precedent. We know that the founder of Chen style, Chen Wangting, was interested in the concept of the Primordial because he studied the classic of Daoist meditation, the Yellow Court Canon (Huang Ting Jing, also translated “The Gold Pavilion Classic”). He wrote, “At present, I am old and nearing the last breaths of my life. My only remaining companion is the Yellow Court Canon.” The Yellow Court Canon probably inspired Chen to incorporate Daoist principles of meditation and alchemy into Taiji Quan. The Yellow Court Canon is the earliest source of the term dan tian, the elixir field of vital energy in the abdomen, an important concept in modern Taiji Quan training.

  2. Primordial Qigong is a method of healing qigong (yi gong). Among the many benefits of Primordial Qigong, Master Feng includes:

    • improving the function of the respiratory system, digestive system, circulatory system, and nervouse system

    • strengthening the internal organs

    • increasing elimination of toxins

    • clearing the acupuncture meridians

  3. Primordial Qigong also belongs to the Daoist qigong (dao gong) category because it incorporates concepts and practices from Daoism, such as xing ming shuang xiu “body and spirit cultivated in balance,” shui huo xiang jiao “fire and water meet,” and lian dan “cultivating the elixir.” Like Chen Style Taiji Quan, Primordial Qigong emphasizes learning how to concentrate on the dan tian (and how to turn the dan tian to generate movement). External movement is always accompanied by internal movement, and for this reason Primordial Qigong may be considered “inner work”. To a large extent, the dan tian is the hunyuan. It is the place in the body where yin and yang, hun (yang soul) and po (yin soul) and the three treasures (jing, qi, and shen; essence, breath, and spirit) are harmonized and unified. Primordial Qigong is Daoist meditation in action.

One of the most interesting aspects of Primordial Qigong is that it can, according to master Feng’s book, “strengthen the prenatal primordial qi.” I was happy to see that Master Feng agrees with a theory that I proposed on page 33 of my book The Way of Qigong— original or constitutional qi is not fixed at birth, as is often claimed in Chinese medicine; rather, it can be strengthened and increased through qigong practice. According to Chinese medicine, we have three major sources of qi: air, food, and our ancestors. First, we can absorb qi from the environment, primarily as air, but also as light and the energy of nature. From a scientific perspective, the earth’s natural electromagnetic field helps to maintain biological cycles, including the release of hormones that control the need for sleep and food. A person who spends more time in nature is naturally healthier. Second, we absorb qi from food. Thus, diet is a major facet of Chinese medicine and qigong, and many ancient Chinese dietary theories are now confirmed by western nutritional science. Third, we inherit qi from our parents and ancestors. This is called “original or constitutional qi”.

Practitioners of Chinese and western medicine agree that we can improve our health by paying attention to breathing, exercise, and diet. However, they also claim that our genetic inheritance and thus our basic constitution cannot be changed. A child who is born with weak original qi is destined to disease susceptibility. Our biology shapes our destiny. Daoism takes a different viewpoint. We inherit original qi not only from our ancestors, but also from the universe We cannot change our ancestors, but we can change our relationship to Heaven and Earth. Primordial Qigong exercises and meditations teach the student to blend the subtle qi of the universe with the denser qi within the body, “like fog blending with dew,” as Madame Gao Fu once explained to me. The practitioner creates a fluid boundary between inside and outside and learns to tap into an infinite well of Healing Power. Not only does the body’s original qi increase; ultimately, the practitioner becomes one with the Primordial, the spirit and healing power of all that is.


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