Updated: Dec 11, 2021
©Kenneth Cohen 2019
“A person of old has said, 'First your thoughts stop. Second, your breathing stops. Third, your pulse
stops. Fourth, there is complete extinction.' You enter into the great meditative trance and do not interact at all with things, [much like] the ancient awl of 700-years.”
Translation by Professor Stephen Eskildsen
Considering the central importance of moderation in Daoism, how are we to understand this saying of esteemed Daoist Chiu Chuji (1148-1227), also known as The Master of Eternal Spring, Chang Chun Zi? (Chiu was the founder of the most famous branch of Daoism in China: Quanzhen. It was partially because of Chiu’s influence on Genghis Khan, ruler of Mongol-controlled China, that mass killing ceased and Daoism was preserved.)
Both Buddhists and Daoists have stories of Masters who achieve this state of hibernation (perhaps, “suspended animation” is closer). In one, government officials discover Buddhist Master Huichi in a trance, his body covered by hair and his nails so long that they encircled his body. He was brought back to life when a monk rang a temple gong, at which point he asked, “What era is this?” Huichi had been hibernating for 700 years.
It is important to remember that there is an ancient Chinese literary tradition of exaggeration in order to illustrate a principle. For example, would Chan Master Nan Chuan, a Buddhist monk who took the precept of "Not Killing", really have killed a cat because of a monk's hesitation in answering a koan? Did Rinzai push a scholar off the bridge because he wondered about the "depth of the river of Zen"? Did Xi Wang Mu achieve longevity by draining the sexual essence from 1,000 young men (yes, that’s the story)? Here's a great one recorded in Daoist texts: A Daoist master swallows five gemstones and ritually directs them to lodge in specific internal organs. After he dies and his body decomposes until only the bones are left, the stones become self-activated and reconstitute all of his cells and tissues. The Master is youthful again with a full life ahead of him.
There is a popular belief that advanced Daoists and yogis can stop their pulse and breath. Do they really stop; do Daoists defy human biology? No. However, compared to the conventional respiratory rate or heart rate, these functions may seem to have stopped. Hence in Zhao Bichen's 19th Century master work, Xing Ming Fa Jue Ming Zhi (translated by Charles Luk as Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality) "stopping the breath" is defined as 似停非停 "seems to have stopped but doesn't stop." Adepts are even advised to hold the breath for two hours, during Zi Shi (the Hours of the Rat), from 11 pm to 1 am. Please don't take this on face value or try it! In a deep state of meditation, breath slows from the average of 17 breaths per minute to about 5 breaths per minute, and heart rate may drop to 50, or even lower. There is an "extinction" of the ordinary, conventional reality.
Unfortunately, exaggeration is so common in both Daoism and Qigong that some modern practitioners mistakenly believe that their authenticity is established by making outrageous claims-- pushing people from a distance without physical touch, living 250 years, etc. (I know one Daoist who increases his age by 5 years on each birthday). At some point it no longer becomes a literary convention but rather-- to be blunt-- a lie or a con.
Listen to the spiritual message of the stories of the old masters, but please keep your "skepticals" on!