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Part 2--Beyond Ch'i:   Body Energy Frequencies in Traditional Chinese Alchemy

chi symbol

Ch'i Character

Another aspect of the Chinese view of anatomical function concerns the tan tiens. Anyone who has trained in an Asian martial art has been exposed to the tan tien ("hara" in Japanese and "tan den" in Korean). Many westerners have a difficult time with this. At the most basic level, it is the region in the lower torso which the west recognizes as the balance point of the body. That is the point which if you lean past going forward, the shifting center of gravity pulls you forward. Many people describe it as a "point" two-finger widths below the navel. The problem with that is that it tends to give the student an impression that it is in the front of the body.

In actuality, the tan tien is a region in the center of the lower torso. A more accurate means of finding the balance point is by drawing intersecting lines through the torso. One line is drawn from front to back at the point just below the navel. Perhaps more importantly is a second line drawn from left to right through the center of the hips. Where these two lines meet is the region of the tan tien. It is a region that includes parts of the small intestine, bladder, and womb.

The written character for tan tien has two parts. The first, "tan," is often translated as cinnabar. This is not the older understanding. Tan refers to the practice of alchemy. The Taoist alchemical quest served to refine the physical body into a more spiritual vehicle which would, in a transformed state, "survive" physical death. This quest for physical immortality was the historical basis of Taoist practice, later to influence all Chinese practices such as medicine and martial arts. The translation as cinnabar is metaphorical since cinnabar (an ore of mercury) was a toxic element used in the preparation of potions and formulae ingested by the adept. In this sense, the practice of the "external" alchemy was the same as the practice in Europe that led to modern chemistry.

The second part, "tien," translates as field or region. Typically, martial arts tend to refer to the tan tien as a solitary entity. In the alchemical tradition, there are three recognized tan tiens or centers. They are not the same as the better known chakra system from India. The tan tien in the lower abdomen is the lower or first tan tien. It correlates with the ching, as described in part one of this article.

The middle or second tan tien resides in the center of the chest in the region of the solar plexus. This correlates with the frequency of the ch'i.

The upper or third tan tien is in the head. It is directly analogous to the western "third eye" and correlates to the shen. Again, while most people describe the location as being between the eyebrows and/or the center of the forehead, this is misleading since it tends to draw attention to the front of the skull. The region is located in the center of the skull, as the lower tan tien is located in the center of the abdomen.

The tan tiens comprise an important part of the overall anatomical structure of the body which is not utilized by acupuncture. They are not used partially because of the differing frequencies, and partially because the regions are in the center of the body far too deep to be activated by needles. That is the reason tan tiens are often not even mentioned in acupuncture texts.

This presents another difference between the traditional alchemical anatomy and that of acupuncture. Acupuncture defines the organ/meridian system of the "triple warmer" or "three heaters" as being the three parts of the digestive system which include the stomach and small and large intestines. However, these organs each have their own meridian. Classical alchemy defines the three heaters as the three tan tiens. This not only allows for pulse diagnosis of the physical/psychic functions not otherwise possible, but also integrates the spiritual/psychic processes with the physical body. This raises the question of why the use of the terms "burners" or "heaters?"

The three tan tiens are the physical stations of the alchemical process. Traditionally, in the region of the lower tan tien is a cauldron. In the cauldron is found the energy we are born with. Through the practices of internal cultivation, two events occur. One is the amount of the energy increases. The second is the cultivation creates an alchemical "fire" under the cauldron. This causes the energy to heat, bubble, and boil, until it spills out of the cauldron and begins to circulate throughout the body. This ching refines the ch'i in the second tan tien. The on-going alchemical process causes the ch'i to refine to shen associated with the upper tan tien. The process continues with the shen being refined into the shu—"the emptiness."

The refinement of the internal energies is an ongoing process. Since it does not require exertion of the external musculature, it is well suited for older people and continues throughout a lifetime. Classically, in the martial arts, practitioners who focus on the external techniques (especially extreme moves such as jump spinning back kicks) in their youth transition away from those to internal cultivation as they age.

Old age is not a barrier to internal cultivation. There is truth in the classic image of an ancient-looking, seemingly frail old master defeating a younger opponent with little or no apparent effort. Part of this is a sense of yin and yong (sometimes called yang). As the yong of youth wanes, the yin of age increases. As the external musculature decreases, the internal abilities increase—if you train systematically and consistently. Since the internal correlates with the yin/receptive, there is no limit to its potential. The true hallmark of martial prowess and general balance is longevity.

A student of Taoism and the martial arts since 1974, Dimitri Kostynick is available for classes and private instruction in the San Diego area. Dimitri can be emailed at livingdragon@prodigy.net.

Part 1: Beyond Ch'i:   Body Energy Frequencies in Traditional Chinese Alchemy

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