Cultivation and practice are two different things. Cultivation is the big picture of returning to the Way. Practice are tools to help us get there. Don’t get attached to the tools and loose sight of where we want to go.
For many, Taoist practice is the spiritual project of returning to the Way. The Way is modeled on what is so (dao fa zi ran 道法自然), a mode of being characterized by non-interference and natural efficaciousness. We let what is, be. To return to the Way is the profound goal of Taoist self-mastery. To return to the Way requires self cultivation. We call this cultivating the Way, or Dao (xiudao 修道).
Taoist alchemy contains methods and techniques of practice to help us return to the Dao, however we will not achieve the Dao through practice alone. Meditation, breath work, and energy work all can help us understand the self, but to truly complete the Great Work requires more.
The relationship between cultivation and practice is encapsulated in the Chinese term xiulian 修煉. Xiulian is another word for self-transformation. However, xiulian can be broken down into two parts: xīu 修 and lìan 煉. Xiu is cultivation. Lian is practice. Xiu comes first. Lian is second.
Lian, practice, literally means to smelt or temper metal, and by extension to train or refine. Smelting is a method of separating a pure mineral from ore. And is a metaphor for training our bodies (ore) through a process of refinement to find our pure spirit (mineral).
Living in the Yukon as a child I would visit the gold mines of the Klondike. At the end of the summer all the little bits of gold would be gathered and put in a special square metal container (like a cauldron) and set above a small furnace. When gold is found in the ground there are many impurities with it. By heating up the gold (smelting it) the impurities, known as dross, would separate and be removed. Through this process of refinement pure gold would remain. This is lian.
Lian 煉 is different from the modern Chinese word for practice, lian 練. For the Chinese language nerds out there, notice the radical on the side. Although etymologically the same, the two lian are used differently in a Taoist context.
- Lian 煉: to refine, with the fire radical on the side, relates to internal training where the body is transformed.
- Lian 練: to practice, with the silk radical on the side, relates to normal exercise or physical practice.
Within the word xiulian, lian relates to practicing or training in the first sense of the word, to refine. All the methods and techniques are part of lian. Internal alchemy, tai chi, internal work, anything that we work at is lian. However, lian is the easy part.
The hard part is xiu.
Xiu means to make something better. If you are driving down the road in Beijing and encounter road repairs, this is an example of xiu. They are repairing the road; they are making the road better. Cultivation is an extended meaning of making ourselves better, which goes back to Mencius. However, in Chinese the word xiu does not necessarily carry the gentle connotation of growing flowers in the backyard. The word can also imply a much more radical reshaping of our reality.
Xiu is making ourselves better. It is the real business of practicing self-transformation: changing ourselves. In the Dragon Gate Tradition xiu is down to us. A teacher can train us and help us master the methods but it is down to us to integrate what we learn from the practice.
I believe this is what great historical Taoists such as Li Daochun and Liu Yiming were talking about, when they refer to methods and techniques as inferior to the Great Work. Do not let the practice distract us, or even misdirect us, from the real path.
Lian can help us understand our true self (zhenwo 真我), but at the end of the day it’s down to us to make use of that knowledge.
I asked Master Wang about xiu one day and he explained it by referencing a work by Lü Dongbin. The text lists five stages of xiu:
- The Heart-Mind is Still (xinjing 心靜)
- The Heart-Mind is Clear (xinqing 心清)
- The Heart-Mind is Peaceful (xinan 心安)
- The Heart-Mind is Stable (xinding 心定)
- The Heart-Mind is Nothing (xinwu 心無)
Xiu is the main path, its what we are doing this for. Lian is simply all the tools that can help us on the path. Internal alchemy is a powerful tool, however its surprising what can be learnt from playing a round of golf, or volunteering in a soup kitchen.