Zhen 真 – Reality
The Ancient Internal Alchemy Practice in Modern Life
As many of you know, my newest writing project is discussing the hexagrams of the Yijing hexagrams, in order of the Eight Palaces arrangement. I had originally planned for my next article (this one) to be about the hexagram Dun. Halfway through the Dun article, I was inspired to pause my writing on the hexagrams in order to write about Zhen 真 - Reality. In the future, as I continue to work through my writings on the 64 hexagrams, I realize that every now and then I will take little detours, following my inspiration, dispersing new writings in between our journey through the hexagrams.
For today, let ‘s start with the meanings of the Chinese character Zhen.
2. The Meanings of Zhen 真
According to the second century dictionary, ShuoWen JieZi 说文解字, Analyzing Simple Lines and Explaining Complex Graphs, the original meaning of Zhen is XianRenBianXingErDengTianYe 僊人變形而登天也, an immortal transforms the body in order to leap into the Heaven. Interestingly, although Zhen is one of the most commonly used daily words in China, which means real, really, reality, true, truth, sincerely, honest, genuine, pure, proper, or portrait, almost nobody knows the original meaning
The essence of Zhen’s original meaning has been carried within the Daoist tradition. For instance, instead of the modern, popularized name Qigong 氣功, in Daoism, we use the word XiuZhen 修真, which literally means “refine to be immortal/obtain enlightenment” and we refer to the immortals and enlightened beings as ZhenRen 真人, or real people. As always, to learn the details behind the original meanings of Chinese characters, I investigate its ancient written patterns and the symbolic structure. I will now share the symbolic structure of Zhen in hopes that it offers us some insights into how to improve our cultivation practice.
3. The Symbolic Significances of Zhen
The same second century dictionary I mentioned above indicates that Zhen 真 is made by four radicals, from top to bottom: Hua 匕, Mu 目, Yin 乚, and Ba 八. Although the older written character for Zhen 真 looks exactly as described in the dictionary, the modern version has changed slightly over time. While the common pronunciation for 匕 is Bi, and it means dagger, the original meaning of 匕 is an image of Hua 華 (a blossoming flower), and also represents Hua 化 (change, transform, or transformation). From a traditional cultivation perspective, Hua is the process of internal alchemy. Mu 目 means eye, which stands for the Shen 神 (spirit and wisdom) - we must learn how to use the eyes to Hua, to create spiritual transformation, in order to live with the Dao and to achieve enlightenment. Yin乚is the symbol for Yin 隱, which means hide, hidden, invisible, or invisibility. Of course, Chinese legend holds that an immortal is able to transform the physical body become invisible. Ba 八 means the number eight and denotes BaFang 八方 (the Eight Directions, which is a common Chinese phrase for the universe). As found in the lower part of the character Zhen, we often interpret Ba as a vehicle or tool - a “spaceship”- that helps the immortal leap into heaven, to reach BaFang.
4. Reality or Illusion?
At this point, you might be starting to think that this Chinese character, Zhen, seems all about immortal’s flying fantasy and that it has nothing to do about reality or truth. Should Zhen really mean illusion, delusion, false, or fake instead of the exact opposite? I have checked many different historical Chinese dictionaries to try and figure out how the original meaning of Zhen (transform the body to leap into heaven) evolved to mean real, truth, or fact. Unfortunately, I did not have any luck with finding the answers that way. Instead, I turn toward the Daoist Immortal tradition and my personal cultivation experiences in order to explain this phenomenon.
Yes, the main purpose of Daoist cultivation practices is to become immortal. However, as I emphasized in the 2nd edition of my book, Vital Breath of the Dao, (Singing Dragon. London: 2021), the idea of Daoist immortality or everlasting life has nothing to do with yearning to live forever. The Daoist concept of an immortal is of one who cultivates their humanity (a good heart) and their happiness (a good life), embodies these qualities in everyday life, and inspires others to do the same, adding to the web of true humanity that spans time.
Furthermore, a Chinese word for immortal is Xian 仙. When we look at the old seal script style of writing, Xian is an image of a person who lives on a mountain.
Throughout history, many Daoist masters have referred to themselves as ShanRen 山人 – Mountain People – because they spend long hermitages (many times actually in the mountains) cultivating their true humanity. In fact, another word for immortal is ZhenRen 真人 – real or true human being. Traditionally, we stress that all our cultivation principles and experiences are ZhenShiBuBu 真實不虛 – real without illusion.
Let us continue investigating the relationship between the original meaning and later meanings of Zhen by looking more deeply into its symbolic structure.
5. The Reality Attributes of Zhen
I now will share my own discovery on Zhen’s 眞 hallmarks of reality which, I believe, explains later meanings of Zhen to mean reality, faith, honest, truth, genuine, and so on. My insights into Zhen 眞 are based on my personal cultivation experiences and understanding and my analysis of the four radicals of Zhen, from bottom to top.
As I stated earlier, the bottom radical Ba represents the immortal’s vehicle or spaceship. The pattern of Ba 八 looks like your feet or legs, which also represents your whole physical body, and from a cultivation viewpoint, Jing 精, the essence. In the 2nd edition of Vital Breath of the Dao, I emphasized that Jing is the spiritual vehicle that refers to maintaining the correct posture of the physical body, not only during practice but also in daily life, and it also conveys Qi and spiritual transformation. We would be not able to do our Qigong practice and continue our spiritual journey without Jing. In the Daoist internal alchemy and indeed in all traditional Qigong practices, we have to work with the necessary SanYao 三藥 – Three Medicines: Jing 精, Qi 氣, and Shen 神. Seeing the radical Ba as representing Jing, the message we receive from Ba is thus: in order to fly (have spiritual and physical freedom), one should put the feet down, be grounded; connect to the physical body; live with realities of daily life. This message is the fundamental reason for the later meanings of Zhen.
Again, Yin乚is the symbol for Yin 隱, which means hide, hidden, invisible, and invisibility. It also means subtle, subtlety, and hermit. For instance, the lineage passed down by LaoZi 老子, the author of DaoDeJing, and the ancestor of the Daoist teachings, is addressed as YinXian 隱仙 – the Hidden Immortal because all of those early lineage masters were hermits. In WuZhenPian 悟真篇 (one of the most influential Daoist classics on internal alchemy, published in 1075 CE), or Awakening to Reality, ZhangBoDuan 張伯端 used Yin as hermit:
XuZhiDaoYin JuChanShi 須知大隱居廛市
One should know that a great Yin (hermit) actually lives in the busy city.
In Daoism, the invisible, hidden quality of Xian (an immortal), came to represent those enlightened hermits, real people, who were (and are) actually devoted to cultivating their humanity. This is one of the two perspectives of reality carried by the Yin radical. The other is that the Yin radical symbolizes Qi 氣, another of the Three Medicines I mentioned above, because for most “regular” human beings, Qi is both intangible and invisible. Nevertheless, all seasoned Qigong practitioners and Yin (Daoist hermits) know that Qi is the real subtle energy within our bodies and the universe, and is NOT a philosophical concept. Reality is very clearly an essence of the Yin radical.
We have a saying in Chinese , YanJianWeiShi 眼見為實— check for the truth with your own eyes. Yes, the meaning of radical Mu 目 is eye. Eyes are your spiritual windows. During deep inner transformation practices, we look within, using our spiritual eyesight to gaze within and see - we can verify the reality of our energies and our spirits. To me, this radical embodies Shen (spirit), the last one of the Three Medicines. With sharp eyes, we see things clearly. With an awakened Shen, we have the wisdom to live happily in the reality of our daily lives.
The top radical Hua 匕 for transform or transformation. Following the way of the immortal, your Jing/physical body, Qi/energetic body, and Shen/spiritual body can also truly transform into a new state of three-H’s: Happy, Healthy, and Harmony. In order for these transformations to take place, we must to take real action and practice an authentic traditional Qigong form or internal alchemy method. For example, if you would like to improve your health through a traditional Qigong form, simply do it, do not just sit there to talk about it, or think about it, or read about it. In Daoism, the only one way to experience the reality of the Dao is through our inner cultivation practice, which is the method of transformation. This is the reality of Hua.
6. Internal Alchemical Principles
The Daoist internal alchemical cultivation principle is well concealed within the Chinese character Zhen 眞. Let’s now take a look the three key steps of Daoist internal alchemical transformations and their relationships with the Chinese word Zhen:
First, LianJingHuaQi 煉精化炁, transforming the Jing to Qi. In this step, you work with your physical body and practice the way to ignite your inner fire in order to refine the Jing to Qi, which feels like transforming the bottom radical Ba, the Jing stage, to its above radical Yin, the Qi stage. You might notice that the shape of Chinese character Qi 炁 here is different than the Qi 氣 I referred to earlier. Actually, there are five different Chinese characters for Qi, vital energy (as I discussed in Vital Breath of the Dao). We use this character Qi 炁 when referring to the vital energy that was refined by our own inner fire during internal alchemy. Interestingly, the radical Yin found within the ancient character for Zhen 眞 (written on a bamboo stick from a Chu 楚 State tomb, from around 433-400 BCE) looks similar to 炁.
Second, LianQiHuaShen煉炁化神, transforming the Qi to nourish the spirit. In this step, we master the skill to transform our Qi, the subtle vital energy to nourish our spiritual body. It is the step of transforming Zhen’s Yin radical, the Qi stage, to Mu, the above radical, which represents the Shen stage within this symbol.
Third, LiangShenHuanXu 煉神還虛, refine the spirit and return to the void or the Dao道. This step is about how to refine your Shen and return back to the simplicity of Daoist lifestyle, which the typical sign of the enlightenment. It is the step that you move yourself from the radical Mu, the Shen stage, into the top radical Hua, the blossoming stage or stage of great transformation.
In Fig 2, the top radical Hua is made with three stroke and it looks like a flower. We use the phrase SanHuaJuDing 三華聚頂— the Three Flowers gathering on the top, to describe the true transformation of becoming immortal or enlightened. To me, these three strokes stand for the Three Flowers of internal alchemy. The Chinese character Zhen holds within the principle of Daoist internal alchemy and suggests the method of becoming ZhenRen 眞人, a Real Person.
7. Revelations of Zhen in Reality
ZhenRen 眞人, a Real Person lives in real life. The message within Zhen indicates that a truly enlightened person is grounded, lives in harmony with the subtle breath, has sharp eyes and inner wisdom - the Real Person could see the truth of the would and stay away from the delusions of fear.
Overall, the bottom radical Ba of Zhen stands for Jing, the essence of each individual life. It is no different from your feet and your legs that when healthy, allow you to move freely. If your life energy, your Jing, is depleted and becomes as stagnant as frozen ice, the related part of your physical body can suffer imbalances and ailments and emotionally we can become overburdened by the perception of fear. In order to strengthen Jing, we need to make sure we have correct physical posture/movements during our dedicated daily cultivation practice. Being rooted in our bodies and in our lives helps us enjoy the reality of day to day life.
The radical Yin presents Qi, the vital energy of our body or our energetic body, which is related to our breath. Harmonious Qi will help you maintain a harmonious life. Please remember to apply the Qigong or internal alchemy breathing techniques into your daily life. For instance, the moment someone or something upsets you, please pause a moment to take few deep breaths to your Dantian (or lower belly). You should immediately begin to feel that you shift your mood into a more balanced state and then will be able to handle the upsetting situation more easily.
The radical Mu stands for Shen, the spirit or our spiritual body. It is related to our attitude and our state of consciousness. Again, with a correct daily cultivation practice, we are able to connect with our spiritual body and understand how the spiritual body impacts our lives. When embarking on a new project for example, you might begin to experiment with seeing how a positive attitude can help create a positive result, and vice versa.
The top radical Hua signifies the transformation processes of our cultivation practice. Once more, to do this we apply internal cultivation transformation skills into our daily lives. In reality, it is possible for all of us DaShiHuaXiao XiaoShiHuaLiao 大事化小 小事化了 – transform a big problem into a small problem, and transform a small problem into no problem at all.
8. The Reality of Life
We are live in a complex and complicated global village. The events that happen anywhere in the world can easily shake up our regular way of life. We can not change this reality. We also can not change the reality of what is going on around us. However, we can simply change our attitude toward to these realities so that we can still live a life that is as healthy, harmonious, and happy as possible.
The wisdom of Zhen reminds us that a Real Person knows how to transform the obstacles to well-being through spiritual freedom. If you can awaken the Reality, or the True Self, you will be a Real Person. Of course, the journey to becoming a Real Person is a long journey one. However, with a little awareness and practice, using the guidance of Zhen wisdom, we can change our attitude toward to the negative things that happen in our lives and in the world. As an example, I would like to share my attitude toward to this irregular life we are all experiencing during the 2020 and beyond global pandemic situation.
Like many people, I held a a big fear about the Covid in the early 2020. Instead of living each day colored by fears and uncertainties, I put my feet down and spent more time to every day to do my Qigong practice. I knew that my cultivation practice would help keep my mind clear and also help me build up my immune system. As a conscientious citizen, I have also been committed to diligently following the guidance of the Swedish public health authority when out in the public. My fear shifted quickly and instead I became diligent. I followed the guidance my traditions and my country and observed the reality of the pandemic condition here in Sweden and around the world.
Several times, I joked with my Daoist friends that if we were to catch the virus, we’d transform the virus into a protein. Actually, this idea of transformation is the core spiritual meaning of Zhen. In our spiritual tradition, instead of killing a devil, an immortal would help the devil transform to be something that is beneficial, a good being. Often, the transformed devil became the immortal’s spiritual guard.
The same principle holds true with Daoist internal martial arts training - instead of fighting back or killing our enemy, we train ourselves to be able to use our soft Yin power to transform our opponent’s violence.
So whether you are feeling disrupted by corona restrictions, travel regulations, vaccinating, not vaccinating, your countries’ pandemic response, or another countries’ pandemic response, please consider the possibility that we as individuals have the self agency to seek the tools we need in order to take the “bad” and transform them into something that can be beneficial to us, we can transform them into our “bodyguards.” I find support in the practices of my tradition and in spending time with Qi-friends, whether it be on Zoom, or now happily, in real life again.
9. The Bottom Line
The purpose of this article is not to tell you what you should do in your life when you are sick or encounter a difficulty! It is simply a reminder for Qi-friends that traditional Qigong and internal alchemy practices are tools for healing and spiritual awakening. With your own true cultivation experiences and through the wisdom of Zhen, I am sure that you will be able to steer yourself from the mundane world, HongCheng 紅塵 - the Red Dust, a world of obstacles, lies, desires, fame, money, power, sex, addiction and so on, to your dream destination. When the dust clouds your view and you feel could easily become lost, remember the guidance of Zhen - when followed, it provides a map towards your humanity.