Essential Matter, Vital Breath and Spirit
As specific terms of Inner Alchemy, Essential Matter, Vital Breath and Spirit credit their origins to philosophy and medical science in the era before the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty. In the Book of Changes” ( 《周易》 Zhouyi ), we read the following sentences: “the refined vital breath forms substance when gathering, whereas it creates transformations when spreading out. By observing the transformations of substance, a man can understand the essence of ghosts and spirits”.
In ancient Chinese philosophy, besides “refined vital breath”, “refined spirit” was also a popularly used concept. In Zhuangzi ( 《莊子》 Zhuangzi ), “refined spirit” was used in the author’s description about the life of a “Higher Man” ( 至人 Zhiren ). In this case, “refined spirit” referred to a man’s aspiration. Since the era of the Warring States, the Medical School ( 醫家 Yijia ) used to mention “refined spirit” in its texts in parallel with “refined vital breath”. The author of the Simple Questions of the Yellow Emperor ( 《黃帝素問》 Huangdi Suwen ) mentioned, “the interplay of mild internal organs and strong protecting layers around would produce perfect ‘refined spirit’. Without the interplay between them, ‘refined vital breath’ would be totally lost”.
In Daoism, by borrowing concepts such as “refined spirit” and “refined vital breath”, new concepts such as “Essential Matter”, “Vital Breath” and “Spirit” came into in popular use. Among the “Three Jewels” ( 三寶 Sanbao ), as called by Daoists, “Essential Matter” stood for the pure substances which constituted the human body. “Essential Matter” was classified into two parts: the Essential Matter of Anterior Heaven ( 先天之精 Xiantian Zhijing ), namely, Original Essence ( 元精 Yuanjing ), would be traced back to the substances preceding all lives; Conversely, the Essential Matter of Posterior Heaven ( 後天之精 Houtian Zhijing ) referred to semen produced in sexual intercourse; in parallel, Vital Breath was divided into two categories: the Vital Breath of Anterior Heaven ( 先天之氣 Xiantian Zhiqi ), or the Original Vital Breath ( 元氣 Yuanqi ), referred to a man’s Essential Matter, which was initiated by the Spiritual Fire ( 神火 Shenhuo ) in the depth of the human body. In contrast, the Vital Breath of Posterior Heaven ( 後天之氣 Houtian Zhiqi ) existed everywhere in the universe, which was breathed in human body, and became an important source for human life. Only by the refinement of Spirit, would the Vital Breath of Posterior Heaven be helpful to the cultivation of Inner Alchemy; Similarly, “Spirit” consisted of two categories. The Spirit of Posterior Heaven ( 後天之神 Houtian Zhishen ), also known as the Spirit of Discernment ( 識神 Shishen ), was an important factor in learning and thinking. In the Book of Dao and its Virtue ( 《道德經》 Daode Jing ), Laozi said that “in learning, a man ought to increase something every day”. Laozi highlighted the role of the Spirit of Discernment in accumulating knowledge. In terms of the Refinement of Inner Alchemy, however, the Spirit of Anterior Heaven played a much more important role. Also known as the Original Spirit ( 元神 Yuanshen ), the Spirit of Anterior Heaven ( 先天之神 Xiantian Shishen ) stood for inborn wisdom. In order to strengthen the Original Spirit, a man ought to decrease the function of the Spirit of Discernment, just as Laozi claimed in Book of Dao and its Virtue, “In learning Dao, a man ought to decrease something every day”. Here, Laozi suggested, a man ought to rid himself of unfavorable functions from the Spirit of Discernment in order to enter a state of intuition characterized by Non-Interference. In this way, a proper function of the Original Spirit would lead to a transformation of the Vital Breath of Posterior Heaven into the Vital Breath of Anterior Heaven, a process which would strengthen the Original Spirit, and, accordingly, bring about a healthy life.