Refining the Vital Breath
The Origin of Refining the Vital Breath
Refining the Vital Breath is one of the primary routine practices of Daoists. It refers to constantly practicing Daoist Gymnastics and adjusting one's breath in some special way so as to permeate the Essence and the Vital Breath in the universe within the human body. Then the man who practices in this way can be rid of diseases and become an Immortal. Such skills have long existed in ancient China. In the Song dynasty of the Southern and Northern Dynasties, Bao Zhao claimed in the Collection of Staff Officer Bao ( 《鮑參軍集》Baocanjun Ji ): "The King of Huainan dreams of longevity. So he often reads books on Immortality, Refines his Vital Breath, and goes on a special diet." The King of Huainan was Liu An (A.D.179-122) of the Western Han Dynasty. The Daoist skill of Nourishing Life inherited the methods of Refining the Vital Breath of ancient times. Sun Simiao, an eminent Daoist of the Tang Dynasty, wrote in his book the Maxim on Visualization and Refinement of the Vital Breath ( 《存神煉氣銘》 Cunshen Lianqi Ming ) that one must relax one's spirit to achieve longevity. And if one expects peace of mind, one must refine one's Vital Breath first. The Vital Breath lies within; once the Spirit calms down, the Sea of Vital Breath becomes abundant within. Thus the Spirit is not distracted and longevity is promised.
The skills of Inner Alchemy have been popular since the Song and Yuan Dynasty. Cultivating the inner self is a key activity in Daoists' daily practice. Refining the Vital Breath is practised in the first stage of Inner Alchemy, i.e., as a fundamental method to construct a base for further cultivation.
The Methods and Functions of Refining the Vital Breath
The methods of Refining the Vital Breath are narrated differently in the works of the different sects. But the key point is to value the Vital Breath and to exercise it. To value the Vital Breath means to cherish it and waste none of it, while to exercise the Vital Breath means to refine it without stopping its circulation. The Perfect Records of the Supreme Original Chaos ( 《太上混元真錄》Taishang Hunyuan Zhenlu ) was probably written in the Tang Dynasty. It claims that the Essence is fixed by taking Vital Breath. If one can accept and understand the scriptures of mystery and the essential sublimity of Dao, one can go in and out of darkness, reinforcing the Cloud Gate ( 雲門 Yunmen ) and the Numinous Root ( 靈根 Linggen ). Thereby, by valuing the Vital Breath one can achieve Dao, and longevity becomes attainable. In addition, valuing the Vital Breath can make the Spirit bright, and it will contribute to longevity. Exercising the Vital Breath is a way of approaching Dao. Daoists engage in routine practice and refine the Vital Breath for two reasons: one is for longevity; the other is for communicating with spirits. Zhang Yuchu, the 43rd Celestial Master in the Ming Dynasty, stated in his book the Ten Daoist Commandments ( 《道門十規》Daomen Shigui ) that all people who practice the Dao should bear the commandments in mind and act on them. Then they must get involved in the religious activities of Daoism and study the methods of practicing. They can consult famous Daoist masters in the mountains or wear straw clothes and take wood as their chief food, so that they can develop the sources of all types of skills. Moreover, they must attend the incense carefully with a Skill, a Register, and a Position. If they can Refine the Spirit and Nourish the Vital Breath daily and practice with perseverance, communicate with the spirits, and behave themselves without regret, how can they worry that the skills are not efficacious or invoke spirits who do not bless them?