By Michael Winn, Author and Founder of Healing Tao University
Why would anyone in their right mind choose to spend 5 days in a cold mountain cave without food or water? Short answer: Because the cave was on Mt. Huashan, the most famous Taoist sacred mountain in China. The long answer: I was curious to investigate the experience of Taoists who reputedly achieved the breatharian state through years of practicing internal alchemy meditation in these caves on little food or water. I wanted to have a small taste of their cave lifestyle, to see what it might evoke in me.
The idea originated with my Taoist monk friend Chen (named changed to protect his privacy) who lives in Jade Spring Monastery at the foot of Huashan, along with about 50 other monks and nuns. I had already visited Huashan twice, and fallen in love with its majestic 7,000. ft. high sheer peaks and temples perched precariously on cliffs that regularly disappeared into the clouds. There was something eerie about the mountain – I had the feeling it was alive and watching me constantly. Was this because so many Taoists had allegedly achieved immortality here?
Still being a mere mortal, I wasn’t sure exactly what immortality meant, even after two decades of doing Taoist cultivation. But when Chen said to me, “There are some secret caves here, and I thought you might like to meditate in one”, I promptly booked a date for the following year. I had seen many spectacular caves on Huashan on previous trips (see Qi Journal Spring 2000). But all of those caves had either been turned into Taoist shrines with statues inside, with a monk or nun who rang a bell or gave I Ching readings when hikers came in to pray, or they had been totally desecrated by tourism.
One giant cave was turned into a mini-hotel, with coffin sized boxes for tourists to sleep in. Others were abandoned or filled with trash, being too close to the main path that torturously winds its way up the mountain, its thousands of tiny stone steps faithfully delivering a stream of hardy souls to the very highest peak. Huashan has become one of China’s most famous national parks, even though the communist government returned all the shrines and monasteries to the local Taoists to manage after appropriating them during the Cultural Revolution.
When I finally settled down into my cave (one year later), and waved goodbye to Chen as his black Taoist frock disappeared over the edge of the cliff, I sat down in the mouth of the cave’s doorway to meditate. I focused first on my gratitude to the mountain for being such a powerful presence. The massive West Peak of Huashan towered 4000 feet of sheer wall above my cave. To get to my cave, I first had to climb up a 200 foot cliff with loose rocks, grasping at the roots of bushes, while wearing a backpack filled with camping gear. One misstep, or leaning too far back, and I would’ve been in a grave instead of my cave. I silently thanked Chen and other monks who had helped arrange my stay.
They are part of a very ancient line of Taoists who are guarding this mountain. The first reference to Huashan, which means “Flower Mountain”, comes from the Chou Dynasty, 3000 years ago. In fact, the Chinese character “hua” (flower) was invented to name this mountain, which has five peaks that unfold like petals of a flower. Taoists, attracted to this powerful Five Element feng shui, have been coming to Huashan to meditate for at least 2200 years, according to Han dynasty records.
But how they survived on this towering hunk of granite, where little food can grow and the only water is collected rain, is still a mystery. So I thanked the spirits of Taoists past for sculpting this cave space, and asked them to share with me their secrets. Finally I thanked the cave itself, and any rock elementals who cared to listen, for being such a grand cave – to me it felt more like a palace carved out of solid rock. The doorway was six feet wide and ten feet high, fit for a race of giants. The domed ceiling was 25 feet high, with a window at what could have been a second story level. Chen had read the inscription carved on the outside of the cave.
A Taoist monk named Can Xing had carved this cave, called “Spring Flower” (name changed to protect its location) during the Ming dynasty, which meant the cave was up to 600 years old. No one is quite sure how he or others carved the extraordinarily hard granite, one of Huashan’s many unsolved mysteries. The walls had uniform grooves a half inch apart, as if a giant comb were used to scrape out the insides of the mountain. After I finished saying all my thanks, an extraordinary thing occurred.
My mouth was suddenly filled with a ball of bright yellow pulsating energy, which slowly moved down my throat and esophagus into my stomach. Remarkably, this chi ball stayed in my gut during my time in the cave, and I am certain accounted for the fact that I never once felt even slightly hungry for the entire five day cave fast! Since this occurred immediately after my meditation thanking the cave, it felt like a clear communication from the mountain. I previously did have some fear about my decision to not eat or drink for five days, whether I would be strong enough to stay warm or to even climb down the cliff afterwards. So to have the mountain send me a chi ball into my spleen/stomach, the vital organ center of earth chi in the body, was incredibly reassuring.
Equally remarkable, I did not lose weight during the five days. I didn’t have a scale with me, but I did pinch the flesh all over my body to measure it, and none of it disappeared or grew taut. At my Healing Tao summer retreat program (now in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains) I had learned from a remarkable medical chi kung specialist, Madame Wang Yan, some weight loss chi kung techniques taken from the Taoist tradition of bigu, or “not eating”. The purpose of these bigu techniques to to satisfy your desire for caloric food with subtle chi (qi) that is breathed into the stomach/spleen. Overweight people then lose weight until they stabilize at their natural weight. I was expecting to use those techniques not to lose weight, but to fight off hunger in the cave. Yet none of these bigu methods were necessary.
Undoubtedly, I was well disposed to having such a spontaneous experience. I had already thoroughly investigated the “breatharian” question (“Is it real, or just a metaphor for a spiritual state?”) and decided it was physically possible. Several of my Taoist alchemy students had stopped eating for months at a time while maintaining stable body weight. Just before I made the Spring Flower Cave my home, Chen had introduced me to an 80 year old Taoist female adept, Ciao Xiang Zhen, who had not eaten for 20 years!
Ciao had been living on Huashan for nearly 50 years, up a different side valley with some other Taoist recluses. She had fallen and injured her hip, and so had moved to a more accessible location where I had the good fortune to interview her. She still wasn’t eating; Ciao admitted to me only to drinking 3 small tea cups of plain water daily and for variety, a small piece of fruit a few times a month. Her appearance was thin, but normal, and her eyes sparkled with the vigor of youth. Chen told me she is considered by the China Taoist Association to be one the “Eight Living Tao Immortals” in China, three of which are women. Skeptics of breatharianism (bigu) will remain skeptics, and that’s fine.
Because bigu is not considered to be any big attainment to go for, just something that can happen spontaneously as a result of your practice. It’s not a special requirement to get into Taoist heaven or necessary for most to think about achieving. But it’s still real, and for me, just knowing that its real expands the freedom of my spiritual imagination and its power of manifestation.
Back to my first day in the cave. Although I felt I was off to a good start, I still had to face the next big issue in Cave Life: what do you DO all day and all night? Short answer: wrestle with your monkey mind. How do you do that? Long answer: practice Taoist cultivation methods, the most powerful of which is neidan gong, or internal alchemy. Alchemy is the art of communicating with the Life Force, as well as the science of locally shaping its universal chi field. The primary purpose of alchemy is to accelerate the unfolding and refining of one’s personal human essence, or jing. Jing is also translated as “substance” and is what generates our blood, sexual energy, and our cellular power to regrow our body.
In Taoist alchemy one’s “raw” jing is refined into an “elixir” of refined golden chi or inner light by a process involving the internal coupling or “cooking” of water and fire. Water and fire are Taoist alchemical code names for the sexually polarized yin and yang forces within the body. To make a long story short, you could say I went off to a cold cave in China in order to have hot spiritual sex within myself. The offspring of this internal sex is the re-birthing of one’s Original Chi (yuan qi) and its Original Spirit (yuan shen), a.k.a. the original self or “your face before you were born”.
Did it work? Hold on, while I fish around for some juicy details from my diary in the cave. Here’s a good place to start – the moment when I realized that by choosing to live in a cave I had stripped away every possible excuse to focus on something other than my core self: “Once you take away eating and drinking, socializing and entertainment and the myriad other distractions our monkey minds dream up – what’s left? A simpler level of being, in which more subtle perceptions arise. I sit in a granite cave, with its door opening out onto the bird filled valley below, and become aware that my mind is sitting inside its own cave, sitting inside my body cave with its sense openings, looking out of the body cave into the outer granite cave.
I am in a cave within a cave, and I know, if I look inward, that I am also sitting inside other caves that exist within deeper dimensions of myself. “In Taoist cosmology, the three heavens in the Tao canon (a kind of Taoist bible collection of 1,160 mostly alchemical texts) are described as the “three caverns”. As I contemplate this idea of Heaven as a cosmic cave, my outer self relaxes back into a deeper level of awareness. I keep surrendering, and ask the spirit of Huashan to take me deep into its core. It feels like eventually I cross some kind of void, and relax into what I recognize as the “cavern” of Early Heaven. Here my observing self sits as a “soul” watching the activities of itself as a body-mind in a Later Heaven cave, the physical dimension.
After this inner -outer cave duality stabilizes, I remember that my Original Ancestor, the Original Spirit from which all humanity has evolved – is sitting within an even deeper cave known as Primordial Heaven. This heaven is also known as Primordial Chaos (hun tun). This cavern is described as the darkest and most obscure of all three caverns. Here the Chaos-of-Oneness (with no distinctions possible) watches the perpetual play of Creation-as-Order it has set in motion. “So really, choosing to live for a week in a cave on Huashan is just a way of reminding myself that every reality has its own boundaries, its own cave walls. However, it seems our Original Spirit may effortlessly slip between these boundaries, as if its vibration were too fast to be caught in the net of any slower reality-cave.
The other lesson I’m learning is that the so called “necessities” of physical life are not necessities – they are optional pleasures. Food is mostly recreational eating, deemed a necessity only because we refuse to acknowledge the possibility of eating directly from the infinite chi field of nature’s abundance. “How do we see into these deeper caverns nested within ourselves, that lead into the original cave-womb of creation itself, the “wuji” or Supreme Unknown of the Tao? How many people sit and watch in the outer physical cave, and nothing much happens, except perhaps they see their boredom and frustration at being trapped in the seemingly solid granite walls of that cave reality? By watching the coupling of water and fire, the inner male and female, there comes an opening hidden from outer sight.”
Now let’s slow down, before the metaphysical story gets too far ahead of the physical one. I should tell you that four years earlier I had spent a week in a cave in Pagan, Burma. I was in a Buddhist cave, 75 feet deep inside a pitch black mountain, with a 25 ft. high Buddha statue guarding the cave outside. That experience gave me a point of comparison with this Taoist cave experience on Huashan, in a relatively shallow 18 foot deep cave. As I settled into my life in this cave, I appreciated how clean and dust free this granite cave was compared to the dirt walls of my Buddhist cave.
I recalled my confusion at the initial resistance the Buddhist cave seemed to have to my doing Taoist practices in its space. My Taoist meditation practices simply wouldn’t work, the chi wouldn’t flow. I decided the cave’s chi field had been deeply patterned by generations of Buddhist practitioners. Only after I opened my heart to the spirits of those before me did the mountain relax and only then did my alchemical practices begin to open up channels with the inner planes. Here it was totally different. Some invisible presence within Huashan mountain seemed to be actively pushing me deeper into Taoist practice at every moment. This ensured that I never got bored, even though my outer cave life was severely limited.
I soon explored the parameters of what was possible within my palatial cave. It had enough room for me to practice chi kung movements and even my Wu style tai chi form and a tight circle of Pa Kua Chang. Carved from solid rock was a three-foot high altar table in the middle of the cave, which was big enough for me to sleep on. Chen told me the cave had later been used in later centuries as a shrine, evidenced by holes higher up on the walls for holding statues. Bits of some of these statues were piled on one side of the cave, the destructive signature of teenage red guards from the 1960’s. This was one time I appreciated the house cleaning by them, as I actually preferred the cave naked, in its raw original form. There was another elevated pedestal in the center of the back of the cave, on which I respectfully set a single candle.
I found that I rarely lit it as there was really nothing much to see in the cave with my outer eyes at night. I spread out my foam pad and sleeping bag on the central stone altar, as if my body was a sacrificial offering to the Spirit of this mountain. There was nothing else in the cave, except my pack, in which I kept some “emergency” food bars and a water bottle I never felt tempted to consume. The only other piece of furniture arrived unasked the second morning, when another Taoist monk, Wen Shi, undoubtedly sent by Chen, arrived with a wooden kneeling stool for me to sit in meditation on. It was taken from a nearby shrine to a Taoist female deity from the Nine Heavens.
Wen Shi, concerned that I would be cold in the cave, also took off the black Taoist cape off his own back and gave it to me as a gift. My protestations were useless; he considered my flimsy pile jacket inadequate against the harsh mountain elements. I wrapped his cape around me, the dress uniform of Complete Perfection Taoists. Chen had told me that Taoists are becoming so rare in modern China that when he wears his traditional Taoist clothing outside the monastery in big cities, with his white leggings, black tai chi shoes and hair tied in a top knot, he is sometimes mistaken for a foreigner wearing some outlandish foreign dress!
I began to merge into the cycle of night and day of cave life. At night I lay on my stone altar-bed in the pitch blackness and did Taoist dream practice, a method where you put the body to sleep while the mind stays awake and does special meditations in the twilight space between sleep and waking states. I sat up at 4 am to meditate with the deep violet-blue light of early dawn. From 7 to 9 am I did standing chi kung movements. Then I sat again in meditation until the sun entered the cave at 11:30 pm. The boundaries between the two halves of the physical cycle of night and day began to dissolve as I sank deeper into the mind of the mountain itself.
This can be a very difficult concept for westerners to accept, that supposedly inanimate natural objects like a mountain or the earth itself could have a “mind”. Yet this is a very fundamental premise of Taoist philosophy – that all of nature is alive and breathing from the universal chi field, its in-out (yin-yang) breath sustaining its very physical form. This means every aspect of matter also has its own intelligence. Even the rigidly fixed intelligence of the granite rock of Huashan can be an energetic pathway into its “parent” spirit of the mountain, whose core intelligence is the earth itself.
A few days earlier I had asked Cai, the breatharian female adept, if she ever felt like the mountain was communicating with her. She smiled. ” I have never felt it speak to me like some human spirit, but its presence is always very strong for me. Everyone who comes to Huashan to live must feel its presence, why else would they stay?” The high piezo-electric conductivity of granite may contribute to the yang chi I felt flowing through Huashan. Others confirmed to me that historically Taoists from all over China considered Huashan as having very yang chi for cultivation practice.
I later visited Mt. Qingcheng (“Azure Truth”) Shan in Sichuan Province, the birthplace of one sect of Taoism 2000 years ago. It was a completely different experience, and I noticed how powerfully yin its chi was. The shape of Huashan, bursting up dramatically towards the Heavens in a five-petal flower formation, is an expression of its yang nature. In Taoist feng shui Huashan’s shape is considered to be a reflection of a yang stellar constellation manifesting on earth. Not far from my Spring Flower cave was another hidden cave used since Han dynasty times for viewing the Pole Star, the central star or higher earth element around which the other four stellar quadrants/elements of Heaven rotate each night.
This inspired me on some evenings to go out on the narrow ledge in front of my cave and practice Taoist star alchemy, a method of absorbing and balancing the chi from all the star quadrants into the crystal palace or upper dan tien (etheric space of the pineal gland). Meditating in this granite cave day and night for five days awakened memories in me of the seven trips I had made to Egypt to meditate inside the Great Pyramid. The walls of the King’s Chamber are made of a special red granite, and above this chamber (which architecturally represents the pineal gland) there are five giant slabs of granite with space between them, wrongly thought to be for earthquake adjustments. According to esoteric lore I learned while studying pre-Egyptian internal alchemy practices, these five slabs of granite represent the five subtle bodies of man that are awakened by initiation in the pyramid.
Taoist internal alchemy holds a similar pattern of unfoldment, but uses different methods to achieve the awakening. But the use of granite to amplify spiritual vibrations from the mountain’s deep earth consciousness and act as a ground for Heavenly frequencies may be similar in the Taoist and Egyptian traditions. Mountains are just natural pyramids; their axis acts as a double vortex between the center of the earth below and the stars above. My experience of Huashan, a giant “earth flower” made of solid granite, is that the mountain is a vast initiation chamber for those who can attune to its inner frequency.
When you align your human body axis to axis of the mountain, it becomes a pathway for communicating with all that the “mind of the mountain” is communicating with. Huashan is thus just an individual outlet for the collective planetary consciousness, like any ley line or sacred place. The more a place gets used for spiritual awakening, the more powerful and skillful it becomes at using the natural chi field to communicate with humans. For those following the path of the Tao, this is the major reason to visit China’s sacred mountains. This lure of awakening to one’s spiritual truth is undoubtedly what motivated Taoists to spend years digging these caves.
Chen told me that records reveal it took up to 30 years to dig a large cave like Spring Flower Cave out of the cliff wall of solid granite. After digging it, they would undergo tremendous deprivation of ordinary human pleasures to live in the cave. There had to be a special payoff in spiritual pleasure to keep them from abandoning their simple cave life. Meditating in solid rock seems to cause a special resonate with the bone level of human consciousness, where Taoists consider the jing or sexual essence to be stored. Bone and the jing within it is spiritually the most dense level of our human body, and thus the hardest to reach by ordinary meditation. But it is also the secret substance needed to crystallize an immortal Body of Light.
This may also explain why so many Taoist are said to have achieved their immortality on Huashan – they were able here to concentrate their full being on the process of gathering their jing essence and refining it into chi, shen, and ultimately wu (non-being). What about harsh weather? You might ask, as I did: why didn’t the cave adepts simply light a fire in their caves to keep warm? Chen answered this question before he would even show me the way to the cave. “There is one very strict condition for your staying in the cave”, he warned me.”Absolutely no heating or cooking fires are permitted. You will notice that none of the dozens of caves on Huashan have their ceilings blackened by fire. This traditional Taoist rule against using fire is not to make cave life harder than it already is. It is to protect your internal practice. A strong external fire will disturb the delicate balance of water and fire within your dan tien. One purpose of cave practice is to activate more powerfully the internal fire needed for neidan (alchemy) practice”.
About the Author
Michael Winn is a pioneer in bringing Tao arts to the West. He founded Healing Tao University, which offers 30 week long summer retreats in all of the Tao arts in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. He leads a China Dream Trip each year to Taoist monasteries and every other year to do cave practice on Mt. Huashan. He is ex-President of the National Qigong Association USA, Healing Tao Inner Alchemy Senior Instructor, International teacher with nearly 30 years experience, and offers in depth Tao home study audio-video courses in qigong/chikung and Taoist inner alchemy. He is the co-author with Mantak Chia of 7 books, including Taoist Secrets of Love.
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