Inward Training
The Mystical Foundations of Daoism

The Evolution of Daoism
There are four primary concerns that we see expressed in the
various texts and traditions that are referred to as Daoist:

1. Cosmology: Dao is not a system of thought (as it was for Confucius), but a cosmological principle: it is the ultimate source of the myriad things.

2. Inner Cultivation: Daoists developed various “inner cultivation” techniques in their attempts to transform themselves in accordance with the cosmological Dao. In the early Daoist tradition, for example, practitioners employed apophatic (self-emptying) meditation in order to attain a state of unity with the Dao; one would then return from this state of unity to the world of multiplicity, but maintain the unifying connection to the Dao through its physical manifestation as de (Inner Power).

3. Sociopolitical Theory: Application of 1 and 2 to the sociopolitical context.

4. Religious Organization: Beginning in the late 2nd century CE, various religious movements developed that were based on revelations from a deified Laozi (supposed author of the Daodejing) and/or other deities. These revelations led to the creation of formal religious organizations with ordained priests and elaborate rituals as well as new “sacred” texts that drew on early Daoist concepts but also incorporated aspects of folk religion.

Based on which layers appear in a particular tradition,
we can distinguish between four types of Daoism that
evolved, more or less, in chronological order:

Exemplified by the Inner Chapters (1-7) of the Zhuangzi, portions of the Daodejing, and a short text called the Neiye (Inward Training), which provides detailed information about the meditation/breath control practices used to bring about the state of union with the Dao. In this context, “Individualist” does not mean that the practitioner is self-centered, but rather that the focus is on individual self-cultivation, as opposed to social transformation; indeed, it is precisely by eliminating all self-centered thoughts and feelings that the practitioner opens up to the “inner power” (de) of the Dao, which allows one to live in harmony with the world.
  • Combines the first and second elements from the above list.
mid-3rd century BCE
Exemplified by various passages in the Daodejing (e.g. 19, 57, 65, 80), as well as portions of the Zhuangzi (most notably Chapters 8-11. This approach includes the self-emptying practices of the Individualist, but combines it with an emphasis on a “primitive” sociopolitical order, which is characterized by a minimalist government that promotes a simple, agrarian lifestyle in order to minimalize the desires of the people.
  • Combines the first, second and third elements from the above list.


late 3rd through 2nd centuries BCE
Exemplified by the “Syncretists” (a group credited with compiling the Zhuangzi and writing that text’s final chapter, which summarizes their position), as well as the Huangdi Sijing (Four Classics of the Yellow Emperor) and the Huainanzi. This approach is rooted in Daoist cosmology and meditation, but incorporates elements of Confucian morality and Legalist principles of government.
  • Combines the first, second and third elements from the above list, though the political dimension differs significantly from the ideals established in the “Primitivist” sections of the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi.
2nd century CE to the present
Represents the refinement of a Daoist cosmology as well as the development of corresponding techniques of inner cultivation that lead to the “perfection” of the spirit with the ultimate goal of attaining “immortality.” It also develops a priesthood to serve the lay (i.e. non-ordained) community by performing rituals for health, social harmony, and well-being in the afterlife.
  • Combines the first through fourth elements from the above list.
In a recent review essay I argued for the presence of a “bimodal” mystical experience in early Daoism, particularly evident in the “inner chapters of the Zhuangzi. The first mode is an introvertive unitive consciousness in which the adept achieves complete union with the Dao. This corresponds, in general, with Stace’s “introvertive mystical experience” and with Forman’s “Pure Consciousness Event.” The second is an extrovertive transformed consciousness in which the adept returns to the world and retains, amidst the flow of daily life, a profound sense of the unity previously experienced in the introvertive mode. This experience entails an ability to live in the world free from the limited and biased perspective of the individual ego. This second mode corresponds, in general, to Stace’s “extrovertive mystical experience,” although I would regard it as a quite profound subcategory of it. This bimodal character of mystical experience is, actually, quite prevalent in mystical experience across traditions, but it is often overlooked by scholars, who tend to focus on the introvertive mode exclusively. While evidence for its presence is not as strong in the Laozi as in the Zhuangzi, it is, as we shall see, most certainly there. (Harold D. Roth, “The Laozi in the Context of Early Daoist Mystical Praxis,” Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi, 66)
Inward Training (Neiye)
The Original Dao?

Translations from Roth, Original Tao
(additions/revisions indicated by round brackets)

Vital Essence
The vital essence (jing) of all things:
It is this that brings them to life.
It generates the five grains below
And becomes the constellated stars above.
When flowing amid the heavens and the earth
We call it ghostly and numinous.
When stored within the chests of human beings,
We call them sages.
(Original Tao, 101 [Neiye I])


Inner Power
Therefore this vital energy (qi) [that is the vital essence]
Cannot be halted by force,
Yet can be secured by inner power [Te]
Cannot be summoned by speech,
Yet can be welcomed by the awareness.
Reverently hold onto it and do not lose it:
This is called “developing inner power.”
When inner power develops and wisdom emerges,
The myriad things will, to the last one, be grasped.
Original Tao, 103 [Neiye II])
Roth: “One way to conceive of the relationship between inner power and the vital essence is that the latter appears to be the physiological substrate associated with the former; one way to conceive of the relationship between the Way and inner power is that inner power represents a quality of mind, discovered through the tranquility attained through breathing practice, through which the presence of the Way that dwells within human beings is revealed to them.” (Original Tao, 104)

The Lodging Place
If you can be aligned and be tranquil,
Only then can you be stable.
With a stable mind at your core,
With the eyes and ears acute and clear,
And with the four limbs firm and fixed,
You can thereby make a lodging place for the vital essence.
When the vital energy (qi) is guided,
it [the vital essence (jing)] is generated,
But when it is generated, there is thought,
When there is thought, there is knowledge,
But when there is knowledge, then you must stop.
Whenever the forms of the mind have excessive knowledge,
You lose your vitality.
Original Tao, 114 [Neiye VIII])
Aligning the Body
When your body is not aligned,
The inner power will not come.
When you are not tranquil within,
Your mind will not be well ordered.
Align your body, assist the inner power,
Then it will gradually come on its own.
Original Tao, 104 [Neiye XI])

The Numinous Mind
There is a numinous [mind] naturally residing within;
One moment it goes, the next it comes,
And no one is able to conceive of it.
If you lose it you are inevitably disordered;
If you attain it you are inevitably well ordered.
Diligently clean out its lodging place
And its vital essence will naturally arrive.
Still your attempts to imagine and conceive of it.
Relax your efforts to reflect on and control it.
Be reverent and diligent
And its vital essence will naturally stabilize.
Grasp it and don’t let go
Then the eyes and ears won’t overflow
(i.e. exceed their proper functions)

And the mind will have nothing else to seek
(since it is guided by the vital essence).

When a properly aligned mind resides within you,
The myriad things will be seen in their proper perspective
(or “One will naturally respond to the myriad things
according to their proper measure”).
Original Tao, 106 [Neiye XIII])