Free Content

Daoist Meditation Lesson Four Theory: Returning to Emptiness – Wu Ji

Lesson Four of Nine Lessons on Daoist Meditation: Wu Ji Meditation – Returning to Emptiness.

Chinese Cosmogony and Wu Ji

In Chinese cosmology there was originally hun-tun, an undifferentiated luminous cloud, a void with no boundary, emptiness, a potential state. The hun-tun is sometimes considered a state of chaos in that is undivided, whole, a state where everything is mixed together. This potential, undifferentiated primordial state is also called Wu Ji. Wu Ji means literally “no limit” or “no polarity.” It is the “One,” the place we are trying to get close to in meditation.

Wu Ji

Movement occurs within the undifferentiated matter, the non-polarized “stuff” that is the Wu Ji. This movement is like wind, like a breath, an inhalation and an exhalation. This movement is the primordial Qi/Breath, the true Qi/Breath. With movement (Dong), there is also stillness (Jing). With movement, things begin to divide and separate. The lighter transparent Qi rises and the heavier opaque Qi sinks down. The polarity of Heaven and Earth is created. Heaven is yang and Earth is yin. Qi that is influenced by yang floats, rises and moves so it can be characterized as Yang Qi. Qi that sinks, falls and is quiescent is influenced by Yin and can be characterized as Yin Qi.

Heaven & Earth

This polarity created by the Qi/Breath is called the Tai Ji, the “great pole”, or “extreme polarity,” represented as Heaven and Earth as diagrammed above. The Tai Ji represents the division of things into Yin Qi and Yang Qi , movement and stillness, up and down, right and left, etc.

Tai Ji

The polarity represented by the Tai Ji is not fixed, but relative. Something is only yang relative to yin, something is said to be “up”, only in relation to that which is said to be “down.” Additionally, yin contains yang and yang contains yin – this is represented by the white circle within the black fish and the black circle within the white fish. Therefore nothing can be completely yin or yang; yang contains the seeds of yin and yin contains the seeds of yang. This means that yin and yang can transform into each other, creating an interplay of stillness and movement; of light and dark; of the in-breath and the out-breath.

An alternative Tai Ji Diagram, attributed to Chen Tuan of the Song dynasty, visually conveys the spiraling, circular movement of Qi/Breath in the center initiating the movement which creates polarities of light and heavy; clear and turbid; movement and stillness; yang and yin.

The Qi/Breath moving in the center connects yin and yang, forming three modalities that complete and compliment each other. From these three, other forces are created. Chen Tuan’s larger Wu Ji diagram illustrates how Wu Ji and Tai Ji are the foundation of forms and their interaction.

Tai Ji Tu

Reading downward, the  diagram starts at the top with Wu Ji, which generates Tai Ji. The movement (Dong) implicit within the Tai Ji results in the Five Elements (Wu Xing). The Wu Xing are actually not so much fixed forms as much as dynamic, interacting forces. Thus they are often called the Five Agents, Five Activities or the Five Phases. They are also know as the Five Powers (Wu Te).[1] The nature of Water is to moisten and descend; of Fire to flame and ascend, of Wood to be crooked and straighten; of Metal to yield and to be modified, of Soil [Earth] to provide for sowing and reaping.[2]

      Wu      五             

      Xing     形    

Wu is the number five. Xing is generally used to mean “to appear”; “to look”; “form”; “shape”. However Xing can also mean “to act” or “to do.”[3] In the 11th Century, Zhu Dan Yi described the interaction of the Tai Ji and the Wu Xing as follows:

Tai Ji moves and produces yang. When the movement reaches its limit it comes to rest. Tai Ji at rest produces yin. When the state of rest comes to a limit, it returns to a state of motion. Motion and rest alternate, each being the source of the other. Yin and yang take up their appointed positions to establish the two forces (Liang Yi). Yang is transformed by combining with yin, producing Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth. Then the five Qi diffuse harmoniously and the Four Seasons take their course.[4]

The Five Powers are intimately connected with the life of human beings on Earth. The interaction of Heaven and Earth, is a fixed, unchanging polarity. It is timeless, and immutable. In human beings and the natural world, the breaths of heaven and earth are experienced through the five powers because it is through the them that life takes on material form and shape. Our senses, tastes, sounds, the power of discrimination, and even our internal organs are all considered to be expressions of the Five Powers. Within the concept of the Five Powers there is the notion of  time, cyclical movement and change. The Five Powers operate within us in the same way that they operate in the world around us, reflected in the seasons, the weather, and the movements of the planets. The cyclical movement inherent in the Five Powers can be seen in the diagram below:

Five Powers

The movement inherent in the Five Powers also contains the seed of quiescence and stillness. There is dynamic action but there are also forms and shapes that change and transform. In addition, Earth is the still, receptive center around which the other powers revolve and interact. Therefore as we follow Chen Tuan’s diagram to the bottom there is a return or reversion to quiescence and Wu Ji (represented by the two empty circles at the bottom). This reversion comes about through the practice of the Wu Ji posture discussed in the practice section of this lesson. 

From Wu Ji , Tai Ji and Qi/Breath – everything else (the ten thousand things) comes into being. In the Dao De Jing this dynamic is described as follows:

The One gave birth successively to two things, three things up to ten thousand.

These ten thousand creatures cannot turn their backs to the shade without having the sun on their bellies,

 and it is on this blending of the breaths, that their harmony depends.[5]

This idea is often illustrated by using Yi Jing (I Ching) diagrams to show how yin and yang change and re-combine to create complex forms and interactions.

Wu Ji and Daoist Meditation

The Wu Ji, the place of stillness where the breath begins, is the state we desire to return to in meditation. Standing or sitting with the mind void – without thought, without intention – is the place to experience the spontaneous stirring of a movement; a place to experience the interplay of stillness and movement. The Wu Ji in meditation is not only a mental state, but a posture where the body is like a central pole connecting heaven and earth. The body posture is unified and undivided. It can be likened to a string on a musical instrument. If it is strung too tight, or if it is too lax, it does not resonate and produce the correct pitch. Similarly, if the physical and mental posture are correctly aligned with the poles of Heaven and Earth, then it will vibrate in harmony with them. In Lesson Two we saw how human beings are between Heaven and Earth. Yin and yang interact and unite within us. By understanding how they interact we can experience that unity.

The Wu Ji Posture & the Martial Arts

In the Chinese internal arts, the standing Wu Ji ( or “void”) posture is the place that movement begins. In the martial arts, when one practices the movements of the Tai Ji Quan form, Ba Gua Zhang’s eight palm changes, or Xing Yi Quan’s five fists – they all begin from the Wu Ji; the void; the still place where the breath initiates movement. Each time these movements and forms are practiced, Chinese cosmogony is invoked. The practitioner starts by standing in the void and experiences the first stirring of movement through the breath and the Tai Ji. All of the other movements are said to emanate from this posture.

The Wu Ji Posture

Standing in  the Wu Ji posture, with the head toward Heaven and the feet on the Earth, we can feel the head and the upper torso reaching upward to heaven and the tailbone and the lower body sinking downward toward the earth. In this way there is a separating force in the body. This separation is clearly felt at the Ming Men acu-point which lies opposite the Dan Tian, at the 2nd and 3rd lumbar vertebra (see Lesson Two).  The bones are heavy and want to sink toward the earth, so by lifting them up, stacking them one upon the other, a movement toward heaven is created. The flesh is lighter and wants to rise and  float, so by letting the flesh sink, by letting it hang off the bones, a movement toward earth is created. Tail sinking and head lifting, while bones lift and flesh sinks, creates a dynamic tension that fully engages the yin-yang dynamic of Heaven and Earth within us.


[1] A Short History of Chinese Philosophy: A Systemic Account of Chinese Thought From Its Origins to the Present Day, by Fung Yu-Lan. New York; London: The Free Press, 1948 and 1976,  p. 131.

[2] Ibid, p. 132.

[3] Ibid, p. 131.

[4] Li, Qi and Shu: An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China, by Ho Peng Yoke. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987, p. 12.

[5]The Way and Its Power, A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, by Arthur Waley. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1958, p. 195.

All material © 2012. Excerpted from the upcoming book, Decoding the Dao, Nine Lessons on Daoist Meditation, by Tom Bisio. All rights reserved.