In this article, I will discuss the idea of opening the three gates in Daoist Neidan tradition as an integral part of Tai Chi practice. Usually the concept of the three gates is discussed from a Qigong perspective, but here I will approach it more from a philosophical perspective and Tai Chi. I will start with some brief background, but after that, I will try to attack the issue in a most practical manner and try to translate the thoughts into a modern language so the practitioner can turn this into something really useful for everyday Tai Chi practice. At the end of the article, I will discuss the psychology of Tai Chi and neidan practice that is expressed through the philosophy of the three gates. This is where, in my own opinion, Tai Chi becomes useful for both body and mind. You don’t need to believe in Qi or really understand neidan theory to make use of this in a practical manner. And if you read through this article you will understand better what benefits the Neidan aspects of your practice can have in your daily life.
Neidan as an integral part of Tai Chi
Knowledge about Neidan in a practical traditional sense is essential for a deeper understanding of Tai Chi as a health art and meditation. Learning about modern Qigong is not sufficient. Neidan is not the same as modern Qigong or modern theory about Chinese traditional medicin. Neidan means internal alchemy and is a framework of very old practical health systems and philosophical thought with a Daoist origin concerning the rejuvenation of the body. Most of today’s Qigong and Chinese traditional medicin is actually based on quite modern thought on the body’s Qi and Yin-Yang balance. Compared to medical theory, there is a much deeper psychology behind Neidan, which is a system of thought developed through practical experience of dealing with both the body and the mind. Just like Tai Chi, Neidan practice has been influenced by different schools of Daoism, Confucian thought and Buddhism.
In Neidan, there is something called “opening the three gates“. There is something to be found about this in the Neidan cannon “Wuzhen Pian“, a text compiled in 81 poems from 1075 by Zhang Boduan. Even if this book is recognized as a daoist classic, the period when this text was written is a very interesting and important one for the development of Chinese thought. In the Song dynasty Confucianism had a revival and there were different schools of thoughts concerning cosmology, numerology and often expressed as a mixture of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Zhang Boduan himself was a scholar who had passed the official exams and became a follower of Daoism, but he was also very well reversed in Chan Buddhism.
The special climate of thought from this period of Chinese history might have had an impact on the later understanding of Neidan through the work of Zhang Boduan. But later comments on this book and other similar texts have probably influenced our understanding on Neidan as well. This very period when the original text was written, the Song Dynasty, is also interesting from a Tai Chi perspective due to the fact that many scholars believe that at least most of what is called T’ai Chi Ch’uan today was already developed in this time. There are indications that there were already the art of the Sanshiqi (37 postures) and “soft” shaolin arts, arts that resemble modern T’ai Chi Ch’uan even more than the arts usually called Shaolin or Long fist today.
So even if there are differences of views regarding the historicity of T’ai Chi Ch’uan most people all agree that neidan runs through the development of Tai Chi and that it’s an important part of the art. The founder of Chen style T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Chen Wanting, studied Daoism and Neidan arts as well. So when we practice Tai Chi, we are actually studying a mixture of neidan and martial arts. And we study Neidan principles through the practical practice of our martial art.
The meaning of the three gates
One aspect of the Wuzhen Pian, namely the aspect of opening the three gates, has been interpreted in various ways and understood differently from different perspectives of neidan practice. The three gates are mostly either viewed as obstacles in the body preventing full Qi circulation or as three “dangers” that could hurt the practitioner while he or she practice to develop Qi circulation.
The three Dantian are inside the body, but towards the front of the body. But the three gates are on the back of the body and located in connection to the spine and correspond to the three Dantian. None of the Dantians or the gates are originally located as acu points, but in modern time a lot of teachers of Qigong and similar have claimed they are. The first gate one is located at the tailbone, The second in the spine behind the heart. The third one is represented by the “Jade Pillow”, or where the spine connects with the skull.
The lower gate
The first gate at the tailbone is where the spine connects with the legs. This is where the qi goes out to the legs. If the qi have trouble to go pass this point, or if this area is not developed properly in accordance with Neidan and Tai Chi practice, there will not be what is called Grand Circulation. Then the Qi can not fully nurture the legs.
The middle gate
The second gate is not only in a position that is behind the heart. It’s position is located between the shoulder blades, placed where the spine connects to the arms via the scapula. This is where Qi reaches the arms as it’s traveling up through the spine. This place, the second gate, needs to be open up in order to achieve full Qi circulation out through the arms.
The upper gate
The third gate connects the spine with the head. This gate connects the back to the top and the front, and is also a gate to the upper dantian. This dantian has no exact point according to older daoist, but is said to be located somewhere in the head. More revent philosophy means that this point is equal to what is called “the third eye”.
Circulating Qi through the three gates
Some books on Qi circulation and daoist meditation claim that there three gates represent dangers of practicing to develop grand Qi circulation. It’s said that if the Qi get stuck behind the heart, it could cause damage to the heart. And that if Qi gets stuck in the head, this could cause damage to the brain. In my own opinion, these the dangers are highly exaggerated. Qi is not something that can harm your body just through circulating. Circulation means that there’s nothing stuck inside of the body. I.e., if the gates are not open, the Qi can not reach full circulation and it will not get stuck. If it doesn’t circulate, how can it get stuck? The only way for Qi to get stuck is to focus directly on Qi. Because where the Yi goes, Qi follows. This is an automatic response, a function of Qi and mind.
In Tai Chi, it’s not the will or focusing on Qi that drives and circulate Qi. We never focus on Qi directly. In Tai Chi, it’s breath and movement that circulates and directs the Qi. We open up the three gates by breath, alignment and physical movement. To open up the lower gate means that the muscles in the lower back must be soft. For the Qi to continue to move up through the spine, there can not be any tension or too much weakness here. Further, to express the Qi down into the legs, we also need to use the “kua”, especially in the meaning of the groin, or the junctional area between the abdomen and the thigh. We can use stance practice and transitional exercises of weight and balance for the larger part of this whole area to open up both the gate and the gua at the same time. In neutral stance, keep the hips tucked in. When moving, coordinate the movements of hips/ pelvis with the rest of the movements of the body and the breath. The movements of the tailbone should be naturally coordinated through the movements of the lower Dantian, so there is no active coordination needed of the tailbone. But you still need to have awareness in this area and keep the lower back rid from tension.
The long lost part of our body is the scapula. This area is the modern man’s loss. We hardly ever use the shoulder blades in an active manner in our daily lives. I would be willing to say that a stiff back part, from the lower back and up the whole back, often ending with raised shoulders and clenched jaws is really a trade for the modern working man. It seems as it doesn’t matter if a person practice some types of sports or weight lifting and use this area sometimes, then and then. Mostly, they still have no awareness what so ever in this part of the body and the scapula is still almost never actively used. To open up the second gate, you really need to bring attention and awareness to this area. The scapula is the absolute key to open up the third gate and achieve grand circulation out through the arms. When practicing Tai Chi, there should be a spinal movement that connects to the shoulder blades and rounds the chest. What is called “Han xiong ba bei”in Tai Chi, or “raise back hollow chest”, was never meant to be a stationary posture. It’s a movement that travels from the tailbone, up through the spine and through the scapula. The movements and structure in the Tai Chi forms created by movements of the shoulder blades are called “Kai he”, “opening and closing”. It is also said that “opening and closing should be present in each and every movement through out the form.” Without activating the spine and scapula there is no “opening and closing” and there is no opening of the second gate.
The third gate as located in the neck, or the place where spine meats head, is best opened by correctly balancing the head and by releasing and relaxing jaws and neck muscles. If you are tense, the head can not follow the body’s movement properly. The head does not need to be perfectly still or perfectly attached to the body. As the eyes keep track of the fingers, the head needs to have a certain movability to follow the movement of the eyes.
The psychology behind the three gates.
There’s yet another aspect of the three gates. They all have their placements for psychological reasons. If you don’t keep your emotions and thoughts in control, you won’t control breath, Qi or the body’s movements very well. I believe that it’s a pity that most of Tai Chi and Qigong practice tend to be concerned with the body and physical movement only. Because in Neidan, dealing with thoughts and emotions is intimately connected with the progression within the arts.
The lower gate represents sexual frustration, sexual thoughts and also an overall shattered mind due to bodily needs. You need to be focused enough to keep away sexual frustration and related thoughts when you practice. But developing awareness of these parts of the body in conjunction with the physical practice of the arts can also act as a cooler, to help you control emotions as frustration, worries and anger.
The middle Dantian represents breath and the middle gate represents the heart. A body with an upset heart can not breath properly. Your emotions can control your breath. By relaxing the body and achieve deeper breath, you can learn how to control and be in charge of your emotions.
The upper Dantian, as I mentioned, is according to tradition just “somewhere in your head”. The upper gate connects the body with the head. You need to get rid of all tension from shoulder, neck and jaws before you can understand to align and properly balance the head. You also need to keep a calm mind, get rid of wandering thoughts and understand to focus. Also, in Daoist tradition, if your mind is not calm, you’ll upset the heart so the heart flame can not sink down to the “stove”, or to the Lower Dantian. Which means there is no “steam” or Qi in the first place. The top gate is your mind. Everything in your body and spirit starts and connect with each other through the mind. My own aim for my own mind when I practice is always the state of “wuji”, or “wuxin”, which through a simple explanation means “emptiness” and “no mind”. A gentle “stare” with the eyes can help you focus and help you to build up your “Shen” or “Spirit”.
A few practical pointers to sum it up:
- Keep the lower back relaxed.
- In a neutral stance, keep the hips gently tucked in.
- Keep the movability of the scapula, relax the chest.
- Practice spinal movements and the movability of scapula.
- Balance the head, but first relax the jaws.
- Let go of frustration, anger and worries.
- Calm the mind, keep it light.
- Calm down the heart.
- Collect all thoughts together on one point.
- Empty your mind, stay focused.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan will engage body and mind as a whole. You can not affect body without affecting breath. You can not affect breath without affecting emotions. This is what old traditional Neidan practice can teach us and how to use actively in our lives. Fortunately, this is something that is inherited in modern Tai Chi practice. As we practice Tai Chi, we study not only how to keep health, but also how to achieve well-being and in the long run, this might help us to create happiness in our lives.
Suggestions on further reading:
If you want to read more about the Neidan in the Wuzhen or about the three gates, I can recommend to also read these pages in the Rum Soaked Fist Forum, a meeting spot for practitioners and people with knowledge in Chinese internal martial arts. Another way could be to search in the Dao Bums community. For more Qigong and Qi meditation aspecs on these issues, you can take a look on the books by Yang Jwing-Ming, especially his work on Tai Chi Qigong.
Recommended posts as further reading and on similar issues:
On pre-natal Qi = https://taichithoughts.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/on-natural-movements-prenatal-qi/
On Body awareness = https://taichithoughts.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/body-awareness-the-real-key-to-success-in-tai-chi-chuan/
On Yi and Intent = https://taichithoughts.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/important-points-on-yi-and-intent-in-tai-chi-and-ima/