Interviews from the Daoist World: Robert Coons
Teacher & Translator of Internal Alchemy
This is the first in a new series of interviews with teachers, scholars and translators of Daoism. Each interview includes general questions, as well as some that are a little more in-depth. At the end of each interview you will find further information about each interviewee’s work. I hope this series will be a useful resource in helping you connect with a variety of Daoist perspectives and material.
Robert Coons is a Canadian teacher and translator. He is starting to offer in-person workshops that lead students through the foundations of neidan practice, whilst also guiding students through the intricacies of neidan texts via online courses. He also runs an informative Substack page, which is how I first connected with him myself.
How did you first come to Daoism and who have been your most important teachers?
When I was a child, my father gave me a copy of the Tao of Pooh. Later, I came across the Taiwanese cartoon book Zhuangzi Speaks. Like many others in the 1980s, my entry into Daoist Practice was through martial arts. It was my teacher Hai Yang who introduced me to Daoism. He was born in 1968 and initially practised Hebei style Xingyi and Bagua with his grandfather. Later he was embedded in the Tianjin martial arts scene. During the Reform era, he began studying Daoism with Cao Xinyi (Daoist name: Zhen Yangzi), the abbot of White Cloud Temple in Beijing. During the so-called ‘Qigong Fever’ period of the 1980s and 90s he studied with a number of other teachers.
Using only a few sentences, how would you capture the essence of Daoism for someone with little previous knowledge?
There are many kinds of Daoism. Some day, this will have to be reckoned with in the Western discourse on Daoism. China deals with this just fine because they understand it on a very deep cultural level. In light of that, it’s probably best to say that Daoism is a worldview that uses philosophical teachings and practices in order to make our lives easier to live.
Could you expand on what you mean by ‘easier to live’?
Sure. Daoism suggests that our thoughts and emotions tend to be the greatest cause in our undoing and in our suffering. If we are able to deal with our internal environment in a way that reduces the impact of thoughts and feelings for both ourselves and others, then we can live simplified lives that are less prone to upset. This provides us with better health outcomes, whether mental health, physical wellbeing, less propensity to get into confrontations, and so on. So, I think Daoism is about simplifying out internal environment and having that spill out into our external environment.
That seems like a pragmatic approach to Daoist practice that everyone will be able to see the benefit in. Do you also think that Daoist Practice contains a basic motivation towards transcendence, sometimes referred to along the lines of ‘realising the Dao’?
Yes it’s a central theme, but we need to distinguish what transcendence might mean within a Daoist context. In Western thought, the idea of transcendence is heavily dominated by Roman Catholic doctrine. That’s been the cultural background of the West for the last 1700 years or so. As a result we might think that transcendence is something we add to ourselves through faith and piety.
Although I’m not an expert on Buddhism and Hinduism, it seems that in Eastern Religion the basic idea is a little different from that in the West. Transcendence is more about reducing those things that get in the way of our experience of the most basic presence of consciousness. Rather than transcending to a new place, we follow the steps of reception back to an original place and thereby become transformed. Daoism, however, has a special twist compared to other traditions. It also transforms the fundamental nature of the body through practice that causes us to regain the vitality that we were born with.
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You have a background in the internal martial arts. Could you explain a little about what these are, and how you understand their relationship to Daoist cultivation?
It is traditionally said that there are three main styles of internal martial arts, Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua. There may have been an earlier southern style that predated all of them, which may or may not still exist. The basic difference between internal and external martial arts is the way in which power is generated. Internal martial arts train the body to become open and able to change in very subtle ways. They manifest the full power of the body, but in a way that is relaxed.
There’s been criticism about the relationship between the internal martial arts and Daoism. Scholars sometimes say that they were not traditionally practised by religious Daoists. However, I would say that they are connected in two important ways. First, the internal martial arts are founded on Daoist principles like yin yang, being and non-being, fullness and emptiness. Saying the internal martial arts are Daoist is almost a shorthand for saying that the principles upon which the arts are based may also be studied through traditional Daoist meditation, philosophy and daoyin literature.
The second connection between the internal martial arts and Daoism is more recent. The internal martial arts have become more official ‘Daoist arts’ because they have been incorporated into Wudang Daoist lineages and transmitted there. That’s a relatively recent phenomenon dating back to the 1920s or 30s. Previous to that there was a broader martial culture in Wudang, so it made sense it happened there.
Do you think that the practice of internal martial arts is also an effective way of developing qualities within the mind and body that lay the foundation for later stages of Daoist practice, for example neidan or forms of apophatic meditation?
It is hypothetically possible. Many traditional neidan systems start by giving students certain exercises for developing concentration. For example, I’ve heard that Cao Xinyi taught students how to do the jin guang zhou (Golden Light Incantation), after which they would draw a talisman in their mind whilst standing under the morning sun. He would teach people how to do that before teaching them neidan. You could say that standing in zhanzhuang (standing post) during marital arts practice is similar to some extent.
However, I also think that there is a tendency amongst Western practitioners of the internal marital arts to create a taxonomy of practices that begins with zhanzhuang (standing post) and stretching and ends with enlightenment. I think this often seems be more a matter of good marketing than reality. Enlightenment and martial arts sometimes seem to be at odds with one another.
Textual study is a large part of what you do and offer in your teaching. Could you explain the importance of textual study, as well as what you believe to be the most important texts to look at?
In Daoism they say that there are three treasures. First there is the Dao, without which we wouldn’t be alive and have no way of doing the practice. Second is the texts, because they are the things that have held on to what the Dao is and how to practise it. Third is the teachers, who transmit the tradition from each generation to the next and provide oral commentary on the texts. So, texts are one of the three most important things in Daoism. Thinking about that, if you are doing Daoism but you are not familiar with the documents of Daoism, then it is exceedingly difficult to study in a deep way.
There certainly are some Daoists who read less and some Daoists that read more, but I do believe that everyone has to understand the theory of Daoism in a broad sense. Although there are hundreds of different flavours of Daoism, most of them come back to a few original texts. So, it’s vital to go to these texts and try to understand the basic meaning of them. However, there is a problem. It’s not possible to understand some of the meanings within texts because they have been intentionally obscured. That’s why we should also have access to people who can explain them to us.
One of the first things you should do if you want to learn Daoism is read through the Daode Jing in detail. If you find the Daode Jing too terse, then you can go to the Zhuangzi and read that. After reading these two texts, then you might want to go on to read more broadly from others parts of the Daoist tradition. What you decide to read will be a reflection of what aspects of Daoism you’re interested in. If you’re interested in internal alchemy, Fabrizio Pregadio’s books are a good place to start, but you will quickly need to find a teacher as well.
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Internal alchemy (neidan) is a complex and poorly understood practice. Please could you explain it in simple terms for someone with little prior experience?
It’s a genre of Daoist meditation, and its primary purpose is similar to Zen Buddhism. It is about attaining liberation from one's attachments and karma, done by realising profound stillness and profound silence, which leads to mental clarity. That’s neidan in a nutshell, but it differs from something like Zen Buddhism because it considers the body the vehicle for enlightenment.
Neidan holds that through appropriate attention to meditation, breath and by focusing on certain parts of the body at specific times, we can generate energy within the body. We generate this energy, or qi, and use it as a kind of medicine to heal the body. The practice of neidan usually starts by using this energy to heal the body, and then using it as a kind of catapult to start working with consciousness.
Do you see things like the elixir (dan) as existing on the level of mind or are they an energetic reality within the body?
I would argue that they are an energetic reality within the body. One of the problems that people run into when they try to take apart ideas like qi, jing or shen is that they cannot find a physical correlate within Western biomedicine for them. This leads them to think that they are superimposed by the imagination, but it’s probably better to understand them as somehow being the product of hormonal, neurochemical and nervous system-related functions that happen as the result of certain kinds of meditation practice. Probably what we are doing is transforming some hormones and neuroreceptors and causing them to give off more of whatever substance they naturally give off.
Why is it that qi moves from the base of the spine to the head, why is it that we can return it back to the abdomen? These are incredibly real and tangible sensations. And of course, qi can certainly be stored and it can be built. I think it must have something to do with the relationship between our hormones, our endocrine system and our nervous system. Probably something to do with our sexual function as well, and of course the circadian rhythm plays a major role in it too. It may be possible to measure all of this at some point in the future, if we figure out exactly which hormones to look at.
Another aspect of neidan is the construction of an ‘immortal embryo’ (shengtai), which is said to survive the disintegration of the physical body at the point of death. Do you think this is Chinese mythology, or an important part of authentic neidan practice?
I’m not constrained by any particular religious lineage, so I’ll just give you my personal opinion on this. Chinese immortality culture was popular for more than a thousand years before the advent of neidan. The idea of immortality in China was originally mythological. You can find it in the Shanhai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas), which talks about the ‘country of people who don’t die’. Later, Daoists picked up on the idea to venerate those within the community who had done particularly good deeds. For example, in early Daoist classics like Ge Hong’s Shenxian Zhuan (Record of Spirit Immortals) you have to work on things like chemical potions, but you also have to perform good deeds.
Neidan really broke the mould because they were the first to say that immortality doesn’t mean ascending in your physical form. Lü Dongbin laid down five levels of immortality and, depending on how you practice, he said you could achieve different end results. Wang Chongyang, the founder of Quanzhen Daoism, very emphatically died in front of his disciples — he wanted them to see. The distinction between immortality of the spirit and the physical body carried into the modern secular neidan tradition of Chen Yingning.
Anyway, I’m not at a point in my practice where I can really comment on these statements. Personally, I’m fond of the idea that consciousness is somehow part of the writing of reality, but that may just be a personal wish. Either way, if consciousness was in some way something that existed prior to birth and after death, I don’t think it would be entirely unreasonable that such stories could have some veracity. As someone who is skeptically minded and not particularly faith driven, it’s really very difficult to say with any veracity whether or not it’s true. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. If you work hard enough at it and you do enough good deeds, as they say, then maybe one day you’ll find out.
Do you consider internal alchemy to be Daoist? What do you think the relationship between internal alchemy and Daoism is?
Definitely. Neidan is one of the things that has been strongly promoted by Daoists throughout history. Although the founding literati figures of neidan, like Lü Dongbin, were not Daoist clergy, it’s still fair to call them Daoist and Daoism certainly takes ownership of them.
But it’s also true that Confucians practise neidan. The famous Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE) tried to get the ball rolling with this, but he wasn’t very experienced in meditation. It was Wang Yangming(1472-1529 CE) who took the teachings of the Daoist Li Daochun (1219-1296 CE) and placed them within a Confucian context. Many generations of Confucians all practised neidan up to modern times. For example, the famous general Zeng Guofan (1811-1872 CE) who saved China was also a neidan practitioner of the Confucian lineage. The Buddhists have also practised neidan at various points. For example, the Wu-Liu school of neidan is a combination of Buddhism and Daoism.
Why do you think Daoism remains widely misunderstood or simply unknown in the West, despite its potential for transforming people's lives?
There’s a number of reasons. The best things often remain hidden because people don’t necessarily want good things. That’s a difficult lesson to learn about others as well as about oneself. Also many experienced and talented Daoists in the Chinese speaking world don’t have a desire for thousands of students. Moreover, many of them find it difficult to have meaningful interactions with non-Chinese students, especially if they don’t speak Chinese. This means that only the shell of Daoism has been transmitted to the West. For example, the Daode Jing and Zhuangzi are both very popular, although poorly understood. The other reason is that the study of Daoism in the West is only about 150 years old, and it’s only since about the 1960s that Westerners have been having real conversations with Daoists. And there are other places that opened to Westerners even more recently. For example, Westerners only started coming to Wudang in the late 1980s.
I think there’s a lot of growth for Daoism in the West, but of course people have different ideas about how this should take place. I believe that for this growth to happen properly, we should look at the things that Buddhism has done well and we should also look at its failures. We should think about having organisations for talking about this kind of thing.
And lastly, please could you share any of your upcoming teaching events, publications or online offerings that readers may be interested in.
Probably by the time this comes out I will be launching a course with my friend Mohammed Saïah. We’re proposing to teach an entry level multimedia internal alchemy course. It will consist of audio classes as well as podcasts, documents, video and live classes.
Every three months I also do an intake for reading Daoist texts. Right now we are at the beginning of reading Jiang Wei Qiao's Yinshi Zi Quiet Sitting. In February we’re going to start looking at the documents of Li Hanxu, the founder of the so-called Western school of neidan. Other than that, I have a teaching engagement lined up in Holland for June.
What is the best way of getting in touch with you?
Everybody can have a look at Immortality Study on Substack. I also run a Facebook page called Internal Elixir Cultivation, through which people can contact me and ask questions.
Thank you for reading this edition of the Nüwa Newsletter.