by contemplativeinquiry


“Naturalness is called the Way. The Way has no name or form; it is just the essence, just the primal spirit.” (1)

The Secret of the Golden Flower is a lay manual of Buddhist and Taoist methods for clarifying the mind. It was first published in China towards the end of the eighteenth century. It is the product of the ‘Complete Reality’ School of Taoism (2), which synthesized the internal alchemical arts of longevity, the meditation techniques of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Confucian ethics. Its key texts included the Tao Te Ching (3) the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (4) and a later Taoist work which translates as Cultivating Stillness (5).

The golden flower itself symbolizes the quintessence of the paths of Buddhism and Taoism, as understood by this school. Gold stands for light, the light of the mind itself; the flower represents the blossoming, or opening up, of the light of the mind. Thus the image evokes the awakening of the real self and its hidden potential. Primal spirit is a mode of awareness subtler and more direct than thought or imagination, and it is central to this blossoming. The Secret of the Golden Flower is devoted to the recovery and refinement of primal spirit in the practitioner.

“The beauties of the highest heavens and the marvels of the sublimest realms are all within the heart: this is where the perfectly open and aware spirit concentrates. Confucians call it the open centre, Buddhists call it the pedestal of awareness, Taoists call it the ancestral earth, the yellow court, the mysterious pass, the primal opening.”

In 1920 a thousand copies were reprinted due to a demand by an “esoteric circle” in Beijing according to Richard Wilhelm, who brought it to Europe in a German edition a few years later with a foreword and commentary by C. G. Jung (6). An English edition translated from the German by Cary F. Baynes appeared in 1929. These editions included fragments from a second work, also from the Complete Reality School, called Hui-Ming Ching (7). This adopted the Chan idea that there is no separation between original nature or wisdom-mind (hui = Sanskrit prajna) and stillness (= Sanskrit Samadhi). At the same time hui-ming means uniting wisdom-mind with the energy of life (ming). Contemplative stillness is to be complemented by a system of energetic movement, drawn from Chinese energy arts (chi gung) – an approach consistent with the Taoist understanding of the Tao as simultaneously the underlying permanent reality and the changing flux of things in transformation.

Modern translators recognize the importance of the pioneering Wilhelm/Jung  work, whilst expressing dismay at its level of inaccuracy and misrepresentation. In relation to the Hui-Ming Ching Eva Wong, who was able to translate a complete copy with illustrations, says: “Baynes’ translation is severely biased by Jungian psychology and does not present the work from a Taoist spiritual perspective … the historical and philosophical connections with its major influences … [are] … ignored … we cannot appreciate the spiritual value of a text if we impose a particular perspective, especially one that comes from a different culture … we need to yield to the text and let it speak on its own terms”. Thomas Cleary is equally unhappy on behalf of The Secret of the Golden Flower, using his own notes on the text to compare the older version unfavourably with his own and asserting that “Wilhelm was not familiar with even the most rudimentary lore of Chan Buddhism”.

In a way, Wilhelm and Jung suffer from the downside of being pioneers. Their successors are bound to know the territory better, partly thanks to them. But they were also men of their time in other ways, in their view of the mystic orient. Jung’s introduction began with a section on Difficulties encountered by a European in trying to understand the East. He expressed admiration for Chinese recognition of the “paradoxes and polarity inherent in what is alive. The opposites always balanced each other – a sign of high culture. One-sidedness, though it lends momentum, is a mark of barbarism”. He also used the opportunity to express pleasure that the West was now learning to value feeling and intuition and thereby widen Western consciousness and culture beyond a narrow “tyranny” of intellect. But he also made (to us) embarrassing statements like “measured by it [Western intellect], Eastern intellect can be described as childish … it is sad indeed when the European departs from his own nature and imitates or ‘affects’ it in any way”.

We are now in a globalizing 21st. century where large numbers of Westerners are working with Buddhist meditation and Chinese energy arts and finding them entirely accessible and transforming. China and its place in the world are also very different. We can let go of any residual notion that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. I’ve had a personal involvement with Buddhist meditation and Tantric traditions that have incorporated chi gung exercises.  I do not find them alien. My Western Way is a result both of a personal choice, and perhaps of a personal call. It could easily have been different.

I can learn directly from the East and I find that Taoism has a particular attraction – both that of the early classics and of the much later Complete Reality School: its attempts at inclusivity, its dialogue with Chan, its cultivation of the energy of life, and a Taoist/Chan sensibility in poetry and painting all speak to me. I am aware of a cultural note that is different to mine, yet I can incorporate key lessons directly into my practice. When working with breath, I have become increasingly conscious of a simultaneous movement of the breath and a stillness in the breath. For me this is both an experience and a metaphor. In my terms it feels very Sophian, and I believe I owe the insight to my acquaintance – however superficial – with Taoist tradition.


  1. The Secret of the Golden Flower: the Classic Chinese Book of Life (1991) Translated by Thomas Cleary, with introduction, notes and commentary New York: HarperCollins
  2. Eva Wong (1997) The Shambhala Guide to Taoism Boston & London: Shambhala
  3. Lao Tzu (1998) Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way New version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton Boston & London: Shambhala
  4. The Heart Sutra: the Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Translation and commentary by Red Pine Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint
  5. Cultivating Stillness: a Taoist Manual for Transforming Body and Mind (1992) Translated with an introduction by Eva Wong Boston & London: Shambhala
  6. The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life (1962) Translated and explained by Richard Wilhelm with a Foreword and Commentary by C. G. Jung, and part of a Chinese meditation text The Book of Consciousness and Life with a foreword by Salome Wilhelm. London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul (revised edition)
  7. Liu Hua-Yang Cultivating the Energy of Life (1998) A translation of the Hui-Ming Ching and its commentaries by Eva Wong Boston & London: Shambhala