Hexagram 24 – left-hand tantra

In the year 142 AD a Chinese alchemist produced an “important alchemical classic”, says Richard Bertschinger, the only one who translated Wei Boyang’s “The Secret of Everlasting Life” (or “Can Tong Qi“, London and Philadelphia 2011) into English. The “Can Tong Qi” deals with the “outer alchemy” (producing gold out of inferior metals), the “inner alchemy” (finding the recipe for everlasting life), and with the Yin-Yang and Ijing (Hexagrams) philosophies that preceded Daoism, as well as with the Daoist Daodejing and Kongzi’s (Confucius’) maxims. The first two mentioned philosophies, Yin-Yang and Ijing, used to be stand-alones until they were picked up by Daoist alchemists and incorporated into their thinking about material alchemy, the mental alchemy and its relation to Heaven and Earth. Kongzi’s thinking actually seems to stand in considerable contrast to the Daoist philosophy as it is laid down in the Daodejing. Nevertheless, skillful picking and choosing produced Confucian sayings that later commentators deemed useful in explaining Wei Boyang’s writings — or in reinterpreting it and turning it into a tantric manual.

In one of the first passages of Mr. Bertschinger’s translation we meet such Daoist masters as Shangyang (390-338 BCE) and Yuyan (1258-1314 AD) who seem to have been outstanding in interpreting Wei Boyang’s oeuvre.

In Mr. Bertschinger’s translation (p. 59/60), the section on “the function of shifting lines” (of the Hexagrams), he mentions Hexagram 24, Fu (see picture), which’ title he translates as “Restored”. The passage points into the direction of Laozi’s commentary who called this Hexagram 24 “the dark female” (Daodejing Ch.6).
The Buddhists, says Mr. Bertschinger, called Laozi’s “dark female”, “the gateway to life and door to death”.
Below we will see how Mr. Bertschinger’s understanding of Buddhism is that of the Vajrayana, resp. that of (left-hand) Tantra.


The practice of throwing Ijing-sticks is described here. The psycho-analist Carl Jung, who in the process did disservice to the Buddhist thought as a whole, and to Daoist philosophy in particular, used to have a set of Ijing-sticks in his office and threw them on a nearly daily basis in order to “read” the direction Buddhism pointed him. Useless to say that throwing divination sticks has nothing to do with Buddhism which heavily stresses on conscious delibaration, i.e. on action and result of action (karma), not on chance of “fate”.


Most translators agree on the text of the “judgement” that accompanies Hexagram 24: Fu — “Restored” or “Return”.
Although both Thomas Cleary and Richard Wilhelm translate Fu with Return (and/or “turning point” according to Wilhelm), they describe it with : “When return is accomplished successfully is when firm strength returns to actions and operates harmoniously; this is how to go out and in without trouble, the companion whose coming means there will be no problem. Returning back over the Way, coming back in seven days, refers to the operation of Nature. It is beneficial to have someone to go to, in that strenght is growing. Return may be referred to as seeing the center of the universe.” (Cleary, p.37/8)

Wilhelm’s Chinese master made him write the “judgement” of Hexagram 24 as:
“RETURN. Success.
Going out and coming in without error.
Friends come without blame.
To and fro goes the way.
On the seventh day comes return.
It furthers one to have somewhere to go.”


Why does Laozi calls Hexagram 24 “the dark female”, and why does Bertschinger say that Hexagram 24, the dark female, is, to the Buddhists, “the gateway to life and door to death”?
“The dark female” is taken from Laozi’s poems, Daodejing, Chapter 6. Clearly Laozi commented on Hexagram 24 after throwing the sticks. Comparison of a number of translations and commentaries of these two verses of Chapter 6 are basically identical.

The French edition of René Étièmble (philosophes taoïstes, Gallimard 1967, 1980) runs as follows:
“Le génie de la vallée ne meurt pas.
Là réside la femelle obscure.
Dans l’huis de la femelle obscure,
réside la racine du ciel et de la terre.

Subtil et ininterompu, il paraît durer.
Sa fonction ne s’épuise jamais.”

Taoistic.com translates the first of the two verses as:

“The valley spirit never dies.
It is called the mystical female.
The entrance to the mystical female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth.”

D.C. Lau’s translation is pretty much identical to that of Taoistic.com.

Of course “la femelle obscure” is “the dark female” or “mystical female”, or in Wilhelm’s translation into German “das dunkle Weib”. There’s another translation by T. McCarroll that has “the unknown first mother”, (/whose gate is the root …)

kù-chen = the spirit of the valley. “Kù” equally connotes “gorge” as well as the female sex organ.
“The valley spirit” (or “Le génie de la vallée”) is in the translation of Dwight Goddard and Henri Borel (ed. 1919) “The Mysterious One.”


The alchemist Wei Boyang struggled with the mystery of birth, resp. giving birth. In his “Can Tong Qi” he mentions the coming-together of the cock (the black) and the hen (the yellow [egg-yoke]) and apparently concludes that this coupling is conception, the beginning of new life. The chaste Chinese never went as far as clearly describing the coupling of man and woman, the coming together of of yang and yin in all its practicality, but, as we shall see, the Himalaya peoples did. Hence the Chinese elegantly referred to “the act” by sayings in which there is mention of the “mystical female” which is “the root of Heaven and Earth”. Such a saying sufficed, no need to further elucidation. They furthermore incorporated “the act” concerning “the black” and “the dark female” into the Daoist philosophy and reverently called this dark female “emptiness“, a clear reference to the state of mind that accompanies this coming-together. Emptiness, the Daoist furthermore says, is potential but as yet unrealized. That is, it yet has to materialise [into an egg/chick, or an infant]. Emptiness is in Daoist parlance “wu” i.e. nothingness.

Now Richard Bertschinger says that it is precisely this: “” (the spirit of the valley), i.e. “wu“, “the dark female” (the emptiness experienced) that the (vajrayana/tantrayana) Buddhists share with the Daoists.
And here he makes a mistake: “emptiness” in the Buddhist sense of the word is not nothingness, or in Daoist philosophy mere potentiality, yet to be realized. Rather, says Buddhism, “emptiness” it is the absence of “ens” in living beings, the absence of an enduring, unchanging entity in this conglomerate of mind and body, senses and matter that is in a constant flux. The Hybrid-Sanskrit technical term is “sunyatā“. The early Buddhists rather employ the Pali term “an-atta“, not-self (which as a composite of negation [an] and name [atta] ) does not appear in the classical Sanskrit of Hinduism).

Now does Buddhism has something comparable with the Daoist “wu”, the potential-as-yet-unrealized? Does Mahāyāna Buddhist thought has it? No. What is called “the Dharma-kaya”, i.e. the Body of the Dharma (teaching) is “everything” taken together, not “nothingness” as a single concept. But again, yes it has it, as far as (Japanese) zen goes,  deeply influenced by by Taoism as it is. Zennists call it “Mind”, and consider this Mind as being the source to which one has to return to, in accord with Taoist thinking. Mind in this sense is clearly comparable with “wu“, nothingness. But nowhere in the pre-sixth century Buddhist canon do we find references to Buddha’s meditation leading to “wu” or, for that matter, to anything else that has name. The content of nirvana, if there is any, is not described, nowhere. Zen’s statement that nirvana is Mind is an assumption; it has no basis, not in the words, nor in the non-words of said pre-sixth century Buddhist canon.


How come that Tantrists, and especially the left-hand Tantrists of the Himalayas came to see “the spirit of the valley”, resp. the “mysterious female” — i.e. the act of coupling the male and female — as being a Buddhist practice? We don’t know. They don’t know, or don’t want to know.
Yet they found a way out of their giving-in to sexual pulses while all the way — as far as (semi-)professionals in the Faith go — not leaving the Buddhist fold in giving up the life of the (semi-)ordained Buddhist professional with all its honours and accoutrements. For in practising this “to go out and in without trouble” (Cleary’s translation of the “judgment” of Hexagram 24) and yet not ejaculating in the process (pardon the rudeness) they profess(ed) to practice putting the Buddhist concept of emptiness into action. It must be stressed that post-sixth century Himalayan Buddhist thought seems to be unaware of the Daoist wu-wei (acting/not-acting). Rather they were, or are, well-versed in the non- or pre-Buddhist tantric practices of the Indian continent.

In the early Buddhist canon we find no references to the practice of accouplement (to use the French) as a way to gain at least insight, and at most nirvana. One early text speaks of a king who married a flower-vendor: “by this evening she (the flower-vendor) will be the king’s consort”, Buddha says (according to one of the Pali sutta). He did not refer to the “act” of marrying, but rather to the fact that here a high-born accepted a low-born as his wife — which was highly unusual and frankly not-done, 5-6 centuries BCE.

Therefore the left-hand Tantrists excuses for resorting to their practice are very, very thin. All these words about “the gateway to life and door to death” ( in Mr. Bertschinger’s words) are a very thin veil, a cover-up for indefensible highly sexualized practices. Therefore, don’t call left-hand Tantra Buddhism. It is not.