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Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

Ki: The Universal LifeForce

The Phenomenon at the Heart of Oriental Medicine and the Oriental Martial Arts

Extract taken from 'Ki A Philosophical Review', Chapter 2, ICOM Thesis, 1990

Written by Philip D Holmes

The root of the way of life, of birth and change is Ki, The source where from the sun, moon and stars derive their light, The thunder, rain, wind and cloud their being, The four seasons and the myriad things, their birth, growth, gathering and storing, All this is brought about by Ki (1)

The general theory of Ki (2) is one of a mysterious, invisible, intangible, underlying material substratum that pervades and animates the entire universe. It relates to a belief system that has emerged over a period of possibly thousands of years, within a philosophy that sees man, nature and the universe through different eyes and subtle minds.

For the Oriental philosopher, manifestation of Ki can be a nightingale singing all the secrets of the universe; for the Oriental doctor, Ki can be the sparkle radiating from a person's eyes; for the Oriental warrior, Ki can be the primordial scream erupting from the deepest depths of the human form. For the Oriental mind, the entire universe is a vibrating, resonating, wondrous spectacle of diverse manifestations of Ki, dancing all around us and within us; the very essence of all that is ...

Although Ki in general is most widely associated with the idea of animation, the ancient philosophers saw no ultimate distinction between animal and vegetable, solid or liquid; they saw just Ki existing in different states due to contrasting densities of Yin Ki and Yang Ki. Just as the Ki of man had its role to fulfill, so too did a plant, a rock or an ocean have its special Ki and role to fulfill.

The ancients saw also that, on another level, Ki could change its states of existence. For example, when water evaporates into steam, or hardens into ice, because of atmospheric changes, does it not still remain water? To take this further, perhaps we can see why even the idea of birth and death are considered to be just Ki in different states, expressed most poetically in the following:

Every birth is a condensation, every death a dispersal Birth is not a gain, death is not a loss (3)

So perhaps we too can see Ki in a similar way, the one universal Ki the ultimate reality underlying all things, but manifesting in many diverse ways and on many different levels.


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

There are two ideograms for the general term Ki, and an etymological study of these is described as follows:

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 There are two ideograms

Diagram 1a: Ki Ancient Form

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 There are two ideograms

Diagram 1b: Ki Modern Form

The ancient form Ki (diagram 1a), shows vapours rising from earth and forming a layer of clouds above. The modern, more complete form (diagram 1b) tucks a grain of rice under the curl of the vapours. This

gives the image of steam rising from the cooked grains which represent the essential being

The sound

... for Ki is a gentle hissing of vibrating air, the sound of breath exhaled indefinitely, endlessly changeable (4)

It is perhaps not too difficult to see how the ancients conceived the idea of a substance that surreptitiously pervades the universe, by observing the manifestations of these rising vapours sometimes visible for only a few moments, before vanishing back to the unseen world, or mists that lingered and hung over fields, hills and valleys giving familiar terrain the appearance of a ghostly apparition.

It is extremely difficult to ascertain exactly when the notion of Ki was first conceived, where and by whom. It was certainly well established by the time the 'Huang Di Nei Jing' (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine) was written and compiled, circa 300 100 BCE (5) However, we can see at the very beginning of the first chapter that even at that time period the idea of Ki was quite ancient:

The Yellow Emperor asked the Heavenly teacher:

"I have heard that people of ancient times had lived as long as one hundred and twenty years with no signs of weakening in movements, but people nowadays become weakened in their movements at the age of less than sixty years old. Is this due to a change in natural environments, or due to man's faults?"

Ki Po replied:

"The ancient people who knew the proper way to live had followed the patterns of the Yin and Yang, which is the regular pattern of Heaven and Earth, remained in harmony with numerical symbols which are the great principles of human life, ate and drank with moderation, lived their daily lives in a regular pattern with neither excess nor abuse. For this reason, their spirits and bodies had remained in perfect harmony with each other and consequently, they could live out their natural life span and die at the age of over one hundred and twenty years.

On the other hand, people nowadays are quite different because they intoxicate themselves exorbitantly, replace a normal life with a life of abuse, have sexual intercourse while intoxicated, exhaust their pure energy (Ki) through gratification of their desires, waste their true energy (Ki) through careless and prolonged consumption, fail to retain their energy (Ki) in abundance and to guard their spirits constantly, rush to the gratification of their hearts to the contrary of the true happiness of life, live their daily lives in an irregular pattern. It is for this reason that they can only live half of their life span.” (6)


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

We can only assume that when the Yellow Emperor stated, "people of ancient times had lived as long as one hundred and twenty years with no signs of weakening," that his view of 'ancient' was approximately the same as ours. Then, for example, just as we consider the Greek and Roman Empires of some 2000 years ago to be in the realms of ancient, it is conceivable that Orientals living circa 4,500 BCE had perceived the notion of Ki and the cosmology that surrounds it.

To gain greater insight into this perception, it is now necessary to see man, nature and the universe in the way those thoughtful men perceived these things all those centuries ago.

For those early Chinese philosophers, there was no creator of the universe. Questions concerning origin, creation, or ultimate cause were considered unanswerable. Although the meaning of existence was an inaccessible mystery, it was not considered absurd, that is to say, like the Sartrian existential philosophical notion that existence is neither designed nor predictable, but irrational and meaningless. Rather, the visible manifestations of life gave clues to the great invisible mystery, that a certain order of things existed, but was beyond our understanding.

This notion of implicit perception was described rather well by a Western scientist who gained relative fame in the early 20th century with his unique contribution to our understanding of the great mystery.

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 We can only assume

Albert Einstein: 1879 – 1955

The human mind is not capable of grasping the universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceiling with books written in many tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who, or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written, but the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books. A mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects (7)

So, to come to terms with these questions concerning cosmology and the phenomenal world, the allembracing term 'Tao' was introduced. This is a fundamental key concept in Chinese (Taoist) philosophy, for not only does it represent cosmic order on one level, it can also be seen as a way of doing things in relation to the phenomenal world and thus give meaning to existence on another level. That is to say, becoming aware that man is a part of nature and therefore, the need to live in a certain way to be in harmony with nature and the universe, and thus (re) create or maintain a unified whole.

Literally translated, Tao means 'road', or 'way'. However, its meaning is relative to the interpretation. For example, in the Confucian tradition, Tao is basically limited to behaviour in that it suggests a correct way or moral code of conduct that should be followed. In more general terms, awareness of the visible, everchanging processes of nature, made it possible for those perceptive followers of the Tao to perceive, or intuitively grasp, the existence of a mysterious, invisible, intangible, underlying material substratum that they probably considered as the primordial source and continuation of all things. This philosophy became truly crystallized in the school of thought


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

which became known as Taoism; and for its founder, Lao Tzu, (8) questions concerning cosmology, hitherto unanswerable, could be answered indirectly by subtle inference of language, using parables and metaphors that could lead to an intuitive, or mystical, understanding of the eternal Tao:

It is something mysteriously formed, that existed before Heaven and Earth. Its name we do not know, Tao is the by name we give it. Forced to say what class of things it belongs to, call it – immense (9)

Although Lao Tzu ascribed the term Tao to the nameless entity that preceded Heaven and Earth, he was at great literary pains to point out in the very first line of his great classic, the Tao Te Jing, that even the very naming of 'it' was not 'it', because 'it' was beyond words.

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao (10)

Encompassed within the concept of the eternal Tao are three ideas:


Tai Yi, or the Great (undivided) One


Tai Ji, or the Great Ultimate


Hun Dun, or the Primordial Chaos.

All are considered to precede time and space, and the separation of Ki into its primordial polarities of Yin Ki and Yang Ki. Tai Yi does not create, but has the potential of being (becoming) and existence. Tai Ji, encompassed within Tai Yi, has the nature of duality, and therefore is the progenitor of the subsequent separation and relative polarization of Ki. Hun Dun, again encompassed within Tai Yi, relates to the unseparated Ki in a state of perfect balance perversely described as 'chaos'. However, to attempt to discuss these different ideas in isolation is almost impossible because, basically, they all come to mean the same thing. Separately, they are the same as when they are considered together as part of the same reality!

It is becoming relatively clear that for the ancient Oriental philosophers cosmological beginnings are centered around the general concept of Ki, primordial Ki in an undifferentiated state. It is also becoming clear that, in this paradoxical state, time, space and existence, as we know them, did not exist. If anything did exist, it was in a state of perhaps what one could only describe as dormant potentiality. So, to bring us to the reality of everyday life, an event must have occurred to affect the primordial state of Ki and initiate its separation into the differentiated states known as Yin Ki and Yang Ki (11) At that critical event, space came into existence and time began, as the purer, clearer, lighter and more rarefied (Yang) Ki ascended to become Heaven, and the less pure, denser, heavier, more turbid (Yin) Ki descended to become Earth. (12)


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 Diagram 2: Symbol representing

Diagram 2: Symbol representing YIN KI and YANG KI

So now we see that from the Tai Yi, or Great (undivided) One, we have the perception of two distinct primordial polarities, the constant interplay of which affects man, nature and the universe with every passing moment, and, as such, may be considered as the primordial matrix from which everything has its beginning, its continuation and its end.

Yin Ki and Yang Ki are the eternal opposites of nature: the dark and the light, the quiet and the loud, the cold and the hot, the female and the male, and so on. The ancients believed that within the totality of all things, that is to say everything that could be observed as well as (implicitly) everything that could not be observed, these two basic types of Ki existed; and within every polarity there existed the potential for the other. By definition, this meant that everything in the universe was relative, because nothing was ever totally Yin or totally Yang. It was also considered that in this state of constant flux, certain phenomenon would reach an extreme, and then gradually transform into its opposite state:

So the Yin Yang is dividing the ways the universe is rolling on itself. What they (the ancient philosophers) call Tian Yun (Heavenly distribution of influx). The only sure thing is that there is Heaven and there is a motion which is regular, some sort of transportation of something. So under Heaven's influence, everything is transported somewhere. With us, this general circulation, this natural motion of the universe, this may be divided into two aspects, the Yin aspect and the Yang aspect. And aspects of what? Of Ki.

There is some arising and there is some falling back, falling down of the Ki. To rise in order to fall and to fall in order to rise, and that makes this circulation. It is so high that we cannot perceive the essence of it. It is so universal that we are affected, ourselves, our neighbours, everything, everybody, every animal, every plant is under the same Tian Yun, the same natural movement. And the regression of this is seen through the four seasons. The four seasons are not four times in the year, they are four different aspects of the Tian Yun, which we see very clearly in spring, summer, autumn, winter. So far as we may say that everything is spring, and everything is summer, and everything is autumn, and everything is winter, but the most visible spring is in the spring in the field, or the spring in the birth of insects, or the spring seen in small green

blades of vegetation, or the feeling that everything is in an awakening process ..


Here, we now see expressed two other fundamental key concepts in Oriental thought: firstly, that of two opposing, but complementary, types of Ki, and, secondly, that of the cyclically changing nature of Ki. As mentioned above, both these states of reality the ancients most readily observed in the change of the seasons. From the most primordial polarities of winter (Yin) and summer (Yang), it was seen that these states were not permanent, but gradually changed into each other; moreover, that four distinct seasons were identifiable. However, a fifth state, or 'season', was also considered to exist between the decline, or end, of one season and the emergence, or beginning, of another. This was considered to be Earth itself, the place where the seasons manifested and where the transformation took place. (Diagram 3)


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 Diagram 3: The Four

Diagram 3: The Four Seasons with Earth at the Centre of all Change

After making these assertions, the ancients realized they could also make valid associations based on the theory of the constantly changing state of Yin Ki and Yang Ki. They considered that all natural phenomena fell into five categories or states of existence: Wood, corresponding to spring; Fire, corresponding to summer; Earth, corresponding to late, or Indian summer, or at the centre of all change; Metal, corresponding to autumn; Water, corresponding to winter. Other associations include tastes, sounds, colours, directions, climates, emotions and organs of the body. However, essentially, the fundamental polarity of Yin Ki and Yang Ki remained present and integral as the ultimate reality underlying and motivating all things and all change. (Diagram 4)

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 Diagram 3: The Four

Diagram 4: The Five Phases and the Organ Correspondence

So, how is this theory represented, or seen to work, in man and nature? The answer may be interpreted in different ways. However, if we apply the basic theory of Ki, we may find one possible answer. If, as the ancients have suggested, Ki has a cyclical nature, that things reach their fullest expression and then revert back to their opposite state, we may then see that in man and nature all things have a (relative) beginning and (relative) end and that no thing can go on forever being the same thing. This has been expressed succinctly in the following:

When some particular effect initiated by an action has been completely structed and thus stabilized in space, it becomes the object of new actions tending in turn to neutralize, to counteract, or to annihilate it. Viewed in this way, every struction is succeeded within the cycle, organismic cosmos by eventual (self) destruction (14)


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

Therefore, in relation to nature, if a season begins with spring, it begins with (Old) Yin Ki, turning into (Young) Yang Ki, which, in turn, changes to (Old) Yang Ki as the spring turns into summer, and so on until the cycle returns to the (relative) beginning of spring once again. (Diagram 5)

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 Therefore, in relation to

Diagram 5: The Everchanging Cycles of Ki in relation to the Seasons

However, what must be understood is that there are always cycles within cycles. If Ki is literally the breath of life, and breath has a renewable cycle, then perhaps we see that for Ki to initiate change, it has to have this pulsating cycle from the centre outwards and back to the centre again. So, where the seasons are concerned, before each change can take place, there has to be a return to the centre, that is to say, a return to Earth. However, if Earth in this context is considered as the ultimate Yin and visible, then, by definition, Heaven exists as its exact opposite, the ultimate Yang and invisible, so the impetus for outward expression and change must come each time from the invisible ultimate Yang at the centre of the centre. (Diagram 6)

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 Therefore, in relation to

Diagram 6: The Pulsating Nature of Ki, and its Inevitable Return to the Centre for Renewal

We can also see this theory working in man. If we accept as axiomatic the organ associations attributed to both the Chinese Clock and the Five Phases (see Diagram 3), we see that Ki flows through the 12 channels and organs of the body in a continuous (clockwise) cycle. (Diagram 7)


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 Diagram 7: The Chinese

Diagram 7: The Chinese Clock

However, if we apply the same theory of Ki having a pulsating nature to the Chinese Clock, we see that certain channels or organs of the body may be influenced by Ki other than that accorded it by the character of its specific phase. For example, here we see that, although the lungs and colon belong to, and have the (Ki) characteristics of the Metal Phase, they may also be influenced by the (Ki) characteristics of the Wood Phase (15) (Diagram 8)

Ki ‐ The Universal Life ‐ Force: © Philip D Holmes 1990 Diagram 7: The Chinese

Diagram 8: The Chinese Clock and the Five Phases, Revealing the Influential ‘Inner Ki’ of the Organs

As mentioned previously, there are different interpretations of the origins and continuation of Ki, which can all be valid in the particular context they relate to in trying to dissect the whole; interpretations that encompass theories such as Trigrams and Hexagrams, and PreHeavenly and PostHeavenly sequences, Numerology, YinYang, the Three Treasures, the Four Seasons, the Five Phases, the Six Divisions, the Seven Emotions, the Eight Extraordinary Channels, the Eight Winds, the Nine Continents, the Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches, the Twelve Channel or Meridian System and so on. However, ultimately these can only be considered as symbols or images of man's consciousness, and his attempt at trying to understand himself and all that surrounds him, whereas the ultimate reality of the origins and continuation of Ki must, for the most part, transcend consciousness and remain in the realm of the wholly other.

But, even if man lives in the energy (Ki), he does not see the energy (Ki), just as fishes live in water, but do not see the water (16)


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990



CHANG CHIEHPIN (CHINGYUEH), LEI JING T' UI or Illustrated Wing to the Inner Classic, 1624, Chapter 1, pp.



The following notes may be useful in gaining a further insight into the Oriental term Ki / Ki:

  • 2.1 Ki can be written as either Ki, or Ki, and is usually pronounced as 'Chee', in Chinese and as 'Key', in

Korean or Japanese.

  • 2.2 The Chinese character for Ki, has been variously translated in the West as, inter alia, 'energy', 'air', 'wind',

'power', 'force', 'current,' or 'breath' and generically as 'the universal life force' or 'vital energy of the universe'. While all these terms help to give us a reasonably good idea of what the Chinese concept is all about, ultimately it is probably best not to try to translate the word Ki, but rather to leave it simply as Ki. This will allow the individual to interpret the meaning of the concept in his or her own way, from the personal experience of continued usage.

  • 2.3 In following the above line of thought, the reader will find that every time any of the above translations

appear in quotes, or any other form, the term (Ki), in parenthesis, will be placed immediately after as a constant reminder that we are always talking about Ki!


CHANG TSAI, CHENG MEN or Correct Discipline for Beginners, 1076, Chapter 6


LARRE, SCHATZ, ROCHAT DE LA VALLEE: A Survey of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Trans. by S. E. Stang), Institute Ricci, Paris. Translation from the NEI JING, Book 1, Chapter 5, page 51.


  • 5.1 The nomenclature of BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) has been used throughout this

article and website. The Common Era is chronologically equivalent to the Christian Era i.e. 1 CE = 1 AD (Anno Domini).

  • 5.2 A great deal of mystery surrounds Huang Di The Yellow Emperor. It is not known whether he was an

actual person or a mythical figure; his name is often prefixed with the word 'legendary'. He is considered to have been the third ruler of China and his reign dates are circa. 2696 2598 BCE. This of course would put the dating of the authorship of The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic, considered to have been written and compiled between 300 100 BCE, slightly out of synchronization



Dr. HENRY LU, Ph.D., A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic, published by H. LU, Vancouver, Canada, 1978. Book One, Chapter 1, "On the Heavenly Truth of Ancient Times", pp.12.


ALBERT EINSTEIN. He formulated the Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and the General Theory of Relativity (1916), and made major contributions to the Quantum Theory, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. He was also noted for his work for world peace.


There is very little known about Lao Tzu, whose legacy, the authorship of the great Taoist philosophical classic, the Tao Te Jing, is even in question. However, this collection of profound parables and verses lays out the ideas that are at the very heart of this philosophy.


Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Jing, or The Book of the Way and its Virtue, Book One, verse 56.


Op. cit., Book One, verse 1.


Ki The Universal LifeForce: © Philip D Holmes 1990


  • 11.1 Present astronomical knowledge points to the emergence of the material universe from a single event

between ten and twenty thousand million years ago, when the components of matter and perhaps with them, the dimensions of space and time, first appeared. WILLIAMS, WARWICK, DYSON, and BANNISTER, Gray's Anatomy, 37th edition, from the Introduction, 'Origin

of Life on Earth', p.3

  • 11.2 Since writing this thesis in 1990, theoretical cosmologists are now suggesting that the universe was

created with a Big Bang or explosion approximately 13.7 billion years ago.


12.1 Ascension for Heaven (Yang) and descent for Earth (Yin), is the description of choice (and perhaps necessity) of the ancient philosophers in relation to placing things in the phenomenal world. In ultimate reality, up, down, front, back, etc., probably have no meaning.

  • 12.2 Earth is taken to mean all material bodies in the universe, i.e. planets, stars, etc.


FATHER CLAUDE LARRE, SJ, Ph.D., The Secret Treatise of the Spiritual Orchid, unrevised transcript of a seminar given in London, March, 1985, pp.56. Published by the British Register of Oriental Medicine, East Sussex, England. (My emphasis)


MANFRED PORKERT, The Theoretical Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 1978, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, p.29.


Dr. J. D. van BUREN, 'Chinese Philosophy Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches', ICOM lecture,



From a commentary on the translation of the TAI I CHUN HUA TSUNG CHIN or Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by R. Wilhelm, revised edition, Arkana, London, 1984, p.2