Stems and Branches (part 3 of 4)

The Celestial Connection

To return to a more theoretical mode, the Chinese hold the dominant belief that heaven (tian天)—identified equally as a higher plane of existence, the physical sky, and the universe at large—is the source of all life and destiny. Observing the heavens (guantian 觀天) has been a key method for obtaining knowledge and achieving enlightenment. One passage says it most poignantly. The opening statement of the Yinfu jing 陰符經 (Scripture of Hidden Talismans), notes, “Observing the way of heaven and obeying the movements of heaven is all that’s needed.” 

Both techniques closely relate to the stems and branches, especially since all their twenty-two symbols are based on images and patterns of stars and constellations, jointly representing the entirety of the firmament and thus the visible universe (Wu and Wu 2014, 45-163). In other words, the Silver River (yinhe 銀河) or Heavenly River (天河), that is, the Milky Way galaxy, is in fact the river of time made visible in space.

This further relates to another major Chinese term for universe:  yu-zhou 宇宙 or spacetime, defined in early thought by the Daoist philosopher Shi Jiao 尸佼 (ca 390-330BCE). He said, “The four directions plus up and down, is space (yu); past, present, and future together is constitute time (zhou).” This means, yuzhou designates the union of space and time as spacetime and thus represents a key concept in Daoist cosmology and philosophy. The stems and branches pervade both, as each of them can represent a time, a space, an object, or an event both on the personal and the universal plane. The following provides a survey of their main symbolic meanings (Wu and Wu 2014, 238-41):

Table 2: Symbolic Meanings of the Heavenly Stems
Table 3: Symbolic Meanings of the Earthly Branches

In order to master the stems and branches system to the point that it comes alive and forms part of daily life, we must understand the transformation principle of the five phases as shown in Fig. 4 below. Designed to face south, with the green color of the east on the left, it shows the five phases or dimensions of yin and yang with their directions and characteristic colors. They are further interconnected by two different kinds of lines, unbroken and dotted. The unbroken lines mark the productive cycle, by which the different phases generate each other, while the dotted lines show the so-called control or destructive sequence, the way by which they check on one another. Throughout, they maintain earth as the center—both of the universe where it is signaled by the Pole Star or North Culmen in the sky and of the person, where the phase earth matches the lower abdomen, the organs of the spleen and stomach as well as the lower elixir field (dantian). The diagram continues a long tradition diagrammatic models of the universe (yuzhoumoshi 宇宙模式), a way of embodying and manifest the overarching context of the stems and branches. It allows us to apply all its related information to all aspects of our lives and provides guidance in cultivation practice.  

Fig. 4. Wu Family Diagram of the Five Phases 

Through the various teachings I received in oral transmission, I have learned that traditional Chinese knowledge and philosophy were obtained through the bodily experience of ancient enlightened beings. In the same way our own direct bodily experience opens the path for us to grow our understanding about the universal connections and to nourish and strengthen our self-cultivation. 

For instance, in Fig. 4, the light green color represents not only the phase wood, the direction of the east, and the season of spring, but also the heavenly stem Jia and the earthly branch Yin. In addition—and represented by this particular stem and branch it also stands for the early morning during the day, new life in nature and destiny, the head and the gallbladder within the body, its immune system, personal creativity, and more. As opposed to simply memorizing a chart or diagram and reciting information one has read about, through personal experience it is possible to discover the inherent truths and potent dynamics of these relationships. 

Experiential knowledge this principle can be gained through traditional Daoist internal alchemy practices, one of which I will share in the conclusion (part 4) of this article, which can be found only on Substack, with a paid subscription.

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