As it is externally, so it is internally: this is the essence of kanyu, the traditional Chinese art of understanding and living in harmony with the energy in the land. Kan means “mountain” and yu means “valley” or “lowland.” Kanyu is rooted in the Taoist belief that all things—humans, plants, animals, land, and even mist and cloud—owe their existence to the tao. If everything in the universe is a manifestation of the unconditional and primordial energy of the tao, then it follows that the same principles of existence and nonexistence govern both the macrocosm of nature and the microcosm of mind and body.
Kanyu became a distinct system of knowledge in the third century, and toward the end of that century—a time when the founders of acupuncture, kanyu, and the Taoist arts of health were in their prime—kanyu’s understanding of the macrocosmic/microcosmic correspondence of the land and the human body reached unparalleled heights. Kanyu is the foundation of feng shui, the art of living harmoniously with the environment. Although feng shui is now a household word, few are aware that kanyu is the theory that makes the practice of feng shui possible. If we don’t understand the energetic patterns of the land, no matter how many feng shui techniques we may apply, we won’t be able to find optimal sites for homes, businesses, and retreat centers. Kanyu is the essence of feng shui; feng shui without kanyu is like a body without a spirit.
At the heart of kanyu is the belief that the land is a living entity filled with qi, or energy, that is carried in mountains, valleys, and waterways, just as qi is carried in the pathways of the body.
Looking at “The Picture of the Internal Universe” (neinjingtu) (Figure 1) gives us a glimpse of how Taoism presents the understanding of the parallel structure of the body and the land. In the body, qi follows a pathway (known as the microcosmic orbit), made up of two meridians that link to each other: the du meridian runs up the spine and the ren meridian runs down the front of the body. The energetic centers in the back of the body are depicted as mountains and in the front of the body as hollows—river basins, valleys, and caverns. In addition to energy pathways, within both the macrocosm of the land and the microcosm of the body, there are collectors, access points (called xue, or acupuncture points), regulators, and protectors.
This macrocosmic/microcosmic parallel of the external natural world and the internal universe of mind and body is found not only in Chinese culture but also in tantric theory and practice. The Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet conceives of the land as a body permeated with thousands of energy centers that are abodes of deities, the most famous of them being the twenty-four sacred sites that correspond to major gathering points of energy in the body. The Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) tantra also recognizes three levels of energies: the outer, the realm of the environment; the inner, the realm of the body; and the secret, the realm of meditational deities. Similarly, Hindu Tantra acknowledges that within the microcosm of the subtle body is the macrocosm of the universe.
Kanyu has been used from the third century on by the Chinese to select sites for residences, businesses, and burial grounds, as well as to situate capitals and cities. The Chinese have long believed that if a capital is built on or near land with benevolent energy, the rulers will be benevolent and the kingdom will prosper., it is believed that if it is built on or near land with destructive energy, the rulers will be tyrannical and cruel, and the government will be corrupt. Analogously, if a home is located on or near benevolent landforms, the occupants will be healthy, harmonious, and prosperous; if it is located on or near malevolent landforms, the occupants will suffer from illness, disharmony, and financial hardships.
Kanyu principles can also be applied to choosing optimal locations for spiritual practice. From the seventh to tenth centuries, when China was governed by the Tang dynasty—one of the most enlightened in its history—kanyu was applied extensively to selecting sites and designing structures for Buddhist and Taoist monasteries and temples. Teachers and practitioners believed that since there is an intrinsic parallel between the energetic structures in the land and the body—and the land energy can affect the health, livelihood, and even the destiny of a country—then some lands must have energetic properties that can transform body and mind and facilitate spiritual development. Moreover, if natural landforms can draw energy from the land, then buildings that embody similar forms should function in the same way.
Under the leadership of the Tang’s cosmopolitan rulers, the empire had extensive cultural exchanges with other sovereign nations, including Tibet. In the seventh century, princess Wencheng married the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. Wencheng not only brought Buddhist art and scriptures but also introduced kanyu into Tibet. From that time on, Chinese kanyu masters became geomantic advisers in the Tibetan court, and Tibetan lamas became spiritual advisers in the Chinese court. The close relationship between the Tibetan and Chinese courts lasted until China became a republic in 1911.
By the fifteenth century, the art and science of drawing energy from the land to facilitate spiritual practice were applied extensively to the construction of monasteries and retreats in eastern Tibet. Probably the best illustration of the notion of how land can facilitate enlightenment is found in the writings of Jamg`n Kongtrül the Great (1813-1899). He devoted an entire volume of his encyclopedic work, the Treasury of Knowledge, to a discussion of sacred lands, and in his Guide to Pilgrimage, he says of a particular location, “One session of meditation here is more profound than a year of meditation elsewhere.”
Energy in the land is carried by mountain ranges, waterways, and valleys.
The pathway of mountain energy is called the dragon vein, because mountain ranges are said to resemble the body of a dragon, the main range being the spine and the branch ridges being the legs and claws. Some ridges even appear to rise out of the land like a dragon with fins on its back (figure 2). The Chinese word for vein is mo, which is the same word for meridian and pulse. Thus, even in its choice of terminology, kanyu recognizes a close relationship between the energetic structure of the body and the land.
The amount of energy carried in a dragon vein depends on its “health.” Just as a person is healthy when exhalation and inhalation are smooth and regulated, the energy of a dragon vein is strong (figure 3) when the range has many peaks (exhalation points) and dips (inhalation points). Flat-topped ridges, for example, do not have much energy because there is little breath activity.
In waterways, the pathway of energy is called the water dragon, because again the course of rivers resembles the body of a dragon. The number of tributaries in a waterway and its drainage pattern determine its health: the more tributaries flowing into a river, the more energy the river carries; the more articulated and elegant the pattern of the drainage basin, the more active the energy of the water dragon. Just as a person is unhealthy when arteries are blocked, energy from a river is lost when its course is blocked by debris and dams.
While dragon veins (mountain ranges) carry yang energy, valleys carry yin energy. Because valleys resemble the body of a dragon carved into the land, the pathways of valley energy are called valley dragons. Like water dragons, a valley dragon is strong when a main valley is “fed” by many branch valleys. Just as an imbalance of yin and yang energies in the body is detrimental to health, land that is overly mountainous is considered too hyperactive to accumulate energy and land that is predominantly flat is considered too lethargic to awaken energy.
Landforms that collect energy are just as important as landforms that carry energy. Without collectors, energy carried in dragon veins, water dragons, and valley dragons cannot be contained and stored.
The ideal energy container has three basins, known as bright halls (figure 4). These three energy containers are the macrocosmic equivalent to the lower, middle, and upper elixir fields (dantiens) of the body in the Taoist arts of health. The elixir fields are regions where the three treasures of life—procreative, vital, and spirit energies—are purified and stored. In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, these three energies are equivalent to body, speech, and mind respectively. A site that not only receives energies from mountains, rivers, and valleys but also can contain and purify them will bring prosperity, health, longevity, and spiritual well-being to those living there.
Probably the most important idea in kanyu is the power spot (figure 5), where potent amounts of energy are gathered. Just as energy from the xue in the body can by accessed by acupuncture needles, energy from the xue in the land can be accessed naturally by needle-like landforms (figure 6) or their architectural equivalents, such as pagodas and Tibetan-style stupas.
Power spots are protected by landforms that act as guardians. If you look at the illustration of the power spot (figure 5), you will notice that the xue is cradled by arms of surrounding hills on both sides and protected by mountains at the back and low ridges in front. The four protectors are called the green dragon, white tiger, red raven, and black tortoise, named after Taoist guardian spirits that protect the left, right, upper, and lower parts of the body. Just as guardian spirits in the body protect the body from being invaded by diseases, guardian landforms protect the power spot from being attacked by destructive forces such as high winds, torrential rains, rushing water, and even human encroachment. A strong xue is also protected by rock formations called spirit rocks. The most effective spirit rocks are those that resemble warriors and powerful predators (figure 7). If you look at the pattern of landforms surrounding the power spot, you will realize that the area looks like the tantric configuration of a mandala. This mandala-like structure is what creates the conditions for the xue, or power spot, in the land.
In some regions, underground energy is so strong that it bursts out of the ground like a geyser. In kanyu, these energy outbursts are called regulators, and the most powerful of them take the form of mesas, buttes, and large rock pillars (figures 8 and 9). They are called regulators because they have the capacity to channel, amplify, and transform energy. Understandably, sites located on or near energy regulators receive tremendous amounts of land energy.
Illness in the Land
Not all land energies are benevolent. Just as the body is ill when energy is blocked, the land can become ill when its energy pathways are blocked or broken. Where blockage is present, land becomes destructive. In stagnant water and swamps, destructive land energy is manifested as decay. On seacoasts where violent waves crash against cliffs (figure 10), destructive energy is manifested as aggression and confrontation. And in grotesque rock formations that resemble tumours (figure 11), destructive energy is manifested as illness and death. Living on or near lands with destructive energy can lead to disharmony, illness, and abuse of power.
Interacting with the Energy of the Land
While the use of kanyu (equated in popular jargon with feng shui) to locate and design homes and rooms is fairly well known, its use in spiritual contexts is less well known and appreciated. As noted above, kanyu has long been used to site and design monasteries, shrines, temples, retreats, and hermitages to draw energy from the land and facilitate spiritual practice. Here are a few examples that will also help to illustrate the general principles of kanyu.
To absorb energy directly from the dragon vein, the monastery is built on the vein.
To draw energy out of the vein, the pagoda, which functions like an acupuncture needle, is built on the vein.
To absorb energy from the core of the vein (where energy is most potent), the monastery is literally built “inside” a vein. Taktsang is the prime example. Perched on a rock platform under an overhanging cliff, the monastery can draw powerful energy directly from the “belly” of the vein.
To absorb energy bubbling out of the land, the monastery is built on an energy regulator. Architecture situated on top of a regulator acts like a valve that can amplify, channel, transform, and control the spread of land energy.
Some landforms can facilitate specific spiritual practices because they embody the energies of that practice. For example, the formation known as Buddha’s Palm is especially conducive to meditative practices such as vipassana, shamatha, and zazen. The formation known as the Yogini Valley is especially conducive to practices that cultivate “womb” or female yogic energy.
[figures 18a and b (Jewel in Lotus and orienting to Jewel)] Some landforms are so conducive to spiritual practice that one only needs to have a line of sight toward them to benefit from their transforming power. In kanyu, this is the principle of “orienting to patterns of enlightenment.” Probably the most dramatic example of this principle in action is found at Thiksey Gompa in Ladakh. The center of Thiksey’s main shrine is aligned with the jewel in the landform called Jewel in the Lotus.
The kanyu classics emphasize that in order to identify patterns of energy in the land, the barrier between the microcosm of mind and body and the macrocosm of the land must be dissolved. One cannot recognize such patterns and relationships based purely on technical or conceptual knowledge. Intuition and direct experience with the qi of the land is required, which is why meditation and yogic practices traditionally formed a part of kanyu training. In fact, Jamgön Kongtrhl the Great, renowned both for his yogic and worldly understanding, and for seeing their inseparability, provides one of the pithiest summations of the understanding that lies at the heart of kanyu:
To those of aberrant minds, the place is just earth, stone, water, and trees.
To mistaken intellects, it appears as solid inanimate objects.
To practitioners, appearances have no intrinsic nature.
To those of pure vision, it is a celestial palace full of deities.
To those with realization, it is the radiant luminosity of innate awareness.
© Photos courtesy of Eva Wong