It seems most common (at least in English-speaking contexts) for Hun and Po to be associated with the Five Shen model of the shangqing lineage of Taoist practice, which describes the “spirits” residing in each of the five yin organs. In his two-part article published by Acupuncture Today, David Twicken does a nice job of presenting not only the Five Shen model, but also four others, which together offer at-times-contrasting, at-times-overlapping views of the functioning of Hun and Po within a human bodymind. In this essay, we’ll briefly examine two of these five models, and then put them into conversation with a Tibetan yogic model of two mutually-arising aspects of mind (“staying” and “moving”).
Hun & Po as Formless & Tangible Consciousness
Most poetically, the functioning of Hun and Po is described here (by Master Hu -- a Shaolin qigong practitioner) as having to do with the relationship between “formless” and “tangible” consciousness -- the latter pertaining to sensory perceptions, and the former to the more subtle realms of phenomenal arising associated with the Three Treasures:
Hun controls yang spirits in the body,
Po controls yin spirits in the body,
all are made of qi.
Hun is responsible for all formless consciousness,
including the three treasures: jing, qi and shen.
Po is responsible for all tangible consciousness,
including the seven apertures: two eyes, two ears, two nose holes, mouth.
Therefore, we call them 3-Hun and 7-Po.
Master Hu continues with an elaboration of these dynamics; and ends by pointing out that, like all of cyclic existence, the relationship between Hun and Po is a seemingly “endless cycle,” which is transcended “only by the achieved,” i.e. by the Immortals (in their transcendence of all duality):
As Po manifests, jing appears.
Because of jing, Hun manifests.
Hun causes the birth of shen,
because of shen,
consciousness comes forth,
because of consciousness the Po is brought forth again.
Hun and Po, yang and yin and Five Phases are endless cycles,
only the achieved can escape it.
The cycles referenced here are “endless” from the perspective of a mind dualistically identified with the forms and “movements” of the phenomenal world. As we’ll explore later in this essay, “escaping” such a dilemma has to do with transcending all mental polarities, and in particular the moving/staying (or change/unchanging) polarity, at an experiential level.
The Yin-Yang Framework For Understanding Hun & Po
Another way of understanding Hun and Po is as an expression of Yin and Yang. As Twicken points out, the Yin-Yang framework is the foundational model of Chinese metaphysics. In other words: it is in understanding how Yin and Yang relate to one another (as mutually-arising and inter-dependent) that we can understand how -- from a Taoist perspective -- all pairs of opposites “dance” together, as not-two and not-one: appearing without actually “existing” as permanent, fixed “entities.”
In this way of viewing things, Po is associated with Yin. It is the more dense or physical of the two “spirits,” and is known also as the “corporeal soul,” since it returns to earth -- dissolving into gross elements -- at time of the time of the death of the body.
Hun, on the other hand, is associated with Yang, since it is the more light or subtle of the two “spirits.” It’s known also as the “ethereal soul,” and at the time of death leaves body to merge into more subtle realms of existence.
In the process of Taoist cultivation, the practitioner seeks to harmonize the Hun and Po, in a way which gradually allows the Po (the more dense) aspects to more and more fully support the Hun (the more subtle) aspects. The outcome of this kind of refinement process is the manifestation of a way-of-being and way-of-perceiving known by Taoist practitioners as “Heaven on Earth.”
Staying & Moving In The Mahamudra Tradition
In the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition (associated primarily with the Kagyu lineage), a distinction is drawn between the “staying” and the “moving” aspects of mind.
The “staying” aspect of mind refers more-or-less to what is sometimes also called the “witnessing” capacity. It is the perspective from which the arising and dissolving of various phenomena (thoughts, sensations, perceptions) is observed. It is the aspect of mind which has the capacity to remain (and is quite naturally) “continuously present,” and unaffected by the “objects” or “events” that arise within it.
The “moving” aspect of mind refers to the various appearances which -- like waves on an ocean -- arise and dissolve. These are the “objects” and “events” that seem (at least initially) to have a space/time duration: an arising, an abiding, and a dissolution. As such, they seem to undergo change or transformation -- in opposition to the “staying” aspect of mind, which is unchanging.
A Mahamudra practitioner trains, first, in the capacity to toggle back and forth between these two (“staying” and “moving”) perspectives (known also as the “mind-perspective” and the “event-perspective”). And then, eventually, to experience them as simultaneously-arising and indistinguishable (i.e. nondual) -- in the way that waves and ocean, as water, actually are mutually-arising and indistinguishable.
Taoism Meets Mahamudra, For A Cup Of Tea :)
The resolution of the moving/staying polarity, I would suggest, is basically equivalent (or at least opens the way for) the transcending of what Master Hu refers to as the tangible-consciousness/formless-consciousness polarity; and the absorption of the more densely-vibrating Po into the more subtle Hun.
Or, to put it another way: the corporeal Po “serves” the ethereal Hun -- in Taoist cultivation -- to the extent that mind’s appearances become self-aware, i.e. conscious of their source & destination in/as the Hun -- like waves becoming conscious of their essential nature as water.
Note: For an excellent introduction to Mahamudra meditation, see Daniel Brown’s Pointing Out The Great Way.