The best known use of sound in Taoist practice appears to be the Six Healing Sounds, also known as the Six-Syllable Secret or the Six Basic Soundless Sounds for Health. Kenneth Cohen says the practice is attributed to a six-century Buddhist hermit. Craig Reid quotes a fifth century description of the system by a famous physician, Tao Hung-jing (perhaps the same as Cohen's hermit?):
One should take air in through the nose and let it out slowly through the mouth... There is one way of drawing breath in and six ways of expelling breath out. The six ways of expelling breath are represented by the syllables hsü, her, hoo, sss, chway, shee. The six ways of exhalation can cure illness: to expel heat, one uses chway; to expel cold, one uses hoo; to relieve tension, use shee; to release anger, use her; to display malaise, use hsü; and to regain equilibrium, use sss.
The benefits described are thus more physical than spiritual per se, but to the extent that the Taoist tradition values balance and physical health, they could perhaps be considered a foundational practice for Taoist students. In comparison to Indian yoga techniques, the six healing sounds could be said to be more similar to pranayama than to mantra.
In addition to the benefits listed previously, each sound is associated with an organ (sometimes more than one) and with a phase from the Five Phases system of Chinese metaphysics. Ni Hua-Ching states: "Each of the six vibrations has a psychic influence on its corresponding organ sphere which prompts the expulsion of impurities from the sphere and its manifestations, and the gathering of fresh energy into each system."
Although a number of different modern masters teach the six sounds technique, there are differences, both small and large, in the sounds that they describe:
- The pronunciation of the sounds varies. Most of the apparent differences seem to arise from the difficulty of representing these sounds phonetically in print. Comparing the descriptions given by different teachers can help give you insight into the correct production of the sound. However, the sound for the kidneys really does vary significantly, and is given by different teachers as Foo, Chway, or Chrroooeee.
- The degree of vocalization varies. In many cases, the sounds are apparently just the sound of your breath exhaling, with such variations as can be caused by different positions of the tongue, lips, and teeth. However, some teachers pronounce some of the sounds as if they include a vowel, so the vocal cords in your throat are actively vibrating. Sat Chuen Hon vocalizes each of the sounds, which greatly shortens the consonant part of the sound the emphasizes the vowel instead. At the other extreme, Ni Hua-Ching says that each vibration must be inaudible: "If the sound is coarse and audible it will hurt the chi of the body."
- The order of the sounds varies from teacher to teacher. In most cases, the order follows the productive cycle of the Five Phases. However, different teachers begin from different points in the cycle. And Ni gives an order that doesn't relate in any obvious way to Five Phase theory.
The following table lists the sounds as explained by several teachers. The account given here is somewhat simplified. For example, some teachers suggest visualizations to accompany the sounds. Also, some of the teachers below (Cohen, Davis, and Reid) provide suggested movements to perform while making the sounds. For full details, refer to the works cited under Sources later in this article.
|Organs||Liver, Gallbladder||Heart, Small Intestine||Spleen, Stomach||Lungs, Large Intestine||Kidneys, Bladder||Triple Burner(1)|
|Emotional Excess||Anger||Joy (Excitement)||Brooding||Sorrow||Fear||N/A|
|Chia||3. Shhhhhhh, sub-vocally. ||4. Hawwwwwww, sub-vocally.||5. Whoooooo, "made sub-vocally and felt in the vocal chords."||1. Ssssssss, subvocally.||2. "Round the lips and silently make the sound one makes in blowing out a candle."||6. Heeeeeee, sub-vocally. |
|Cohen||3. Sh, "as though saying 'Hushhh, be quiet.' At the end of the sh, form your mouth into the U shape."||4. Ho, "identical to hoo in the word 'hook'."||5. Hooo, "just like the word 'who'."||1. See-ahh, "a barely audible prolonged chant"||2. Chrroooeee, "low chant"||6. Seeee "While making the sound, form the mouth into a smiling shape."|
|Dantao||1. Xu (pronounced Shew, vocalized)||2. Ho (vocalized)||3. Fu (vocalized)||4. Xi (pronounced See, vocalized)||5. Chu |
(pronounced Chew, vocalized)
|6. Hey (vocalized, rhymes with "play")|
|Davis||3. Shoo (same as sound for Metal, but with lips rounded)||4. Khe (initial consonant is between K and H, with lips shaped as if to make the "uh" sound in "put")||6. Hoo (like blowing out a candle)||1. Shhh (like telling someone to be quiet)||2. Chway (whispered)||5. Sssssss|
|Olson||1. Shoo||2. Haa||3. Hoo||4. Sss||5. Foo||6. Shee|
|Ni||4. Shu||1. Ho||2. Hu||3. Szz||6. Fu||5. Shi (relates to gallbladder rather than triple burner)|
|Reid||1. Hsü, "as 'shoo,' with lips pursed, but softened by the umlaut over the vowel."||2. Her, "as 'her,' but without the final 'r,' with mouth open, tip of tongue pressed against lower teeth, and syllable aspirating in the top of the throat on exhalation."||3. Hoo, "'who,' with the lips rounded and the tongue suspended in mid-mouth, as if blowing out a candle."||4. Sss, "as in 'hiss,' without the initial 'hi-,' with your tongue behind the lower teeth and the upper and lower lips slightly parted."||5. Chway, "as in 'way' with a 'ch' in front. Lips slightly pursed on the initial 'ch,' then relaxed and open on the final 'way'."||6. Shee, "'she,' with the teeth slightly parted and lips formed in a small smile."|
Additionally, Jou, Tsung Hwa states: "The Taoists use a Mantra of Who, Shoe, Foo, Way, Chemmy, She, which not only trains the concentration, but strengthens the body through the correspondence of each sound with an internal organ. If in a group, this is usually done by chanting the same syllable over and over, or it can be done by chanting prayers." It is difficult to tell how to fit these syllables into the table above, but they evidently form a variant of the same system of six healing sounds.
1. In the Organs list of above chart, the Triple Burner is probably unfamiliar to most Westerners. Beinfeld and Korngold define it as "an integrating function that ties together and harmonizes the physiologic processes of the primary Organ Networks."