An Introduction to Taoist Alchemy
Index of this essay
● A shorter Introduction to Taoist alchemy
● The Way of the Golden Elixir: A Historical Overview of Taoist Alchemy (free PDF)
● Essays on Neidan
● Texts on Waidan and Neidan
Chinese alchemy is based on doctrinal principles, first expounded in the founding texts of Taoism, concerning the relation between the Dao and the "ten thousand things" (wanwu), or the Absolute and the relative. Its teachings and practices focus on the idea of the Elixir, usually called Golden Elixir (jindan), Reverted Elixir (huandan), or simply Medicine (yao). The root-meaning of the term dan (elixir) is "essence"; it connotes the reality, principle, or true nature of an entity, or its most basic and significant element or property. Alchemy intends to illustrate the nature of this authentic principle, and to explain its relation to change and multiplicity.
The archaic Chinese character
In the practices, compounding the Elixir has two primary meanings. In the first meaning, the Elixir is obtained by heating its ingredients in a crucible. This practice, as well as the branch of alchemy that is associated with it, is known as Waidan, or External Alchemy (lit., "external elixir"). In the second sense, the ingredients of the Elixir are the primary components of the cosmos and the human being, and the whole process takes place within the person. This second form of practice, as well as the corresponding branch of the alchemical tradition, is known as Neidan, or Internal Alchemy (lit., "internal elixir").
The first allusions to alchemy in China date from the 2nd century BCE. However, the combination of doctrines and practices involving the compounding of an elixir which is necessary to distinguish alchemy from proto-chemistry is not clearly attested until the 3rd century CE. The first identifiable tradition, known as ▶ Taiqing (Great Clarity), developed from that time in Jiangnan, the region south of the lower Yangzi River that was also crucial for the history of Taoism as a whole. The main extant source of this tradition is the ▶ Book of the Nine Elixirs (Huangdi jiuding shendan jing).
When he ingests the Medicines, let him fly as an immortal, have audience at the Purple Palace, live an unending life, and become an accomplished man!
Jiudan jing (Book of the Nine Elixirs, ca. 2nd century CE)
The Taiqing scriptures contain descriptions of methods for making elixirs and of benefits gained from their performance. On the other hand, they say virtually nothing about their doctrinal foundations. However, the emphasis given to certain aspects of the practice, and the terminology used in those descriptions, show that the central act of the alchemical process consists in causing matter to revert to its state of "essence" (jing), or prima materia. The main role in this task is played by the crucible, whose function is to provide a medium equivalent to the inchoate state (hundun) prior to the formation of the cosmos. In that medium, under the action of fire, the ingredients of the elixir are transmuted and "revert" (huan) to their original state. The commentary to one of the Taiqing scriptures equates this refined matter with the "essence" issued from the Dao that, as stated in the ▶ Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and its Virtue), gives birth to the world of multiplicity: "Indistinct! Vague! But within it there is something. Dark! Obscure! But within it there is an essence." [See a ▶ selection of Taiqing methods.]
Compounding an elixir is the central part of a larger process consisting of several stages, each of which is marked by the performance of rites and ceremonies. Receiving the scriptures and the oral instructions, building the laboratory, kindling the fire, and ingesting the elixir all require offering pledges to the gods and to one's master, observing rules on seclusion and purification, performing ceremonies to delimit and protect the ritual area, and making invocations to the highest deities. [See a ▶ selection of Taiqing passages on ritual.] Ingesting the elixir confers transcendence and admission into the celestial bureaucracy. Additionally, the elixir grants healing from illnesses and protection from demons, spirits, and several other disturbances. To provide these supplementary benefits, the elixir does not need to be ingested, and may simply be kept in one's hand or carried at one's belt as a powerful apotropaic talisman. [See a ▶ selection of Taiqing passages on the benefits of the elixirs.]
The methods of the Taiqing texts are characterized by the use of a large number of ingredients. Sources attached to later Waidan traditions, instead, describe different varieties of a single exemplary method: mercury (Yin) is refined from cinnabar (Yang), is added to sulphur (Yang), and is refined again. This process, typically repeated seven or nine times, yields an elixir that is deemed to embody the qualities of Pure Yang (chunyang), that is, the state of Oneness before its division into ▶ Yin and Yang.
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