Taoist Internal Alchemy
and the Awakening to Reality (Wuzhen pian)
Reproduced from the Introduction of:
Translated by Fabrizio Pregadio
Golden Elixir Press, 2009
Paperback ● Kindle ● PDF
The Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality) is one of the most important and best-known Taoist alchemical texts. Written in the 11th century, it describes in a poetical form several facets of Neidan, or Internal Alchemy. Read more on this book.
3: The Elixir
Precelestial and Postcelestial Domains
At the basis of alchemy, and of other spiritual teachings, is the perception that the world exists in two fundamental states, the unconditioned and the conditioned ones. The actual truth of this distinction is a question that Internal Alchemy approaches at an advanced stage (in particular, as we shall see, at the very last stage of its practice); the initial awareness of this distinction constitutes, nevertheless, the beginning of its path.
Index of this article
Using two traditional Chinese terms, the unconditioned and conditioned domains are respectively defined as precelestial (or prior to Heaven, xiantian, lit. "before Heaven") and postcelestial (or posterior to Heaven, houtian, lit. "after Heaven"). The postcelestial domain is distinguished by multiplicity and relativity; it is the state that features transitory events and phenomena that succeed one another within space and time. The precelestial domain, in one of the approximations that might be used to describe it, is the constant and omnipresent original state of Oneness, which contains all events and phenomena with no distinctions of space and time, here and there, before and after.
In this view, the cosmos as we know it is the self-manifestation of the Dao. The Dao first determines itself as Oneness, which contains Yin and Yang in their pristine state. The joining of Yin and Yang generates the world. To appreciate the details of this view, it is convenient to follow the example of the alchemical texts and describe it through the emblems of the Book of Changes. Qian ☰ (pristine Yang) and Kun ☷ (pristine Yin) are constantly joined to one another in the state of Unity. Being joined, Qian unceasingly bestows its essence to Kun, and Kun brings it to achievement. Thus the world with its countless events and phenomena is generated. However, due to the very fact of being continuously joined with one another, Qian becomes Li ☲ (Yang), and Kun becomes Kan ☵ (Yin). Therefore the essence of the Yang principle in its pure state is now found within Kan. That principle, which is the One Breath of the Dao (the state of Unity represented by the undivided line), is what an alchemist seeks to recover.
"Inversion" and the Generation of the Elixir
Alchemy offers a way to return to the state of Unity. In its view, the forward movement (shun, lit. "following the course") from the Dao to the ten thousand things can be compensated by a reverse, backward movement (ni, "inverting the course"). The inversion process is represented in Internal Alchemy in several different ways, each of which uses different images and terms. The most common formulation refers to Essence (jing), Breath (qi), and Spirit (shen). The Dao, which first self-manifests as pure Spirit, issues its Breath, which in turn coalesces into Essence, the seed that gives birth to the world. Human beings are composed with the same three elements. Accordingly, in its most typical codification, the alchemical process is based on the progressive refining of those components in an inverted sequence, which reintegrates each component into the previous one:
(1) Refining Essence into Breath (lianjing huaqi)
(2) Refining Breath into Spirit (lianqi huashen)
(3) Refining Spirit and reverting to Emptiness (lianshen huanxu)
The Elixir itself is also described with different terminology: it may be called the One Breath of the Dao, Pure Yang, Gold, Lead, and with literally dozens of other appellations. Liu Yiming (1734-1821), in a passage of his commentary to the Awakening to Reality translated in the present book, writes that "there is no other Golden Elixir outside one's fundamental nature," and that "all human beings have this Golden Elixir complete in themselves." In his view, the Elixir is the essential, unchanging true nature of the human being; it has, fundamentally, no form and no name. However, one of the most widespread and best-known images used to represent the Elixir, also adopted by the Awakening to Reality, is that of an embryo, an infant, or a child. When the Elixir is depicted in this way, the three stages mentioned above respectively correspond to the conception, gestation, and birth of an immortal infant. Its conception occurs in the lower ☞ Cinnabar Field (dantian), located in the region of the abdomen; its gestation, in the middle Cinnabar Field, in the region of the heart; and its birth, in the upper Cinnabar Field, in the region of the brain. At the end of the process, the child is described as exiting the individual from the top of his head. Neidan texts refer to this event as the birth of "a body outside one's body" or as "a self outside one's self" (shen wai zhi shen).