Taoist Internal Alchemy
and the Awakening to Reality (Wuzhen pian)
Reproduced from the Introduction of:
Translated by Fabrizio Pregadio
Golden Elixir Press, 2009
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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.
4: Cosmological Emblems
Once the world is generated, it is subject to the laws of the cosmic domain. Neidan texts constantly bring this domain to the fore, and explain its features by means of the standard Chinese cosmological system. It would be virtually impossible to understand the language and imagery of the Awakening to Reality, and of Internal Alchemy in general, without acquiring a basic familiarity with this system.
Index of this article
At the basis of Chinese cosmology are several sets of emblems, all related to one another. The most important sets are the five agents, the ten celestial stems, the twelve earthly branches, and the eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams of the Book of Changes (Yijing). Each set represents a different way of understanding and explicating the main features of the cosmos. However, despite the variety of emblems, the fundamental underlying notion in Internal Alchemy, and in Taoism as a whole, is that those emblems make it possible to describe the subdivision of the One into the many, and the reverse process of inversion from multiplicity to Unity. For example, the five agents are used to represent how the original One Breath issued from the Dao takes on five main different modes in the cosmos; but the central agent, Soil, represents the One Breath itself, and the process that occurs in Internal Alchemy is often described as the reduction of the agents to one, namely, Soil.
The individual items in any set of emblems for example, the individual agents in the set of the five agents can be thought of as "categories" to which all phenomena and events in the cosmos can be assigned. The emblems themselves are entirely abstract; they gain meaning only in relation to one another, and in connection with the types of entities and phenomena that they represent. This implies that the author of a text can mention any of these emblems, and immediately bring up all of the associated entities. A mention of the agent Wood, for example, evokes the east, the spring, the liver, the Yang principle in its emerging state, and True Yin within Yang. It is the reader's task to understand which of those entities for example, a segment of a temporal cycle, or an organ of the human body is relevant, or most relevant, in a particular context. This feature constitutes, on its own, one of the main challenges in reading and understanding Chinese alchemical texts.
As said above, the five agents (wuxing) are five emblematic modes taken on by Original Breath (yuanqi) in the cosmos. These modes are represented by Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, and Water. [See a table of the main associations of the five agents, and a table of the spatial arrangement of the five agents.]
In Internal Alchemy, Wood represents True Yin, and Metal represents True Yang. Accordingly, the ingredients of the Elixir are often referred to Wood and Metal. The same, however, is true of Water and Fire, respectively. In addition, Internal Alchemy assigns a crucial role to Soil. Being placed at the center, Soil stands for the source from which the other four agents derive, and therefore guarantees the conjunction of the world of multiplicity to the original state of Unity. One of the typical representations of the alchemical process (also mentioned in Awakening to Reality, see Poem 14) is the reduction of the five agents to three and then to one. The whole process happens by the virtue of Soil, which acts as "mediator" between True Yin and True Yang and makes their conjunction possible (see the note to Poem 3, line 5).
Stems and Branches
The ten celestial stems (tiangan) and the twelve earthly branches (dizhi) are two sets of emblems used to refer to a variety of items. [See a table of the main associations of the celestial stems, and a table of the main associations of the earthly branches.] The stems are primarily related, in pairs, to the five agents and, through them, to all sets of entities associated with the five agents. The branches are used to represent the months of the year, the "double hours" of the day, and other sets consisting of twelve items.
In the "Regulated Verses" of the Awakening to Reality, four of the ten celestial stems are especially important. Wu and ji (nos. 5 and 6) are related to the agent Soil. Taken together they represent, therefore, the One, the original state of unity of the five agents that the alchemical process intends to restore. More exactly, wu and ji represent the Yang and Yin halves of the One, respectively, and it is by means of them that Soil can act as a mediator in joining Yin and Yang (see Poem 3, line 5). Two other stems, ren and gui (nos. 9 and 10), respectively represent the precelestial and the postcelestial aspects of Water, which gives birth to True Lead, or True Yang (see Poem 7, line 3, and Poem 11, line 4).
Trigrams and Hexagrams
The last major set of cosmological emblems used in the Awakening to Reality consists of the trigrams and hexagrams of the Book of Changes (Yijing). Alchemical texts, and Taoist texts in general, are not interested in the Book of Changes as a divination manual. Instead, they use its trigrams and hexagrams as cosmological emblems.
The eight trigrams are made of different combinations of three lines, which can be either Yin (broken) or Yang (solid). In a most basic way, the trigrams are associated with natural phenomena and with relations among family members. [See a table of the main associations of the eight trigrams.] In Taoism and in alchemy, however, the trigrams are used as abstract emblems, analogous and related to the other sets of emblems mentioned before. To give one example, the eight trigrams are used to refer to the directions of space: four of them represent the cardinal directions (just like four of the five agents), and the other four represent the intermediate directions. [See a table of the spatial arrangement of the eight trigrams.]
When the eight trigrams are joined to one another in pairs, they form the sixty-four hexagrams, which are emblems made of six lines. The hexagrams represent primary states and circumstances that occur in the cosmos, in human society, or in individual existence, such as "peace," "conflict," "return," "obstruction," "following," etc.
The trigrams and hexagrams of the Book of Changes are used in alchemy in three main ways.
(1) Most frequently, four of the eight trigrams are chosen to represent the main states of Yin and Yang:
● Qian ☰ : True Yang in its pure state
● Kun ☷ : True Yin in its pure state
● Kan ☵ : Yin containing True Yang
● Li ☲ : Yang containing True Yin
In the postcelestial state, as we have seen, True Yin and True Yang are found within entities of the opposite sign. When it is represented by these emblems, the alchemical process consists in exchanging the inner lines of Kan and Li: as soon as those lines are exchanged, Qian and Kun are restored, and as soon as Qian and Kun are restored, the Elixir is generated.
(2) The eight trigrams have been traditionally arranged in two main ways, known as the precelestial (xiantian) and the postcelestial (houtian) arrangements. The precelestial arrangement represents the original state of the cosmos; the postcelestial one, its present state, the world in which we live. In the postcelestial arrangement, the positions originally occupied by Qian ☰ and Kun ☷ have been taken by Kan ☵ and Li ☲, which, once again, harbor and hide True Yin and True Yang. Qian and Kun, instead, have been displaced to the northwest and the southwest, respectively. Since the inner line of Kan ☵ is the True Yang sought by the alchemist, and this line is born within Kun ☷ when it joins Qian ☰, Poem 7 of the Awakening says that "the place where the Medicine is born is just at the southwest."
(3) Twelve of the sixty-four hexagrams are chosen to represent a complete cycle of ascent and descent of Yin and Yang within the main cosmic temporal cycles. These twelve hexagrams are known in Chinese cosmology as the "sovereign hexagrams" (bigua; see the table below). The first six hexagrams depict the rise of the Yang principle in the first half of the year, or of the day; the last six hexagrams depict the decline of the Yang principle, and the concurrent rise of the Yin principle, in the second half of the year, or of the day.
The twelve "sovereign hexagrams" (bigua)
The cycle of the twelve "sovereign hexagrams" has served as a model for the so-called "fire phases" (huohou) in the practices of both External and Internal Alchemy. Fire is progressively increased in the first half of the cycle, then progressively decreased in the second half of the cycle. The whole cycle is repeated until the Elixir coalesces in the tripod (External Alchemy) or in the lower ☞ Cinnabar Field (Internal Alchemy).