The Golden Elixir Taoist Alchemy Essays

Taoist Alchemy: Essays

Introduction to The Seal of the Unity of the Three (Cantong qi)

The Zhouyi cantong qi (The Seal of the Unity of the Three in Accordance with the Book of Changes) is the main Chinese alchemical scripture. According to the traditional account, the legendary Han immortal, Wei Boyang, wrote it after reading the Longhu jing (Scripture of the Dragon and Tiger).

The Alchemical Model of the Cantong qi

The alchemical discourse of the Cantong qi revolves around Lead and Mercury. Its basic principles are simple and straightforward, and proceed directly from its views on the relation between the Dao and the "ten thousand things" (wanwu).

The Northern and Southern Lineages of Neidan

Beizong and Nanzong are the two main lineages that emerged in the history of Neidan (Internal Alchemy) between the 11th and the 13th centuries. This article contains a concise description of the lineages themselves and of their main teachings.

The Four Stages

In the Zhong-Lü tradition, the description of the alchemical practice is generally divided into four stages: (1) Laying the foundations; (2) Refining Essence to transmute it into Breath; (3) Refining Breath to transmute it into Spirit; (4) Refining Spirit to return to Emptiness.

Laying the Foundations

The expression "laying the foundations" is a metaphor often used in the alchemical texts. To build a house, one must first lay the foundations. Only when the foundations are stable and firm is it possible to set pillars and beams in place, and arrange bricks and tiles. Refining the Internal Elixir is based on the same principle.

"Superior Virtue" and "Inferior Virtue"

At the stage of "laying the foundations," there are differences of initial conditions, age, and physical constitution. The practices, therefore, differ according to each individual. With regard to this point, the alchemical texts distinguish between "superior virtue" (shangde) and "inferior virtue" (xiade). "Superior virtue" refers to childhood and young age; "inferior virtue" refers to adulthood and old age.

The Three Barriers

In the ascending path along the Control vessel, three points are arduous to overcome. The alchemical texts call them "barriers" (or "passes," guan). Xiao Tingzhi (fl. 1260-64), a fifth-generation disciple of Zhang Boduan, wrote in his Jindan wenda (Questions and Answers on the Golden Elixir):  . . .

Yin and Yang in Internal Alchemy

One of the basic principles of Chinese internal alchemy consists in using two elements that by themselves summarize the entire alchemical Work. The two principles are Yin and Yang, but can be symbolized by West and East, Metal and Wood, Dragon and Tiger, Fire and Water, the feminine and the masculine, and so forth.

"Reversal" in Internal Alchemy

Internal alchemy, or Neidan, is a technique of enlightenment whose earliest extant written records date from the eighth century. It appeals both to rationality, which gives order to the world, and to what transcends rationality: the unspeakable, the Totality. Its main tools are the trigrams of the Yijing (Book of Changes) and a number of key metaphors, some of which are alchemical in nature, whence the name, "internal alchemy."

The Language of Internal Alchemy

For the alchemical masters, saying is not enough. They want to show. They must actively urge their disciples to walk along the same path and find out by themselves. Li Daochun (late 13th century) says: "I would like to show you directly [the meaning of my discourse], but I am afraid that you will not believe me and will not be able to put it into operation (yong). You must know by yourselves".

Cinnabar Fields

The Cinnabar Fields, or dantian, are three loci in the human body that play a major role in breathing, meditation, and neidan ("internal alchemy") practices. Located in the regions of the abdomen, heart, and brain, but devoid of material counterparts, they establish a tripartite division of inner space that corresponds to other threefold motives in the Taoist pantheon and cosmology.

A Japanese Alchemical Chart of the Human Body

The Japanese alchemical chart of the body reproduced below is entitled Shūshin kyūten tandō zu, or Chart of the Way of the Elixir in Nine Cycles for the Cultivation of Reality (the Chinese reading of the title is Xiuzhen jiuzhuan dandao tu). Although no precisely corresponding picture seems to be found in Chinese texts, it is likely that this chart is either copied from, or based on, an earlier Chinese exemplar that may now be lost.