The Language of Internal Alchemy

Isabelle Robinet

The World Upside Down

Reproduced from:

The World Upside Down: Essays on Taoist Internal Alchemy

Isabelle Robinet
Golden Elixir Press, 2011
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Four essays on Taoist Internal Alchemy translated for the first time into English. Their subjects are: (1) The alchemical principle of "inversion"; (2) The devices used by the alchemists to "manifest the authentic and absolute Dao"; (3) The role of numbers in Taoism and in Internal Alchemy; (4) The meanings of the terms "External Elixir" and "Internal Elixir". Read more on this book.

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" (Zhonghe ji, 3.3b).

In fact, the alchemical masters deliberately use metaphors that they invite to surpass:

The way of alchemy entirely consists of metaphors (xiang). It takes Lead and Mercury as substances, but one must know that the "essence of Lead" and the "marrow of Mercury" are nothing but metaphors. It is based on the terms Li and Kan, but one must know that the "Kan boy" and the "Li girl" are nothing but empty terms. It uses the forms of the Dragon and the Tiger, but one must know that the "Dragon-Fire" and the "Tiger-Water" have no form. It talks about the "yellow sprout," the "divine water," and the "flowery pond," but these are things that can neither be seen nor used. (Xiao Tianzhi, mid-13th century, in Xiuzhen shishu, 9.12b)

Just like one should go beyond the phenomenal appearance of things, so it is necessary to surpass the letter of the texts and of their codes, pondering at the same time the inexhaustible meaning that they contain. When the alchemists say that all of their language consists only of metaphors, this means that they disguise the Truth, that they do not speak it because this is something that cannot be done. It also means that what they speak about differs from the meaning of the words that they use, because this is, paradoxically, the most correct way of conveying what is impossible to say. Their language functions by means of a distantiation that is continuously reminded: the finger is not the moon, the net is not the prey. Only the allusive mode that they systematically use can account for the double character of existence — which is and at the same time is not, which acquires fullness by being traversed by Emptiness but cannot be apprehended in itself, and of which one can only grasp the appearance and the trace.

The alchemists, therefore, create their own language. Somehow it must function — they must make it function — in front of the adept in order to say what has already been said many times, and could be summarized in a few words. Paradoxically, the speaker is not the master himself. On the one hand it is the Dao: like the Saint, one should "establish the teaching by embodying Heaven, and transform the people through the action of the Dao" (Zhonghe ji, 3.4a). But, on the other hand, it also the Neidan, the method, the pedagogic artifice — that is, the language. Witness to this are the many quotations and the constantly repeated leitmotivs that embroider the texts: their redundancy is intentional. And since this language is symbolic and possesses multiple facets that are revealed by making them turn around and around under different lights, the masters are not weary of letting this language mirror itself, of playing its multiple layers, of discovering in it relations and enunciations that are always new. Their language, in fact, is also the fruit of a reflection on language; and it aims to stimulate the continuation of that reflection.