Yin and Yang in 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".

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. However, an important feature of this discipline is that it is only concerned with True Yin, which is the Yin enclosed within Yang, and with True Yang, which is the Yang enclosed within Yin. These are the concealed core, the hidden internal truth; they are the materials or the "ingredients" of alchemy. The goal here is to bring the internal and the hidden toward the external and the visible.

In terms of trigrams, the picture can be described as follows. Two trigrams are at the origin of all others, their father and mother. They are Qian ☰, which is related to Heaven and is made of three Yang solid lines, symbolizing pure Yang; and Kun ☷, which is related to the Earth and is made of three broken lines, symbolizing pure Yin. Qian and Kun joined and gave birth to the other trigrams, two of which are especially important for the alchemist: Kan ☵ and Li ☲. The inner line of Kan (a Yang line enclosed between two Yin lines) and the inner line of Li (a Yin line enclosed within two Yang lines) are True Yang and True Yin, respectively. Their multiple meanings and functions cannot be fully described here. Let it suffice to say that they represent the trace and the union of the father and the mother; and that they express above all a fundamental principle of interdependence: there is no Yin without Yang, and vice versa, or there would be sterility.

One text says:

Reversal does not consist in thinking that the Yin is Yang, but in taking the Yang from the Yin. It does not consist in thinking that the Yang is Yin, but in taking the Yin from the Yang. When the Yin is the Yin and the Yang is the Yang, this the forward course, the ordinary way of the world. Taking the Yin within the Yang and the Yang within the Yin is the mechanism [of life] stolen by the immortals. (Ziyang zhenren wuzhen pian zhushu, 4.7a)

Since alchemy is concerned in the first place with the inner lines of the trigrams Li and Kan, the paradox of reversal consists in considering Li as female, while logically it should be male because its Yang-masculine lines are predominant. Analogously, Kan should be female, but is considered to be male. "The Sun is Li and belongs to Yang, and instead it is a girl. The Moon is Kan and belongs to Yin, and instead it is a boy. This is the reversal" (Xiuzhen shishu , 26.27a.)