Taoist Alchemy : The Immortality Quest
One of the path of research through which Taoism manifested its ambition to achieve immortality was Chinese alchemy. If Western alchemists were after the Philosopher's Stone the mysterious substance that would turn lead into gold, the Taoists were after the secret of the elixir of eternal youth.
What is Taoist Alchemy ?
The first alchemists composed potions based on mercury, lead, sulfur and chalk. But, around 500 BC, Taoist alchemists seem to have directed their research towards metaphysical means rather than the making of magical potions 🧪.
They believed that the processes to extend life should be implemented both in the fleshly body and in its "double" (the subtle body that can separate from the physical body and explore other fields of experience). Schools of Taoist alchemy based on this belief still exist today.
They consider the furnace, the crucible and the lead that is to be changed into the gold of immortality as symbols. These are the elements and materials of the alchemist ⚗️.
This Taoist alchemy is mostly concerned with sexuality, which brings it closer to Tantrism. But there is an important difference. While the tantrists sought enlightenment by breaking conventions and giving free rein to their sexuality, the Taoist alchemists, but not all Taoists, do the opposite.
They pursue enlightenment through the control of sexual energy, which they strive to transform into other types of energy. This is because they believe that uncontrolled sexuality results in the waste of what they call the "generative force" one of the essential forms of life energy.
External Alchemy - Waidan
The idea behind external alchemy is that the alchemist temporally condenses the stages of cosmogony in a crucible, reconstituting the primordial chaos.
All the steps; transmission of texts and oral instructions, construction of the laboratory, sealing with the mud of the crucible, ignition and control of the fire, ingestion of the elixir, are framed by rules such as Feng Shui for example and by purification rituals as well as invocations and offerings to the gods.
The alchemical ingredients can include herbs in addition to minerals, they must not be haggled over or acquired from a merchant in mourning... All this is therefore very codified.
The product obtained is called "gold" or "golden elixir", symbol of purity and stability. It can simply be used as a talisman or be ingested.
External alchemy would have claimed six victims among the Tang emperors and even more among the dignitaries 💀. It gradually disappeared in favor of the so-called internal alchemy.
This one dominates from the Jin/Song period with the appearance of one of the most important currents of Taoism until today: Quanzhen.
Quanzhen ("complete perfection") and Jindan pai nanzong are the two great currents of internal alchemy, called "Northern" and "Southern".
Inner Alchemy - Neidan
Thereafter, an inner alchemy called neidan developed, where the alchemist uses his own body as a workshop. With his viscera, his breath and his fluids, he creates his elixirs and pearls.
By this he also hopes to achieve a purification of the body or even a transformation of it. This is something that can be found in traditional alchemy, although presented differently. Inner alchemy by its principles requires skills in medicine and in this respect Chinese medicine brought a lot of knowledge to alchemists, leading them to make it inseparable from their practices.
A notion found in inner alchemy is that of the alchemical embryo. Starting from the fact that the normal course of life leads to death and that therefore to unite to give birth to a being went in this direction, to reach immortality it was thus necessary to reverse the course of things.
The theory of the alchemists was therefore to always use their bodies to create an embryo that could give birth to an immortal being. This is done in three steps: to give birth to the embryo, to feed it and to make it immortal.
The alchemist uses his belly as a place of essence and his chest as a place of breath where his breath heats the embryo.
Inner Alchemy Breathing
The first step in Chinese alchemy is to "light the inner fire"; this is a deep breathing exercise that acts on the psychic center where the generative force is believed to be concentrated. This psychic center, called the "crucible", is located at the lower end of the spine.
When the "inner fire" is lit, the concentrated force moves up the spine to the top of the skull, from where it moves back down to the "crucible". This back and forth movement is maintained until the alchemist feels that the force has been purified enough to be transformed into what he symbolically equates with lead a higher form of energy.
This is then stored in another crucible located at the plexus. Then a new series of breathing exercises, during which the alchemist has the vision of rivers of psychic energy in orbital movement, enables him to transform lead into mercury - the spiritual force. This is stored in a third crucible in the head, from where it is then directed to the lower abdomen 🧘🏻♂️.
At this point, the alchemist begins to practice what he calls immortal breathing. With each inhalation, he feels the passage of a force that enters him through his heels and ascends to his brain. With each exhalation, he feels this force coming back down. Such a process is supposed to produce in the crucible of the head a spiritual "food" that feeds the "divine embryo" - the divine spark that exists in every human being.
The alchemist must continue to feed this embryo until it reaches maturity. This is manifested by six signs, including a sensation of fire in the abdomen and a vibration in the neck. When he feels all these signs, the alchemist is ready for the final preparation of the medicine of eternal life.
He begins this final phase by gathering the "four basic elements of alchemy" :
- and a suitable place to work
🏯 The ideal place is a deserted temple on top of a mountain, far from any cemetery, and from any habitation. It is wise according to one of them to ;
"choose a place where other masters have achieved immortality, which proves that it is free from demonic influence and that the spiritual protection of his predecessors who have reached the light will be acquired by the new postulant".
Having arrived in this place, the alchemist concentrated on the divine embryo. With the help of his friends, he performs a series of exercises that force the embryo to go up a psychic channel that leads it to a center located at the top of the head.
Once this is done, the alchemist begins a new exercise. He must turn the pupils of his eyes ; 36 turns clockwise, then 24 turns counterclockwise. This diverts his attention from the normal physical view, directed at the outer world, to a non-physical view: an inner view that perceives the psychological light radiated by the divine embryo.
The divine embryo, or immortal germ, is then returned to the psychic center in the abdomen. The long ordeal of the alchemical experiment is over. This postulant has reached immortality. All he has to do now is to develop his potential as an immortal and manifest himself in countless "carnal bodies of transformation. "
In other words, the alchemist is supposed to have succeeded in freeing himself from time and space. Unlike other humans, his body is totally under the control of the spiritual component of his being.
He can transform his body as he wishes, and keep it, if he wishes, always young and strong 💪. Only when he wants will he meet death, the destruction of the physical envelope of his consciousness.
Taoist Alchemy Text
Alchemy appears as early as the 2nd century B.C. in texts such as the Huainanzi encyclopedia or historical sources.
The manuals themselves date from the third century AD. The Great Purity (Taiqingjing) attributed to Yinchang sheng and its derivatives present recipes without doctrinal elaboration.
The main operation is the extraction of mercury recognized as Yin from cinnabar Yang, then its mixing with sulfur Yang. The operation is repeated seven or nine times and the elixir obtained is recognized as pure Yang, the concretization of absolute unity and a magical elixir.
📜 Two other important texts are The Nine Crucibles of Huangdi, attributed without foundation to Zhang Ling, and the Baopuzi of Ge Hong, heir of the tradition of Mount Luofu by his father-in-law and of the texts previously quoted by his master Zheng Yin.
Taoism Alchemy History
In the 5th-6th centuries, Tao Hongjing, co-founder of the Shangqing current, practiced alchemy along with many other techniques including meditation, medicine and sexual practices. He collected many recipes in the Bencaojizhu.
His current is also based on the Huangting jing which describes gymnastic or meditation techniques prefiguring internal alchemy.
From the Tang period onwards, the Zhouyi cantong qi attributed to the alchemist Wei Boyang of the Eastern Han, but probably later in its present version, takes an important place. Mainly a theoretical work on the non-duality of the dao, using alchemical language as a metaphor, it was the subject of numerous cosmological commentaries and became a major reference work.
The physician Sun Simiao / Sun simo (581-673) collected many recipes in The Essential of Great Purity (Taiqing danjing yaojue). Chen Shaowei, author of Xiufulingsha miaojue and Jiuhuanjindan miaojue, created an elixir called Jinyi or huandan from refined cinnabar, which was very successful.
☯️ The Yin-Yang mercury-sulfur pair is more frequently replaced by the refined lead-mercury pair. Some works insist on the fact that the nature of the basic ingredients is less important than the action of the Five Elements.
Many Tang alchemists, such as Zhang Guo, author of the Yudongdashendansha zhenyaojue, or Lü Dongbin, were claimed as founders by the currents of internal alchemy from the eleventh century onwards and integrated into the group of the eight immortals. Among the important texts of the period are the Yinfu jing and the Qingjing jing attributed without much likelihood to Ge Xuan.
External alchemy, which claimed six victims among the Tang emperors and more and more among the dignitaries, according to Zhaoyi of the Qing gradually disappeared towards the end of this dynasty in favor of internal alchemy.
This dominates from the Jin/Song period onwards with the birth of Quanzhen, one of the most important currents of Taoism up to the present day, then the regrouping of independent alchemists in a Southern School.
The alchemical operation of making the elixir of long life is now carried out entirely in the body of the practitioner thanks to gymnastics, diets and meditations bringing into play the three components of the human being (also called the Three Treasures) :
- the spirit Shen
- the essence Jing
- and the breath Qi
Breaking with the individualistic tradition of the alchemists, these schools obtained the support of the authorities by supporting the syncretism between the three teachings (Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism) and by proposing, apart from individual asceticism, a range of services including rituals designed for the court and moral teachings.
The Last Taoist Alchemist
One of the last influential "alchemists" was Liu Yiming (1734-1821), author of the Wuzhen zhizhi, for whom the golden elixir is the essential nature or seed of spiritual immortality present in everyone, comparable to the Buddha nature of the Mahayana.
Influenced by Buddhism, he considers that the "higher virtue" is the ability to immediately realize the "celestial truth" and that the realization of the dao through internal alchemy is a "lower virtue" which can nevertheless be a preliminary step to the attainment of the celestial truth.
The great fundamental ideas, Yin Yang, The 5 Elements, Dao... are always present in some of our practices. Thus, in a very synthetic way, today, Qi Gong, Tai Ji Quan and meditation are presented as "health" activities.
Man is what he is and he is always looking for the same thing ; a form of eternity.
A beautiful longevity to say the least... which, in our disciplines, and in a more down-to-earth way, can be obtained by calming the mind and keeping the body in motion, by harmonizing Yin and Yang, by regulating our emotions, by making energy circulate in the meridians ⚡.
Read next: Pursue your quest for immortality by reading this article on The Taoist Diet !