The first known examples of the use of alchemical imagery in relation to meditation practices refer to Laozi as a deity to be visualized within one's inner body. The Inscription for Laozi (Laozi ming) of 165 CE states that he "goes in and out of the Cinnabar Hut (danlu), and rises from and descends into the Yellow Court (huangting).(La divinisation de Lao tseu dans le Taoisme des Han; Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, 1992,47-48 and 128.)
The first major Chinese alchemical text appearing in Western language, was the 'Secret of the Golden Flower' text by Richard Wilhelm and interpreted by Carl Jung. This text came from the 'Grand Unity's' Instructions (on Developing) Golden Florescence (a light body)’, and came from at least two separate spirit-writing cults next to Patriarch Lu Dongbin active in the late seventeenth century. Jung's emphasis on the cross-cultural validity of his ideas on psychic individuation and archetypal symbolism however, downplayed the cultural specificity of the text and its tradition.
But in China, it should be known, ‘adepts’ responded not by abandoning their traditions (as when chemistry overtook alchemy in Europe by first narrowly redefining and then undercutting it), but by enriching them. Chinese compiled written texts and embedded their traditions into grand genealogical structures marked by textual elaboration, and spiritual meaning.
Among the most prominent examples here is that of the division of corporeal alchemy into five collateral branches, each corresponding to one of the five standard directions - south, north, center, east, and west that articulated space in traditional China. This geo-genealogical five-lineage structure built on the cultural model of the Southern and Northern branches of contemplative alchemy, and sought to embed new patriarchs, scriptures, into familiar structure.
To give their traditions durable geo-cultural foundation that could outlast the political decay and disintegration they faced. To date, most scholars have studied the Completion of Authenticity (Quenzhen), later dubbed the Northern Branch, followed by studies of the Western Branch. Plus, several studies have emerged relating to Lu Xixing and the Eastern Branch.
Belief in physical immortality among the Chinese seems to go back to the 8th century BC, and belief in the possibility of attaining it through drugs to the 4th century BC.
The genesis of alchemy in China may have been a purely domestic affair, we suggest however that there was some overlap with India during the time the Tantras where formulated (see the link at the end of this page to enter this wider eSocial Science News research project). In China it emerged during a period of political turmoil, the Warring States Period (from the 5th to the 3rd century BC), and it came to be associated with Taoism (Daoism). The Taoists/Daoists were a miscellaneous collection of 'outsiders', in relation to the prevailing Confucians, and such mystical doctrines as alchemy were soon grafted onto the Taoist canon. What is known of Chinese alchemy is mainly owing to that graft, and especially to a collection known as Y'n chi ch'i ch'ien ('Seven Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel'), which is dated 1023. Thus, sources on alchemy in China (as elsewhere) are compilations of much earlier writings.
The magical drug, namely the 'elixir of life' (elixir is the European word), is mentioned about that time, and that most potent elixir, 'drinkable gold,' which was a solution (usually imaginary) of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early as the 1st century BC many centuries before it is heard of in the West. First invented by the scholar-official, Ge Hong (283-343), the Way of the Golden Elixir attracted disaffected literati seeking spiritual advancement through elixir-making.
Ge's alchemy combined three traditions, and included divine rituals and formulas for preparing and ingesting mineral or metallic compounds, each of which gave specific powers to chose who took them. Ge uses the term Golden Elixir to name the best synthesis that would lead to the highest form of transcendence, but the wide readership of his book ensured that this term would become the generic label for alchemy. When later writers resorted to the same name however, they often had something quite distinct from Ge's ideas on the Golden Elixir in mind. They not only added new writings, deities. structures, and goals to their alchemical pursuits in the centuries after Ge's death, but from the tenth century, they frequently omitted any evidence of laboratory knowledge at all.
The Warring States next generated new approaches to life. Fears that spirits (shen) prematurely leave the corporeal form prompted some to focus on cultivating the body's vitalities. Thus Golden Elixir alchemy as it exists today, built upon the established traditions of sacred places on mountains and in temples as elements of marketing systems. Developments occurred within the matrix of learning, including the Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist classics and several of their recent incarnations.
The Taiqing, or Great Clarity, legacy flourished between the third and the fourth centuries in Jiangnan, the region south of the lower Yangzi River. While earlier documents yield fragmentary evidence on the origins of alchemy in China, the extant Taiqing sources provide details on the doctrines, rites, techniques, and aims of waidan. And The Scripture of Great Clarity (Taiqing jing), the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs (jiudan jing), and the Scripture of the Golden Liquor (jinye jing) form the nucleus of the Taiqing doctrinal and textual legacy.
Enter Ge Hong
While not a creation of Ge Hong's family, they certainly played an important role in the preservation and the spreading of the Taiqing texts during the third and the early fourth centuries. (See Encyclopedia of Taoism (Curzon Encyclopaedias of Religion)
Based on Ge Hong's account, the three scriptures we just mentioned originated at the end of the second century, in the area of what should be Mount Qian (Qianshan), which Emperor Wu of the Han had designated as the southernmost of the five sacred peaks (wuyue) in 106 BC. Mount Tianzhu at the end of the second century. The alleged first recipient, Zuo Ci, gave them to Ge Xuan (164-244), then they were transmitted to Zheng Yin (?-ca. 302), and finally they reached Ge Xuan's grandnephew, Ge Hong.
Different hagiographic lines of transmission were devised about one century later, when waidan was partially incorporated into the corpus of one of the main Daoist schools of the Six Dynasties; The Celestial Masters sect, thus releasing themselves from their formal association with the heaven of Great Clarity (still causing confusion among many present day scholars). The main study of the cosmological tradition of waidan is found in Sivin, "The Theoretical Background of Elixir Alchemy." On correlative cosmology see especially Kalinowski, Cosmologie et divination dans la Chine ancienne: Le Compendium des Cinq Agents. Virtually all texts that document the use of correlative cosmology in waidan are related to the Zhouyi cantong qi (Token for the Agreement of the Three According to the Book of Changes). The earliest known mention of this seminal work in association with waidan dates from around 500 CE.
What we know today about the beginnings of Taiqing tradition, however is that it originated in present-day eastern Anhui around 200 CE, and was soon transmitted to the nearby region across the Changjiang River. (See Encyclopedia of Taoism, Curzon Encyclopaedias of Religion)
Apparently the three main scriptures took form, or at least were initially transmitted, within the milieu of the fangshi, the "masters of the methods." And waidan participated in the progressive eastward transmission of elements of early religious culture from the Chu region to the coastal areas that culminated, in the fourth century, with the revelation of the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) scriptures.
Zheng Yin was the master who provided Ge Hong with the required "oral instructions" (koujue) on the Taiqing and other texts, and who formally transmitted the three alchemical scriptures mentioned above to his disciple-then aged about eighteen-around the year 300. Ge Hong states that he originally collected, materials found in several sources to compile a handbook titled Inner Chapters, for his own reference, and that later he expanded those excerpts and notes into a book addressed to "those who are moved by the same aspirations as myself." (Ibid Encyclopedia of Taoism)
While hagiographic accounts depict him as compounding elixirs on Mount Luofu (Luofu shan, Guangdong), Ge Hong himself acknowledges that at the time he wrote his Inner Chapters he had not performed any alchemical method. Ge Hong's lack of personal expertise in compounding the elixirs does affect his image as an alchemist-which anyway is to a considerable extent a creation of later hagiographers and modern scholars-and may be at the origin of some unclear or inaccurate reports of alchemical processes found in his work. The documentation provided in the Inner Chapters, moreover, reflects the author's attempt to incorporate fragments of different bodies of doctrine and practice into a comprehensive view. See Ho Peng Yoke, On the Dating of Taoist Alchemical Texts; Chen Guofu, Daozang yuanliu xukao, 285-381. On this and related issues in the study of Chinese alchemy see also Sivin, Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies, II-34; and his "The Theoretical Background of Elixir Alchemy," 2I0-12.
When following Ge Hong’s Inner Chapters, the Taiqing scriptures began to circulate in Jiangnan, a new corpus, was ‘channeled’ by mediums, in the second half of the fourth century. This, was the point of departure for a series of changes within the religious traditions of Jiangnan that provide clues to understand the relation of Taiqing alchemy to medieval Taoism.
The compilation of the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) and Lingbao (Numinous Treasure) corpora-between 364 and 370, and around 395 to 405, respectively-resulted in a new arrangement of the southeastern religious customs and their historical or legendary representatives. The new hierarchy was codified during the fifth century in the system of the Three Caverns (sandong), the earliest traces of which are found in the Shangqing scriptures. (See Robinet, La revelation du Shangqing, I: 75 - 8 5. On Lingbao Daoism see Bokenkamp, "Sources of the Ling-pao Scriptures"; and Yamada Toshiaki, "The Lingbao School.")
Within this system, which formally defined the identity of Six Dynasties and later Daoism, the heaven of Great Clarity, with the associated scriptures, doctrines, and methods, was ranked below those related to the Shangqing and the Lingbao corpora, bringing about a decline in the prestige of waidan.
Also the above mentioned texts, Way of the Celestial Masters (and real Clarity) texts were at first consolidated in the third tier. This lower tier normally associated with the Sanhuang (Three Sovereigns) and with one of the main scriptures of the pre-Shangqing and pre-Lingbao traditions of nan, the Sanhuang wen, or Script of the Three Sovereigns. This explains why medieval alchemy, despite the lack of textual connections of its sources to the Script of the Three Sovereigns, is often related to Sanhuang corpus; it also helps to understand why the Way of the Celestial Masters is often associated with the heaven of Great Clarity, and why Zhang Daoling, the originator of the Way of the Celestial Masters, is credited with alchemical knowledge by medieval and later sources.
Although almost all scholars translate the word ‘waidan’ with “outer Alchemy,” in contrast the foremost authority on waidan Ge Hong deemed meditation to be superior to self-cultivation methods like daoyin (gymnastics), breathing, sexual techniques, and various types of diets including, in particular, the abstention from cereals (duangu or bigu).
To him the use of herbal drugs also was subordinate to meditation and alchemy: whereas medicines of herbs and plants (caomu zhi yao) only afford longevity, Ge Hong states, guarding the One (shouyi) enables one to approach the gods and repel demons, and ingesting the Taiqing elixirs confers immortality. The distinction between the benefits of alchemy and meditation, however, was not so clear-cut, for, as we shall see, Ge Hong also says that "if one ingests the Great Medicine of the Golden Elixir (jindan dayao), the hundred evils do not come close." For Ge Hong, therefore, alchemy grants one access to the sacred in both of its aspects: the absolute Tao, on the one hand, and the intermediate world of gods and demons, on the other. Through this appraisal, Ge Hong presents alchemy as a teaching that, by the beginning of the fourth century, had positioned itself, together with meditation, at the higher end of the spectrum of religious and ritual traditions of Jiangnan.
The earliest written of what later unfolded in the waidan tradition is performed by a fangshi (shaman, magician, astrologer) whose role in the early history of waidan is acknowledged by both historical and alchemical sources. Named Li Shaojun, around 133 BC, suggested to Emperor Wu that he perform a complex practice. The method began with a ceremony to the stove (zao) intended to ask some deities (or spirits, wu) to assist the emperor in making an elixir. In their presence, cinnabar would transmute itself into a gold fit to cast vessels for eating and drinking. Taking food and drinks from those vessels would extend the emperor's life, and enable him to meet the transcendent beings. After meeting them, and after performing the major feng and shan ceremonies to Heaven and Earth, the emperor would obtain immortality. Thus, told Li Shaojun to Emperor Wu, did the Yellow Emperor in ilia tempore. This event is narrated in the Records of the Historian as part of a lengthy debate on whether and how Emperor Wu should perform the feng and shan state ceremonies. The views of the fangshi and the court officials differed on this issue, with the officials suggesting that the emperor should only express gratitude to Heaven and Earth for the restored unity of the Nine Regions, and the fangshi maintaining that he should emulate the Yellow Emperor, their main deity, who had celebrated those rituals at the beginning of human time. The Emperor who is said to have personally made offerings to the stove, sent some fangshi to the sea to search for Penglai and for those like Master Anqi, and also occupied himself with the transmutation of cinnabar and other substances into gold. (jiuzhuan huandan jing yaojue , 28.1385, in Taiji zhenren jiuzhuan huandan jing yaojue, Essential Instructions on the Scripture on the Reverted Elixir in Nine Cycles of the Perfected of the Great Ultimate; as quoted in K.Schipper, Concordance du Tao-tsang: Titres des ouvrages, 1975 p. 889) See also Sivin, Chinese Alchemy, 25 -26; Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 5·Ill: 34 - 35.
It should be noted that Li's method did not involve ingesting the elixir, and that his alchemical gold did not grant immortality, but only longevity: the emperor would become an immortal after performing the feng and shan ceremonies. This would change over time when following the ingestion process many died of mercury poisoning, hence the popularity of the later solely meditative, neidan methods. The earliest evidence on ingesting elixirs in order to "last as long as Heaven and Earth" dates from several decades after Li; it is found in the Treatise on Salt and Iron (Yantie lun), a work based on court debates held in 81 BC but compiled about two decades later. For more details about the origines of Chinese Alchemy see Kim Daeyeol, "Le symbolisme de la force vitale en Chine ancienne" (chapter IV.3.I), also Sivin, "Chinese Alchemy and the Manipulation of Time," 113 and 117-I8.
On the relationship between the daoshi and the fangshi see John Lagerwey, "Ecriture et corps divin en Chine." Lagerwey remarks, in particular: "le mode taolste de production des symboles n'est pas le mode metaphysique des possedes, mais celui, scientifique, du devin" (p. 282).
On the one hand, the following techniques for refining and transmuting minerals and metals do not constitute alchemy per se, as they do not necessarily imply the existence of a doctrinal and soteriological background. Or better said, this background exists, but for a variety of reasons the techniques may come to be transmitted separately from it. Within the Chinese tradition, this is true not only of the proto-chemical techniques of waidan, but also of the physiological techniques of neidan; to give one example that pertains to the latter form of alchemy, one of its greatest representatives, Chen Zhixu (I289-after 1335), emphatically rejects the understanding of alchemy as consisting only of its practices when he writes:
"It has been said that the way of cultivation and refinement consists of the techniques (shu) of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. No more of this nonsense! This is the Great Way of the Golden Elixir, and it cannot be called a technique." (See Halleux, Les textes alchimiques, 49, "un ensemble de pratiques et de speculations en rapport avec la transmutation des metaux").
Where the doctrinal principles at the basis of the compounding of the elixirs are shared by alchemy with other traditions and disciplines, the compounding of the elixirs is not the only means of access to them. In Chinese alchemy, this is clearly visible in the fact that the alchemical process, either waidan or neidan, is rooted in doctrinal notions that originate elsewhere-specifically, within Taoism-and of which alchemy represents one of the applications. Alchemy, in other words, cannot be defined either by its techniques or by its doctrinal foundations alone but rather, using the formulation suggested by Halleux, by the unique relationship it establishes between "practices and speculations," or between techniques and doctrines. This relationship can take several forms, including some in which the compounding of the elixir is meant in an entirely metaphoric way.
Sources ranging from historical and archaeological documents to mythological and hagiographic accounts yield some information on the quest for immortality and the knowledge of proto-chemical techniques in pre-imperial and early imperial times. At a closer inspection, however, very few of them are found to be directly relevant to alchemy proper; most consist of legendary accounts such as those on medicines of immortality that spontaneously grow in remote places, or refer to artisanal techniques for refining metals and minerals. Some of these legends and tales are likely to descend, in the first place, from the same background that also gave rise to alchemy; no early document, however, makes the link explicit.
The Taiqing tradition we now come to, was not based on a body of doctrinal tenets explicitly stated in its texts, and even less so was it provided with a formal organization of masters and disciples. Far from being a "school" in the sense of an established movement, it was originally centered on a set of key scriptures and practices, and developed through the addition of subsidiary texts and methods. Possibly for these reasons, there is no trace in any extant source of a catalogue or a list of Taiqing canonical scriptures. In time, however, the original corpus of writings was expanded with the enlargement of the older texts, such as the Scripture of Great Clarity, the addition of new ones, such as the writings related to the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs, and the compilation of commentaries, such as the one on the Scripture of the Golden Liquor.
The Scripture of the Nine Elixirs, is said to derive from a ‘heavenly’ book titled; Superior Scripture of the Nine Methods of the Princess of the Primordial Dao of the Nine Heavens, "Jiutian Yuandao jun jiufang zhi shangjing".12 As this title shows the text was intended to have been revealed by the Princess of Primordial Dao (Yuandao jun), who is called Primordial Princess (Yuanjun) in several passages of the commentary to the Nine Elixirs. Ge Hong mentions her in connection with the Great Clarity and the Golden Liquor, the two other texts that form the main early Taiqing corpus. In both instances, the Primordial Princess transmits these scriptures to her alleged son, Laozi. On the Primordial Princess as the mother of Laozi see Seidel, La divinisation de Lao tseu, 40 – 41, and Kohn, "The Mother of the Tao," 99. On Laozi as a master and a disciple of the alchemical arts see Baldrian-Hussein, "Inner Alchemy: Notes on the Origin and Use of the Term Neidan," 171-77.
The revelation of the Nine Elixirs is due it states, to two divine couples, each of which consists of a female and a male figure: the Primordial Princess and Laozi on the one hand (transmission in heaven), and the Mysterious Woman and the Yellow Emperor on the other (transmission on earth). The relation between the components of the two couples is similar: the Primordial Princess is the mother and teacher of Laozi, while the Mysterious Woman, as we shall presently see, is one of several deities who granted teachings to the Yellow Emperor. Also similar is the relation between the two male and the two female figures. Laozi-or his divine counterpart, Laojun or Lord Lao-and the Yellow Emperor are in several ways two aspects of the same divine being: the former is on the non-temporal level what the latter is in the human time, where he rules at the beginning of history. See the account of the Mysterious Woman in Yongcheng jixian lu, 6.2a4a (trans. Cahill, "Sublimation in Medieval China"). On the Mysterious Woman see also Seidel, La divinisation de Lao tseu, 40-41; and van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China, 73 -76. Besides the one reported above, another tradition, recorded in the Laojun kaitian jing (Scripture of the Opening of Heaven by Lord Lao), states that Laozi wrote the Taiqing jing when he appeared to the mythical emperor Shun as Yinshou zi. See Yunji qiqian (Seven Lots from the Bookcase of the Clouds; CT I032), 2.13 b; trans. Schafer, "The Scripture of the Opening of Heaven by the Most High Lord Lao," 17. Analogously, the Primordial Princess is associated with the celestial version of the Nine Elixirs, not addressed to human beings and therefore differently titled, while the Mysterious Woman is related to its transmission to the Yellow Emperor, in its current form and with its current title. Note the Yellow Emperor was already mentioned in the first written record of transmutation by fangshi Li Shaojun, around 133 BC.
On the representation of the Yellow Emperor and other mythical sovereigns as receiving teachings from divine beings see also Harper, "The Sexual Arts of Ancient China," 546-48. The Mysterious Woman and the Pure Woman, who are often associated with the sexual practices (fangzhong shu), are mentioned together in the passage quoted below in the present chapter from the commentary to the Nine Elixirs Uiudan jingjue, 5 .2a), which states that the Yellow Emperor learned the practices of Nourishing Life (yangsheng) from them. Guangcheng zi is the Yellow Emperor's instructor in chapter 1 of the Zhuangzi, and Qi Bo is the Celestial Master (Tianshi) who teaches the medical arts in the corpus of the Huangdi neijing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor).
The main Taiqing text however was the Scripture of Great Clarity (Taiqing jing). This work contained methods for making several elixirs, two of which are summarized by Ge Hong in his Inner Chapters: the Elixir of Great Clarity (taiqing dan) and the Elixirs of the Nine Radiances (jiuguang dan).2 The text has not come down to us, but the Daoist Canon contains two works that claim, through their titles, to have close ties to it. The first, entitled "Preface to the Scripture of the Divine Elixirs of Great Clarity" ("Taiqing shendan jingxu"), purports to quote teachings of the Primordial Princess (Yuanjun) on the types and ranks of spiritual beings. In her speech, the goddess emphasizes that the elixirs lead to transcendence but pertain to the domain of human beings; alchemy, therefore, reflects the human limitations compared to the condition of beings of pure spirit (shen), who do not need to devote themselves to its practice. But despite the importance of this text-even a neidan author, Chen Zhixu, quotes some sentences of it in one of his works-and despite its attribution to the deity who, as we have seen, first revealed the three main Taiqing scriptures, there is no evidence that the "Preface" was part of the Scripture of Great Clarity as it existed in Ge Hong's time. More likely, it is excerpted from one of the expanded versions of this scripture that we shall presently mention.
The alchemical process begins with the ceremony of transmission, performed in order to receive texts and oral instructions (koujue). As stated in the commentary to the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs, without the written instructions (wenjue) one would be unable to remove the toxicity of the ingredients, but the oral instructions are necessary to understand the meaning of the written instructions. More important, states the commentary, one should not assume that the alchemical practice simply consists in following the recipes found in the texts.
To receive the methods of the Nine Elixirs, the disciple throws golden figurines of a man and a fish into an east-flowing stream as tokens of his oath. The tokens offered to receive the Reverted Elixir in Nine Cycles are a golden figurine of a fish and a jade ring shaped like a dragon. Both are said to replace the rites of smearing one's mouth with blood and of having one's hair cut. If the golden figurine and the jade ring are not available, they may be replaced with hemp fabric and silk. On the offering of golden figurines in Daoist transmission rituals, and on throwing talismans into east-flowing streams, see Wushang biyao (The Supreme Secret Essentials; CT Il3 8), 27.7b and 34.I2a-I6a (Lagerwey, Wu-shang pi-yao, 109 and 124), respectively. See also Chen Guofu, Daozang yuanliu kao, 283-84. Kim Daeyeol, "Le symbolisme de la force vitale en Chine ancienne" (chap. III.2), shows that the fish often appears in early Chinese literature and iconography as an image of communicating with divine beings, and suggests that the golden figurines of the man and the fish offered in the rite of transmission represent the adept's wish to enter the realm of the immortals. Lagerwey, Wu-shang pi-yao, 124, mentions the replacement of blood and the haircut with golden rings and green silk.
The offerings mentioned have the same colors as gold and silver, a relevant detail since alchemy is often called the Art of the Yellow and White (huangbai shu), with reference to those two metals. The passage on the transmission of the Scripture of Great Clarity is quoted in the commentary to the Nine Elixirs, which replaces blood with cinnabar; see Jiudan jingjue, 3.4a-b. (Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue (Instructions on the Scripture of the Divine Elixirs of the Nine Tripods of the Yellow Emperor, Schipper, CT, 885.)
Having received the texts and the oral instructions, the adept retires to a mountain or an isolated place. He is accompanied by two or three attendants, whose main tasks are pounding the ingredients and tending the fire. (For many references and details of this, and follows, including illustrations of all the talismans referred to, see the Curson Encyclopedia of Taoism.)
After all the precepts, taboos, and rules have been obeyed, the delimitation and protecting of space can start. Space should be purified and protected to guard oneself from the dangerous demons who inhabit the mountains. This can be achieved by the mere possession of major scriptures like the Script of the Three Sovereigns (Sanhuang wen), the Charts of the Real Forms of the Five Peaks (Wuyue zhenxing tu), or the Prajiiaparamita-sutra, which enable one to summon the gods it is said, and obtain their protection.(For details see To drive away spirits and demons, one should also be able to identify them and shout their names, or to recognize those that, in days marked by certain cyclical characters, appear under the guise of human beings or wild animals. According to the Supreme Secret Essentials (Wushang biyao), the suqi (Nocturnal Invocation) rite for the protection of ritual space can also be performed when one compounds the elixirs.
However, as is stated in the commentary to the Nine Elixirs, the most effective way to protect the compounding of the elixirs is to use talismans (fu) and seals (yin). These are worn on one's body, affixed at the four directions, placed along the path that leads to one's dwelling, thrown in the stove, or made into ashes and drunk with water before one compounds the elixirs. Examples show how the Taiqing adepts used talismans.
Referring to the rules for the establishment of the ritual area, three Taiqing sources mention a compound called Medicine for Expelling the Demons (quegui yao) or Pellet for Expelling the Demons (quegui wan). Several ingredients of this compound are poisonous vegetable substances whose apotropaic properties are also mentioned in the pharmacopoeias.
Next the adept can start the process of selecting the proper time for compounding the elixir. The entire preliminary process for making the Reverted Elixir in Nine Cycles should be timed so that one kindles the fire at dawn on the ninth day of the ninth month. The Nine Elixirs and three other early texts give a list of auspicious and inauspicious days to begin the compounding; despite variants in the indication of inauspicious days among them, the common origin of the passage is apparent. Among the days indicated as unfavorable are those of Establishment (jian), of Receiving (shou), and of the Killer of the Month (yuesha). The most favorable days are the fifth of the fifth month and the seventh of the seventh month, followed by the days of Opening (kai) and of Removal (Chu). The compounding can also begin in the days whose cyclical signs are in a relationship of "ruler and assistant" and do not "subdue" each other; moreover, the sky should be clear, and the sun and the moon should be bright.
Now the fire may finally be started. In the Nine Elixirs, this stage is also marked by a ceremony. The alchemist invokes the Great Lord of the Dao (Da Daojun), Lord Lao (Laojun), and the Lord of the Great Harmony (Taihe jun). He offers them food and drinks, and asks them to watch over the process, let the practice be successful, and let him become an accomplished man (zhiren) and have audience at the Purple Palace (Zigong), in the constellation of the Northern Dipper. The commentary to the Nine Elixirs describes a more complex rite, called Ceremony of the Nine Elixirs (jiudan ji), which is performed before kindling the fire.
The adept first sets up an altar, nine feet wide in the lower part and four feet wide in the upper part, and places the stove six feet west of the altar. On the altar he arranges five pieces of silk, placing one piece of dried meat and one cup of liquor on each of them. On a seat to the east of the altar he arranges nine pieces of silk, placing two pieces of dried meat and two cups of liquor on each of them. He also offers millet, dried meat of ox and sheep, boiled carp, cooked eggs, jujubes, pears, and oranges or other red fruits. Burning some incense, he pours liquor into the cups. Then he kneels in front of the seat, and after this he may start the fire. The offerings are moved near the crucible, and more dried meat and liquor are placed on three tables. The meat should be replaced once every three days, and the liquor three times a day.
After all the preliminary rites are performed, the compounding of the elixir may begin. The alchemist's attention now focuses on the crucible and the fire, and he performs the method according to the texts and the oral instructions he has received from his master, helped by his assistants. When the elixir is achieved, according to the commentary to the Nine Elixirs, he performs again the ceremony made before the kindling of the fire, adding more pork meat on the altar, and cooked rice, a cooked chicken, and a dried carp in the seat to the east of the altar. Finally, having asked permission to do so with an invocation, he opens the crucible. In the Taiqing methods, the crucible is typically formed by two superposed - vessels made of red clay (chishi zhi) and joined by their mouths. Owing to this feature, the texts often mention a "double crucible" (liangfu) or an "upper and lower earthenware crucible" (shangxia tufu).
The elixirs had to be extensively consecrated before ingestion, in this rite, different quantities of the elixir are offered to Heaven, celestial bodies, and deities, and another portion is left in the marketplace for the benefit of those who cannot devote themselves to its compounding.
The Scripture of the Nine Elixirs also describes the transmutation of the elixir into gold, or-in one case-into silver, as the final act of the alchemical process. The First and the Fourth Elixirs are transmuted into gold with mercury; the Second Elixir is transmuted into gold with an aqueous solution of magnetite; the Sixth Elixir is transmuted into gold with mercury or lead; and the Seventh Elixir is transmuted into gold or into silver with lead. This transmutation is referred to with the word dian, which denotes, as "projection" does in Western alchemy, the process by which a small quantity of elixir confers its properties to other substances that are added to it. The stated purpose of this transmutation is to verify that the elixir has been correctly prepared, but the Nine Elixirs also hints at the use of alchemical gold for making vessels when it says that the gold obtained in this way should be malleable. In the following instance, gold is used for making a cylinder in which the elixir itself should be stored.
After you achieve gold the document advises, take one hundred pounds of it and arrange a major ceremony. For the procedure there is a separate scroll, but this is not the same ceremony as the one performed for compounding [the elixirs of] the Nine Tripods. For this ceremony you separately weigh and arrange different quantities of gold. You offer twenty pounds to Heaven, five pounds to the Sun and the Moon, eight pounds to the Northern Dipper (beidou), eight pounds to the Great One (Taiyi), five pounds to the god of the well, five pounds to the god of the stove, twelve pounds to the Count of the River (Hebo), five pounds to the god of the soil (she), and five pounds each to the spirits and the divinities of the doors, of the house, of the village, and to the Lord of Clarity (Qingjun). This makes eighty-eight pounds altogether. With the remaining twelve pounds, fill a beautiful leather bag, and on an auspicious day silently leave it in a very crowded spot of the city market, in the peak hour. Then leave without turning back. (Ge Ho Baopu zi neipian, Inner Chapters of the Book of the Master Who Embraces Spontaneous Nature, 4.76-7.)
Because the talismans of the Three Sovereigns and the Real Forms, the Taiqing elixirs grant the power of expelling dangerous demons and keeping away harmful entities. To do so according to Ge Ho, one does not necessarily need to ingest the elixirs, and may merely keep them in one's hand or carry them at one's belt-a revealing detail since scriptures and talismans could also be used in the same way. The apotropaic properties of some elixirs also become active by rubbing them on a person's eyes, on the house doors, and even on the city walls. (Quoted in F. Pregadio, Great Clarity, 2006, 129. This book is an edited version of Pregadio’s dissertation from 1990, he next went on to edit the Encyclopedia of Taoism.)
Ge Hong as quoted in The Encyclopedia of Taoism describes how the Real Pearl is obtained by placing mercury and saltpeter inside the quill of a bird's feather (niaoge), which is sealed with wood and lacquer and is soaked in a Flowery Pond for seven days or longer. If it is ingested for one hundred days, it confers immortality.( Mercury also appears as the name of the lead-tin compound (which is described as "quicksilver," shuiyin, possibly implying a change of properties from Yin to Yang) and as an ingredient of the three other methods given in the Oral Instructions: those for making the Silver Snow, the Hard Snow, and the Male Snow. To compound the Silver Snow, mercury is boiled in vinegar for nine days and nine nights; it is then added to the unidentified "flowery stone" (huashi) and is made into a powder. This powder is placed in the crucible and is covered with Red Salt, a compound obtained by refining alum and salt that is also mentioned by Ge Hong in his summary. The Hard Snow is obtained by placing mercury in a vessel with plaques of copper (tongban) and vinegar. The amalgam is made again into plaques and soaked in a Flowery Pond; if it is placed in a crucible with Red Salt, one obtains the Male Snow.
The commentary to the Nine Elixirs also
refers to the Yellow Emperor's initiatory journey, at the end of which he
compounded two elixirs that enabled him to rise to heaven.
From Waidan To Neidan Alchemy
From the late second century also comes the first mention of the "inner embryo," one of the most distinctive notions of neidan. It is found in the Xiang'er commentary to the Laozi, written around 200 CE and associated with the Way of the Celestial Masters, and the meditations described below are still practiced today.
Still existing in Taiwan today it is called Zhengyi Celestial Master Taoism, or Dragon-Tiger. Its founder, Zhang Daoling, lived in the second century C.E. Dragon-Tiger or Zhengyi Taoists meditate on the Lao-tzu Tao-te Ching as a sacred book, practice rites of healing and renewal, and receive a special Zhengyi Mengwei (Cheng-i Meng-wei) register in twenty-four segments when they are ordained Taoists. Their sacred mountain is Lunghu Shan (Dragon-TIger Mountain) in southeast Jiangxi Province. These Taoists marry and pass on their registers to at least one of their children in each generation.
Taken together, the above inscriptions show that alchemical imagery was used in relation to meditation practices by the turn of the third century CE, and that the notion of an "inner embryo" already existed by that time. The step is not a major one from the notion of an "embryo" dwelling within one's inner body to the idea of generating an "inner infant," who is equated with the inner elixir and represents one's own real self. In fact, as early as the fifth century a scripture belonging to the Lingbao (Numinous Treasure) corpus states that "the Golden Elixir is within your body" (jindan zai zi xing).
Both the meditation practices and the relevant terminology continued to be transmitted in the subsequent centuries, first within traditions related to meditation, and later within traditions related to neidan. The two main sources that document the relation of these traditions to both waidan and neidan are the Central Scripture of Laozi (Laozi zhongjing) and the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing), both of which circulated in Jiangnan during the third century. Both the Central Scripture and the Yellow Court enjoin adepts to visualize the deities who reside within themselves. These deities perform multiple related roles: they serve as administrators of the body, allow the human being to communicate with the major (and in several cases corresponding) gods of the outer pantheon, and personify the formless Dao or impersonal notions such as Yin and Yang and the Five Agents. In both the Central Scripture and the Yellow Court, moreover, meditation on the inner gods is combined with the visualization of essences and pneumas that adepts drive through the body and deliver to the gods in the five viscera, the three Cinnabar Fields, and other loci in order to provide them with nourishment. Both Shangqing and neidan would incorporate not only these practices, but also much of the attached imagery.
In particular, the Central Scripture often instructs adepts to visualize a "yellow essence" (huangjing) and a "red pneuma" (chiqi) that respectively represent the Moon and the Sun. Adepts should merge them with each other and circulate them within their body:
Constantly think that below the nipples are the Sun and the Moon. Within the Sun and the Moon are a yellow essence and a red pneuma that enter the Crimson Palace (jianggong); then again they enter the Yellow Court (huangting) and the Purple Chamber (zifang). The yellow essence and the red pneuma thoroughly fill the Great Granary (taicang). (Laozi zhongjing, sec. 11)
In this practice, the yellow essence and the red pneuma are moved through the Crimson Palace (heart), the Yellow Court (spleen), and the Purple Chamber (gallbladder), and finally reach the Great Granary (stomach). The purpose is to nourish the Red Child (chizi), an infant who resides in the Great Granary and is said to represent the "real self" (zhenwu) of the human being. In another instance, the yellow essence and the red pneuma are joined and then ingested:
The saintly man dissolves the pearls; the worthy man liquefies the jade. For dissolving the pearls and liquefying the jade, the method is the same. Dissolving the pearls means ingesting the essence of the Sun: the left eye is the Sun. Liquefying the jade means feeding on the essence of the Moon: the right eye is the Moon. (Laozi zhongjing, sec. 39) The related practice consists in lying down and repeatedly visualizing the yellow essence and the red pneuma that descend from one's eyes and enter one's mouth, so that they may be swallowed.
The Yellow Court mentions the same essences and pneumas, saying for instance:
Circulate the purple (huizi) and embrace the yellow (baohuang) so that they enter the Cinnabar Field; an inner light in the Abyssal Chamber (youshi) illuminates the Yang Gate (yangmen). (Huangting neijing jing, sec. 2)
Here the two pneumas are circulated and guided to the upper Cinnabar Field, while the Gate of Life (or Yang Gate) in the lower Cinnabar Field is visualized as irradiated by a light issuing forth from the kidneys (the Abyssal Chamber).
There are clear associations between the essences and pneumas of the Sun and the Moon, delivered by the adept of the Central Scripture to his inner gods, and the Yin and Yang essences and pneumas that a neidan adept circulates in his body to compound the elixir or nourish the "inner embryo." These associations become explicit when the Central Scripture refers to visualizing the pneuma of the Sun descending from the heart and the pneuma of the Moon arising from the kidneys; the adept should "join them making them one, and distribute them to the four limbs." An analogous practice is performed by the neidan adept when he joins the Fire of the heart and the Water of the kidneys to generate the first stage of the inner elixir. (Catherine Despeux, Taoisme et corps humain: Le Xiuzhen tu, 152- 58. )
Analogies with the alchemical process are also apparent in relation to another source of nourishment for the inner gods and their residences, namely the adept's own salivary juices. The main function of these juices is to aid the ingestion of essences and pneumas, but they are also used to "irrigate" (guan) the inner organs and, as we shall see presently, to feed the inner gods. (I.Robinet, Taoist Meditation,1999, 90.)
The Central Scripture and the Yellow Court refer to these juices using terms derived from waidan or having alchemical connotations, such as Mysterious Pearl (xuanzhu), Jade Sap (yujiang), Jade Blossom (yuying), Jade Pond (yuchi), Jade Liquor (yuye), Golden Nectar (jinli), and even Golden Liquor (jinye). Other sources refer to them as Divine Water (shenshui), White Snow (baixue), and Golden Essence (jinjing), all of which are also known as synonyms of ingredients of waidan elixirs. These terms suggest that in providing superior nourishment to the adept and his inner gods, the salivary juices perform a function analogous to the one that the elixirs, or their ingredients, do in waidan. The analogies of essences, pneumas, and salivary juices with waidan end where those with neidan begin: the adept nourishes himself and his gods not through the ingestion of external substances, but through components of his own inner body; he finds the vital ingredients within himself, and their ingestion takes place internally.
Similar dual associations with both waidan and neidan are evident in another feature of the methods of the Central Scripture. Although offering nourishment to the inner gods is the rule, in some cases it is the adept who asks the gods to deliver nourishment to him. To do so, he addresses invocations to the gods that recall the one pronounced by the Taiqing alchemist before he kindles the fire under the crucible. Now, however, he does not ask the gods to favor the compounding of the elixir; he asks, instead, that they dispense an elixir to him:
The highest god is styled Lord Great One of Original Radiance (Yuanguang Taiyi jun) Below he resides within the heart of human beings. At dawn and at midday, on the jiawu and the bingwu days, always call him and say:"Old Man of the Southern Ultimate, Lord Great One of Original Radiance! I want to obtain the Dao of long life of the Divine Elixir of the Great One!" (Laozi zhongjing, sec. 25)
In an invocation addressed to Master Yellow Gown (Huangchang zi), the father of the Red Child, the adept asks him to obtain "medicinal liquor" (yaojiu) and other nurture:
Master Yellow Gown! Master Yellow Gown! Real Man of the Yellow Court, reside in myself! Summon for me medicinal liquor, dried pine-seeds, rice, and broth of millet, so that I can eat and drink of them! Let them come right now! (Laozi zhongjing, sec. I I)
Double Indigo, the god of the liver, who is none other than Lord Lao himself, is invoked for the same purpose:
Flesh Child (Rouzi), Double Indigo (Lanlan)! Be my friend, stay here and be my envoy! I want to obtain the Divine Elixir of the Great One and ingest it! Let me live a long life! Do not leave my body! Constantly reside within the Palace of the Purple Chamber, joined with the Dao! (Laozi zhongjing, sec. 28)
If the term "inner elixir" was not already charged with other meanings and associations, it could be an appropriate definition for the nourishment that the inner gods are invited to provide. In fact, whether its elixir is "outer" or "inner," the Central Scripture regards alchemy and meditation as equivalent when it says: "If you cannot ingest the Divine Elixir and the Golden Liquor, and do not labor to become skilled in meditation, you merely bring suffering upon yourself."(Laozi zhongjing, sec. 21. The same sentence, without the reference to meditation, is found in the opening passages of the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs.)
In another passage, the Central Scripture states:
"If you constantly ingest breath, you will obtain a long life and be a divine immortal. If you visualize the gods and ingest the elixir, you will become a Real Man." (Laozi zhongjing, sec. 38.)
As we have seen, leading the yellow essence and the red pneuma to the stomach provides nourishment to the Red Child, the innermost deity residing within the human being. The Central Scripture describes him as follows. However the initial part of the passage quoted below defies a proper translation, for Laozi (the speaker of the Central Scripture) refers to himself in both the first and the third persons. He introduces himself as "I" (wu) and says that he resides in every human being ("human beings also have me," i.e., "him"); he is, therefore, one's own "self" (wu), represented by the Red Child. For similar statements see sec. 23 ("Child-Cinnabar, Original Yang, is the self"), 37 ("the stomach is the Great Granary, the residence of the Prince, the hut of the self"), 37 ("Child-Cinnabar is the self"), and 39 ("the Dao is the self"):
The self is the son of the Dao; this is what he is. Human beings also have him, not only me. He resides precisely in the ducts of the stomach, the Great Granary. He sits facing due south on a couch of jade and pearls, and a flowery canopy of yellow clouds covers him. He wears clothes with pearls of five hues. His mother resides above on his right, embracing and nourishing him; his father resides above on his left, instructing and defending him. (Laozi zhongjing, sec. 12)
The Child's mother is the Jade Woman of Mysterious Radiance (Xuanguang Yunii). Through the nourishment that she provides, the Child "feeds on yellow gold and jade dumplings, and ingests the Divine Elixir and the zhi plant." But the Child should also be nourished by the adept: "He feeds on the yellow essence and the red pneuma, drinking and ingesting the Fountain of Nectar (liquan)," another name of the salivary juices produced during the meditation practices. The Child's father, whose task is "instructing and defending" his son, is the Yellow Old Man of the Central Ultimate (Zhongji Huanglao), god of the Yellow Court. The Central Scripture often calls him Master Yellow Gown (Huangchang zi). The Red Child's father is also called Lingyang ziming, a name that in waidan is a synonym of mercury. Both the Red Child, under the name of Child-Cinnabar (Zidan), and Yellow Gown are also mentioned in the "Inner" version of the Yellow Court, whereas the "Outer" version grants Child-Cinnabar the honor of being the only deity mentioned by name in the entire text.
The alchemical imagery associated with the nourishment of the Red Child-gold, jade, the Divine Elixir itself-does not need to be emphasized again. Another point, instead, requires attention, namely the relation of the Red Child to the inner embryo of neidan. This relation is complex, for the image of the embryo changes according to the understanding of neidan itself: although some neidan texts emphasize the notion of "generating" and "raising" the inner embryo through practices performed for this purpose, others refer to the embryo, and to the elixir itself, as an image of one's own authentic self, and of one's own awakened state, which is inherent and does not need to be "generated." Both ways of seeing have affinities with the image of the "inner infant" as it appears in the Central Scripture. On the one hand, nourishing the Red Child in meditation and generating and raising the embryo in neidan are achieved through similar practices, namely by joining essences and pneumas related to the Sun and the Moon, or to Yin and Yang. On the other hand, the "inner infant" and the inner embryo are both representations of the "real self," which, just like the Red Child in the Central Scripture, is innate and is raised by the same forces that sustain life-represented by the Child's parents in the Central Scripture- but also requires one's continuous sustenance and nourishment.
The Central Scripture of Laozi and the Scripture of the Yellow Court merge and develop several trends apparent in earlier or contemporary sources: the visualization of inner gods, the practices for channeling the inner essences and pneumas, and especially the use of alchemical images and terms to define loci of the inner body. Other stages of development, however, were necessary before neidan could emerge as it is known from the Tang period onward. Shangqing Daoism is associated with the first of these stages.
Methods of visualization of the deities of the inner pantheon, and chants addressed to them, form the subject matter of the Authentic Scripture of the Great Cavern (Dadong zhenjing), the main Shangqing text. Although this "" pantheon differs from the ones of the Central Scripture and the Yellow Court,the "inner infant" plays within it the same central role. The Scripture of the Great Cavern ends by describing how an adept generates an inner "divine being" by coagulating and ingesting pneumas that descend from the Muddy Pellet (niwan), the upper Cinnabar Field in the region of the brain:
Visualize a five-colored purple cloud entering within yourself from your Muddy Pellet. Then ingest that divine cloud with your saliva. It will coalesce into a divine being (shenshen), surrounded by a five-colored, purple, white, and roseate round luminous wheel. The god is inside the wheel. Below he spreads himself within your entire body, distributing his pneuma to your nine openings and coagulating it over the tip of your tongue. (Shangqing dadong zhenjing, 6.13 b-14a)
In other contexts, the image of the "inner infant" or the inner embryo reveals alchemical connotations even stronger than those seen in the preShangqing texts. One of the Shangqing revealed scriptures applies the term Nine Elixirs (jiudan) to the pneumas of the Nine Heavens (jiutian zhi qi) received by human beings during their embryonic development:
In the first month, one receives the pneuma; in the second, the numina (ling); in the third, they are transformed together; in the fourth, one coagulates the essence; in the fifth, the trunk and the head are established; in the sixth, one alters oneself and takes form; in the seventh, the [inner] deities take their positions; in the eighth, the nine orifices are luminous; and in the ninth, the pneumas of the Nine Heavens are distributed and one obtains the voice. In the tenth month, the Director of Destinies (Siming) inscribes the Registers: one receives one's destiny and is born. Therefore everyone is endowed with the pneumas of the Nine Heavens and the essences of Yin and Yang.
These are called the Nine Elixirs, and together they form the human being. (Shangqing jiudan shanghua taijing zhangji jing, 3a)
In the view of this and other Shangqing texts, however, the gestation process also accounts for the creation of "knots and nodes" (jiejie); their function is "holding together the five viscera," but eventually they are responsible for one's death:
When one is generated, there are in the womb twelve knots and nodes that hold the five viscera together. The five viscera are obstructed and squeezed, the knots cannot be untied, and the nodes cannot be removed. Therefore the illnesses of human beings depend on the obstructions caused by these nodes, and the extinction of one's allotted destiny (i.e., one's death) depends on the strengthening of these knots. (Shangqing jiudan shanghua taijing zhangji jing, 3a-b)
To untie the "knots of death," the adept is instructed to re-experience his embryonic development in meditation, receiving again the Nine Elixirs, which here denote the pneumas of the Nine Heavens. Then he visualizes the Original Father (yuanfu) in his upper Cinnabar Field and the Original Mother (yuanmu) in his lower Cinnabar Field, who issue pneumas that the adept joins in his middle Cinnabar Field to generate, this time, an inner immortal body. The Original Father and the Original Mother play, in this practice, a role analogous to the one of the father and the mother of the Red Child in the Central Scripture. This view of the gestation process and its re-enactment in meditation is the topic of the entire Shangqing jiudan shanghua taijing zhongji jing (Highest Clarity Scripture of the Central Record of the Higher Transformation of the Nine Elixirs into the Essence of the Embryo; Kristofer Schipper, Concordance du Tao-tsang: Titres des ouvrages, Ecole Franaise d'Extreme-Orient, 1975, 1382).
Another set of Shangqing methods based on the image of the embryo consists of the practices performed to ensure that the souls of one's ancestors obtain release from the underworld. Through the meditation practices performed by their descendants, ancestors may "return to the embryo" (fantai) and become "immortals in the embryonic state" (taixian), obtaining, this time, rebirth in heaven. The notion of purification underlying these practices is also associated with alchemical imagery and terminology: the ancestors rise to the Golden Gate (jinmen, a station in the heavenly circuit of the Sun) where they "refine their matter" (lianzhi) by bathing themselves in the Water of Smelting Refinement (yelian zhi shui).
The role of the Sun as a purifying agent-analogous to the role of fire as a refining agent in waidan-recurs in the Shangqing practices based on the images of the Sun and the Moon. Here Shangqing clearly develops the legacy of the earlier traditions represented by the Central Scripture of Laozi, where, as we have seen, pneumas and essences associated with these two celestial bodies perform a major role. In the Shangqing practices, however, the essences and pneumas are not those found within the adept's own body, but those of the Sun and the Moon themselves. In one method, whose analogies with waidan are transparent, the adept collects the essences of the Sun and the Moon in a vessel containing water and a talisman, then ingests some of that water and uses the other part to wash himself. In another method, he meditates on the circuits of the Sun and the Moon, then visualizes their essences and joins and ingests them. These and similar methods end with the adept visualizing himself as being ignited by the Sun and transformed into pure light.
The notions underlying these practices have an even deeper relation to alchemy than those seen before. As Isabelle Robinet has noted, the Shangqing texts sometimes exchange the Yin and Yang qualities of the Sun and the Moon, so that each of them is said to contain an essence of the opposite sign (Yin for the Sun, Yang for the Moon). This anticipates an essential pattern of neidan, where the alchemical work is based on gathering Yin within Yang (i.e., Real Yin, zhenyin) and Yang within Yin (i.e., Real Yang, zhenyang) in order to join them and compound the elixir.
After those reflected in the earliest sources and in the Shangqing texts, the third historical stage of the encounter between meditation and alchemy was the one that harbored the most durable consequences for the history of both waidan and neidan. Whereas the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs and the other Taiqing texts emphasize the performance of rites and techniques and devote virtually no space to doctrinal statements, the doctrinal aspects of alchemy are the main focus of many waidan sources dating from the Tang period onward. These sources are not concerned with the ritual aspects of the alchemical practice; they explain the alchemical process by borrowing the language and emblems of the Book of Changes (Yijing) and of the system of correlative cosmology, and describe the compounding of an elixir made of lead and mercury, which ingredients replace the much larger variety of ingredients typical of the earlier methods.
From the beginning of the seventh century, no other scripture has had an influence on the history of Chinese alchemy comparable to that of the Token for the Agreement of the Three. Through this text, the whole array of emblems and patterns of correlative cosmology entered the language and imagery of alchemy. These emblems make it possible to describe and relate to each other different cosmological configurations represented by Yin and Yang, the Five Agents, the trigrams and hexagrams of the Book of Changes, the Celestial Stems and the Earthly Branches, the twenty-eight lunar mansions, and so forth, in ways unknown to the earlier tradition represented by the Taiqing and other waidan texts.
The waidan or neidan practices apply those principles to different domains (sometimes with remarkable variations among subtraditions or lineages, especially in the case of neidan). The Token-which is neither a waidan nor a neidan text, although it contains allusions to both-provides an illustration of those principles; the task of connecting them to waidan and neidan is left to a large number of commentaries and related texts that explicate them and apply them to the alchemical practice. Thus the meditation methods surveyed above were relevant to these developments in the history of alchemy in two ways.
First, the Scripture of the Yellow Court provided the Token for the Agreement of the Three with imagery and technical vocabulary. One of the most noticeable examples is the description of the elixir in the Token, where it is said to be "square and round and with a diameter of one inch" (fangyuan jingcun).
Besides this, the Yellow Court also influenced the changes that occurred in the alchemical tradition in an indirect way. Not all the shared terms and expressions are used with the same or a similar purport in the Yellow Court and the Token. The Token actually uses some terms and phrases derived from the Yellow Court in order to criticize the practices at the basis of the latter text. For instance, the adept of the Yellow Court should "perform ablutions (muyu)to attain complete purity, and discard fat and fragrant foods." For the Token, "performing ablutions, fasting, or keeping the precepts [ ... ] is like using glue to repair a pot." According to the Yellow Court, "if you observe internally (neishi) and gaze intimately, you see the Perfected everywhere." The Token counters that "if you observe internally, your thoughts will absorb your mind." In the Yellow Court, "you open up the hundred channels (baimai) and unblock the blood and the fluids." This, for the Token, means only that "your hundred channels stir like a cauldron." In the practices of the Yellow Court, one Jiould "tightly close the Golden Pass (jinguan) and conceal the Pivotal Mechanism (shuji)." The Token says that those practices result in "your actions turning against you, for you have contravened and lost the Pivotal Mechanism." 33 Finally, the Yellow Court recommends the steadfast practice of its methods, saying that "by being sleepless day and night, you will achieve perfection." The Token replies that "by being sleepless day and night, and never taking a pause month after month, daily your body becomes tired and exhausted."
The Token that distinguishes alchemy from several other practices:
This is not the method of passing through the viscera, contemplating within and concentrating on something; of treading the Dipper and pacing the asterisms, using the six jia as chronograms (richen); of sating yourself with the nine-and-one in the Way of Yin, fouling and tampering with the original womb (yuanbao); of ingesting breath till it chirps in your stomach, exhaling the upright and inhaling the external and evil. By being sleepless day and night, and never taking a pause month after month, daily your body becomes tired and exhausted: you are "vague and indistinct," but look like a fool. Your hundred channels stir like a cauldron, unable to clear and to settle; by piling soil you set up space for an altar, and from morning to sunset reverently worship. (Zhouyi cantong qi fenzhang zhu, sec. 8) All this, concludes the Token, will be pointless when "you leave your bodily form to rot."
Two different meditation practices are mentioned in the passage quoted above, namely "passing through the viscera" (lizang) and "treading the Dipper and pacing the asterisms" (liixing bu douxiu). The first term appears frequently in meditation texts, including the Central Scripture of Laozi. The second _expression alludes to the Shangqing meditation methods of "pacing the celestial net" (bugang). Other terms in this passage allude to other practices. "Six jia" (liujia) refers to calendrical deities, in particular those of the divination method of the "orphan-empty" (guxu), which in one of its applications allows adepts ritually to exit the cycle of time and the directions of space. "Way of Yin" (yindao) denotes the sexual techniques, and "nineand-one" (jiuyi) refers to "nine shallow and one deep" penetrations in intercourse. "Reverently worship" obviously alludes to rites performed in honor of minor deities and spirits. The last sentence in the first paragraph, as well as the first two lines in the second quatrain, refers to breathing techniques.
This section of the Token, in other words, mentions a sample of methods that were current during the Six Dynasties and denounces them as inadequate. The Token is not content with criticizing these methods, but refers to them with irony. "Exhaling the old and inhaling the new" (tugu naxin), a common _expression that denotes ingesting and circulating breath, is overturned into "exhaling the upright and inhaling the external and evil" (tuzheng xi waixie). Breath is ingested "till it chirps in your bowels." The adept who devotes himself to these practices is "vague and indistinct" (huanghu), an expression employed in the Laozi and many other texts to refer to the Dao itself, but deliberately used in the Token to describe a practitioner who "looks like a fool."
For the authors of the alchemical version of the Token, borrowing terms from Scripture of the Yellow Court was an effective way to assert the superiority of alchemy over the earlier meditation practices. Similar borrowings, although less frequent, also occur from the Central Scripture of Laozi. One example may be enough as regards this text. On three occasions, the Central Scripture instructs its adepts to visualize their inner essences and pneumas, saying that they should "moisten and impregnate" (runze) several organs of the body. The Cantong qi uses the same expression, but with a different intent: it is not the viscera of the adept in meditation to be "moistened and impregnated," but the cosmos itself when the Sun and the Moon join with each other at the end of a time cycle, and release their "nurturing fluids" (ziye, a compound formed by two terms that in the Central Scripture and other texts define the salivary juices). This event is related to one of the cardinal notions in the Token, namely the periodic joining of the Sun and the Moon:
Between the last day of a month and the first day of the next, they join their tallies and move to the Center.In chaos, vaporous and opaque, female and male follow each other: their nurturing fluids moisten and impregnate, emanating and transmuting, they flow and pervade. (Zhouyi cantong qi fenzhang zhu, sec. 18)
This passage refers to the Sun and the Moon as respectively harboring Real Yin and Real Yang. Their conjunction, which occurs at the end of each month, when the Sun and the Moon "join their tallies and move to the Center," causes Real Yin and Real Yang, the dual aspects of the timeless Dao, to join and generate the next time cycle. These continuous temporal sequences are responsible for the occurrence of change, but in the view of the Token they are also the means through which Real Yin and Real Yang "flow and pervade" the cosmos, rising and descending through all its time cycles.
In this renewed context, the inner gods of the Daoist meditation practices, and the ritual framework of the Taiqing alchemical practices serve no more. It is enough to look at some clusters of terms that recur in the Token to realize how its adept is not asked to meditate on the deities that reside within himself, or to address those who dwell in heaven. Instead, he surveys (can), examines (cha), investigates (kao), explores (tan), inquires (ji), and inspects into the Shangqing corpus, give priority to methods based on a large variety of ingredients. By the middle of the Tang period, however, the methods based on refining mercury from cinnabar had grown in importance. The best illustration of the enhanced role of cinnabar is found in the writings of Chen Shaowei, who was active during the second decade of the eighth century. His two works (originally part of a single treatise) describe the preparation of an elixir obtained by refining cinnabar. In the first part of the process, each cycle yields a "gold" that can be ingested or used as an ingredient in the next cycle. In the second part of the process, the final product of the first part is used as an ingredient of a Reverted Elixir (huandan). Without any explicit mention of the Token for the Agreement of the Three, or any apparent reference to its system, Chen Shaowei describes his method using cosmological emblems, especially in the portions devoted to the stages of heating.
Some Tang sources related to the Token for the Agreement of the Three explicitly criticize such methods as the one described by Chen Shaowei through their rejection of cinnabar and their advocacy of lead and mercury. Invariably, these sources present as their rationale the fact that a Yin or Yang ingredient alone cannot produce the elixir. The waidan commentary to the Token dating from about 700 CE, to which we referred above, says in this regard:
Without male and female, how could there be fixation, transmutation, and accomplishment of the elixir? The male is mercury, the female is the essence of lead. Jiuyuan jun said: "Ingesting only the reddened mercury (i.e., refined mercury) is called 'orphan Yang' (guyang), and ingesting only the flower of lead (i.e., refined lead) is called 'orphan Yin' (guyin). Therefore lead and mercury need each other to accomplish the elixir. If the elixir is accomplished without obtaining both Yin and Yang, it would not obtain its principle. When the two ingredients accomplish the elixir and are ingested to· gather, this is the Way of the correct conjunction of Yin and Yang. (Zhouyi cantong qi zhu, I.2Ib-22a)
Another passage of the commentary addresses its criticism to the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs itself, showing that the denunciation was not limited to methods based on cinnabar and mercury, but was extended to any method that was seen as not accomplishing a proper conjunction of Yin and Yang:
According to the Scripture of the Nine Elixirs (fiudan jing), one should smear the crucible with the Flower of Metal (jinhua, i.e., refined lead) in order to nourish mercury. But could one ever use the words "Yin and Yang" or "Dragon and Tiger" if [the elixir] is accomplished by placing only mercury in an empty tripod? It is necessary to add to and subtract from what is different (hie). If mercury is used alone, this would amount to using the word "sublime" (miao) to define the "orphan Yang." Jiuyuan jun said: "An elixir made of 'orphan Yang' cannot be ingested as it is: one should accomplish the elixir by also availing oneself of Yin. If one stops when lead is accomplished, could one use it alone without a Yin ingredient?" (Zhouyi cantong qi zhu, 2.45a-b)
One of the earliest waidan texts to emphasize the role of lead and mercury as ingredients of the elixir, Zhang Jiugai's Treatise of the Perfected Zhang on Metals, Stones, and Cinnabar (Zhang zhenren jinshi lingsha lun) dating from the mid-eighth century, provides a similar explanation of why one should not use only cinnabar:
The common people who search for immortality by ingesting only lustrous cinnabar (guangming sha) and purple cinnabar (zisha), without a process for the conjunction [of Yin and Yang], go afar from the Way .... One cannot transcend the generations [of mortals] by ingesting lustrous cinnabar or purple cinnabar. Why? Because the Reverted Elixir, taking the essences of Yin and Yang, is patterned on the creative and transformative action of Heaven and Earth. If the Yin of mercury within cinnabar alone forms the body [of the elixir] and does not couple with Yang to generate [the elixir], it cannot join the Four Emblems (sixiang) to each other and cannot put the Five Agents in motion (yun). Therefore an orphan Yin cannot nourish anything, and a lone Yang cannot generate anything. It is the coupling of Yin and Yang that accomplishes the Reverted Elixir. (Zhang zhenren jinshi lingsha lun, 4a-b)
Finally, two other Tang texts related to the Token for the Agreement of the Three assert the superiority of lead and mercury over all other minerals:
The arts of the Great Elixir derive from lead and mercury, and the principles of lead and mercury are the foundation of the Great Elixir. (Dadan qianhong lun, ra) Therefore one knows that the sublimity of the Great Elixir is owed only to the fact that lead and mercury are the perfect ingredients (zhiyao); it does not consist in using the four yellows and the eight minerals (sihuang bashi). If the pneuma of any mineral ingredient enters the two substances that make the Great Elixir, this will be extremely poisonous. (Danlun jue zhixin jian, ra)
With its mention of the "four yellows" (realgar, orpiment, arsenic, and sulphur) and the "eight minerals" (cinnabar, realgar, mica, malachite, sulphur, salt, saltpeter, and orpiment), the last passage quoted above echoes the admonishment of the Token for the Agreement of the Three: "Dispose of realgar, get rid of the eight minerals!"
These changes in the understanding of the alchemical process affected not only the history of waidan, but also the rise and development of neidan. From the beginning of the Tang period, some authors began to describe the alchemical process as happening entirely within the human being, with no dependence on minerals, metals, instruments, or fire, as other alchemists had used earlier, and employing the same terminology, imagery, and symbolism as those found in the Token for the Agreement of the Three. The earliest extant text that can be labeled as neidan in this sense is a short treatise written by Liu Zhigu in the first half of the eighth century, which emphatically criticizes the waidan interpretations of the Token and offers its first neidan reading. The development of neidan in the form it took from the Tang period onward would not have been possible without the earlier traditions of Daoist meditation, and occurred in parallel with two shifts, related to each other, in waidan-from a ritual framework to a cosmological framework, and from methods based on cinnabar or other ingredients to methods based on lead and mercury.
these developments, the alchemy of the Great Clarity lost its reason to exist.
Adepts began to look at alchemy as a way to express
and to understand the principles that govern the cosmos, but no longer as a
means of getting closer to the gods and warding off demons and spirits. The
classic system of Daoist cosmography, as expressed in the scheme of the Three
Caverns (sandong), had no place in these new traditions, for the
compounding of the elixirs was no longer seen as a means of rising to a higher
heaven. Complex cosmological notions and patterns of abstract emblems now
played a role unknown in the earlier tradition.