Alchemy and Daoism
©2001 Jeannie Radcliffe


Daoist mystical philosophy would seem to have little to do with something as pragmatic yet experimental such as alchemy. Yet the one thing they both have in common is the search for immortality. Alchemy did this through the search for the immortal tincture that contained the essence of the universe whilst the Daoist sages contemplated the Dao through breathing exercises and diet. Using material substances to create the gold of immortality, the alchemists created highly toxic substances that had to be consumed ritually in careful doses, after much preparation and instruction. Of what use has a sage for gold? How could a sage afford alchemy with it's need for expensive equipment and ingredients? Yet we will see that Daoism and alchemy have been intertwined since the earliest records of the Han Dynasty.

A western dictionary defines alchemy as a medieval forerunner of chemistry and especially the pursuit of transmutation of baser metals into gold and silver. The Chinese experience with alchemy goes back a lot further than the mediaeval period in Western alchemy and was associated more with the search for  elixirs of immortality than with making gold, though this is not to say that gold making was not a part of Chinese alchemy, as indeed it was.

Chang Tao Ling, the first Taoist pope, was born during the reign of the the emperor Kuang Wu Ti about 35 A.D. Chang shunned imperial service and lived in the mountains in the west of China pursuing the study of alchemy where he is said to have received a mystic treatise from the hands of Lao Tzu which enabled him to complete the Elixir of Life. The Chinese believed that certain substances like gold and jade, if ingested would impart some of those qualities of longevity to the physical form. At first it was thought that simply by eating off plates of gold or those gilded with arsenic and quicksilver, that one could imbibe this energy but this thought gradually evolved into the making of substances that could bring about a transformation within the body itself. The idea of potable or drinkable gold was already in existence in China by the end of the third century B.C and the idea of making gold and silver from other materials was established by this time also.

Daoism would seem to be  a strange companion to laboratory alchemy since Daoism was very much concerned with conservation of energy and the path of not doing. The emphasis in Daoist practice was to abide by a system of training that would change the way of thinking and reacting to the world. This was achieved through quiet meditation and contemplation and a separation of oneself from the world of mundane existence and the  associated waste of energy that was believed to shorten ones life. This should be kept in mind when approaching the subject of alchemy. Since most Daoist practitioners were recluses, obtaining the necessary supplies would add a significant difficulty to a life of austerity. Alchemy would  thus seem to have little in common with a philosophy of energy conservation in order to achieve a state of purity and wisdom.

Inner alchemy or Nei Dan was practiced in isolation and practitioners used the control of bodily energy to extend their life span. Sperm retention practices, menstrual control, breathing exercises, strict dietary regimes along with meditation were all part of the inner alchemist’s repertoire. The body was seen as a furnace where the different energies were purified and raised to a point of focused perfection before ascending to the realms of the Immortals. Practitioners of any type of alchemy were said to be very secretive and reclusive. Inner alchemy was associated with the preservation of Chi or energy, on an alchemical level, chi or the activating principle, was seen analogically, as a type of mercury. Texts dealing with this topic closely followed certain principles associated with the laws of nature and involved the generation of a mystical body that would be the vehicle to carry the soul to immortality.

Inner alchemy (Nei Dan) has been the leading form of Daoist practice since the Song, when it was formulated by the Southern School. (Nanzong) Represented by the masters Liu Cao (fl.1031) and Zhang Bo duan (d 1082), the Southern School continued the tradition of operative alchemy, adding to it interior forms of meditation and the Tang practice of observation. Inner alchemy in Daoist practice creates an immortal embryo in a process described in terms of external alchemy and the dynamics of Yijing. The embryo then becomes the carrier of the adepts external life and undertakes excursions into the heavens. Like the alchemical techniques of old, the new inner alchemical practices tended to be associated with more practically orientated sages or more accessible sages such as Lu Dongbin. However, the few texts that do mention Lord Lao as their source clearly join the new alchemical practices with the tradition of purity and tranquility.'

In the case of Wei Dan or outer alchemy, various operations were performed on substances such as gold, mercury, lead, arsenic, and jade. These operations were based on extensive cyclic sublimations and the concept of yin/yang and the five elements. Probably more than anything the ideas of sublimation and transformation were at the crux of the alchemists’task. The goal was to produce artificial gold, which at one stage was considered to be superior to natural gold. The concept of making gold for profit was not a part of the Daoist alchemical philosophy. The aim was to maintain longevity and to become an immortal. ‘Whoever heard of a rich immortal or a fat Daoist?'  This was the reply given to an aspiring alchemist by his master  when he questioned him as to why one would manufacture metals rather than using what already existed in nature.

Needham points out the long usage of cinnabar and hematite for decoration and being prized as gifts and grave goods. Oracle bones were found to have been painted with cinnabar whilst hematite, quicksilverand salts of lead had been used in compounds from the earliest times. Cinnabar would be seen to be quite amazing with it’s ability to be transformed from a red earth into liquid mercury and back again. The association between gold and cinnabar may be based on the idea that gold turns into cinnabar because cinnabar is found underneath gold lodes.

The absolute toxicity of these substances can hardly have contributed to longevity, and indeed many alchemists were reluctant to take the elixir especially if they had received it from someone else.It seems that the symptoms of cinnabar poisoning were well known and well described, this led to antidotes being developed which alleviated some of the symptoms. Popularly these antidotes were called ‘stones’ and maybe preparations made by the spagyric technique which involves the ‘fixing’of an essence, plant or mineral in a solid form. One author who had studied the effects of experimenting with a remedy popular with the imperial court and scholars, called ‘Eat Cold’ powder gave himself ten years to live but gave other takers even less time. This is a consistent feature of the alchemical products and there is an ongoing debate even today as to whether some of the recipes were literal or metaphorical.

However dubiously various alchemists regarded the products of their labor,  we find out of seventy-one immortals, twenty two were said to have attained this state of perfection by taking various plant and mineral substances

The Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Wang Ch’ung-yang) says of alchemy that it is a symbolic means  to accomplish in a few days the cosmic process of returning to the True. By participating in a ritual manner in the laboratory transformations, the adept goes through a period of gestation after which the alchemist is reborn, after successive circulation’s the ‘divine child is purified and is born into the ‘inner life’ whilst the sages external life is supposed to go on indefinitely.
The effects of some of the preparations gave an initial increase in energy and potency along with being hallucinogenic and giving heightened sensorial powers. Over time, due to the accumulation of the toxic substances, this gradually wore off and left the alchemist even more debilitated. with decreased mental capacities, paralysis and ulcers were among some of the symptoms. It would seem whoever made and took these elixirs were slowly but surely committing suicide. The actual preparation of the mercury would in itself be quite toxic with quicksilver giving off poisonous fumes and being absorbed through contact. Would people who are hoping to achieve immortality consciously poison their physical form, bringing about a premature exit from the world? Would they consciously choose this way to die, much as in the way someone chooses to take sleeping pills to die rather than driving off a cliff?

There are examples of someone choosing to die as did Wang Ch’ung-yang (Master who Embraces Simplicity ) who got seriously ill to discourage the superficial and worthless adept he’d accumulated, he recovered long enough to pass on his words, some poems and then died at forty years old.  Here was someone who considered that whilst vegetable preparations and other practices could prolong life,only through alchemy could one gain complete immortality. There is an assumption that he must have deliberately induced the symptoms but did he really mean to die? The failure of the powder could be blamed on any number of reasons such as the process being performed at an unfavourable time of day, the wrong dosage, facing the wrong direction or having performed any of the many operations wrong. With the institutionalization of Daoism during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), anyone who worked their way to the highest initiation by completing all of the teachings and practices,was taken out to the mountains in a carriage to the Western mountains, never to return.

At this time the transmutation nine times reversed of cinnabar elixir was popular among courtiers and was considered an important aspect of Daoist  practice.   Laboratory alchemy was not able to be practiced by most because of the cost of materials and the difficulty of finding a reputable master who could steer one through the maze and lift the veils which shrouded the mystery.  Over time, the metaphors of inner alchemy as used by the Daoist sages borrowed heavily from the symbolic language of practical alchemy and this occurred around the eleventh century. The taking of alchemical tinctures declined in favor as the more fantastic claims for various products were discredited. It became positively dangerous to boast of having any sort of medicine and then for it not to work. This type of commercial behaviour was abhorred by the sages. Their work consisted in combining the inner and the outer work in an effort to understand the way of the universe as it manifested in nature and the world around them. By observing nature through the reflection on the work in the laboratory, the alchemist was able to manipulate the substances into ever more subtle gradations. Imperial decrees about aurification ensured that those involved had to become even more secretive, many moving further out to the fringes of society, away from prying eyes, closer to the source of the products and also closer to the immortals.

Nei Dan was not always practiced in conjunction with Wei Dan yet both had connections within the Daoist spiritual practices. In Daoism, the perfection of the process is the aim and the goal. As the alchemist works, they are mediating the pure Dao. The way to immortality is manifesting at that moment and becomes fixed in the tincture which is then able to be ingested.


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