The Way of the Golden Elixir – An Introduction to Taoist Alchemy. Essence, Breath, and Spirit affect one another. When they follow the course, they form the human being; when they
invert the course, they generate the Elixir.
Understanding East of alchemy has a history of more than two thousand years, recorded from the 2nd century BCE to the present day. It is divided into two main branches, known as Waidan, or External Alchemy, and Neidan, or Internal Alchemy, which share part of their doc-trinal foundations but differ in the respective practices.
Waidan (lit., “external elixir”), which arose earlier, is based on the compounding of elixirs through the heat-ing of natural substances in a crucible. Its texts consist of recipes, along with descriptions of ingredients, ritual rules, and passages concerned with the cosmological as-sociations of minerals, metals, instruments, and opera-tions. Neidan (lit., “internal elixir”) borrows a significant part of its vocabulary and imagery from its earlier counterpart, but aims to produce the elixir within the alchemist’s person according to two main models of doctrine and practice: first, by causing the primary components of the cosmos and the human being to re-vert to their original condition; and second, by purifying the mind from defilements and passions in order to “see one’s Nature.” Neidan texts cover a wider spec-trum of subjects compared to Waidan; at its ends are, on the one hand, teachings on the Dao and, on the other, descriptions of physiological practices.
The main designations of the elixir are huandan, or Reverted Elixir, and—especially in the “internal” branch—jindan, or Golden Elixir
• The Elixir in External Alchemy
• The Seal of the Unity of the Three
‘This petty man, (name of the adept), verily and entirely devotes his thoughts to the Great Lord of the Dao, Lord Lao, and the Lord of Great Harmony. Alas! This petty man. (name of the adept), covets the Medicine of Life! Lead him so that the Medicine will not volatilize and be lost, but rather be fixed by fire! Let the Medicine be good and efficacious, let the transmutations take place without hesitation, and let the Yellow and the White be entirely fixed! When he ingests the Medicines, let him fly as an immortal, have audience at the Purple Palace – live an unending life, and become a realized man.
BENEFITS OF THE ELIXIRS
Ingesting an elixir is said to confer transcendence, immortality, and admission into the ranks of the celestial bureaucracy. One also gains the ability to summon benevolent gods. Additionally, the elixir grants healing from illnesses and protection from demons,
spirits, and several other disturbances including weapons.
In the cosmos, as we have seen, True Yang is concealed within Yin, and True Yin is concealed within Yang. Each Yang entity therefore harbors True Yin, and vice versa.
All people on their own have
the Medicine of long life;
it is only for insanity and delusion
that they cast it away to no avail.
When the Sweet Dew descends,
Heaven and Earth join one another;
where the Yellow Sprout grows,
Kan and Li conjoin.
Three, Five, One —
all is in these three words;
but truly rare are those who understand them
in past and present times.
East is 3, South is 2,
together they make 5;
North is 1, West is 4,
they are the same.
In the learning of the Way there is nothing else: the
only task is nourishing Breath. The Liquor of the heart
descends and the Breath of the kidneys ascends, until
they reach the spleen. If the generative force of the
Original Breath is not dispersed, the Elixir coalesces.
As for liver and lungs, they are the thoroughfares. After
you have practiced quiescence for a long time, you will
know this by yourself
By keeping the Essence complete, you can protect the
body (shen). To keep the Essence complete, first the
body must be secure and settled. When it is secure
and settled, there are no desires, and thus the Essence
By keeping the Breath complete, you can nourish the
mind (xin). To keep the Breath complete, first the mind
must be clear and quiescent. When it is clear and
quiescent, there are no thoughts, and thus the Breath
By keeping the Spirit complete, you can return to
Emptiness. To keep the Spirit complete, first the
Intention (yi) must be sincere. When the Intention is
sincere, body and mind join one another, and you
return to Emptiness.
Therefore Essence, Breath, and Spirit are the three
primary ingredients; and body, mind, and Intention are
the three primary essentials.
This Metal is the Ancestral Breath prior to Heaven, but
is generated in the state posterior to Heaven. Those
who practice the great cultivation intend to search for
the body of the Great Ultimate before its division,
the true instant of the creation of the world. Therefore
the exalted immortals and the highest saints search for
the Breath prior to the generation of Heaven and Earth
within the state posterior to Heaven and Earth, after the
rise of form and matter. With this Breath they refine and
achieve Pure Yang. This is why we call it Elixir. . . .
You should search for the state prior to Heaven, before
the rise of forms. In the state posterior to Heaven and
Earth, after the rise of forms, there are human beings
and objects, and not the Golden Elixir.
When we reverse the Light, all the Yin and Yang
Breaths of Heaven and Earth coagulate. This is what
we call “refining thought,” “purifying Breath,” or
According to the instructions to begin the practice,
Non-Being seems to be within Being. In due time,
when the practice is completed and outside one’s
body there is another body, Being is born within NonBeing.
The Light is true only with one hundred days of
focused practice: at that time, it becomes the SpiritFire.
After one hundred days, the Light spontaneously coalesces, and the one particle of True
Yang suddenly generates the Pearl, sized as a grain of
millet. This is just like when husband and wife conjoin
and there is an embryo. In order to attend to it, you
must be in a state of quiescence. The reversion of the
Light is the same as the Fire Phases.
THE “SECRET OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER”
One of the most important and best-known Neidan works is the Secret of the Golden Flower
Let me tell you one thing. If you want to know this
Opening, it is in the land where the six senses do not
stick, in the place where the five agents do not reach.
“Vague and indistinct!” Within there is an opening.
“Dim and obscure!” Within there is a gate. It opens and
closes by itself. If you call out, it replies; if you knock, it
responds. Luminous and bright! Complete and
accomplished! Those who are deluded are a thousand
miles away from it; those who are awakened are right
in front of it.
The image of the Dragon-Tiger undergoes a thousand
transformations and ten thousand changes, and its
transcendence is divine and unfathomable. This is why
we use them to represent the ingredients, we establish
them as Tripod and Furnace, and we move them with
the Fire regime. By analogy, they are Kan and Li; by
substitution, they are Metal and Fire; by naming, they
are the boy and the girl; by conjoining, they are the
husband and the wife. All these different names
constitute the wondrous function (yong) of the Dragon
and the Tiger. By virtue of their divine animation ,
we call them ingredients; because they bring
things to achievement, we call them Tripod and
Furnace; by virtue of their transformations, we call
them Fire Times; because they cross each other and
join to one another, we call them Kan and Li; because
they are firm and straight, we call them Metal and
Wood; because they ascend and descend, we call
them boy and girl; because they wondrously harmonize
with one another, we call them husband and wife.
The Way of the Golden Elixir entirely consists of
models and images. It takes Lead and
Mercury as substances, but one must know that the
Essence of Lead and the Marrow of Mercury are
nothing but metaphors. It is based on the terms Li and
Kan, but one must know that the Kan Boy and the Li
Girl are nothing but empty terms. It uses the forms of
the Dragon and the Tiger, but one must also know that
the Dragon-Fire and the Tiger-Water have no form. It
talks about the Yellow Sprout, the White Snow, the
Divine Water, and the Flowery Pond, but these are
things that can neither be seen nor used.
The Supreme One Vehicle is the wondrous Way of the
highest ultimate Truth. The tripod is the Great Void and
the furnace is the Great Ultimate. The foundation of the
Elixir is clarity and tranquillity; the mother of the Elixir is
non-doing. Lead and Mercury are Nature and
Life; Water and Fire are concentration and wisdom. The
conjunction of Water and Fire is ceasing desires and
terminating anger; “Metal and Wood pairing with each
other” is merging Nature and qualities. “Washing and
bathing” is cleansing the mind and clearing away
cogitation. “Closing firmly” is maintaining sincerity and
concentrating the Intention. The “three essentials” are
precepts, concentration, and wisdom; the Mysterious
Barrier is the Center. . . .
This is the wondrousness of the Supreme One Vehicle.
Those who are accomplished can perform this
The Internal Elixir and the View of the Human Being
Physiological practices are often the most conspicuous
aspect of Neidan, but compounding the Internal Elixir
involves the whole human being and not only the physical body.
The entire process is directed by the Heart, which is the residence of Spirit (shen) and main
symbolic and non-material center of the human being.
The Heart operates by means of the True Intention, the active faculty that, through its association with Spirit, enables the conjunction of Yin and Yang
and the generation, nourishment, and birth of the Internal Elixir.
THE ELIXIR IN NEIDAN
In the Neidan view, the Elixir is equivalent to the original state of being and represents its attainment or recovery. The conclusion of the practice is defined as the
return to “emptiness” , the state in which no
boundaries or distinctions occur between the absolute
principle and the relative domain. Being a gradual process, however, the practice operates primarily within the domain that one is called to transcend. Its main purpose is to reveal how the world as we know it the selfmanifestation of the Dao.
The Golden Elixir
“Golden Elixir” is another name for one’s fundamental
Nature, inchoate and yet accomplished. There is no
other Golden Elixir outside one’s fundamental Nature.
All human beings have this Golden Elixir complete in
themselves: it is entirely achieved in everybody. It is
neither more in a sage, nor less in an ordinary person.
It is the seed of the Immortals and the Buddhas, the
root of the worthies and the sages.
The actual focus of this process is neither “internal”
nor “external.” Nonetheless, it is frequently illustrated
through the metaphor of the creation of “a person outside one’s person” (or “a self outside oneself”, which represents the attainment of transcendence and is defined as the “true person”; compare with the “true self” of early Taoist
In this case, the main stages of the practice are described as the conception, gestation, and
birth of an embryo, which grows to become a perfect
likeness of the practitioner and personifies his or her realized state.
In another view—not mutually exclusive with the previous one, and often presented alongside it—the Internal
Elixir is seen as already possessed by every human being, and as identical to one’s own innate realized state.
“All human beings have this Golden Elixir complete in themselves: it is entirely realized in everybody” .
“Inverting the course”
Those who have great wisdom invert the cycles of
creation and transformation. They are not seized by the
process of creation and transformation and are not
molded by Yin and Yang. They are not dragged by the
ten thousand things and are not pulled by the ten
thousand conditions. They plant a lotus in a fire and
tow a boat through muddy waters. They borrow the
laws (fa) of the world to cultivate the laws of the Dao,
and accord to the Dao of men but fulfill the Dao of
Heaven. They thoroughly uproot the accumulated dust
of sense objects of countless eons and entirely clear
away the acquired extraneous breaths (qi) that arise
after [birth]. Their destiny (Ming) is ruled by themselves,
and is not ruled by Heaven. They revert to their
“original face” (yuanmian) of times past and escape
from transmigration. They transcend the Three Worlds
[of desire, form, and formlessness], and become as
incorruptible as vajra (diamond).
Xing and Ming
Xing is what we call the perfect precelestial Spirit and
the One Numen. Ming is what we call the perfect
precelestial Essence and the One Breath. Essence and
Spirit are the roots of Xing and Ming. . . .
If those who cultivate their Ming do not comprehend
their Xing, how can they escape the cycles of kalpas?
If those who see their Xing do not understand their
Ming, how can they finally revert [to the origin]? . . .
The superior persons jointly attain Xing and Ming. First,
by observing the precepts and by concentration and
wisdom they empty their minds. Then, by refining
Essence, Breath, and Spirit they protect their bodies.
When the body is tranquil and at rest, the basis of Ming
is permanently firm; when the mind is empty and clear,
the foundation of Xing is entirely illuminated. When
one’s Xing is entirely illuminated, there is no coming
and going; when one’s Ming is permanently firm, there
is no death and birth.
Xing and Ming constitute two complex but cardinal
concepts in the Neidan view of the human being, pertaining to one’s superindividual features, on the one hand, and to one’s individual existence, on the other.
Xing denotes one’s “inner nature,” whose properties
transcend individuality and are identical to those of
pure Being and, even beyond, Non-Being. Neidan texts
often discourse on Xing by using Buddhist terms, such
as “one’s own true enlightened nature” (zhenru juexing),
and Buddhist expressions, such as “seeing one’s nature”.
Xing is related to Spirit (shen) and pertains to one’s “heart” or “mind”.
Ming means in the first place “command,” “mandate,”
“order,” but the senses of this word also include “life,”
“existence,” and “lifespan,” as well as “destiny” or
“fate.” In the Neidan view, these different meanings
and senses are related to one another.
Ming can be defined as the imprint that each individual receives upon being generated, which determines one’s place and
function in the world and thus the “destiny” that one is
expected to fulfill in life. Moreover, each individual in
his or her life is provided with an allotment of “vital
force” that differs among different persons, but is
bound to decrease and finally to exhaust itself.
While one’s Xing is unborn and therefore is immortal, everything under the domain of Ming has a beginning and
Ming is related to Breath (qi) and Essence.
It takes effect in the world of form and therefore
is subject to change; and it pertains to one’s individual
existence as a person or a body.
The alchemist holding the “hare in the Moon” and the
“crow in the Sun,” two emblems of the ingredients of the
“Internal Medicine” and “External Medicine”
In general, those who study the Dao should begin from
the External Medicine; then they will know the Internal
Medicine by themselves. Superior persons have
already planted the foundation of virtue, and know it by
birth; therefore they do not refine the External
Medicine, and directly refine the Internal Medicine. . . .
The External Medicine brings one’s Ming (Existence) to
fulfillment; the Internal Medicine brings one’s Xing
(Nature) to fulfillment.
Ïn West they call this; a universal medicine (the panacea). Thus the philosopher’s stone was also the elixir—the universal medicine. It healed—that is, of course, it was to heal—man as well as metal.
Essence, Breath, Spirit
. . . Essence, Breath, and Spirit affect one another. When they
follow the course, they form the human being; when they
invert the course, they generate the Elixir.
What is the meaning of “following the course”? “The One
generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three
generate the ten thousand things.” Therefore Emptiness
transmutes itself into Spirit, Spirit transmutes itself into
Breath, Breath transmutes itself into Essence, Essence
transmutes itself into form, and form becomes the human
What is the meaning of “inverting the course”? The ten
thousand things hold the Three, the Three return to the Two,
the Two return to the One. Those who know this Way look
after their Spirit and guard their [bodily] form. They nourish
the form to refine the Essence, accumulate the Essence to
transmute it into Breath, refine the Breath to merge it with
Spirit, and refine the Spirit to revert to Emptiness. Then the
Golden Elixir is achieved.