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good health, peace of mind, and long life are the goals of the ancient Taoist tradition known as "internal alchemy," of ...
good health, peace of mind, and long life are the goals of the ancient Taoist tradition known as "internal alchemy," of which
is a key text. Written between the second and fifth centuries, the book is attributed to T'ai Shang Lao-chun—the legendary figure more widely known as
Lao-Tzu, author of the
The accompanying commentary, written in the nineteenth century by Shui-ch'ing
Tzu, explains the alchemical symbolism of the text and the methods for cultivating internal stillness of body and mind. A principal part of the Taoist canon for many centuries,
is still the first book studied by Taoist initiates today.
The Translator's Introduction
is a text from the Taoist canon. Its Chinese name is the
The name attributes its authorship to T'ai Shang Lao-chun, a title given to Lao-tzu within the Taoist religion. The Taoist canon includes several works that are attributed to Lao-tzu but were not written by the historical Lao-tzu. Some of these were written by anonymous authors whose perspectives on Taoism resembled most closely the philosophical Taoism expressed in the
Others were written by authors who wanted to show that internal alchemy traced its spiritual origins to the philosophy in the
belongs to the latter group of texts.
itself is a short text of twenty-four segments. It is believed to be written in the
Six Dynasties Era (220–589 CE) although it was written in the literary form of the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE). This was probably to highlight its philosophical closeness to the
number of ideas expressed in
show strong influence of internal alchemy characteristic of the Eastern Han Period
(25–220 CE). These are most prominent in chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, and 16.
differed from the early alchemical texts in one important aspect. The early texts of internal alchemy written during the Eastern Han and the Chin dynasties
(265–420 CE), like the
and the writings of Ko Hung, did not attempt to show that the arts of longevity and immortality were the logical development of the philosophy presented in the
The philosophical approach in
shows the maturity of the internal alchemical school. The text skillfully blends classical Taoism and alchemical Taoism to convey multiple levels of interpretation. An exoteric (or literal) interpretation will produce a reading of Taoism that focuses on the ideas of
and peaceful and harmonious living. An esoteric interpretation will reveal hidden instructions on internal alchemy and meditation, and will offer advice on a lifestyle that is conducive to the cultivation of health and longevity.
were written in the Five Dynasties Era (907–960 CE), the Southern Sung dynasty
(1127–1279 CE), the Chin dynasty of the Manchus (1115–1234 CE), the
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368 CE), the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE), and the
Ch'ing dynasty (1644–1911 CE). The illustrated commentary in this translation contains the least esoteric terminology and was probably intended for novice initiates rather than advanced adepts. The author of the commentary was named Shui-ch'ing Tzu and the illustrations were by Hun-yen Tzu. These names are pseudonyms. As is true of many authors of the texts of the canon,
little is known about their lives.
The literary style and the ideas expressed in the commentary place its authorship no earlier than the latter part of the Ming dynasty (1628–1644 CE). In fact, several aspects of the commentary and illustrations suggest that they were products of the Ch'ing dynasty (1644–1911 CE). First, there are references to Ming dynasty works. For example, the references to the Monkey
King and the Pig Immortal show the author's familiarity with the Ming dynasty novel
Journey to the West.
the ease with which the commentary's author blends Taoism, Buddhism, and
Confucianism shows influence of the synthesis of the three philosophies popular during the late Ming period. Finally, historical records suggest that canonical texts that attempt to synthesize the three religions of China did not begin to appear in large numbers until the late Ming and early Ch'ing dynasties.
This translation is made from an edition of the text and the illustrated commentary printed in the Ch'ing dynasty. The printer's seal on the book says that it
was reprinted in the eleventh year of the reign of Tung Chih in the Ch'ing dynasty
(1873). Although we do not know how many printings the book went through, it can be reasonably assumed that the book enjoyed enough popularity to warrant repeated printings.
Taoist methods of health, longevity, and immortality were often presented in the esoteric terminology of alchemy, which was intended both to reveal and to hide.
To those initiated in the practice, the symbolism revealed a world of inner experience. To the uninitiated, the terminology would appear confusing if not meaningless.
Taoist methods of longevity involve powerful procedures of working with the body's internal energy. Without proper guidance from a qualified teacher, the methods can harm the practitioner. In addition, the methods of gathering,
storing, purifying, and circulating internal energy can be abused by people whose minds are not clear of desire. Thus, from its beginnings, the transmission of the techniques of internal alchemy was exclusively through oral tradition. Any written material was considered as supplementary notes. These notes were either insights on existing teachings, new theoretical perspectives,
or developments in methods and techniques.
As the Taoist arts of health and longevity became popular, writings on these topics multiplied. Many of them were written by people whose familiarity with these techniques was limited to hearsay or acquaintance with some of the early,
well-known works of internal alchemy such as the
Unity (Tsan-tung Chi),
Palace Classic (Huang-t'ing Ching),
Emperor's Classic of the Convergence of Yin (Huang-ti Yin-fu
The fascination with internal alchemy and the popularity of the arts of longevity led many writers to use the jargon of esoteric symbolism to gain credibility for their works. This resulted in texts that contain much esoteric terminology and little substance. The degeneration of Taoist internal alchemy was at its worst during the late T'ang dynasty (618–906 CE) and the Era of the Five and Ten Kingdoms (907–960 CE). The fad at the time was to see who could come up with the most esoteric rendition of the Taoist theory and practice.
By the time of the Sung (960–1279 CE) and Ming dynasties, there were strong reactions against esoteric symbolism in Taoist writing. Movement toward a simpler and more direct way of presenting Taoist theory and practice emerged.
Both the Northern and Southern branches of the Complete Reality School and the
Huashan School of Chen Hsi-i attempted to "demythologize" Taoist internal alchemy. The writings from these schools contained less alchemical symbolism. Their approach differed from both the Han dynasty (200 BCE–219
CE) and the T'ang dynasty works. In the Han texts, internal alchemy was almost synonymous with the cultivation of the body (for example, see the
and the writings of Ko Hung). In the T'ang texts there was considerable confusion over what the technical terminology of internal alchemy referred to. However,
in the Sung dynasty, Taoist internal alchemy emphasized the dual cultivation of body and mind, and clearing the mind of desire was increasingly viewed as complementary to the cultivation of physical health.
In the Ch'ing dynasty, textual analysis became a major activity in Chinese literature. It was during this time that many commentaries and critical evaluations of the Taoist texts were written. Some commentaries attempted to
"demystify" the Taoist texts, arguing that the symbolic language was simply gibberish, and that the esoteric language functioned merely to surround
Taoism with an aura of mystery. These commentaries sought to
"psychologize" internal alchemy, asserting that the processes of internal alchemy can be explained as mental phenomena. Others saw meaning in the symbolism, but felt that without clarification by commentaries, the true meaning of the text would remain hidden. These commentators sought to
"demythologize" the texts, but were careful to point out that the commentaries were not meant to be "stand-alone" manuals, and that the reader should seek guidance from a qualified teacher.
was written in the Six Dynasties Era, before alchemical symbolism was abused. This is evident in its scant use of internal alchemy's technical terminology. The author's intention was to show that the spiritual origin of the arts of longevity lay in the philosophy of Lao-tzu. The illustrated commentary that accompanied this edition of
was written after the scholarly reaction against the abuse of alchemical symbolism.
Although the commentary was intended to reveal hidden meanings of alchemical
Taoism, the need to receive proper instruction from a teacher was emphasized throughout the book. In this way,
and its illustrated commentary resembled the spirit of the early teachings of the arts of longevity. The book was meant as a supplement to an oral tradition.
Ideas of Taoist Internal Alchemy
Cosmology and Internal Alchemy
Taoist cosmology and internal alchemy are best illustrated by Chen Hsi-i's
and much of the commentary of
assumes familiarity with this diagram. In particular, the wu-chi diagram served as the basis of ideas on the origin and creation of things discussed in chapters 1, 2,
According to the
Chronicles of Huashan (Huashan chi)
the wu-chi diagram was carved on a cliff face in Huashan, the Grand Mountains of the Shensi province. It is said that the wu-chi diagram was first revealed to a
Taoist hermit known as the Sage of the River who passed it on to Wei Po-yang,
author of the
Li-ch'uan, one of the Eight Immortals, obtained the knowledge of the wu-chi diagram and transmitted it to Lu Tung-pin. Lii lived as a hermit on Huashan and passed the teachings on to Chen Hsi-i. Chen Hsi-i was a Sung dynasty Taoist hermit who resided on Huashan. He was reputed to have originated unique forms of sleeping postures of
the internal martial art form known as
He Pa Pa Ch'uan
Six Harmonies and Eight Methods Form), the celestial divination system
and to have written various treatises on Taoist cosmology and internal alchemy.
The wu-chi diagram describes the Taoist theory of the universe as well as the process of cultivating the internal pill. The internal pill is the culmination of gathering, purifying, and storing of internal energy in the body. It is the seed of the spirit god
and the essence of health and longevity.
The concept of wu-ch'i is uniquely Taoist. Its usage can be traced back to chapter 28
which first mentions "the return to the wu-ch'i." The
also says "enter the Nameless Gate" and "wander in the expanse of wu-chi." Wu-chi is the Taoist conception of the origin or source of all things. On the other hand, the concept of t'ai-chi comes from Confucianism. It was first mentioned in the
Confucianist classic: "from t'ai-chi comes the two opposites."
T'ai-chi is the Confucianist conception of the source of all things.
The wu-chi diagram can be read from the top down or from the bottom up. Read from the top down, the diagram describes the origin of the universe and life. Read from the bottom up it describes the sequence of transformations in internal alchemy.
Taoist origin of the universe and life is expounded by Chu-hsi of the Sung dynasty (960–1279 CE), who combined the Confucianist and Taoist theories of the origin of things. He revised Chou Tuan-i's treatise
and wrote, "From wu-chi comes t'ai-chi. When t'ai-chi moves, it creates yang.
When movement reaches its extreme, stillness emerges. In stillness, yin is born. Thus, movement and stillness follow each other. Yin and yang, stillness and movement, form the force of creation. From yang and yin are created the elements water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. The Five Vapors mutually enrich each other and generate the four seasons. The five elements originate from yin and yang. Yin and yang originate from t'ai-chi and t'ai-chi originates from wu-chi. From the properties of the five elements and the essence of wu-chi emerges generative energy. From the Way of Heaven
male is born. Following the Way of Earth
female is born. The union of ch'ien and k'un gives rise to the ten thousand myriad things. The ten thousand myriad things procreate and contribute to many forms of existence whose origin is wu-chi." This is the description of the origin of things.
Read from the bottom up, the wu-chi diagram describes the process of transformation through internal alchemy, or the return to the Tao. The circle at the bottom is the Mysterious Gate, or the Valley Spirit.
refers to "Emptiness" or "Void." On the physical level the Valley
Spirit lies in the Life Gate
on the spinal column (an area on the spine between the kidneys). The ming-men controls movement of generative energy in the lower
(the area near the navel). On the spiritual level, the Valley Spirit is consciousness emptied of sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
The process of raising energy to the circle above it is known as the Transmutation of Generative Energy into Vapor
During the alchemical process, generative energy, which has form, is purified and transformed into a less tangible form of energy known as vapor. Continuing upward in the diagram, the next process is the Transmutation of Vapor into
Spiritual Energy, or
The mundane breath is transformed into Spiritual Energy. Ling-ch'i is formless and can be channelled to the internal organs and all parts of the body. When the body is filled with this energy, the state is known as the Five Vapors
Gathering at the Origin.
The next stage of the process is illustrated by the concentric circles with interleaving black and white semicircles. This is the early rendition of the t'ai-chi symbol. In this stage,
interact. This is the "immersion of fire in water." The spirit god (
is conceived and born, bringing the alchemical process to completion. This is the wu-chi, the circle at the top, which is the Origin, the Source, or the Tao.
This final stage is known as the cultivation of the spirit god to return to the
1. Wu-Chi 1
2. Wang-Chi 9
3. T'ai-Chi 15
The Three Realms of
Mind (Heart) of Tao
Human Mind (Heart)
Nature of Emotion
10. Nothingness 61
11. Emptiness 67
12. Stillness and Original
16. Waxing and Waning
17. Virtues 105
18. Forgetting the Mind
The Myriad World of
21. Craving and Desire
22. Anxiety and Stress
23. Life and Death
24. Transcendence 151
About the Translator and Fung Loy Kok
Posted October 1, 2010
If you want to further your Taoist training, you should read this book a few times. Eva Wong does a great job brining us this book with her instructor at the time Mr. Moy Lin Shin requesting her to translate this piece for English speakers.
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