Daoist Alchemy

Get a quick understanding of Daoist Alchemy


Chinese alchemy is basically an offshoot of Daoist alchemy. The main alchemy texts in China came from the Daoist Canon (Daozang).

There are two main branches of Daoist alchemy, internal and external.

External alchemy (waidan) is concerned with producing an elixir from physical substances. Internal alchemy (neidan) is concerned with producing an elixir (a mental state or knowledge) within an individual.

  1. External alchemy (waidan)
    • Period: Tang dynasty and earlier
      • Most influencial: Chen Shaowei (8th century)
      • Texts:
        • Huangdi jiuding shendan jing (Book of the Nine Elixirs)
        • Baopu zi neipian
  2. Internal alchemy (neidan)
    • Period: Tang dynasty
      • Popularized by Shangqing (Supreme Purity) sect.
      • Text: Huangting jing (Book of the Yellow Court).
    • Period: Song and Yuan dynasty
      • Southern Lineage (nanzong)
        • Started by Zhang Boduan (11th century)
        • Texts:
          • Zhouyi cantong qi (Token for the Agreement of the Three in Accordance with the Book of Changes.
          • Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality)
      • Northern Lineage (beizong)
        • Started by Wang Chongyang (12th century)
    • Period: Ming and Qing dynasty
      • Most influencial: Liu Yiming (18th century)

In the Daoist cosmos, the primal Unity split into two complementary principles called yin and yang. Yin and Yang recombined to produce the cosmos that we have today. The purpose of alchemy is to work backwards and reveal the makeup of the cosmos.

The cosmos has two main features, space and time. The alchemist works in their limits and tries to transcend them. To transcend space, the alchemist must work in a chamber of elixirs (danwu) where the instruments are specially oriented, and protected by talismans (fu). To transcend time, cycles of heating must be perfectly calibrated so that the same work taking Nature thousands of years to accomplish is duplicated in a short period of time. This allows the alchemist to access timelessness (immortality).

There are two main representations for yin and yang...
  1. External alchemy only.
    • Yin: mercury extracted from cinnabar
    • Yang: sulphur
  2. External and internal alchemy.
    • Yin: lead
      • lead=knowledge of Dao in internal alchemy
    • Yang: mercury
      • mercury=mind of individual in internal alchemy
In the first representation, the mercury is applied to sulphur nine times to yield Pure Yang (chunyang), a representation of the One before separation into yin and yang.

In the second representation, the lead is applied to mercury to obtain the compound representing Oneness for external alchemy. For internal alchemy, lead represents knowledge of Dao, while mercury represents the individual mind. Dao is Pure Yang but is yin in the conditioned state.

The main goal of Daoist alchemy is the "Elixir of Return" (huandan) which is sometimes called the Golden Elixir. For external alchemy, the final product is a representation of the Oneness, which is sometimes ingested. In internal alchemy, lead (a representation of the knowledge of Dao) is the final product.

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