The Daoist practice of Alchemy
In the Daoist tradition, there is a heavy focus on looking within and refining the natural and tangible energies of the body. The ultimate goal of this practice is to discover the inner source or essence, also known as jing, which means “unattached structive energy.” An important part of Daoism is realizing that all one needs to align with Dao, or The Way (of nature) is already contained within. With proper cultivation, a studious “adept” may be able to access these primordial essences and possibly achieve immortality. There is a distinction between “external” alchemy, (waidan) a process of concocting an “elixir” (medicine) to be ingested, and “inner” alchemy, (neidan) a method of transforming or refining oneself spiritually. External alchemy, though now a disregarded process, had great importance on the progress of science and even, notably, led to the invention of gunpowder. However, the concept remains in use as a model of purification to be used through spiritual practice in inner alchemy. Though separate in form and practice, inner and external alchemy are extremely important, not only in a historical context, but also has vast cultural and scientific significance.
Alchemy has its origins in a man named Wei Boyang, a legendary Han immortal, who supposedly wrote The Zhouyi cantong qi, (“The Kinship of the Three”) the main alchemical scriptural text. The work is a poetical text that concerns the “Dao and its relation to the cosmos, explicated by means of a wide array of alchemical, cosmological and other emblems” (Pregadio, 32). The actual text itself does not include specific alchemical references or instructions on constructing elixirs, but is more of a conceptual and allegorical structuring of the ways of the cosmos. From these texts sprung a variety of commentary and supplemental texts which further outline and instruct in the ways of inner and external alchemy. Wei Poyang is fabled to have been an example of the alchemist tradition perfected. In the Story of the White Dog, his attainment of immorality is described: One morning when Wei Boyang went into the mountains to make a divine elixir, he took with him three disciples and a white dog. When the elixir was completed, he fed some of it to the dog, which died. Then he himself (Wei) ingested some, and he died too. One of his disciples, surnamed Yu, having faith in his teacher, ate some, and he, too expired…After several hours Wei arose having already taken the completed elixir prior to leaving his home. He administered the real elixir to his dog and disciple and, having revived them, departed. (Chin, 2) This story is related by Ge Hong, another prominent alchemist, who lived more than a century after Wei Poyang and is the best source of information regarding him.
Ge Hong is also considered an important figure in regard to alchemy; he is responsible for providing the actual alchemical instruction that Wei Boyang’s contribution to the practice lacked. Hong was also a prominent physician and scholar, and some of his medical remedies are still used today, including effectual treatments for malaria and congestion (Chin, 3). His texts, Shen Kian Zhuan (Traditions of Divine Transcendents) and the Baopuzi Neipian (Inner Chapters of the Master who Embraces Simplicity) are in specific regard to achieving immorality on earth; the greatest objective of Daoism. Both internal and external alchemy are included. To gain this highly sought goal, “one would first need to produce liquid gold that be ingested”. Ingesting this gold was considered to be equivalent to ingesting “the stability of the heavens themselves” (Chin, 3). But Hong did not exclude alternatives for a path to immortality, but instead embraced variety, open-mindedness, and true investigation as a real means of obtaining truth: “Those who understand the method of breathing exercises will say that only the permeation of qi...