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Secrets And Neidan

Janelle Harrison
Religious Studies 178
Professor W. Powell
Due: 2/3/98
Throughout history there has been a great fascination for immortality. The
allure of the secrets of the unknown compels us to retrace the stories or myths
that are embedded in every culture the world over. Literature is laced with these
concepts of eternal life and sometimes it even reveals the secret ways in which it
is believed one can obtain immortality.
The Chinese tradition is one rich in these stories, namely The Taoist religious
tradition. China’s historical annals are filled with different accounts of those
who have obtained the ultimate goal of immortality. And sometimes, not so
clearly though, how to achieve this greatness. The texts are numerous, ranging
in the thousands. The time span of early practices to reach this goal dates back
to 500 BC. (Kuike 213).
In China there have been many different processes by which one has tired (and
it is believed that some have succeeded) to acquire immortality. The process of
neidan, or inner alchemy is just one such method that has been used by the
Chinese culture. Some of the first writings on neidan practices are attributed to
Wei Boyang and date back to the second century AD. during the Han Dynasty-
Hsin interregnum (Robinet 303). But neidan had a much earlier precursor that
was also thought to induce longevity and enhance one’s chances of immortal
life: waidan. This is alchemy in its outer form and dates back to the Warring
States Period which is about 480 to 221 BC. (Kuike 213). Waidan (outer
alchemy), which is also called practical or even proto-chemical alchemy, deals
with tangible substances such as lead, mercury, and cinnabar to from elixirs of
life (213). These two forms of alchemy, according to Needham must be firmly
distinguished in order to understand the process of neidan (Needham 142). But
just as the yin and yang contain within each it’s opposite and complement each
other in the form of the taiji, neidan and waidan must also do the same. The two
processes function together in a harmonious dualism of celestial and terrestrial;
fa shen and se shen; and together are the processes of jen (mind and body)
(Needham 160).

If one first examines the functions and procedures of waidan, the process of
neidan will be much more intelligible. This is because the terminology and
processes practically run parallel to one another- if not within each other. Thus,
a short summary of waidan practices will lay the foundation for our discussion
of neidan; the practice of inner alchemy. And, the fundamentals of the Yijing
(Book of Changes) will also serve as a guide to understanding both processes.
The ancient Chinese alchemist wanted to accomplish three different goals. The
first, was that of “subjecting metals and other minerals to proto-chemical
processes with the aim of discovering an elixir of life” (Kuike 214). The second
and third fields of this form of alchemy dealt with the “production of artificial
gold and silver” and “pharmaceutical-botanical researches for macrobiotic
plants” (214).
The Chinese notions of alchemy are very similar to the Aristotelian four-element
theory of Western alchemy, but it is not believed that either one directly
influenced the other (Ho 140). The Chinese were practicing practical alchemy in
the East while in the West the foundations were just taking root. It would not be
until the 12th century AD that the West would begin to practice material and
spiritual alchemy similar to the Chinese methods used in the second century BC
(the Western alchemist believed through the process of transforming base
metals into gold the soul would transform into its perfect spiritual state) (Wulff
441). Needham notes that neidan should not be analogized with the spiritual
alchemy of the West. Mainly because as he states “[neidan] was physiological
through and through” (Needham 142). Perhaps here, Needham is closing the
door on similarities between Eastern and Western alchemical practices? Both
were trying to transform base metal into gold and through this process they
were trying to obtain a purified state of being. For the Chinese it was
immortality; for the Europeans is was spirituality. But in the end, Chinese
alchemy more closely resembles Arabic alchemy rather than European. The
Europeans were not trying to create an elixir of life that was to be drank; the
Chinese and the Arabic’s were (Kuike 227).
The Chinese used two different methods of practical alchemy. The process of
pyrogenics seems to be the closes in description to neidan. Through the process
of heating, fusing (rong), and subduing the toxicity (fu) the transformation of
cinnabar occurs. Below is an excerpt of the pyrogenic method which states:
The first thing studied by Chinese alchemist was dansha, or cinnabar, a bright
red mercuric sulphide. Alchemist tried the pyrogenic methods. They found that
when heated, cinnabar decomposes into sulphur dioxide and mercury. The latter
combines directly with sulphur to form mercuric sulphides again, usually the
black metacinnabar, which can be sublimed into its original state, the bright red
cinnabar, when once more heated (215).

This is the same notion found in the transformation process of neidan. The
process of reversal is being used to transform to the original state. The body in
this case (neidan) is the reaction vessel. In waidan the reaction vessel is a
contraption that was specially designed for this laboratory practices. They
usually used a tripod cauldron and a furnace. Continuing on:
…It [mercury] could be pyrogenated over and over again into huandan, cyclically
transformed regenerative elixir, which was also called shendan (the “miraculous
elixir”). “ The miraculous elixir not only ensures longevity, but it also capable of
turning other substances into gold,” (215)

Here is another of mans feeble attempts (or is it?) to obtain the immortality and
riches that most men would kill to obtain. And of course, this process could only
be accessible to the most elite of the elite, such as the Emperor Wu Di of the
Han Dynasty who reigned 140-87 BC (213).
At this point we are dealing purely with an early form of chemistry and it may be
difficult to see the relevance of it in relationship to the Taoist practice of
neidan-which is a religious tradition. But the symbiotic relationship between the
sciences and religious aspects of Chinese culture is a main focal point in this
discussion. And just as the yang must have the yin; neidan must have waidan.
And waidan, by the 8th century had slowly faded out of popularity. Probably due
to the vast number of elixir poisonings. Ho Peng Yoke describes this as the end
of waidan (at least as it was formerly known; non-ambiguous, yet ambiguous)
and he says “an obscure style was once more adopted and ‘hidden names’ were
used in order to keep the art exclusively to the profession and to discourage the
uninitiated” (192).
But waidan seemed to continue for at least three more centuries until the reign
of Emperor Xianzong (1251-59) who brought about the burning of the Taoist
Patrology (Ho 210). Thus, if the practice of waidan continued it was in the
hidden rooms of those who understood the obscure language. Perhaps by the
one’s who knew the secrets? In the darkness of their hidden laboratories these
alchemist were forced into suppression, but maybe they continued to try and
find the key to immortal life and endless riches.

The birth of neidan practices can be traced back to the second century AD. Wei
Boyang is considered to be one of the first to textualize this practice in the
Zhouyi Cantongqi (“Contributions” 303). But its origins of terminology date back
much farther. This has been shown in the brief discussion of waidan. Though
the language has been in Taoist writings since at least the 4th century where
inner alchemical terminology is first found apparent in the Huang-t’ing ching
“Scripture of The Yellow Court” (“Yellow” 55). The Huang-t’ing ching was
transmitted to a Taoist adept named Lady Wei who in turn founded the Great
Purity movement (55). The significance of the Huang-t’ing ching to inner
alchemy is that within it are the beginnings for Taoist alchemical language and,
the differentiation between neidan and waidan is developing. Although, at this
point those terms are not being used. Within two distinctly separate scriptures
there is found one which is esoteric (nei) or inner, and the other is exoteric (wai)
or outer. Robinet, in her discussion on this subject introduces an argument from
another scholar

Kaltenmark’s suggestion that the wai-ching was a text reserved for non-
initiates. This, in fact, seems to be confirmed by an explanation of the
expression nei-ching (the “inner” light; which is an expression that appears in
the complete title of the scripture): ‘nei-ching concerns secret and intimate
matters of the heart. One should certainly not communicate these matters to
others’” (“Yellow” 56).

The point here, which has been suggested throughout these analysis is that
there is a clear distinction between the inner and the outer subject matter. This
however, does not refute my earlier proposal that the two have a dualistic,
interdependence upon each other. Kaltenmark’s statement is saying the exact
same thing about the nei scripture as Ho’s statement was saying about the
waidan text. In this case the wai scripture is being scrutinized. Also,
Kaltenmark’s statement is not talking about waidan per se, but wai-ching, or
“outer” light.
The Book of the Yellow Court begins to outline the methods that will come to be
used later on in the Taoist practice of inner alchemy. The emphasis at this point
is the texts contributions of the five viscera and how they relate to the five
Agents (these are basic principles set forth in the Yijing). Before further
discussion of the five viscera and their intimate relationship they have with the
rest of the symbols attributed to the xing and the process of inner alchemy it
should be noted that according to Tao Hung-ching “The Scripture of The Yellow
Court” was written to appease the souls (hun and p’o). It was also written to
“harmonize the viscera (“Yellow” 63). It was not a way to ensure immortality and
at most can “only confer longevity” (63). This is why The Hung-t’ing ching is not
considered a text containing neidan practices, but only a guide for meditation
Neidan is a practice that draws from several different religious traditions in the
Chinese culture; Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (though it is a Taoist
practice). It incorporates ideas from each and builds a structure for one to use in
practice to reach immortality (physical, but in some cases celestial). Depending
on the school of thought, place in time, geographical location, and modern
translation a person can encounter a variety of theories about exactly how to
practice inner alchemy. That is because the whole process is filled with symbolic
metaphors that intertwine to mean the same thing in different contexts. Even
the earliest of Chinese philosophers believed that the symbolism of the Yijing
could be taken too far. A verse written by an early Han scholar notes
‘The horse is connected with the wu (Fire), and the rat with zi (Water). If Water
conquers Fire, rats normally chase horses…’ (Ho 20)

This process is relevant to the order of mutual Conquest, a main concept in the
process of neidan. Another concept that is the basis for the process of reversal
is the order of Mutual Production. Both are found in the Yijing and depending on
the order of the five xing (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water) the out come is
different. One has a fragmented effect within the body (Conquers) the other
(Production) leads to the primordial heavenly state (Tzu-yang 5). And today
some Taoist adepts say “Chinese alchemical texts are not unified into a system;
without extensive study and through investigation, it is hard to understand
them” (Tzu-yang 2). Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish the process of general
meditation and gymnastic practices from neidan practices. What distinguishes
them from neidan is the goal. Meditation and gymnastics are usually thought of
as ways to achieve better health and even longevity, but not immortality. Neidan
was a practice that was used as a way of assimilating immortality into one’s own
life and thus become a hsien (immortal).
The process itself begins with the basic Chinese concept of the five xing
(Agents): Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Then builds a complex structure
of symbols which, relate to different techniques found in the neidan practice.
Further inspection of the five xing in relationship to the five viscera (liver, heart,
spleen, lungs, and kidneys) reveal the symbolic processes of the inner elixir. The
process begins in the lower reign that is usually called the lower cinnabar field.
By this time, the metaphors used by inner alchemist have changed into a
language familiar to us through the practice of waidan. There is now the
cauldron and the furnace, lead and mercury. These are all chemical terminology.
Through the process of circulating qi (breath) through the body to transform it
into ching (essence) the process of neidan has begun. “When qi is descending it
is transformed into ching” and “when ching rises it is transformed into qi”
(“Yellow”85-115). Because our bodies are intimately related to the entire
universe; to the heavenly yang and the earthly yin, one will rise as the other
There are three main areas (cinnabar fields) within the body that the qi must
circulate through before it transmutes. Wile speaks of these in The Art Of The
Bedchamber. He notes:

Among the most important centers and circuits for mental focus and qi
circulation developed in the meditation tradition are the “elixir fields” (tan-t’ien),
“Yellow court” (huang-t’ing), “three passes” (San-kuan), “nine palaces” (chiu-
kuung) and “nine orifices” (chiu-ch’iao)….When the mind is directed to the tan-
t’ien and the diaphragm relaxed, there is a sensation of centering and fullness
of qi in the lower abdomen…Of the more than fifty alternate names for the
‘middle tan-t’ien” perhaps the most famous is the “yellow court” (huang-t’ing),
located just below the spleen in the very center of the abdominal organs, which
in inner alchemy is considered the womb of the “holy fetus” (Wile 37).

Here, the tan-t’ien is the focal point within the human body. The “yellow court”
is believed to be in the lower cinnabar field were the kidneys are and this is
where the circulation of qi begins. But is this not just meditative language? The
metaphoric elixir fields are key areas, which must be used in the process of
Diverging for a moment from the process of neidan it should be noted that for a
practical alchemist to prefect the pyrogenation of cinnabar and obtain the
“ninefold cyclically transformed elixir” he had to practice it over and over again
until it became second nature to him (Kuike 215). Of course, this is the same
idea in the practice of inner alchemy as well. Familiarity and knowledge of the
trigrams, hexagrams, viscera, and xing and their positions within the body were
In a further explanation of the process of reversal (neidan) Huan Tan Pi Yao Lun

What can one say about the huan tan? It is the Tao [way] or reversion to the
original state, the Tao of regeneration of the primary vitality (fan pen, huan
yuan). All human life has an endowment coming from the semen of the father
and blood of the mother. The child at the time of its birth (possesses) the
primary ching [essence], the primary chhi [vital breath], and the primary shen
[spirit]- all in a state of perfect purity (shun chhuan). (Needham 46).

The child is born with what are called the “pre-natal endowments” or sometimes
they are referred to as the state of anterior heaven. These endowments are the
primary vitalities. Through time these vitalities deteriorate and it is through the
process of reversion that a person strengthens them, The passage continues:

Now what is this reversion (fan)? It is a renovation of these three things, contrary
(ni hsing) to the normal course of aging). What is regeneration (huan)? It is to
bring about replenishment (fu) of the three primary endowments. To make these
three vitality’s perfect and primary (as they were at the beginning of life).

This is what is considered neidan, or inner alchemy. Needham in his article

created his own terms for this process because the true meaning seemed to get
lost in the translation into the English language.
I would like to point out at this point that Needham also stressed that when a
Taoist alchemist practiced neidan, this was strictly for physical immortality.
When they practiced waidan methods it was for spiritual immortality. Later
schools of Taoist practice may refute this assumption (such as the Complete
Reality School). He also notes (and this I will confer) that understanding the
language being used in the process is extremely important because “every term
could be explained by another on the same or different level of analysis” (49).
That is because the five xing have multiple meanings. Water is a xing. The
viscera for Water is the kidneys. It is a yin, and represents lead. It is associated
with winter, north, the color black, bones and ears. The numbers six and one
are attributed to Water (Ho 22). In fact, the process to determine which of the
different levels is being spoken of is clearly undefined to anyone who is not
fluent in the understanding of the relationship between each of the symbols
attributed to each of the viscera within the body (an even then it is difficult).
More importantly however, is that the process of inner alchemy seems to be
broken into three major phases of development (“Contributions” 300). Each
phase is represented by different symbols associated with the xing and each
phase represents a higher level of consciousness until the final level where one
joins the Tao (301).
The idea of different levels can be found in many neidan Taoist traditions
(though they may not always be clearly divided). One school of thought founded
on the writings of Chaung Po-tuan (Tzu-yang) who was thought to have
mastered inner alchemy was one of them. He was taught the Tao by LiuTs’ao
Who learned his secrets from Chung-li Ch’uan and Lu Tung-pin. Po-tuan book

The way to shed birth and death is the way of learning immortality. But there are
numerous classes of immortals. Those who comprehend essence and project
the yin soul are ghost immortals. Those who understand life and keep their
bodies in the world are earthly immortals. Those who understand both essence
and life, who have bodies outside their bodies, who are both physically and
mentally sublimated and who join the Tao and merge with reality are celestial
immortals (Tzu-yang 29).

The above is an explanation of Chaung Tzu-yang’s verse that can be found in

Understanding Reality (Wu Chen P’ien). Tzu-yang’s scripture explains how to
achieve the celestial immortality and he says the only way to do this is through
the “Golden elixir”. I-Ming translates the Golden elixir as “the primordial energy
of life; also referred to as a combination of innate capacity and innate
knowledge” (196).
But this “Golden elixir” could also be viewed in literal terms, which is why
practical alchemist have tried to create “miraculous elixir’s” through the process
of waidan. Below is a poem written by Lu You, an administrator during the
Southern Song Dynasty. He was using the process of neidan and waidan to try
and obtain immortal life.
A Lyric Sung to the Tune of Haoshijin
Waving my sleeves, to the worldly people I bid goodbye;
Steep precipices against a green mountain wall I climb.
Soon, a treasured thing, an old elixir stove, I decry-
But presently white clouds gather around;
My mind is claim as pool water on a windless day.
For several thousand breaths I sit without a sound
Then, at midnight, suddenly, with worldly cares quite far away,
With purest thoughts, I become aware of a wondrous sight-
The sun rising, and over the huge waves an ocean of light

Not only is this a beautiful poem, but as Ho points out, the line “ For several
thousand breaths I sit without a sound” may refer to You Practicing neidan
meditation and breathing techniques, but he was also trying to make the
“miraculous elixir” of waidan (198).

In the Chinese culture, and in the Taoist tradition as well, The Book of Changes
(Yijing) has been a fundamental aspect to many of their belief systems. One of
the first principles the system of the Yijng begins with is the taiji (yin/yang
symbol) which divides into two. The yin is female and the yang is male. If you
combine the two lines yin - - and yang – into every possible arrangement you
end up with four symbols (sixang) (Ho 34). These four symbols are the taiyin
and shaoyang (which are yin dominant); the shaoyin and the taiyang (yang
dominant). Again, by taking each one of these four and combining them in every
possible combination the eight trigrams are formed (35). The eight trigrams are:
kun, gen, kan, sun (yin dominant); zhen, li, dui, and qain (yang dominant).
These eight trigrams then multiply into 64 hexagrams.
For the practice of neidan, the two main trigrams are the Li (yang dominant with
one yin line between two yang) and the Kan (yin dominant with one yang
between two yin) (“Contributions” 314). The process of reversal begins when Li
(True lead) and Kan (True mercury) begin to “permeate and cross each other”
and try to reunite. Robinet explains it in the passage below:
The central lines of the trigrams, within the human heart, are its active aspects:
the original Yang that forever precedes the formation of Heaven and Earth, that
from below eternally wills to ascend to Heaven, to the head within human
begins; and the original Yin the from high above strives to descend to lower
regions. Following the principle of joining and coupling described above,
without which nothing can be born from a binary system, the alchemist must
unite these two in the center [tan-t’ien] (the center is where the union takes
place). That is to say, the alchemist renews the union and renders it newly
manifest: this is the first germ of immortality (314).

The beginning process of neidan is being explained. The reason for the yin
“higher above” is that it is the one line within the Li trigram that is placed in the
South which, corresponds to the head of the body. It wants to descend to the
North (which is in the lower reign of the body) to the Kan trigram that contains
in the middle the one yang line. As the yin descends and yang rises they
intertwine creating the original union of yin and yang before the rest of the cycle
continues. Once the two have achieved this the Kun (three yin lines) and the
Qain (three yang lines) are in their original state (316).
The hexagrams are just as important in the neidan practice and the process of
rising and descending yang and yin also takes place. The two hexagrams which
go through the process are the Fu (one yang at the bottom of five yin) and the
Gou (one yin line at the bottom of five yang) (Ho 35-41).
Here the process of neidan has been shown in terms which, the Chinese believe
to be the basis for the entire universe. Our body as a microcosm reflects the
universe as a macrocosm. Each of the eight trigrams is associated with a
different xing. Kun is associated with the xing Earth, the viscera spleen, the
color yellow, thought, mouth, flesh, and the numbers five and ten.
The complex system of the Yijing was used in numerology and astrology by the
Chinese culture. But it was also a basis for the process of neidan in the Taoist

The process of neidan in the Taoist tradition has been one rich in literature.
Over the years there have been a variety of stories and myths, scriptures and
poems telling the way one can achieve immortal life. The language used has
always been full of symbols and ambiguous. There is an over lap of language
between the process of neidan and waidan and they both are build on the
principles found in the Yijing . To some both processes must be used to obtain
the immortality they wish for (who doesn’t want to be a hsien (immortal)?).
Not only does certain Taoist traditions practice neidan, but they also choose to
use different methods. For some, it is a balance between meditation,
gymnastics, and sexual yoga. For others it is the former two with celibacy.
Others choose only one method. But what ever method he or she has chosen,
the idea behind each one is similar. To retain the ching (essence) and to
circulate the qi (breath) within the body so that one can return to the original
state of pre-natal endowment and accomplish their goal of endless life. Perhaps
today there are some who still believe physical immortality is possible and in the
darkness of their hidden laboratories, or deep within their own bodies and
minds they practice the techniques that for centuries has been believed to do
this. Perhaps they are the one’s that know the true secrets of neidan?

Chang Po Tuan (Tzu-yang). Understanding Reality: A Taoist Alchemical Classic.
University of Hawaii Press, 1987.
Ho Peng Yoke. An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China. Hong Kong
UP, 1985
Needham, J. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 5. William Powell, Religious
Studies 178 “Reader” 139-187.
Liu Ta’un-Yan. “Taoist Self-Cultivation in Ming Thought”. Self And Society in
Ming Thought. Ed Wm. Theodore de Bary. New York: Columbia UP, 1970.
Robinet, I. “The Book Of The Yellow Court”. William Powell, Religious Studies
178, “Reader” 99-120.
______ “Original Contributions Of Neidan to Taoism and Chinese Thought”.
William Powell, Religious Studies 178, “Reader” 209-225.
Wang Kuike. “Alchemy in Ancient China”. Ancient China’s Technology and
Science. China: Foreign Languages Press.
Wile, D. Art Of The Bebchamber. William Powell, Religious Studies 178 “Reader”
Wulff, D. Psychology of Religion Classic and Contemporary. 2nd ed. New York:
John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1997.