Alternative MethodsConventional Methods

March 29

Neidan, the Traditional Meditative Practice

Jonathan Bates
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 13 min.

The traditional meditative practice consists of an array of terminology, breathing, concentration, and visualization techniques: xinzhai 心齋, or “fasting the heart,” zuowang 坐忘, or “sitting and forgetting,” cunsi 存思, or “focusing and observing,” shouyi 守一, or “concentrating on one,” xingqi 行氣, or “circulating qi,” fuqi 服氣, or “consuming qi,” taixi 胎息, or “fetus breathing,” tunai 吐納, or “expelling the old breath and drawing the new,” zhiguan 止觀, or “still at the active mind and reflecting,” zuochan 坐禪, or “sitting meditation,” neidan 內丹, or “the inner alchemy.” Among these most commonly appeared terms in the Classics of meditative practice, neidan is the representative practice. However, the term neidan should not be confused with the term neigong 內功, which is a rather vernacular term, for all “internally accumulated works,” especially referring to the practices of internal martial arts.

The Objective of Inner alchemy

In China as elsewhere, Alchemy is a doctrine aiming to endeavor an understanding of the principles underlying the formation and functioning of the cosmos. The Inner Alchemy, Isabelle Robinet remarks, “is a method of finding illumination by returning to the fundamental order of the cosmos.” (Robinet, 299) The term neidan, or “inner alchemy,” is used in contrast to the term waidan 外丹, or “outer alchemy.” In other words, neidan is the “human physiological alchemy” in contrast to waidan the “proto-chemical alchemy.”

While Alchemy creates the production of a specific substance of elixir through the chemical process in a laboratory setting, the Inner Alchemy pursues an inner elixir, or an internal “substance of qi” through controlling mind, breath, and body posture in the human body in order to prolong life, thus, man can transcend time and space. As Fabrizio Pregadio comments, the alchemist rises through the hierarchy of the constituents of being by accelerating the rhythms of Nature. Bringing time to its end, or tracing it back to its beginning, is equivalent. In either case time is transcended, and the alchemist gains access to timelessness, or “immortality.” (Pregadio, 2 Doctrines) One becomes what Zhuangzi calls a zhenren 真人 or True Man.

Most Taoist and Buddhist scholars argue that Inner Alchemy was thoroughly influenced by Buddhist thought, namely the Buddhist intellectual speculations, such as “being” and “non-being.” It is, in fact, completely Taoist reaction to Buddhism, while the nature of Buddhist awakening differs from that of the Taoist. The great Chinese Buddhist Adept Daoan 道安 (314-385) wrote: “The Buddhist teaching sees the emptiness of life, thus abandoning the body to liberate all sentient beings. The Taoist teaching sees the body as the ultimate, thus cultivating food and medicine for longevity.” (Daoan, T.52, 2103: 39a8.) Ultimately, Buddhism aims at absolute spiritual awakening, but Taoism pursues awakening through longevity.

Therefore, Inner Alchemy is a technique of enlightenment, not much a doctrine but a practice achieved by exercising the techniques of longevity. Taoist inner alchemists make it very clear that their ideas are different from the notions of Chan/Zen Buddhists. According to Taoist inner alchemists, Chan/Zen Buddhists only dwell on xing 性, or the original nature in its pristine purity, which they wish to attain in an intuitive and immediate vision. They neglect ming 命, or fate, life, which represent the resistance of corporality and gravity within human beings. Only when xing and ming are combined, they join in the “non-action which is the action.” According the Classics of Inner Alchemy, Robinet describes, without ming, xing will forever be stuck in inactive emptiness; without xing, ming will never attain perfect non-action. (Robinet, 323)

In addition to the philosophical synthesis of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, Inner Alchemy primarily concerns the mind as much as the body. It adopts and integrates most importantly the heritage of: breathing and gymnastic practices transmitted beyond the times of Laozi and Zhuangzi, the visualization techniques of Taoist Shangqing school; the vocabulary of the Chinese proto-chemical efforts; the systematic cosmology and structural analogies provided by the School of Yin-yang and the Five Agents Theory; and I Ching and Chinese medicine. This integration is finally carried out by a spiritual-poetic tradition, which is what to be called the literati tradition.

The Symbolic Language of Inner Alchemy

Inner Alchemy uses two apparently contradictory systems in order to provide different and yet complimentary visions of the world by its symbolic language. On one hand is the binary system based on division—one—two—four—eight—all multiplicity of entire Being; on the other is the process of emanation and a dialectical pattern—one—two—three—all multiplicity of entire Being. Both the systems of intimate relations are superimposed by a principle fundamental to the scheme of the Five Agents.

The order of cosmos is represented by the union of two aspects of original Unity, Taiji 太極, or the Great Ultimate, which is the manifestation of Hundun 混沌, or the Original Chaos, or the Tao 道. Taiji corresponds to the two original principles of Yin and Yang in all multiplicity of entire Being. The binary system can be seen as the models of substance (ti 體), or noumenon (li 理), whereas the process of emanation can be seen as function (yong 用), or phenomenon (shi 事). The Yin and Yang division epitomizes Heaven and Earth, Dragon and Tiger, and Water and Fire, which are associated with the four primary trigrams of I Ching in the alchemical operation: qian 乾 ☰ pure Yang, kun 坤 ☷ pure Yin, li 離 ☲ Yang encompassing Yin; and kan 坎 ☵ Yin encompassing Yang. Qian and Kun, Li and Kan are, in cosmological terms, Heaven and Earth, above and below, the Sun and the moon, the left and the right; in alchemical terms, the Furnace and the Cauldron, Mercury and Lead and Dragon and Tiger as the basic ingredients; in human terms, body and spirit, heart and kidneys.

The process of emanation is based on Laozi’s cosmogony: “Tao gives birth to one. One gives birth to two. Two gives birth to three. Three gives birth to ten thousand things.” In alchemical terms, Tao is xu 虛, or the void, the void emanates shen 神, or spirit, the spirit emanates qi, the qi emanates jing 精, or essence, the essence emanates xing 形, or body, the body emanates ren 人, or human. In order to gain longevity, or to access to timelessness, inner alchemist has to rise through the hierarchy of the constituents of being by reversing the rhythms of Nature, tracking time to its beginning. Thus, alchemical process aims at bringing three to two, two to one, and one to void. When one returns to the void of Tao, the ultimate enlightenment is attained.

Three Structural Ideas of Inner Alchemical Practice

There are three essentially structural ideas borrowed from waidan 外丹, or “proto-chemical alchemy” operation to Inner Alchemical process: yaowu 藥物; or the medical ingredients, dinglu 鼎爐, or the furnace and the cauldron; huohou 火候, or the fire time.

Yaowu or the Medical Ingredients, three substances make the ingredients, jing 精, or essence, fluid, body; qi 氣, or breath, energy; shen 神, or spirit.

The first ingredient jing divides into two categories of the original and the derived: the original jing is given by one’s birth parents, and is stored in the viscera, whereas the derived jing is given by consuming nutrients from food. The original jing and the derived jing merged and understood by the practitioners as human body fluids, such as semen, egg, sexual fluids, saliva, other body secretions, hormones and glands, namely the subtle bodies of human body. Jing was given many symbolic or hidden names, among the most common ones: kan 坎, geng 庚, or the seventh of the heavenly stems, metal, si 四, jiu 九, or 4 and 9 represent the magnetic west, and the tiger, according to Hetu 河圖, or the River Chart, zhenqian 真鉛, or the true lead, baixue 白雪, or the white snow, jinye 金液, or the golden liquid, shuihu 水虎, or the water tiger, beifangheche 北方河車, or the northern river chariot, kanwuyuejing 坎戊月精, or the essence of moon at kan position (north) of Bagua, and wu, the fifth of the heavenly stems, earth.

The second ingredient qi also divides into two types; the original, and the derived: the original qi is called yuan qi 元氣, or primal qi existing since the beginning of the universe, while the derived qi is from the breathing, and the qi of water and food. When the original and the derived merge, zhenqi 真氣, or the true qi is formed. This qi ought to be understood as “configured qi,” and more subtle and essential for life than that of jing.

The third ingredient shen, or spirit is quite distant from its religious or philosophical definitions. It covers both of the activities of mind/consciousness and the functions of nerve system. The former is described as shishen 識神, or the spirit of knowing, the conscious activities and thinking process, developed in life and learning. The latter is called yuanshen 元神, or the original spirit, the unconscious functions of nerve system, the survival nature such as breath and heart beat. In the inner alchemical process, only the original spirit is considered as the ingredient. Again among countless given names, the following are commonly used: li 離, jia 甲, or the first of the heavenly stems, san 三, ba 八, or 3 and 8 represent the magnetic east, and the dragon, according to Hetu 河圖, or the River Chart, zhengong 真汞, or the true mercury, huangya 黃芽, or the yellow sprout, yuye 玉液, or the jade liquid, huolong 火龍, or the fire dragon, taiyangliuzhu 太陽流珠, or the flowing pearl from the sun, lijiriguang 離己日光, or the sunlight at li position (south) of Bagua and ji, the sixth of the heavenly stems, earth.

Dinglu, or the cauldron and the furnace, are the “range and vessel” in the inner alchemical process, which represent certain parts/locations in human body functioning as that in Alchemy. Most of the inner alchemical classics depict that the furnace and cauldron locate in the areas of dantian 丹田, or the cinnabar fields. The earliest cogent descriptions on the idea of dantian made by Ge Hong 葛洪 (283-363): “The Ultimate One (Tao) has names and demeanors. It is nine-tenths of an inch tall in man, and six-tenths of an inch in woman. It resides at two and four-tenths of inches below the navel in the lower dantian, or below the heart at jianggong 絳宮, and jinque 金闕, in the middle dantian, or between the eye brow in the depths (of the skull): the location of the first of the inch named mingtang 明堂; the location of the second of the inch named tongfang 洞房; and the location of the third of the inch named upper dantian. These names and locations are so crucial for Taoists, which only have been transmitted orally to those who have taken the “blood-oaths” generation after generation.” (Wang, 323)

Then again, very few texts articulate which, or where exactly the inner furnace and cauldron allocated among the three dantian, or cinnabar fields. In 1988, the Taoist scholar and inner alchemist Zhao Songfei 趙松飛 decoded and interpreted The Heart Transmission of Heavenly Immortal’s Gold Elixir for the first time, which is one of the few exposed and detailed Inner Alchemical manuals. According to Zhao’s studies, the position of the inner furnace and cauldron is located at shenque 神闕, inside of the body behind the navel area, which is near or above the lower cinnabar field. (Zhao, 242)

Huohou, or the fire time, is a technical term borrowed from waidan, which concerns regulating temperature and time of the furnace in Alchemical operation. Interacting of yin and yang, namely, interchanging the hexagrams of I Ching, represents this operation. Alchemical operation is also associated not only with the phases of the moon, but also with the cyclical signs of traditional Chinese time calculation—the heavenly stems and earthly branches signifying the hours, the days, and months—and with the rhythm of the seasons. These multi-correspondences are assigned with the Five Agents in their male and female aspects.

In the process of Inner alchemy, yi 意 and nian 念, or the intent and focus are the source of fire, breathing is the wind, or the source of oxygen. In other words, by means of intent and focus to regulate breathing patterns in order to manipulate, increase or decrease, time and level of functions of the subtle bodies (bodily fluids, hormones, and secretions of glands etc.) is the inner alchemical firing time.

There has been very little written on the technique of fire time. Even these received texts on the subject often are written in highly symbolic and hidden terms. For instance, Sanbai liushi zhoutian huohou 三百六十周天火候, or “the three hundred sixty orbit fire time,” Miaoyou zhoutian 卯酉周天, or “the mao you orbit,” mao is the fourth of the earthly branches, while you is the tenth. Because of the complexity and subtlety of the practice, the technique of fire time is transmitted to the student only orally under an adept/master’s careful supervision. As the Inner Alchemical classic Central Directions states: “Since the sage only transmits the ingredients not the fire, and there are very few who know the fire time.” (Fang, 717)

Four Stages of Inner Alchemical Practice

Theoretically, the inner alchemical process aims at tracing time to its beginning, and accessing to timelessness. In practice, the objective is to bring Three to Two, Two to One, and One to Void. In other words, utilizing jing (the essence of body), qi (breath), and shen (the spirit) as ingredients, the intent and focus as the fire, one circulates jing and qi through rendu 任督 channels and viscera repeatedly until the qi substance (elixir) is formed in the body (cinnabars), one then attains physical and mental health and spiritual harmony. There are four major stages leading the operation from grosser to subtler substances.

zhuji 築基, or construction of the foundations, is the stage described as selecting the ideal site to build the laboratory and furnace and caldron in Alchemy. It is a stage for inner alchemist to recognize the position of the inner alchemical furnace and caldron. Strengthening the body and mind (jing, qi and shen) is primary requisite. Practicing gymnastics (for instance, Eight Length of Brocade, Five Animal Play) and consuming herbal medicine often is the process of this stage. Curing then being free from physical conditions and illnesses, and harmonizing emotional and spiritual balance are essential. This stage is commonly characterized by the present-day popular Qi Gong practices. The preparation time of this stage, maybe months or years, depending on the individual’s health conditions. (Zhao, 235)

Lianjing huaqi 練精化氣, or refining jing to qi, is the stage to refine the ordinary body fluids or subtle body functions, for instance, semen, saliva, hormones and gland functions to something much more subtle and special, a much purer energy form. It is described in the inner alchemical terms as True Lead, Water Tiger, or the trigram Kan, which stands for water, or fluid. Jing is generally believed to reside in the lower part of the body, in the kidneys or lower cinnabar field. By practicing the specific given techniques on body posture, breathing pattern, and intent, jing is refined and transformed into the true Qi. The transformation takes place in the “furnace and cauldron,” which are formed by the specific techniques of visualization and breathing. As Robinet comments: “Inner Alchemy begins where the various exercises of the gross breath end.” (Robinet, 319)

In other words, the breathing techniques are specified. “To refine jing to qi, one must use the intent to guide the focused breathing, (or martial breathing, wuhuo 武火),” “the focused breathing is the breathing that one can be aware of.” (Zhao, 168) This stage marked by qukan tianli 取坎填離, or the inner lines switch of hexagram Li and Kan. According to the great Taoist Qiu Chuji (1148-1229), it is essential longhu jiaogou 龍虎交媾, to copulate the dragon with tiger, so the energies of heart and kidneys are fused, one sits straight with legs across, and breathes in and out with nose (along the “macro-orbit channels” xiaozhou tian 小周天). When one breathes in, the nature of the breathing is water. When one breathes out, it is fire. (Clear Directions on the Great Elixir, 695) Techniques such as Liuqi jue, 六氣訣, or “the oral transmission of the six type of (therapeutic) breaths,” visualizing the Five Beasts (cun wushou 存五獸) and traveling through the Viscera (lizang 歷臟) are often applied in the stage. However, in practice the six types of breaths, Kristofer Schipper, one of the top Western Taoist authorities urges: “The exact sounds of course impossible to reproduce in writing, they must be learned from a master.” (Schipper, 137)

Within about one hundred days, most of the Classics of Inner Alchemy state, one will be able to gather the true jing to the true qi, the pure energy form. In inner alchemical terms, jiedan 結丹, the elixir is formed. This phase completes Three to Two. The practitioner becomes wholly energetic and completely free from all physical conditions and illnesses. One thus becomes “Humanly Immortal.”

Lianqi huashen 練氣化神, or refining qi to shen, or yangshen 陽神 or the pure yang spirit, describes Robinet, is “the phase of yang-ization.” (Robinet, 319) It is the stage invigorating and elevating previously cultivated pure energy or the elixir from the lower dantian to middle dantian. The practitioner begins to activate the elixir by circulating the elixir downward along the ren channel, passing weilu 尾閭, then back up along the du channel, penetrating jiabei 夾背, yuzhen 玉枕, niwan 泥丸, going downward through queqiao 鵲橋, entering middle dantian or huangting 黃庭 to form the fetus, or jietai 結胎. This phase, completes Two to One, is also called the juncture of ten months.

Most practitioners apply the fetus breathing technique at this stage so that it dissolves the break of inhalation and exhalation. “When the elixir has fallen in the yellow court, I enter the great ecstasy 丹落黃庭 我入大定.” “To refine qi (the elixir) to shen, one should be oblivious of breathing, (or literary breathing, wenhuo 文火), such breathing is not in nor out, it is only born when I enter ecstasy.” (Zhao, 168) One enters a state of being so of oneself physiologically and alchemically, as the great Taoist Chen Chongsu 陳沖素 (ca. 13th century) advised: “at this stage, the (secret) oral transmission is: In concentrating one’s qi and bringing it to the utmost degree of pliancy, one can become an infant.” (Fang, 717) Once arrived at this stage, the Classics of Inner Alchemy describe, the practitioner will return/maintain one’s youth, attain full wisdom, and become an “Earthly Immortal.”

Lianshen huaxu 練神化虛, or refining shen to the void, is not frequently discussed in the Classics of Inner Alchemy, or in practice. It is the phase that completes One to Void. The practitioner reversed the rhythms of Nature, tracking time to its beginning, and returns to the emptiness, or the Tao. This final stage is called the juncture of nine years, the immobility that contains all action, and the non-action that follows from all the conscious practices undertaken earlier. It is a stage one dwells on xing 性, or the original nature in its pristine purity. Arriving at the stage is arriving at completely enlightenment, and becoming a “Heavenly Immortal.”

by Literati Tradition


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