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Taoist Alchemy

Taoist alchemy is a doctrine about the creation of the Golden Elixir or the Pill of Immortality. The aim is to reach transcendence and immortality. Taoist alchemy is divided into external and internal alchemy.

The process of internal alchemy opens the mystical gate to spiritual immortality. -- Lao Tzu, Hua Hu Ching #61

External alchemy uses a physical crucible and ingredients, while in internal alchemy, the crucible and medicinal ingredients are symbols and the creation of the elixir is metaphysical process.

Li Tie Guai, one of the eight immortals,
with the pill of immortality.
Ancient immortals used the term Golden Pill (Elixir) as a metaphor of the essence of true consciousness, which is fundamentally complete and illumined. The ignorant who do not know this consider the golden elixir to be a potion made from minerals.
-- Liu Yiming (The inner teachings of Taoism - The Gold Elixir)
Pills that can make you immortal are only a fiction. Nirvana can never be won by a mind in disorder. -- Journey to the West Ch. 46
My master said that the elixir is in one's own body It is a waste of effort to seek it outside. -- Journey to the West Ch. 17 (Sun Wukong speaking)

All esoteric traditions speak about an Elixir of Immortality, which has many other names such as Elixir of Life, Water of Life, Amrita, Ambrosia, Soma or Panacea. It refers to a method to reach the state of Divine Presence of the Higher Self or Original Spirit. When esoteric traditions no longer produce immortals or sages, the understanding of this method gets lost, and a religion develops where people perform external rituals and try to do something that can only be done internally.

The inner medicine involves no doing but there's nothing it does not do. The outer medicine involves doing and there is a way to do it. -- Li Dao Chun (13th C. Taoist master, The book of Balance and Harmony)

When the knowledge of the method of doing is no longer understood, people have no choice but to take the outer medicine as a physical substance.

Alchemy in Journey to the West

After Monkey was invited to Heaven, he stole the peaches of immortality, got drunk and stole Lao Tzu`s pill`s of the elixir of immortality. The jade Emperor ordered Monkey to be captured and it was decided to put the Great Sage in Lao Zi`s Eight Trigrams Furnace, to refine out the elixir of the immortal pills that he had stolen and reduce him to ashes at the same time.

Money jumps out of the Eight Trigram Furnace




Lord Lao Tzu had the Great Sage untied, pushed him into the Eight Trigrams Furnace, and ordered the priests in charge of it, to fan the fire up to refine him. Now this furnace was made up of the Eight Trigrams—Qian , Kan , Gen , Zhen , Xun , Li , Kun , and Dui ........ After seven times seven or 49 days had passed, the furnace was opened to take out the elixir. The Great Sage saw his chance and leapt out the furnace. -- Journey to the West Chapter 7

Because Monkey represents the element Fire, he was unharmed by the Eight Trigrams Furnace.






The Eight Trigrams Furnace

The Eight Trigram Furnace is a Taoist symbol. The furnace symbolizes the method for creating the Golden Elixir (Pill) through the Firing Process.

Ancient immortals used the term Gold Elixir as a metaphor of the essence of true consciousness, which is fundamentally complete and illumined. -- Liu Yiming (18th C. Taoist master)
The firing process spoken of in the alchemical classics and writings of the masters is a metaphor for the order of practical spiritual work.
-- Liu Yiming

The eight trigrams as a family

Each of the eight trigrams is made up of Yang (———) and Yin (— —) lines. Yang stands for the mind of Tao and Yin stands for the human mind.

The firmness of the Tao belongs to yang; this is the great. The flexibility of the human mind belongs to yin; this is the small. If the human mind lacks the mind of Tao, it can defeat the Tao by using consciousness to produce illusion. If you govern it by the mind of Tao, the conscious light is clear and can thereby help the Tao.
-- Liu Yiming

The crescent moon
The inner development of the elixir and the timing of it`s firing are no different at all from the ebbing and the flowing of the phases of the moon. -- Yu Yan (13th c. Taoist master)
The crescent moon symbolizes the sudden manifestation of the celestial root in people when they have attained utter stillness. This celestial root is called the mind of Tao. A furnace is a vessel in which fire is used; because the mind of Tao has a Yang light which can be used to burn away a person`s mundanity (Yin energy), the mind of Tao is also represented as a furnace. Actually, the mind of Tao is the Heart of Heaven and Earth. -- Liu Yiming (18th C. Taoist master)

Sun Wukong, with the Rabbit in the moon,
Japanese Ukiyoe by Yoshitoshi
The point where one yang begins to move is when the yang light of real knowledge of the mind of Tao stirs but is not yet very active: only then is a glimpse of the root of heaven revealed. At this time you should quickly set about increasing the fire, gathering yang and putting it into the furnace of evolution, gradually gathering, gradually refining, from vagueness to clarity, from one yang to complete purity of six yangs. This is also like the mid-autumn moon, exceptionally bright, shining through the universe.
-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality, part II #29)
When the full moon of contemplation is reached, you will be pure.
-- Journey to the West Ch. 19

The process of going from one yang to the complete purity of six yangs symbolizes the burning away or rendering passive, of the human mind through the mind of Tao, and reaching the presence of the Original Spirit or Higher Self.



The six trigrams associated with the 30-day moon cycle
according to Triplex Unity

In The Seal of Unity of the three (Triplex Unity) a 2nd century Taoist text, six trigrams are associated with the waxing and waning of the moon. The month is divided into six parts of five days each. Kan (Water) and Li (Fire) symbolize the medicine or ingredients of the Elixir; they are what is being fired and are not part of the firing times. The other six trigrams Qian (Heaven, Kun (Earth), Zhen (Thunder), Sun (Wind), Dui (Lake) and Gen (Mountain) describe the stages of waxing and waning of the moon. They symbolize the firing times of the elixir within the body.



The six trigrams associated with the 30-day moon cycle according to Triplex Unity. Each trigram represents "one Nine"

Each of the six stages of the waxing and waning of the moon is associated with a Yang line of the hexagram Qian (Heaven) representing the gradual change of Yin into Yang. Each Yang line is also represented by the number Nine and by a Dragon.

The six lines of the Heaven hexagram act as an image of the waxing and waning of the moon`s body. But it`s all metaphor. Those who try to learn without proper understanding the meaning behind this rhyme (see below) will have great trouble reading it.
-- Yu Yan (13th c. Taoist master)

The Cycle of the Moon (Canton Qi - Triplex Unity 2nd C. Taoist text by Wei Boyang)

On the third day Thunder comes forth as an inkling,
and the Yang Breath makes it start.
“Initial nine, submerged dragon.”

On the eighth, Lake is in action.
“Nine in the second place, appearing dragon”.

On the fifteenth the body of Heaven is achieved.
“Nine in the third place, at nightfall he is watchful,”
fearing that he might lose the magic charm.

Wind takes control,
“nine in fourth place, wavering flight”.

On the twenty-third day, Mountain
rules over arrest and advance.
“Nine in the fifth place, flying dragon”.

On the thirtieth day, Earth takes hold,
“Nine at the top, thriving dragon”.

The use of the dragon-nines flying to and fro,
are the compass and square of the Dao.
The Yang numbers are now completed.

During the firing process, represented by the waxing and waning of the moon, the human mind (yin) is dissolved, and the Original Spirit gradually comes into being. This process is presented as a six-step process, going from one yang (symbolized by the I-Ching hexagram Return) to six yangs (symbolized by the I-Ching hexagram Heaven).

On the left the hexagram 'Return', on the right the hexagram 'Heaven" from the I-Ching.
The six stages of purification by fire …are in sequence and should never be mixed up; only then can it produce the Golden Elixir. -- Chao Pi Ch’en (20th c. Taoist Master)
The holy man, who understands the mysteries of creation inherent in end and beginning, becomes superior to the limitations of the transitory. For him, the meaning of time is that in it, the stages of growth can unfold in a clear sequence. He is mindful at every moment and uses the six stages of growth as if they were six dragons (the image attributed to the individual lines) on which he mounts to heaven. -- Commentary on hexagram #1, the Creative
(The I Ching p 371, Wilhelm/Baynes edition)

The first six oxherding pictures below show the symbolism of the firing process in a different way. The boy represents the mind of Tao while the bull symbolizes the human mind or lower self.

When the believer has mastered his lower self, so that it serves as a riding mount beneath him, the deeds of his heart will shine forth upon his face. -- Al-Jilani (12th c. Sufi)
The ten oxherding pixtures show the process of controlling the lower self, so that the state of Divine Presence can occur. (Tomikichiro Tokuriki)    Click here for more information
The Four Kinds of Life and Six Paths are all explained. -- Journey to the West Ch. 12
When the boy and the ox both disappear, The blue sky is absolutely clear. All is as round as an autumn moon.
-- Journey to the West Ch. 20
Bodhisattva Manjusri seated on his lion

The ox, and also the lion, are symbols for the lower self or human mind. In the Journey to the West, the demons, which are almost always animals, are yin and represent the human mind or the lower self.

The body of pure yang was happy in the sun, the yin demons dared not use their might. -- Journey to the West Chapter 99
When the spirit of heaven rules in man, his animal nature takes its appropriate place. -- I Ching (Richard Wilhelm translation, hexagram 11 - Peace)
“Bodhisattva,” said Monkey, “he's the blue-haired lion from under your throne. The Bodhisattva said a spell and shouted, “Return to the Truth, beast. What are you waiting for?” Only then did the fiend-king return to his original form, Manjusri placed a lotus-blossom over the monster to tame him, and sat on his back. -- Journey to the West Ch. 29

When the mind of Tao has mastered the human mind, the lower mind no longer interferes and the original spirit can come into being. Now the mind is in order and Nirvana has been won.

Pills that can make you immortal are only a fiction. Nirvana can never be won by a mind in disorder.
-- Journey to the West Ch. 46

Nirvana means blown out and refers to the lower self under control because the aberrant fire of the lower self has been blown out. This fire from the lower self is different from the fire of the firing process. The fire of the firing process is fire from the mind of Tao and it is symbolized by the waxing of the crescent moon into the full moon.

This is like the bright moon in the sky, lightening up the world to view, penetrating darkness. One can then cease to employ effort involving increase and decrease, give up doing and enter non-doing.
-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality, part 1 #7)

Now the outer medicine, which is the method of doing has been used and one can relax one`s efforts. The firing process itself is yang, representing the firmness of the mind of Tao. After one has reached the purity of six yangs one enters non-doing, the inner medicine, which is yin. One is in a simple state of awareness, just watching. This is true yin while the human mind or the yin demons are false yin.

When false yin is gone, true yin appears. -- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality, part 3 #8)
A Japanese fire festival


The cycling of fire in the spiritual work, before the light of dawn, will cause the whole wheel of the moon to appear in the deep pool. -- Awakening to Reality by Zhang Boduan (11th c. Taoist master, also known as the True Man of Purple Yang)



The moon waxing to fullness is a secret passed on by word of mouth. The medicinal substances are hard to know, and the firing process is not easy to understand. Students should hasten to find a genuine teacher.
-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality, part 1 #7)

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