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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 elixier 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 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

Journey to the West uses the theme of alchemy to open up the mysteries of
the Triplex Unity and Understanding Reality. 

-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Journey to the West)

The triplex unity is a Taoist text written by Wei Boyang in the second century CE. Understanding Reality is Taoist text written by Zhang Boduan in the eleventh century CE. These texts speak about yin and yang, the medicines, the process of reversal and the firing process. The concept of yin and yang is one of the most basic and important concepts of Taoist alchemy.

The body of pure yang was happy in the sun.
The yin demons dared not use their might.

-- Journey to the West Ch. 99

There is not only one kind of yin and yang. There is primordial yin and yang, and there is conditioned yin and yang. There is yin and yang within life and there's yin and yang within essence. There is real yin and yang and there is artificial yin and yang. There is external yin and yang and there is internal yin and yang. It's necessary to study all these kinds of yin and yang and understand them clearly before starting the alchemical work.
-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality)

The meaning of yin and yang depends on the context. Generally speaking three aspects or phases of Taoist practice are expressed in terms of yin and yang: fostering yang while repelling yin, harmonizing yin and yang and transcending yin and yang.

Fostering yang while repelling yin

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.
-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality, part II #6)

Fostering yang means nurturing the mind of Tao; repelling yin refers to diminishing the influence of the human mind. The yin demons are symbols for acquired habits of thoughts and emotions of the human mind and entanglements of things of the world that interfere with the mind of Tao. The process of diminishing yin and fostering yang is also referred to as the firing process.

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 inner teaching of Taoism - On the firing process)

The sun and moon are used as symbols to illustrate the firing process.

This is not the ordinary Way: it involves seizing the very creation of Heaven and Earth,
and encroaching on the hidden workings of the sun and moon.
-- Journey to the West Ch. 2


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 celestial light which can be used to burn away a person`s mundanity (yin energy), the mind of Tao is also represented as a furnace.
-- Liu Yiming (The inner teachings of Taoism -
The crescent moon furnace)

What this crescent moon symbolizes in humans is a point of yang light shinning through the middle of extreme quiet. The point of yang light is nothing but the light of the mind of Tao.
-- Liu Yiming
(Commentary on Understanding Reality, part II #3)

The light of the moon or mind of Tao is the reflected light of the sun. It is not direct sunlight, so it is not the light of the Original Spirit of Higher Self but the mind of Tao, which aims to bring back the real light of the Higher Self.

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

I used both kinds of medicine to complete the sun and moon.
-- Journey to the West Ch. 70



The firing process is represented by the waxing of the crescent moon into the full moon. During this process 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 pictures show the process of controlling the lower self, so that the state of Divine Presence can occur. (Tomikichiro Tokuriki)

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.

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. In the firing process it is symbolized by the full moon. Now one can relax one`s efforts.

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)

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, which is yin. 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)

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)

Harmonizing yin and yang

Harmonizing yin and yang refers to keeping yin and yang balanced, while operating the firing process. Here yin and yang have a different meaning. They refer to the male and female energy inside a person.

Shiva, the Lord whose half Is woman , Mankot School, Western Punjab Hills, India, c.1710-20


There are husband and wife in everybody's body,
But the ignorant are too fixed on delusions
Instead of seeking creative evolution within,
They setup alchemical foundations outside.
-- Li Dao Chun (13th C. Taoist master,
The book of Balance and Harmony)

Once husband and wife are joined in bliss, the firing work continues steadily, the longer the stronger, one energy in accomplishing the work, until you arrive at pure yang, beyond the realm of the senses.
-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality, part IV #5)

Ying and Yang in harmony will climb the cloud tower,
Riding the phoenix to the purple palace,
And flying on the crane to magical Yingzhou.
-- Journey to the West Ch. 46

When you make the male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male, and the female will not be female ...
then will you enter the Kingdom of God.
-- Gnostic Gospels



Taoist alchemy explains the male or yang energy as firm and female or yin energy as flexible or yielding.

Among the trigrams, the sun is Fire ☲, yang outside and yin inside, symbolizing the presence of flexibility within strength. Among the trigrams, the moon is Water ☵, yin outside and yang inside, symbolizing the presence of strength within flexibility. The science of spiritual alchemy is simply a matter of taking flexibility within strength and strength within flexibility, which are the two great medicines of true yin and true yang,
and fusing them into one energy, thus forming the elixir.
-- The Triplex Unity

The yin inside yang in the trigram Fire ☲, represents true yin inside conditioned yang. The yang inside yin in the trigram water ☵, represents true yang within conditioned yin. Taoist alchemy tries to invert the

Another way to see the male energy is as the mind (of Tao) and the female energy as the heart. In Journey to the West Monkey represents the mind and Sanzang represents the heart.


The union of the mind with the heart is a union of the spiritual thoughts of the mind
with the spiritual feelings of the heart.
-- Bishop Ignatii, Philokalia

Harmonizing or blending yin and yang can also refer to harmonizing the lower self with the Higher Self. This means the lower self is under control and doesn`t obstruct the presence of the Higher Self, so they can co-exist. In Sufism, this is expressed as the Lover being together with the Beloved. The lover is the part of the lower self that wants to be with the Higher Self, the Beloved.

The sum total of our life is every breath spent in the company of the Beloved.
-- Abu Saìd



Transcending yin and yang.

Transcending yin and yang refers to immediately experiencing the Original Spirit or Higher Self without operating the firing process. Everyone experiences the spontaneous presence of their Original Spirit a few times in their life. Most people however, even if they understand the experience, don`t value it enough. To have this experience more often, one needs to practice the firing process regularly.

Q. I cannot by effort reach a state that sometimes comes accidentally.
Ouspensky: If you had not made efforts it would not have come accidentally, so it is not really accidental. The more efforts you make, the more you will have these accidental moments of self-remembering,
of understanding, of being emotional. It is all the result of effort.

But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
-- The Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:9-10

The Taoist tradition and other traditions in the far East do not speak of grace or love, because it`s not in the essence of these cultures to express this openly. Even though the form of each esoteric tradition is the result of the culture it is in, the laws operating in relation to awakening the Higher Self are the same, regardless of culture or tradition. However, some traditions will emphasize certain laws and ideas over other ones. Middle Eastern cultures are very passionate, which is why the symbol of the Lover and the Beloved is prominent in the Sufi tradition. Eastern traditions speak in terms of sudden and gradual enlightenment. Gradual enlightenment refers to using action or a method such as the firing process, to reach enlightenment. Sudden enlightenment refers to reaching enlightenment without using a method. However, sudden enlightenment is a gift from a higher level and is not directly under one`s control. Using a method to reach the awakening of the Higher self is directly under one`s control.

There is difficulty and ease in cultivating the great medicine,
and it is known to depend on oneself as well as on heaven.
-- Zhang Boduan (Understanding Reality, part II #56)

It may happen that one suddenly understands first and then gradually practices, or one may first gradually cultivate and then suddenly understand. Essence and life must be both cultivate; the work requires two stages.
-- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality, part V #1)

The Fourth Way and Esoteric Traditions⎟ Living Presence ⎟ The Secret of the Golden Flower ⎟


Japanese symbols of Presence⎟ The taoist I Ching ⎟ Being Presence First