What is Inner Alchemy/NeiDan? Who have a little understanding of Chinese traditional culture, or of qigong and who emphasize nourishing life, should all know or have at least heard of Inner Alchemy/ NeiDan. Both the term Inner Alchemy and the methods of practicing Inner Alchemy are quite mysterious to most people. Some believe that practicing Inner Alchemy can cure or prevent all sorts of diseases. Others believe that through practicing NeiDan they can live for ages without getting old, or attain the Dao and become immortals. The practice of NeiDan comes from the Daoist of ancient times. Were we to compare them to a modern profession, these Taoists were like a group of scientists who researched medicine, physiology, and cosmology as one interconnected whole. They hoped that through the practice of these methods they could transcend birth, old age, sickness, and death—the natural rules of life.
Elixirs (dan) were pills Chinese doctors made in antiquity, objects that in those times were very mysterious. In novels and movies we often see scenes where a person takes one of these pills (an elixir), and is able to come back to life, or attain the Dao and become an immortal.
During the periods of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE) the creation of elixirs flourished and gained the support of emperors, officials, and aristocrats. The methods of creating elixirs were expanded from the use of common herbs to that of minerals and chemicals. Taoists referred to the pills created using these methods as waidan (external alchemy/elixir), j
Jindan (golden alchemy/elixir), or Xiandan (immortal alchemy/elixir).
Most people were unable to make use of Jindan or Waidan, because it required great wealth to support the acquisition of materials and the compounding process. During the Tang and Song Dynasties (618–1279), the method of neidan (internal alchemy/elixir) slowly grew in popularity. Its origin can be traced back to the time of the Yellow Emperor, its methods are guided by the transformations of yin and yang, and the idea of the unity of the heavens and humanity. It takes the human body as its cauldron and furnace, jing (essence), qi, and shen (spirit) as its ingredients. It emphasizes the circulation of the heavens and the proper firing times to create a medicine, to forge a type of energetic pill, the effects of which can cure many diseases. Once created it can be stored within the body, on the inside of its user, thus it is called neidan: an “inner elixir.” This method of congealing and forming an elixir within the body has been an important Daoist cultivation method from the Song dynasty up to today, with the claim that when practiced internally it forms an elixir (neidan), and when applied externally it becomes ritual power (leifa, “thunder rituals”).
To practice NeiDan, one only needs to follow the requirements and observe the rules. Regardless of being rich or poor, or wherever one lives, everyone can practice. For example, one of the Eight Immortals of Daoism, Lan Caihe, who was born during the Tang Dynasty, wore tattered clothes, with a shoe on one foot and nothing but morning dew on the other. Carrying a large clapper in his hands, he would walk through the market place, singing drunkenly as he wandered the world.
Or there was the great calligraphy master of China, the man of letters, Su Shi (1037-1101). He abandoned his fame and wealth to build a thatch hut where he began practicing neidan. Su Shi became so obsessed with his practice that his dreams were all about discussing alchemy with Daoists, which he wrote about in a poem, saying:
Parting the dust, the miraculous substance is originally empty,
Amassing tenuous yang is a continual effort;
Shining at night, a lanternlong-flickering,
Sealing the doors, a thousand breaths form their own mist.
Nurturing an elixir stove without smoke or fire,
Burning up the human realm, there is a halo of bronze,
Entrusting words to mountain spirits, ceasing all tricks,
Not hearing and not seeing, what limit have I?
Even the founding emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227), turned to the founding patriarch of the Daoist Longmen lineage, Qiu Chuji (1148-1227), to ask about nourishing life.
Inner Alchemy can gather energy and unblock the meridians of one’s own body. The goal is that through a long period of practice the impurities of diseased, pathogenic, toxic, and foul qi will naturally diminish or even disappear! Ultimately, one reaches a state where the body is filled with healthy Qi, without disease, feeling relaxed and full of vitality. The energies in people who practice Inner Alchemy can resonate with one another, and can even form a field of qi around their bodies. Particularly when practicing this field of qi will expand limitlessly, until it overlaps seamlessly with the cosmos, until they become one. This is what is said to be the unity of the heavens and humanity in Daoist neidan, and the chants that those who have accomplished it recite will influence the cosmos. At this moment, those within their own field of qi will feel incomparable comfort and ease, can help cure the illnesses of others, so that the bodies and minds of those who are ill can return to a superb state.
Author: XuanYun Zhou
Translater: Larson Di Fiori