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Neidan, or internal alchemy (simplified Chinese: 內丹术; traditional Chinese: 內丹術; pinyin: nèidān shù), is an array of esoteric doctrines and physical, mental, and spiritual practices that Taoist initiates use to prolong life and create an immortal spiritual body that would survive after death. Also known as Jindan ("golden elixir"), inner alchemy combines theories derived from external alchemy (waidan), correlative cosmology (including the Five Phases), the emblems of the Yijing, and medical theory, with techniques of Daoist meditation, daoyin gymnastics, and sexual hygiene.
In Neidan the human body becomes a cauldron in which the Three Treasures of Jing ("Essence"), Qi ("Breath") and Shen ("Spirit") are cultivated for the purpose of improving physical, emotional and mental health, and ultimately returning to the primordial unity of the Tao, i.e., becoming an Immortal. It is believed the Xiuzhen Tu is such a cultivation map. In China, it is an important form of practice for most schools of Taoism.
Neidan is part of the Chinese alchemical meditative tradition that is said to have been separated into internal and external (Waidan) at some point during the Tang dynasty. The Cantong qi (The Kinship of the Three) is the earliest known book on theoretical alchemy in China; it was written by the alchemist Wei Boyang in 142 AD. This text influenced the formation of Neidan, whose earliest existing texts date from the first half of the eighth century. The authors of several Neidan articles refer to their teachings as the Way of the Golden Elixir (jindan zhi dao). The majority of Chinese alchemical sources is found in the Daozang (Taoist Canon), the largest collection of Taoist texts.
Neidan shares a significant portion of its notions and methods with classical Chinese medicine, fangshi and with other bodies of practices, such as meditation and the methods for "nourishing life" (yangsheng). What distinguishes alchemy from these related traditions is its unique view of the elixir as a material or immaterial entity that represents the original state of being and the attainment of that state. The Neidan tradition of internal alchemy is practiced by working with the energies that were already present in the human body as opposed to using natural substances, medicines or elixirs, from outside of the body. The Shangqing (Supreme Clarity) tradition of Daoism played an important role in the emergence of Neidan alchemy, after using Waidan mainly as a meditative practice, and therefore turning it from an external to an internal art.
Taoism focuses on the balance of yin and yang in one's life (Hopfe and Woodward 167). Internal alchemy focuses on the body and how you are able to use the Three Treasures, chi, jing and shen, to bring this balance to your life. These are the energy that makes up life (Kohn 145-149). Each individual is able to practice internal alchemy on their own, the religious leaders of Taoism are there for guidance (Smith 199-204).
Chi is defined as the "natural energy of the universe" and can be found in everything, including each individual person (Carroll). Throughout Taoists' lives, they try to obtain a positive flow of chi, which flows through the body in paths moving to each individual organ, from the perspective of internal alchemy (Smith 199-204). Taoists map out the body according to these paths. If a path is blocked, the chi does not flow properly; this blockage disrupts the balance of yin and yang. Taoists developed methods to help get rid of these harmful blockages so that the body's balance can be restored (Majka, Thompson, Schipper).
The second treasure, jing, is essential for humans to live; it is referred to as the energies of the body (Kohn 145-149). It corresponds most closely to the energy of the physical body. The conserving of jing in the body is heavily focused on internal alchemy (Smith 199-200). It is thought that a person dies when they lost, or ran out of jing. Taoists believed that preserving jing allowed people to live longer, if not to achieve immortality. The idea of immortality came about because Taoists believed that if jing in the body could be preserved the energies in the body could be saved, which allowed you to live (Schipper).
Shen, the third and final treasure, is the original spirit of the body. This is all that happens in the body without the acknowledgment of the human (Nedidan: The Traditional Meditative Practice, 14). Taoists try to become conscious of shen through meditation (Smith, 199-204). Shen is the energy that each organ, in the body, possesses. Each organ in the body has an element associated with it, fire, wood, water, metal, or earth (The Five Shen). When the "three treasures" are maintained in the body, along with a balance of yin and yang, it is possible to achieve a healthy body, and longevity; which are the main goals of internal alchemy (Ching 395, Hopfe and Woodward 167).
The Three Treasures
Inner alchemy practice can be generalized into three phases. The three phases are known as the "three treasures". The "three treasures" of human life are vitality- jing (ching), energy-chi (ch'i), and spirit-shen (chen) (Kohn 145-149). It can be explained in the Zhonghe ji which was quoted in the book: Daoism and Chinese Culture by Livia Kohn:
- Making one's essence complete, one can preserve the body. To do so, first keep the body at ease, and make sure there are no desires. Thereby energy can be made complete.
- Making one's energy complete, one can nurture the mind. To do so, first keep the mind pure, and make sure there are no thoughts. Thereby spirit can be made complete.
- Making one's spirit complete, one can recover emptiness. To do so, first keep the will sincere, and make sure body and mind are united. Thereby spirit can be returned to emptiness. ... To attain immortality, there is nothing else but the refinement of these three treasures: essence, energy, spirit." (Kohn 145-149).
The "three treasures" need to work with one another and never without each other. One cannot exist without the other one. These "three treasures" are important in the longevity techniques that are used to achieve immortality and physical manifestation of the Dao (Ching 395).
Chi (Ch'i or qi)
Chi is the vital force that operates the body and manifests in everyone and everything "the natural energy of the universe" (Carroll). The home of chi is said to be centered around the liver. Chi is one of the "three treasures". Having harmony is one of the most important concepts of Chi. Keeping a proper balance of Yin and Yang (positive and negative) forces. Trouble either on a personal or on a larger scale is a form of disharmony and may lead to illness or stress. This is accomplished by having too much of either Yin or Yang forces (Hopfe and Woodward 167).
Healing practices through acupuncture, massage, cupping and herbal medicines can open up the chi meridians throughout the body so that the chi in the body can flow freely. By keeping chi in balance and flowing throughout the body promotes health; imbalance can lead to sickness. This doesn't only apply to the body but the environment as well, being nature or man-made. Feng Shui methods are used to keep a healthy balance and a more open flow of chi in one's environment (Majka).
Feng Shui means "wind-water". Chi is scattered by the wind and is gathered by water. It is good to have a home by a river or body of water so chi could flow past your home, also to build in front of a hill so bad chi cannot flow into your home. Modern feng shui focuses on moving objects such as furniture around to help promote a positive outcome of chi in the chosen space. Traditionally it was used to find homes and good burial sites that had good amounts of Yin-chi and Yang-chi, insuring that one's spirit wouldn't get stuck in the mortal plane, but rise to join the ancestors (Thompson 19-22).
Shen or the spirit (the most pure and vital energy) involves the mental activities of a person including their consciousness. Shen can also be said to include the nerve system. The nerve system consists of the "original spirit" and actions that are vital to survival such as breathing or the heart beat. A person's consciousness is the spirit of knowing, conscious activities, and the thinking process which can be developed through learning. Internal alchemists focus on the original spirit of shen (Nedidan: The Traditional Meditative Practice 14).
Shen implies a person's mental function and consciousness as well as vitality, mental health and overall "presence". Shen is known to reside mainly in the heart, or more specifically, the blood which relies on the heart. It is believed that shen sleeps at night and if it is disturbed the result can be insomnia. Healthy shen can be seen in a person's physical appearance through the eyes. If the eyes are bright and shining with liveliness it indicates a healthy shen. If one's shen is unhealthy their eyes will appear dull. The shen is dependent on the jing and chi. (Shen: Traditional Chinese Medicine 1-4) If the jing and the chi are happy then the shen will be content as well.
Shen can be thought of as either a singular concept or a plural concept. When viewed singularly shen is located in the heart and known as heart shen. When viewed as a plural concept it is found in five of the yin organs; the heart, the kidneys, the spleen, the lungs and the liver. The singular shen depends on the others as the others depend on it. If the heart shen is not functioning properly it can damage the other shen and lead to problems such as mental illness. (Chaqging Yang 6)
Shen[神]: The Emperor of the Heart The element associated with the heart is fire. The heart shen involves the quality of awareness one has and is shown in the responsiveness of the eyes. The xin or mind exists as part of the heart. Often viewed as a corona to the sun of the heart.
Zhi [志]: The Kidney's Will to Act Zhi is one's will and is represented by the element of water. Zhi embodies one's effort and perseverance to succeed in spiritual practice. Through the zhi one may hope to align themselves with the "will of Heaven", or the Dao.
Yi [意]: Intellect of the Spleen Earth is the element of yi. It is said to assist in the formation of intentions and when not in balance it can lead to problems with the spleen. When healthy it is evident as a spirit permeated with intelligence. Within the spleen also exists the xing or "map" of the body, often this concept is viewed as the blueprint of our existence.
Po [魄]: The Corporal Soul of the Lungs Po concerns our immediate desires and only lasts as long as one lives. It is the polar of hun and is found in the element of metal. There are traditionally 13 po spirits that reside in the lung.
Hun [魂]: The Ethereal Soul of the Liver Hun is represented by the element of wood and has the ability to survive subtly after death. It involves long range commitments and as one's spiritual consciousness develops the po becomes support of the hun. (The Five Shen). There are seen to be 3 hun that form at conception, the yin hun, the yang hun and the ren (human) hun.
When all forms of shen are functioning properly and the shen is in harmony one is said to have achieved shen unity.
- The concept is often analogized with the "spiritual alchemy" of the West. Joseph Needham coined the term "anablastemic enchymoma" to translate the Chinese term "neidan"; anablastemic refers to the restoration of youth, and enchymoma refers to the elixir within. See: Peng Yoke Ho, Explorations in Daoism: Medicine And Alchemy in Literature, Taylor & Francis, 2007, Pg. 2 and, Charles R. Stone, The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica: The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction, University of Hawaii Press, 2003, Pg. 180.
- Skar & Pregadio 2000, p. 464.
- Baldrian-Hussein 2008, p. 762.
- Kohn 145-149
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