The Alchemical Roots of Daoism

from Like everything else, spiritual traditions evolve throughout history. The older the tradition, the more likely it is to differ from what it originally was. In the vast majority of cases, contemporary Daoism is very different from what it used to be two thousand years ago. For instance, religious Daoism (a recent creation) has little to do with the teachings of the Dao De Jing (the foundational text of Daoism), which clearly states that we should do away with institutionalized religion.

Nowadays, Daoism is often equated with health and longevity. If practised correctly, the Daoist arts will indeed yield health and longevity. However, what is often missed is that these are only by-products of Daoism, not its endgame. Daoism is essentially an alchemical tradition. The early stages of internal alchemy (Nei Dan Gong) require us to be as healthy as possible so we can build a strong foundation. The ancient Daoists knew that alchemy is a lifetime study—as opposed to something that you can pick up within a few years. Therefore, they came up with particular methods that promote longevity (Yang Sheng Fa) so they could dedicate their lifetime to their alchemical process (classically, the youngest age for a human being to die was supposed to be 120).

The fact that all Daoist practices and theories initially came from alchemy is often overlooked. Few people know, for example, that the acupuncture points used in Chinese medicine were initially located and named through inner vision—a key skill that can only be developed through intense alchemy practice. Alchemy is what makes Daoism a complete esoteric system in its own right. Every aspect of Daoism, whether it be theoretical or practical, takes its source within alchemy. This becomes clear when we read the Dao De Jing. Although it has been reduced to a mere collection of ‘teabag wisdom’ quotes, we must not forget that the Dao De Jing is also a detailed manual of alchemy. If we wish to get the bigger picture, we must look at Daoism as an alchemical tradition.
From the beginning, the purpose of all Daoist internal arts is to lay the ground for alchemy practice. An obvious example would be martial arts, which strengthen the body and focus the mind to a very high degree—these are essential qualities for alchemy. Building a strong medical foundation is no less important as alchemy can lead to all sorts of physical, mental or emotional problems if practised incorrectly. Studying Chinese medicine alongside our alchemy gives us an in-depth understanding of how imbalance can develop within the human body. Hopefully, this should allow us to prevent any major problems from arising. Viewed from this perspective, both martial arts and medicine complement our alchemy practice. However, the alchemical roots of Daoism can best be seen in Qi Gong and Nei Gong.
Qi Gong and Nei Gong essentially look at the same subject as Nei Dan Gong, only at different levels. They also correspond to different levels of practice. Qi Gong can be said to lay the foundations for the more advanced practices of Nei Gong and Nei Dan. With Qi Gong, we seek to affect the body from the outside to the inside. The various movements and exercises used in Qi Gong aim to change the quality of the tendon collaterals (Jing Jin), which are lines of muscles that run across the body. Qi Gong works on the assumption that if we can affect those physical lines, we will also affect the meridians on the energetic plane (the Jing Jin are considered to be the physical manifestation of the meridians).
Unlike Qi Gong, Nei Dan and (to some extent) Nei Gong work from the inside to the outside. Their primary aim is to affect the congenital meridians, which will also have a knock-on effect on our physical body. Because it engages primarily the physical body, Qi Gong only tends to affect the more superficial channels of our energy system: these are the acquired meridians (Hou Tian Mai). Nei Gong and Nei Dan are more internal practices in that they seek to open the congenital meridians (Xian Tian Mai), which sit at the very core of our body.
People sometimes try to skip the foundations of internal work by jumping straight to alchemy without any prior Qi Gong training. Qi Gong gives us strong foundations for Nei Dan—in fact, this is its primary purpose, according to classical Daoism. We first ensure that the body is aligned in the best possible way so we can receive information from our environment. We also spend much time working on our breathing, which is the most important tool to connect with our energy body. We must also stretch a lot so that the body is sufficiently conditioned for the prolonged periods of sitting that are inherent to alchemy practice. It is easy to see why Qi Gong is essentially groundwork for alchemy.
Nei Gong can be seen as an interface between Qi Gong and Nei Dan as it contains elements of both practices. Like Qi Gong, Nei Gong often involves a lot of standing and breathing exercises. Like Nei Dan, Nei Gong seeks to start a process of vibrational refinement inside the body through the medium of the congenital meridians. This process of internal transformation constitutes the core of Daoism. However, Nei Gong cannot take us as far as alchemy on this journey. This is why alchemy was always considered the most advanced Daoist practice. In many ways, Qi Gong and Nei Gong can be said to be simplified versions of alchemy.
It is interesting to see how certain Daoist concepts can be looked at through different layers of understanding. On the theoretical plane, almost all concepts originated within alchemy and were then transferred across other disciplines. One of those concepts is that of the Zhong Ding, which can be translated as ‘central line’. All Daoist practices work on moving from the core of the body by engaging the Zhong Ding. On the energetic level, this central line corresponds to the central axis of the Chong Mai. This key congenital meridian runs from our perineum to the top of our head. While Qi Gong generally works with the Zhong Ding, more advanced practices directly try to access the Chong Mai, which contains the very blueprints of who we are.
Another key concept within alchemy theory is the mixing of Fire and Water. Classically, this is often depicted through the image of a red dragon and a white tiger copulating. The red dragon represents the energy of the Heart and the white tiger represents the energy of the Kidneys. At later stages in alchemy practice, the energies of the Heart and the Kidneys are supposed to merge. This is referred to as Fire and Water mixing. This stage implies that two aspects of our spirit start coming together; in doing so, they manifest as a red and a blue light.
However, before we can do this, we must learn to work with the more physical aspects of our body. Within Qi Gong, the mixing of Fire and Water begins when we learn to manipulate our centre of gravity by moving up and down from our Kua. This is why it is important that we spend much time working on our basic body alignments. If we can lay strong foundations by aligning our body in the right way, alchemy will be much easier. In basic Qi Gong practice, we learn to move up and down in time with our breathing. This is the most efficient way of understanding how our centre can be manipulated. Most people’s centre is naturally quite high and generally sits in the region of their upper chest. When we practise Qi Gong, we wish to drop our centre as low as possible. Ideally, our centre should be located in the area of our lower abdomen. If we can do this successfully, we will have achieved the very early stages of the mixing of Fire and Water.
Everything is a preparation for something else so that nothing’s ever finished. Like Qi Gong, Nei Gong is essentially foundation work for alchemy. Nei Gong aims at clearing the congenital meridians, which is a way of preparing the body for later stages of alchemy when the alchemical pill needs to be circulated through those meridians. This illustrates how every practice serves a specific purpose. Within Daoism, everything is seen as a vibration. All Daoist practices seek to refine the vibration that sits within us to such a degree that we can start to change our very nature. If we can understand this, then we will come to the conclusion that the study of Daoism is an on-going business; and so, all notions of final achievement through our practice should become irrelevant.