Monday, April 11, 2011

The Book of the Nine Elixirs

The Book of the Nine Elixirs (Jiudan jing) is the main extant text of the Great Clarity (Taiqing), the earliest identifiable tradition in the history of Chinese alchemy. In its original form, this work dates from about 200 CE. It describes the preparation of nine elixirs, paying particular attention to the ritual context of the alchemical practice.

The main stages of the process are the ceremony of transmission from master to disciple, the establishment of the ritual area, the choice of an auspicious time, the compounding of the elixir, its offering to the gods, and its ingestion. It is this entire process, and not only the actual compounding of the elixirs, that constitutes the alchemical practice.

On the other hand, neither the Book of the Nine Elixirs, nor any other Great Clarity source, describes the alchemical process using the patterns, imagery, and language of Chinese cosmology and its system of correspondences. These features of the cosmological system become important in the history of Chinese alchemy only from the Tang period onward (approximately from the 7th century). They were first used in Waidan (External Alchemy), and paved the way for the emergence of Neidan (Internal Alchemy, documented from the 8th century).

When these new forms of alchemy became widespread, the Great Clarity tradition declined. No original text belonging to this tradition was composed in the Tang period or later. The Book of the Nine Elixirs is one of the few sources that provide glimpses into the earliest stages of the Chinese alchemical tradition.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Internal Alchemy and the Daode jing

In the Western world, those who are interested in Neidan (Internal Alchemy) sometimes claim that the Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue) is a Neidan text.

This view deserves attention, because it is in some respects similar to the traditional view held by Neidan masters and adepts in China. However, it also requires some comments.

While Neidan needs the Daode jing, the Daode jing does not need Neidan. The Daode jing is an integral statement of Taoist doctrine. Being complete and self-contained, it does not demand or await anything outside itself. Its doctrine, however, can be applied, to varying extents, to different practices, arts, and sciences. The Daode jing itself pays much attention to one particular application of its own doctrine: the art of government.

Since some fundamental principles of Neidan are based on the doctrine of the Daode jing, a Neidan practitioner might claim that the Daode jing is a Neidan text. But for a similar reason, an army general who practices the "art of war" might claim that the Daode jing is a text about making war.

Then, is the Daode jing about Neidan or about war? It is neither about Neidan nor about war — but its teachings can be applied to an indefinite number of fields. Neidan is one of those fields.

In other words, the Daode jing contains the main statement of doctrines that are fundamental in Neidan, but is not "a Neidan text" of its own.

Consider, for example, the famous passage found in section 42, which describes the relation of the Dao to the cosmos using a sequence of stages: "The Dao generates the One, the One generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three generate the ten thousand things". Neidan masters of all times have applied these words to the Neidan practice, which goes through that sequence in reverse in order to "return to the Dao". Does this mean that the Daode jing describes the Neidan practice?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

9 Taoist Books on the Elixir

Golden Elixir Press has started the Occasional Papers series. This series will contain short articles, translations, reference works, or similar publications, distributed either for free or at a very low price. The Occasional Papers will be available only in PDF format.

The first publication in the series is:

Fabrizio Pregadio
9 Taoist Books on the Elixir: A Short Bibliography
23 pp., Golden Elixir Press, 2011
Web page

Please visit the Web page to download the bibliography for free.

This bibliography contains the main data on nine important original texts of Taoist alchemy. It includes two texts on Waidan (External Alchemy) and seven texts on Neidan (Internal Alchemy). In addition to their importance and renown, the selections concern texts for which at least one translation in a Western language is available.

Each entry contains: Title in Chinese, and translation; Information on author and date; A synthetic description; References to print editions of the Chinese text; Links to online versions of the Chinese text; Translations into Western languages (with links to relevant Web pages, if available); Main reference materials, both in print and online.

Most entries also include short translations, to provide at least a glimpse of the content of each text.

An appendix contains the titles of nine selected Western-language works on Taoist alchemy, with short notes on their content.