The Master Who Embraces Simplicity
Most Ancient & Revered Master of Longevity & Immortality
©2010 Roger Jahnke O.M.D
It is a beautiful morning in the spring of the 3038th Year Since the Ascension of the Yellow Emperor, the year of the Dragon.(1) On a mist enshrouded mountain in eastern China, shaped like the spine of a sleeping dragon, Master Ge Hong (2) is climbing the path to his favorite spot for the morning practice of gathering and cultivating universal life force, the Qi. Within his own lifetime he is a famous immortal. He is a master of the Daoist arts of longevity, medicine and spiritual alchemy.
He has just ingested his strong morning tea of ginseng, tang kuei, three fungi (reishi, ganoderma and fuling), lycii berries, deer antler and ho shao wu. Today he will practice a form of self-cultivation called "absorbing celestial nourishment,” a combination of gentle movements requiring balance and flexibility, visualizations requiring mind focus and the purposeful regulation of the breath. He will then stand quietly in deep meditation and merge with invisible forces and realms through ecstatic, transcendent flight. Nearly 2000 years later these practices will be known throughout the world as Qigong.
Later Master Ge will return to his small dwelling on the southern slope of the "dragon's spine.” There he will continue his favorite pastimes: preparing alchemical immortality elixirs, studying and writing about the masters of longevity and immortality and debating within himself about whether immortality is best gained from elixirs prepared externally, in an outer laboratory, or elixirs prepared within the body in a metaphorical inner laboratory.
From the mountain, called Precious Stone Hill in current times, Master Ge is surrounded by exquisite beauty. Nearby hills rise like islands above the morning mists. Except for the music of songbirds, there is only silence. Centuries later, at the turn of what Western cultures call the 21st century, the constant drone of Hangzhou, a modern city of almost 4 million people, will interrupt the silence.
South of Master Ge's beautiful little mountain, in the year 1138 ACE, the Song Dynasty will move its capital and imperial palaces. They will construct, by hand labor, the beautiful West Lake (Xihu) which today draws visitors from all over the world. Beyond the future sites of the lake and palace is the mighty Qiantang River, flowing from the legendary Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan), where the Yellow Emperor himself traveled to collect longevity medicines. The Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, a legendary sovereign and cultural hero of Chinese mythology, discovered the secret of immortality and ascended from the Yellow Mountains on the back of a mystical dragon. This event marks the beginning of the Chinese lunar calendar 4707 years ago.
To the east in the future, the city of Hangzhou will grow into the "most spectacular city in the world," according to Marco Polo who visited in the 13th Century. To the west of Master Ge's practice place are the Ling Yin Mountains. Here the oldest village in the area, the Village of Heavenly Bamboo, has already been in existence for many centuries and several temples devoted to Guan Yin the Goddess of Unlimited Mercy, date far into prehistory. Bottom of Page refers to first paragraph:
Just sixteen years earlier, in 326 ACE, an Indian monk who was inspired to bring Buddhism to eastern China established the Ling Yin Buddhist Monastery and Temple of the Soul's Seclusion. The Ling Yin Temple was spared destruction during the disastrous Cultural Revolution in the 1960's during a moment of luck or cultural intelligence by Premier Zhou, En Lai. At the opening of the 21st century, Ling Yin Temple was the largest and most visited Buddhist site in eastern China.
The Chinese have a saying, "If you cannot get to heaven, then go to Hangzhou." Some claim that Hangzhou, and its ancient predecessor, known as Ling An, is one of the great power spots in the universe. Only such a power place could have drawn the most renowned immortality master in Chinese history, Master Ge Hong, the ancient Guan Yin community, the immense Buddhist influence at the Ling Yin temple and the majestic Song Dynasty capital.
Certainly, Master Ge's practice place and his laboratory for making medicines, is one of those classic Chinese sites with perfect feng shui. Natural features including mist, mountains, water and spectacular rosy clouds which gather near the mountain tops in the dawns and evenings all conspire to create a sense of mystery.A Father of Traditional Chinese Medicine
It is also a popular notion that Master Ge had a strong influence on the development of traditional Chinese medicine. In particular he influenced the aspect of medicine related to enhancing health and longevity, called "to nourish and refine the righteous.” He is most renowned, however, for his work as an alchemist, constantly exploring immortality and elixirs from both internal and external sources.
Hangzhou is among the great centers of traditional medicine, with one of China's largest herbal pharmaceutical corporations (Hangzhou Number 2 Medicine Corporation), the Hangzhou College of Traditional Chinese medicine, the immense Hangzhou Municipal Hospital with its exclusive focus on traditional natural healing, the National Museum of Herbal Pharmacy, the Dragon Well tea fields and the Botanical Gardens of Herbal Medicine. The Qiantang River flows out of the Yellow Mountains and has for centuries carried herbs of medical, longevity and immortality benefit to the city of Hangzhou, which is one of the starting points for the Silk Road.The idea that medicine should have health enhancement benefits in addition to disease curing benefits has been considered, historically, unusual and impractical in the European and American cultures. However in Asia, particularly China, a health enhancement and longevity basis for medicine has been the standard for many thousands of years. Master Ge has pursued this ideal to its logical Chinese conclusion in medicine: If you can enhance health you can a live long and healthy life and have the vitality to pursue the hidden meaning of human existence.
ImmortalityMaster Ge Hong is the most remembered for his passion to pursue the ideal of "supporting the righteous" to its further, even bolder conclusion: If you can gain healthy longevity, you can refine and enhance the potential of the Spirit - Mind - Body to attain the status of "immortal.” In the West the word "immortal" has a single, shallow meaning - to live forever in one's current human form. In China immortality is much richer, more complex and more possible. There are five unique notions for "Immortal" and "Immortality" in the Chinese context.
Virtue ImmortalThe Virtue Immortal is a highly revered and virtuous person who is usually quite healthy and insightful. Citizens in a neighborhood or region consider such a person to be an "immortal.” By being a model citizen of great "virtue,” by fostering beneficence and virtue in the community, and by sustaining the availability of simple wisdom one fulfills the qualities of a Virtue Immortal. Even now in China, in certain neighborhoods, you can ask, "Is there an immortal nearby?" and be directed right to his or her humble dwelling. On arrival you will find a kind elder who does not seem to worry about the details of life too much. Anyone has access to this level of immortality. There is no practical evidence that being a neighborhood’s Virtue Immortal has any particular eternal value, though many believe that virtue does have in impact on one’s future in this life and beyond.
Legend ImmortalThe Legend Immortal is one of the traditional immortals of the Taoist philosophical tradition, the "Eight Immortals.” It is supposed that these eight delightful characters, often depicted in paintings, sculpture and poetry, as traveling together in an open boat on the sea of cosmic possibilities, are actual human beings who lived exemplary lives and graduated to Celestial Immortal status long ago. They are archetypal figures that represent some of the great human qualities, much like the Greek gods and goddesses. They are legendary heroes and heroines of righteous action and beneficence.
Transcendent ImmortalThe Transcendent Immortal is an individual who has "realized", in their current lifetime, that he or she is a local embodied manifestation of a universal, cosmic or quantum essence or spirit. This individual is beneficent and spontaneously virtuous because of the profoundly deep awareness of the self as fully unified with the entire cosmos, fully woven into the fabric of the ONE, singular, unitary, cosmic being. With the realization that every being outside of oneself is oneself, this individual is immensely compassionate, humble and wise. Living, realized masters and enlightened teachers who are aware of the undifferentiated nature of unitary consciousness are Transcendent Immortals. In the Buddhist tradition, when this variety of individual dies, the soul may elect to return for additional earthly reincarnations, as a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a compassionate soul who commits to revisit earthly life until all beings have found peace and ascended into heaven. A Transcendent Immortal also may ascend to become a Celestial immortal.
Celestial ImmortalFourth, the Celestial Immortal is one who has lived an exemplary life of right action, usually due to their understanding of cosmic unity. He or she has met the Celestial criterion and at death will ascend into heaven to reside as an immortal. The Celestial Immortal is considered to be a transcendent expression of the personal self -- personal characteristics are retained in the celestial realm. A Transcendent Immortal, following the completion of his or her local life, typically becomes a Celestial Immortal. The Daoist Celestial Immortal ascends into a layered multitude of heavens, as did both the Yellow Emperor and Ge Hong.
Eternally Human Immortal
Fifth, the Eternally Human Immortal is some one who retains health and youth forever in their current human form - physical immortality. This variety of immortality was so alluring to the several emperors of China that much of their imperial reign was spent trying to find the elixir of immortality. The idea of living forever in the same physiological form as one resides within currently, is not particularly attractive to most people. The quest for physical immortality has fallen out of fashion. During the Tang Dynasty several emperors died from taking poisonous elixirs of immortality.
The Quest for Immortality
In a much more modern and scientific sense, it can be said that it is impossible not to be immortal. Quantum science suggests that time and space are illusions based on the limitations of human sensory and intellectual capacity, that we actually dwell in a boundless and timeless quantum field. In addition, every religion promises some sort of eternal life, through a combination of right action and devotional practice, "The spirit never dies or the soul is eternal.” In some traditions one lives forever in heaven or hell, in other traditions one takes on numerous rebirths until one attains eligibility to enter heaven. Whether one is admitted to heaven by grace or by working through karma and reincarnation, everlasting life is guaranteed in all faiths. In one way or another, we are all immortal. It could be said that some people are aware of and working with their immortality, while others are simply not aware of their eternal nature.
Master Ge, at least it appears so in his writings, was interested in the path of physical immortality, the Eternally Human Immortal. In the Book of the Master who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi) (3), he refers frequently to the benefits of using external elixirs. "Nine Crucible Cinnabars is the elixir that the Yellow Emperor took and arose into the sky a Genii (immortal).”
interpreters insist that Master Ge was a devoted inner alchemist. It is
believed by these writers that he metaphorically encoded his formulas for
preparing the inner elixir in the language of laboratory alchemy (external
elixir), to help keep the path to immortality clear for only serious adepts.
"Drawing the light of sun, moon and dipper into the Hall of Enlightenment,
they enter trances to refine their bodies. Gathering their life giving exudates
from the golden beams of Paradise, they slow down the race toward old age and
retain their youth."
It is certainly true that there was a strong tradition among immortality writers to use the language of external alchemy metaphorically to represent the actual practice of inner alchemy. Fire, from the alchemist’s laboratory stove is actually inner Yang force. The medicine cauldron is actually the abdominal cavity of the human body. The ingredients in the formulas are not only herbs and minerals, but also nutritional foods, water and tea, rest and sleep, the organs production of blood, lymph and enzymes plus factors and aspects that are inherent like the DNA (according to more recent science especially the telemeres associated with the DNA). The "firing" process from laboratory alchemy is – in inner alchemy -- mental calm, the power of focused intent and the disciplined practice of inner cultivation.
Outer Alchemy Versus Inner AlchemyWhether the goal is healthy longevity or immortality there has been a debate in China for centuries as to whether the supreme elixir is best produced in an external laboratory or in a metaphorical internal laboratory. Ge Hong was an expert in both. The Nei Dan, inner elixir, tradition arises deep in the shamanic ear, long before written history. The Wai Dan, outer elixir, tradition began a few generations before Ge Hong and continued through the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 ACE). Six Tang dynasty emperors died seeking immortality through external alchemy elixirs that contained mercury and other poisonous metallic elements. By the Southern Song Dynasty (1126 ACE), with its capital in Hangzhou, the era of externally produced elixirs had come to a close and the Nei Dan tradition began to experience a magnificent revival.
Externally Produced Elixirs, Outer Alchemy - Wai Dan
There is a gradient of external elixirs. This gradient is the foundation of Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine and ranges from simply eating a diet of nutritious vegetables and grains, up through medicaments or formulas that are super nutrients like ginseng and ho shao wu to the alchemical level where agents like cinnabar, mercury and gold are utilized. The materials to prepare a quality elixir were expensive, and the cost to employ a master alchemist was high as well. Inner alchemy, as we shall see, does not have this limitation. Everyone can afford to produce the elixir of immortality that is produced within the human body; it is free.
The common people were able to access nutritional diets but they could afford only the least powerful of the pharamacological supplies like ginseng and deer antler. (Note, unlike tiger bone and bear's gall bladder, deer antler is an annual renewable crop and is therefore not involved in the controversy over endangered species.)
Only the extremely wealthy, with time and funds, could access alchemical knowledge and materials to produce high-level elixirs. If one was wealthy enough, of course, an alchemist could be hired or the elixir could be purchased. There is a liability to this however. It was found that it was risky if the elixir alchemist was out of one's control. Quite a few died from taking immortality elixirs that contained poisonous heavy metals. Often the alchemist would claim success – even when the customer died - claiming that the immortality seeker had abandoned the body and ascended to join the transcendental ones in the land of immortals, as a Celestial Immortal.
It is worth noting that in modern pharmacological medicine (a later day sort of external alchemy) customers often live longer lives but may have little quality of life. It is widely known that the third cause of death in both the US and Canada is the negative interaction of pharmaceuticals.
Even the great immortality specialists, including Master Ge, used the lower level elixirs of correct diet and tonic medical teas. Both of these prevent disease, cure disease, enhance health, strengthen the constitution, improve performance and potentiate healthy longevity. Immortality seekers historically used these nutritional strategies to strengthen themselves so they could tolerate the impact of the more intense alchemical elixirs which frequently included dangerous elements like mercury, metal oxides, carbonate of lead, tin and jade.
Most of the ancient classic herbal texts on healing and health enhancement (including Shen Nung Ben Cao and Shi Liao Ben Cao (4) categorize herbs and medicinal resources in four classes ranging from tonic, nutritional resources to medicinal, poisonous resources. Chinese traditional medicine has developed a highly refined approach to nutrition where particular tonic class foods are targeted at enhancing certain organs and personal attributes, including virtuous characterological qualities.
Lotus root, a delicious and commonly used food in China is reputed to strengthen weakened function of the stomach, tonify the spleen and liver, reinforce the spirit, increase vitality and prolong life. Ginger reinforces the digestive function, prevents disease and enhances deficient organ function caused by the lack of yang (warmth). Because all life and vitality is dependent on efficient digestion ginger is a longevity assurance food. Both Lotus root and Ginger are common foods of immortals and aspiring immortals. And they are common in Chinese dishes that are reputed to foster longevity and vitality.
Medicinal mushrooms, ginseng and ho shao wu are more likely to appear in longevity teas (actually called soup, tang) than in food. They are relatively available in Chinese pharmacies but they are much more expensive than ginger and lotus root. The health and longevity formulas that were taken as medicines, soups and teas, are at the heart of the aspect of Chinese traditional medicine referred to as "Support the Righteous" (also "Nourish the Vital Capacity").
This medical strategy whether it is targeted at healing disease, enhancing health and vitality or providing a foundation for immortality is based on nourishing the optimal function of the organ and energy systems.
Each organ has its favorite power food or tonic. Qi and blood each have a favorite herb and favorite foods as well. These are always included in general health tonics. The spleen, for example, loves Huang Qi (astragalus). The kidney's favorite is Ti Huang (rehmannia). The most famous tonic for the vitality or Qi is ginseng. For blood it is Tang Guei. A classic general tonic, Ho Shou Wu, is reputed to sustain eyesight and mental clarity and is loved by all of the organs. These herbs do not enhance health by targeting and killing disease or forcing deficient function, like the pharmaceutical medicine of the West. They empower the naturally occurring self-healing resource within that the Chinese refer to as Zhen - the "righteous.”
Foods and herbs that are intended to enhance health and prolong life may not produce immortality but they are powerful health sustainers, and healthy longevity is one of the key precursors to the purposeful quest for meaningful immortality in both Virtue Immortals and Transcendent Immortals. These tonic foods and herbs will soon become a key thread, in Western societies, in the emerging discussion of healthy longevity, wellness and performance enhancement as well as immortality or purposeful living of the eternal life.
The immortality elixir formulas, including the more dangerous metallic factors, were questionable for facilitating physical immortality. However, immortality alchemy was a remarkable advance in the science of practical chemistry as it emerged from its ancient shamanic roots. Similarly, the great European alchemist Paracelsus (1500 ACE) in Germany was a key figure in the foundation of modern European chemistry. The genuine forerunner of more modern pharmaceutical and industrial chemistry, European alchemy also explored transforming basic materials like tin, lead and even jade into gold. Interestingly, alchemy emerged in China nearly 1200-1500 years before it surfaced in Europe in the Rosicrucian and Paracelcian traditions.
Master Ge, in his Baopuzi lists 56 elixirs with various effects including transcendental flight, immortality, acquiring magical powers, creation of gold as well as healthy longevity and rejuvenation. Immortality elixirs are generally composed of mineral constituents, tending to precious, unusual and colorful in nature. Elixir preparation, it was believed, must be done in secret within the context of the highest Daoist ideals. It was a requirement that all exposure to negative influences or spirits must be practically and ritually avoided. Both a reverent practical tone and a focused spiritual tone were to be created and sustained in the alchemy context.
The Tools and Materials of the Elixir Alchemist in External Alchemy
In all forms of alchemy, from both the Asian and the European, an array of specific tools and implements were necessary to perform the preparation of immortality elixirs. It is important to keep in mind that it is very likely that external alchemists who promoted both making gold from soil and immortality elixirs from expensive minerals may have simply been naively (and dangerously) misinterpreting the more ancient and more likely system of inner alchemy. In this context, the equipment of the alchemical laboratory has parallels with the inner equipment and inner ingredients of inner alchemy. The alchemical laboratory or site (sometimes called a kitchen) had particular equipment and necessary resources. The alchemical stove as well as an alchemical vessel called the cauldron or elixir container were the key implements in elixir preparation. Also necessary were the essential elements of clear water, hot fire, fresh air, earthen minerals along with the fifth Chinese element often called wood (vegetative essence, which corresponds with life force or biological quickening in the West and "aether" in Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine.)
In addition a key to elixir making was the revered elixir recipes from former masters of immortality or the direct, personal revelation of new insights of the immortality alchemist. An elevated moral character, consistent with the ancient masters (immortals) LaoZi (Lao Tze) and ZhuangZi (Chuang Tze) also helped to insure security in the Taoist heavens. With absolutely correct resources and correct preparation an "elixir" could be produced that would create immortality with only one small dose.
The most renowned ingredient in the production of the external elixir of immortality tradition is cinnabar; it is a mysterious mineral or mineral combination. In Shen Neng's Classic Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing), cinnabar is described: “sweet taste, slightly cool, cleans all diseases of the five inner organs of the body, nourishes the spirit, calms the souls (spiritual and material), strengthens the Qi and brightens the eye. All evil influences and demons will be exterminated by its use, the light of spirit will become all pervading, and old age will be completely avoided.” If mutated, cinnabar turns to mercury. It is reputedly found in the deep ravines of the mountains. The immortal Master Ge proclaimed in his Baopuzi (The Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity) that cinnabar was the key resource for attaining longevity and immortality.
In modern time cinnabar, known as zhu sha, is a mineral compound (mercuric sulfide, magnesium oxide and ferric oxide). In traditional Chinese herbal medicine it is used to treat insomnia, heart palpitation, epilepsy and convulsions. Its properties are sweet, cold and toxic. At different times in history cinnabar ranged from a natural compound found in nature to a highly refined compound produced in the alchemist's laboratory. And, as we will explore soon, cinnabar has represented, metaphorically, an inner ingredient that an individual can cultivate and refine within the Spirit-Mind-Body complex.
Ge Hong was a cinnabar master. Of his "Nine Tripod Elixirs of the Yellow Emperor" eight are called cinnabar. One, floreate cinnabar, has the following recipe: “The base is simmered for 21 days, then sinestral oyster, red clay and kaolin are added. The concoction is placed in an earthenware jar, pounded 10,000 times (think homeopathy, secussed), transferred to an iron vessel and heated over raging flames for nine days. It is then pounded another 10,000 times into a fine powder which when mixed with specially brewed vinegar becomes the elixir. Taking this elixir for seven days will transform the individual into an immortal. If the elixir is manipulated somewhat differently, it is transformed into gold.”
Master Ge received many offers to be granted high level positions in government. Part of his Daoist charm is that he refused to become involved in the complexities of society. However, it is reputed that he once accepted a post as a magistrate of an area in southern China because it was the source of particularly pure cinnabar. He and his wife, the story goes, moved to this area on the fringe of China's imperial territory. He collected cinnabar for his alchemical refinery, helped to create peace and tranquility in the region and returned to his home with the gift of cinnabar for his wife's father, who was also an alchemist with a particular interest in producing silver and gold.
Cinnabar, which contains mercury and often arsenic, is no longer prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine. The cinnabar elixirs frequently caused severe poisoning. In empirical science, the science of the tried and true, cinnabar was found to be of less value than many of the longevity and immortality seekers had hoped. So, it disappeared from use. Mercury, copper and tin were found to be harmful as well, except in microscopic doses, and so they fell out of use as well. Historically, it is especially interesting to notice that in homeopathy, a much later day European approach to lengthening life by healing disease, microscopic dosing was even further refined using the 10,000 poundings recommended by Master Ge Hong, known in homeopathy as secussion. This process was in Master Ge Hong’s alchemy a method of potentizing the elixir. In homeopathy this process is in fact referenced as potentization.
Previous to the era of the quest for external alchemical elixirs of immortality there was a rich and growing body of knowledge about herbs and personal spirit-mind-body practices for those who were seeking healthy longevity, superior vitality and immortality. After the external alchemy era, which began during Master Ge's period and peaked in the Tang period, alchemy again evolved toward the notion that the seeker (the adept) – the alchemist -- actually produces the elixir within his or her own body in a process known as Nei Gong -- inner alchemy.Internally Produced Elixirs, Inner Alchemy - Nei Dan
Given the dangers of seeking immortality through external means, it is amazing that the practice of taking externally produced immortality elixirs had a history of many centuries. This may be a reflection of the magnitude of the fear of death or just simply the magnitude of the greed for the pleasures of life by the wealthy Chinese of these eras. By the Song period, external alchemy and the external elixir were in severe disfavor and the only alchemy that remained was inner alchemy – Nei Dan – which produced the elixir exclusively through the cultivation of inner processes. One legend about why Hangzhou was chosen for the Song capital suggests that the new imperial court and academic institutions wanted to be near Master Ge's hermitage on Precious Stone Hill. It is clear now what “precious stone” references -- the precious ingredients, typically minerals, of alchemy. In addition, it also becomes clear that the Song emperors were not likely interested in Master Ge Hong’s mercury based external elixirs, but his recipes and formulas for making the elixir within. Each of these precious minerals has an alchemical analog within. Each ingredient in the formulation and each of the tools in the alchemist’s laboratory, as we will see, represents an aspect of our own internal being.
Internal alchemy has had a long history, beginning long before written records. Pangu is the original shamanic mystery land of China where mortals and immortals co-existed in a golden era of peacefulness. The ancient legendary Shang Dynasty (1700 BCE) and more recent legendary Zhou dynasty (1000 BCE) were probably historic in some ways, but all knowledge at the time was spoken. An alchemy type conceptual framework was a prevalent “paradigm” as well in the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE) and the Warring States period (476 – 221 BCE), the time of China’s greatest teachers Confucius, Lao Tze and Chuang Tze. In all of the available writings of these great thinkers there is an underlying thread of the eternality of things – a kind of ancient quantum physics and the foundation of immortality alchemy. In the era of Ge Hong, known, as the Six Dynasties period both internal and external alchemy were prominent. Ge Hong was one of the earliest and most prolific writers on immortality and alchemy. Scholars claim that he was actually collecting in writing the spoken wisdom of many that came before him in earlier, more shamanic time.
Inner alchemy continues to evolve today. In Asia Nei Dan (inner medicine) and Nei Gong (inner cultivation) are revered by many. Wai Dan – external alchemy still exists in China though the mercury and arsenic ingredients are very rarely seen. The pharmacology of Western medicine is very much in the business of promising extended life even with the negative influence of side effects, overdosing and the dangers of polypharmacy causing negative drug interactions. With the importation of Qigong and Tai Chi into the West there is an absolute gusher of research on the health enhancing and life extending influence of mind-body practice and energy medicine. New scientific evidence suggests that inner enhancement does occur through intentful personal practice, and the breakthroughs in quantum physics make a compelling case for the link between the personal and the universal.
Like external alchemy, inner alchemy is comprised of a gradient of formulas and activities. Unlike the external, because the elixir is produced within, the most precious ingredients are not so limited to the wealthy. For example the poorest of people have direct access to the practice of stress reduction and its benefits. In many ways inner alchemy is an elaborate and profound form of stress mastery. Cultivation and refinement practices do require two important resources that most Chinese have (except for laborers in former eras) and that average citizens of Western societies have today. The first is time. In China today nearly everyone takes the time between 5:30 am and 7:00 am to perform personal health cultivation – right living and Qigong. Second, it is important to have a healthful diet of vital, nourishing foods. Most Chinese citizens have in recent times had access to natural foods because grains, beans and vegetables are easily produced in China. Highly processed Western style foods have typically not been available until recently. Most tonic herbs, to modify and enhance internal function, are inexpensive. Most herbal pharmacies have ginseng, longevity mushrooms, ho shao wu, antler and other of the super tonics available for little expense in China. Because of the global interest in Chinese medicine, resources are strained and prices are rising. In the West both of these resources, time and nourishing food, are available. It is true that few people understand how accessible practical alchemy is to them.
With time to practice inner cultivation and nutritious foods and herbs to optimize internal resources, the necessary ingredients for inner elixir preparation are in place. Practices such as body flexibility and strengthening through gymnastics and calisthenics, self-applied massage, breathing practices, chanting, visualization, meditation and prayer are also involved in internal elixir refinement. All of these are merged into what the Chinese have come to call Qigong. As in external alchemy, the first levels of practice provide a foundation for the higher levels of inner alchemy. Right diet and the use of tonic herbs (or nutraceuticals) plus body movement, particular body postures, breath practice and self-applied massage all produce internal healing resources - the internal elixir. These are the more Yin alchemical ingredients associated with the body and the earth which are the foundation for the higher levels of cultivation. These “ingredients” often referred to as the Earth aspect of the inner elixir.
The higher levels practice - chanting, visualization, prayer and meditation - produce an aspect of the internal "elixir" which is more transcendental. These are the Yang alchemical “ingredients”. The key in these higher levels of practice is Yi or mind-intent. Intention is the metaphorical equivalent of cinnabar. In Wai Dan, while the basic level of longevity and immortality was simply getting the body healthy, the higher level aspects of alchemy were life threatening. In the higher levels Nei Dan cultivation one merges with the field of virtue and beneficence to become one with the pure field of quantum potential. This is the virtual state, wherein one is present in the entire universe while, simultaneously, present in one local body. Virtual, in modern terms means to have a presence but not be limited to a place, as in virtual reality. In Daoist terms virtual is linked to virtue, which is not only a personal quality but also a unified field of being – Tai Yi - The Ineffably Immense ONE -- that all humans share. In the mystery or Dao, it becomes impossible to harm as one is directly woven in a boundless fabric with all – all things and all beings. One is virtually alive; therefore one is virtuous, unbounded and aware of one's eternal or immortal nature. It is rare to fear or to harm. In this state of ONEness it becomes obvious that any pain or assault is only coming from an aspect of the self - this leads to fearlessness. In this state it is rare to harm, because in the ONEness, it is senseless to harm oneself.
Internal alchemy replaced external, pharmacologic alchemy, not just because it was safer, but also because it is far less limited. The proponents of inner alchemy knew that it was available to every one not just the wealthy. Inner alchemy is clearly more effective than any system of external drugs, remedies, medications or elixirs in creating health, longevity and an awareness of immortality. It is apparent that Ge Hong was compelled to explore the production of an external elixir. However, it is also clear from his writing that he strongly believed that the medicine of immortality could be produced within. It may be that he was able to raise funds occasionally by selling some of the external elixirs that he made. There is no record of him killing anyone, so it may be that his external elixirs were primarily herbal formulas.
The elaborate recipes for the immortality elixirs with mercury and sulfur likely were metaphoric formulas for inner practice. For example, what might be the metaphoric equivalent of the “10,000 poundings” and the “9 times firing” in Master Ge’s recipes? In life, to get to the point where the mind and heart are clear of fear and the defenses of the personality, one is pounded over and over with trials and challenges, even false starts and realizations about the nature of things – this is likely “the 10,000 poundings”. In the cultivated individual these experiences are opportunities to refine. Eventually after decades of lessons/opportunities, especially if one evolves through focus and discipline, to the perspective of the witness rather than the victim, one is transformed. In alchemy this is called transmuted. Those who are attentive typically realize – meaning become more real. In the state of greater realization one is accepting of that which “is”, sustains a sense of humor and always watches for opportunities to migrate toward a state of calm. This is the “firing” or cooking process. In alchemy, when the ingredients have been cooked and cooked again at high heat (high level of intent) all that is left is pure gold – the refined self.
In his writings Ge Hong described ample methods for enhancing the health and endurance of the body systems. These practices, he declared, were practical methods for refining the body’s capacity to sustain well enough (health) and long enough (longevity) to become aware of the potential of life beyond the fears and aspirations of the personality (ego). Such practical methods (Yin) were combined in balance and harmony with transcendental, consciousness cultivation methods (Yang) that function to create paranormal events like miracles, healings, ecstatic flight and soul purification.
The famous physician Hua To from the Han Dynasty (second century ACE before Ge Hong) developed a well-known practice for enhancing the body, the blood and the vitality (Qi). He copied animal patterns of movement and stated "who ever feels sick anywhere in the body should undertake the practice of one or the other of the animals patterns."
It is known that Master Ge Hong had a copy of a famous Gymnastics classic, Daoyin Jing in his library. He also studied the massage classic, Anmo Jing. Self-applied massage methods are key components of the practice of sustaining and enhancing health of the body, which is referred to as the alchemical vessel in inner alchemy. A health body is the preferred vehicle for the more refined levels of alchemy. Ge Hong refers to the widespread spread use of Hua To's animal patterns in his Baopuzi. He may have been referring to them in the following quotation:
Hua To's method copies five animals and Ge Hong lists seven including the mythological dragon and the favorite of many immortality masters, the tortoise. Master Ge may be reflecting on a different system, one that is even more directed at inner alchemy.
Many thousands of methods of cultivation have emerged over thousands of years. The more dynamic forms, Dong Gong, enhance the Qi and produce the medicine within by accelerating internal fluids, delivering oxygen and enhancing flexibility and functional efficiency of the connective tissue. The more quiescent forms, Qing Gong, including meditation and visualization type practices, enhance the Qi, accelerate the level of immune potential and foster the production of healing neurotransmitters. In both forms, known today as Qigong, the ability to deeply relax and clear the mind are the most profound triggers of the alchemical process and the production of the inner elixir of healing and immortality.
The Tools of the Elixir Alchemist in Internal Alchemy
The production of the alchemical elixir of immortality in inner alchemy is the same as in external alchemy, except that in inner alchemy the production facility and the raw materials for elixir refinement are all interacting within the person – Spirit-Mind-Body. The individual is the alchemical laboratory (kitchen). The alchemical vessel is the body cavities. These areas for preparing the elixir are called "elixir fields" (Dan Tian) or medicine centers. The flame (fire) is in the lower pelvic area related to the Yang (hot) energy of the kidney (Yuan Qi) and is also known as the alchemical fire, fire of life, original (ancestral) Qi or the cooking activity of the alchemical stove. The cauldron or refining container is in the abdominal cavity.
The raw materials for the production of the inner medicine for longevity and immortality include the nourishing minerals and herbs and good food choices, the air of the breath, as well as the internally residing essence (Jing, which is an analogue to DNA, neuropeptides, endocrine fluids, male sperm and female egg). Blood and body fluids are also stirred in to the inner elixir soup. From the middle Dan Tian caldron, the essence of the inner elixir medicine rises as steam (Qi) into the chest and is circulated in the body as the Qi of the energy channels - Zhen Qi or righteous Qi.
In internal alchemy, cinnabar is a metaphorical element of consciousness and the clear minded awareness of the transcendental nature. Cinnabar is the non-substantial “catalyst” of alchemical transformation. Mental clarity, emotional calm along with imaginative, spiritual and virtual elements are purposefully cultivated and stirred into the elixir. Cosmic or universal factors are blended in through cultivation practice in a ritual mood to rarify the elixir. Energy and influences from stars, planets, sun, moon and earth are carefully mixed with the radiant energies of ascended masters, legendary alchemists, god's essence and the "mysterious origin - unity”. What an amazing sort of medicine this is – all produced mindfully within one’s own being. Access to wellbeing and improved health springs spontaneously from such practice. Longevity is its longer-term outcome. And, in the presence of the highest value of the Dao - virtue - such practice assures awareness of one's eternal nature and unity with all that is and beyond - the foundation of awakened immortality.
When the practitioner has the skill to coordinate the functioning of the alchemical equipment of the body, mind and spirit along with the alchemical raw materials from the body and nature under the influence of conscious intention (mind intent), the "elixir" is produced purposefully within. Inner alchemy is a process of attaining what the philosophers of modern physics might call “purposeful convergence with and immersion in the boundless quantum field of infinite potential”. In both the Daoist and Buddhist schools of immortality practice, inner alchemy and the production of the elixir of eternal life are aimed at attaining a state of constant awareness of the self and the universe as one.
One of the most prevalent methods of inner alchemy is, in fact, called "Guarding the One.” The "One" (also translated as Truth-Unity or Origin) is the singular, undifferentiated, boundless field of all possible essences, things and interactions. This is likely the quantum field that Western culture discovered 2,000 years after the Chinese alchemists of the Han Dynasty (200 BCE) and the Old Master himself, LaoZi (400 BCE) described it using the simple tool of disciplined inner focus. Guarding the One is common throughout the Daoist and Buddhist literature and has many iterations, descriptions and methodologies. There are numerous other inner alchemy systems, too many to mention. The goal, however, is always the same -- seek absolute awareness of oneself as undifferentiated from the entire cosmos, at one with the unity of all, completely merged with undifferentiated Origin.
Master Ge from his humble dwelling on Precious Stone Hill gives this prescription for producing the "elixir" through inner alchemical practice in Chapter 18 of his Baopuzi (The Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity):
Alchemy in Current Time
Even today there are people who wish for immortality. Obviously, no one has succeeded in achieving immortality of the human body on the earthly plane. However, there is an argument currently that such a state can be attained through technology. Numerous people have cryogenically frozen themselves so that they may be thawed out and given a newly developed "elixir of eternal life" (whenever that is actually developed) and live forever. There is an emerging trend that suggests that certain new nutritional supplements, known as nutraceuticals, will extend life and postpone aging.
The wisdom of using foods as medicine is still intact. The great longevity formulas of herbs, roots and mushrooms are still available. Qigong, the methods for Spirit-Mind-Body cultivation, continue to evolve and have been migrating to Europe and America. As the modern world looks for health, healing, longevity and even immortality the writings and practices of Master Ge Hong remain powerful resources. Oddly, while the promise of such disciplines is provocative and compelling, these practices are little known and rarely utilized – even though they are very inexpensive and very accessible. In part we just don’t believe in the inherent power of our own being. And, the esoteric language of ancient time can be confounding. In Hangzhou, now nearly 1700 years later, the Temple of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity is still intact. The dragon shaped mountain, the well of alchemical water, a humble Daoist temple, the Master's practice place at the top of the mountain are all still there. Hangzhou is an immense modern city now, and the thrill of visiting Ge Hong's neighborhood is not what it used to be. However it is meaningful to stand on that ground knowing what Ge Hong did, what he thought about, what he wrote, what he practiced and that his wisdom is only now beginning to have its beneficial effect on the chaotic modern world.
Master Ge, His Practice in the Dawn
On this beautiful morning Master Ge does not seem to care about the future or the debate on inner and outer alchemy. He simply gathers the Yin influences of earth through his energy circulatory system, into the alchemical cauldron within his torso. This includes the influences from the herbs in his morning tea. He gathers in the Yang influences of celestial heavens, into the inner alchemical cauldron as well, which includes focused mind intent, clearing distraction, stirring the unseen aspects of his eternal nature in with the absorption of celestial energies.
Mindfully he mixes them, Yin earth and Yang heaven, within the alchemical vessel of his own body. He can feel the circulation of forces within, brewing the most supreme elixir – refining and cooking the combination of inner resources and outer elements into the most profound medicine.
This elixir circulates within him for hours to sustain his body, calm his mind, cultivate his spirit and open the portal between his local self and the infinite ONEness of Dao. As he continues to refine the elixir within he begins to – with breath and consciousness -- direct it into the circulatory channels, into the organs and to the limbs. Trusting that the practice produces a powerful medicine, he allows himself to – in a kind of gentle ecstasy -- fall into the arms of infinity and merge with cosmic unity.
Master Ge is not simply a man practicing elixir making in the rosy dawn, he is a superconscious local expression of the entire universe. He is the presence within a discrete being of what Daoist writers call "undifferentiated origin" or the "supreme ultimate.” He is immortal because he is aware of his unity with what the new alchemists – our physicists -- have determined to be the timeless and boundless field of infinite possibility.
Your Immortal Self - TodayIt is fairly clear, given knowledge and wisdom of both the ancient sage wizards and the modern day wizards of physics that alchemy and the practice understanding immortality is within reach of anyone who is disciplined enough to eat right, cultivate physical and mental flexibility and develop a relationship with the aspect the self that can not be harmed and does not die. The practicing immortal does not have to pay a large fee to a seller of elixirs or go to a temple or a cave to live a monk’s or hermit’s life. The caring cultivation of the physical and emotional self along with a continuously developing and refining awareness of the relationship between our own being and the true nature of nature -- that is alchemy! Given the accessibility of the natural ingredients of alchemy and the longing that we all share to be well, understand our lives deeply and liberate ourselves from fear – it is very likely that we will be seeing a renaissance in practical alchemy right here in our own time, at the beginning of the 21st century.
(1) The year 341 after the common era (ACE), from the Roman calendar, is 341 ACE. 2010 ACE on the Roman calendar is the 4707th Year since the Ascension of the Yellow Emperor, the Year of the Golden Tiger. In traditional China it is not 2010, it is 4707.
(2) Also Ko Hung, both Ge and Ko are pronounced "guh.” He was born around 280 ACE and ascended 363 ACE (83 years). There are many opinions on these dates and the actual duration of his life.
(3) Translated into English and published by James Ware as Alchemy, Medicine and Religion in the China of AD 320, Dover Publications, 1966, New York.
Nung Ben Cao, written by the legendary founder of Chinese herbal medicine,
1200 BCE; Shi Liao Ben Cao, written
by Meng Xian, Tang Dynasty, 600-900