So how is Daoist internal alchemy practiced? Sects differ in emphasis when it comes to each stage, but most agree on what is accomplished in each step of the series of stages that are undertaken, with each serving as a prerequisite for the subsequent. External strengthening focuses on the body, especially muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and the spinal column. Bone strengthening is also regarded as important as well, and this physical stage must be accomplished before mental and spiritual stages can be begin. This can sometimes include internal martial arts like Tai Chi and yoga-like postures.
Keep in mind that the methods of internal alchemy I am discussing are unique to the Singular Path, which focuses on minimizing sexual desire and activity, as these alchemists believe the ingredients for spiritual cultivation exist within oneself and one does not need a sexual partner to accomplish it. The Lung-men sect of the Complete Reality School is uniquely focused upon celibacy as an alleged necessity for spiritual cultivation. This sect emphasizes cultivating the mind in particular, as opposed to others that focus on cultivating both body and mind (Hsien-tien Dao and Wu-Liu sects) or only the body (Wu-tang-shan sect).
After external strengthening, we come to internal strenghtening, also known as nei-chaung, which improves the internal structure and functions of the body. Once the skeletal system is strong enough, internal work begins by massaging internal organs, enhancing blood circulation and stimulating the nervous system. Moving the spine accomplishes internal organ massage and nervous system stimulation. The spine is attached to internal organs by many muscles within the body, and so gentle movement of the spine shakes the organs and massages them internally.
Next, the mind is refined. This involves cultivating inner silence, minimizing desire, withdrawing from sensory stimulation and excitement and living in simplicity. This stage of training takes the form of quiet sitting or standing and can also involve inner movement. Changes in daily lifestyle are also necessary. For some sects, this is the first step, prior to cultivating the body with internal and external strengthening.
From here, we move on to the middle stages, which involve transforming one’s internal energy. Although there is disagreement about the order in which to conduct internal/external strengthening and clearing the mind, all sects of internal alchemy agree upon this sequence. When one is refining generative energy for the transformation of vital energy, one focuses on gathering, refining and then transforming this generative energy. This concentrates the work on the abdominal area around the lower dan tian and lower gate. It is important at this stage to regulate and minimize sexual desire.
The lower dan tian is responsible for the production and retention of generative energy. It leaves the body during sexual activity or desire and turns from pristine to contaminated. The first step in this part of internal alchemy is to stem the leakage of generative energy by minimizing sexual activity and desire, allowing the generative energy or jing to to be retained and refined. Internal and external health also work to improve this energy.
After you gather enough generative energy, you have to refine it by starting the furnace fires of the lower dan tian. This furnace is powered by water or generative energy. The generator starts and heat results from the lower dan tian, which is the birth if the yang. Next, we set up the cauldron in the lower dan tian. The cauldron contains generative energy which is here refined, tempered and stored away. The lower gate is accessed through the lower cauldron. This gate is located in the spinal column between the kidneys and when it is opened, the lower cauldron emerges and this allows generative energy to be refined.
Once this jing is transformed into qi, it must then be refined into shen in the subsequent stage. Eventually, it is ready to merge with the primordial Dao. Once jing has been refined in a way that causes it to become vapor, it rises to the middle dan tian and results in what is known as the blossoming of the Lead Flower. It is important for the Daoist practitioner during this practice to regulate emotion and minimize sexual desire. This qi is then stored in the middle dan tian at which point it is refined and rises to the upper dan tian, resulting in the blossoming of the Silver Flower. When this happens, energy pathways between upper and lower parts of the body allow qi circulation that can occur in the Microcosmic and Macrocosmic Orbits.
Finally, qi is refined into shen energy to prepare for its return to the Void / Dao. The upper dan tian, which is the focus of this stage of internal alchemy, exists between the eyes and the complete refinement of shen energy is known as the blossoming of the Golden Flower. All three energies rise to the head of this stage as one bundle of undifferentiated energy. This stage is known as the stage of the Three Flowers. This vapor then descends to the abdomen to produce the immortal fetus, which needs to be incubated in the body just like a real one. When this happens, the practitioner must find a quiet place to avoid distraction as the immortal fetus can be easily lost.
The Void is cultivated as a means to merge with the Dao when the incubation is complete and the immortal fetus emerges from the womb as the original spirit. This original spirit leaves the lower abdominal area and enters the chest. Here, it is fed by internal energy and absorbs vapor. As it matures, it leaves the body and travels to various realms as it searches for its way back to the Origin / Source. Once the physical body dies, the Original Spirit/Mind is liberated and merged with the undifferentiated energy of the Dao, which is the ultimate end of internal alchemy.
As before, special thanks to Eva Wong’s well-known and essential guide to Daoism for information on Chinese internal alchemy.