Daoist Internal Alchemy – Interpreting The Ancient Codes


Interpreting The Ancient Codes: An Example from the Zhou Yi Can Tong Qi, a Taoist Alchemy Class

by Shawn Cartwright

The language of alchemy is a language that attempts to say the contradictory

Isabelle Robinet, The World Upside Down, p2

Trans. Fabrizio Pregadio


The Dao is unspeakable and the mystical experience is inexpressible; yet, say the masters, in order to expound and transmit them, one is bound to use the language.
Isabelle Robinet, The World Upside Down, p17, Trans. Fabrizio Pregadio

One of the hallmarks of the Chinese Taoist classics, especially those of Nei Dan (內丹, Internal Alchemy) is that they attempt to describe the indescribable. They were written in language that is both very specific and inherently ambiguous with meanings intentionally hidden from outsiders. It is a type of “code” which must be interpreted in order to access the ancient wisdom contained within their lines.

The texts serve many purposes, but most were not intended for popular consumption. Rather, they were written for a small group of initiates. The classic texts of Internal Alchemy are thought to convey at least three layers of meaning: 1) Dao (道), the great principles behind the work, 2) Fa (法), the actual methods or approach used by various schools, and 3) Shu (朮), the specific techniques of the practices. The great principles presented in the classics generally apply to most traditions while the actual methods and specific techniques may vary by school or even lineage.

The actual methods and specific techniques are usually only passed orally from teacher to student. They are often considered “secrets” never to be written down or lightly revealed in order to protect the practice and prevent unintended outcomes. This secrecy existed in a state of tension with a general interest in preserving and advancing the knowledge. For this reason, texts were created to preserve the knowledge and sometimes act as training aids for the students. However, the metaphoric imagery and code-like wording used in the classic texts served not only to protect the secrets from the uninitiated, but also helped to create a shift in the mind set of the reader.

Students should labor and toil, thinking at length and reflecting at depth. The ultimate essentials have been fully disclosed: they gleam and never deceive.
Can Tong Qi, p91 Trans. Fabrizio Pregadio

The study of these ancient classics takes place on several levels. The first is intellectual. You try to read and understand what is being said. This reveals the first layers of meaning of the text. To go further you need to actually practice. As the quality of your practice improves, so will your understanding of what is being said in the classics. This is why sometimes a teacher, after explaining the major principles and concepts of the classics, tells the student to go practice specific techniques. It is only after diligent and successful practice that the multi-layered meanings in the texts are revealed.

Interpreting the Taoist classics is both an art and a science. The scientific part relates to the historical, linguistic, and textual analysis. A basic understanding of the principles of the Taoist belief system and culture are also helpful. Although this enables a translator to render a Sinologically sound version of the text, it is only the first step.

Language is also an art form. This is especially true of Classical Chinese and even truer of the esoteric Chinese classics (经, Jing, Classic or Scripture). These texts were written in short, concise poetic verses. They were transmitted by either memorization or painstaking hand copying. It is hard to overstate the amount of work and broad set of skills required to render a decent translation of such texts, especially those of Nei Dan. It is not only possible to translate these texts incorrectly, but also possible to translate the same text in different, but correct, ways! This is especially true if the interpretation of the text is based on the perspective of a specific tradition, school or lineage. For these reasons it is helpful for the translator to have a strong background in Taoism and its associated internal and external practices if the coded language is to be accurately interpreted.

If you look into this and have the blessed encounter, you will behold the course of all things, comparing one another according to their kind, to assess their end and beginning.

Can Tong Qi, p107 Trans. Fabrizio Pregadio

To illustrate the challenges in interpreting these ancient codes, we’ll explore an interesting passage from the Zhou Yi Can Tong Qi (周易參同契, also Romanized Ts’an T’ung Ch’i) to see how seemingly simple statements can take on many layers of meaning. This passage is found Section 64 (pp 105-106) Fabrizo Pregadio’s translation (2011, Golden Elixir Press). cartwright picture

We have selected this particular passage from the Can Tong Qi because it deals with some aspects of alchemy practice which are applicable to many Taoist traditions, schools and lineages. The entire passage can be read from the perspectives of Wai Dan (外丹) or Nei Dan (內丹). The major Nei Dan schools include the Southern (南派, Nan Pai), Northern (北派, Bei Pai), Eastern (東派, Dong Pai), Western (西派, Xi Pai), Yin Xian (隱仙派) and the Yin-Yang (阴阳派). Although space does not permit us to do so here, keep in mind the passage should also be read in context of the work as a whole.

Lines 1-6 explain the principles of inversion and set the stage for the actual practice. In addition they can refer to specific techniques found in some schools including “Setting up the Furnace” and the “Small Heavenly Circulation.”

In line 9, Xian (銜) is rendered as “Bite” by both translators. “Bite” is often associated with a method for closing the “Magpie Bridge.” Xian’s (銜) basic meaning is “holding in the mouth.” For example, it can be used to refer to the swallow which holds the mud in its beak as it flies back to build its nest. If this rendering is accepted, an additional layer of meaning could be implied which relates to a specialized technique used in some schools of internal alchemy. This technique is sometimes called “Dragon Holding the Pearl” and has different meanings depending upon the stage of practice. Gulp may also refer to ‘Drinking the Jade Liquid.” In line 10, Chew and Swallow could refer to a second specialized method of closing the “Magpie Bridge” and, of course, to “Swallowing the Jade Liquid.” To summarize, lines 9 and 10 could refer to two specific techniques performed at one level of the practice and several more specialized sub-techniques at higher levels of the practice. The exact techniques may vary greatly by school and other readings are possible, especially if the Yin-Yang school is considered.

Lines 11-12 could be read as not only referring to the Planets, True Lead/Mercury, and the Five Elements/Phases, but also to a progressive stage of the practice. When this stage is reached, the Sha Qi (殺氣) “Killing Qi” mentioned in line 13 is generated.

Photo Courtesy of: lisaliclinic.com

Lines 13-18 are some of the most challenging to understand in this section. Fabrizio Pregadio explains the general principle of inversion in his notes to Section 64 (pp 202-203).  He comments on Lines 11-14: When “the life-taking breath” of True Lead subdues True Mercury then the Elixir is achieved.” He concludes with the observation that “…each individual component plays its role without conceit or objection.” This represents one layer of meaning.

Zhu Yuan Yu, a Long Men Taoist adept from Qing Dynasty, wrote a commentary which, although somewhat biased towards his lineage’s point of view, provides additional insight. When the inversion occurs, the controlling Element moves into the house of the Element to be controlled, as is the case of Metal moving to Wood’s place. Because Metal is already in the house of Wood, the control happens instantaneously, like a hawk seizing a bird or a cat/dog a rat. It happens so fast they don’t even have a chance to make a sound. Thus the control becomes effortless, an example of non-action (無爲, Wu Wei) in action! This overwhelming control is compared to Sha Qi (殺氣 or Killing Qi). Because all this killing (control) is instantaneous and overpowering, how could you not overcome!

In line 14 Qing (傾) can mean to “overturn” or to “tip over.” One way to read this line is “Faced with such killing Qi, how could you not overturn/tip over?” This gives us at least three seemingly contradictory meanings of lines 13-14, which we’ll summarize as:

“When True Lead subdues True Mercury then the Elixir is achieved.”

“There is so much killing going on, how could you not succeed?”

“Faced with such killing Qi, how could you not tip over (overturn)?”

The first describes the output of the successful completion of the practice, the Elixir. The second is a rhetorical question referring to one of the major risks or potential deviations inherent in the practice, which is “Tipping over the Furnace.” (Recall we set it up in lines 1-6 and practiced well in lines 7-10 which, in turn, created the situation described in lines 11-12). In the early stages of practice, this deviation is merely a setback. As you progress in your practice, it becomes more dangerous, or even deadly, generating perhaps another meaning of “Killing Qi.” In this case:

“Your practice is so successful, how could it not kill you?”

There is a saying among practitioners: “Those who start are as numerous as the hairs on the ox. Those who finish are as rare as the phoenix’s feathers and the unicorn’s horns” (闻道者多如牛毛,得道者凤毛麟角, Wen Dao Zhe Duo Ru Niu Mao, De Dao Zhe Feng Mao Lin Jiao). Usually this refers to the lack of determination and dedication of the student to the cultivation. However, this statement also embeds a warning for those who practice diligently, but deviate. They do not finish either, but their fall is usually serious since they had more to lose. This meaning is not limited to Nei Dan. For example, mercury poisoning was a common “Killing Qi” among Wai Dan practitioners. energy

Again, there is a temptation to try and select one possible meaning as the “The Meaning.” However, if you are willing to accept multiple, seemingly contradictory, interpretations the possibility for greater understanding emerges. That is, these lines describe the process and outcome of successful practice (meaning 1); the risks, which vary by stage of practice (meanings 3 and 4); and also the solution (meaning 2). That is, in answer to the question, “How do you overcome the killing energy?” the passage uses the natural imagery of predators killing prey to explain. That is, you use the very same Killing Qi, in this case the controlling cycle in the Five Elements, to kill (control) the Killing Qi! Similar ideas are found throughout the Chinese classics: “The demon which was the adversary becomes the ally.” “The Master, held at sword point by the Servant, turns the sword around.” Or, “Use poison to fight poison.”

The wise should reflect, and, with attention, comprehend it.
Can Tong Qi, p115, Trans. Fabrizio Pregadio

“Interpreting the Ancient Codes” is by no means an easy task. If it were, it likely wouldn’t be worth doing. The best translations of the classics are produced by those who have the requisite training and experience to re-create the rich imagery of the original in the translated language. Furthermore, they have the ability to explain the symbolism in a way that is understandable to committed readers. Finally, they are able to present the translation in a way that permits the practitioners of the various Taoist schools and lineages to understand the main principles behind the text.

Studying the classic Taoist texts is important for every serious student of Nei Dan. Our teachers transmit the methods of cultivating Ming (命) or Life, but it is up to us to cultivate our own Xing (性) or Nature. The classics not only connect us to our lineage, their richly layered imagery, symbolism, and seeming inherent contradictions assist us in cultivating both Xing and Ming. Through our efforts in personal transformation and diligent practice of the cultivation methods of our schools we transcend the mundane and progress ever closer to immortality (仙, Xian).

This article is a selection from the paper “Interpreting the Ancient Codes: Exploring the Classics of Taoist Alchemy, An Introduction to the Zhou Yi Can Tong Qi” The complete paper is available as a free download from www.tccii.com.

Shawn Cartwright

Shawn Cartwright

Mr. Shawn Cartwright is the Executive Director of the Traditional Chinese Culture Institute International (TCCII). As a co-founder of TCCII, he is dedicated to promoting deeper and broader understanding of the Chinese cultural traditions, and works tirelessly to revitalize the traditions that have special meaning and relevance to today’s world. He provides a diverse curriculum and rich experience for his students, drawn from his many years of intensive training in Internal Alchemy, Qigong, Tai Chi, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, and Fujian Baihequan. A consistent practitioner of both the martial and healing arts, he excels in helping students connect the principles with practice, and integrate them into their daily life. To better bridge the Eastern and Western cultures, Mr. Cartwright hosts the Silent Tao blog (www.silenttao.com) and TCCII video channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/tccii) where he shares the rich context and first-hand experiences in his study of Chinese culture. He co-authored and produced the Chinese Classical Meditation CD Series and training DVDs on Qigong, Tai Chi Chuan and Kung Fu. Mr. Cartwright earned his MBA and BS from Vanderbilt University. He studied public health at Johns Hopkins University.



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2 Responses to Daoist Internal Alchemy – Interpreting The Ancient Codes

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