The Chinese compound nèidān combines the common word nèi 內 meaning “inside; inner; internal” with dān 丹 “cinnabar; vermillion; elixir; alchemy”. The antonym of nèi is wài 外 “outside; exterior; external”, and nèidān “internal elixir / alchemy” was coined from the earlier complementary term wàidān 外丹 “external elixir / alchemy”.
Chinese alchemical texts and sources ordinarily call neidan the jīndān dào 金丹道 or Way of the Golden Elixir. In Modern Standard Chinese usage, the term nèidān shù 內丹術 (with 術 “art; skill; technique; method”) refers generally to internal alchemical practices.
The date for the earliest use of the term neidan is uncertain. Arthur Waley proposed that it was first recorded in the 559 vow taken by Tiantai Buddhist patriarch Nanyue Huisi praying to successfully make an elixir that would keep him alive till the coming of Maitreya (1930: 14). Many scholars agreed, including Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen who translated Huisi’s vow to live as an ascetic in the mountains:
I am seeking for the longevity in order to defend the Faith, not in order to enjoy worldly happiness. I pray that all the saints and sages will come to my help, so that I may get some good magic mushrooms [zhi 芝], and numinous elixirs [shendan 神丹], enabling me to cure all illnesses and to stop both hunger and thirst. In this way I shall be able to practice continually the way of the Sutras and to engage in the several forms of meditations. I shall hope to find a peaceful dwelling in the depths of the mountains, with enough numinous elixirs and medicine to carry out my plans. Thus by the aids of external elixirs [waidan] I shall be able to cultivate the elixir within [neidan]. (1983: 140)
Others believed that neidan first occurred in the biographies of Deng Yuzhi 鄧郁之 (fl. 483–493) and Su Yuanming 蘇元明 (fl. c. 600). However, the authenticity of the relevant passages in these “pseudo-historical sources” is doubtful (Baldrian-Hussein 1989: 164–171).
The term neidan was seldom used throughout the late Tang dynasty (618–907) and Five dynasties (907–960) period, and only became widespread around the beginning of the Song dynasty (960–1279) period, when neidan evolved into a highly complex system in both its theoretical and practical aspects (Baldrian-Hussein 2008: 763). Tang texts described internal alchemical practices with the words fúyào 服藥 “take drug/medicine” and chángshēng 長生 “long life, longevity; (Daoism) eternal life” (Baldrian-Hussein 1989: 170). Liu Xiyue’s 劉希岳 988 Taixuan langranzi jindao shi 太玄朗然子進道詩 (Master Taixuan Langran’s Poems on Advancing in the Dao) has the earliest datable mention of the terms neidan and waidan (Baldrian-Hussein 1989: 174, 178, 180). The c. 1019 Yunji Qiqian Daoist anthology mentions the term neidan (Baldrian-Hussein 1989: 178).
Early texts that mention neidan define it as synonymous or similar with some qi circulation techniques: Cultivation and Transmutation (xiulian 修煉), Embryonic Breathing (taixi 胎息), the Cyclical Elixir (huandan 還丹), the Golden Elixir (jindan 金丹), the Great Elixir (dadan 大丹), the Interior and Exterior Medicines (nei/waiyao 内外藥), the Inner and Outer Counterparts (nei/waixiang 内外象), and the Yin Elixir and Yang Elixir (yindan 陰丹 and yangdan 陽丹) (Baldrian-Hussein 1989: 179–186).
Based upon the textual evidence, Farzeen Baldrian-Hussein concludes that in early texts, neidan refers to a specific technique, and by Song Emperor Zhenzong’s reign (997–1022), the term designates a group of techniques, expressed in specific alchemical language (1989: 187).
It is sometimes incorrectly called Neitan in literature on western Alchemy.
History and development
Neidan is part of the Chinese alchemical meditative tradition that is said to have been separated into internal and external (Waidan) at some point during the Tang dynasty. The Cantong qi (The Kinship of the Three) is the earliest known book on theoretical alchemy in China; it was written by the alchemist Wei Boyang in 142 AD. This text influenced the formation of Neidan, whose earliest existing texts date from the first half of the 8th century. The authors of several Neidan articles refer to their teachings as the Way of the Golden Elixir (jindan zhi dao). The majority of Chinese alchemical sources is found in the Daozang (Taoist Canon), the largest collection of Taoist texts.
Neidan shares a significant portion of its notions and methods with classical Chinese medicine, fangshi and with other bodies of practices, such as meditation and the methods for “nourishing life” (yangsheng). What distinguishes alchemy from these related traditions is its unique view of the elixir as a material or immaterial entity that represents the original state of being and the attainment of that state. The Neidan tradition of internal alchemy is practiced by working with the energies that were already present in the human body as opposed to using natural substances, medicines or elixirs, from outside of the body. The Shangqing School of Daoism played an important role in the emergence of Neidan alchemy, after using Waidan mainly as a meditative practice, and therefore turning it from an external to an internal art.
The Three Treasures
Internal alchemy focuses upon transforming the bodily sanbao “three treasures”, which are the essential energies sustaining human life:
- Jing 精 “nutritive essence, essence; refined, perfected; extract; spirit, demon; sperm, seed”
- Qi 氣 “vitality, energy, force; air, vapor; breath; spirit, vigor; attitude”
- Shen 神 “spirit; soul, mind; god, deity; supernatural being”
According to the 13th-century Book of Balance and Harmony:
- Making one’s essence complete, one can preserve the body. To do so, first keep the body at ease, and make sure there are no desires. Thereby energy can be made complete.
- Making one’s energy complete, one can nurture the mind. To do so, first keep the mind pure, and make sure there are no thoughts. Thereby spirit can be made complete.
- Making one’s spirit complete, one can recover emptiness. To do so, first keep the will sincere, and make sure body and mind are united. Thereby spirit can be returned to emptiness. … To attain immortality, there is nothing else but the refinement of these three treasures: essence, energy, spirit.” (tr. Kohn 1956, 146).
When the “three treasures” are internally maintained, along with a balance of yin and yang, it is possible to achieve a healthy body and longevity, which are the main goals of internal alchemy (Ching 1996, 395).
Qi or ch’i is defined as the “natural energy of the universe” and manifests in everyone and everything (Carroll 2008). By means of internal alchemy, Taoists strive to obtain a positive flow of qi through the body in paths moving to each individual organ (Smith 1986, 201).
Healing practices such as acupuncture, massage, cupping and herbal medicines are believed to open up the qi meridians throughout the body so that the qi can flow freely. Keeping qi in balance and flowing throughout the body promotes health; imbalance can lead to sickness.
Shen is the original spirit of the body. Taoists try to become conscious of shen through meditation (Smith 1986, 202).
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Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia