Inner Alchemy( 內丹 Neidan), by its name, refers to the concocting of elixirs in the human body, in parallel with Outer Alchemy ( 外丹 Waidan ), the practice of medicine allegedly refined from minerals. In contrast, Inner Alchemy, Daoist scholars claim, ought to be reached from inside through refining substances in human bodies, consisting of Essential Matter ( 精 Jing ), Vital Breath ( 氣 Qi ), and Spirit ( 神 Shen ). By processing these internal substances, Daoist scholars claim, Ultimate Medicine ( 大藥 Dayao ) is produced. This theory became the guideline to Inner Alchemy in later periods. Broadly speaking, Inner Alchemy refers to the “elixir” inside the human body as well as the theories on its refinement and production.
Above all, in the process of “producing the internal elixir”, the manipulation of the human mind and breath were highly stressed. In ancient China, Essential Matter, Vital Breath and Spirit were regarded as the “root of Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life”. Accordingly, the Theory of Inner Alchemy was gradually incorporated with the Theory of Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life.
Although, as a term, Inner Alchemy first occured many centuries later than the term Golden Elixir ( 金丹 Jindan ), nevertheless, as an idea or method about extending human life through internal exercise, it should be traced back to very ancient times. Clues can be found in books such as Lu's Spring and Autumn Annals ( 《呂氏春秋》 Lushi Chunqiu ), and Zhuangzi ( 《莊子》 Zhuangzi ), which mention, in a hope of curing diseases caused by humidity and coldness, a man called Mr. Yinkang who invented a kind of gymnastics to stimulate the movement of vital breath and blood in human body. According to the Inner Book of the Yellow Emperor ( 《黃帝內經》 Huangdi Neijing ), the Yellow Emperor used to do the exercises of the "Transformation of Essential Matter into Vital Breath" ( 移精變氣 Yijing Bianqi ), which was regarded by scholars in later times as a breakthrough leading to the Refinement of Essential Matter into Vital Breath ( 煉精化氣 Lianjing Huaqi ), an important concept in the Theory of Inner Alchemy, which came into being in a much later period. In addition, in Zhuangzi, we find terms such as the Fast of the Mind ( 心齋 Xinzhai ) and Sitting in Oblivion ( 坐忘 Zuowang ), which, as methods for spiritual manipulation, should be traced back to the"Refinement of Spirit" ( 煉神 Lianshen ), an antique tradition. Just on the basis of the above-mentioned, the Art of Inner Alchemy came into being.
Actually, at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty when the Three Ways Unified and Normalized of the Book of Changes ( 《周易參同契》 Zhouyi Cantong Qi ) was written, a set of practicable theory had been formed, although the term “Inner Alchemy” cannot be found in the book. However, in this book, Wei Boyang, the author, used the term “Reversion Elixir", which referred to both Inner Alchemy and Outer Alchemy. Since the author of the book mentioned repeatedly a concept of Cultivation of Inner Nature in the context of discussions about the "Reversion Elixir’’ ( 還丹 Huandan), we conclude that, by the end of the Eastern Han dynasty when the book was written, the cultivation of Inner Alchemy had already been put into practice although, as a term, it was rarely used then.
In terms of documents available in present times, the term “Inner Alchemy” was first used during the Southern and Northern dynasties by Hui Si, the third generation patriarch of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, who mentioned that “the power of Outer Alchemy would lead to Inner Alchemy”. It proves that, at least prior to the Southern and Northern dynasties, Inner Alchemy, first initiated by Daoism, had even attracted the attention of Buddhism. According to the Record of Mt. Luofu, Shu Yuanlang, a Daoist scholar in the Sui dynasty, said, “human bodies should serve as Cinnabar Cauldrons, and human hearts as carriers of Spirit” in refining Inner Alchemy. His idea indicated the typical way of thinking in that period among some Daoist scholars who tended to put Inner Alchemy and Outer Alchemy in parallel. Since then, the parallel between Inner Alchemy and Outer Alchemy has prevailed in Daoism all the time.
Since end of the Tang dynasty, more Daoist scholars, such as Lu Dongbing and Zhong Liquan, paid more attention to the cultivation of Inner Alchemy. After the Song dynasty, the Cultivation of Inner Alchemy became a dominant trend in Daoism thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Chen Tuan, Zhang Boduan and Wang Chongyang. In following years, a variety of books on Inner Alchemy were written, and many sects of Inner Alchemy formed. Among them, three sects, namely, the Central Sect ( 中派 Zhongpai ), the Western Sect ( 西派 Xipai ) and the Eastern Sect ( 東派 Dongpai ) attained nationwide fame and influence. Among the three, the Central Sect was represented by Li Daochun, who started his Daoist career in the Southern Lineage of the Golden Elixir Sect, and joined the Complete Perfection Tradition ( 全真道 Quanzhen Dao ) in the early years of the Yuan dynasty. On the basis of a combination of the Southern Linage ( 南宗 Nanzong ) and Northern Linage ( 北宗 Beizong ), Li created his own Inner Alchemy theory characterized by Integrated Cultivation of Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life ( 性命雙修 Xingming Shuangxiu ). The Eastern Sect was represented by Lu Xixing, a Ming Daoist scholar, who stressed the important role of Basic Cultivation by Self-Refinement and Cultivation of Spiritual Nature in the Refinement of Inner Alchemy. Lu claimed that the Realization of Spiritual Nature ought to be followed by the Integrated Cultivation between the Male and Female ( 男女雙修 Nannv Shuangxiu ). The Western Sect was represented by a Sichuan scholar, Li Xiyue, who credited his theory on Inner Alchemy to Zhang Sanfeng and Lu Xixing. In his books, Li highlighted the special role of Refining Heart in the Cultivation of Inner Alchemy.
Starting with the theory of the Mutual Corresp ondence of Heaven and Man ( 天人相應 Tianren Xiangying ), Daoist scholars regard the human body as parallel with the whole universe. In terms of its nature, they argue, a human body actually constitutes a small universe, which shared common rules of movement with the universe: counterparts of the sun, moon, and stars in the universe can be found accordingly in human bodies. Ultimately, the theory led to an emulation of the Cosmic Orbit Movement in the refinement of Inner Alchemy. According to a book like the Guidebook for the Elixir Field ( 《規中指南》Guizhong Zhinan ) by Chen Xubai, the Elixir Cauldron, the Elixir Medicine and the Fire Phase constitute the three essential elements of the Refinement of Inner Alchemy. As for the Elixir Cauldron, the Guidebook for the Elixir Field said that it referred to the container and burner in the process of refinement; the Elixir Medicine referred to the Essential Matter, Vital Breath and Spirit in human bodies; the Fire Phase, the book explained, referred to the skill and timing in manipulating the Elixir Medicine.
After centuries of practice, Daoism has developed a set of operational systems. For people living in modern society, Inner Alchemy is too hard to reach. Nevertheless, we should not forget its special contributions to human health in ancient times. Even today, in an era of modern science and technology, the glamour of Inner Alchemy remains strong. As a valuable heritage from ancient Chinese culture, it deserves more studies and researches in a modern light.