Death Neidan

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Inner Alchemy Taoist Daoist Neidan


  • Emergency Death Meditations for Internal AlchemistsAuthor(s): Stephen EskildsenSource: T'oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 92, Fasc. 4/5 (2006), pp. 373-409Published by: BRILLStable URL: .Accessed: 25/08/2013 11:27

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    STEPHEN ESKILDSEN (The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga)


    When striving upon a religious path of self-cultivation, how should one deal with the prospect of imminent physical death? Certainly, one ought to be able to accept death with equanimity, if not joy, if one feels that one's striving has guaranteed the desired state of salvation. However, death does not always wait until such a state of self-assurance is reached. What, then, can one do? If one's notion of salvation is a state of redemption and eternal life granted by a supreme being, one will most likely take recourse to prayer, repentance, or sacrament in hope of divine mercy. If one believes in a more self- reliant approach toward salvation, and fears obtaining an evil rebirth as dictated by the principles of karma and samsara, one would probably try to mitigate the damage at the last moment by keeping the mind as pure as possible.

    What should one do, however, if one is willing to settle for nothing less than an eternal life unbound by the laws of karma altogether? Furthermore, what if one believes-as do Taoist internal alchemists- that this goal requires the dual refinement of both mind and body? In such a case, one might perhaps try to hold on more tenaciously to the body, or devise special tactics to avoid passing into a disembodied or subhuman state. This essay will examine a few such measures endorsed by at least some Taoists, whose views are primarily represented in early internal alchemical texts. These Taoists appear to have endorsed and practiced techniques of emergency death meditation by which they hoped to "enter the womb", "change the dwelling", "repel the killer demons", or "flee the numbers".

    Internal alchemy (neidan PgF), the predominant method of Taoist

    C) Brill, Leiden, 2006 T'oung Pao XCII Also available online -

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    meditation from the Song period onward, typically entails the creation (or more properly speaking, recovery) of an inner immortal Spirit' that can travel at will outside the body before and after physical death. This Spirit is referred to by various terms, such as "Golden Elixir" (jindan iB), "Single Numinous Real Nature" (yiling zhenxing

    or "Radiant Spirit" (yangshen WF$); the last of these terms alludes to the notion that the Spirit, through the internal alchemical process, has attained full maturity and power, and is pureyang in its constitution.2

    The internal alchemical process involves both body and mind. Through a combination of prescribed postures and movements, breathing methods, saliva-swallowing, mental concentration and visualization, all of which is grounded on a lifestyle of purity and self-discipline, the adept replenishes, circulates, combines and refines his/her basic "ingredients" namely, essence (jing g), energy (qi i) and spirit (shen 14). At the rudimentary stages, where the procedures tend to be more complicated, the adept aims to achieve perfect health for the body, after which he/she will move on to advanced procedures, typically less complicated but quite arduous, designed to "conceive" the inner Spirit (or "baby") and bring it to maturity. In the late stages the Spirit is transferred from the abdomen (the "womb") into the head, and from this point the adept can begin to send the Spirit out from the head on journeys outside the body. Initially the Spirit can only travel a few "steps" out of the body,

    1 I capitalize the word "spirit" so as to designate a singular, unified consciousness / life force that survives and emerges from the flesh. I do so in order better to distinguish it from the concept of the thousands of spirits said by the Taoist tradition to inhabit the body during life. The Spirit is completed (or restored) by bringing all the spirits together.

    2 The meditation method is called "internal alchemy" because the psycho- physical procedures and phenomena that unfold in the mind and body of the practitioner are said to be analogous to the procedures and chemical reactions that take place in laboratory alchemy (waidan X1r, "external alchemy"). Neidan texts draw heavily on the abstruse terminology employed in the more ancient waidan materials. The best and most comprehensive study of Chinese alchemy (external and internal) in English is Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 5, nos. 2, 4 and 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974, 1981 and 1983). A good history and introduction to the art of neidan is Isabelle Robinet, Introduction a l'alchimie interieure taoaste: de l'uniti et de la multiplicite (Paris: Le Cerf, 1995). Another excellent discussion, with particular emphasis on women's practices, is found in Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn, Women in Daoism (Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press, 2003), pp. 177-243.

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    but after some period of time it becomes able to travel enormous distances. Simultaneously, the countenance of the Spirit by this stage the adept should experience visions, and is not merely engaging in active imagination gradually grows from that of an infant, ultimately into a luminous replica of the adept's full-grown physical body.3

    Taoist hagiography is filled with feats of multi-location, clairvoyance and other miracles performed before and after death by internal alchemists reputed to have thus completed the Radiant Spirit.4 The Radiant Spirit, by virtue of being pure yang, is deemed capable if it so wishes of making itself visible to the eyes of ordinary people and of taking on corporeal traits such as physical solidity or the functions of eating and drinking.5 In contrast, an immature, yin Spirit cannot manifest itself or bear any corporeal traits if it ventures outside the physical body. The Zhonglii chuandao ji Jgf4 and

    See for example Zhen longhu jiuxian jing A'LJtY{LU (DZ227/TT112), lOb- 11 a; "Taibai huandan pian" A; Et R5g in Daoshu L (DZ 1017 /TT641-648), 27/lOa-l ib; Chen xiansheng neidanjue Wq;Hf3 (DZ1096/TT743), lib; Xishan qunxian huizhen ji - (DZ246/TT 116), 5/8b- 1 Oa; Bichuan Zhengyang zhenren lingbao bzfa ' (DZ 1191/TT874), 3/8b-12a; Dadan zhizhi

    H (DZ244/TT 115), 8b-9b. (The DZ number denotes the number by which the text is catalogued in Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen eds., 7The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004]; the TT number denotes the fascicle in which the text is found in the 1926 Commercial Press [Shanghai] edition of the Taoist Canon.) See also the discussions in Eskildsen, "Aeidan Master Chen Pu's Nine Stages of Transformation", Monumenta Serica, no. 49 (2001), pp. 1-31; Eskildsen, T7he Teachings and Practices of the Early Quanzhen Taoist Masters (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 93-94; and Despeux and Kohn, pp. 237-241.

    4 Tales of this sort from the Song period can be found in abundance in Zhao Daoyi St (fl. Ca. 1294-1304) comp., Lishi zhenxian tidao tong/ian ff. X (DZ296/TT139-148),juan nos. 47-52. On such tales within the early Quanzhen tradition, see Eskildsen, Teachings and Practices, pp. 121-126.

    5 This belief is clearly reflected in the Chunyang djun shenhua miaotongji ,,f Wi tP{L4fktd (DZ305/TT159), an early 14th_century compilation of stories concerning the legendary internal alchemist/ immortal Lu Yan. There we find an episode where Lu Yan and the spirit of a deceased Buddhist monk visit a home where a vegetarian feast is being held. Lu Yan is fed immediately, but has to ask for another serving for the Buddhist spirit, whom the hosts are unable to see. Lu Yan ends up eating both servings himself, since the Buddhist spirit is incapable of eating his (3/1 la- 1 2a). A similar story about the famous internal alchemist Zhang Boduan mfnxm is found in Lishi zhenxian tidao tong/ian, 49/7b- 11 a. There we are told about a contest held between Zhang Boduan and a friendly Buddhist monk. Both men entered into trance and sent out their Spirit from Sichuan to Yangzhou. Zhang Boduan then proposed that they each pluck a flower and bring it back as a souvenir of their journey. The monk complied, but when they both came out of trance back in Sichuan, only Zhang Boduan was holding a flower.

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    Bichuan Zhengyang zhenren lingbao bifa (ca. 11th c.), both important texts of the i