Bai Yuchan 白玉蟾 (1194–1229?)
Bai Yuchan is one of the main figures in the history of Neidan. Despite his apparently brief earthly existence (he might have lived until 1289, but this seems improbable), he is ascribed with a remarkably vast literary production, which includes—in addition to anthologies, treatises, and a large number of poems—a noteworthy commentary to the Daode jing (Book of the Way and Its Virtue). Although he was the fifth master of the Southern Lineage (Nanzong), his works go beyond the boundaries of particular schools. In addition to Neidan, he was also a practitioner of the Taoist exorcist rituals known as Thunder Rites (leifa).
The selections translated here are drawn from the “Essay on Resolving Doubts in the Cultivation of Immortality” (“Xiuxian bianhuo lun”), which is presented as a dialogue between Bai Yuchan and his master, Chen Nan (?–1213, also known as Chen Niwan). The essay is especially concerned with the different levels of Neidan; what might at first appear to be the most difficult level is defined as “extremely easy to achieve,” while the procedure most commonly followed is said to be “difficult to achieve.” The text also shows that the same terms take on different senses according to the different levels (or stages) of Neidan.
These selections are quoted from:
This anthology presents complete or partial translations of sixteen important works belonging to the Taoist tradition of Neidan, or Internal Alchemy. The selections are representative of the main Neidan lineages and branches. Read more.
From Pointers to the Mystery (Zhixuan pian 指玄篇)
The Three Levels of Internal Alchemy
In the cultivation of immortality there are three degrees, and in refining the Elixir there are three accomplishments.
In the Way of Celestial Immortality, one can undergo transmutation and ascend in flight to Heaven. Superior persons can study this Way. Lead is the body (shen) and Mercury is the mind (xin); Water is concentration (ding) and Fire is wisdom (hui). In the blink of an eye, one can coagulate [the Elixir], and in ten months, one achieves the birth of the embryo. This is the alchemical method of the higher degree. There are no trigrams and no lines, no pounds and no ounces. Its method is simple. Therefore it is transmitted through the Heart and is extremely easy to achieve. `
There are no trigrams and no lines, no pounds and no ounces. Its method is simple. Therefore it is transmitted through the Heart and is extremely easy to achieve.
In the Way of Water Immortality one can enter and exit the manifested and the unmanifested domains. Median persons can study this Way. Lead is Breath (qi) and Mercury is Spirit (shen); Fire is wu and Water is zi. In one hundred days, one can attain the inchoate merging (hunhe) [of Yin and Yang], and in three years the image [of the Elixir] is formed. This is the alchemical method of the middle degree. Although there are trigrams and lines, there are no pounds or ounces. Its method gives importance to the subtle. Therefore it is transmitted by means of oral instructions, and it certainly can be achieved.
In the Way of Earthly Immortality one can preserve the [bodily] form and dwell in the world. Ordinary persons can study this Way. Lead is the essence (jing) and Mercury is the blood (xue); Water is the kidneys and Fire is the heart. In one year you can attain the coagulation [of Yin and Yang], and in nine years the practice is achieved. This is the alchemical method of the lower degree. Not only are there trigrams and lines, but there are also pounds and ounces. Its method is complex. Therefore it is transmitted in writing, but I am afraid that it is difficult to achieve.
Attaining the Dao
The Dao is fundamentally formless, but is represented by the Dragon and the Tiger; it is fundamentally nameless, but is symbolized by Lead and Mercury. For those who study Celestial Immortality, what is necessary is that “form and spirit are both wondrous,” and that they join in their reality with the reality of the Dao. How can you become trapped by Yin and Yang within the five agents? You must leap outside of Heaven and Earth. Only then can you be called one who has attained the Dao.
© Fabrizio Pregadio and Golden Elixir Press 2019