The Quest for Immortality
From Longevity to “External” and “Internal” Alchemy

The Eight Immortals
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Bai Shou (100 Longevities): piece of calligraphy with 100 variations of the word "shou" (longevity)
The Pursuit of Longevity
Various perspectives on the principle of “longevity” can be found in early Daoist texts, such as the following passages from the Neiye:
Scroll with a translation of Neiye XXI
Icon with the character for longevity (shou)
Scroll with a translation of Neiye XV
Icon with the character for longevity (shou)
Cook Ding butchering an ox
Chinese character for "vital essence" (jing)
This conception of “longevity” is based on the assumption that one’s initial store of “vital essence” (jing) is finite and will therefore eventually be exhausted, though one can live out one’s alloted years (and possibly beyond) through meditation, guided breathing, and the preservation of an unimpaired mind. Indeed, the story of Cook Ding, whose “knife” (representing Cook Ding himself) is nineteen years old and still as sharp as if it had just come from the grindstone, raises the possibility of living far beyond the lifespan of the average individual; indeed, since mediocre cooks change their knives once a month and good cooks once a year, the implication would appear to be that Cook Ding is already hundreds of years old — and still as sharp as if he’d just come from the grindstone! (cf. ...Chuang Tzu, 50-1)
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Closely related to the extension of one’s life through the preservation and/or generation of vital essence, self-cultivation is also said to keep one safe from bodily harm, presumably because self-emptying meditation leads to a state of non-purposive action (wuwei) in which one is safely guided through dangerous situations by the subtle impulses of the Dao. Consider, for example, the following passages from the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi
Scroll with a translation of Daodejing 16
Chinese characters for "non-action" (wuwei)
Scroll with translation of Daodejing 50
Photograph of the Five Peaks of Huashan (Mount Hua)
Scroll with translation of Zhuangzi passage about the sage of Gushe Mountain
For some, it is enough to simply live out the full measure of one’s allotted years and then accept death as the natural end to a life well-lived, as Zhuangzi suggests in the following passage:
Scroll with translation of Zhuangzi passage on the death
However, other passages in the Zhuangzi suggest that death may in fact lead to a type of awakening and that one might eventually attain a “great awakeningthrough which one will realize that life (and perhaps death) is nothing more than a dream:
Scroll with translation of Zhuangzi on the Creator (zaowuzhe)
Icon of an alarm clock with the words "Wake Up"
Scroll with translation of Zhuangzi's "Great Awakening"
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Japanese woodblock print of Xu Fu's ship sailing to the Island of the Immortals (which may have ended up in Japan)
As Daoism continued to develop, this notion of “longevity” as living out the full measure of one’s allotted years — with the possible assumption that “death” could provide a natural liberation from the constraints of the physical body — gave way to the pursuit of such liberation within one’s lifetime. In 219 and 210 BCE, the First Emperor of China (Qin Shihuang) sent Xu Fu to find the elixir of immortality (dan) on a mythical island called Penglai, which was believed to be the home of immortals. Although Xu Fu never returned from his second voyage (some say he discovered Japan), various techniques for producing an elixir from rare and often toxic ingredients (such as cinnabar (dan)) were developed. The process of creating and ingesting such an elixir is referred to as waidan or “Outer/External Alchemy.”
Chinese characters for "external alchemy" (waidan)
Ge Hong: The Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi)
The Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi)
Ge Hong: The Master Who Embraces SimplicityGe Hong (287-347) came from an old aristocratic family located in the small town of Jurong near Jiankang (modern Nanjing). His great-uncle Ge Xuan (164-244) was a fangshi of some renown, and his father-in-law Bao Jing was another inspired seeker. Influenced by these two, Ge Hong virtually breathed longevity, magic, alchemy, and ecstatic religious practices. As he describes in his autobiography — the first of its kind in Chinese literature — he refused to take on official positions and even avoided social contacts because his one aim in life was to become immortal. This, according to him, involved several levels of practice: an initial ritual purification and magical protection, a prolonged period of longevity practice, and eventually — and most importantly — the concoction of an elixir or cinnabar (dan). He found himself sufficiently wealthy to have the leisure to pursue his goal full-time, but he yet lacked the vast riches needed to purchase the precious metals the elixir required. As a result, he undertook what practices he could but for the most part became a collector of written materials, wandering around the country in search for manuscripts and compiling several books. (Daoism and Chinese Culture, 84; cf. ICR, 75-80)
Alechemy Crucible
Daoist Immortal Lu DongbinGe Hong believed firmly in the transformation of the living body into that of an immortal: either an earth immortal with an extended life expectancy on earth; a celestial immortal with a spirit body in the heavens — especially in the heaven of Great Purity (Taiqing), a name sometimes used to designate the alchemical school; or an immortal by deliverance from the corpse (shijie). The latter indicates transformation while leaving a token corpse behind, such as a bamboo staff or sword. Immortals resided either in the paradises of Penglai and Kunlun or in the stars, and rode about the cosmic ethers together with the sun and the moon. The main way to attain immortality was by concocting an elixir, for which one had to have the right destiny (immortals’ bones”), obtain the right texts (often through revelation in trance), and undergo physical preparation through longevity techniques. ... [Before] an elixir concoction could start, it had to be undertaken at exactly the right time and in exactly the right place. ... Next, the concoction process itself would commence, a lengthy and complicated procedure that involved creating a chemical reaction on the basis of highly disparate and often poisonous substances, such as pine needles and resin, mushrooms, persimmons, apricot kernels, deer antlers, mother-of-pearl, mica, aconite, realgar, sulfur, mercury, arsenic, silver, and gold. Gourd with liquid elixir and dish of elixir pillsThese various materials, which sometimes took years to collect, were then cooked according to the revealed, cosmic instructions, placed in a cauldron coated with various luting compounds and surrounded by magical and protective devices to ensure the proper atmosphere for the elixir to grow. Over many months or even years, the right times of firing and cooling, stirring and burying had to be observed to the minutest detail. The process was thought to imitate the growth of gold on earth on a microcosmic scale, and accordingly followed the stages of cosmic creation as it was perceived at the time. Essentially the work of the alchemist occurred on three levels: the concrete concoction of the elixir for immortality; the creation of gold from base metals for personal wealth; and the replication of the cosmic processes of creation for insights into, and power over, the innermost secrets of the universe. Alchemy was, therefore, both a chemical and a mystical endeavor which led not only to chemically induced trances and visions but also to the high spiritual states necessary for immortal transformation. (Daoism and Chinese Culture, 85-6)
Painting of a Daoist firing a crucible
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Cover of "Opening the Dragon Gate" (biography of Daoist Master Wang Liping)Under the protection of the three old wizards, Wang Liping swallowed a grain of “gold elixir” that they had brought from Mount Lao. He took it on an empty stomach, and the “gold pill” gradually melted inside him, permeating his whole body through his circulatory system. The three teachers had him sit cross-legged and commence inner work, using the power of inner exercise to push the liquefied elixir inside his body out to the surface of his skin. ... A day passed. As the toxicity in the gold elixir gradually began to act, Wang Liping felt as if his insides were burning. He became dizzy, and his vision blurred. Finally he lost control and collapsed unconscious. Because his legs were tied up, however, he didn’t lose his cross-legged position. The Wayfarer of Pure Serenity doused him with cold water to revive him, and helped him up. All three wizards also employed certain techniques to assist their apprentice invisibly. ... On the second day, the three wizards saw that Liping’s skin had gradually changed colors, from sallow to ruddy to dark. In their judgment, based on their experience, the period of danger had passed. ... Although Wang Liping’s attainment was already quite profound, after this depletion of inner energy he had reached the limits of his endurance. The burning pain in his gut was gone, but now the skin all over his body was experiencing a variety of inexplicable sensations that were difficult to bear, burning and aching, swelling and itching. He wanted to scratch himself all over, but his mentor told him to keep still and not move at all. ... On the afternoon of the third day, Liping’s body became quite comfortable and relaxed, and the color of his skin went through an extraordinary change. The darkness, ruddiness, and sallowness changed to a healthy rosy white, and each pore became a crystalline point of brilliance, such that his skin glistened under a strong light. The gold elixir had completed its circulation throughout the body and all of it had been ejected. The “energy routes” of Wang Liping’s body, from outside to inside, had all opened up freely. ... They decided to do some deep breathing facing the evening sun in the fresh mountain air. The old masters were very much at ease in mind. Liping was at ease too, but now he had an unusual feeling. He no longer needed to use his nose and mouth to breathe as usual; all that was necessary was a slight movement of the abdomen, whereupon the energy of heaven and earth poured into his whole body from all directions through his pores, clear and cool, fluid and easy, thoroughly penetrating. Once the energy was circulating in his body, it seemed as if he had merged with the universe. (Opening the Dragon Gate, 58-60)
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Neijing Tu (Chart of the Inner Classic)
Chinese characters for "Inner/Internal Alchemy" (neidan)
Daoist meditating
Inner Alchemy
Since the ingredients required to concoct an elixir were extremely rare and expensive, not to mention highly toxic, “external” alchemy was gradually replaced by “internal” alchemy, which focuses on the creation of an immortal “embryo” — a spirit body that can transcend death. Although the “external” and “internal” approaches may take a variety of different forms, the following text is particularly helpful in showing how the former may have gradually developed into the latter. More specifically, it provides a concrete description of how to make an “elixir” using real ingredients, though other evidence suggests that it is in fact an “inner” alchemical text, which is to say that the entire process is performed internally through visualization.
Cover of "The Wandering Taoist"Transformation of the human body was a deep-rooted Taoist tradition that was directed toward achieving immortality. Different sects had varying methods. Some insisted on complete abstention from meat, breads, and grains, and said that immortality could be gained by ingesting smelted gold, cinnabar, mercury, lead, and a variety of other metals. Others, such as Wang Je, the legendary twelfth-century founder of the Northern School, fanatically demanded the avoidance of all things that pleased the senses, abstincence from sleep, and the practice of total meditation in order to replace mortal breath with divine breath. Still others insisted that immortality came through the development of an immortal embryo in the dan tian, and some finally said that it was all symbolic: lead was yang, mercury was yin, and the embryo was not physical but was the enlightenment gained from returning to one’s original spirit. (The Wandering Taoist, 165-6)
Inner Alchemy: cultivating the immortal embryo
Elixir of the Efflorescence of Langgan
From the Purple Texts Inscribed by the Spirits

“Upper Clarity” (Shangqing) Scriptures
as revealed to Yang Xi (c. 364-370)
First conduct a purification of forty days in the mountain forests, not concerning yourself at all with outside affairs; then begin to make the spirit lute [i.e. a substance for sealing joints]. It will take a full hundred days from the beginning of your purification rites to the luting and the sealing of the crucible [i.e. a vessel used for melting substances at an extremely high temperature]. Choose a heat-resistant crucible with an upper chamber that will hold three gallons of liquid. It makes no difference if it is white or red, so long as it can bear heat without cracking or breaking. ... The drugs for compounding the Elixir of Langgan Efflorescence are as follows:
Red Infant of the Scarlet Mound (cinnabar)  10 lbs.
Solar Cloudsoul of the Cinnabar Mountains (realgar)  5 lbs.
White-Silk Flying Dragon (milky quartz)  1 lb.
Blue-Waisted Middle Daughter (azurite)  5 oz.
Civil Lord of Purple Mound (amethyst)  5 oz.
Volatile Efflorescence of the Cyan Wall (graphite)  5 oz.
Mysterious Pearl of the Northern Thearch (saltpeter)  1 lb.
Yellow Lad of the Nine Numina (sulfur)  5 oz.
Golden Goat of the Five Essences (asbestos)  5 oz.
Flying Blossoms of Rain Flowers (mica)  5 oz.
Dropped Teeth of the White Tiger (iron pyrite)  5 oz.
White Paste of Flowing Cinnabar (lead carbonate)  1 lb.
Inverted Spirit Bone (Turkestan salt)  5 oz.
Lunar Efflorescence of the Dark Estrade (orpiment)  5 lbs.
[After performing purification rites for 30 days, the above ingredients are carefully ground in a particular order and then placed in the crucible, again in a particular order and in a particular way; the crucible is then sealed using the lute (for which there is a separate recipe and detailed instructions). There are likewise detailed instructions regarding how to build the furnace in which the crucible will be heated, how high the flames should be during different periods of the firing, until finally the elixir is completed after 100 days.]
The crucible should be cooled for three days before being opened. The volatile efflorescence is light and will have adhered to the roof of the upper half of the crucible. Brush this off with the feather of a three-year-old rooster. The efflorescence should have thirty-seven hues. It is a volatile liquid both brilliant and mottled, a purple aurora darkly flashing. This is called the Elixir of Langgan Efflorescence.
       If, just at dawn on the first day of the eleventh, fourth, or eighth month, you bow repeatedly and ingest one ounce of this elixir with the water from an east-flowing stream, seven-colored pneumas will rise from your head and your face will have the jadelike glow of metallic efflorescence. If you hold your breath, immediately a chariot from the eight shrouded extents of the universe will arrive. When you spit on the ground, your saliva will transform into a flying dragon. When you whistle to your left, divine Transcendents will pay court to you; when you point to the right, the vapors of Three Elementals will join with the wind. Then, in thousands of conveyances, with myriad outriders, you will fly up to Upper Clarity.  (Early Daoist Scriptures, 331-336; cf. selection from Ge Hong’s Baopuzi in CRAS, 150-1)
Click for video on Neidan cultivation
Cover of "Opening the Dragon Gate"After the line of essence is drawn out and the opening to the eye to heaven is developed, then it is possible to project and take in forms, and to project and take in light; thoughts and vital spirit can thus be sent outside the brain into the universe outside the body, thus infinitely expanding the range of activity of thought and spirit. At this point, people’s capacity to sense the external world is not the same as before; they can sense things that cannot be sensed by the five sense organs of ordinary people. Penetrating vision and inner vision are examples of capacities developed by this sort of training. When practitioners reach this stage, the world they perceive is quite different from the world perceived by ordinary people; their manner of thinking and speaking are also obviously different. The way that Taoist practitioners see the universe is richer, more complete, and more profound than that of ordinary people; their perceptions are also closer to the fundamental nature of things. (Opening the Dragon Gate, 168)
Questions to Ponder
Is the pursuit of immortality in "Religious Daoism" fundamentally inconsistent with the emphasis on wuwei in "Philosophical Daoism"? Or does Zhuangzi's concern with life after death and the "freeing of the bound" point to a shared interest in transcending death?
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More generally, how do the Daoist approaches to death compare with those in the tradition with which you are most familar?