The Golden Elixir Taoist Alchemy Articles

"Laying the Foundations"

Wang Mu

Foundations of Internal Alchemy

Reproduced from:

Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Neidan

Wang Mu
Golden Elixir Press, 2011
Paperback ● Kindle ● PDF

This book provides a clear description of the Taoist practice of Internal Alchemy, or Neidan. It is based on the system of the Wuzhen pian (Awakening to Reality), one of the main sources of Internal Alchemy, and is enriched by about two hundred quotations from original Taoist texts. Read more on this book.

The expression "laying the foundations" is a metaphor often used in the alchemical texts. To build a house, one must first lay the foundations. Only when the foundations are stable and firm is it possible to set pillars and beams in place, and arrange bricks and tiles. Refining the Internal Elixir is based on the same principle.

The alchemical practice, however, is concerned with the human body. At the initial stage of the Neidan process, therefore, one should first replenish the basic constituents of the body, so that they conform to the requirements of the practice. Only then is it possible to undertake the stages of alchemical refinement proper. Until the basic constituents do not conform to those requirements, the body's functions should be restored and augmented by means of inner practices, so that Essence, Breath, and Spirit can reach a state of abundance. All this pertains to the stage of "laying the foundations."

Taoism deems Essence, Breath, and Spirit to be the major components of life, and the alchemical texts call them the Three Treasures (sanbao). If the Three Treasures are healthy and flourishing, the body is strong; if they are drained and depleted, illnesses develop. When the alchemical texts speak of refining the Elixir, they actually mean refining the Three Treasures. Chen Zhixu (1290-ca. 1368) says in his Jindan dayao (Great Essentials of the Golden Elixir):

Essence, Breath, and Spirit affect one another. When they follow the course, they form the human being; when they invert the course, they form the Elixir.

What is the meaning of "following the course" (shun)? "The One generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three generate the ten thousand things." Therefore Emptiness transmutes itself into Spirit, Spirit transmutes itself into Breath, Breath transmutes itself into Essence, Essence transmutes itself into form, and form becomes the human being.

What is the meaning of "inverting the course" (ni)? The ten thousand things hold the Three, the Three return to the Two, the Two return to the One. Those who know this Way look after their Spirit and guard their corporeal form. They nourish the corporeal form to refine the Essence, accumulate the Essence to transmute it into Breath, refine the Breath to merge it with Spirit, and refine the Spirit to revert to Emptiness. Then the Golden Elixir is achieved.

. . . at the stage of "laying the foundations" there are two tasks: the first is preserving the state of Essence and Breath; the second is replenishing their shortage. When Essence is abundant, when Breath is full, and when Spirit is flourishing, this stage of the practice is concluded.

Book Icon Wang Mu Foundations of Internal Alchemy

In his commentary to Awakening to Reality, Weng Baoguang writes:

Essence can generate Breath, and Breath can generate Spirit; to strengthen and protect oneself, nothing is more important than this. Those who devote themselves to Nourishing Life (yangsheng) treasure in the first place their Essence. If the Essence is full, Breath is strong; if the Breath is strong, Spirit flourishes; if the Spirit flourishes, the body is healthy and there are few illnesses. Internally, the five viscera bloom; externally, the skin becomes smooth. One's complexion is luminous, and one's ears and eyes are sharp and bright.

In the two passages quoted above, Chen Zhixu explains Essence, Breath, and Spirit in terms of their sequence in "following the course" and "inverting the course." Weng Baoguang, instead, explains them as the basic components of existence. But beyond these differences, at the stage of "laying the foundations" there are two tasks: the first is preserving the state of Essence and Breath; the second is replenishing their shortage. When Essence is abundant, when Breath is full, and when Spirit is flourishing, this stage of the practice is concluded.