The Golden Elixir Taoist Alchemy Articles

The Three Barriers

Wang Mu

Foundations of Internal Alchemy

Reproduced from:

Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Neidan

Wang Mu
Golden Elixir Press, 2011
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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.

In the ascending path along the Control vessel [a channel running along the back of the body], three points are arduous to overcome. The alchemical texts call them "barriers" (or "passes," guan). Xiao Tingzhi (fl. 1260-64), a fifth-generation disciple of Zhang Boduan, wrote in his Jindan wenda (Questions and Answers on the Golden Elixir):

Someone asks what are the three Barriers on the back. The one behind the brain is called Barrier of the Jade Pillow (yuzhen). The one in the Spinal Handle (jiaji) is called Barrier of the Pulley (lulu). The one at the junction of Water and Fire is called Barrier of the Caudal Funnel (weilü).

The Barrier of the Caudal Funnel is located in the lowest section of the spine. The Barrier of the Spinal Handle is in the back, across from the heart. The Barrier of the Jade Pillow is behind the head, below the identically-named acupuncture point, across from the mouth. [ . . . ]

In fact, the three Barriers are three sectors of the Control vessel, which forms the first half of the cyclical route of the River Chariot (heche) in the alchemical practice. When the circulation of Breath reaches these three points, one frequently encounters obstructions that make it hard to pass through the Barrier of the Jade Pillow. Therefore the Zhong-Lü chuandao ji (Records of the Transmission of the Dao from Zhongli Quan to Lü Dongbin), using a metaphor, says that in order to go past this barrier one should use an "ox chariot" (niuche). When the constant cycling of the internal Breath reaches the Jade Pillow, one cannot overcome the obstruction unless one proceeds slowly: one can only use the "gentle fire" (wenhuo) and the subtle operation of the Intention (yi), and should not proceed with strength.

The cyclical path for refining the Elixir is summarized by the expression "three Fields in the front, three Barriers in the back." The ascent in the back is called "advancing the Yang Fire" (jin yanghuo), the descent in the front is called "withdrawing by the Yin response" (tui yinfu). At the stage of "laying the foundations," one full cycle is called "clearing the Function and Control vessels"; after the formation of the Medicine, it is called Lesser Celestial Circuit. The Huanyuan pian (Reverting to the Origin), written by Zhang Boduan's disciple, Shi Tai (?-1158), says:

The One Opening is the Mysterious Barrier,
the Three Barriers are the essential route.
Suddenly a gentle movement begins,
and the Divine Water spontaneously flows.

The cyclical path for refining the Elixir is summarized by the expression "three Fields in the front, three Barriers in the back." The ascent in the back is called "advancing the Yang Fire" (jin yanghuo), the descent in the front is called "withdrawing by the Yin response" (tui yinfu).

Book Icon Wang Mu Foundations of Internal Alchemy

In the Jindan dacheng ji (The Great Achievement of the Golden Elixir) by Xiao Tingzhi we read:

The wondrous circulation through the Three Fields requires going upward and downward,
and one knows for oneself that East and West join in one body.
Delighted, it moves repeatedly to the summit of Mount Kunlun:
the Spinal Handle is luminous, and the path is open.

Since Shi Tai was Zhang Boduan's main disciple, and Xiao Tingzhi was his fifth-generation disciple, their views on the three Barriers pertain to Zhang Boduan's transmission. The poem by Xiao Tingzhi explains that there is a downward movement in the front of the body through the three Cinnabar Fields, followed by an upward movement along the Control vessel that goes through the Spinal Handle and reaches "Mount Kunlun," i.e., the top of the head, also called Palace of the Muddy Pellet. Poems like the ones quoted above provide more details on this subject.