Introduction to
The Seal of the Unity of the Three (Cantong qi)

Cantong qi: The Seal of the Unity of the Three

Based on the Introduction of:

The Seal of the Unity of the Three: A Study and Translation of the Cantong qi, the Source of the Way of the Golden Elixir

Fabrizio Pregadio
Golden Elixir Press, 2011
Paperback ● Hardcover ● PDF (abridged)

Under an allusive poetical language and thick layers of images and symbols, the Cantong qi hides the exposition of the teaching that gave origin to Taoist Internal Alchemy (Neidan). In addition to a complete translation, this book contains a detailed introduction to the history and teachings of the Cantong qi, explanations of each of its sections, and notes on its verses.

Chrome bullet   This page is part of a series on the Seal of the Unity of the Three. See the complete index.

5. Taoism

"Superior Virtue", "Inferior Virtue"

A passage of the Cantong qi (sec. 20) states:

Superior virtue has no doing:
it does not use examining and seeking.
Inferior virtue does:
its operation does not rest.

These verses are directly based on a passage of the Daode jing (sec. 38):

Superior virtue has no doing:
there is nothing whereby it does.
Inferior virtue does:
there is something whereby it does.

In both the Daode jing and the Cantong qi, the subject of these verses is the distinction between non-doing (wuwei) and doing (youwei), referred to as the ways of "superior virtue" (shangde) and "inferior virtue" (xiade), respectively.

In the way of "superior virtue", the state prior to the separation of the One into the two is spontaneously attained. The distinction between "one" and "two" does not even arise, and the unity of the precelestial and the postcelestial domains is immediately realized. There is no need to seek the One Breath, and therefore no support is necessary to find it. This is the way of the Realized Man (zhenren).

"Inferior virtue", instead, focuses on seeking; its unceasing search of the One Breath needs supports, and the postcelestial domain is "used" to find the precelestial state hidden within it. This is the way of alchemy. Performing a practice — either "internal" or "external" — is a form of "doing": the alchemical process is conducted in order to attain the realized state. Its purpose is to prepare one to enter the state of "non doing," and is fulfilled only when this happens. This process — which is gradual, and differs in this respect from immediate realization, the prerogative of "superior virtue" — is at the core of alchemy, in all of its forms.

Criticism of Other Practices

The Cantong qi devotes much attention to practices deemed to be inadequate for true realization. These practices are of two kinds. The first consists of non-alchemical methods, including breathing, meditation on the inner gods, sexual practices, and worship of spirits and minor deities, as described in this passage (sec. 26):

This is not the method of passing through the viscera,
     of inner contemplation and having a point of concentration;
of treading the Dipper and pacing the asterisms,
     using the six jia as markers of time;
of sating yourself with the nine-and-one in the Way of Yin,
     meddling and tampering with the original womb;
of ingesting breath till it chirps in your stomach,
     exhaling the pure and inhaling the evil without.

All these practices and methods were current during the Later Han period and the Six Dynasties (1st-6th centuries CE). The second kind of criticism is addressed to alchemical practices that are not based on the principle of "being of the same kind" (or "category," tonglei). Only Lead and Lercury, according to the Cantong qi, are of the "same kind" as Qian and Kun, and can represent and enable their conjunction.

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Next: 6. Alchemy