Cultivation of immortality is a process through which ordinary individuals transform into extraordinary beings. According to the inherent view of form and spirit in Taoism, cultivation of immortality involves equal attention to both the physical body and the spirit. Therefore, the path to immortality pursued by Taoists has always been centered around the concept of “harmonious refinement of form and spirit, attaining truth through alignment with the Tao.”
However, throughout the ages, Taoists have focused on various paths of cultivation, and the specific methods attempted are countless. In essence, there are several main explorations in this regard:
- Inner Alchemy (Neidan): Inner Alchemy emphasizes the refinement and cultivation of one’s own inner energies, such as Qi (vital energy) and Jing (essence). Through meditation, breath control, visualization, and other techniques, practitioners seek to refine and transform these energies, eventually achieving spiritual enlightenment and immortality.
- External Alchemy (Waidan): External Alchemy involves the use of herbs, minerals, and other external substances to create elixirs or pills that are believed to confer immortality or longevity. The ingestion of these elixirs is thought to refine and transmute one’s physical body, leading to immortality.
- Breath Cultivation (Qigong): Qigong practices involve the regulation and cultivation of breath and vital energy to enhance health, vitality, and spiritual development. Through various exercises, movements, and meditative techniques, practitioners aim to balance and harmonize their energies, leading to spiritual awakening and potential immortality.
- Rituals and Ceremonies: Taoist rituals and ceremonies, such as the performance of incantations, invocations, and offerings, are believed to establish a connection with divine beings and spiritual forces. By engaging in these practices, practitioners seek blessings, protection, and spiritual advancement, which may lead to immortality.
It is important to note that these methods are not mutually exclusive, and many Taoist practitioners may incorporate elements from multiple paths in their cultivation practices. The ultimate goal remains the same – the attainment of immortality and alignment with the Tao.
There are several paths to cultivate immortality in Taoism:
- Herbal Medicine
This includes obtaining elixirs of immortality from the realm of immortals and compounding medicines according to prescribed formulas. During the early Warring States period, Taoist practitioners mainly sought elixirs of immortality by exploring places like the Three Sacred Mountains of the Sea. By the time of the Western Han Dynasty, people began to use artificial methods to compound medicines.
The main ingredients used are minerals and stones, and the resulting products are often referred to as “Golden Pellets” or “Golden Elixir.” By the end of the Western Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty, numerous alchemical texts were circulating in society, such as “Divine Essence of the Taiqing Golden Elixir” and “Nine Cauldrons Alchemical Classic of the Yellow Emperor.” This indicates that the theory and techniques of alchemy had become quite advanced during that time.
However, alchemical practices required significant investment, and because many of the materials used were toxic, alchemists conducted extensive trials by consuming the elixirs themselves or by using the bodies of others. They discovered that the side effects were substantial. Therefore, after reaching its peak during the Tang Dynasty, alchemical practices gradually declined, and fewer people dared to consume the elixirs. The practice of alchemy was accompanied by another form called alchemy of lead and iron, which involved refining medicine gold and medicine silver from base metals. However, the resulting gold and silver only resembled the metals in appearance and certain attributes, rather than being genuine gold and silver. Eventually, both Golden Pellet alchemy and lead-iron alchemy declined. However, they were pioneers in humanity’s pursuit of controlling material transformations through artificial means and engaging in experimental chemical research, occupying an important page in the history of human civilization. For more information, please refer to the relevant sections in this database under “Taoism and Human Civilization.” During the Tang Dynasty and before, Golden Pellet alchemy was the most prominent aspect of cultivation in Taoist practices.
- Cultivating Qi and Guiding Energy
Cultivating Qi and guiding energy have long been regarded as fundamental methods in Taoist cultivation. Even when consuming Golden Pellets, they are often combined with Qi cultivation. During the Warring States period, the famous literary figure Qu Yuan mentioned the method of cultivating Qi in his work “Far Travel.”
Later, the Taoist practices of cultivating Qi saw significant development, including techniques such as cultivating external Qi, inner contemplation, cultivating oneness, and regulating breath. However, although there are numerous techniques, within Taoism, these methods of cultivating Qi are primarily used as the main or auxiliary methods of cultivation. Over time, they spread to the general population as physical exercises that anyone could practice, but that is a different story.
Another set of methods related to Qi cultivation is guiding and massaging, which are considered as techniques to draw in vital energy and expel impurities, thereby refining Qi.
- Inner Alchemy
Inner Alchemy developed based on the foundation of Qi cultivation. At the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Wei Boyang wrote the book “Zhouyi Cantong Qi,” which combined Golden Pellet alchemy with inner refinement. However, its teachings did not have a significant impact at the time.
During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the drawbacks of consuming Golden Pellets became more apparent. Consequently, Taoist practitioners began to emphasize the exploration and cultivation of the inherent resources within the body, such as essence, Qi, and spirit, to refine a body capable of achieving immortality. This method is known as Inner Alchemy. It is called “Inner Alchemy” in contrast to the traditional external alchemy that employed minerals and stones as raw materials.
Many theories and terminologies in Inner Alchemy are derived from traditional Golden Pellet alchemy. However, the underlying principles and approaches are significantly different, which is why it is called “Inner Alchemy” and the original Golden Pellet alchemy is referred to as “Outer Alchemy.” Both methods are often associated with terms such as Golden Pellet, Great Pellet, and Golden Elixir. Whether a particular alchemical text discusses Inner Alchemy or Outer Alchemy depends on the specific materials used in the alchemical process and techniques (often referred to as major medicines in alchemical texts). From the Tang Dynasty to the Song Dynasty, Inner Alchemy gradually replaced the original Outer Alchemy and became the mainstream path of Taoist cultivation.
- Religious Rituals and Magic Spells
This is the final stage to achieve the realm of immortals. Taoism has always excelled in conducting various rituals and spells to bring blessings and dispel calamities for the people and society. These rituals have distinctive features but share many common characteristics. They are referred to as “Ke Yi” (ritual methods), “Ke Fan” (ritual practices), or “Yi Fan” (ritual practices). Among them, fasting rituals and temple festivals are the main forms of expression. Therefore, fasting and temple festivals are commonly mentioned together, encompassing various types of rituals. These rituals serve as the primary means of communication between humans and gods. Taoism believes that performing these rituals not only resolves difficulties for the people but also accumulates personal merits. By devoutly practicing these rituals over an extended period, one can achieve the Way.
During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, Zheng Suonan wrote in his work “Taiji Sacrificial Ritual Inner Method” (which is one of the rituals conducted to help departed spirits ascend, using the magical functions of the practitioner’s power and spells to cleanse and refine the spirits through water and fire, allowing them to achieve harmony between form and spirit and ascend to heaven), “By starting with confidence and sincerity and focusing the mind, one accumulates merits and eventually achieves the Way.” He further stated, “For those who consistently and sincerely practice this sacrificial ritual inner method, may they be protected from disasters, and for those who aspire to become immortals, may they quickly attain immortality. Eventually, they will all transcend to the supreme Way.” Zheng Suonan’s words indicate that conducting rituals to alleviate people’s worries and troubles and attaining personal religious ideals through such practices have profound effects on practitioners. In the end, they can succeed in their religious pursuits and enter the realm of immortals.
- Accomplishing Great Deeds and Not Forgetting the Fundamentals
By accomplishing great deeds and not forgetting their origins while building a foundation in the mortal world, individuals can also become immortals or be deified after death. Those who have been included in Taoist pantheons throughout various dynasties, such as Guan Yu, the Grand Emperor of the Heavenly Salvation (Zhang Xun), and Marshal Yue (Yue Fei), belong to this category of individuals who achieved divine status through their meritorious accomplishments.
It should be noted that although Taoism offers various paths for cultivating immortality, in actual practice, these methods are often combined and mutually supportive. Moreover, regardless of the specific path chosen, practitioners must cultivate a virtuous heart, constantly regulate their body and mind, purify their original nature, and eliminate wandering thoughts. They should also engage in benevolent actions in the world.
Strictly speaking, the aforementioned basic methods of Taoist cultivation fall under the category of “techniques.” On the other hand, the cultivation of moral character and virtues falls under the category of “morality.” Both aspects complement each other, allowing one to attain the Great Way.
Written and Edited by DaDaoJun大道君