byFabrizio Pregadio

Daoist hagiographic works depict the so-called “immortals” (xianren) as extraordinary human beings endowed with several powers, the most important of which is the ability to reach a life span of indefinite length with their ordinary bodies. When we look at other sources belonging to the traditions that evolved during the history of Daoism, a different picture emerges. These sources show that adepts make use of the physical body in order to generate a new person (shen) that is not subject to death.Among others, early Daoist works (ca. 2nd-6th centuries) describe two main ways to attain immortality. The first is by going through a “simulated death” followed by the refining of the physical body, which then serves as a support for adepts to continue their practices. 

The second way consists in generating an inner “embryo” that is unaffected by death, and is the seed of one’s rebirth as an immortal.Internal Alchemy (Neidan), which developed from ca. 700, inherited elements of both practices. The refining of the basic components of one’s own person results in the generation, gestation, and delivery of an embryo. In certain traditions, the embryo is seen as one’s “dharma-body” (fashen), the unmanifested body of Buddhahood, which is free of birth and death. Despite the differences of perspective, here again the ordinary body is seen a support used to generate the immortal body.

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