Laozi and the Internal Alchemy - Neidan

Excerpts from Fabrizio Pregadio's essay: "Laozi and Internal Alchemy" published in "Reading the Signs: Philology, History, Prognostication"  Festschrift for Michael Lackner, IUDICIUM Verlag GmbH München 2018

無上元君謂老子曰:神丹入口,壽無窮矣。老子修之,是大道祖。後言金丹 之道為黃老術,不知聖人所傳乃金丹至道,脩仙作佛之大事,非術也,是道 也。

The Supreme Primordial Lady told Laozi: “When you ingest the elixir, your longevity will be limitless.” Laozi cultivated this and became the patriarch of the Great Way. Later, it has been said that the Way of the Golden Elixir is a technique of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. [Those who say this] do not know that the perfect Way of the Golden Elixir transmitted by the sages, the great undertaking for cultivating immortality and becoming a Buddha, is not a technique (shu), it is a Way (dao).7

老釋以性命學,開方便門,教人修種,以逃生死。釋氏以空寂為宗,若頓悟 圓通,則直超彼岸。如有習漏未盡,則尚徇于有生。老氏以煉養為真,若得 其要樞,則立躋聖位。如其未明本性,則猶滯于幻形。

Laozi and the Buddha used the learning of xing (inner nature) and ming (destiny, existence) to open the gates of expedient methods (fangbian), and taught people to cultivate the seed in order to escape [the cycles of] birth and death. For the Buddha, the source lies in emptiness and silence. If one suddenly awakens and attains complete understanding, one directly transcends to the other shore; but as long as habits and contaminations are not exhausted, one is submitted to rebirth. For Laozi, the truth lies in refining and nourishing oneself. If one obtains what is crucial and essential, one immediately rises to the rank of a saint; but as long as one’s fundamental nature is not comprehended, one is tied to the illusory body.

Give birth to the three Breaths (san qi 三氣) of the Dao
Mysterious (xuan 玄), 
Original (yuan 元), 
Initial (shi 始)
within the Great Ultimate (Taiji 太極).


The Dao from Empty Non-Being generates the One Breath,
then from the One Breath it gives birth to Yin and Yang.
Yin and Yang join again and form the three bodies;
the three bodies repeatedly generate, and the ten thousand things thrive.

The Dao generates the One, the One generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three generate the ten thousand things. Emptiness transmutes itself into Spirit, Spirit transmutes itself into Breath, Breath transmutes itself into Essence, and Essence transmutes itself into form.48 The above is called “following the course.”
The ten thousand things hold the Three, the Three return to the Two, the Two return to the One. Having refined [the form] into the perfect Essence, Essence is transmuted into Breath, and Breath is transmuted itself into Spirit. The above is called “inverting the course.” The books on the Elixir say that “following the course” forms the human being, while “inverting the course” forms the elixir. 


Within the vague and indistinct seek the image,
inside the dim and obscure search for the true essence.

其精不是交感精,乃是玉皇口中涎。其氣即非呼吸氣,乃知卻是太素烟。其 神即非思慮神,可與元始相比肩。This Essence is not the essence of the intercourse:
it is the saliva in the mouth of the Jade Sovereign.

This Breath is not the breath of inspiration and expiration:
know that it is the haze of Great Purity.
This Spirit is not the thinking spirit:
it can stand alongside the Original Commencement.

有以無為用,但無之為用,人難測度。故聖人推陰陽來往消息,坎離會合沒 亡,以有象比無象,以有形喻無形。

Non-Being is the operation of Being. However, we find it difficult to comprehend that Non-Being is the operation. Therefore the sages have inferred that Yin and Yang come and go and ebb and flow, and that Kan and Li meet and conjoin, wane and vanish. They have represented the Imageless (wuxiang) by means of images, and the Formless (wuxing) by means of forms.

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