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Inner Alchemy and Its Symbolism





The ancient Chinese believed that inorganic materials had a preservative effect on the body. For example, Han-dynasty nobles were sometimes buried in full suits made from plaques of jade. The tomb of the first emperor (third century B.C.) is fabled to have contained whole rivers of mercury. At the same time, traditional Chinese herbal medicine is based on the idea that certain organic materials, like herbs and fungi, have a similar internal preservative effect. Before the end of the Han dynasty, these beliefs had joined to form the principles of alchemy. Early alchemists believed that by swallowing elixirs made from inorganic materials, like crystalline cinnabar or mercury, the body could be cleansed of impurities and made immortal. This "outer," or chemical, alchemy formed one of the most important foundations of religious Taoism.

However, elixirs involved complicated chemical processes, and their ingredients were not only rare and costly, but often toxic. Swallowing them could cause either immediate death or slow poisoning. In fact, it is believed that a number of Tang-dynasty emperors died from such poisoning. Consequently, by the Song dynasty, the alchemical process was reinterpreted as Inner Visualization or meditation, called Inner Alchemy. In this meditation, the yin and yang energies of the body serve as the ingredients for making an elixir of immortality.

According to Inner Alchemy, the human body is formed from different combinations of yin and yang energy. Yang energy dominates the upper body, while yin energy exists in the lower body. Inner Alchemy uses meditation to join the dominant yang energies of the upper body and the secondary yang energies of the lower body in a center in the lower abdomen. In this center, the energies are symbolically refined into an entirely yang elixir of immortality.




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