January 18, 2005 at 8:28 pm #2544
The following is an article which I had published in the “Pacific
Journal of Oriental Medicine” which is an attempt to find
physiological correlations to some of the common experiences
encountered in qigong/ neigong. Any feedback or ideas for
further avenues of research will be welcomed.
Towards a new interpretation of Taoist Alchemy
By Bryn Orr
Taoist alchemy is a meditational practice which aims at
increasing the practitioners sensitivity and control over the subtle
energy (chi) fields both within the body’s internal environment
and external surroundings. Classical descriptions of this type of
practice state that when a high level of proficiency is gained
(through long-term daily practice) the practitioner will begin to
experience intense, ecstatic states and to awaken latent
extrasensory perceptions and other ‘psychic’ phenomenon.
There are a number of different approaches and beliefs
regarding the practice of Taoist alchemy, just as there are a
number of different schools of Taoism eg. Mao-shan p’ai,
Complete Reality (Ch’uan-chen tao), Spiritual Treasure Sect
(Ling-pao p’ai), etc. Despite using common nomenclature and
core concepts, such as ‘Fusion of fire & water’ (Kan/Li),
‘Awakening the primordial treasure’ (Yuan chi) and ‘Return to the
source’, the interpretation of these ideas vary considerably. For
example the work of Master Mantak Chia treats these concepts
as techniques of gathering and transforming energy into various
states using the physical body as an energetic laboratory 1. This
approach is a typical example of alchemy as practiced by the
Southern School or ‘School of energetics’. The Complete Reality
school, however view these central tenets of alchemy as being
merely stages in the contemplation of our own mind, which in
turn leads to an understanding of the true nature of reality 2. To
further complicate matters, some sects treat the core concepts
as a series of techniques to be practiced in a precise order,
whilst others view the core concepts as a process that naturally
unfolds as a result of deep meditation, regardless of the
particular meditative technique used to achieve this state.
It is this last idea that the remainder of this article will concern
The core concepts which I have referred to previously are
outlined in one Taoist chi kung text 3 in the following order:
1. The yuan chi is awakened in the lower Tan tien using
regulated breathing, mental concentration and by placing weight
underside (bringing centre of gravity to correspond with lower
Tan tien – hence the importance of standing postures and
developing the ‘root’ in T’ai Chi).
2. This yuan chi begins to ascend & descend between the lower
Tan tien and middle Tan tien or between the heart (fire – li) and
the kidneys (water – kan). This is referred to as ‘the fusion of fire
3. The yuan chi is then able to move above the heart & into the
head. It then flows up & down between the lower Tan tien & the
upper Tan tien. The upper Tan tien is known as the Ni-wan or
‘mud pill’ and is located in the centre of the brain. The Ni-wan is
composed of the Hypothalamus, pineal & pituitary glands.
This stage is referred to as ‘the opening of the thrusting vessel’
or the zhong-gong direct flowing method 4. This central path of
the thrusting vessel flows from the perineum, through the centre
of the body or the spinal canal, up to the crown of the head. It
may correspond to the Shushumna meridian of Kriya yoga, an
Indian system with many parallels to Taoist alchemy.
4. The yuan chi begins to circulate through the microcosmic
orbit, which is an energy loop running up the posterior surface of
the spine and down through the anterior midline of the body into
the lower Tan tien. This can lead to spontaneous movements
and the production of the jade elixir. The jade elixir is the
production of saliva that tastes sweet or honey-like.
5. Next the green dragon and white tiger vessels are opened by
the yuan chi. These correlate to the left & right paths of the
thrusting vessel found in Mantak Chia’s system 5 and also to the
Ida & Pingalla meridians mentioned in Kriya Yoga. It may be
these vessels that are accessed through deep needling of the
front points of the thrusting vessel (Stomach 30 and kidney
11-21) in acupuncture.
6. After the chi moving in the left and right mai (green
dragon/white tiger) are brought together this leads to sounds
(different from normal digestive sounds) being heard. This is the
‘hiss of the dragon and the roar of the tiger.’ Then the chi will
vibrate in an inner chamber of the lower Tan tien. This signifies
the formation of the golden foetus, an immortal spirit body which
is able to access energies & planes of existence other than that
occupied by our physical body. In the book ‘Taoist Yoga’ , this
stage is known as ‘driving the primordial spirit into the lower Tan
7. The energy of heaven and earth move through the thrusting
vessel and into the lower Tan tien, which provides energetic
nourishment for the golden foetus.
8. A golden light then appears to shine behind the eyes and the
practitioner has feelings of ecstasy, which is a confirmatory sign
that the latent abilities are awakened, immortality is gained and
the goal of alchemy has been reached. It is interesting to note
that ‘The secret of the golden flower’ also speaks of the golden
light behind the eyes as a sign of great progress in Taoist
The work of researcher Itzhak Bentov, a long-term meditator and
author, is relevant to this discussion because despite being
primarily a study of the physiological effects of Kundalini yoga
and transcendental meditation, his work shows a greater
number of direct parallels to Taoist alchemy than it does to the
aforementioned systems. Bentov’s work on the effects of
meditation, labelled the ‘physio-kundalini’ model, describes the
activation and entrainment of a number of bio-oscillators that
cause lasting changes to our physical, mental and energetic
functioning 8. These changes occur through daily meditational
practice, and from personal experience, regardless of the
meditative technique used.
As such, Bentov’s work may go a long way towards helping
modern practitioners to understand what the ancient masters
were trying to explain when they wrote the often obscure
manuals on Taoist alchemy.
Bentov’s physio-kundalini model outlines the following stages in
the meditative process:
1. During meditation the breathing becomes regular. This
regulated breathing controls the rhythm of the heart 9.
It is interesting to note that ‘The secret of the golden flower’ says
that the breath energy is the handle of the heart, thus inferring
that the heart rate cannot be influenced directly, only by altering
our breathing pattern 10. This stage correlates with the
awakening of the yuan chi at the lower Tan tien.
2. When the heart pumps this causes a pressure wave to travel
down the aorta. When this wave reaches the aortic bifurcation,
the part where the aorta splits in two to supply blood to both legs,
a portion of the pressure wave is reflected back towards the
heart. When this wave reaches the aortic valve (at the heart) it
causes the heart to beat again. This creates a standing wave
between the heart and aortic bifurcation, which in turn causes a
rhythmic up and down micro-motion throughout the body 11.
This stage of Bentov’s model correlates almost exactly to the
Kan/Li cycle, if we consider that the aortic bifurcation is at
approximately the same location as the lower Tan tien. Bentov’s
model has a wave travelling up and down between the heart and
aortic bifurcation, the Taoist text states that in the Kan/Li stage
energy flows between the seat of fire (the heart) and the seat of
water (lower Tan tien).
3. The micromotion of the body causes an up & down motion
within the cranial vault. This creates a gentle bumping of the
brain against the cranial vault. This interaction of the brain and
cranial vault creates acoustic (and possibly electrical) plane
waves, which in turn set up a resonant wave in the hollow,
fluid-filled ventricles inside the brain 12.
This idea of an energy which firstly moves between the lower
Tan tien & heart (or middle Tan tien) and then between the lower
Tan tien and the brain (upper Tan tien) is paralleled in the Taoist
practice of ‘opening the thrusting vessel’, mentioned above.
4. The movement of the fluid in the ventricles acts on the nerves
of the middle ear, causing inner sounds to be heard 13.
This offers a physiological explanation of the inner sounds
referred to, by Taoist mystics, as ‘the hiss of the dragon and the
roar of the tiger’.
(It is also worth noting that the lateral ventricles resemble the
Indian description of the third eye chakra which is described as a
flower with two petals, one to the left and the other to the right of
5. The acoustic standing waves in the ventricles creates an up &
down movement in the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerves
connecting the two hemispheres of the brain). This is translated
into electrical energy within the brain tissue. The electrical activity
follows a circular path through the sensory cortex, which leads to
corresponding sensations in various parts of the body 14.
“It has been found by researchers that the ‘energy sensation’
travels up the legs to the spine to the top of the head, then down
the face, through the throat, to a terminal point in the abdomen.”
Whilst Bentov’s research was primarily concerned with Kundalini
yoga, it is interesting to note that he found that the energy
sensations experienced by meditators follow a path that is very
similar to the microcosmic orbit of Taoist alchemy 16. This is a
stark contrast to the path of energy discussed in the classical
texts of Kundalini yoga which describe a path of energy starting
at the perineum, ascending the spine and ending at the crown of
the head 17.
6. Through regular meditation, the circuit through the sensory
cortex begins to polarise the grey matter in one specific direction.
This creates a permanent circuit in the brain and helps to
release stored stresses, which may account for the lasting
changes in physical and psychological functioning caused by
meditation. This circuit grows to include the pleasure centres in
the limbic system, the motor cortex (which controls the voluntary
muscle movement) and areas of the visual cortex. Effects of the
stimulation of these areas include feelings of bliss,
spontaneous bodily movements and sensations of being
surrounded by a brilliant light 18.
As we know from our earlier discussion of the stages of Taoist
alchemical meditation, the sensation of bliss and golden light
are both signs which confirm great progress towards the
meditators ‘return to the source’ or union with the Tao. Our Taoist
text also mentions that the establishment of the microcosmic
orbit can lead to spontaneous movement, in full agreement with
The idea of meditation establishing an electrical circuit in the
brain finds a number of parallels in the Taoist tradition. Mantak
Chia has a number of advanced alchemical formulas that draw
energy into the brain, these include the ‘sealing of the five
senses’ and ‘congress of heaven & earth’, which fuses the
energies of the pineal & pituitary gland in the cauldron of the
hypothalamus 19. The Mao Shan Taoist tradition has a practice
known as ‘walking the nine chambers of the crystal palace
[upper Tan tien]’ which involves visualising various deities within
different parts of the brain 20.
These nine chambers are the highest field of the elixir, chamber
of the mysterious elixir, chamber of the Jade Emperor, chamber
of the moving pearls, chamber of splendour, purple chamber,
chamber of the ultimate, cover of heaven and the chamber of
government. The third eye is also mentioned but is considered
as an opening rather than a chamber, as such it is called the
‘Entrance of the spirit’ 21. These chambers may be an analogy
used by Taoist mystics to convey the formation of the
aforementioned electrical circuit within the brain. The walking
through the chambers would represent movement of electrical
current or qi from one part of the brain to another.
In conclusion it can be seen that there is some merit to the idea
that Taoist alchemy may be a description of a natural process
which occurs through the practice of meditation, regardless of
the particular technique or tradition, and not merely a collection
of ancient visualisation techniques. This is not to say that the
ideas contained within this paper are the truth of the matter, but
rather that they should encourage further investigation into these
ancient arts, and comparison with contemporary research such
as that done by Itzhak Bentov and others. I welcome feedback on
this article and hope that it inspires the reader to re-examine the
wisdom of the ancients.
Bryn Orr lectures in Chinese Exercise Therapy at the Australian
College of Natural Medicine. Bryn is a Chi Kung (qigong)
practitioner and a Reiki/Seichim master who has published
numerous articles on Taoist Alchemy and energetics for
magazines such as Silvercord, Magick, Insight, Mystic
Revelations and The Pacific Journal of Oriental Medicine.January 20, 2005 at 4:44 am #2545
I like this idea because I happen to be convinced that this is how it is–“enlightenment” is a natural process that happens for those who meet it halfway, and lots of religions and secret societies and artistic cults of personality have spiralled up around people who have accessed and continue to access it.
This idea is central to Carl Jung’s take on things too. He calls it “the process of individuation” (inspired by Western alchemy).January 24, 2005 at 10:26 pm #2547
I want to follow up with him with some feedback…
Thanks!January 25, 2005 at 12:36 am #2549
I don’t know his email but here is his website, maybe you can find it there. http://members.aardvark.net.au/borr/beiji/index.htmFebruary 10, 2005 at 11:02 pm #2551
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