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Neidan, or internal alchemy, spiritual alchemy (內丹術 - nèi dān shù Traditional Chinese, 內丹术 - Simplified Chinese) was a concept in Taoist Chinese alchemy.

It is a series of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines intended to prolong the life of the body and create an immortal spiritual body that would survive after death. In Inner Alchemy, the human body becomes a laboratory in which the Three Treasures of Jing, Chi, and Shen are cultivated for the purpose of improving physical, emotional and mental health, and ultimately merging with the Tao, i.e. becoming an Immortal. In China, it is an important form of practice for most schools of Taoism.

Neidan is part of the Chinese alchemical meditative tradition that is said to have been separated into internal and external (Waidan) at some point during the Tang dynasty. The Cantong qi (The Kinship of the Three) is the earliest known book on theoretical alchemy in China; it was written by the alchemist Wei Boyang in the year 142 AD. This text influenced the formation of Neidan, whose earliest existing texts date from the first half of the eighth century. The authors of several Neidan articles refer to their teachings as the Way of the Golden Elixir (jindan zhi dao). The majority of Chinese alchemical sources is found in the Daozang (Taoist Canon), the largest collection of Taoist texts.

Neidan shares a significant portion of its notions and methods with classical Chinese medicine, fangshi and with other bodies of practices, such as meditation and the methods for "nourishing life" (yangsheng). What distinguishes alchemy from these related traditions is its unique view of the elixir as a material or immaterial entity that represents the original state of being and the attainment of that state. The Neidan tradition of internal alchemy was practiced by working with the energies that were already present in the human body as opposed to using natural substances, medicines or elixirs, from outside of the body. The Shangqing (Supreme Clarity) tradition of Daoism played an important role in the emergence of Neidan alchemy, after using Waidan mainly as a meditative practice, and therefore turning it from an external to an internal art.

Closely related to Daoism, it is believed that the goal of Neidan was to merge the two energies of yin and yang, and return to the primordial unity of the Dao.


General concepts

In the religion of Taoism, it is said, by Smith, that "teachers are involved, but they are better thought of as coaches who train their students - guiding them in what they should understand" (199-204). In the practice of Taoism, they focus on the balance of yin and yang in one's life (Hopfe and Woodward 167). Internal alchemy focuses on the body and how you are able to use the "Three Treasures" to bring this balance to your life. The "Three Treasures" are: chi, jing, and shen. These are the energy that makes up life (Kohn 145-149). Each individual is able to practice internal alchemy on their own, the religious leaders of Taoism are there for guidance (Smith 199-204).

Chi is defined as the "natural energy of the universe" and can be found in everything, including each individual person (Carroll). Throughout Taoists' lives, they try to obtain a positive flow of chi, which flows through the body in paths moving to each individual organ, from the perspective of internal alchemy (Smith 199-204). Taoists map out the body according to these paths. If a path is blocked, the chi does not flow properly; therefore, this blockage disrupts the balance of yin and yang. Taoists came up with methods to help get rid of these harmful blockages so that the body's balance can be restored (Majka, Thompson, Schipper).

The second treasure, jing, is essential for humans to live; it is referred to as the energies of the body (Kohn, 145-149). It corresponds most closely to the energy of the physical body. The conserving of jing in the body is heavily focused on in internal alchemy (Smith 199-200). It is thought that a person dies when they lost, or ran out of jing. Taoists believed that preserving jing allowed people to live longer, if not to achieve immortality. The idea of immortality came about because Taoists believed that if jing in the body could be preserved the energies in the body could be saved, which allowed you to live (Schipper).

Shen, the third and final treasure, is the original spirit of the body. This is all that happens in the body without the acknowledgment of the human (Nedidan: The Traditional Meditative Practice, 14). Taoists try to become conscious of shen through meditation (Smith, 199-204). Shen is the energy that each organ, in the body, possesses. Each organ in the body has an element associated with it, either: fire, wood, water, metal, or earth (The Five Shen). When the "three treasures" are maintained in the body, along with a balance of yin and yang, it is possible to achieve a healthy body, and longevity; which, are the main goals of internal alchemy (Ching 395, Hopfe and Woodward 167).

The Three Treasures

Inner alchemy practice can be generalized into three phases. The three phases are known as the "three treasures". The "three treasures" of human life are vitality- jing (ching), energy-chi (ch'i), and spirit-shen (chen) (Kohn 145-149). It can be explained in the Zhonghe ji which was quoted in the book: Daoism and Chinese Culture by Livia Kohn:

Making one's essence complete, one can preserve the body. To do so, first keep the body at ease, and make sure there are no desires. Thereby energy can be made complete.
Making one's energy complete, one can nurture the mind. To do so, first keep the mind pure, and make sure there are no thoughts. Thereby energy can be made complete.
Making one's spirit complete, one can recover emptiness. To do so, first keep the will sincere, and make sure body and mind are united. Thereby spirit can be returned to emptiness. ... To attain immortality, there is nothing else but the refinement of these three treasures: essence, energy, spirit." (Kohn 145-149).

The "three treasures" need to work with one another and never without each other. One cannot exist without the other one. These "three treasures" are important in the longevity techniques that are used to achieve immortality and physical manifestation of the Dao (Ching 395).


Chi (Ch'i or qi)

Chi is the vital force that operates the body and manifests in everyone and everything "the natural energy of the universe" (Carroll). The home of chi is said to be centered around the liver. Chi is one of the "three treasures". Having harmony is one of the most important concepts of Chi. Keeping a proper balance of Yin and Yang (positive and negative) forces. Trouble either on a personal or on a larger scale is a form of disharmony and may lead to illness or stress. This is accomplished by having too much of either Yin or Yang forces (Hopfe and Woodward 167).

Healing practices through acupuncture, massage, cupping and herbal medicines can open up the chi meridians throughout the body so that the chi in the body can flow freely. By keeping chi in balance and flowing throughout the body promotes health and imbalance can lead to sickness. This doesn't only apply to the body but the environment as well, being nature or man-made. Feng Shui methods are used to keep a healthy balance and a more open flow of chi in ones environment (Majka).

Feng Shui means "wind-water". Chi is scattered by the wind and is gathered by water. It is good to have a home by a river or body of water so chi could flow past your home, also to build in front of a hill so bad chi cannot flow into your home. Modern feng shui focuses on moving objects such as furniture around to help promote a positive outcome of chi in the chosen space. Traditionally it was used to find homes and good burial site that had good amounts of Yin-chi and Yang-chi, insuring that your spirit won't get stuck in the mortal plan but rise and join the ancestors (Thompson 19-22).


One of the important values that Taoism stresses is jing,or vitality; one of the "three treasures" of human life (Kohn 145-149).

The amount of jing we have is determined by the amount of jing which was in the sperm of our father and the egg of our mother. It is akin to DNA. One can never attain more jing than was aportioned at the time of conception.

Jing is lessened with ejaculation in men, and menstruation in women. Women, from the age of 35 and upwards have a high risk of delivering children with Downs' Syndrome because of a lack of jing in their eggs, due to depletion from all the years of menstruation.

The amount of jing we have determines the length of our life; hence, the shortened life-expectancy of children born with Downs' Syndrome.

When jing levels are seriously depleted, people become sick and eventually die.

Jing can never be increased, but it can be strengthened, by preserving semen and by eliminating menstruation, via practicing "the microcosmic orbit," a tool of Taoist alchemy for the purpose of obtaining immortality.

For men, the process involves becoming aroused almost to the point of ejaculation, then mentally concentrating and physically contracting making the semen flow upwards instead, along the spine and then into the head area. Sacral undulations with perineal contractions propel jing upward. Simultaneously, it is pulled upward by the jade pillow contraction (rear base of skull - occipital region). Breath is very important. This act is called "reverting the semen to nourish the brain" (Kohn 145-149). Once a man has mastered this and no longer ejaculates, he then has "subdued the white tiger" (Kohn 145-149). A "pearl of dew" forms in the abdominal cinnabar which is where the divine chi is made. (Kohn 145-149) The more chi that circulates through your body builds up a stronger and purer jing which is what you desire for immortality.

For women, the process involves following a diet with lighter, bland foods, and meditating on the desire to stop menstruation, which can make the red menstrual blood rise upwards, forming the female "pearl of dew" (Kohn 145-149), instead of being lost. At that point, a clear fluid will appear during menstruation instead of blood (Kohn 145-149). After the women has stopped depleting red blood through menstruation, it is known that she has "decapitated the red dragon," (Kohn 145-149), which stabilizes chi. Then, layers of chi are built up, forming a stronger chi.

Shen (Chen)

Shen (chen) or the spirit (the most pure and vital energy) involves the mental activities of a person including their consciousness. Shen can also be said to include the nerve system. The nerve system consists of the "original spirit" and actions that are vital to survival such as breathing or the heart beat. A person's consciousness is the spirit of knowing, conscious activities, and the thinking process which can be developed through learning. Internal alchemists focus on the original spirit of shen (Nedidan: The Traditional Meditative Practice 14).

Shen implies a person's mental function and consciousness as well as vitality, mental health and overall "presence". Shen is known to reside mainly in the heart, or more specifically, the blood which relies on the heart. It is believed that shen sleeps at night and if it is disturbed the result can be insomnia. Healthy shen can be seen in a person's physical appearance through the eyes. If the eyes are bright and shining with liveliness it indicates a healthy shen. If one's shen is unhealthy their eyes will appear dull. The shen is dependent on the jing and chi. (Shen: Traditional Chinese Medicine 1-4) If the jing and the chi are happy then the shen will be content as well.

Shen can be thought of as either a singular concept or a plural concept. When viewed singularly shen is located in the heart and known as heart shen. When viewed as a plural concept it is found in five of the yin organs; the heart, the kidney's, the spleen, the lungs and the liver. The singular shen depends on the others as the others depend on it. If the heart shen is not functioning properly it can damage the other shen and lead to problems such as mental illness. (Chaqging Yang 6)

Shen: The Emperor of the Heart

The element associated with the heart is fire. The heart shen involves the quality of awareness one has and is shown in the responsiveness of the eyes. The xin or mind exists as part of the heart. Often viewed as a corona to the sun of the heart.

Zhi: The Kidney's Will to Act

Zhi is one's will and is represented by the element of water. Zhi embodies one's effort and perseverance to succeed in spiritual practice. Through the zhi one may hope to align themselves with the "will of Heaven", or the Dao.

Yi: Intellect of the Spleen

Earth is th element of yi. It is said to assist in the formation of intentions and when not in balance it can lead to problems with the spleen. When healthy it is evident as a spirit permeated with intelligence. Within the spleen also exists the xing or "map" of the body, often this concept is viewed as the blueprint of our existence.

Po: The Corporal Soul of the Lungs

Po concerns our immediate desires and only lasts as long as one lives. It is the polar of hun and is found in the element of metal. There are traditionally 13 po spirits that reside in the lung.

Hun: The Ethereal Soul of the Liver

Hun is represented by the element of wood and has the ability to survive subtly after death. It involves long range commitments and as one's spiritual consciousness develops the po becomes support of the hun. (The Five Shen). There are seen to be 3 hun that form at conception, the yin hun, the yang hun and the ren (human) hun.

When all forms of shen are functioning properly and the shen is in harmony one is said to have achieved shen unity.

Works cited

  • Bartle-Smith, Jennifer. "What is Feng Shui?." Naturally Connected. 2003. Naturally Connected. 13 Nov 2008 [1]
  • Carroll, Robert Todd. "Chi(Ch'i or qi)" Chi. 2007. 13 Nov 2008 [2]
  • Chaqging Yang, Joseph and Morris, Will. (2008). Shen Harmony: The Normal Mental Condition in Chinese Medicine.: Acupuncture Today. [3]
  • Ching, Julia. (2001). East Asia Traditions- Taken from World Religions: Eastern Traditions. Don Mills, Ontario.: Oxford University Press (Pg. 395, 397)
  • Hartz, Paula R. (1993). Taoism- World Religions. New York: Facts on File Inc.
  • Hopfe, Lewis M. and Mark R. Woodward. Yin and Yang. 10th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., 2007.
  • Kohn, Livia. (1956). Daoism and Chinese Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press. (Pg. 145-149)
  • Littleton, Scott C. (1999) The Sacred East, Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd.
  • Majka, Christopher. "What is Tai Chi?." Yang Style Tai Chi. Empty Mirrors Press. 13 Nov 2008 [4]
  • Neidan: The Traditional Meditative Practice.: LiteratiTradition. [5]
  • Pregadio, Fabrizio. Chinese Alchemy [6]
  • Reninger, Elizabeth. "Internal Alchemy: An Overview." Taoism. 2008. New York Times Company. 13 Nov 2008 [7]
  • Reninger, Elizabeth. "What is Qi?" The Vibratory Nature of Reality. 2008. New York Times Company. 13 Nov 2008 [8]
  • Reninger, Elizabeth. The Five Shen.: 2008 New York Times Company. [9]
  • Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Translated by Karen C. Duval. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Shen: Traditional Chinese Medicine.: 2001-2008. Sacred Lotus Arts. [10]
  • Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986.
  • Thompson, Laurence. Chinese Religion: An Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1989.

See also

External links

Internal alchemy, also called spiritual alchemy, (內丹術 - nèi dān shù Traditional Chinese, 內丹术 - Simplified Chinese) is a term used for different esoteric disciplines focused on balancing internal and spiritual energies. In China, it is an important form of practice for most schools of Taoism. In Europe, it is considered to be a central mystical practice of Rosicrucianism and Hermeticism.[1] Historically, it has borrowed the symbolism and terminology of classical alchemy, employing them in process and metaphor to spiritual development.[2]

The term is also used to translate various terms used in the native languages of some east Asian Taoist and Buddhist practices. Neidan and Tantra are considered forms of internal alchemy, but western commentators often focus on sexual practices.[3]


Internal alchemy, like the more general alchemy from which it derived, focuses on transmuting energies and substances. The practices focus on restoring balance and elevating spiritual vitality. The goals of internal alchemy are enlightenment, improved health, longevity, and peacefulness. Practitioners often seek immortality or reunion with God or another divine source.[4]

The energies and substances of the body are described in metaphor. Elements, metals, and humours have all been used to classify and define characteristics of the human system. Internal alchemists map the body, noting which routes energy move through and which areas are associated with particular "elements". Examples include the Sephiroth of Kabbalah, the seven seals of esoteric Christianity, the seven Hindu chakras and the Chinese meridians.

Medicinal alchemy

In many cultures, notably those of the East, diseases and medical ailments were thought to be due to imbalance in the afflicted person's internal alchemy, or a weakness of one's life spirit. Consequently, medical treatments were a mix of supernatural appeals and pharmacology, using spells, amulets, and repulsive herbs to "banish" evil influence or strengthen the spirit.


  1. Rosicrucian Alchemy and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn by Jean-Pascal Ruggiu, Imperator of Ahathöor Temple No. 7, Paris, France
  2. Whitcomb, Bill. The Magician's Companion: A Practical and Encyclopedic Guide to Magical and Religious Symbolism. Llewellyn Publications, 1993. ISBN 0875428681.
  3. Tyson, Donald. Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits. Llewellyn Publications, 2000. ISBN 1567187412.
  4. The True Nature of Hermetic Alchemy by David Griffin, Chief Adept of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn


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