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Basic Concepts of Nei Tan

Meditation - Gathering the Light
grafic from The Secret of the Golden Flower
Harvest/HBJ, New York and London, 1962

In addition to the purely mystical  Taoism of the Tao-te-Ching the one hand, and to village shamanism and magic on the other, there was a third spiritual tradition in China that has also been given the term "Taoism".  This is a tradition of yogic transformation of the vital-force; the so-called "inner alchemy", because it uses alchemical metaphors and purports to be a quest for immortality.  It is this esoteric Taoism which constitutes the native Chinese counterpart to Indian and Tibetan Tantra.and western Qabalah.

In the West, we tend to think (incorrectly so) of "alchemy" as an early precursor of chemistry. And even when seen from the spiritual perspective, alchemy still entails physical experimentation.

In China, "alchemy" was originally a search for immortality through various drugs, herbs, and chemicals. This is known as wai-tan, external alchemy, and was developed probably around the 4th century b.c.e., half a millenium before the earliest reference to alchemy in the West.

 Alongside this, and perhaps a little later, there developed nei-tan, internal alchemy, which was actually a sort of yoga or meditation-practice, not unlike Indian Tantra, which resembled external alchemy only in its terminology (the alchemical terms having a symbolic rather than a literal meaning). Internal alchemy had as its aim the cultivation of the life-force, and the consequent attainment of immortality of the personality.

 The basic premise of the the esoteric or nei-tan Taoists is that man has only a limited store of vital-force (ch'i).  This leaks away through day-to-day activities, and when it's all gone, that's it, the person's dead.  But it is possible to make the ch'i go back inside, rather than outwards, and then up the spine to the crown.  This obviously is very like the Tantric Kundalini.  In ascending, the ch'i progresses through various stations, which are given exotic names like the Elixer-field, the Yellow Hall, the Heaven.  Now comes the difference with Shakta based tantra.  Reaching the top of the head, the ch'i then descends down the front of the body, down to the navel, and then around again, forming a complete circuit.  This circut is known as "The Circulation of the Light", or "The Microcosmic Orbit".

The Circulation of the Light

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 November 1999, last modified 21 November 2003