Taoist Internal Alchemy

If Tao is about natural truth, Qigong is its spoken language
Truth can only be known by EXPERIENCE, not by belief or thoughts.

On Taoist Internal Alchemy
Interview with Michael Winn
Reprinted from The Empty Vessel

Following is the complete text of an interview with Michael Winn published recently in The Empty Vessel

Empty Vessel: Many people are currently familiar with Taoist practices such as taiji quan, qigong and Chinese medicine. But there is a whole other aspect of Taoist cultivation, Taoist spiritual work, which is often referred to as internal alchemy. Perhaps we can begin by talking a little bit about what this internal alchemy really is.

Michael Winn: That is my deepest area of interest, one that I have been investigating for the last eighteen years. That's how I got into Taoist practices. I used to do mostly kundalini yoga and Hindu based meditation. I was introduced to Mantak Chia by a taiji teacher who I was starting to study with. The taiji teacher decided to quit teaching the class after Mantak Chia told her that the fastest way to learn the internal taiji aspects was to first learn to circulate her qi through her microcosmic orbit. So I decided since the taiji class was canceled I would go down to Chinatown and see who this Mantak Chia guy was.

I think most people who practice taiji in this country don't even know they have a microcosmic orbit.

Its true. The microscosmic orbit should really be the foundation rather than the culmination of the practice. So I met Mantak Chia and he started talking about immortality. Now I had always heard about enlightenment, I had never heard anyone talking about immortality. I was pretty skeptical but it did pique my curiosity. I decided to investigate more deeply and continued to do my kundalini practices for many hours a day. I had had some very powerful kundalini experiences and knew that there were such things as the subtle body.

I had already achieved a certain level of consciousness and I thought that all I had to do was continue doing kundalini yoga and eventually I would get to someplace else. But I really didn't know where I was going. I was using the chakra model where you're just trying to get up and out of your crown to somewhere. I kept waiting for the angels to come down and take me the rest of the way or something. Chia made a comment about my kundalini yoga. He said I was just heating the room. In other words, my qi was coming out of my head, my ears and out my crown and I was not recycling it. I had noticed that my adrenals were starting to get weaker and I was starting to get colder in the winter. That's when I began to take a harder look at whether I was robbing my physical body in order to pump qi into my subtle body.

Since then I have studied with many people but Chia gave me a solid foundation in internal alchemy. His teacher was a Taoist hermit called White Cloud who had apparently achieved the level of breatharian in the mountains somewhere in northern China. When the Japanese started bombing China he came down from the mountains and came to a village and started eating again with the villagers there. He ended up migrating down to Hong Kong and became a hermit in the hills there.

He had seven alchemical formulas, seven stages of internal alchemy and had transmitted the formulas to Mantak Chia. I began studying these as well as taiji at the same time. I gradually stopped doing kundalini yoga because the Taoist practices were more effortless and more grounded. Once you got them going they just went by themselves. The whole emphasis on effortlessness appealed to me. When I began to practice taiji, Iron Shirt qigong and internal alchemy, I also got much stronger and rooted and that impressed me.

Another term that's used a lot is immortal, which can also be taken a lot of different ways.

I began to investigate the difference between enlightenment and immortality. I concluded that a lot of teachers were actually teaching enlightenment which I would say is concerned with connecting your mind with the universe in a certain way. But I think immortality is about dissolving the boundaries between your mind and your body and the universe’s body-mind. The body is the difficult part to really integrate. To put it simply, it's one thing to open your third eye and have a vision of the universe and its another thing to integrate all three of your dan tiens with the wu ji, which alchemically represents the integration of your jing, qi and shen. A lot of enlightenment practices develop shen only.

Your personal shen ("soul" in Western thinking) can expand and connect to its "great shen" ("spirit" at the cosmic level), but that doesn’t mean that you have transformed your negative emotions, completed your desire for sex or children, released your judgments of others, or healed your disease. In fact, that expansion of your shen may even amplify your so-called lower self. Immortality by my definition is the integration of the jing, qi and shen within their matrix in the wu ji, the Supreme Unknown.

Some of the Hindu practices even deny the body for the shen or spirit and some of the ascetic practices actually mortify the body to free the spirit.

Basically there is no value attached to the body. You can trash the body in order to get liberation or to transcend. That's OK from the traditional Hindu or Buddhist viewpoint. From the Taoist point of view that's not OK. I switched to the Tao because I realized that my body was not only spiritually important for me, but that most Westerners value their bodies. You can cultivate that body and bring spirit into it rather than get rid of the body so that you can go somewhere else. I think that's why the Chinese put so much emphasis on longevity, because it takes a long time to cultivate and refine the shen, the spirit hidden within the body.

Kan & Li symbolThe alchemical formulas that I began studying had three different levels: the Lesser, Greater, and Greatest Enlightenment of Water and Fire (Kan and Li). These practices tap into different fields of polarized yin and yang qi to dissolve jing and build original (yuan) qi and yuan shen. You learn how to gather the lesser elixir and greater elixir, the essence of your consciousness distilled from "cooking" the jing, qi and shen from the microcosm and macrocosm. This builds a yang energy body.

The Lesser Water and Fire is called sexual alchemy, as it couples the inner male and inner female essences within the physical body. This creates a tremendously healing and blissful field of yuan qi that is used to dissolve blockages in all the meridians, core channels, and dan tiens as well as clearing the vital organ, nervous, lymphatic, bone marrow and blood circulatory system. You open your inner eye in each dan tien and learn to manage your family of inner souls. If you receive the transmission of this formula, other formulas often unfold spontaneously.

The Greater Kan and Li is called Sun-Moon alchemy, as it couples the solar and lunar essences to dissolve the boundary between your personal energy body and the energy body of planet Earth. We meditate in the very core of the planet, its central dan tien and doorway to the original shen of the earth being. We connect our personal inner souls to the planetary soul powers of the five directions (north, south, east, west, and center).

The Greatest Kan and Li is called Soul/Heart Alchemy, as it opens up a direct relationship between your personal Heart shen and the Great Shen of the Sun (or Solar Logos in the West). This practice releases your fear of death and dissolves the karmic, genetic and planetary influences of your personal astrology. We learn to listen to the planetary tones and the central sound current flowing through the Sun. The Sealing of the Senses (Star Alchemy) relates to the upper dan tien, the pole star and the black hole at the center of this universe. The Congress of Heaven and Earth, and the Union of Man with the Tao, are the final formulas. These last three formulas connect to the three levels of immortality beyond enlightenment. Traditionally, the Chinese are prohibited from teaching these openly, lest they fall into the wrong hands and bring the wrath of heaven.

I feel the age of secrecy is past. The rigorous training filters out the unworthy and half-serious. Part of my work reinterpreting these Taoist methods is to make them accessible for Westerners. Most Chinese have language difficulties in teaching these subtle practices to Westerners. The terminology is confusing and difficult. The terms used by Taoist alchemists are similar to those used in Chinese medicine, but their meanings are often different.

When I started there was really very little available in English. Now there's a lot more available but it doesn't do you any good if you don't have the formulas and a teacher. I don't see a lot of information about just what internal alchemy is yet. I think that we are in the midst of a technology transfer, that inner alchemy will be revived as a popular science of consciousness in the next century.

There are a number of books out now about internal alchemy. They more or less describe internal alchemy but they don't actually teach the process.

That's the problem. Some of the recent books, like Eva Wong's Guide to Taoism (Shambhala) offer an excellent overview but no "how-to." When I started, the only book available was Charles Luk’s Taoist Yoga . It describes practices but the translation is ambiguous, so you cannot actually practice from that book unless you know how to do those internal processes already. Yan Xin, a famous teacher from mainland China, acknowledged to one of my students that the kan and li formulas I teach are authentic. His alchemical practice uses a different inner fire and water method, but is similar in principle.

Do you think it is possible to learn alchemical practices from a book?

I think it is very difficult unless you have some background. I have, of course, written many books on neigong with and for Mantak Chia but we have not published any books on the internal alchemy formulas. We published books on the six healing sounds, the sexual practices, bone marrow breathing, Iron Shirt, taiji, the microcosmic orbit, and others. Those are all just laying the foundation. Only the Fusion of the Five Elements begins to explore some of the alchemical processes, with a few techniques downloaded from the kan and li practices.

In internal alchemy you are separating your shen/soul, your qi, and your jing/body essence for the purpose of refining and recombining them back together into a pure spiritual essence. The basic premise is that your consciousness has a substance or essence that can be refined, congealed or crystallized. Alchemy speeds up the natural evolution or unfoldment of your essence.

It is very different from simply expanding your consciousness or transcending the physical plane. It requires a whole multi-dimensional understanding of how your consciousness moves between subtle and physical bodies and into your thoughts, feelings and desires. The local universe is a vast alchemical cauldron that has already separated itself into different densities or dimensions that we call body, mind and spirit. Life is the process by which they refine each other, become each other, until all three aspects are experienced as one.

The yin—yang and five element theory underlies all qigong and Chinese medicine, and is found in internal alchemy as well. But there is an exoteric or outer Tao and an esoteric or inner Tao teaching. The exoteric, popular one is that Tao is learning how to harmonize and balance your qi flow for a long and happy life. But that, unfortunately, still leads to death and a consequent fear of the unknown. But it teaches you to harmonize with the postnatal, or later heaven, realm.

In internal alchemy you're really deciding to accelerate the process of evolution and return to the origin before your death. I believe this is very ancient knowledge that is many thousands of years older than 3,500 year old medical texts or the schools that revived inner alchemy in the third century AD. I think it is older than the I Ching or written symbols. Inner alchemy is the very deep memory of how we originally regenerated and rebirthed ourselves. Allusions are made to a older golden period when spirit and matter, yin and yang spirits co-created without struggle or sense of separation.

When we read the Taoist texts, we read about attaining immortality, about refining jing to qi into shen into Tao and of people having miraculous powers. Do you think that these kinds of things still happen for cultivators today?

I can only speak from my own experience. I had an experience back in 1981 that still propels me on the path of inner alchemy. I was in Africa working as a freelance war corespondent. I had an assignment for Outside magazine to spend a night inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. I had just finished running a mission in Ethiopia smuggling white Jews to meet the black Jews there, when I suddenly got extremely sick. I had heat, nausea, dizziness and diarrhea all at once. I thought I was getting a relapse of hepatitis so I went to the hospital but they said I was fine. I strangely didn't feel sick, but I had all these symptoms. My body was just going wild and was overheated. For three days I sat there and was hallucinating and saw all kinds of astral forms and spiraling visions. I had to keep jumping into the shower I was so hot.

Finally this figure came floating into view. I was quite surprised and didn't know what to think of it. I looked more closely and I saw that it was a very old Chinese man, with a robe and long white wispy beard, standing in meditation. He looked two thousand years old. As he floated into my field of vision, I kept looking at him wondering who he was. All of a sudden from his lower dan tien came a laser beam that shot into my lower dan tien. A surge of energy shot up through my body and exploded out the top of my crown like a big mushroom cloud. It showered down and the heat and symptoms of illness stopped completely. I was just lying there in bliss. Then the guy disappeared.

I wondered who this Chinese guy was. I didn't know about Taoist immortals at the time. I now believe that was a visit from a Taoist immortal who probably induced the fiery condition in me as a kind of purification before I went into the Great Pyramid. Then I had a really intense experience in the Great Pyramid but that's another story. My point is that beings who have achieved a state of immortality do exist. That's my experience. My speculation is that they are achieved beings that hang out at the boundary between the wu ji, the void, and the realm of cosmic or Great Shen. They can choose to interact with this plane, although they rarely do because the vibrations here are so crude and unpleasant for them. I later had contacts with other beings who likely were immortal.

And you feel that even in this modern age it is possible to attain those levels?

Yes, I feel it’s definitely possible. Otherwise I wouldn't be wasting my time practicing alchemy and teaching people. My conclusion is that on a personal level it is the most worthwhile thing you can do, because it is the only thing you can take with you. You can't take your money or your reputation or your kids or your house or anything. You can only take your essence. And if you have not integrated it you can't even take the fragments of your essence with you at death. Until you integrate, you don’t even own yourself, you’re just a temporary composite of various spirits.

On a collective level, if even one modern human being attains immortality, it will open the door for everyone to follow. I believe it cosmically breaks the bottleneck in the incarnation cycle. There is too much shen trapped within our jing, our physical body substance, and within the earth’s body itself.

There are other appearances of immortals in modern times. The Kriya Yoga tradition was started by an immortal they call Babaji, who suddenly manifested to a railroad engineer named Lahiri Mahasay in 1861. Interestingly, the first kriya given by Babaji (and popularized by Yogananda in the West) is the microcosmic orbit. You won’t find any references to this orbit meditation in the Vedas, Upanishads, or later Tantric literature. Did Babaji hang out with Taoist immortals in the mid-planes, who urged him to spread the orbit practice in India as the foundation for immortality?


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