Alchemy is an ancient art and science that has long been linked to the spiritual path. The earliest alchemists attempted to transmute base metals such as lead or iron into gold, and to find the elixir of life, a potion that when drunk bestows immortality. But alchemy also had an esoteric, mystical dimension in which the transmutation of base metals into gold serves as a metaphor for transforming one’s preoccupations from the material to the spiritual — a search for celestial rather than physical immortality.
Although often credited to the Egyptians, alchemy is now believed to have originated in China, and is usually traced to Tsou Yen, who flourished early in the 3rd century BCE, and whose followers were known as fang shih (“masters of prescriptions”). These early magicians and shamans from the northeast coast were masters of the secrets of vitality, sexual practice, and feng shui, the science of choosing auspicious sites and layouts for buildings, graves, or even the furniture in one’s home. The fang shih claimed to have learned the secret of immortality from immortals, called hsien, who dwelt on distant mountain peaks, and insisted it all had to do with safeguarding one’s ch’i.
Techniques for preserving ch’i included a form of breath control and energy recirculation called hsing-ch’i (“the microcosmic orbit” or “inner alchemy”), the use of medicinal herbs, alchemy, and tao-yin (combination breathing and stretching exercises based on the movements of cranes and tortoises, which were believed to lead long lives). In order to preserve and extend life, the adept must learn to achieve the appropriate balance of three essential factors, known as the Three Treasures:
- ching, or essence, refers to male and female sexual fluids (semen and menstrual flow). But it usually connotes the subtle essence of those fluids, which can be increased by mingling with the ching of the opposite sex, as long as the coarse male ching (semen) is retained as much as possible.
- ch’i means breath, energy, or vitality, which can be either human breath or cosmic life force, the manifestation of the Tao. Ch’i collects near the navel, and like ching must be conserved, because the loss of either would mean illness or death.
- shen refers to the personal spirit, which arises from the union of ching and ch’i and which can be either pure (yuan-shen, spiritual consciousness), or impure (shih-shen, ordinary consciousness). The same term can also refer to deities that dwell in either the universe or the individual body. All humans are endowed with the Three Treasures, but material desires coarsen them, and they must be refined through various kinds of alchemy, meditation, physical exercise, and breathing techniques.
Over time, Taoists learned to combine yogic and mystical practices with self-hypnosis, restrictive diets, and drugs, not only to induce transcendent states but also in the hope of achieving physical immortality. More and more, Taoism came to be associated with ways of prolonging life; fantastic stories about masters who lived very long lives, exercised magical powers, and ascended into Heaven in broad daylight became commonplace. The import of these elements have probably been exaggerated by Western popularizers, and do not make up a significant portion of current Taoist beliefs.