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Taoist Alchemy: The Elixir of Immortality

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

This lesson will seek to explain the link between ancient Taoism and alchemy. In doing so, it will define internal and external alchemy while also discussing the elixir of immortality.

Taoism Defined

In today's lesson, we're going to explore Taoist alchemy, specifically in its relation to the elixir of immortality. However, since I'm guessing the concepts of ancient Taoism are pretty unfamiliar to most of us, we should probably start with a short intro to Taoism.

Taoism, also spelled Daoism, is a Chinese philosophy that stresses living simply, honestly, and in harmony with nature. Although this definition seems rather cut and dry, the actual historical evidence about Taoism is sketchy at best.

In fact, when it comes to who actually came up with Taoism, no one can really give a definitive answer. However, many scholars site a man named Lao-tzu, also spelled Laozi, as the first to receive the inspiration of the Tao. However, not many agree on when he lived, with some even asserting he's more myth than real man.

Making matters even more difficult, there really is no concrete definition of the word Tao. The best most scholars, and even Taoists, come up with is to describe it as the way of perfect harmony with nature in its original form. In more Western terms, it's the idea that we and the universe are one.

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  • 0:01 Taoism Defined
  • 1:20 Alchemy
  • 2:09 Internal Alchemy
  • 3:15 Immortality
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Alchemy

With that admittedly nebulous description, let's get on to Taoism and alchemy. For our purpose, we're going to use a more archaic definition of alchemy rather than what it's become in our more modernized Western world. We're going to define it a bit more broadly as the process of transforming something into a more valuable state of being.

Going with the theme of transformation, most of the first alchemists dedicated themselves to trying to find a way to turn common metals into precious gold. Almost like seeking a secret potion, these alchemists were some of the first to employ what we'd call the scientific process. They studied in laboratories, manipulating the natural elements in much the same manner of our scientists today and even recorded their observations.

Internal Alchemy

While many alchemists tinkered with metals, many others turned their attention to the human body. This was especially true of the Taoists.

From ancient times til now, Taoists have placed a large emphasis on healing the body through things like the martial arts, yoga, and even massage. All of these aspects of caring for the physical body are done in order to create oneness between the physical body and the Tao.

Although many in the West also take part in these activities, they are more so done as leisure, to decompress, or more vainly, to simply fit into a smaller pant size. However, for a practicing Taoist, this care of the body goes so much deeper.

Known as nei-dun, or internal alchemy, this emphasis on care of the physical body is done in order to prolong human life and experience. Its goal is not to look good in a summer bikini; it's to become one with the harmonious and natural force of the Tao. It is to transform the human body into a perfected part of the Tao.

Immortality

Not content with limiting the process of alchemy to only internal forces within the body, Taoists were among the first to begin using minerals and herbs to promote quality of life. Known as wai-dan, or external alchemy, these practitioners began looking outside the body to nature. Adding to this, they began searching for a way to not just live better but to live forever. In short, they began searching for the recipe for eternal life, the elixir of immortality.

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