Taoist Alchemy, and the Circulation of the Light

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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

the microcosmic orbit, mystical taoism, circulation of the light
The microcosmic orbit
The ch'i is guided up the back, and then is brought down the front of the body, completeing the circuit
sketch from  Mantak and Maneewan Chia Awaken Healing Light of the Tao (Healing Tao Books, 1993), p.425.

Instead of a simple ascent of the life-force along the spine to the top of the head, as in Indian Tantra, the Taoist practitioners of "Internal Alchemy" (Nei-Tan) refer to a continual circulation of the ch'i (vitality principle) up the primary yang (positive), back or Governor Channel (tu mai or du mo) and down the primary yin (negative), front or Functional Channel (jen mai or ren mo) of the body.   This is called "The Circulation of the Light," or "The Lesser Heavenly Cycle" (as opposed to the greater cycle of the rotation of stars and constellations) or "Microcosmic Orbit".

However, Ferran Blasco Aguasca has pointed out that the circulation along the Microcosmic Orbit and the circulation in the center running back and forth from perineum to crown are two different things. There are practices in Chinese Alchemy that emphasize working with the chong channel, the thursting or central channel, which seem to be more similar to what the Indian Tantrics refer to in kundalini yoga


The microcosmic orbit and the channels of control and function

the microcosmic orbit, taoism, circulation of the light
A, G, D, J are the four cardinal points of the microcosmic orbit
A-B, A-C, A-E, A-F are the four phases of ascent of positive fire in the channel of control
G-H, G-I, G-K, G-A are the four phases of descent of negaative fire in the channel of function
M = Heart
O = Fire (in the stove - Tan Tien)

grafic from Lu K'uan YŁ, Taoist Yoga - Alchemy and Immortality,  Rider and Company, London, 1970, p.13

Once the circulation or orbit is established, the ch'i-energy is then guided inward to the centre of the body, where it is progressively refined and transmuted through three centres, the lower, middle, and upper "elixir fields" or tan t'iens; the goal being to create an immortal spirit body through which the adept can function on a higher plane of existence than the ordinary physical body.  Because of the emphasis on the dynamic flow and circulation of ch'i energy, very little importance is placed on the actual chakras themselves, these being at most points or stations of attention within the overall microcosmic orbit.  One can however associate the three tan t'iens - located below the navel, behind the solar plexus, and in the centre of the head - and the heart centre (sometimes also considered the middle tan tien) with chakras.

the three Tan Tiens of mystical taoism

An excellent book on the basic practice of the Microcosmic Orbit, written in clear language for the modern-day person, is Awaken Healing Light of the Tao by Mantak and Maneewan Chia (Healing Tao Books, 1993).

taoism, circulation of the light



A note to the reader regarding the imperfection of such a focused practice:

"The minor technique of circulating energy can enhance the body so as to extend the life span, but if you therefore suppose the great Way requires work on the physical body, this is a tangential teaching."

The Secret of the Golden Flower, Thomas Cleary translation


This is perhaps the most important book on the sublime movements of cosmic chi, and is highly recommended for its wisdom and transformational quality.



The Spirit and Flesh Sacred Texts Online Library: world religion and spirituality, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Gnosticism, Alchemy, Paganism, and more.