ESSENTIALS OF TAOISM
and the Taoist Influence on Herbal Medicine Literature
Note on transliteration: In most ITM documents, Chinese words are transliterated via the pinyin system that was widely adopted during the 1980s. Taoism was extensively discussed in English-language literature prior to the 1980s, so that there is considerable transliteration already well-established based on the earlier Wade-Giles system. In this situation, the transliteration adopted for the current article is based on simplified Wade-Giles, leaving out the apostrophes that were used to develop more precision. The term "Tao" is transliterated in pinyin as Dao, but Taoism, a term long used in the West, is not a Chinese word and shifting to Daoism is a questionable approach to dealing with transliteration. The book of Taoism commonly known as the Tao Te Ching would be written in pinyin Dao De Jing, and this would be appropriate, except that few people will find one of its many English translations with the title spelled that way.
Taoism was a highly influential philosophy that evolved about 2,500 years ago in China. Its principle proponent was Lao Tsu (Lao Tzu) who was a contemporary of Confucius, the originator of another highly influential and differently-oriented philosophy. The essence of Taoism was preserved in the writings attributed to Lao Tsu called the Tao Te Ching, written in 81 short chapters, with a total of about 5,000 characters. From this base, Taoism developed rich and varied manifestations in Chinese culture. A subgroup of the Taoists pursued alchemy and medicine, and their work had a substantial impact on the development of herbal medicine. Taoism remains of interest to many people around the world today, even though its influence in China has waned considerably from its former level. It has been said that there are more translations of the Tao Te Ching than any other book besides the Christian bible.
The Tao Te Ching has many sayings that are inspirational, and many sayings that are mysterious (difficult to understand). In this essay, I present what I perceive as the core teaching of Taoism by extracting certain lines from the Tao Te Ching as illustrations of the fundamentals. For that purpose, I will quote from the translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching, 1972 Random House, New York). Another valuable translation is by Thomas Miles (Tao Te Ching, 1992 Avery Publishing, New York). I also propose to describe, in less prosaic terms than in the original text, the basic concept of Taoism.
Perhaps the most frequently portrayed aspect of Taoism is the image of the unobstructed flow of life. In the Tao Te Ching (chapter 48) it is said: "The world is ruled by letting things take their course, it cannot be ruled by interfering." An image of water flowing through a stream bed is sometimes used to convey the concept. That the flow of water has great potential, as one can see by the deep gorges in solid rock carved by a stream, is also mentioned (chapter 78): "Nothing is more soft and yielding than water, yet for attacking the solid and the strong, nothing is better." Letting things take their course is often described as "being in harmony with nature." Nature is one with the Tao, and to not go against nature is to be in harmony with nature. Harmony with nature requires yielding, but it results in great things. The Tao, often translated as the Way (capitalized because it is beyond ordinary description), might be called the "yielding way;" Te is usually translated as power; the book title Tao Te Ching means, roughly, the classic about the power of the yielding way.
Despite the common reference to this aspect of Taoism, I think that this view of the teaching, when taken out of the larger context of the Tao Te Ching, is usually too difficult to put into practice because it is so abstract. What does it mean to lead a life that flows like water and harmonizes with nature? In this article, I want to call attention to another aspect of the Taoist teaching that may prove more practical, because it answers the question in relation to how humans live: not just with nature, but with each other and with the powers and vagaries of one's own mind.
The underlying principle presented in the Tao Te Ching is that one should take care of things that are in need of doing, and then move on to the next thing that needs to be done, without any attachment to the accomplishment. By avoiding any "attachment to the accomplishment" it is meant that one should not dwell in such things as taking credit for it, accumulating rewards (including material things and power), or spending time with retelling it in order to get recognition.
Along these lines also, one should not bother doing things other than what needs to be done. For example, one should not spend time at efforts that are aimed specifically at collecting wealth, accumulating power, or gaining praise, or even bothering others by taking up their time with unnecessary things. Moving from one moment to the next, taking care of what is necessary, and not straying from that, is the Way: so long as one follows this teaching, things will progress smoothly; but as one deviates, one will only find obstacles and heartache. Because one does not dwell upon accomplishments nor make efforts to gain things, the Tao Te Ching says repeatedly that in following the Tao, nothing is done. One should understand, however, that this does not mean that one simply sits around, avoiding doing anything or that one skirts obvious responsibilities.
In presenting the following portion of the Tao Te Ching, I am specifically turning attention away from another substantial portion of the text, one that attempts to depict the Tao as a fundamental aspect of nature that is difficult, actually impossible, to describe or to comprehend, except by living in the Tao. Thus, I have bypassed statements such as this (chapter 1): "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao" and this (chapter 14): "Look, it cannot be seen-it is beyond form. Listen, it cannot be heard-it is beyond sound. Grasp, it cannot be held-it is intangible. These three are indefinable; therefore they are joined in one," There are dozens of statements along these lines that attempt to lead one to a view of what the Tao is, by saying what it is not. However, since the ultimate experience of Tao occurs when following the fundamental rules regarding how one deals with daily activities, I have opted to focus on those aspects of the text.
Here are some sample quotations that reflect this view. Keep in mind that "not doing" (Chinese: wu wei) really means not stopping to take recognition of what is being done, and not doing things that do not need to be done.
"Creating, yet not possessing. Working, yet not taking credit. Work is done, then forgotten. Therefore, it lasts forever."
"If nothing is done, then all will be well."
"The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead. He is detached, thus at one with all. Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment."
"Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it. Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow. Retire when the work is done. This is the way of heaven." ["Retire when the work is done" here means that one should not try to make anything further of the accomplishment.]
"Giving birth and nourishing, bearing yet not possessing, working yet not taking credit, leading yet not dominating, this is the primal virtue."
"Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for things. Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things."
"Who can remain still until the moment of action? Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment, not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change." ["Remain still" here means that one is not constantly pursuing selfish fulfillment between the actions that are essential.]
"Wise men embrace the one and set an example to all. Not putting on a display, they shine forth; not justifying themselves, they are distinguished; not boasting, they receive recognition; not bragging, they never falter."
"He who stands on tiptoe is not steady; he who strides cannot maintain the pace; he who makes a show is not enlightened; he who is self-righteous is not respected; he who boasts achieves nothing; he who brags will not endure. According to followers of the Tao, 'these are extra food and unnecessary luggage.' They do not bring happiness, therefore followers of the Tao avoid them."
Achieve results, but never glory in them. Achieve results, but never boast. Achieve results, but never be proud. Achieve results, because this is the natural way."
"A truly good man does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone. A foolish man is always doing yet much remains to be done." ["Always doing" here means that he is wasting time doing unnecessary things.]
"The sage works without recognition. He achieves what has to be done without dwelling on it. He does not try to show his knowledge."
What are the essential actions, the things to be taken care of? How is one to know what is needed and what ought not to be done? What is one to be like in day to day affairs? As the following quotes display, one can know what to do if one focuses on such virtuous things as meditation, gentleness, kindness, truthfulness, competence, alertness, simplicity, yielding (rather than obstructing), constancy, openheartedness, caring, perseverance, willingness to take on difficult tasks, mercy, economy, generosity, humility, gentleness, etc., and avoids such things as extremes, excesses, complacency, abandoning those in need, trying to do too much at once rather than take the small steps that are necessary, ignoring what is known, having desires for unnecessary things, and rigidity in ideas, as well as avoiding those concerns described earlier, such as boasting, accumulating wealth and power, and seeking rewards.
Here are some sample quotations:
"In dwelling, be close to the land, in meditation, go deep in the heart, in dealing with others, be gentle and kind, in speech, be true, in ruling, be just, in business, be competent, in action, watch the timing."
"Alert, like men aware of danger, courteous, like visiting guests, yielding, like ice about to melt, simple, like uncarved blocks of wood...."
"Knowing constancy is insight, not knowing constancy leads to disaster. Knowing constancy, the mind is open; with an open mind, you will be openhearted. Being openhearted, you will act royally. Being royal, you will attain the divine. Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao."
"The sage takes care of all men and abandons no one. He takes care of all things and abandons nothing."
"The sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency."
"Perseverance is a sign of will power. He who stays where he is endures."
"The truly great man dwells on what is real and not what is on the surface."
"There is no greater sin than desire, no greater curse than discontent, no greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself. Therefore, he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough."
"All things arise from Tao. By virtue they are nourished, developed, cared for, sheltered, comforted, grown, and protected."
"Keep your mouth shut, guard the senses, and life is ever full. Open your mouth, always be busy, and life is beyond hope."
"Cultivate virtue in yourself and virtue will be real; cultivate virtue in the family, and virtue will abound; cultivate virtue in the village, and virtue will grow...."
"Knowing harmony is constancy, knowing constancy is enlightenment."
"In caring for others and serving heaven, there is nothing like restraint. Restraint begins with giving up one's own ideas. This depends on virtue gathered in the past. If there is a good store of virtue, then nothing is impossible."
"Reward bitterness with care. See simplicity in the complicated. Achieve greatness in little things. In the universe the difficult things are done as if they are easy. In the universe, great acts are made up of small deeds. The sage does not attempt anything very big, and thus achieves greatness. Easy promises make for little trust. Taking things lightly results in great difficulty. Because the sage always confronts difficulties, he never experiences them." ["Difficult things are done as if they are easy" here means that one undertakes them without making a big deal out of the fact that they are difficult; because one doesn't make a big deal about difficulties and simply takes the necessary action, it is said that in confronting difficulty, difficulty is not experienced.]
"The sage seeks freedom from desire. He does not collect precious things. He learns not to hold on to ideas. He brings men back to what they have lost."
"From mercy comes courage; from economy comes generosity; from humility comes leadership."
"A good soldier is not violent; a good fighter is not angry; a good winner is not vengeful; a good employer is humble. This is known as the virtue of not striving. This is known as ability to deal with people." ["A good soldier is not violent" here means that he follows the commands and carries out his duties, which may necessarily include violence, but he does not let a violent nature take control of his actions and does not view violence as a desired end.]
"Knowing ignorance is strength; ignoring knowledge is sickness."
A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. Green plants are tender and filled with sap; at their death they are withered and dry. Therefore, the stiff and unbending is a disciple of death; the gentle and yielding is a disciple of life."
"The sage never tries to store things up; the more he does for others, the more he has; the more he gives to others, the greater his abundance."
Many of the recommendations of the Tao Te Ching may seem obvious or inconsequential. By thinking this way about these sayings, one disregards the reality and only sees the surface. Even those who have achieved great equanimity know that one can again and again experience failings, and thus, must be reminded and brought back to what has been lost. As it is said in the Tao Te Ching (chapter 78): "Under heaven everyone knows this; yet no one puts it into practice."
In today's fast-paced world of competition, it may have become the norm to minimize the efforts undertaken to attain a position of status, and to rely, instead, on excessive talk and promotion, known as hyperbole, or, in the modern jargon "hype." Thus, for example, people who study herbs superficially but who wish to attract much attention to themselves can call themselves "master herbalists" with callous disregard for the meaning of mastering something.
Practitioners of Chinese medicine, or other "alternative" therapeutics, often compete with the dominant Western medical profession (there are about 750 medical doctors for each acupuncturist in the U.S., each doctor having about three to four times as many patient office visits as an acupuncturist). In so doing, they may resort to boasting about their experience, clinical achievements, the value of their techniques, and superiority of their field in an attempt to attract clients away from Western doctors, or, at least, away from total reliance on Western doctors.
From the Taoist perspective, all this is unnecessary action. Chinese medicine is a legitimate pursuit; in fact, aside from being a field of considerable cultural interest, it is a legally recognized medical field in much of the U.S., and its successful practice simply requires of the practitioner a certain degree of careful attention accompanying a suitable level of training. As detailed repeatedly in the Chinese literature on the subject, the practitioner is expected to diligently study the classics (in the modern era, this would be expanded to include the current publications about Chinese medicine), to meditate and think upon the fundamental teachings, to give full attention and consideration to the patient, and to apply one's experience and knowledge to the best of one's ability in each case. In so doing, it becomes unnecessary to inflate one's status, or the capabilities of either the medical specialty or the specific therapeutics by exaggerated claims. It is important, on the other hand, to make known the availability of the services and their true capabilities and limitations, so that people who need or desire the services may be able to access them and may judge whether or not the undertaking would likely be of value to them.
The situation that arises today-a hurried focus on accomplishment-is not unique: it has been repeated throughout the history of Chinese medicine, and the only difference is that the modern world more easily allows one to separate from the past and makes it easier to broadcast widely ones claims. I will quote here from Hsu Ta-chun writing 240 years ago:
Today's physicians possess no skills. They do not read a single book. Hence those who merely browse through the medical literature appear [become prevalent]....Those browsers believe themselves to be increasingly right after some time. [Yet], in the beginning they harm other people through mistaken treatments; then they harm their relatives through their mistaken treatments; in the end, they harm themselves through mistaken treatments."
Physicians whose training is insufficient may still avoid harming people as long as they are able to follow proper principles. And if they are able to remain modest, and if they attach great importance to studying, their knowledge will progress every day, and each of their therapies will result in a cure. Hence their fame and reputation will increase and many people will seek their help as a consequence-with riches following them. If one searches for nothing but riches, one will miss both fame and riches. Why do the physicians increase their own problems by neglecting one [studying] and going for the other [seeking rewards]?
Eighteen centuries ago, Chang Chung-ching wrote similarly about his contemporaries:
They do little but vie for fame and power and delight themselves with improving their physical appearance while neglecting their spiritual development. During a serious epidemic, victims of disease become terrified and do not know what to do. Under present circumstances, they must submit themselves to the care of witch doctors or depend upon divine providence....
The situation today is not, as best I can tell, quite as serious as that depicted by these respected scholars. But, their concerns reflect the Taoist ideal of the harmonious value of taking care of the immediate needs (a function which included study, according to both the Taoists and Confucians) and to avoid the pitfalls of being immodest and seeking rewards (rewards will naturally come to those who pursue the Taoist course anyway).
In each clinical encounter, one can learn something, most especially one can learn about one's limitations in knowledge and capability, and this immediately presents "what needs to be done" in the sense suggested by the teachings of the Tao Te Ching. In each case of clinical success, one can perceive the responsibility of making such success available to others, and, again, ones sees what needs to be done. By taking care of these things, there is no extra time for wasteful pursuits, and one will automatically achieve that which may have been sought, mistakenly, through taking credit, seeking status and rewards, or making unnecessary proclamations. The complaints of scholar-physicians about their contemporaries' failings are continual reminders that the teachings of the Tao Te Ching are not automatically adopted by those who pursue medicine. Rather, these teachings must be reviewed regularly as a reminder and prompter to appropriate action and non-action.
Taoism had a great impact on the development of herbal medicine. However, it was what might be called a "divergent sect" of Taoists that pursued alchemy and immortality and aimed the field in a certain direction.
Around the fourth century B.C., an idea developed and spread: that there existed a group of beings known as immortals (Chinese: hsien)-ordinary humans who had found a way to attain immortality. The relationship to Taoism is strong, and I would like to suggest the nature of the connection by a brief story.
Mr. Li, upon arising one day, went to the entrance of his hut, stepped outside briefly, and noted that the weather was unusually cold. In response, he put on his warm clothing before going out for the day. Mr. Lao, upon arising that day, went to the entrance of his hut, stepped outside briefly, and also noted that the weather was unusually cold. Having developed a reputation in his village for being especially strong and living above the laws of nature and man, he purposefully put on his light clothing before going out for the day. "This will enhance my reputation," he thought. Mr. Wu, upon arising that day, had much on his mind. He had deceived Mr. Chang last week, and Chang was asking to see him today. Mr. Wu did not think to step outside and check the weather. Instead, since it had been warm the previous week, he absent-mindedly put on his light clothing.
Mr. Li had the reputation in his village of being a wise man. He led a simple life and seemed to follow the laws of nature. He would dress according to the weather; he would eat until he was reasonably full, but then stop; he would go to bed early and get up early, filling his day with tasks that were often helpful to his family and his village or that increased his knowledge and wisdom; he did not chase after women. Because of these actions, it was thought, he looked much younger than his years, and he seemed content and happy. Mr. Lao had a reputation, among those who were shallow, of being a great and mighty being. He could defy nature, wearing clothing inappropriate to the weather, eating and drinking to excess, staying up late and sleeping 'til late in the morning, always having plenty of women to keep him happy. He looked roughened and somewhat battered (he did, in fact, get into some nasty fights), and this seemed to only enhance his image as a rogue. But most others saw that he was just a bully and a braggart. He didn't care well for his family and did nothing for his village except to encourage those who were gullible to behave like him. He was irritable in the morning, and complained of fierce headaches. He would sometimes become severely ill, and he looked aged beyond his years, having lost most of his teeth, the suppleness of his skin, and the color of his hair. Mr. Wu was seen as a poor figure. He was constantly worrying because he was always cutting corners and making excuses. He seemed frail and timid, yet he could work up his courage and make quite a pretense of being in a position of considerable power. Sometimes he would temporarily be in a great position, with things apparently going his way, and he would make himself quite visible, a bit intrusive. Yet the next moment things were falling apart and he went into seclusion. His hair had turned grey early and he had little physical strength even though he had been quite sturdy has a youngster.
As the story illustrates, it came to be felt by many that by living in harmony with nature, in a humble, simple, and thoughtful life, one could retain youthfulness, remain free of disease, and live a long time. Presumably, the more consistently one behaved in tune with nature, the longer one would live. But, what was the limit? In observing nature, one could see that some creatures lived for a long time (such as the tortoise that lives for well over 100 years), and other creatures lived only briefly (some insects last only days). Was man's life limited, and, if not, what was the key to a very long life, a key which, no doubt, had much to do with living according to the Taoist ideal? Tales of beings who lived for several hundred years arose, to suggest that people living the right way could extend their lifespan markedly (see Appendix 1).
Perhaps the seminal transition in thinking about human lifespan arose from the work of metallurgists, who were actually the earliest alchemists. Metals have an incredible range of properties. Iron, for example, quickly deteriorates; after rusting and pitting, a piece of iron left in the moist earth will soon flake apart. Gold, on the other hand, is affected by nothing. It seems to last forever (one only has to worry about thieves or tax collectors taking it away). Of course, it could be that iron and gold, like insects and tortoises, have their own inherent and unalterable natures. However, in working with metals, it appeared that a skilled alchemist could transform one material into another as illustrated by the transformation of fluid mercury to solid cinnabar (and the process could be reversed). From such observations, and thinking about the possible implications, there arose the concept that one could transmute a material that easily decayed into one that was free of decay.
By analogy, one could think that the different qualities, including lifespan, found in nature were each attainable by humans, and one simply had to undertake the appropriate steps to access them. As alchemists sought to transform "base metal" into gold (successfully producing some metals that appeared similar to gold, as do brass and iron pyrite, and were claimed by the practitioners to be gold), some Taoists thought that one could, by taking special steps, transform an aging mortal man into a youth-retaining immortal (see Appendix 2).
A central thought in the process setting Taoists down the road of seeking immortality was that this pursuit of transformation and immortality was not going against nature. If one clung to the idea that it is natural to go through a life-cycle that included aging and death, then by simply pursuing what needs to be done in the Taoist way, one would smoothly go through that life cycle. By virtue of living in harmony with nature, one would stay youthful longer and live somewhat longer: going against nature was thought to not only cause harm to one's mind and social position, but also to one's body and life span. However, if transmutation (as observed by alchemists) was a part of nature, and if all of nature's different qualities were ultimately accessible, then one could, by following an appropriate course, become like gold: pure and immortal. This might require some special techniques not ordinarily undertaken by people, but it would not be against nature. So the myth of the mountain- and forest-dwelling "immortals" and the direct experience of the alchemists combined to suggest a Taoist path to immortality.
The Taoists began a course of experimenting with longevity-attaining methods. These included physical exercises (movement, breathing, specialized massage, etc.) that today are known as Qi Gong and Dao Yin; mental exercises such as meditation and visualization; sexual practices (restraining the semen, which preserved the original essence and also would be transformed into a special nourishment for the brain); dietary practices (consuming special essence-enhancing foods and herbs, and avoiding those which were thought to harm the essence); rituals (that were thought to bring the practitioner in touch with heavenly dictates); and alchemical practices (a range of activities including transforming metals, ingesting the substances involved in transformation and the end products, and even drinking out of goblets made with the alchemically-derived materials).
Each of these practices was viewed as a way of harmonizing with nature. One can easily look upon that view, in hindsight, as an after-the-fact explanation given by persons attached to an idea that was not really in keeping with the Taoist ideal. Many contemporary Taoists thought that these longevity-seekers were off on the wrong track, at least by virtue of their special techniques (see Appendix 3).
One could hardly argue with some of the practices undertaken, but some of the more intense physical and mental exercises, and the attempts at sexual restraint might put some of the practitioners psychologically over the edge. It was the alchemical practices, however, that today look appalling. The practitioners generally were exposed to poisons, including substantial amounts of mercury and arsenic (some of those who did not go so far as to ingest the materials were poisoned by breathing the vapors or by absorption through the skin). This caused many of them to lose appetite and weight, which was taken as a sign that they were attaining immortality, since the hsien were being depicted as being extremely light weight and able to float in the sky (sometimes on the back of birds; see Figure 1) and needing no earthly nourishment. Arsenic, in small amounts, increases one's energy and libido, which was no doubt taken as a positive sign when the practices started. It probably took considerable mental gymnastics, however, to deal with the observation that one's colleagues were dying left and right at an early age, without turning from this path. In fact, the Taoist alchemists began to believe that corpse-preservation, as sometimes occurred because arsenic and mercury prevent putrefaction, was the necessary sign of immortality (see Appendix 4).
Many of the herbs listed in the first formal Chinese materia medica, the Shen Nong Pen Tsao Ching, were reputed to calm the spirit, lower the body weight, prevent spermatorrhea (loss of semen), and confer immortality if taken over an extended period of time. These proclaimed properties came straight out of the Taoist longevity literature. By the time the Shen Nong Pen Tsao Ching was written, about 400 years after the Taoist immortality attempts were underway, the focus on toxic minerals had given way, to a limited extent, to a pursuit of non-toxic plants, of which well-known herbs such as ginseng and ganoderma were central. The "upper class" of herbs, separated off by Tao Hung-ching in the 6th century A.D., were largely comprised of the Taoist's longevity agents. Cinnabar, the king of the alchemical transformational products, remained until recent decades an incredibly important part of Chinese herbal medicine. In fact, Chinese herbal pills would be coated with a thin layer of cinnabar and then labeled "dan" (referring to cinnabar, but also meaning elixir) instead of the simple "wan" (pill), to call forth the powerful influence of cinnabar. Even today, many Chinese medicine pills are found to contain mercury, not as a contaminant in processing, but as an intentional component in manufacturing: cinnabar is a mercury compound. Cinnabar was listed as a upper class drug by Tao Hung-ching. Opriment and realgar, two arsenic agents, were demoted to middle class.
The Taoist pursuit of immortality continued through to the current century in China, but it largely gave way to other trends. The Taoist immortalists lost face when they were called in by successive Chinese Emperors to help give immortality to the holder of the Imperial Throne, only to leave the throne empty time and again as the Emperor was poisoned by heavy metals.
It took the work of Chang Chung-ching (his efforts written down around 220 A.D.) to shift the focus of herbal medicine away from the Taoist immortality attempts that were prominent during the Han Dynasty period (200 B.C. to 200 A.D.) to the treatment of epidemic and other serious diseases. His complaint about "witch doctors" in the introduction to his book was partly aimed at the Taoists. Still, the famous Sun Ssumo and Ko Hung of the 4th Century A.D. continued to promote the Taoist immortality works and a full shift to the use of materia medica for the practice of medicine awaited the Song Dynasty, in the 10th Century.
Today, when one reads traditional descriptions of herbs, it is not uncommon to see reference to control of spermatorrhea, calming the spirit (shen), keeping the hair from turning grey, and prolonging the lifespan. These are remnants of the Taoist influence. One should be cautious in accepting these effects as realistic. While the Taoist immortality seekers, like other Chinese herbalists, had centuries of experience to relate in their writings, their interpretations of herbal properties may have been skewed by their intense concerns about transformation of mortals to immortals, leading to unjustified claims.
It seems to me that the immortality pursuers took a wrong turn. They were possibly influenced by the personal desire for immortality and the power that was implied by such attainment (thus, in opposition to the Taoist teachings that they presumably upheld) rather than the true pursuit of harmony with nature. One could hardly doubt the sincere efforts of some of alchemists, nor can one challenge some of the chemical, metallurgical, and even medical achievements of these early experimenters. An apparently incorrect conclusion, which may have affected even the most sincere and competent devotees to fundamental Taoist doctrine, was drawn from early metallurgical work suggesting that transformation-indeed transmutation-was a common feature in nature. Thus, for example, Ko Hung believed that all substances might be subject to transmutation under careful refining.
Actual transformation of one chemical element to another was not accomplished by humans and their technologies until this century, with the development of "atom smashing" and nuclear fusion. Though the modern alternative medicine community may have been deceived by the sloppy science suggesting that the human body continually transformed chemical elements (e.g., silicon into calcium), the fact remains that transformation of one chemical element to another lies mainly in the realm of radioactive materials and high technology, not in natural biological processes (so far as we know today). We cannot know with certainty if pursuit of immortality is either counter to true Taoism or aiming for an impossible goal, but we can see fairly clearly that the Taoists didn't get the desired results by their pursuits.
Modern scientists looking into the matter of human lifespan currently suggest that the natural limits are about 140 years of age (an individual in Iran was recently identified who is purportedly of that age, though this is not formally confirmed; the oldest living person with a confirmed birth date is a French women who turned 120 years old in 1997). There are several efforts aimed at helping people attain that limit. These include taking antioxidants (that reduce accumulating damage of cellular components), a broad spectrum of nutrients (that are absent from the diet in sufficient amount, poorly absorbed, or needed in larger quantity to help assure long life), and hormone replacements (which help restore youthfulness and prevent deterioration of the bones, muscles, and brain), as well as following some of the basic practices that the Taoists recommended in a simplified form: getting regular exercise, eating nutritious foods, and avoiding activities that are harmful, such as smoking, eating too much, drinking too much alcohol, etc.
Still, it is thought (based on good evidence) that the biggest influence on lifespan is genetics, followed by nutritional status, and by medical interventions in cases of disease; with life-style factors and supplements (including the hormones) probably having the potential benefit of adding about ten years. Today, there are millions of people in the world who reach age 100 (only a very small percentage of those living in China, however), while a hundred and fifty years ago, prior to modern medicine and modern nutrition, to reach age 60 was an accomplishment. Today, it is a great rarity to reach age 120, but who can tell what the next century will bring? The benefits of antioxidants, high dosage nutrients, and hormones has only been suggested and made available during the lifetime of the current generations.
Researchers have shown that there are distinctive benefits to sleeping an appropriate amount of time (about 8 hours; too much or too little is associated with shorter life span), eating a healthful diet (mostly comprised of natural foods, especially vegetables, fruits, and fish), maintaining a normal body weight (too heavy or too thin is associated with shorter life span), getting regular exercise (prevents clogging of the arteries and deterioration of the bones; also, although a direct causative correlation has not yet proven, women who exercise regularly are less likely to get breast cancer), and avoiding stress (much of which may arise from doing too much that is unnecessary). The fundamentals of Taoism may well be correct in many ways, including benefiting health and lifespan. But the pathway that a group of the early Taoists pursued towards immortality (rather than simple longevity) via alchemy, and even herbal remedies, appears to have been a crooked road leading to a dead end. One should therefore be cautious in reading traditional herbal literature to avoid being led astray. Still, we may find that some of the non-toxic remedies that the Taoists promoted, such as ganoderma, lycium fruit, and chyrsanthemum flowers, might have health benefits that include prevention of disease and slight prolongation of life span.
From the book The Mystery of Longevity, by Liu Zhengcai (1990 Foreign Languages Press, Beijing: pages 2-3)
Note on transliteration: This book was published in China recently and utilizes pinyin throughout. The term Daoist, in the text, was changed to Taoist in this rendering. All other pinyin was retained.
Tradition says that famous ancient Chinese scholars enjoyed still longer life spans. For instance, Peng Zu, noted for his high skills in cuisine and the arts of daoyin and qigong in the times of Yao of Tang, lived to the age of 767 when he went away without anybody knowing where. Lao Zi, author of the Taoist classic The Canon of the Way (Dao De Jing), reportedly lived 300 years. A mysterious, rather shadowy figure in the Warring States Period (475 B.C.-221 B.C.) named Gui Gu Zi (Master of Ghost Valley) was said to have lived for several hundred years. He was highly skilled in bodybuilding practices, meditation, and political and military strategy. As a true Taoist, he never dabbled in politics, but several of his disciples became distinguished statesmen serving in different rivaling states.
History has recorded personages of longevity in all dynasties, and they were especially numerous prior to the Jin Dynasty (265-420). In the reign of First Emperor of Qin (246 B.C.-210 B.C.), Cui Wen Zi, a Taoist good at caring for life, reportedly lived to the age of 300. In the period of Emperor Wu Di of Han, who rivaled the First Emperor in his intense interest in the way of immortality as well as in military exploits, a man named Li Gen of Xuxian County (present Xuchang County, Henan Province) was so well-versed in the secret of preserving life that he lived to be over 700. In the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-200), the famous physician Li Changzai wrote a book Prescriptions of Li, saying he could walk 800 li (400 kilometers) a day. He was popularly believed to have lived 800 years.
In the Three Kingdoms period (220-265) the villain-hero Cao Cao, ruler of the Kingdom of Wei, had three worthy scholars at his service. One of them was Gan Shi, a practitioner of higher skills of qigong. (A qigong practitioner attains the higher stage when he can make qi flow and circulate at will in his body. He undergoes unusual biological changes and can even walk on water or soar up into the sky.) Another was Zuo Ci, skilled in sexual techniques to make semen nourish the brain. The third was Xi Jian who could "dispense with cereals and only take fuling (Poria cocos, a subterranean fungus) as food." Well-known among their contemporaries for the art of preserving life, they each lived 300 years or more.
In the Jin Dynasty, a Handan native named Wang Lie looked young in his old age because he often ate sealwort (Rhizome polygonati). Later he went into the Taihang Mountains to take ascetic religious training. He also lived to the age of 300.
It is impossible to discuss all such personages of longevity. Ge Hong (284-364), famous alchemist in the Jin Dynasty, wrote a book Stories of Immortals (Shen Xian Zhuan) in which he described ninety-four personages of longevity well known in folklore and legend.
Of course, legends of those who lived several hundred years may not be too reliable, but there have indeed been a considerable number of authentic centenarians throughout China's history.
The blind court musician Grandpa Dou (350 B.C.-170 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty lived to the age of 180. When asked by Han Emperor Wen Di about the secret of his longevity, Grandpa Dou replied that when he became blind at the age of 13 his parents taught him the arts of daoyin and lute playing. Apart from this he had no other secret. The topic was picked up by Ji Kang, one of the so-called Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove in the Jin Dynasty, in his book Preserving Life. He said, "Grandpa Dou lived to the age of a hundred and eighty without taking any special tonics or nourishing foods or doing any particular body-building exercises. Didn't he achieve this because he felt tranquil from lute playing, which brought harmony to his mind? This is a way of nurturing the mind." Ji Kang suggests that music gave Grandpa Dou a long life.
Prime Minister Zhang Chang (?-152 B.C.), during the reign of Han Emperor Wen Di, often drank human milk and is said to have lived more than 100 years.
From the book Science & Civilisation in China by Joseph Needham (1974 Cambridge University Press, London; volume 5(2): pages 9-14).
The profound influence of Taoism on Chinese science, proto-science and medicine has been emphasized throughout our volumes. At an earlier stage we had occasion to speak about the primitive shamans of Chinese society, the wu, and there can be no doubt that Taoist philosophy and religion took its origin from a kind of alliance between these ancient magicians and those Chinese philosophers who, in ancient times, believed that the study of Nature was more important for man than the administration of human society, upon which the Confucians so much prided themselves, and that his moral perfection depended much more on his integration with the natural cosmos than on his social relations with other men.
At the heart of ancient Taoism there was an artisanal element, for both the wizards and the philosophers, the diviners and the cosmological thinkers were convinced that important and useful results could be achieved by using one's hands. They did not share the mentality of the feudal lords or Confucian scholar-administrators who sat on high in their tribunals issuing orders and never employing their hands except in reading and writing. This is why it came about that wherever in ancient China one finds the sprouts of any of the natural sciences the Taoists were sure to be involved, and chemistry was no exception. The fang shih- technicians, [miracle-performers], adepts, or 'gentlemen possessing magical recipes'-of whom we hear so much between the 5th century B.C. and 5th century A.D., were certainly in general Taoist....
[The following sections describe, in relation to the underlying ideas about attaining immortality, the alchemical arts of aurifiction, aurifaction, and macrobiotics, with each term defined. One issue, distinguishing aurifiction and aurifaction, is the underlying knowledge of what was actually being produced.]
Aurifiction we define as the conscious imitation of gold (and by extension, with suitable variation of nomenclature, silver and other precious substances such as gems and pearls), often with specific intent to deceive-whether by 'diluting' gold and silver with other metals, or by making gold-like or silver-like alloys with copper, tin, zinc, nickel, etc., or by the surface-enrichment of such mixtures containing gold or by amalgamation gilding, or by the deposition of surface films of appropriate tints produced by exposure of the metal to the vapors of sulphur, mercury and arsenic, or volatile compounds containing these elements. The deception of the client, or the aim of deception, is not essential in this definition, for he may be quite content with substances of a gold-like appearance, imitations which may serve his purpose, but the proto-chemical artisan must be aware that his product would not stand up to the fundamental test of cupellation [which separates oxidizable metals from those that don't oxidize]. He must therefore know it to be, in the workshop sense, 'false'; though the very same processes may be employed by the philosophical alchemist to give a result which was considered, in the philosophical sense, 'genuine'. This paradox will become more understandable in what follows.
Aurifaction, on the other hand, we define as the belief that it is possible to make gold (or 'a' gold, or an artificial 'gold') indistinguishable from, and as good as (if not better than), natural gold, from other quite different substances, notably the ignoble metals. This was the conviction of philosophers rather than artisans, as we shall see. The self-deception of the alchemical philosopher is essential in this definition, not because of any credulity or unworthiness on his part but because in an age before the visualization of the persistence of the atoms of the separate metals in the alloy, certain properties or qualities of the artificial 'gold' were precisely what justified its name. It was not thought necessary that all the properties of the yellow metal should be identical with those of natural gold so long as at least one of them was-heaviness, softness, ductility, malleability, internal uniformity, but color was always by far the most important. As the poet said: 'the glitter is the gold'. We believe that the alchemical philosophers, both in East and West, often did not know of the test of cupellation (and for this we shall suggest a sociological reason), but even when they did they probably regarded it as irrelevant to their nomenclature, taking 'gold' to mean whatever had the form, accidents or qualities, more or less, of gold. This complex of ideas is, of course, that which has so often been thought in the past to comprise the whole of 'alchemy', but we find it extremely helpful in clarification to distinguish an aurifactive element from a macrobiotic element.
Macrobiotics is a convenient term for the belief that it is possible to prepare, with the aid of botanical, zoological, mineralogical and above all chemical, knowledge, drugs or elixirs (tan) which will prolong human life beyond old age, rejuvenating the body and its spiritual parts so that the adept can endure through centuries of longevity, finally attaining the status of eternal life and arising with etheralised body as a true Immortal. Such was the Taoist concept of material immortality....
But there was another predisposing cause for alchemical ideas in China, the absence of any prejudice against the use of mineral drugs analogous to that which existed so long under the Galenical domination in Europe; indeed the Chinese went to the other extreme, compounding with remarkable persistence through the centuries all kinds of dangerous elixirs containing metallic and other elements (mercury, arsenic, lead, etc., as well as gold) which caused untold harm to those who resolutely took them. However the Taoist, if he chose, could avoid these dangers, for there were many other techniques available in the quest for material immortality, not only alchemical and pharmaceutical but also dietetic, respiratory, gymnastic, sexual, heliotherapeutic and meditational. With all these could he aspire to incorporation into the ranks of the invisible bureaucracy of the universe as a Heavenly Immortal; or else seek for transformation into an Earthly Immortal, purified, ethereal and free, able to spend the rest of eternity wandering as a kind of wraith through the mountains and forests, enjoying the company of similar enlightened spirits and the cycle of the seasons ever repeated yet with glory ever renewed. These are the beings that one can discern, tiny against the immensity of the landscape, flitting across remote ravines in many beautiful Chinese paintings....
The two ideas of macrobiotics and aurifaction came together first in the minds of the Chinese alchemists from the time of Tsou Yen in the 4th century B.C. onwards, for the first time, it seems, in any civilization....There was aurifiction in China too, sufficiently widespread to evoke an imperial edict in 144 B.C. forbidding unauthorized private minting and the making of 'false yellow gold'....But only a few decades after those activities, by 133 B.C., when Li Shao-chun was urging the emperor to support his researches, and 125 B.C., when Liu An's group of natural philosophers was compiling the Huai Nan Tzu book, the connection between aurifaction and longevity-immortality is clearly recognizable. Thus began that association between the manufacture of the imperishable metal, gold, and the attainment by man of earthly imperishability, which was to spread in later centuries throughout the whole world. At first, it took the form that plate and vessels of artificial gold possessed a magical property of conferring longevity or immortality upon whoever should eat or drink from them, functioning doubtless as containers for the elixir substances of vegetable origins, the 'herbs of deathlessness' which the feudal princes of the Warring States, and then the First Emperor, Chhin Shih Huang Ti himself, had been so eagerly looking for since the middle of the 1st millennium B.C....The idea that that artificial or natural gold should not be confined to rustless vessels but should actually be ingested, taken into the human body in one form or other, was also growing up....Older adepts had tried consuming powdered cinnabar, with other mineral and metallic substances....An official report of the physician Shunyu I tells how in 160 B.C. he attended another medical man who had made himself ill by taking excessive amounts of mineral drugs....
The thought linkage thus established between aurifaction and immortality was destined to have nearly twenty centuries of life, taking on, in due course, the formulation that all other metals, rusting and corroding, suffered from the same illness as mortal man, so that the philosophers' stone [that which converts rusting metal to gold] would be the supreme medicine of men as well as of metals....[with] Taoism, medicine and alchemy were always intimately connected, not only theoretically but in practicing individuals time after time.
From the book Medicine in China: A History of Ideas by Paul U. Unschuld (1985 University of California Press, Berkeley; pages 124-125).
Again and again, the Hsiang-erh commentary stresses the senselessness and foolishness of the widespread tricks for prolonging life, in particular the sexual techniques which attempted to protect against loss of semen by returning this precious substance to the brain. The numerous passages dealing with this problem underscore the intention of shaking the faith in mechanistic, and therefore amoral, longevity practices, and drawing adherence to an ethic of the true Tao, on the one hand, and the enjoyment of the longest possible life free from illness, on the other hand:
Men who conduct their lives in accordance with the doctrine of Tao accumulate essence and their spirit realizes its full potential. Unfortunately, these days several tricks masquerade under the name of "Tao." In following the writings of the Yellow Emperor, the mystical maiden, Kung-tzu, and Jung Ch'eng, some men spend their lives in incessant pursuit of the female sex, hoping to strengthen their mental faculties through the return of the [seminal] essence. For these people, mind and spirit no longer form a whole; in reality, they lose that which they thought to preserve....
The corporeal soul [po] is white and therefore the [semen] essence is white; the primordial influence [to which man owes his life] has the same color. The body is a wagon loaded with [semen] essence. If this essence flows out, more must be loaded to reestablish the correct proportion. When the spirit has realized its full potential, the essences flow into the body until the correct level has been reached again. One now desires to maintain continually the achieved level [of essence] and not lose the unity [of mind and spirit]. If this unity is attained, it signifies the [complete harmony of personal existence with the] Tao. But how is the presence of this harmony in the body to be understood? How can this unity be preserved in the body? It is not present in the body from the very beginning, and this is why the widespread tricks that are concerned with the body do not [conform to the] true Tao. The harmony comes from beyond heaven and earth, entering from there the region between heaven and earth. When it then enters the body, it does not occupy one specific spot, but fills the entire space enclosed by the skin. He who today conducts his life in accordance with the ethical precepts of the Tao, he who heeds this ethic and does not violate it, shall preserve harmony. He who does not conform to this ethic shall lose harmony.
From the book Science & Civilisation in China by Joseph Needham (1974 Cambridge University Press, London; volume 5 (2): pages 297-298).
But even when the unmistakable death of the elixir-taker supervened, all was not necessarily lost for the doctrine. If the corpse was preserved from natural decay, in recognisable identity, that was a wonder in itself; almost a proof indeed that the adept was living on as one of the immortals, having taken with him a sufficient simulacrum of his bodily appearance to keep the constituent spirits and 'souls' in union together. This would be one kind of 'announcement of immortality,' or 'release from the mortal part.' Or perhaps he was just sleeping, and made use of the uncorrupt body, in full animation, when the Taoists and their disciples were not viewing it. That would be one form of 'taking flight to attain the state of immortality.' There were many terms and phrases of this kind, some twenty occurring in the Li Shih Chen Hsien Thi Tao Thung Chien (Comprehensive Mirror of the Embodiment of the Tao by Adepts and Immortals throughout History), a vast compilation, probably made in Yuan times, by Chao Tao-I. One thing is certain, or at least constantly averred, namely that the bodies of some alchemical adepts did not decay. For example, in the Hsu Hsien Chuan (Further Biographies of the Immortals), a work written by Shen Fen between 923 and 936 A.D., it is related that when Sun Ssu-Mo died in 682 at the age of a hundred or slightly more, no visible sign of putrefaction was noticed during a period of many weeks. 'After more than a month had passed there was no change in his appearance, and when the corpse was raised to be placed in the coffin it was as light as (a bundle of) empty clothes. Truly this was release from the mortal part. As Ho Ping-Yu & Needham remarked, possibly this great 7th-century alchemist, physician and pharmacist had taken one of the many elixirs containing arsenic or mercury described in his own work Thai-Chhing Tan Ching Yao Chueh (Essentials of the Elixir Manuals for Oral Transmission…), or Thai-Chhing Chen Fen Ta Tan (The Great Elixirs of the Adepts…), written about 640 A.D. The doses of metallic substances recommended here, such as mercury, gold, and the arsenical sulfides, are generally much more drastic than in Sun's own medical books.
There were three ways in which such freedom from decay could happen. First it is a commonplace among experts in forensic medicine that putrefaction is to a great extent inhibited in victims of poisoning by metallic compounds, and especially by arsenic. In his authoritative work Glaister says that 'the preservative influence of arsenic upon the tissues of those poisoned by this substance has been repeatedly observed, and noted following exhumation, despite assertions to the contrary. Presumably the bacteria themselves are poisoned by the arsenic. It is thus more than likely that the bodies of those who died from elixir poisoning remained comparatively undecomposed, and this could be adduced by the Taoists as one more piece of evidence for the efficacy of their chemistry. In such cases the features would be well preserved and the body would have a natural look, with little or not odour of decay....