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Zhang Sanfeng’s Taiji Alchemy Secrets

Zhang Sanfeng

A discourse on the mental refinement represented by the science of spiritual alchemy. It is attributed to Zhang Sanfeng, a semimythological figure of the Ming dynasty to whom, or to whose school, a great many works of this genre are attributed. Zhang Sanfeng was supposed to have been a great alchemist and is traditionally associated with the form of exercise known as Taijiquan, or Tai Chi Chuan. Just as martial artists, such as Shaolin boxers and Zen duelers and archers, commonly practiced meditation, the interior foundation of Tai Chi is also traditionally associated with internal meditation practice. This alchemy too is based on awareness of the connection between mind and body, and its exercise raises the physical practice of Tai Chi now quite popular in the West, to a greater level of total fulfillment.


The actual practice of the work cannot follow anything created as a rule, because everything created is temporal. Taoism today has mostly deteriorated in this way, so there are few in the world who transmit truth.

It is not right to get fixated on nondoing either. If you don’t do anything, you will fall into inert vacuity. Buddhism today is mostly affected by this deterioration, so there are few Buddhists in the world.

The reason this Way is not operative is that the Way is not clearly understood. At first the work is a matter of extinguishing emotionalism and sweeping away miscellaneous thoughts. This is the first step, building the foundation and refining the self.

Once the human mentality is set aside, the celestial mind comes back. Once human desires are purified, then the celestial design is always present.

Every day, first be quiet for a time, until body and mind are both peacefully settled and your breathing is gentle and even. Now lightly close your eyes and gaze into the region below the heart and above the genitals, within a space of 1.3 inches, without becoming fixated on it and without departing from it either. Do not forget it, do not force it. When myriad thoughts disappear and the soul alone is present, this is called right mindfulness.

At this time, in this mindfulness is liveliness and buoyancy; in that energy is serenity and contentment.

When exhalation rises, it is not to collide with the heart above; when inhalation descends, it is not to collide with the genitals below. Closing and opening, coming and going, practice this for one or two weeks, and naturally the kidneys and genitals will gradually steam, the energy in the elixir field will be warm. Breathing will be spontaneously tuned without your having to tune it; energy will be spontaneously refined without your needing to refine it.

Once energy and breath are harmonized, then there is naturally no exit or entry, no coming or going above, in the middle, or below. This is womb breathing. This is spiritual breathing. This is the true bellows, the true cauldron and furnace. This is returning to the root and restoring life. This is the opening of the mysterious female, the root of heaven and earth.

When energy reaches this point, it is like a flower just budding, like an embryo just conceived. True energy spontaneously steams and circulates, from the coccyx up through the spine into the head, down the nasal passages, through the windpipe, to the heart, where it drops into the central elixir field. This is the initial movement of the “waterwheel,” but only energy gets there—the spirit is not yet complete, so it is not the true movement. Don’t bother with it.

I just gaze steadily, very very subtly, watching over the central chamber. Naturally there is endless living potential there. Practicing this for a month or two, my spirit becomes quieter and quieter. When you are quiet for a long time, energy is increasingly produced. This is called the practice of spirit producing energy and energy producing spirit.

A hundred or more days of this, and the vital spirit grows and grows, while true energy gradually becomes full. Warmth appears in abundance, and there is good circulation. Water and fire naturally commingle, and heaven and earth join. The spirit is fluid, the energy is expansive. In a short while true energy unifies, and a whirlwind spontaneously rises up into the hundred channels. This is the true movement of the waterwheel.

During this interval, if a point of spiritual light is sensed in the elixir field, this is the “dark pearl at the bottom of the water,” the “yellow sprouts inside the earth.” At that time one yang returns, hazy like a red sun when it first rises, shining on the ocean, foggy, misty, obscure yet visible; then “lead fire” is born therein.

While heaven and earth and water and fire have yet to combine, still the spirit in the utter quiescence of empty nothingness, allowing no interruption in this exercise until you turn into a single solid whole; this is called the mating of the five elements. Then when water and fire mix, you cull them in two stages; as the waterwheel turns in reverse, you gather medicine at four intervals. The spirit remains inside, the light of the alchemical pill does not leave. This is called the major cycle and is referred to as carrying out the major restoration in nine revolutions.

At this time a point of absolutely positive vitality crystallizes within the center. It is stored in the time when desires are cleared and emotions are stilled, yet it has appearance and form. When you get to this stage, the breath stays in the “womb.” Incubating inside and out with unerring timing is called the ten months’ work.


The exercise of stillness is in each interval of time. Even within a quarter hour there are the exercises of refining vitality into energy, refining energy into spirit, and refining spirit back into openness. This is not only so for the ten- month incubation period; it is so in one hour, one day, one month, and one year.

Sit down, close your eyes, become aware of the spirit, quiet the mind, and tune the breathing. This exercise is to refine vitality into energy.

Turn attention around to gaze inwardly, freeze the spirit in the alchemical opening, make the true breath circulate; center the infinite celestial potential within, acting when stillness reaches its maximum, becoming still when action reaches its maximum. This exercise is to refine energy into spirit.

In this way true energy gathers at the source, yin and yang return to the origin and mate; spontaneously the wind grows still and the waves are calmed. At this time I keep right mindfulness in the elixir field; this is the process of “sealing.”

When you carry out these three practices, it is not just a matter of going into retreat for ten months; as it is said, “When you operate the process for a quarter hour, there is a quarter-hour cycle. When you operate it for an hour, a day, a month, or a year, there are hour, day, month, and year cycles.”

So in one quarter hour, the first half of the quarter hour is the “warming,” the “fostering of the fire,” the “beginning of the lunar cycle,” the “first phase of the moon,” “difficulty in the morning,” “spring and summer.” The second half of the quarter hour is the “cooling,” the “withdrawing,” the “end of the lunar cycle,” the “last phase of the moon,” “darkness in the evening,” “autumn and winter.” In one double hour there are divisions of four quarter hours in the first half and four quarter hours in the second half. The same is true of a day, a month, or a year.

This is called assembling the five forces of yin and yang; in a quarter hour’s exercise you take over the energy process of a whole year. At this point you are truly empty and truly calm. Go on for one or two years, up to ten years, or a hundred years, and you break through space to merge with the cosmic void. This exercise is for refining the spirit back into emptiness.

Once the ten months of the preliminary work are completed, then you must watch over the “infant” at all times. Ten steps, a hundred steps, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles—it goes out gradually. If you just let it go with no restraint, it will get lost and not return.

A classic of immortalism says, “When spirit enters energy, it forms an embryo; when energy cleaves to spirit, it crystallizes the alchemical pill.” This is what is called “a point dropping into the yellow court.”

People who have few miscellaneous thoughts obtain the elixir pill rapidly, while those who have a lot of miscellaneous thoughts are slow to obtain the pill. This method is simple and easy, but people just will not put forth the effort. If you can practice it consistently for a long time, you will surely “penetrate metal and stone,” “walk on water and fire,” and “comprehend heaven and earth.”