Daoist Alchemy - Symbolic Language by Eo Omwake

Daoism (Taoism), the philosophy of naturalism, realism, and self-cultivation, is well known in China. It is essentially the oldest spiritual tradition of the Chinese culture, going back well before the time of Christianity, and is one of the oldest spiritual philosophies in the world.

Daoism is fundamentally about connecting to reality and using nature as a basis which can guide human beings toward an understanding of who we are and what life is about. Like any spiritual tradition Daoism has developed many branches, leaves, and flowers which are outgrowths of its original essence and inner core. Some of these outgrowths are paths which diverge from the essence of real Daoism, and as such are typical of the way any spiritual “way” can be subverted and perverted by people who don’t truely understand reality and the deeper aspects.

Like many spiritual traditions which are quite old, Daoism’s language grew from archaic languages and ways of speaking from long ago. As such it has gone through many misinterpretations due to translations of translations, as well as differing people’s simple lack of real understanding.

Yet, the language of Daoism is basically a language which is about truth. It expresses the fundamental core of life. It is about nature and nature’s principles and as such is eminently real. For those who have eyes to see it, Daoism is without equal for revealing the essence, depth, and authenticity of things. It’s language is an eloquent language which speaks plainly. Yet not all people have an eye to discern the subtle language of Daoism—the inner “way” of nature. For this reason many who have attained the Dao have used symbolic language to explain the “secrets” and workings of the Dao. Happily, many people have been enlightened by such language. It has served it purpose many times throughout history, especially during the times when it was properly understood.

To those of another age or culture the symbolic language of Daoism is very cryptic and mysterious. Especially when the symbolic language has come from a time when that ­language was very timely and clique-ish. Still, at its best and most universal, “symbolic language” can open the eyes of many people. It can offer a slightly different slant on essential truths, helping those who are close to understanding, but not fully clear on the deepest meanings.

Symbolic language elucidates and elaborates. It allows the truth to be seen from different perspectives allowing certain people to come to grips with the deeper meanings of the way of Daoism. In the final analysis, all the verbiage of symbolic language is meant to point to the same active and alive reality. This is where one really wants to find oneself in the end, when reading Daoism’s symbolic language.

In all ancient Daoist methods the whole process of speaking about things symbolically was a way of approaching real truths. The methods and words were meant to help people understand life and to approach certain ways of cultivating themselves. Often these old methods were given Alchemical contexts. This has been and oftentimes continues to be the reason why many ideas are misconstrued and misinterpreted. Many people in the past and some to this day continue to misunderstand the alchemical texts. They unfortunately think the texts refer to the use of actual chemical substances to induce enlightenment, but of course this is not in fact what alchemy was truly about.

Alchemical language was chosen because of the subtle intonations of the words. These intonations were used to guide the practitioner through the morass of intricate meanings which arise from philosophical and psychological concepts. Words like heaven and earth, fire and water, lead and mercury, tiger and dragon, the jade furnace, medicine, the mysterious pass, golden elixir, immortal embryo, gate of no gate, and many more terms act as cryptic and symbolic guides to the world of truth and self-empowerment. One simply needs to look at the words and phrases closely, study the inner meanings, and relate the symbolic words to what is actually happening in real life.

Alchemical language is a challenge, to be sure. In the end, it is at the very least, an intriguing and interesting and unusual path with which one can explore the incredible truths of inner and outer life. Scholars and practitioners who are willing to explore the ancient alchemical language can be rewarded with deep insights about the present—and, as well, about the way the ancient practitioners of Daoism perceived the world.

Once true sense is enjoined, without concealing, without deception, the original spirit can arise and the biased and illusioned spirit can be overcome. The method of reaching this point is not a matter of conscious contrivance or manipulation; it is a matter of attaining the natural, “living” sense of vitality and reality which exists in every being. To do this is to understand outside cultural prejudice and learning. One must be very clear-minded. Impartial objectivity must be used to see past one’s own personal agenda and what it calls for or needs. Such a mindset is sometimes referred to as non-doing. It is very important in solving the cryptic problems of alchemical language.

Those who are interested in Daoist alchemical language and its deeper meanings must look into the code words and figure out the hidden meanings behind the cryptic and ­difficult to fathom symbols and phrases. Hearing ideas like “heaven” and “earth, “fire” and “water”, lead”, “mercury”, “tiger” and “dragon”, “jade furnace”, “medicine”, the “mysterious pass”, “golden elixir”, the “immortal embryo”, and the “gate of no gate” one must not think such words refer to the preparation of chemical potions to ingest or parts of the body, but remember that these words and phrases are symbols. They use a language which speaks of one thing to allude to another.

Fire and Water

The concepts of “fire” and “water” do not refer to actual fire and water. They are symbolic of deeper sides of our nature. The fervor and impetuosity of people is passionate and volatile and so it is referred to as fire. The other side of people’s character, the calm, centered, more contained and wise side is steady and careful. It has a more settled quality, a “softness”, a “flexibility” which contrasts with the fiery and volatile side, and so it is referred to as water. Using the more contained and settled “water” side is using thoughtfulness, logic, and control to nurture and guide our more impulsive and wild side. Using the other side of our disposition, the excitable and temperamental “ fire” nature, to complete and balance the often too staid and overly controlling “water” nature is allowing that side of our character expression. By finding a balance between these two sides of our makeup we become more complete and whole.

Lead and Mercury

The ideas of lead and mercury use the ideas of “lead”, which is heavy and dense and lasts a long time without disintegrating, and “mercury” which is lively, active, and doesn’t last a long time, to refer to states of mind. What is called “lead” in the alchemical texts is not ordinary material lead but the deep rich sense of true knowledge. This true knowledge is solid, deep, long-lasting and unbending like the sense one gets from “lead”. What is called “mercury” in the alchemical texts refers not to actual material “mercury”, but to the yin aspects of reality’s nature; the side which is pliant, effervescent, spontaneous, unfathomable, and metaphysical. Because it is difficult to pin down and is formless and elusive this aspect of reality and consciousness is likened to mercury.

The Tiger and the Dragon

Alchemical language, when speaking of the “tiger” and the “dragon”, in most cases refers to either of two basic considerations. It means either the “tiger” as the physical aspects of life and the “dragon” as the spiritual aspects—these are sometimes called the ordinary tiger and ordinary dragon. However, the terms are also used to refer to the non-ordinary aspects, or the aspects such as those of the conditioned consciousness and the emotionally obsessed or illusioned consciousness in relation to the evolved consciousness which has learned to transcend the “ordinary” states of being conditioned or being emotionally obsessed. When, through the self-cultivation work, one refines away the conditioned temperament and the obsessing emotional habits and feelings, then the “ordinary” tiger and dragon are overcome, and the “true tiger” and “true dragon” of primordial essence arise. When this happens a clarity is awakened which is so clear and fundamentally beautiful that it seems like a bright light or a shining “mystic” pearl. When this clarity is firmly in place it pervades the universe without hindrance.

The Jade Furnace

The “jade furnace” is symbolic language for the “container” within which the work of self-cultivation and empowerment takes place. It is called “jade” because the mellow and beautiful tones of jade are like the calm serenity and steady going quality of the work. The term “furnace” is used because it evokes the idea of slow cooking or slow evolution, just as one slowly evolves and changes when one applies oneself diligently and perseveringly in self-cultivation practice. The jade furnace does not refer to some specific place in the body. It would be a mistake for people to conceive of it in such a manner. One must go deeper than such surfacy approaches.


The “medicines” of alchemical language don’t refer to physical medicines one should take into one’s physical body, but to the medicines of real inner knowledge and conscious and conscientious practice. Ideas of yin, yang, subtlety, sensitivity, quietude, tranquility, perseverance, balance, evenness, honesty, sincerity, patience, simplicity, objectivity, etc. are the real “medicines”. To think that the terms alchemical “medicines” or spiritual medicines refer to mundane physical substances is to fall way short of proper and deep understanding.

The Mysterious Pass

The “mysterious pass” is profoundly subtle. It is not an ordinary aperture or place of the body which has shape and form and can be pointed to. The mysterious pass is immaterial and formless, and is without physical location. It is where essence and life abide. It is the intangible which connects with the primordial source. It is called the opening of the mysterious female, the door of birth and death, the commencement of non-being, and the great valley, yet all these terms refer to a basic immaterial quality of consciousness which has to do with reaching open and vital spiritual essence. Proceeding rightly it could be called objectivity. Proceeding wrongly it could be called obsession. Proceeding rightly it could be called clarity. Proceeding wrongly it could be called aloofness. Proceeding rightly it could be called balance. Proceeding wrongly it could be called illusion. The mysterious pass is the access way which leads to the stabilization and preservation of essence and life.

The Golden Elixir

When one’s self-cultivation conforms to what is appropriate for the times and circumstance, the real can solidify, the false can disperse, and the “golden elixir” can crystallize. To undo the false and establish the real is to open up the conditions for the golden elixir. It is possible to evoke the realness of the golden elixir, and not actually recognize it, however, due to delusions, personal and cultural agendas, and bias. When the golden elixir is established and recognized, true blissful tranquility settles in place and the calmness of autonomous and non-personal knowing is attained. The “golden elixir” is called golden because it is even, shining, and mellow like the quality of real truth. It is called the elixir because it is the fountainhead and source of all that is real, genuine, and actual.

The Immortal Embryo

After birth the fundamental and original essence is without knowledge, yet it is full. As life progresses, as knowledge is gained, that fundamental primordial essence generally becomes seduced and distorted by external influences. The cycle of life rises and one moves away from original sense and imbalance and delusion replaces true original autonomous wholeness. Yet if one follows the course of self-cultivation assiduously, on can turn around the situation and regain the vitality, wholeness, and bliss of original fundamental essence. Too often people cannot recognize true unblemished sense; they mistakenly take physical locations in the human, earthly, or heavenly body as places which will help them regain the fundamental source and harmony. They indulge in bogus practices in efforts to once again establish their original “face”. They look to the abdomen, the torso, or the head as places where the immortal embryo should reside. They go through complicated fantasies and mental gyrations, fooling and deluding themselves. It is no wonder such people struggle all their lives, only to grow into old age without attainment.

The immortal embryo is not a physical entity. It is a state of consciousness. It is called an embryo because if one attains it, one regains the simplicity and clarity of an infant. It is called immortal because the state of mind to which it refers is the universal and undying essence which hasn’t changed since the beginning of time and will never change. It is called the embryo because it is a “second beginning” which parallels one’s physical birth—yet now takes place on the spiritual and psychological plane—it is the beginning of one’s true, undeluded life. It is called immortal because when one contacts it, one contacts that which all enlightened beings since time immemorial have realized. To live in contact with it is to live in contact with that which is significant at all times and all places. To regain it one must come face to face with that which is nameless and void. One must know reality without the filters and buffers of fantasy and bias. One must not be too much or too little, one side or the other, too up or too down, too full or too empty. One must be absolutely precise and without tendency—a million times sharper than a razor’s edge. Then, following the course of nature, the immature can mature and what has been lost can be regained again.

In the end, the path of Alchemy is simply a spiritual path. Being a spiritual path, it must be a path of “real-ness”. To follow such a path is to follow practices which help one to remain authentic and true to oneself and to the original source of all things. To follow such a path is to eschew delusion and acculturation. It is to know the path of the universal, the path of yin and yang, the whole path of the heart and rationality as one, and the path of nature. To cleave to the course of usual conditioning is to be ensconced in the mundane which doesn’t know its own beauty. To cleave to the course of usual conditioning is to miss being an “enlightened and empowered immortal being”.

Eo Omwake has been training in the eastern traditions for over two and a half decades and is a member of the Gold Mountain Jin Dan Taoist Order, a traditional Daoist order with roots going back many generations into old China. He is founder of the Mind, Body, Spirit Academy in Chadds Ford, PA. http://flowing-hands.com

©Reprinted from Qi Journal, Winter 2003