An introduction to the sacred sexuality practices of the Alchemical Taoist tradition.
This article is based on a presentation I made at the Sacred Sexuality Summit in Melbourne in 2017. The video of this talk can be viewed here. In Part 1 I outlined a history of sexuality in China. In this article, I continue with an examination of the theory and practices of Taoist sexual alchemy.
From the various sects of the 全真道 Quán Zhēn Dào, the “Complete Reality” school of Taoism, we are left with a number of texts that describe the theory behind the practices of sexual alchemy. The texts were not considered to hold the ‘truth’ of these practices, being something more like ‘bullet points’ to the practice and teachings transmitted directly from teacher to student. Scattered throughout these texts are warnings that the practices are not to be learned from reading the texts alone, and one needed to learn directly from a teacher (one presumably also part of the sect that produced the texts).
The language used in texts such as the Lóng Hǔ Jīng and the Xuán Wei Lùn deliberately obfuscate their true meaning by describing everything in the complex lingo of Taoist Alchemy. This was a style that went all the way back to the 2nd Century CE when the language was alchemy was used to hide methodologies that should have only been known by initiates. The thinking was that these practices were potentially dangerous, and in the hands of the wrong people could be disastrous to one’s health.
This is not the place to attempt to provide an explanation of alchemy and its language and metaphors. What I will endeavour to do however is provide as simple an explanation as possible of the idea of the theory. And to do this, we need to examine the Taoist cosmology, the concept of yīnyàng, and of the Dào. I will then provide possible descriptions of the practices based on earlier sources, and then provide an explanation of how this paradigm could provide an inclusive model of sexuality for modern times.
The cosmology of polarity
First there was a void of nothingness:
Then came somethingness:
This was the first instance of a polarity — for if there is ‘nothingness’ there has to be ipso facto ‘somethingness’.
The essential idea is that these polarities intertwine and inter-relate with one another, thus producing an infinite spectrum between these poles. This is “existence”, also called the 道 Dào: nothingness, somethingness, and everything in between.
Everything that is part of the Dào is a microcosm — reflecting the polarity and the spectrum. Kind of like a hologram, or a fractal. This polarity was described in the I Ching and other Zhou Dynasty (1046‒256 BCE) period texts as Heaven (天 tiān) and Earth (地 dì). Most of us would be familiar with the later terms that were used, 陽 Yáng and 陰 Yīn, and would be very familiar with the tàijí tú, the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate.
In the alchemical literature, symbols from the I Ching (we call them ‘trigrams’ referring to the use of three lines to comprise the symbol) were used to describe these concepts, with Heaven/Yáng represented by the trigram with three solid lines, while Earth/Yīn is represented by the trigram with three broken lines (see diagram below).
Existence is described as having two states: a pure primordial state called 先天 xiān tiān, “pre-Heaven”, and a state which devolves from this, referred to as 後天 hòu tiān, “post-Heaven”, or the temporal state.
In the primordial state, Heaven and Earth possess a kind of purity untainted by time and entropy. However in the temporal state, they have become less-than-pure through acquired conditioning and exposure to the vicissitudes of time and creation. So in the temporal state, Heaven becomes Fire and represented by the yīn-within-yáng, and Earth becomes Water and represented by the yáng-within-yīn.
In essence, temporal conditioning has seen the essence of Heaven and Earth (represented by the middle lines in their respective trigrams) mixed into their original, pure form to create Fire and Water respectively.
The goal of Taoist alchemy was to use various methods (meditation, Qigong, sexual alchemy, etc.) to shed the layers of acquired conditioning and return ourselves to the pure, primordial state. The metaphor was that the “middle lines” of Fire and Water would be ‘swapped’ and returned to their primordial states, Heaven and Earth respectively. The texts are full of examples of what Fire and Water correspond to, with descriptions of operations that sound like instructions from a chemistry lab.
The first step in this process requires a great deal of energy. And the only energy that has the power to do this is generative energy, sexual energy, or 精 Jīng.
If you’ve got enough Jīng because you’ve looked after yourself, or you’re young, then performing these practices solo is recommended. Being young and unmarried (a virgin) means one had more than enough juice to power the firing process and transform Fire→Heaven and Water→Earth. One would then integrate and unite the primordial energies into a pure, undifferentiated, non-polarity state that is likened to enlightenment, the buddha-state, and so on.
If, on the other hand, one was older and had children (and had plenty of sex), one wouldn’t have the required levels of Jīng, or can wouldn’t be capable of generating it as quickly or easily. In this case, one would get together with a partner and practice what was called “dual cultivation”.
Something that was stipulated as vital in the practice of dual cultivation was the release of all emotional attachments to the other person; this was to separate the practice from just being an experience to sate lust and desires. So performing this ritual with a partner was discouraged, unless both were adept enough to remain detached for the purposes of the practice.
Both parties had to be practicing dual cultivation during the ritual, thus both be well trained in it. The process wouldn’t work if one partner was practicing it, and the other wasn’t. If this occurred then one was ‘taking energy’ from the partner without ‘giving energy’ to them in reciprocity. This was considered a major breach in ethics.
Once the sexual energy had been cultivated, it was used in further aspects of practice to “attain the Dào” and reach a kind of state of enlightenment. This non-dual state was then ‘brought back’ into the normal human Self. It was the goal to continue on with one’s normal daily routine being in this ‘buddha-state’ — essentially becoming a bodhisattva, and exemplified by the aphorism “before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water”. This was the influence of Chán (Zen) Buddhism.
Model for inclusive sexuality
If humans are a microcosm of the Dào, then we contain the polarities internally: We are both Yáng and Yīn. Therefore it actually doesn’t matter about the gender of the parties involved. This could be man‒woman, man‒man, woman‒woman, or any of the diverse gender combinations we could imagine nowadays.
I offer this idea because the notion of ‘polarity’ has unfortunately become anthropomorphised, due to the misunderstanding of such notions via Western interpretations of Tantra, where Shiva is represented as male and Shakti as female. This model on the other hand allows our consciousness to rise above the conditioned understanding of gender and heteronormative understandings of sexuality (as well as notions of sacredness).
Having explained the cosmological and theoretical underpinnings to Taoist sexual alchemy, it leaves me to try and offer ideas into a practical application of these ideas. This is quite difficult, as the practices themselves either did not survive, or have gone far underground to avoid persecution and suppression by the Chinese Communist Party, or are kept away from being exploited Western sexuality gurus.
In recent years, I have pieced together clues from the texts and combined them with practical knowledge and training in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Taoist Qìgōng, and my explorations and learning from the classical Tantra-yoga tradition. In no way do I claim that these are the practices from the Quán Zhēn sects that practiced sexual alchemy, but are offered as educated guesses. I have certainly worked personally with these practices and found them to be on the whole very useful with making love-making longer and more fulfilling, and healing from long-standing issues with premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. However I am also mindful that the real purpose behind these practices was for attaining a higher level of consciousness, and attaining spiritual enlightenment.
Out of all the texts I’ve mentioned so far, it is the Mawangdui sex manuals which have the most explicit instructions. For example, in Talk On Supreme Guidance For The World, there is a description of an embracing posture between man and woman:
In this practice, sit together, with your loins, noses, and mouths close together.(Cleary 1999: 37)
This description is very similar to the tantric posture known as “yabyum”.
There are ten other postures mentioned (Cleary 1999: 46), however there is no description of what they look like (although it doesn’t take much imagination to get a rough idea). They are:
- tigers rollicking
- cicada clinging
- deer raising antlers
- phoenix spreading wings
- monkeys squatting
- rabbits bounding
- fish feeding
The Mawangdui sex manuals link proper intercourse to good health and longevity. The effects of following and discarding this advice provide clear descriptions of physical and psycho-emotional disorders, such as fatigue, respiratory problems, bloating, and mental confusion. These disorders and symptoms described are also described by the later Alchemists as results of no or poor practice, and what will not arise when acquired conditioning is dispelled.
It states that intercourse should employ “the eight pluses” and reduce “the seven minuses” in order to retain good health.
The eight pluses
Mastering energy: There is no description given for how to “master energy”, although there are many sources from this time, and into the future that describe practices such as Dǎoyǐn breathing exercises and Qìgōng as “mastering energy”. Early medical texts describe what are called “nourishing life” (diet, exercise, and lifestyle medicine) practices as having this function.
Producing moisture: The text states that this is done by:
Rise at dawn, sit up, straighten your spine, relax your buttocks, contract your perineal muscles, and conduct energy to your sexual organs.(Cleary 1999: 43)
The use of perineum contraction to ‘pump’ energy up the spine is well-known in Qìgōng and Tantric Yoga. The “muladhara pump” helps sublimate prana up the shushumna in Yoga, while this action is also part of a “microcosmic orbit” style meditation in Internal Alchemy Qìgōng.
Knowing the right timing: All the Mawangdui texts make mention of the importance of mutual foreplay, and not rushing into intercourse.
Accumulating energy: Another prescription for posture and movement during the act of intercourse, the text states:
During intercourse, let your back be relaxed, contract your perineal muscles, and exert pressure downward.(Cleary 1999: 43)
Gentle moistening: After ‘accumulating energy’, the text then explains:
Do not go in and out too rapidly, or with too high frequency; glide in and out gently and with control.(Cleary 1999: 43)
Building up energy: This is done by withdrawing whilst still maintaining an erection.
Maintaining fullness: What is then described seems very much like a meditative practice to be performed post-coitus, and gives the biggest clue as to a connection with later sexual alchemy dual cultivation practice:
When about finished, breathe deeply, avoid agitation, gather energy and press it down, waiting in a state of physical calm.(Cleary 1999: 43)
Stabilising the erection: Again, withdrawing whilst still having an erection is mentioned, accompanied by washing off (presumably the sexual fluids).
The seven minuses
Shutting: This is described as painful intercourse. Dyspareunia is a very real phenomena, and it is important that women speak up when they feel intercourse is painful, as they will not “open” — as this text confirms.
Leaking: This is any excessive sweating and even premature ejaculation. These are also described in medical texts from this time as being a pathway to depleting Qì as well as Jīng. These vital substances are required to stay within the body, and any ‘leaking’ leads to chronic deficiency-type of disorders.
Exhaustion: This comes from what the text calls “hyperactivity”. Again, too much energy has been used in relation to the input. The purpose of sacred sexuality practices is to feel enlivened and replenished of energy, not drained of it. In contemporary medical texts, when sexual intercourse created “tiredness’, it was draining the essential energy of the individual.
Impotence: “Inability in spite of desire” is a disorder in and of itself. What this text seems to be implying is that when this is occurring, not to keep trying to make something happen. The root cause of this disorder needs to be addressed first before attempting intercourse.
Emotional disturbance: This is said to come from “doing it breathlessly and inwardly out of control”. This suggest that anxiety is to be avoided before intercourse; it also suggests that the ‘internal’ sense needs to be fully on board and consenting to the intercourse. This appears linked with the following ‘minus’.
Alienation: This is described in the text as “forcing it when there is no desire”. Consent is everything in sex, whether for fun or sacred purposes. If there is no desire, it can lead to a growing distancing between lovers and partners. As it says in a later section of this text:
A man who is a good lover does not precede the woman; only when the woman has the desire can a good lover make love. Do not be precipitous, do not be domineering; do not force, but do not be hesitant.(Cleary 1999: 49)
Waste: This is described as “doing it too fast”. There is no explanation as to the effects of this, although it could be linked with ‘exhaustion’.
It is clear from these sections and their descriptions that there is a link between the practices described from the 2nd Century BCE and the Taoist alchemical practices of the later medieval period (10th‒16th Centuries CE). Orgasm and the spreading of the ‘sexual energy’ through the body would clear the channels and allow the alchemical processes performed in meditation and internal ‘energy’ practices would then facilitate the shedding of the conditioned state, and returning to one’s true, primordial nature.
This is by no means an exhaustive examination of Taoist sexual alchemy. My own investigations into this field are cursory at best, and limited by access to genuine teachers, and primary sources in the original Chinese. While we may not be able to use these texts or these practices as a method of ‘spiritual enlightenment’, we certainly can use them for their earlier health benefits of preventing disease and living a happy, fulfilling, long life.
And at the vey least, have wonderful, enjoyable, and extraordinary sex!
- Bokencamp, Stephen (trans.), (1999), Early Daoist Scriptures, University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Cleary, Thomas (trans.), (1999), Sex, Health, & Long Life: Manuals of Taoist Practice, Shambhala, Boston & London.
- Cleary, Thomas (trans.), (2003a), The Taoist Classics: Volume Three, Shambhala, Boston.
- Unschuld, Paul U., (1985), Medicine In China: a History of Ideas, University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Wong, Eva (trans.), (2012), Holding Yin, Embracing Yang: Three Taoist Classics On Meditation, Breath Regulation, Sexual Yoga, and the Circulation of Internal Energy, Shambhala, Boston & London.