Two Approaches To Immortality In Taoism
In the history of Taoism, the search for Immortality has taken two forms: (1) the external alchemy path of creating and ingesting elixirs intended to prolong physical life; and (2) the internal alchemy path of working with the Three Treasuresof jing, qi (chi) and shen in order to improve health and – more importantly - to connect with that aspect of ourselves that survives the death of the body. In the former, Immortality is understood as the creation of a physical body that maintains its form indefinitely, i.e. that never dies. In the latter, Immortality is understood as the process of transferring our awareness from the physical into the more subtle aspects of our being, so that even when the body dies, “we” will (consciously) continue. It is this second approach to Taoist Immortality that will be the focus of this essay.
Building The Immortal Body
In the practice of internal alchemy, we learn to circulate qi (life-force energy), to sublimate jing (sexual energy), and to distil shen (spiritual energy). As we engage in these practices, our subtle bodies are gradually awakened. In other words, we become aware of ourselves as energetic as well as physical beings. As we progress, this process deepens, until eventually the physical (or yin) aspects of ourselves are transmuted entirely into the higher-vibrating yang “body of light.” This, in short, is the path to becoming a Taoist Immortal.
Central to this process is the creation of an Immortal Fetus – a congealing of awakened energy in the lower dantian. According to Master Mantak Chia, the practitioner accomplishes this by first planting the seed of soul/spirit into jing/sexual energy. This is the mystical union in which we “become pregnant” with the new life of the Immortal Fetus. As we nurture and grow this Fetus, and gradually transfer our consciousness into it, we transform our physical body into a body of Light. Whatever portion of our body has been transformed in this way can be taken with us at the time of death. (A process equivalent or at least similar to what in Buddhism is known as the attainment of the Rainbow Body.)
Esoteric Initiation & The Gospel Story
We can see parallels to this process of becoming a Taoist Immortal in both the Christian Gospel Story as well as in esoteric stages of Initiation. What’s being described, in both cases, is an internal process – a mapping of the ascension through various levels of consciousness. In the life of Master Jesus, however, we see this esoteric process dramatized externally. The birth of Jesus, for instance, can be understood as representing the birth of Christ Consciousness or – in the language of Taoism – the birth of the Immortal Fetus. This is the “First Initiation” described in esoteric science. It is the moment in which we first allow our physical vehicle (the body) to become infused with Spirit - in which we are "born again" as a spiritual Being.
Baptism & Transfiguration
The Baptism of Jesus at Jordan represents the Second Initiation, in which the practitioner gains control over the emotional body - i.e. is able to transcend the emotional dramas of life. The Third Initiation, in which we gain control over the mental plane, was dramatized by Jesus’ Transfiguration on the Mount. In the language of Taoism, the transfiguration process - allowing the Divine to shine fully through the physical body - includes the feeding and growing of the Immortal Fetus. Traditionally, this process is believed to take a total of twenty-one years: three years to feed and eighteen years to grow the Fetus. Mantak Chia proposes that during the so-called “lost years” of Jesus - when evidence suggests he was traveling through India and Tibet - that he was in fact working to create his Immortal Body.
The Great Renunciation (Crucifixion)
The Fourth Initiation is what is known in the east as the Great Renunciation , when the spiritual seeker demonstrates - by renouncing family, fame, fortune, etc. - that the mundane world no longer holds any appeal. In the west, this Initiation is associated with the Crucifixion of Jesus – a renouncing of his very life. For most, this “death” is only a symbolic one, though there are instances, other than Master Jesus, of initiates actually going through a physical death process. One example of this within the Taoist tradition is that described in Opening The Dragon’s Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard (see references below), in which the young Taoist initiate dies, and then is revived by his teachers. At this level, one has died completely into spirit - into our essential nature.
Resurrection & Ascension: The Making of Masters & Immortals
The Fifth Initiation is Resurrection – the phoenix rising from its ashes. At this point, the practitioner – now become a Master – has fully spiritualized his/her body, and gained conscious control over the process of incarnation. Though it is the resurrection of Jesus, in the Gospel Story, that is most well known to us here in the west, there are other examples of this. In Autobiography of a Yogi, for instance, Paramahamsa Yogananda recounts the story of the resurrection (and ascension) of his Master, Sri Yukteswar (see references below).
The Sixth Esoteric Initiation is Ascension – which was enacted by Christ after his appearance in the resurrected body of Jesus. This represents the complete merging into cosmic consciousness. It also represents Immortality in both of the ways this word is used in Taoism: as consciousness identified wholly with spirit, and as the physical body itself having become Immortal – not by maintaining its physical form, but rather by being transmuted into a Body of Light.
References & Suggested Reading:
“Three Gems of Alchemical Initiation” by Lynn Osborn.
“The Gospel Story and the Path of Initiation” by Benjamin Crème.
“Building the Immortal Body”by Mantak Chia (video clip).
Taoist Yoga & Sexual Energy by Eric Yudelove. This is an excellent Inner Alchemy manual for working with the Three Treasures of jing, qi and shen.