Buddhism, Taoism, and Alchemy


Three Sides of the Same Story

Buddhism .:. Taoism and Alchemy

Taoism and Alchemy

It seems strange to Westerns, but Taoism and Alchemy are closely related in Chinese culture.  Taoism entered China with the famous scholar Lao Tzu around whom many legends have been built.  He wrote his famous TaoDeChing upon request of the guard at the gate by which he left China.  Taoism was originally intended to be an Imperial Philosophy.  Lao Tzu meant just for the Emperor to follow his philosophies but it was soon adopted by all Chinese peoples.  Because Taoism began to eclipse the folk religions it also, in a very Chinese way, absorbed these traditions.    Taoist priests could be split into several groups: philosophers; those who dealt with demons, charms, and all things supernatural; and alchemists; most Taoists were a mix of these three.  There were very few who could afford to specialize in just one of these fields since the people living in the country, and even those in the towns, would pay Taoists to make charms and pray to keep away demons and for luck.

When Alchemy was introduced into China it naturally fell into the mystical category and was embraced by Taoism.  There is one line in the TaoDeChing could be construed to mean that Lao Tzu believed in the physical immortality of the body.    Needless to say, the physical alchemists made this one line the basic tenant of their belief that the body could rise into heaven physically.

Both spiritual and physical alchemy were practiced in China, most people practicing a mixture of both.  Since most people could not afford to be alchemists the most common was spiritual alchemy.  Also the practice of Alchemy was a closely guarded secret, as it was in the West, so even if a person knew that there were properties in jade an cinnabar that could bestow immortality they lacked the proper recipes to create the pills or potions.

In the Journey to the West Monkey's alchemy is completely spiritual, while that of Lao Tzu is depicted as physical.  This leads to a rather interesting rivalry between the two characters.  Monkey seems to best Lao Tzu, yet relies on him to provide certain pills that will raise the dead.

Although Journey to the West is a Buddhist novel it has many alchemical overtones.  The Chinese made no real divisions between what were known as the "Three Religions";  Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.  A Buddhist Monk would be expected to know both Confuciust and Taoist writings and a Taoist Priest would be expected to know about Buddhist scriptures and Confusiust writings.     The Chinese held all things in a certain harmony.  Thus, the Tang Monk, although a Buddhist Monk since his birth, was expected to know poetry, Taoist philosophies, and the writings of Confucius.  The fact that he could recite these things was a testament to his good character.  With all this in mind it's very easy to see alchemical significance in the novel.

Monkey King is equated with gold because the symbolical animal for gold was in fact the monkey.  In the novel Monkey has also refined himself as a Taoist first.  In the very beginning Monkey leaves his mountain and goes in search of a teacher who will instruct him how to lengthen his life because he fears death.  Monkey finds his teacher and spends many years with him, eventually gaining all of his magical powers through the mysterious process of Spiritual Alchemy.  It's only much later in the book that eats Lao Tzu's pills and eats the celestial peaches that also confer immortality.

From the alchemical sense, Monkey is one of the ingredients that is used to refine the Tang Monk throughout the course of the novel so that he will finally become a sort of Elixir of Immortality for the Chinese people.



Chinese Buddhism is very different from its parent Buddhism that originated in India.   It entered China through the Silk Road around the 1st century C.E.  The Chinese absorbed Buddhism into their way of life and made it uniquely Chinese.   Buddhas and Bodhisattvas became objects of worship, and the way to acquire Nirvana, or at least a chance at a happy afterlife, was to recite Sutras or have them copied and distributed.  There was also the idea of offering things to temples, or feeding Buddhist monks who would wander looking for handouts.  Buddhist and Taoist Monks were both sanctioned by the empire and both built grand monasteries high in the mountains and sought to remove themselves from earthly desires although most accumulated great wealth.   Around the time of the Tang dynasty there was a resurgence in interest in Buddhism and this is what prompted many pilgrims to India to retrieve copies of the Buddhist scriptures so that they could be translated.  This is the atmosphere that the writer of Journey to the West grew up in so it comes as no surprise that although his novel has Taoist overtones it is very pro Buddhist.  In several of the episodes Monkey and the others debunk Taoists.  Throughout the book both Buddhist monks and Taoist monks are shown in a negative and funny light, but the Buddhists don’t get the short end of as much as the Taoists.

The author was careful in creating both allegory and symbolism within the novel.     The first adventure of Monkey and Tang Monk, when Monkey slays six bandits, is obviously an allegory.  Monkey slays the six senses, the "bandits" of Buddhist Cannon that lead men astray.  Monkey is an important Buddhist hero, not only because of his reward at the end of the novel, but because he helped to bring the scriptures over from India to China.  Monkey was a Taoist, but he was able to attain Buddha-hood and atone for all his previous sins.  While his Taoism granted him an immortal body but Buddhism was able give a true immortal soul.

It’s pretty obvious that the point of the novel is to show that although the Three Religions of China exist in harmony Buddhism is the greatest of the three.