Fabrizio Pregadio, one of the foremost translators of Taoist Alchemy classics, answers several question about his work translating some of the most important texts of Nei Dan. Here is a selection of questions and his answers from the interview. The full interview can be found in the paper Interpreting the Ancient Codes available as a free download from TCCII.
Q: How did you become interested in Taoism and Taoist alchemy?
A: I was, and I still am, delighted by how Taoism represents the relation between the absolute principle (the Dao) and its manifestation in the world in which we live, and by how clearly it formulates several ways to realize the “return to the Dao.” The essential features of these teachings are found in the Dao De Jing and are elaborated on (with some differences in emphasis) in the Zhuang Zi. Taoist Internal Alchemy (Nei Dan) is the main tradition that applies those teachings to the human being and offers a way to comprehend and realize them at the individual level.
Q: What benefit can internal alchemy practitioners derive from studying the classic texts?
A: What you call “classical texts” are signposts in the history of a tradition. By studying those texts, one can study the history of a tradition and how it has been transmitted and adapted to different circumstances.
Texts, moreover, are often the only sources we have to reconstruct the history of a tradition, and this is especially important with regard to Nei Dan. We often think of Nei Dan as a “school” of Taoism, but this is by no means correct. Nei Dan is best described as a tradition with Taoism, with its own branches, schools (or rather, lineages), and individual representatives. There are often major differences among the different Nei Dan lineages. Studying texts is virtually the only way to identify those differences.
There’s one more important thing. I can hardly imagine a Chinese — or Indian, Japanese, Tibetan, Persian, etc. — adept of a tradition who does not know, study, and often memorize the main texts of his or her tradition. Knowledge of the written records of a tradition should also be important for a Western follower. Without that knowledge, a Western follower could easily end up twisting and distorting the tradition that he or she claims to belong to, according to his or her own particular perspective. Any Eastern tradition teaches exactly the opposite attitude: until one reaches a truly advanced stage, one should follow the tradition “as is,” with no attempt to reinterpret it or adapt it to any contingent circumstance. The re-adaptation (or rather, re-codification) of a teaching to different historical or social circumstances is a very important and interesting phenomenon in the history of any traditional teaching.
Q: Who is the intended audience of your translation of the Can Tong Qi?
A: The intended audience is, generally, everyone who is interested for any reason in the doctrines of the Way of the Golden Elixir, as they are presented by the main textual source of this tradition.
Q: You mention in your translation of the Can Tong Qi that you began your work on it back in 1990. Why is this text so interesting to you?
A: Why is the Can Tong Qi so interesting to me? Well, first of all because, in 1990, after I finished my dissertation on Wai Dan, I told myself, “I’d like to work on the main text in Taoist alchemy” and less than one second later I thought, “This means I should translate the Can Tong Qi.” Second, because this text is crucial to understand Taoist alchemy in virtually all of its aspects. One important point here is that the Can Tong Qi talks almost exclusively of doctrine, but we (in the 21st century) should not think that the “doctrine” of a traditional teaching is equivalent to a “theory” in the modern sense of the term. A theory is something that requires proof, and is subject to change in the course of time. A doctrine is something from which a whole tradition develops, and from which the practices are devised. The concepts of “theory” and “proof” are entirely alien to traditional thought; you have, instead, a doctrine that requires personal comprehension and verification. This is why the Can Tong Qi is so important: it has provided the basic doctrine for virtually the entirely history of Chinese alchemy, in all of its forms, with the only exception of the Wai Dan texts written before it was composed, and of some later Wai Dan texts that are not related to it. Download the full interview now.