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Note: This article is to be taken as a model or metaphor.



“It was in the thirteenth century, when the Zen schools flourished, that alchemy became a fully-fledged ascetic and contemplative technique.”

– Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible (University of Chicago Press)

The second stage of the work.

Jung favored a meditation technique he called Active Imagination, a variation of which has historically proven useful in spiritual alchemy.

The meditator constructs a sacred space by sitting before a blank wall (a Ganzfeld or ‘complete field’). He mentally draws a large rectangle upon the wall, orienting it so that the base is the direction ‘east’. He then imaginatively fills the area with pleasant walkways, flowers, trees and perhaps a pool. When he has sufficient familiarity with the space, he rotates (with a great surge of willpower) the vertical image ninety degrees, laying it down into a horizontal position; and then he lets the space widen to realistic dimensions. Then, mentally, he gets up and steps into the space. He should not see himself walking through the area as if he were looking at a picture, but should instead feel physically present as if he were actually there, feeling the breeze and the gravel beneath his feet as he walks and interacts with persons he may encounter.

Jung said that at the outset of our attempts in this technique our ego takes the lead in the joint venture (between the conscious ego and the unconscious archetypes or gods) and indeed, in Buddhist sutras, we are often immediately instructed to visualize paradisical places, with contrived landscapes of fabulous crystalline trees, jeweled flowers, and so on. Elaborately decorated mandalas also aid in this imaginative journey. But, said Jung, once we train ourselves in the techniques of visualizing a suitably exotic place, the unconscious takes the lead; and we enter these meditative places automatically and without any ego participation. We do, however, recall our experiences there – and many of these spontaneously generated images will be intimately associated with psychological problems.

In reflecting upon the settings, characters, and events of the experiences, we can bring old injuries to new consciousness, understanding and repairing them. Each time we visit the sacred space we may go more deeply into the “mind” landscape. We often find illustrations of such park-like places in old alchemical texts.

AndroThe Hermetic androygen – king and queen at the same time – stands on the dragon of Nature, between the ‘tree of the sun’ and the ‘tree of the moon’. The androgyne has wings and carries in its right hand a coiled snake and in its left hand a cup with three snakes. Its male half is dressed in red, its female half in white. From the manuscript of Michael Cochem (ca. 1530), Vadian Library, St. Gallen.

As to some of the terminology peculiar to traditional alchemy, the major event was “Conjunction,” The Rebis Experience – an event in which, if the alchemist or mystic was a male, his own Anima, as Venus or a feminine Bodhisattva, would subsume his ego-identity; and, in the guise of his mystical sister, he would enter the Bridal Chamber’s sacred precincts. This was spiritual androgyny. In the Kundalini scheme it was the attainment of the Anahatta Chakra. The conjunction is illustrated by the main element in the Chakra design: two superimposed triangles, the six pointed star. The downward pointing triangle signified the female element and the upturned triangle, the male. This is a standard symbol for “wholeness” and is schematically related to Daoism’s familiar yin/yang symbol.

The divine entity, as either Goddess or Bodhisattva, also had a male counterpart: Mercury for Venus and Hermes for Aphrodite, Avalokitesvara for Guan Yin, or Samantabhadra as warrior rather than as the more familiar courtesan, and so on. As such, these or any other important celestial male figure would subsume the ego of a female mystic or alchemist (therefore, the androgynous Bodhisattva).

Healing BreathA variation of Heel Breathing for embryonic nourishment. From “Taoist Yoga:
Alchemy & Immortality” by Lu K’uan Yu (Samuel Weiser, Inc.).

During meditation this holy spirit would “enter” and “seize” the meditator (rapture has the same root as rape) and it was this opposite-sex personality which would participate in the divine drama, the erotic characteristics of which are amply suggested by the variety of diagrams and illustrations that accompany alchemical texts. For long periods of time the meditator could remain in ecstasy as a witness to this drama. He or she might appear to be almost dead, oblivious to the outside world, requiring neither food nor sleep, lost in bliss.

As we’ve noted, even Divine Children require two parents, one mortal – the alchemist himself in his own ego identity, and one divine – his own Anima or Goddess. The “Conception,” the actual coupling of ego and spirit, would occur a few years into the blissful Opus. This is one of the rare occasions during the opus in which the meditator actually sees himself, as himself, in the drama.

It should be noted that for men the seminal circulation kriya is said to produce extraordinary sensations – which, while not the true goal of the opus, is a sufficient goal for many practitioners. A few texts remain which give instructions in this procedure. ZBOHY’s own Reverend Yin Zhao Shakya, an adept in the regimen, is currently writing a manual which he will furnish privately to students.

The Putrefaction indicates a death-and-corruption motif, the ego actually experiencing its own demise or at least finding itself “climbing the scaffold.” But this death also insures the quickening of the Divine Child, accelerating the formation or ‘Coagulation’ of the Lapis, an event aided by – but not dependent on – the meditator’s increasing proficiency in the circulation exercise.

The two Nigredos, indicate the initial “swamp” experience which is often called the Dark Night of the Senses; and the second Nigredo which is the terrible Dark Night of the Spirit. In alchemy all kinds of experiments, analogous to the seventy days of Natrium’s “blackening” of the corpse, would be conducted to represent the necessary “dying to self.”

 Generation and delivery of Child, from Taoist Yoga: Alchemy & Immortality by Lu K’uan Yu (Samuel Weiser, Inc.).


HealingTwo versions of “spirit materializations” from Taoist Yoga and The Secret of the Golden Flower respectively

And then through the fontanels the Divine Child, Lapis, Golden Flower, or Child Mercurius would emerge, Lotus Born.

Carl Jung noted that the alchemists’ opinions were divided about this point. Some said that the Opus terminated with this event, while others attempted to perform supernatural feats of projecting the Divine Child into the world. Even today we find differences of opinion regarding the terminal point. Mahayana Buddhists consider the work to have come to an end and make no such attempt (our “Child” being the “Future” Buddha); but Daoists and many Vajrayana practitioners perform the “Egress” meditations and attempt to give corporeal existence to the Divine Child, in a kind of ‘spirit made flesh’ enterprise. The Spirit/Man would then go about performing salvific actions, healing the sick and benefiting all who are fortunate enough to come into contact with him. The “appearance in space” of these projected spirits is illustrated in two old Chinese texts.

HealingMeditation, Child (Lapis) formation, and delivery” from The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Richard Wilhelm, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).

I’d like to stress again the imaginative nature of this regimen. Recently I spoke to an oriental practitioner who challenged a woman’s ability to perform the Microcosmic Orbit meditations because, as he gravely confided to me, a female does not have seminal fluid. I was surprised to encounter someone who was still taking literally these alchemical metaphors. Again, there is in fact no circulated seminal fluid. (Retained fluid is urinated at the first opportunity.) There is no mine in Muladhara, no bathtub in Svadhisthana, and no Snake in the coccyx. Furthermore, as illustrated by the personal account given in Part II, no exotic regimen really needs to be followed.

There are many models for the Conjunction or divine marriage. One popular model is labeled the union of the sun and moon, represented as brilliant light in the forehead (sun) and soft light in the occiput (moon) as seen in this diagram. Their intersection indicates the production and exit place of the Child.

HealingIn this diagram, the Yin energy drawn from the Yin meridians (1. heart, 2. spleen, 3. lungs, 4. liver, 5. kidneys is collected and forced down to 6. the coccyx where it rises up the spine to the head to nourish the Child and to penetrate the ‘cranial womb’. The Sun light (7. forehead)) and the Moon light (8. back of head) “beget” the Child, the exit point of which is 9. Notice should be given the “cross eyed” position of the eyes or concentration on the tip of the nose, one of several eye exercises that accompany the meditation.

We may list the steps of the mystical ladder as follows:

First, the person must admit defeat, a failure to find happiness in the material world – the First Nigredo. The aspiring mystic accepts responsibility for the mess he has made of his life. In his visionary or archetypal dreamlife he will see himself in a ruined house or some such dismal dwelling. The threatening figures (Enemy Shadow) will become increasingly less ominous; and, in his conscious life, he will begin to surrender all his old prejudices. His need for socializing diminishes. This is the obligatory dismantling of the Persona and both Shadow archetypes: humility; a withdrawal from friends; and an end to being judgmental.

Second, he makes a commitment to work towards salvation by revalorizing his priorities – getting beyond as Oscar Wilde put it, “Of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.” The vows to reform are vows of personal integrity, sobriety, celibacy, etc., and he accepts the rules of whichever path he chooses. In his visions a person of his same sex and age will appear, calmly sitting or walking beside him. He may also have a homo-erotic vision involving someone he finds a little irritating. This particular experience will likely indicate that he has fully integrated his own Enemy Shadow.

Third, he practices the various meditation techniques…. breathing exercises and meditation on seed, the various meditations on music, etc. He will see astonishing, repeating geometric patterns fill his visual field, or see dazzling light inside his head. In his archetypal dreams he will find himself in more expensive real estate; and he will interact with strange “opposite twins” or be intrigued by the number 4 in any of its exponential values, or encounter regal or commanding figures. In his meditations he will experience euphoria, and the Platonic Forms will likely reveal themselves to him. He will think more clearly and creatively, his mind expanding intellectually and his interests broadening.

Fourth, he becomes adept at the techniques he uses. He must be in control of his meditation techniques. He may, if he wishes, begin a meditation which involves the circulation of Prana or Chi. It can be a “clearing of the Nadis” or Microcosmic Orbit, or Light Circulation, or a similar meditation in which he envisions a force moving around his body. Most of the techniques he uses, such as the various “locks” (the root, abdominal, and neck lock) are well documented in Kundalini Yoga texts.

There is an assortment of mystical experiences that accompany his progress. Sounds of bees buzzing or of Thunder clapping; feelings of butterfly wings on the skin or the absence of tactile sensations in the hands or feet as in the ‘glove response’; heat; perspiration; excessive salivation; being trounced around as if in an earthquake; light seen in the back of the head as soft moonlight or in the front of the forehead as brilliant sunlight. Yantras in all colors and designs may fill the visual field, or auras may emanate from otherwise ordinary objects. The meditator may smell perfume or other haunting fragrances. And so on. There are additional visions of animals – snakes, pandas, flying horses, a shark or whale, birds – eagles or hummingbirds, and of trees and flowers.; or of people who have an unmistakable majesty.

Fifth, he experiences extraordinary heat generated in the base of his spine. This is not a warm fuzzy feeling. Rather it feels as though it calibrates somewhere around 1000 C.

Sixth, while in a visionary or meditative state he spontaneously experiences spiritual androgyny, the transsexual Rebis experience. In the Bridal Chamber he (as ‘she’) encounters a royal person… identified by a radiate crown. Now, whenever he meditates, he will enter a rapturous state in which a drama occurs. In the role of his Anima he enjoys the starring role in this drama, an “other world” production that will run for several blissful years – but only while he is in the meditative state. These are the years in which, if he were in an oriental monastery, he would be treated like royalty. He would be given a private apartment near the monastery and all his meals brought to him. He can live in such delightful seclusion for up to three years.

Seventh, he experiences the “conception” vision in which he, in his samsaric existence impregnates his own Anima. This coupling is done under sterile, totally non-erotic circumstances.

Eighth, he experiences the death of his ego. This is usually a brief vision in which the person actually sees himself preparing for death. He is extremely calm about the event.

Ninth, he experiences the dreaded Dark Night of the Spirit visions (the Second Nigredo), in which he (in his Anima form) engages in rather awful experiences in all of which he willingly participates.

Tenth, he experiences, through the fontanels, the emergence of the Immortal Foetus. This is the wily Child Mercurius. This archetype presents a few problems. The great Gerhard Dorn claimed that to project this archetype onto someone (which is usually an older person’s projection onto a younger person) is to project the residua of all the other archetypes. With luck, it is a brief experience.

Here is Jung’s retelling of Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Spirit in the Bottle,” which, Jung says, “contains the quintessence and deepest meaning of the Hermetic mystery as it has come down to us today:”

“Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter. He had an only son, whom he wished to send to a high school. However, since he could give him only a little money to take with him, it was used up long before the time for the examinations. So the son went home and helped his father with the work in the forest. Once, during the midday rest, he roamed the woods and came to an immense old oak. There he heard a voice calling from the ground, ‘Let me out, let me out!’ He dug down among the roots of the tree and found a well-sealed glass bottle from which, clearly, the voice had come. He opened it and instantly a spirit rushed out and soon became half as high as the tree. The spirit cried in an awful voice: ‘I have had my punishment and I will be revenged! I am the great and mighty spirit Mercurius, and now you shall have your reward. Whoso releases me, him I must strangle.’ This made the boy uneasy and, quickly thinking up a trick, he said, ‘First, I must be sure that you are the same spirit that was shut up in that little bottle.’ To prove this, the spirit crept back into the bottle. Then the boy made haste to seal it and the spirit was caught again. But now the spirit promised to reward him richly if the boy would let him out. So he let him out and received as a reward a small piece of rag. Quoth the spirit: ‘If you spread one end of this over a wound it will heal, and if you rub steel or iron with the other end it will turn into silver.’ Thereupon the boy rubbed his damaged axe with the rag, and the axe turned to silver and he was able to sell it for four hundred thaler. Thus father and son were freed from all worries. The young man could return to his studies, and later, thanks to his rag, he became a famous doctor.” (From Alchemical Studies, C.G. Jung, Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press.)

The bottle is, of course, our own psyche.

We cannot read alchemical texts without being impressed by the cryptic nature of the presentations, the diagrams, the illustrations, the metaphors illustrated to incomprehensibility. It is secrecy mandated by self-preservation. Spiritual aspirants of every kind have historically been persecuted by the merely religious.

Perhaps it is the other side of the Shadow/Persona coin: a mystic is uncomfortable in groups, but he or she, by definition, is not shadow-ridden and therefore has no urge to persecute. But a merely religious person, who cleaves to the dubious security of herd formation, is not only fearful but, subject as he is to heroic inflations, clamors to ostracize anyone who seems suspiciously different. He therefore strives to purge from the collective gene pool that which he, in his ignorance, deems an objectionable mutant. We can imagine the suspicion with which those self-righteous zealots (we know and love so well) viewed the spooky beakers and retorts of the Alchemist’s laboratory.

The sad fact is that when people are emotionally involved in another person they assume godlike proportions in their judgments of him. If they cast the hero archetype upon him, they idolize him, refusing to see anything “objectionable” about him. If they cast the Enemy Shadow upon him, they despise him, refusing to see anything admirable in him. They have remade God in the image of man, and they are that man.

And this is the problem that spiritual persons face when they are confronted by the merely religious. It is the source of much sorrow and mischief. Alchemists always found themselves to be targets of inflated bigots, but they were hardly alone. In or out of a laboratory, with or without chemical reactions, spiritual alchemists or mystics fared no better than those who puttered around their crucibles and cauldrons.

Always in the audience was someone who believed that he understood more than the knower, that he saw more than visionary; but unable to gain his own following, he sought in the spiritual teacher’s assembly a ready-made congregation he could exploit. Any tactic was a good one, honor being a superfluous quality to self-righteous interpreters of divine intent.

Even as recently as half a century ago in France, a celibate spiritual alchemist, Omraan Mikhael Aivanhov, became the victim of false accusations (later retracted) for proposing spiritual pursuits that, though effective, are by today’s standards extremely tame. He favored a specialized Solar approach to Union; but his comments to ordinary people regarding attitudes and practices are not without interest. According to his biographer, “In answering [a group of people in India] why the yoni and lingam were always shown united and not separately, he said, ‘The Rishis have joined the two principles in this symbol, but in human beings they are still separate. In the temples they are united, but not in yourselves. You are either a woman, and in that case you continually seek the other principle, man; or you are a man, continually in search of the other principle, woman. The two principles are separated. If they were not, you would not always be looking for the one that is missing. You are not whole and complete in your own person, this is why you look for a partner to make you whole. Great sages, the Rishis and Saddhus, possess the two principles within themselves: they are both man and woman. This is why they do not need to marry. They possess the qualities of both principles…”(Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov: a Biography by Louise Marie Frenette (Suryoma, Ltd.)

HealingOld Chinese illustration of the “copulation” of male and female energies in the brain’s alchemical cauldron. Note that the female rides the ‘masculine’ dragon and the male rides the ‘feminine’ tiger.

Aivanhov, says Frenette, “further explained to couples how to live their love for each other without sinking to levels that sterilize the spiritual life. Of paramount importance in his view is to recognize the potency of sexual energy and use it for one’s spiritual development. ‘The sexual organs are a synopsis of creation as a whole. The force that lies hidden in human beings is a sacred, divine force by means of which they can attain all their desires. Let me give you an example: if you live on the fifth floor, the water you need has to be pumped up to you, and this necessitates a certain amount of pressure. If you do away with that pressure, the water will not reach all the floors. But men do their best to lower the pressure within themselves and reduce it to zero. They cannot endure it. And yet, this force should be allowed to rise through all the floors and reach the brain. It is the pressure that causes it to rise so that you can use it. But most people continually rid themselves of it, and consequently can never make use of it on the higher planes.'”

For such benign teachings as this, he was imprisoned for four years before the authorities, realizing finally how they had been duped by self-serving perjurers, released him.

At other times certifiably intelligent people will astonish us with their smug naiveté. Atheists will observe starving children in the world and in consideration of such suffering will decide to dismiss the existence of God, saying, “God has to be better than the best man I know, and the best man I know would never permit these children to starve so wretchedly.” Ergo, there is no God. They offer no suggestions as to how the best man would have created the cosmos.

Others, however, who are religious and do not wish to surrender their belief in God, still require a scenario by which God can acknowledge his errors and make the necessary corrections. Therefore, people who have been made to suffer unjustly in one human life have to be given another. We can only assume that God will not drop the ball a second time.

Invariably it is the least informed persons who superimpose their own ignorance upon the impressions of the truly spiritual. As translators or biographers or commentators, they foist their paltry knowledge and self-righteous standards upon a text and decide what is significant and deserves repetition and what is extraneous or misleading and must be expurgated. Marie-Louise von Franz relates the example of Saint Niklaus von de Flue, the Swiss saint, who “had a vision of a wanderer, a divine figure which came toward him wearing a shining bearskin, and singing a song of three words. From the original report it is obvious that the saint was convinced that either God, or Christ, was appearing to him,” says von Franz, “but the original report got lost, and until about eighty years ago there was only a report made by one of his earliest biographers, who told the story more or less correctly, but omitted the bearskin!” (Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, by M.L. von Franz, Inner City Books, Toronto.)

Evidently the biographer had decided that the bearskin was not suitable raiment, that it detracted from the sanctity of the visionary scene. What would Christ be doing wearing a bearskin? For whatever reason, this garment was excluded from the account. And not until the Saint’s original text had been found did people learn what the divine figure had worn.

This happens frequently when a person confides a visionary experience to someone who has no spiritual knowledge but does not know that he does not know. He knows other things: bears, being sacred animals to primitives, may furnish the garb for heroic figures like Hercules. But how can anyone dare compare Hercules to Christ? It is an affront to Christ to dress him so rudely. And so the account must be amended to suit the interpreter’s ideas of propriety.

Buddhist sutras have grown huge with such alterations. It was once permissible for the translator to enter the text and comment upon its more exotic or abstruse elements in order that the meaning be made more accessible to a foreign or unlettered audience. Accretions multiplied so exponentially that some of our most famous sutras require days for us, sitting comfortably, to read; but they are alleged to have been spoken at a single sitting, without benefit of microphone, to a throng of hundreds gathered out of doors. Many sutras are now so cumbersome and repetitious that they are very nearly counter-productive. Any attempt to pare them down to manageable or realistic size would, however, be met with serious objection. Buddhist authorities have now accepted them “as is” and for better or worse, that is how they must be left.

On the other hand, once the Keepers of the Flame decide that an intellectual pursuit is heretical, it may require centuries to cleanse the subject of its stigma. Even into modern times, the charge of cultic insanity still clings to those who practiced spiritual alchemy. It is commonly known that Sir Isaac Newton devoted the last twenty years of his life to following an alchemical regimen. But when scientific scholars looked at his half-Latin, half-English “scribbling” they could not decipher the material. They culled his writings and removed such “nonsense.” They put their Imprimatur upon the Principia, Optiks, and a few other texts , but not on Newton’s mystical work.

In her The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy (Cambridge University Press), Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs discusses the problems caused by such academic embarrassment. She quotes the letters of Newton’s assistant to a contemporary, Dr. William Stukeley, who was preparing a biography of Sir Isaac Newton: “He [Sir Isaac] very rarely went to bed till two or three of the clock, sometimes not until five or six, lying about four or five hours, especially at spring and fall of the leaf, at which times he used to employ about six weeks in his laboratory, the fire scarcely going out either night or day; he sitting up one night and I another, till he had finished his chemical experiments, in the performances of which he was the most accurate, strict, exact. What his aim might be I was not able to penetrate into, but his pains, his diligence at these set times made me think he aimed at something beyond the reach of human art and industry….. On the left end of the garden was his elaboratory, near the east end of the chapel, where he at these set times employed himself in with a great deal of satisfaction and delight. Nothing extraordinary, as I can remember, happened in making his experiments; which, if there did, he was of so sedate and even temper, that I could not in the least discover it..” Newton’s assistant further stated that Sir Isaac, though possessing all sorts of laboratory equipment, made very little use of such articles, preferring to confine his attention to “the crucibles.”

Clearly, we are not observing a scientist at work here – this is obviously a spiritual regimen – even down to the astrologically fortuitous timing of the experiments; but the biographer, Dr. Stukeley, could not accept such an explanation and so he recorded these actions as indicating that, “He [Sir Isaac] wrote likewise an intire work on chymistry, explaining the principles of matter, and elementary components, from that abstruse art; on experimental and mathematical proof. He had himself a good opinion of this work; but the MS. was unluckily burnt in the laboratory, which casually took fire. He never could undertake it again, a loss not to be sufficiently regretted…. As to chymistry in general, we may very well presume Sir Isaac from his long and constant application to that pryrotechnical amusement, had made very important discoverys in this branch of philosophy, which had need enough of his masterly skill, to rescue it from superstition, from vanity and imposture, and from the fond inquiry of alchymy and transmutation. By this means Sir Isaac carryed his inquiry very far downwards into the ultimate component parts of matter, as well as upwards towards the boundless regions of space….”

However ludicrous this distortion is – especially in light of the unbiased eye-witness account of the assistant, it was still easier to accept than the possibility that Newton’s work was spiritual.

Again we see the extraordinary prejudice against Newton’s non-traditional spiritual pursuits in the attitudes of academics towards his favorable references to the work of Jacob Boehme, a Christian mystic who recorded his ecstatic experiences in the alchemical regimen. Boehme was an ordinary shoemaker and that Newton, the greatest mind of the seventeenth century, would quote a shoemaker was preposterous! There had to be an error! And surely he had a clever reason for reading Hermes Trismegistus. Perhaps this was merely an indication of the great man’s scope. Consensus preserved his reputation by determining that he was a pure chemist of the same stripe “as Robert Boyle” according to one author, or, in the words of others, “Newton was not in any admissible sense of the word an alchemist.”

Even in modern times the stigma remains. When John Maynard Keynes purchased Newton’s manuscripts (which had lain collecting dust for centuries) and donated them for public display and study, people still refused to believe that there might have been a coded spiritual regimen recorded in the texts. Even as recent a writer as Isaac Asimov contumeliously dismissed Newton’s alchemical works as gibberish.

After Boyle and Lavoisier, et al, scientific chemistry quickly leached the mystique from the projection-receiving substances of the Alchemical Opus; and the day of Hermes Trismegistus was over.

So an alchemist of old studied the heavens and chemical reactions not to understand astronomy or chemistry but to understand himself. He ruthlessly examined his own psyche and his own conduct. He meditated upon chemical change, not caring to understand valence, but to understand why he felt anger and lust, or why he fell victim to gluttony, greed, pride, envy or sloth. He knew, for the regimen clearly told him, that the way to heaven was through purgation, the purification of intrinsic spirit.

He did not purchase the services of psychics or spirit channelers to direct him to heaven. He did not limit God’s power to transform the soul that seeks transformation; and he was willing to do the hard work of assisting the process of qualifying for Grace. The prayers, the incantations, the chemical formulas meticulously followed, the fierce concentration upon the changes being wrought inside the glass beaker or flask led him into contemplation and separated him from the mundane world, settling and organizing his mind. He studied his dreams and visions for clues about his inner development, his spiritual progress. In his laboratory, he was in spiritual, monastic retreat. Ultimately, no matter how much we consult the various alchemical texts we arrive at the same conclusion: the chemical reactions functioned as yantras, the formulas as mantras, the diagrams as mandalas; the paraphernalia as decorative or functional altarware.

In the Opus, the spiritual aspirant expanded into Paramashiva’s Infinity. He did not shrink God down to human dimensions. He would be seized, apprehended by God. He would know the power of his Buddha Self and he would find, contrary to the wonderments of Homer J. Simpson, that divine power requires no sidearm reinforcement.

Humming Bird

Author: Ming Zhen Shakya
Image credit: Yao Xiang Shakya

A Single Thread is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:



I felt an overwhelming sense of power – like God must feel when he’s carrying a gun.”

— H. J. Simpson’s apology upon being expelled from
the National Rifle Association for misusing a firearm.

God packing heat. A novel concept? No, not really.

Simpson, with genius often mimicked but never matched, has called attention to a problem that confronts the spiritual whenever the spiritual confronts the merely religious: God made in the image of limited man.

May we disparage Mr. Simpson’s apology, scoff at his pedestrian view of majesty, deride his ignorance of the attribute omnipotent? No. Infinity gives us all a little trouble. Whenever it’s necessary to anticipate the divine intent and the means by which that intent may be effected, we all shrink the boundaries of omni and enfeeble the implications of potent. We cut God down to size. What is Thor without his hammer? Wotan without his spear? Manju sin sword? And even Great Shiva… does he not carry a trident? So God, like a cosmic Wyatt Earp, walks about with a Buntline Special on his hip.

But God would have used a churchkey to open his can of Duff and a remote to turn on his TV. That’s where H.J. Simpson made his big mistake.

Not only do we impose human constraints upon divine power, we often usurp the rights to that power altogether, making God’s supernatural abilities somewhat superfluous. God’s power always seems to come with irritating conditions – those precepts or commandments or yamas and niyamas. Why subject ourselves to all those messy rules when we can direct destiny with just a little magical dabbling?

We also tend, while we’re at it, to restructure other divine prerogatives and abilities as well. Though every religion insists that God is omniscient and omnipresent, each restricts him to knowing only what its scriptures allow him to know, or forbids him to stray from its borders except, of course, to punish alien non-believers. And depending upon the fashion of the times, God’s Constitutional judgments are either rigidly confined to strict constructionist interpretations or else they are so liberal as to permit absolutely any conduct. To stay in power, a god has to stay en vogue.

It is only when each religion’s mystics – those who appreciate divinity at an advanced, visionary level – alone or in concert with the mystics of other religions consider divine attributes that we find a less parochial view of things Almighty.

Two “realms of experience” are open to us: the material, samsaric, public world of society; and the spiritual, nirvanic, private world of the individual. Religion’s purpose is to keep peace in the communal world, to mete out reward and punishment for actions that are beneficial or detrimental to the samsaric common weal. But each religion presents a mystical ladder, a series of steps by which we may individually access the spiritual world and enjoy direct contact with divinity. In this nirvanic, solitary state good and evil do not exist. And old news is no news. The two realms have nothing much to do with each other.

It should come as no surprise, then, that advanced Zen is no different from any other belief system that provides a regimen for such advanced forms of worship. Whether Daoist, Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Native American, Buddhist or any other established form of religion, “advanced’ means “mystical” and mystical is most readily discussed under the generic term Alchemy. Few subjects are as misunderstood.

Originally, Alchemy came in two branches. One probed the nature of matter in the causes either of pure scientific knowledge or, more often, of profitably transmuting base metals into precious ones. This experimental branch became chemistry and we shall exclude it from this discussion.

The other branch concerned itself with spiritual states. The alchemist strove always to attain that gold which nowhere appears on Mendeleev’s chart. (“Our Gold is not the common gold.”) These aspirants considered the mysteries of matter as directives for attaining spiritual transcendence. They sought psychological liberation, a methodology of self-discovery and emotional independence from societal demands, a process which Carl Jung called “Individuation.” In this form matter had allegorical significance, the alchemist operating under the assumption that as things were in the starry macrocosm so they were in the human microcosm. Gods were planets, metals and, most importantly, rulers of the various instincts to which the human psyche made obeisance. The planets may have been out of reach, but their earthly, chemical representatives were quite handy; and, things equaling the same thing being equal to each other, the alchemists assumed that by altering one, the other was affected. Let’s circle this subject a bit.

While the results that the alchemists sought were achieved around the globe by various civilizations using various methods, the particular form popularly called ‘the Alchemical Opus’ originated by blending two ancient cultural approaches to the divine: the Greek and the Egyptian. The earliest document known to us on the subject is Egypt’s Book of Thoth or its later Graeco version, the Hermetica of Hermes Trismegistus.

Because we are indebted to Greek and Roman culture and mythology – and for no other reason – we employ the gods of their pantheons as the psyche’s governing principals. Athena/Minerva is the goddess of wisdom; Hestia/Vesta and Haphaestos/Vulcan of spiritual transformation; Ares/Mars of belligerence; Aphrodite/Venus of male sexual desire; Artemis/Diana of stalking; and so on.

Universally, metals and fire had always possessed sacred characteristics. Smiths, after all, were the world’s first priests. But in Egypt the spiritual content of another substance had been exponentially amplified. The Egyptian belief in the afterlife did not involve heaven and hell or reincarnation as it is now understood; instead, the dead, providing that their physical remains were properly infused with this divine substance, could experience their own apotheosis and become one with the Atum, divinity, itself, and would, in the extended process, come to be, to know, to interact with the heavenly personae, Isis and Osiris, Horus, Re and Nut, et al, in the “other” world. This embalming substance was a sodium salt called Natrium – from n.t.r, their word for “god”; and the corpse was stuffed with it. The divine spirit which resided in this blackening chemical substance transferred itself to the desiccated flesh, preserved now for all eternity.

It is foolish to contend, as many commentators do, that the Greeks failed to apply scientific methodology to their assumptions about matter and declined to subject their theories to experimental verification. We know that Plato, for example, considered the universe to consist of such elemental substances as earth, water, fire and air; but this is largely a mystical explanation and for mystical purposes it is still sufficient – as a look at Kundalini Yoga’s Chakra divisions and the Daoist regimen will indicate. But buildings like the Parthenon or ships like the massive, complex trireme were never constructed without clear insight into matter and force. The Greeks had armor, jewelry, navigational instruments and nails; and none of these objects was ever created without considerable trial and error.

The Egyptians, too, are said to have been so interested in the affairs of the dead that they neglected completely the affairs of the living. Proof of this is supposed to be demonstrated by the archeological dearth of ordinary dwellings. The pyramids may have been constructed without mortar, but a small house, if made of archeologically fortuitous stone, would have required it. Egypt not being a heavily forested country and mortar usually requiring the ashes of wood, it should surprise no one that the common man built his home of adobe, a not exactly permanent building material in the Nile’s narrow flood plane. The wealth of prosaic objects – for hunting, farming, animal husbandry, and textiles indicate scientific disciplines which can only have had their beginnings in cottage industry; and we have no cause to suppose that those cottages were in any way the settings for unhappy, earthly domestic life.

It is also worthy of note that when a Greek died he more or less automatically found himself in the Elysian Fields, a dull place where he became a “shade” among other shadowy figures; but an Egyptian, as part of the post-mortem fuss, had his spirit ruthlessly cross-examined by the gods. Even saturated with Natrium, he still had to claim exemplary behavior as a living person in order to be acceptable as a dead one.

The idea, then, that chemical change could affect spiritual development came about a few thousand years ago. For as long as the nature of matter was mysterious and quite beyond human comprehension, it was endlessly fascinating and, being so, agreeably yielded to being impregnated with seminal notions of divinity.

Thus, Greek and Egyptian techno-theology served mostly to unite the characters of the gods and planets with the use of otherwise ordinary substances and to reinforce the idea that what circulated through the heavenly Macrocosmic orbits, circulated through the human Microcosmic orbits; and further – and this is the critical element – the salts which circulated through the body did not have to be the embalmer’s Natrium – a lifeless fluid for the dead, but were salts contained in living seminal fluid. The alchemist had found a way to take control of his own destiny.

He knew which other materials – those sacred metals – he could work with. The Sun was gold ; Mercury, mercury; Venus, copper; the Moon was silver; Mars, iron; Jupiter was tin; and Saturn, lead. As it was in the one, so it was in the other. Let a man be lustful and he was likely, then as now, to be affected by things venereal; let him be swiftly changing and he was mercurial; let him be belligerent and he was clearly under the influence of Mars. (And was it so long ago that certain soldiers strove to distinguish themselves in battle so that they might be awarded an Iron Cross?) The moon would make him lunatic; the Tin Man was ever the jovial friend; and the slothful or phlegmatic person was obviously saturnine. It was nice to have a sunny disposition but better yet to be intelligent for, as Apollo would surely agree, such a one was truly bright. As to the precious seminal fluid, he representationally used antimony or a salt, ammonium chloride, both of which he recorded using an asterisk (star regulus).

Now, instead of passively consulting soothsayers or goat entrails to obtain dubious predictions, divine substances could be manipulated, applied, and transformed to guide and to fulfill the alchemist’s will, and all this would be done with a meditation regimen involving interior body control and psychological accommodation. The complete discipline assured his right to experience the ecstasy of divine intercourse. He now had, in a manner of speaking, a ladder by which he could independently climb up to celestial heights.

Experiments with lead, silver or mercury helped an alchemist to overcome or to enhance those characteristics which he sought to alter, providing, of course, that they didn’t kill him in the process. (Alchemists often ingested the metals or inhaled noxious fumes.) Acids and bases, acting upon the metals, produced an enormous variety of results, each of which allowed the alchemist to regard a change with the requisite fascination, permitting an easy slide from concentration into meditation. Allegorically he “internalized” the chemical reactions and became sufficiently introverted to draw the macrocosm into the solitary world of his laboratory. As if he were staring into a hypnodisk, he became entranced by chemical alteration; but regardless of whether the state he achieved was hypnotic or meditative, no other human being controlled it. He and only he was privy to the drama enacted within his own collective unconscious.

As one thing complemented or inspired another, the meditative visions organized themselves, permitting classification and consensus, the necessary objectification for study. Attributes could be assigned to various material elements or compounds and the resultant lore – plus, of course, the means of handling the often volatile substances – could be discussed in scholarly treatises.

Still we wonder how matter and spirit were so easily fused.

Divine power, being beyond human imagination, did not always conform itself to earthly expectations. The Other world was so filled with unpredictable events and mysteries that other laws must surely govern it; and the human mind quickly enacted the needed legislation. Laws of Magic regulated the conduct of the known with the unknown and provided for a point of transit between the two worlds.

This “other” nirvanic world, may have been home to mystical adepts and, naturally, the dead; but the non-initiated living had to accept its existence on faith. The Unknown is always seductive and intriguing; and when people have, by definition, no knowledge of it, they have no choice but to suspend credulity and accept the descriptions and verdicts of soothsayers. A fortune teller could stare into the sheen of an animal’s liver or a crystal ball and see the future. He could turn a card and determine a child’s paternity.

In order to appreciate Alchemy we first need to consider Sympathetic Magic.

Sympathetic magic is based upon two laws: the Law of Similarity which says that like produces like, and the Law of Contagion which says that things which have once been in contact continue to act upon each other at a distance – long after physical contact between them has been severed. Frequently these two laws are simultaneously applied.

We can best appreciate sympathetic magic in the Voodoo Doll. According to the Law of Similarity, an image of a person is constructed and then, let’s say, a pin or knife is stuck into the effigy’s leg, and the person in whose image the effigy was created suffers a corresponding injury to his leg. Heat applied to the effigy will cause the model to become feverish. In the right hands, the fellow can become the ‘teaching case’ for a medical college’s entire course of study.

Similarity can be combined with Contagion to create an even higher degree of efficacy by taking something that was part of the victim – hair or fingernails or even cloth that contains his sweat, and mixing it into the effigy and then inflicting the desired damage. This, to the great relief of look-alikes, leaves no doubt about the identity of the intended victim.

These laws operate in a more subtle fashion when we consider the miracle-producing abilities of relics and such material objects as “pieces of the True Cross”- splinters of wood which have had direct contact with the body of Christ. Likewise, the teeth of the Buddha, retrieved from his crematory ashes, have been enshrined in grand stupas which have themselves become the sites of huge temples. The power of such relics cannot be underestimated. Such an enormous demand for them exists that ten sequoias could not account for all the pieces of the True Cross in existence today just as schools of barracuda could be dentured with all the Buddha’s teeth preserved around the world.

The mummy of the Sixth Patriarch is venerated and miracles are said to have been occasioned through the intercession of his bones which, themselves, are said to behave in miraculous ways. During the 1960’s Cultural Revolution, one of the Red Guards struck the seated mummy with a rifle butt, scattering the bones onto the floor. (I have had college graduates tell me that they knew for a fact that the bones bled real blood at the impact and that the particular Red Guard who struck the mummy died an immediate and inexplicable death, shame somehow having inspired his demise.)

Miraculous medals, icons, statuary, and various artworks are created to assist in the invocation of the divine presence; but whenever it is actually possible to touch the object – as a statue that may be rubbed or kissed or as a pendant miraculous medal which hangs against the skin, the effect is accordingly magnified.

The Shroud of Turin is believed to contain the imprinting blood and perspiration of Christ. It is not just an old piece of linen. Though people are no longer permitted to touch the Shroud, still pilgrimages are made to establish direct eye-contact with it. It is important to note that despite carbon-dating which insists that the shroud is of medieval fabrication; it is still venerated. A fervent believer will readily accept the explanation that the wrong part of the Shroud was tested, or that extraneous substances skewed the test results, or even that God has deliberately permitted a negative result in order to test the faith of the believer. And who can argue with this?

We find here the great strength – or weakness – of faith. Once one miraculous occurrence is accepted, the possibility for all miraculous occurrences is established and, because by definition the miraculous is beyond human understanding, people cannot differentiate between the claims. Force equals mass times acceleration only in the material world. Mass, by definition, does not apply to spiritual things and is therefore zero. And if we admit that the laws of physics can be cast aside or rendered meaningless as they in fact are in the “other” non-material world, we can attribute to divine fiat any force. A blanket exemption from rational consideration is given. Since no population suffers a lack of charlatans, persons in authority must determine the validity of otherworldly occurrences and claims – in accordance with the terms of their own religion. To the uninitiated, there is no way to distinguish between unknowns: the blanket of possibility smothers all consideration.

In this same way, for example, hedonism ceases to be useful as an explanation of human conduct because it gives the blanket motivation of pleasure to all actions. The masochist submits to punishment because he enjoys receiving it – just as the sadist enjoys inflicting it. The mother suffers to protect her children because she enjoys the exercise of maternal responsibility – just as the mother who abandons her children does so because she enjoys the freedom from such responsibility. The miscreant errs because he enjoys the pleasure of sin, the saint is benevolent because he enjoys the pleasure of righteousness. There is no willful behavior that defies hedonism’s explanation. In explaining everything, it explains nothing.

We find an astonishing example of accommodating the prerogatives of the “other” world in the remarkable Papal selection process of the College of Cardinals. After the white smoke ascends the chimney, there is great jubilation; and all the pre-selection wrangling – the machievellian intrigues, deceits, manipulations, inducements, and factional disputes are immediately forgiven, all having been regarded as not only essential to the process, but divinely ordained to assure the very result that was obtained. To an outsider, such infighting would seem designed to thwart consensus – but not to those involved in the process.

Because like produces like, we repeat a sequence of events that seems to us to be links in a concatenation of dependent events. A tennis player faces a difficult opponent in a tennis match. He happens to be wearing a green cap. He wins the match and associates the victory with the cap. He plays another match and, naturally, he wears his lucky green cap, the tennis-playing power of which is confirmed if he again wins. Not until he eventually loses is the cap divested of its manna.

A professional hockey team defeats a difficult opponent after a recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America has been played. Thereafter the team insists that this recording be played before every game. They attribute their victory streak to this specific mantra, an incantation phonographically reproduced.

Each of us trusts that if we repeat a certain sequence of actions in a precise way we will insure the prescribed result. This is the Law of Similarity: like produces like. This is the force of ritual. And when it is combined with Contagion – human contact with the divine which if had only once is sufficient to repeat or maintain itself endlessly, we have created a sacred ritual to which we give full force and credit.

When priests who have been ordained in great world religions cannot support each other’s views of the unknown or of the great God who presides over the unknown, we can hardly look with disdain upon the proponents of pseudo science and witchcraft and cultish creeds. In every city we find psychic hotlines; fortune tellers; astrologers; Tarot readers; palmists; spirit channelers; and spiritual guides of every professional cast. When wrong, as they usually are, they are safe from retribution. (Not until the advent of the 900 number have civilized people considered restoring the practice of burning them at the stake.)

Even a form of the ancient belief in geomancy is revived by Feng Shui ‘priests’. Obvious failures in interior decoration are given sinister characteristics, just as obvious corrections are attributed to spiritual prowess usually reserved for those who are proficient with dowsing rods. Feng Shui consultants will counsel an executive not to sit with his back to the door, a positional stratagem for which they cannot take credit – the Mafia having discovered it long ago.

Before tossing the dice, a gambler faithfully repeats a mantra, perhaps, “Come to papa!” He blows upon the dice because of the law of Contagion. His breath has a divine component: breath is life and he seeks to transfer the divine element, the prana or chi or manna from his lungs to the dice.

Again, because like produces like, and because in Chinese the word for death is also the word for the number 4, some hotels in Las Vegas, for example, in consideration of their Asiatic clientele, eliminate both the 4th and the 40th floor. Non-Asiatic often fear the number 13 to an even greater degree.

We are all conscious of spiritually charged substances: the font of holy water is not a bowl of ordinary H20 just as the water from the Ganges has purifying effects far beyond its ordinary laving ability. Sin is washed away. Maytags and Mississippis cannot do that.

Thus, not only ancient people, but all people are susceptible to the wiles of charms, to the laws of Sympathetic Magic. And, especially since it concerns alchemy, astrology, too, obeys these laws.

Because the earth rotates on a 23.5 degree axis as it revolves around the sun, certain star clusters are seen annually to rise above the horizon, drift along a zodiacal stream and then descend into the underworld. Their rising might bring annual flood or drought or might deliver the year’s most clement weather. At the rising of one constellation we might find that flocks of sheep or cattle reproduce, or birds migrate, or trees flower or fruit. Not only flora and fauna but human affairs, too, seemed signaled by the appearance of these constellations. The Law of Similarity kicks in, abetted by imaginative literature. Personalities and other psychological characteristics can be assigned the bearers of such signals. And seven special spheres – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, the Sun and Moon which keep even more impressive schedules, are the abodes of the gods, themselves. For as long as the dwelling and that which dwells within it are effectively conjoined, the Law of Contagion will take effect: These planets, having been in direct contact with their eponymous divinities, have certain characteristics and wills of their own that may be studied in order that those divine actions which effect mortal man might be predicted. Forewarned is forearmed. And when these planets transited the various zodiacal constellations, what could the observer not learn from the encounters? They, too, influence, man’s psyche and portend disaster or success for his worldly efforts.

There is no way to correlate the numerous systems of nomenclature used by the various alchemists. Their terminologies varied enormously not only because of time and place and custom, but because of the central mystery of the mystical path: spiritual androgyny called Divine Marriage, The Union Of Opposites, or The Rebis Experience; and the regimen that was frequently employed in an attempt to reach that state: the imagined circulation of retained seminal fluid called “Clearing the Channels” or “The Microcosmic Orbit”.

Few people then and probably fewer now understand the transsexual nature of this Union of Opposites. Always there was a suspicion that the celibate mystic was homosexual or bisexual and that his peculiar preference to withdraw from society indicated some subversive activity. Frequently, he was suspected of corrupting anyone who got close to him. St. John of the Cross became a Bride of Christ (i.e., attained androgyny) and wrote marvelous poetry in the guise of a woman. He was incarcerated in a monastery and brought before the altar every day so that each of his fellow monks could flog him. Officially he was charged with refusing to wear shoes. (He wrote most of his exquisite poetry while in his cell.) Shams of Tabriz, the spiritual beloved of Rumi was murdered by Rumi’s son because the latter feared that Shams had made his father a homosexual. (Rumi emerged from mourning’s isolation to write magnificent love poetry in Shams’ name, The Divan of Shams of Tabriz.)

Mystics, for a variety of reasons, were so often persecuted in Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East that inadvertently these regions, by forcing their mystics to go “underground” created the setting for the creation of glorious literature. The merely enlightened can write great poetry. But the mystical writings of Christianity and Islam remain in a class by themselves. Glorious is too puny a word to describe the works of the great Catholic and Muslim mystics.

China and India never persecuted their mystics. The regimen, with certain omissions of information which was conveyed privately by master or guru to student, was written down and distributed. Perhaps it was this openness and accessibility that made the regimen so susceptible to the corruptions of overt sexuality. The excesses of Tantric sexual practices in Buddhism and Hinduism and of Dual Cultivation in Daoism had a negative, stultifying effect. Those who use women as if they were articles of laboratory equipment have already violated basic ethical constraints, prohibitive of spiritual advancement.

In celibate orders the ancient regimen was followed; and we find today, intact, the great monasteries and ashrams in which true Yoga is practiced.

(which features a woman’s regimen that did not require any special alchemical discipline)

Humming Bird


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Image Credit: Yao Xiang Shakya
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