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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya
Image credit: Yao Xiang Shakya
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