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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 11: Diagrams and Drawings

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 1 of 3

Alchemy has always divided itself into two branches according to the motives of its practitioners. Alchemists who sought to transmute base metal into gold initiated the science of chemistry; but other alchemists, those who were interested in spiritual transformation, insisted that "Our gold is not the common gold," and became the yogis or mystics of whatever religion they claimed affiliation.

Spiritual alchemy further divided into two branches: laboratory and monastic.

Spiritual laboratory alchemists used chemical reactions as objects of meditation. Exactly as we find lava lamps, hypno-discs, mandalas, yantras and other optical artwork fascinating and, therefore, conducive to concentration and meditation, these alchemists found the mysterious chemical changes that occurred within their beakers and flasks endlessly intriguing. No one understood why two separate substances would unite to form a third that had completely different properties from either of its constituents or why heat when applied to a single substance, such as sulphur, would produce such radical changes. But if they could not explain the wily quickness of mercury or the shining incorruptibility of gold, they could at least relate spiritual elusiveness to mercury and God’s eternal brightness to gold.

Chemicals corresponded to gods, planets, constellations, to human anatomy and physiology and to psychological processes, too. Especially because of the mystery inherent in the reactions, every experiment became a kind of koan or a meditation "with seed" upon which the attention could be focussed. Psychological therapy came in the form of pondering similarities, in introspection, in trying to bring order to the mutinous mind.

Religious artworks often fulfill the same function. Tibetan wall hangings and sand paintings, for example, are much more than pretty pictures, providing as they do many details specifically designed to arrest the viewer’s attention.

An engaging yantra used by the Sufis of Islam. The desired results are obtained by first "letting the shapes dance" and then becoming completely familiar with the various patterns taken. Then, by force of will, the meditator calls the dance movements much as the "caller" of a square dance orders the participants to perform a series of steps. The concentration must be intense and prolonged. Results usually take weeks of effort.

Monastic alchemists envisioned a laboratory within their own bodies. The world was composed of earth, air, fire, water and space-filling ether; and creation’s infinite variety of forms was due to the actions that heat, cold, moisture and aridity had upon these elements. As these alchemists saw it, they already possessed the necessary constituents. All that remained was to manufacture in their mind’s factory whatever cauldrons, flues and furnaces they needed. A man who possessed a vivid imagination had a complete stockroom of substances and a physical plant that was state of the art.

Much detailed mandala of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Note the directional colors of the figures placed mid-point in the square’s perimeter. East is white, west is red, north is black, south is yellow. Nepal.

Sulphur and mercury, the essential ingredients, whether existing in or out of the mind, had associated properties and personifications. Sulphur was the symbol of sun, red, hot, male, pingala, etc. Mercury was the symbol of moon, white, cold, female, ida, etc. All of the basic metals had similar referents.

The alchemist or artifex began to consider character and personality in an academic, objective way. For, just as we tend to attribute human sentiments to everything from ships to pit bulls, he saw in the planets, stars, and chemicals and in their bodily correlates distinct personality traits. (All of us are probably familiar with an overly strict military officer, a martinet - a little mars, or know a person who’s mercurial, or earthy, or jovial or saturnine. Surely we prefer persons with sunny dispositions to those who are looney. And if we’re not aware of it we certainly should be - Venus lent her planetary name of love to everything from venerate to venereal disease.)

So, the artifex gained a sense of control from understanding himself; and even if that understanding was counterfeit, it had a placebo’s efficacy.

Every regimen contained endless details for the artifex to consider and memorize. Repetition produced the stability of patterned response. The details themselves were seductively mysterious and as such were fascinating. This was vital. Enlightenment’s first step is attention, concentration. Once this is accomplished, meditation and samadhi are possible.

The Rule of Correspondences always prevailed: as it was in the universe’s macrocosm, it was in the practitioner’s microcosm. The firmament was the big corpus: the human body was the little one. Whether the meditators called their regimen Kundalini Yoga, the Kabbalah or the Microcosmic Orbit, all that was required to realize the majestic order of the Cosmos was motive, means, and opportunity. The means was the regimen; the opportunity was obtained by withdrawing from society, i.e., by detachment; and the motive was to be free from chaos, the state which Zen calls disillusionment, i.e., the Swamp.

European Alchemical scheme which additionally suggests the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life and Kundalini’s chakra system. George Ripley’s Marrow of Alchemy 17th Century.

It is almost a given that an intelligent human being, if he or she lives long enough, will enter a state of disillusionment, a state in which he realizes that he has been a miserable judge of reality. People, upon whose fidelity or gratitude he would have bet his life, have proven to be not at all what he supposed them to be. Things he desired and worked for, things which he was certain would bring him happiness, brought only conflict, remorse, or boredom. And it was too late to go back and correct anything.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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