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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 5: Androgyny in Spiritual Alchemy

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 1 of 3

Let us, for the moment, suppose that the Oxherding pictures and the contest between human and wild bull in southwestern Europe have to do with a mysterious spiritual state called androgyny, or the union of opposites, or divine marriage. Before we can go further with this supposition, letís consider this "mysterious" spiritual state.

The bullfight hides little. However much its spiritual purpose may be obscured or only intuitively appreciated, it has always constituted the stuff of spectacle; divine marriage, on the other hand, remains the single most esoteric event of spiritual life. Nothing in religion is more vaguely or inaccurately reported, or misinterpreted when it is correctly reported, or encoded, as the alchemists have done, in such cryptic terminology as androgyny. The problem is that to the ordinary observer androgyny seems either shameful or pathologic or too bizarre to consider rationally. It is not easy to conceptualize spiritual transexuality.

Nobody can understand a spiritual state that is one millimeter higher than the highest spiritual state he has ever attained. Ken Wilber played this ace of a theorem in his book No Boundary and nobody has ever trumped it. If this werenít daunting enough, we have Elemire Zollaís opening salvo of The Androgyne: "On their way to total transcendence, mystics go through the hallucinatory experience of divine love and marriage, in which they become the ravished spouses of the godhead." So, despite the drogues of incomprehensibility and hallucination, weíll try to boldly go into that stratospheric millimeter above ordinary experience that must be experienced to be understood.


First, letís take a moment to clarify the term "alchemy", a word which is derived from the term the ancient Egyptians applied to their practice of "transmuting the black (khem)." Historically, there have been two kinds of alchemy. One constituted that branch of inquiry in which physical substances were worked upon and studied in order to effect their change into other substances, the change of choice being base metal into gold. This branch of alchemy evolved into the science of chemistry.

The other branch, spiritual alchemy, had only an indirect or superficial involvement with chemicals. In this branch, the worker or alchemist assigned psychological attributes to the elements and compounds he experimented with, even as he assigned such attributes to godly planets and other heavenly bodies which he believed influenced or represented the events of his own emotional life. Quick to differentiate himself from alchemyís other treasure-hunting "puffers," he insisted that the gold he sought was not "the common gold" of coin and trinket; but was the infinitely more precious "spiritual gold"- total Self-realization or the complete mystical experience of divine union and marriage, and of gestation and delivery of the Mercurial Child. To effect these changes, he adhered to a rigorous program of introspection, self-criticism, study and discipline and devised a regimen by which he could relate laboratory operations to spiritual transformations.

The Age of Reason not having yet favored his majority, he entertained the notions of magicís sympathetic cause and effect, believing that what occurred "above" in a godly firmament, occurred "below" in humanityís earth, i.e., that the events of the macrocosm were somehow mirrored or replicated infinitesimally in the microcosm. Metals affected the living spirits of gods and, therefore, the proclivities which the alchemist had assigned them. By directing and controlling the events in his laboratory, he believed that he could, to some degree at least, direct and control his own spiritual development. The actual procedures and observable progressions of change became the object of his intense meditations.

As we today might stare into a yantra or mandala or a cathedralís great "rosette" stained glass window and allow our fascinated eye to lure us into an altered state of consciousness, the alchemist stared at those mysterious chemical changes which occurred within his beakers and flasks. Today, we regard the way in which he imbued inanimate substances with meaning and value with much amusement, even as we pocket our lucky charms or wear our miraculous medals or choose our lotto numbers - those integers of sacred significance.

Needless to say, whether modern sophisticates or medieval alchemists, we also ascribe destructive power to otherwise innocuous substances. (I recall once being told by a very well educated woman that she had achieved a new and gratifying rapport with her teenage daughter. She had caught the girl burying a pair of lace underpants because "every time she wore them she would do something bad, something that she didnít want to do." She then said to her child, "Let us burn them together." And united in this purging of evil, they destroyed the satanic undies.)

So, in this potent form of the participation mystique, alchemists projected all sorts of human emotions and behaviors into chemical substances and then, with fierce concentration, led themselves beyond introspection and wonder, into meditation, samadhi, and even encounters with the archetypal contents of their own minds.

Spiritual alchemy, then, is simply the regimen that a devotee follows when he seeks unitive knowledge of the divine. It is the solitary, mystical path that leads from the dark days of spiritual confusion and alienation (the Swamp or "nigredo" phase of the work) to enlightenment (the purifying processes of the Eightfold Path or "albedo" phase.)

For as long as we reference such facile opposites as black and white or good and evil, we can easily discuss the regimen. It isnít until we try to unify the opposites, as the mystic must, that we enter that millimeterís zone of incomprehensibility, Zenís Cypherspace, the great and mysterious Empty Circle. How, then, do we erase the distinctions of Yin and Yang and unify male and female?

At the outset letís draw some exclusionary lines. Any attempt to understand androgyny in terms of normal or even perverse sexuality will wretchedly fail. Androgyny, as we define it here, is a spiritual state and it exists in a spiritual dimension which is inaccessible except through the portals of meditation and then strictly on a "members only" basis. Neither, we warn, is it accessible through any of the chemical backdoors of perception. There are some rather fierce guardians at the gate - celestial bouncers ("Wrathful Deities" as the Tibetans call them) - who see to it that the spiritual hoi polloi donít drop in uninvited. This is one club nobody can buy, beg, steal, study, force or inherit his way into. Grace and grace alone gets a person in.

Therefore, books which purport to train an individual to produce an Immortal Foetus through adherence to a disciplined meditation practice overlook one small detail: Who or what is the neonate? Samadhi may, indeed, be orgasmic ecstasy, and it is entirely possible for an individual to train him self to stimulate certain pleasure centers in his brain by a variety of self-induced trance methods; but a foetus, even an Immortal One, requires two parents. A person cannot train himself to produce a spiritual spouse. This is one marriage that truly has to be arranged in heaven.

However unnecessary it seems to state this, androgyny also is not hermaphroditism. There are numerous artworks which depict the spiritual androgyne as if he/she had both sexual organs. Persons who are born with both sexual organs are perhaps unfortunate, but they are not androgynes - certainly not in accordance with the definition weíve adopted here. Neither is androgyny achieved by "a rounding" of the personality, by acquiring or demonstrating a benign interest in activities usually associated with members of the opposite sex; as by men who take up knitting or women who find new delight in kick boxing.

Androgyny is not bisexuality nor homosexuality and that it is not causes no small amount of confusion among the uninitiated. As we shall see in a forthcoming chapter, divine marriage (androgyny) has celestial referents. Certain stars, Altair (alpha Aquila) and Vega (alpha Lyra), as Oxherder and Spinning Maiden, personate the mystical dramaís leading characters. Altair, as representative enamorata of the male devoteeís spiritual transformation, is frequently designated as a sort of stellar homosexual. This is simply inaccurate.

That leaves asexuality and heterosexuality and it is here that we get into semantic difficulty. Despite the usually solitary existence of the devotee, the experience of divine marriage is much too erotic to be classified in any way as asexual; but if, for example, we describe Rumiís womanly love for Shams as heterosexual, which it was, we can see how bizarre this description becomes. The uninitiated will scoff at the apparent foolishness of calling love between two men heterosexual. As many people are sure to remind us, Rumi had a wife and children. Not only was he a male but he was a virile male.

To explain by way of complication, we note that all the magnificent love poetry which Rumi wrote to Shams was written after Shams had died. But not only did Rumi designate Shams as the author of the poetry, The Divan of Shams of Tabriz, he wrote as if this sacred love affair were immediate, in the very present time. And in a sense it was, since it was love realized in the domain of the living spirit. When Rumi wrote he would enter meditation and there, in that eternal (outside of time) moment, he became a Bride in the real worldís nirvanic "Tushita" zone and not in the egoís samsaric world of illusion. That his poetry never degenerated into sentimental slop is due entirely to the manner in which meditation facilitates the continuation of the present moment.

Of course, if Rumi had been a Roman Catholic instead of a Muslim and we alluded to his being "a Bride of Christ" nobody would dare question his sexual orientation because so many theologically intrepid Christians have asserted that a manís becoming a Bride of Christ means something other than his becoming a Bride of Christ. They will read the exquisite love poetry of St. John of the Cross in which he clearly writes as a woman and suppose that heís expressing love for a cathedral or a congregation or something other than the One he so ardently adores. St. John was neither a fool nor a castrate, nor a bisexual nor a homosexual, not, of course, (to invoke the Actoris Seinfeld defensio sui), that thereís anything wrong with that.

Again, in the meditative state, by definition, the ego has been transcended. In samsaraís everyday world, egos get bored and constantly require novelty and variations on the themes of adventure, romance and intrigue; but in meditation there is no ego identity. Not only may a single meditation last for many hours as, for example, Sir Isaac Newtonís did, but its theme may be repeated many times without a lessening of impact. Therefore, every time a Spiritual Bride or Groom enters the meditative spousal life, there is new delight and freshness in the experience. There is change - but it is virtually imperceptible, flowing slowly from one setting into another. Occasionally an extraordinary mystical event takes place; but for the most part the circumstances of the divine drama alter only gradually... over months and years.. until the denouement. So what actually happens as we climb the stairs to the Bridal Chamber and what happens when we enter it?

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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