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Ming Zhen Shakya

Alchemical Detachment and Integration

Part 1 of 3

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

For George "Re" E.

    "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? 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. 

Forward to part 2 next page
(which features a woman's regimen that did not require any special alchemical discipline)


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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