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Laying the Foundation
Mystery is to God what privacy is to Man.
The Great Work
"Alchemy" is the Arabic word for "the Matter of Egypt," derived from the ancient name of the land of the Nile valley, Khem, meaning the Black Land. The use of the noun "Alchemy" to describe the Royal Art first appeared in the writings of Zosimos, who worked in Alexandria in 300 C.E. In Vedic India, Alchemy was known by the term Nagayuna, "Path of the Serpent." In China the oldest known Alchemical text, Nei-Ching (The Yellow Emperor's Book of Internal Medicine), is dated somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 B.C.E., so predating both the I-Ching and the Tao te Ching.
Alchemy is called the Royal Art, for it is the means whereby the divine potential within a human being is unveiled and manifested. Alchemy is of the Science of Sages couched in the cultural motifs of Western civilization, the path of the Greater Mysteries of the Spirit that leads to perfect Enlightenment. This process is often called the Magnum Opus, the Great Work, because it is the final ascent of the mystical Mountain of Attainment by which freedom from the Wheel of Birth and Death is attained. As a path of accelerated evolution, Alchemy holds many dangers (as does all mountain climbing), and its innermost secrets have always been concealed to prevent the unprepared, the spiritually "unripe," from either abusing, or being burnt by, the high-frequency energies that practicing the Art necessitates. The completion of the Great Work confers upon those who attain it extraordinary control over physical conditions, including the transmutation of matter, the healing of all diseases, and tremendous prolongation of the span of human incarnation.
The liberated Sages—those men and women who have completed the Great Work—are spoken of in all esoteric traditions around the world. Three examples are given in the Bible: Enoch, he "who walked with God and was not"; Elijah, who ascended in a fiery chariot; and Jesus, who rose from the dead. In Taoism, which is the Chinese form of Alchemy, there are the Eight Immortals, human beings who, by treading "The Way" (Tao), have been liberated from all the restrictions of incarnate existence—birth, illness, and death. In Tibet, such realized Sages are called "immortal vajra-holders." The mystical lore of the Russian Orthodox Church gives accounts of hermits whose lives span the centuries, calling them the Staretz of Methuselah. Roman Catholicism teaches, as an article of faith, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, did not "taste death," being physically taken up into the Worlds Above at her Assumption. In Rosicrucianism, an esoteric form of Christian Qabalah, a fully-realized Sage is called an Ipsissimus, a Latin word meaning "he who is most him-SELF" (identical to the Hindu concept of the Atman, the Supreme Self). These men and women—these human immortals—are clothed with the Holy Life-Breath and have become super-conscious depositories of the power of God.
The esoteric books of Judaism speak of the Lamed-Vav, the thirty-six Just Ones on whose shoulders the world rests, and of the Seven Pillars of wisdom and righteousness, seven saints whose successive lives extend over the entire history of humanity. Tradition lists these seven as Adam, Methuselah, Shem, Jacob, Serah (the daughter of Asher), Ahijah of Shiloh (who was the Maggid, or Inner Teacher, of the Ba'al Shem Tov), and the prophet Elijah himself. In fact, all three "Religions of the Book," Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, teach the resurrection of the dead, when all humanity, at the end of days, will rise in incorruptible physical bodies and reap the everlasting harvest of what they have sown.
The teachings of Alchemy were known in India long ago by the term Nagayuna. Swami Vivekanada writes in his book Raja Yoga:
There was the sect called the Rasayanas. Their idea was that ideality, knowledge, spirituality and religion were all very right, but that the body was only an instrument by which to attain these. If the body broke now and then it would take so much more time to attain the goal. For instance, a man wants to practice Yoga, or wants to become spiritual. Before he has advanced very far he dies. Then he takes another body and begins again, then dies, and so on, and in this way much time will be lost in dying and being born again. If the body could be made strong and perfect we should have more time to become spiritual. So these Rasayanas say, first make the body very strong, and they claim that this body can be made immortal. Their idea is that if the Mind [consciousness] is manufacturing the body, and if it be true that each mind is one outlet to that Infinite Energy, and that there is no limit to each particular outlet getting any amount of power, why is it impossible that we should keep our bodies all the time? We shall have to manufacture all the bodies we shall ever have. As soon as this body dies we shall have to manufacture another. If we can do that, why cannot we do that just here and now, without getting out? The theory is perfectly correct. If it is possible that we live after death, and make other bodies, why is it impossible that we should have the power of making bodies here, without entirely dissolving this body, simply changing it continually? They also thought that in Mercury and Sulphur was hidden the most wonderful power, and that by certain preparations of these a man could keep his body as long as he like.
This quotation is one of the most forthright regarding alchemical theory and practice ever written. But alchemical Mercury and Sulphur are not physical substances; they are states of mind, aspects of consciousness. James Redfield, in The Celestine Vision, makes this very important point:
Throughout history the East has produced men who have likewise pushed the envelope of human ability ... an astounding collection of documented cases of unusual bodily transformation, including the ability to levitate, spontaneous changes in form, and the performance of unbelievable feats of strength. Many thinkers in the Eastern tradition consider these attributes the optimal result of yogic practices, still rare perhaps, but the expected outcome of years of meditation and movement practices....
The Bible tells us that Jesus was seen to appear and disappear at will, walk on water, and so forth ... Later, the Christian Church explained these abilities as the mark of a deity, and certainly nothing that humans could possibly emulate.
Yet ... examples of transcendent ability abound in both Western and Eastern history, and the awakening happening today includes a revision of what is possible not just for special adepts but for you and me as well.
The alchemist Thomas Vaughan, published his Coelum Terrae in 1650, in which he wrote:
Man—say they [the Sages]—in his natural state is in the mean creation, from which he must recede to one of two extremes—either to corruption, as commonly all men do, for they die and molder away in their graves; or else to a spiritual, glorified condition, like Enoch and Elijah, who were translated. And this—they say—is a true extreme, for after it there is no alternation.
Alchemy is therefore the Yoga of the West. The word yoga means "union"; our word "conjugal" comes from the same root. The aim of yoga and Alchemy is the same: union with That which is both the source and the goal of all that is. This ultimate attainment is represented in alchemical symbolism—the completion of the Great Work—by the serpent swallowing its own tail, signifying that the source and goal are become one, in the unending circle of eternity. This completion is also veiled under the alchemical term, Azoth. This artificial word is a verbal formula for the completion of work of alchemy. It consists of the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet (A for Aleph and Th for Tav), the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (A for Alpha and O for Omega), and the first and last letters of the Latin alphabet (A and Z): "I am Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last."
All previously published books on alchemy have been written by two categories of authors. The first is comprised of alchemical adepts who have committed their hard-won knowledge, under the veils of symbolism and metaphor, to paper to assist those who follow. These texts, written by the Sages themselves, are usually full of strange and exotic diagrams that function as the mandalas of the Art. The second category is made up of those students and scholars who, writing from the outside looking in, attempt to penetrate the secrets of the alchemical science or to "debunk" the whole endeavor as fraudulent. In this book, for the first time in the West, the Royal Art of Alchemy is presented from the standpoint of the Sages themselves—from within the sanctuary, from the inside looking out.
The complexity of alchemical diagrams and formulae, their changing appearance from century to century, is not due to some lack of consistency on the part of the sages. Rather, like the numbers of Buddhist Tantras in Vajrayana that grew over time, the depictions and terms for the alchemical process multiplied. This was not due to emotion and imagination searching for ever-new objects of veneration, but rather to the tendency to replace religious speculation with practical, esoteric experience. Just as a new discovery in science not only contributes to the wealth of data and the widening of our field of knowledge, but leads to further discoveries and to a re-appraisal of former data, just so each new experience of meditation opens new horizons and creates new methods of practice and realization. The human mind cannot stop at any point on its way toward knowledge. Standing still means death, rigidity, and decay. This is the law of all life and consciousness. And it is the law of the Spirit, from which life and consciousness flow.
The working esoteric tradition of the West is often referred to as "the Mysteries." The term "mystery" is used in the theological sense, where a mystery is a spiritual reality that transcends normal reasoning. The ultimate goal of the Mysteries is divinization: our complete and utter identification with the All-That-Is, the One Reality. In many Eastern traditions, this is called enlightenment. In the Western tradition, it is called illumination.
When we speak of "paths" here, we are not referring to religious paths, to that framework by which an individual chooses to worship the Absolute. By "path," we mean the way, or the method, by which we approach. In the esoteric traditions of both East and West, there are two principal approaches: the direct path ( or the formless path) and the indirect path (or path of form).
The direct path is sometimes called the "mystical" path. This, and the fact that its practitioners are often called "mystics," is misleading. Essentially, this approach attempts to enter into union with the Source of being by rejecting all appearance of otherness. It focuses completely upon the One Reality. No visualizations, rituals, or ceremonies are employed on this path. All "appearances" are regarded as distractions from the Goal. Whenever attention wanders to anything other than the Absolute, it is brought back to its focus. Eventually, the real nature of consciousness, the awareness that transcends all phenomena (sometimes called samadhi), is attained. Examples of this type of approach are Zazen in Zen meditation, Tibetan Mahamudra, and the Via Negativa of Christian mysticism.
The Indirect Path is also called the "ceremonial" path, which is just as misleading as the term "mystical" because this path does not involve constantly performing ceremony or even the performance of ritual, per se. The practitioners of this path are often called "mages" (a term preferred to the strictly masculine "magician"). The path is called indirect because its modus operandi is similar to that of pool or snooker, where some shots are made by bouncing the ball off the cushioned table rim, and so reaching the goal indirectly. This approach begins with how things appear. It is similar to the martial arts in that it turns the opponents' own strength against them rather than employing counterforce. This method uses images and forms, hidden mental powers, emotional drives, and the physical body itself. The indirect path skillfully turns the table on the very appearances that bind us to the illusion of separateness and transforms them into useful tools for our liberation.
Reflection will show the potential pitfalls of either of these approaches. Neither is "higher" or "better" than the other. "Direct" doesn't mean quicker, nor does "indirect" mean that you reach the Goal incidentally. It comes down, in the end, to personal temperament and environment. Very, very few individuals are exclusively suited to one path or the other. Practitioners walking the direct path often use liturgical (ceremonial) devotions as part of their daily routine. Practitioners treading the indirect path find that states of consciousness, at first attained in ceremonial settings, later no longer need a ritual impetus to be experienced and that they can now enjoy these states by the direct path.
Nor should you think that you are not a mystic if you tread the indirect path, or that you are not a mage if you use the direct approach. These names are inaccurate terms put upon practitioners by the uninstructed and they carry little weight. Bear in mind that, in both cases, we are speaking of true practitioners, not of individuals who read spiritual books and speak piously of "higher things," nor of those who indulge in ritual as an alternative to a fulfilled career, entertainment, or relationships. The Tibetans have a saying about religion that can equally be applied to its esoteric aspect: "Many people profess religion, few practice it." Or, as one of the masters of the Western tradition said: "Many are called but few are chosen."
Eventually, both the direct and indirect paths are subsumed and integrated in the sage. As W. E. Butler wrote in his pioneering book, The Magician: His Training and Work:
For the adept-magician, though he may use the age-old ceremonies, does not depend on them. The observances which were the outward, visible symbols of inner states of emotion, mind and spirit, have, through the training he has undergone, been withdrawn into and made components of his inner consciousness. Then the Preparation of the Place is effected within the Ring-Pass-Not, the limiting boundary of his own aura, the Angel of the Operation is invoked therein, and the mystical temple is built in his mental sphere. Then into this "temple not made with hands," there descends the divine Shekinah, the Glory of the Eternal, and She abides over the seat of Justice between the Cherubim in the Holy of Holies of the magician's heart.
In Vajrayana, the indirect path is known as the tantric path. Its practitioners are siddhas, tantric-yogis, those who actualize the practices of the tantras. Tantra is not, as many Western students have been led to believe, an Eastern system of sex magic. This erroneous concept was put into circulation by certain dubious teachers of sorcery trying to justify their own sexual needs, which are often nothing more than the outward manifestation of a continued adolescent obsession and rebellion. I am not condemning sex magic per se, provided that it is practiced between consenting adults. But let's call it what it is. Tantra, like alchemy, is replete in sexual symbolism that leads practitioners to acquire skill in the practice of sublimation. As one yogi said, "What need have I of an outer consort who have the Goddess (Kundalini Devi) within me?" In Mahayana Buddhism, there are two classes of scriptures: the sutras and the tantras. The sutras are the moral and ethical teachings of the Lord Buddha Shakya-Muni. The tantras are the written practices, manuals in meditation and yoga. So this book is, by its very nature, a Western tantra.
In this book, our method will be that of the indirect path, using potent associative symbols from the collective unconscious, that will lead our awareness into direct apprehension of the Uncreate Realities that these symbols represent, so that we can look with the Eye of Time into the Eye of Eternity. For it is vital to realize that symbols, of themselves, are empty forms, cups awaiting the wine. They are the signposts that indicate the direction of our journey, but not the journey itself. A symbol becomes connected to the spiritual force it represents through study and meditation. Part of the purpose in the teaching sections of this book will be to inform readers about the symbols used, their purpose and function. This will fulfill the "study" requirement. The practices given in the book constitute the meditation aspect, building the symbols into the subjective consciousness of the practitioner. And so spiritual force will be united with astral form, and the irradiated symbols (visible signs of inward grace) will be capable of exalting consciousness and effecting transmutation and a veritable transubstantiation. The "Contemplation" section of each chapter helps to link practitioners with the historical lineage of sages who have attained.
Excerpted from THE TOWER OF ALCHEMY by David Goddard. Copyright © 1999 David Goddard. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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List of Figures
Chapter 1: Laying the Foundation
Chapter 2: The Furnace and the Bellows
Chapter 3: The Holy Grail
Chapter 4: The Companions of the Light
Chapter 5: The Holy Place of Meeting
Chapter 6: Sun and Moon Bow Down Before Him
Chapter 7: The Citadel of the Soul
Chapter 8: The Flowering Tree
Chapter 9: The Co-Emergent Mother
Chapter 10: The Peacock's Tail
Chapter 11: The Hidden Immortal
Chapter 12: In Memory of Arthur the King
Chapter 13: Arousing the Dragon
Chapter 14: The Clavicule
Chapter 15: The Crown of Life
Chapter 16: Sarras
Chapter 17: The Soror Mystica
Appendix I: Colors and Keys
Appendix II: An Alchemical Prayer
About the Author