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The Way of the Crucible
Real Alchemy for Real Alchemists
By Robert Allen Bartlett
Nicolas Hays, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Robert Allen Bartlett
All rights reserved.
East and West—Medicines vs Gold
The book Real Alchemy examines the Western alchemical tradition with ideas and methods followed by ancient as well as contemporary artists. The ancient cultures of China and India also developed alchemy into a high art. The terms may be different from those of the West but the philosophical principles are the same.
Chinese laboratory alchemy employs many exotic materials like jade, pearls, mercury, and arsenic, in medicines and in the quest for the Elixir of Immortality.
Indian alchemy has always been about preparing superior medicines that can work on the physical and subtle parts of man's constitution.
The transmutation of base metals into gold was also part of Chinese and Indian alchemy, but never considered the primary goal of the art.
The West is always going for the gold, and for a long time the whole focus on alchemy was making gold; they became synonymous in the popular mind. The art of alchemy became very distorted, labeled fraud, even outlawed during various periods of history.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) changed that idea around and directed the focus back onto superior medicines prepared through the alchemical art, and lifting mankind from a dark age. His Memorial plaque reads:
Here is buried Phillippus Theophrastus Paracelsus, the distinguished doctor of medicine, who by wonderful art healed malignant wounds, leprosy, gout, dropsy and other incurable diseases of the body, who gave his possessions for distribution among the poor.
We will be examining alchemy in both Western and Eastern terms throughout this book. Eastern alchemical ideas represent a tradition which is over 5000 years old, so it is useful for the practicing alchemist to be familiar with this body of knowledge.
The writings from the East very often shed light on subjects which were only disclosed under a heavy veil of secrecy and symbol in the West. We can use them to help guide us through the labyrinth of alchemy.
Taoist alchemy, Ayurveda, and Alchemical Medicines
Even in very ancient times, India and China had communication and in both lands, alchemy developed along similar lines; the terms and associated mythology may have differed but most of the basic concepts are the same or at least closely parallel.
Taoist alchemy of China developed in two parts: nei tan, which is an internal process in which the body and physiological fluids of the alchemist himself formed the vessels and ingredients of the work; and wai tan, which involves laboratory alchemical works. These manual operations provide exterior materials as medicines which assist the process of the Great Work of creating an incorruptible body and elevating man's finer essence.
In India, there developed two medical traditions which shared the basic tenets, one to the north called Unani (which received Persian, Islamic, and Greek influences), and a more indigenous tradition to the south known as Siddha. Together they are collectively referred to here as Ayurveda, and comprise a system of internal processes coupled with very powerful medicines to assist one's evolution toward perfection.
Ayurveda literally means "The Science of Life". Indian alchemy, and particularly the Siddha tradition, developed a wide variety of alchemical processes for the preparation of metals used in medicines for regeneration of the body and transmutation of metals, in which metallic mercury' plaved a key role. The texts concerning this part of alchemical works are known as Rasa Shastra, one of the eight branches of ayurveda and traditionally held to have been vouchsafed to mankind by the god Shiva himself. Much of the alchemical art as practiced in the West may in fact be derived from these ancient texts which made their way into the Arabian countries along the old spice trading routes and eventually found their way into the Western world, possibly even in the Library of Alexandria. The goals of Rasa Shastra are to establish perfect health of the body and mind, enhance longevity, and effect the transmutation of base metals into gold. Sound familiar?
In his book concerning the life and doctrines of Paracelsus, Franz Hartmann presents the possibility that Paracelsus traveled to India and studied there for nearly 15 years. Even a casual pursual of his works will reveal the remarkable similarities to the concepts put forward by the Indian adepts of the time.
The common thread running through all of these ancient traditions is that alchemy presents its adherents with a truly holistic approach to individually effecting the changes necessary in body and mind, which result in perfection of self and spiritual enlightenment. We are the base metal that becomes transmuted into incorruptible spiritual gold.
Ayurveda—Science of Life
The concept of Tridosha is of central importance to ayurveda and formed one of the important subjects taught by Frater Albertus at the Paracelsus College. Manfred Junius also mentions the close connection of ayurveda and Western alchemy in his excellent work The Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy.
In this chapter, we present an overview of this Indian "Science of Life", which provides valuable keys to understanding our Western "Science of Life", called Alchemy.
In this system, as in Western alchemy, the ultimate source of All is consciousness, infinite living mind. The principle of polarity, giving rise to the universal essences or "Mahagunas", is expresssed as Purusha and Prakruti or Shiva and Shakti, the divine couple (Celestial Niter and Celestial Salt in the West).
The gunas are universal qualities through which we perceive Nature. This is similar to Aristotle's diagram of the elements coming forth from the qualities of hot, cold, wet and dry.
The Indian alchemists perceived ten pairs of opposites through which reality manifests.
The three alchemical essentials of Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt, in a most subtle state, that is, their essence, are called "Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas" (see chart 1 in appendix I); they represent the essential characteristics of consciousness. They ultimately bring forth the "Five Elements" (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Ether (Akasha or Quintessence) with their associated sense (odor, taste, touch, form, sound) and the interactions between them.
The elements in turn form the three essentials of the natural world, called Vata (Air), Pitta (Fire), and Kapha (Water), which express through a body. Don't let these terms confuse you; these are the same three essentials of Mercury, Sulfur, and Salt respectively, in the Western tradition. This blending of elements also gives rise to the six tastes which we will discuss later.
With some minor adjustments to our diagram of Western alchemical ideas, we can present the ayurvedic concepts of the Elements and Three Essentials as follows:
The three essentials here are called Doshas, and everything has a unique blending and balance of the three.
Each of the doshas (vata, pitta and kapha) is also subdivided into five types or subdoshas; thus there are five types of vata, and five types of pitta, and kapha, each with specific properties within its dosha. The qualities associated with each dosha are listed in chart 2 of appendix I.
When our particular blend of the three doshas becomes unbalanced, our bodies begin to malfunction leading to disease and premature aging. The word dosha actually translates to "defect", as the imbalance of the doshas is the cause of all the problems.
The key concept in ayurvedic medicine is that everything we eat, drink, think, and do has power to increase or decrease the influence of the doshas within ourselves and in anything else for that matter. In this way, the food we eat, the thoughts we entertain, and the types of activity we perform can be a medicine or a poison to us.
Ayurvedic physiology recognizes that each of the doshas has unique places of residence in the body and systems of circulation. The physical vehicles of these subde energies form the structural components of the body, called Dhatus or tissues.
There are seven dhatus, listed as plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow, and reproductive essence. These tissues are formed during the process of digestion and each has an associated waste product that must be removed from the body in order to maintain our dosha balance.
Each tissue nourishes another until the process of refinement and transformation of essences derived from food, drink and air produces the life-giving and sustaining "Ojas" that pervades the entire body.
Ojas is said to be the finest product of digestion, preventing disease, giving luster to the skin and regenerating the whole body; it is a part of man's quintessential nature. Ojas is part of a trio of sublimated qualities we will look at later.
So, when we eat normally, the food is first refined into a nutritive essence (plasma) with urine and feces as the waste product. This plasma is refined and incorporated into blood with mucus as the waste product. Blood is refined into flesh or muscle with bile as the waste product. Muscle is further refined into fatty tissues with excretions from the eyes, nose, and throat as waste. Fat is refined and the essence moves into bone with sweat as waste. Bone is refined into marrow with hair and nails as waste, and marrow is refined into reproductive essence (sperm or ovum) with skin oils as waste. The reproductive essence is further refined into Ojas and this is the difficult part.
We naturally produce a certain amount of Ojas which maintains health, but it is hard to produce a sufficient amount which will allow the full expression of its power to perfect us body, soul, and spirit; this is where alchemical medicines come in.
Ojas itself is further refined into Soma, "The Nectar of the Gods", The Elixir of Immortality. Soma is the super refined essence that sustains Agni, the fire and light of consciousness.
In a sense the doshas are the waste products of the three Mahagunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas), which are the essential qualities of consciousness. The doshas provide a medium for the expression of a unique consciousness in the physical world. Our food and drink, the air we breathe, the actions we perform, as well as our mental/emotional habits all affect our elemental or doshic balance and thus how we reflect the three gunas.
Orchestrating this whole process of refinement is the digestive fire (Agni) which also has its several types forming the various hormones, enzymes, etc., involved with digestion and transformation of essence in each of the tissues. The concept of Agni is much more than just digestion of food and we will come back to it later.
The products of digestion, including waste, are circulated through the body by a series of ducts or channels (Nadis) which allow communication and transport between the tissues (Dhatus). There are twelve main duct systems (fourteen for women, including menstruation and lactation) physically within the body, and many hundreds of intangible channels which are collectively called "Srotamsi".
Ideally we eat foods and perform activities which keep our particular blend of doshas balanced and strengthened, our various channels unobstructed, our digestive fire strong and not overtaxed by excess or the wrong types of food for our nature; and this includes the type of lifestyle we have as well as our habitual mental/emotional states. Each of these things affects the balance of our blend of doshas, our constitution. The diet we have ultimately becomes digested into consciousness.
When our doshas become unbalanced, the digestive fire is thrown out of control, being either too hot or too cold to function correctly. This produces materials toxic to our systems such that disease conditions can arise.
These toxins can be divided into three main types. The first is called "Ama", which is a sticky waste product of incomplete digestion; it can build up in the digestive system. Ama is the most common toxin we accumulate through eating the wrong foods or overloading our digestion with excesses. Ama makes you feel heavy, weak, and tired.
If ama continues to build up over time, it can spill over into the various duct systems and begin circulating through the body. It then generally setdes in some weakened organ or part of the body and obstructs the flow of vital fluids.
After ama stagnates here awhile, it becomes a more toxic and reactive substance described as "amavisha". Visha means irregular, unstable or poisonous.
Amavisha can react with each of the seven tissues (Dhatus) and their waste products as well as the sub-doshas of the system it is lodged in, to create the various disease symptoms. Depending on the mixture and location, these effects can be physical, emotional, and/or mental.
A third type of toxin we can accumulate is from external sources, from our environment, and is called "Garavisha" (artificial poisons). This class of toxin includes pesticides, preservatives, food additives, spoiled food, as well as heavy metals (like lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic); even household products like detergents and the quality of air we breathe can be sources of garavisha.
The alchemical work is concerned with the removal of all these toxins, establishing the balance of the doshas proper to our constitution, clearing out obstructions in the various channels, and the perfect refinement of substance and mind.
Body posture, breath, diet (physical and mental) and specialized medicines are all part of the raw materials whose regulation is necessary to bring us into a higher state of perfection. We cultivate consciousness.
The Art of Alchemy
A few years back, I was teaching an introductory class on the fundamentals of alchemy. After the class, a student approached me and asked, "How does one incorporate these ideas into everyday life?" The short answer was that the Hermetic Philosophy is a way of looking at life and like ayurveda it is the science of life. Life is the alchemical process going on around us everywhere and at all times. The alchemist strives always to live in harmony with Nature and to assist Her in bringing things to their highest state of perfection. And this applies most importandy to the work upon ourselves in order to achieve a happy, healthy, holy life as Nature intends.
In addition to our work in the laboratory, there are many practices we can adopt in our daily routine which can assist us on the path of the Great Work.
Food, water, and air form the prime materials our bodies need in order to function correctly.
The type of lifestyle we lead, including our habitual thought and emotional patterns, provides the subtie food that keeps our mind healthy. And both of these, substance and thought, interact with each other as well, both are aspects of the One.
Cooking with alchemy
"Let food be your medicine."—Hippocrates
A proper diet is crucial for self-transformation. Cooking is alchemy; we prepare our subject with a regulated heat and adjust its elemental balance with spices, then it becomes our elixir of life. The inherent qualities of different foods will increase or decrease our unique elemental or doshic balance, so we need to become aware of those qualities and how they affect the doshas.
Some general eating guidelines:
1. Try to eat organically grown foods as much as possible and prefer those that are fresh off the vine from local growers; they contain much more solar prana.
2. Clean all of your food carefully to remove external impurities as much as possible.
3. Prefer warm freshly cooked foods. Cooking is an art which assists the digestion and assimilation as well as the doshic balance of a meal.
4. Don't eat leftovers which are older than five hours; they've lost most of their vitality and are beginning to break down.
5. Use cookware which is made of earthenware, glass, iron or stainless steel.
6. Cook only when you are in the right frame of mind. Our thoughts and emotions influence the whole meal during preparation.
7. Avoid improper food combinations.
8. Prefer foods which are more Sattvic in nature. (More on this later.)
The manner in which food is cooked will also affect the doshas. Boiled foods are more vata balancing because they are hot and moist, which is opposite to vata's cold and dry qualities. Baked foods are more kapha balancing because they are hot and dry, the opposite of kapha's cold and moist character. Raw foods will increase vata with their cold, hard, rough qualities, and so they won't be digested well by someone with predominant vata qualities. Stir-frying with oil balances vata and if the oil is ghee, then pitta is also balanced. Steaming helps to balance pitta and kapha.
Excerpted from The Way of the Crucible by Robert Allen Bartlett. Copyright © 2008 Robert Allen Bartlett. Excerpted by permission of Nicolas Hays, Inc..
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