While much of the Great Work of Alchemy, East and West, takes place deep inside the body and serves to restructure its functioning and refine its subtlety, there is also an intellectual dimension to the process that creates a new understanding of self and world and relates the practice to the larger rhythms of nature. For this, adepts learn to appreciate the cosmological patterns of the universe and see the world in terms of interrelated patterns, calendar cycles, complex numerology, and intricate networks of abstract symbols.
This, too, is typical for transformative traditions throughout the world.Adepts of Buddhist insight meditation, for example, are trained to see the universe as the ever changing interaction of flowing, swirling energies and to appreciate the key doctrines of suffering, impermanence, and no-self. Similarly, students of Western esotericism study the intricacies of Hermetic philosophy, following in the footsteps of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Jacob Boehme, and Robert Fludd, and work with the complex system of the Jewish Cabbala. In all cases, the universe is reinterpreted to fit the new identity created through the practice and often intricate cosmologies and highly abstract symbols take the place of ordinary perception.
Internal alchemy works with three different cosmological systems. There is first classical Chinese cosmology, most prominently known from its application in Chinese medicine, that divides the universe according to the two forces yin and yang and understands their working in terms of the five phases. Next, there is the Chinese calendar and the understanding of the seasonal rhythms and patterns, the cycles of summer and winter, the sun and the moon, and the various phases of the Great Work associated with them. And third, there is the Yi Jing ,(Book of Changes), which serves not only to create a more detailed outline of alchemical timing but also provides the blueprint for the stages before and after creation and a powerful symbolism for internal energetic transformation.
The structure that underlies the yin-yang system is a form of correlative thinking, which is not unique to China but can also be found in other traditional cultures, such as ancient Greece, and in the West is still used in occultism, magic, and alchemy. It represents a basic pattern of the human mind, forms the foundation of more elaborate forms of logic, and is dearly present in the way we acquire language.
Developing an intricate set of correlative patterns, the yin-yang system provides a good basis for understanding the workings of qi in the world. To access its subtler movements, moreover, the system subdivides into five stages of development: minor yang-major yang-yin-yang-minor yin-major yin. These five are then associated with five organic substances that symbolize the different stages in the process: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These, then, are known as the “five phases” and appear in integrated cycles of mutual production or control. Thus, for example, water makes things grow and produces wood, wood dries and becomes fuel for fire in a productive sequence; water extinguishes fire, fire melts metal, and so on, in the controlling cycle.
In addition to the five phases as a fundamental cosmological underpinning, adepts of internal alchemy are also very conscious about the structure and patterns of time. They work closely with the four seasons which are marked by the solstices and the equinoxes, often beginning the Great Work at the height of yin at the winter solstice. Following this, they observe the so-called Eight Nodes, the solstices and equinoxes plus the beginnings of the seasons a system that roughly matches the festivals of Western pagan religion. In addition, they may work with twenty-four solar periods of about two weeks each that are named after weather patterns such as “great heat,” “slight cold,” “great rain,” and “slight snow” and also include the solstices and equinoxes. Alchemy in China has numerous similarities with that practiced in the West, both sharing an emphasis on the transmutation of base metals into gold, the discovery of the elixir of life, and the creation of the Philosophers’ Stone.
Traced back in its earliest beginnings to the Greek mysteries,notably associated with the gods Hermes and Dionysus, and to practices in Egypt under Greek and Roman rule, Western alchemy began to flourish in the early Christian era, focusing particularly on the rather obscure figure of Hermes Trismegisros, who supposedly lived around 100 C.E.. He is linked with an early document, the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet, which outlines the basic principles: as above, so below; all material entities are of one matter; the sun and the moon are the parents of all things; the wind brings them to gestation; and the earth is their great nourisher. Realizing this truth in one’s own body and self, one can find the essence of nature and realize perfection within.
The ultimate goal of alchemy-in the West as much as in China-was therefore not just the material transmutation of one substance into another, but the attainment of perfect self-knowledge and participation in the divine through conscious and hypo-static union, the return to primordial chaos and reversal of the cosmogony. Employing multiple-layered symbolism, the philosophers’ gold also meant absolute and supreme reason, perfect universal truth, the sun, and the concrete precious metal.
Similarly, operative alchemy in China was not the mere mixing of noxious substances in secret cauldrons, but involved extensive physical and ethical preparation, meditations and visualizations, and was generally geared to return to the origins of the universe and serve the self-realization of the practitioner. One is no better then the other, each has it’s merits and faults. The one that lights your cauldron, that is the system you should choose and study.
Till next time everyone, Stay Gold..
Sources: Atwood, M. A., Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy,”Yoga and Daoyin.” in Daoist Body Cuftivation edited by Livia Kohn,Lindsay, Jack. The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt., Internal Alchemy edited by Livia Kohn.