“Another Chinese tradition that contributed to the development of alchemical experiments was that of bronze and iron technology. … The myths of the heroes of Chinese culture, the founders of the legendary dynasties, abound in stories about the sacred art of fusing metals and the casting of royal treasures.” 1
The image of smelting and refinement is an extremely significant metaphor of Taoist Alchemy. Because there are so many different types of Taoism, we will call this school the ‘Alchemists’, to distinguish them from Taoists of other persuasions.
The Alchemists have a distinct perspective. Although containing many traditional Taoist principles, the alchemical branch tends to be scientific, experimental, and psychological, rather than supernatural and mystical. One of the alchemical schools is called the Complete Reality School. The focus is on dealing with the energy of this world, not the next. One of the original alchemical metaphors was the smelting of ore for refinement.
The following quote is from a prominent alchemical text, Four Hundred Words on the Gold Elixir, i.e. The Inner Teachings of Taoism. The roots of this work go back to the first centuries of the Common Era. This book is foundational in the Taoist alchemical tradition associated with the Complete Reality School.
400 Words on the Golden Elixir by Chang Po-tuan
“#8. Work the fire to smelt and refine.
Activate sane energy; sweep out aberrant energy.
Gentle cooking and fierce refinement are the methods of immortals;
Fire comes forth in the spiritual furnace, yin and yang,
Burning away the thousand kinds of pollutants.
Naturally the great medicines emanate misty light.”2
The analogy with metallurgy is obvious and direct. Just as the metal is to be smelted from the ore, our consciousness is corrupted and needs to be purified. In Golden Elixir there are many images of the polluted knowledge, which needs to be refined. According to the Alchemists, it is essential to cook ourselves in a ‘spiritual furnace’ to purify our spirits. If we are cooked enough, then our purified essence survives.
What does the purification process entail?
“The method of alchemy involves gathering the bit of true fire of open awareness within conscious knowledge and refining out the adulterating energy of confused feelings.”3
‘The bit of true fire of open awareness’ would be analogous to the purified copper; ‘conscious knowledge’ would be the ore, while the refinement involves ‘gathering’ or separating the pure metal from the ore, ‘the adulterating energy of confused feelings.’ In other words, unchecked emotions can pollute our ability to be present. As such, it is important to root out these emotional pollutants, if we are to be truly present.
Once the ore refinement has been completed, then the purified metals are combined. The mixture is neither one metal nor the other, but something brand new. A permanent synergy is created, called bronze.
Bronze is somewhat miraculous in that it has many features that tin and copper do not have. Bronze is much harder than its constituent elements – a major appeal, especially for the military. Bronze is also a beautiful color and resists corrosion. Additionally, it can be recast indefinitely without reverting to its original elements. Once bronze is created it is a permanent transformation. As such, it became a symbol of immortality and the eternal.
There is yet a 3rd stage to this process. First copper and tin are purified from the ore. Then these purified elements are blended to create bronze. After mixing the metals comes the casting process. The transformed metal, bronze, achieves a form, whether as weapon or art.
Taoist Alchemy employs this metallurgical process as a metaphor for the spiritual quest. Purification, integration, and actualization are three distinct processes that are necessary to fulfill potentials, i.e. achieve our personal destiny. In actual practice the three processes, while occurring sequentially in the case of bronze, occur simultaneously in the human progression. The process of actualization also acts to purify and integrate the soul. Pollution of the soul degrades integration and actualization. Further. the lack of actualization diminishes purification and integration. In other words, all three processes must occur together to optimize our ability to fulfill potentials.
Let us see how these three processes play themselves out in Journey to the West. Written in the 1500s during the Ming Dynasty, this Chinese novel has significant Taoist alchemical overtones. Liu I Ming, the commentator and transmitter of the aforementioned 400 Words on the Golden Elixir, considers Journey to the West to be a sacred book. Fu Yuan Ni, a contemporary Taoist Sword Master, considers the author of Journey to the West to be an avatar, in the sense that he left this message behind to help others on the spiritual journey. Many scholars consider this work to be one of the 5 most important novels in Chinese literature.
The Journey to the West is based around a mythic quest. It begins when Buddha decides to give ‘three baskets of true scriptures which can persuade man to do good’ to the people of the East, i.e. China. Buddha will not however give the scriptures directly to the Chinese because they are too dull witted to perceive the Truth. They must earn the scriptures by sending one of their own on a long and perilous journey to obtain them. A Chinese citizen must travel the long mountainous route to the West, i.e. India, to obtain the holy scriptures for the redemption of the Chinese.
Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, is chosen for this arduous task. Because he is aligned with the Will of Heaven, he is given a dragon horse to ride and provided with three companions with prodigious military powers to protect and assist him on his epic Journey. One is a monkey, another a pig and the third a monster. He is also provided with a multitude of guardian angels to further protect him as long as he continues the Quest.
Just because Tripitaka is protected does not mean that he feels no pain. He suffers a tremendous amount of anxiety and is frequently threatened (although he suffers no real harm). Further, there are times when he is tied upside down and whipped. In one episode, Monkey waits to save him until he has received sufficient whipping to toughen him up.
Once the 5 participants have been assembled for the Journey, they must be purified and integrated in order to fulfill the Buddha’s task. This sequence directly reflects the bronze process, in that the metals must be gathered, purified and mixed for the bronze to be cast.
Because the creatures enter the Quest in an impure state, each has a tendency to undermine the Journey through obsessive behavior. For instance, Monkey and Piggy continually threaten to leave the mission. The party is regularly endangered by disintegration. The pollution of Monkey’s anger and pride, the contamination of Tripitaka’s desire for Buddhahood and his obsession with appearances, and the corruption of Piggy’s desire for comfort and laziness, all threaten the Journey at one time or another. These are internal forces, not external. Each of them must be purified and integrated slowly for the party to succeed in the Great Task of acquiring the scriptures.
Each of the five Querents – Monkey, Piggy, Monster, the Monk, and the Horse – is corrupted because of previous transgressions against heaven, mostly carelessness. Joining forces on this mystic quest gives each of the fallen immortals the chance for ego purification through personal interaction, excruciating trials and the earning of merit. Simultaneously as they experience ego purification, they also begin the process of integration, melding into a single cooperative unit. Further they also experience the actualization of the Journey itself (the casting process).
Part of the Quest has to do with Tripitaka taming Monkey; Monkey cultivating Piggy’s spiritual nature; and Heaven purifying Tripitaka through life experience. All of these purifications happen on the quest, not through meditation, not through insight, nor through the practice of martial arts. Instead they occur through life experience over time on the Quest. The spiritual idea led the five Querents to join together, but their purification, integration, and actualization occur over the Journey Quest. In terms of the external story, the actualization had to do with acquiring the scriptures and returning them to the China. Refinement and integration without a mission to provide direction and challenges is incomplete.
Stepping a little further back, the author of the Journey also experiences purification, integration, and actualization as he writes the work. He does not experience enlightenment and then write the book. The book is a record of his own Journey to the Buddha of the West. The book itself is the ‘tool’, the cast bronze, that he manifests through his existence as a ‘Sage’.
In summary, Chinese bronze technology was perfected during the Shang dynasty. This included the smelting of metal ore followed by the combination of the refined metals at high heats to make bronze. Finally the metal was heated again and cast into a permanent form. This bronze process is one of the metaphorical foundations of Taoist Alchemy and also supplies the driving force behind the highly influential Chinese novel, Journey to the West.
1 Schiffer, The Taoist Body, p. 175
2Inner Teachings of Taoism, p. 42
3 Liu I Ming, Inner Teachings of Taoism, p. 15