Four Hundred Words on the Gold Elixir by Chang Po-tuan is a classic work of Chinese Alchemy. He breaks his work into 20 stanzas. Here is the first stanza.
1. True Earth arrests True Lead;
True Lead controls True Mercury.
Lead and Mercury return to the Earth.
Body and Mind are tranquil and still.
This verse contains nearly everything that one needs to know to get started on the quest for immortality. Of course to understand the meaning one must understand the language. To assist us Liu I-Ming provides a commentary on each verse. To further clarify the meaning of these esoteric passages the novel Journey to the West provides a story based upon these principles. We will explore both in due time.
This initial poem sets up a triad of elements - Earth, Lead and Mercury. Understanding what they symbolize is of paramount importance, as they are one of the primary constructs of Chinese Alchemy. Although many times this trio is confused for some type physical reality, they are only metaphors - just a way to help us understand some complex topics. In the discussion that follows note that the relation between the three is dynamic, not static. They are constantly interacting, rather than being box-like categories into which elements are organized. As with the five-phase theory that we will explore later on, none of these exist independently of the others.
So what does this alchemical triad of lead, mercury and earth, represent? Let’s see what Liu I-Ming has to say about the alchemical interaction between these three energies.
“True intent, true sense, and spiritual essence are the three jewels in our bodies, true earth, true lead and true mercury.”
Lead or sense, represents our powers of discrimination. Mercury or essence, represents passion or desire. Sometimes it is also called life force or chi. Earth or intent, represents our personal direction in life - our mission or calling. Ideally Lead serves Earth and binds Mercury to this direction. In other words our powers of discrimination are meant to be used to surmount the obstacles that block our Mission. This is what Chang Po-tuan meant when he said True Earth arrests True Lead. Further our intellectual powers are meant to bind our desires to our Divine Calling. True Lead controls True Mercury. We are passionate to fulfill our mission and use our intellectual powers to accomplish this aim. With this proper alignment everything moves in the same direction. Lead and Mercury return to the Earth. There is no ambiguity or dissipation. Body and Mind are tranquil and still. If the Firing Process proceeds smoothly Immortality can be achieved.
This is the proper alignment, which leads to integration and actualization. The improper alignment leads to dissipation, disease, and death. How and why does this occur?
In his explanatory passages Liu I-Ming points out that these three jewels are initially one, undifferentiated. (This is the meaning of the title of the original alchemical book, The Triplex Unity, written nearly 2000 years ago.) But when this beginning pure state is mixed with temporally acquired conditioning, yang emerges, followed by yin. And the unadulterated Unity becomes three.
What’s the problem with this multiplicity? Liu I-Ming states the problem simply.
“Once the real divides, the false comes forth; the seeds of routine take command, sense faculties and data stir together and habit energy grows day by day: true intent becomes adulterated with artificial intentions, true sense becomes adulterated with arbitrary feelings, and spiritual essence becomes adulterated by temperament. Aberration and sanity mix, the artificial confuses the real, essence and life are shaken; day-by-day, year-by-year, the real disappears and all becomes false. Positivity exhausted, negativity complete how can death be avoided.” page 5.
This passage bears closer examination. Let us paraphrase Liu’s commentary. Simply speaking the relentless progression from the original state of spontaneous purity to fragmentation inevitably leads to dissolution and a premature death, if not arrested. Why?
Because of temporally induced conditioning, the three jewels are mixed together resulting in the growth of habit patterns. With all this processed information confusing the real, true intent becomes adulterated with artificial intentions, And True Earth becomes False Earth. The true intent is oriented towards fulfilling a mission. With habit energy growing day by day, the original pure mission is obscured - clouded over by socially induced goals.
True sense becomes adulterated with arbitrary feeling. True sense, lead, or mental discrimination knows right from wrong, truth from falsehood. True lead… is the formless, immaterial true sense of real knowledge. With the confusion, true understanding is replaced by arbitrary understanding. The sword of discrimination is still sharp, but now slashes about indiscriminately, attacking both truth and falsehood. True Lead becomes False Lead.
Spiritual essence becomes adulterated by temperament. The passion to fulfill your personal quest is corrupted by desire for things and emotional attachments. True Mercury becomes False Mercury.
With all this intermixing of elements, true and false are confused; the false inevitably takes over. The system is weakened, degenerating towards death. Positivity exhausted, negativity complete how can death be avoided?
Reiterating this important concept: because of the constant bombardment of our psyches by external circumstances and pressures the foundation is confused and fragmented. Instead of serving Earth, Lead serves unstable Mercury, who corrupts the original purity of Earth. In other words Mind is employed to fulfill Desires, which become the False Intent. This is the normal state of affairs. Spiritual energy is corrupted by Desires, which inevitably leads to dissipation and corruption. In this natural process Immortality is lost.
The Return to the One
The point of Alchemy is to arrest this downward spiral and return to the original state of spontaneous child like purity - unpolluted by cultural conditioning. This is called the Return to the One. Chang Po Tuan’s simple first verse explains how to achieve this reunification. Mind and Passion are focused upon accomplishing the Mission. This process stills the restless energies of Body and Mind. Instead of being dissipated by chaotically moving in many false directions the life force is conserved and concentrated in the true direction. This is the proper alignment of internal forces. The trick in this case is to distinguish between the true and false side of these primordial elements. However as Master Ni, my Author’s Tai Chi teacher and spiritual Master, frequently said, “Easy to say. Hard to do.”
Why is that? Liu I-Ming states the issues very clearly.
“When real people have taught others to return to the fundamental and go back to the original, thereby to preserve essence and life, they have all taught people to restore these three things to reality. The path of restoration starts with knowing the original true intent.”
The first step is to identify the true mission. Once the true intent, the mission, is identified, then the other elements fall into their proper places. Without the true intent, earth, to ground them, the discriminating mind, lead, is a headless swordsman, who uses his powers to serve the life force, mercury, which is dominated by desire. However once the mighty intellect, lead, is focused upon the true mission, earth, then he uses his powers to tame the life force, mercury or chi. Using the discriminating mind to tame the chi solves two problems. It drains off the excess energy of the mind and it subdues the overactive movement of the life force, mercury = chi. Lead’s domination of Mercury controls capricious desire, which inevitably leads to dissipation and death. Ideally then all the elements fall into line behind true intent. Earth dominates lead, which dominates mercury.
However it is not easy to distinguish true from false intent because of all the mixture of true and false, which has already occurred. This is where the stillness and quietude of meditation comes in. This is the nature of earth. The true earth balances the yin and yang. From this balance point the emptiness of the Void is experienced, from which true intent emerges. Once true intent, earth, emerges, mental discrimination, lead, becomes its servant. His faculties are focused upon the goal of true intent. His powers are then used to distinguish between true and false. Additionally the mind, lead, uses his powers to control desire, mercury, in the service of true earth. Hence all falls into place behind true intent. Desires are sublimated by mind to assist in the achievement of the one goal, the one mission. This is what is known as ‘the consolidation of the base’ behind true intent. This concept. So in order to reverse this natural process of dissipation, the focus must be upon true intent, true earth.
An Alchemical Linkage or united behind true intent
These concepts are illustrated allegorically in Journey to the West. Briefly summarizing the story: Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, and his 4 disciples, including a supernatural monkey and hog, named Monkey and Piggy, go through 81 ordeals on a quest to obtain the Buddhist scriptures in the West. These ordeals are sometimes inevitable, i.e. river and mountain crossings, sometimes temptations, and sometimes chances to achieve merit by righting wrongs. The temptations frequently refer to incorrect alchemical procedures.
Monkey is lead, the discriminating mind; Piggy is mercury, desire, and Tripitaka is earth, spiritual intent. When Tripitaka leads all is in balance. But when the false inevitably emerges the Quest is thrown off balance. Monkey’s false lead = the intellect, normally manifests as anger; Piggy’s false mercury manifests as desire and sloth; and Tripitaka’s false earth is tricked by form. In a rush he frequently ends up serving Piggy’s short cuts to enlightenment - attempting to fulfill his false desires. This is the normal way. False sense ignites desires and intent becomes the fulfillment of these desires. The natural way is to cultivate Tripitaka’s true intent. Then Piggy’s passion only wants to fulfill the true Mission and Monkey’s true mind is used to surmount the obstacles on their true path. The three are in alignment and don’t waste needless energy on the fulfillment of false desires. Of course the immediate practical question is how does one distinguish the true and false. All of these questions are dealt with in Journey.
But we are ahead of ourselves. Before our analysis of specific chapters let us introduce some Taoist terminology and concepts that will be useful in the understanding of the episodes of Journey.