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Friday, March 10, 2017

What is Alchemy?

[Source] It is a remote location in China in the early 1960s. A young man, Wang Liping, is studying with three Taoist masters. After preliminary training, they give him a grain of “gold elixir.”

Wang sits in a cross-legged position. The masters tie up his legs so that he will stay seated. He then goes into a deep state of trance. On the first day, he feels as if his insides are burning, and he passes out. But thanks to the ropes, he remains immovable in the cross-legged position.

On the second day, Wang’s skin changes colour from sallow to ruddy to dark. The masters judge that the toxins in his body have been pushed to the surface.

At this point he has been pushed to the limits of his endurance, but he keeps on meditating. His skin experiences all kinds of sensations from burning to itching and aching.

Finally on the third day, Wang’s body becomes comfortable again. His skin colour has changed to a healthy rosy white and glistens. The gold elixir has been completely expelled from his body. The operation is a success.

This account, taken from a book called Opening the Dragon Gate, describes Wang Liping’s training as a Taoist master. Its mention of a gold elixir – which the text does not otherwise describe – evokes images of alchemy. It leads one to wonder exactly what alchemy is.

Superficially, everyone knows what alchemy is. It is an outmoded practice for changing base metal to gold. Although it was in its way an important precursor to present-day chemistry, today it is little more than a discarded superstition.

Accounts like Wang’s tell another story. They suggest there are other dimensions to alchemy than simply heating and cooling metals in the hope they turn into gold. And of course the old alchemists themselves said, “Our gold is not the gold of the vulgar.”

Moreover, to say alchemy is outmoded may be jumping to conclusions. One of the few practicing alchemists I know in the US is a former chemistry professor. At one point he found conventional chemistry too boring, gave it up, and turned to alchemy. Even so, I see from his website that he does metallurgic consulting for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

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