Tuesday, May 10, 2005

eastern alchemy

It's love that holds all eastern alchemy,

A cloud that hides a thousand lightning bolts.

Its glory fills an ocean inside me,

A universe where all creation drowns.

#1576: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

It occurred to me that I'd not touched on the subject of alchemy for a while and so alchemy yielded this quatrain. It is a grand vision that Rumi has of alchemy as it was being practised in the east. In his studies of alchemy, Jung found that some alchemical writers were more aware of the soul aspect of their work than others. Very few were complete literalists, believing that they were dabbling in mere metallurgy. It's clear from this verse that Rumi belongs in the first category. He understands alchemy as a work of love and of the imagination. The darkness - what a Jungian would call "the unconscious" - is depicted as both above and below and as containing treasures that far surpass the phenomenal world of everyday awareness. That treasure is the gold of alchemy, transmuted from the lead of day-to-day reality.

There is a famous Zen saying: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." True, but the wood and the water have a special sparkle after the transformative processes have been at work. The divine peeps out from every crevice of the day.

In historical terms, Rumi's dates (1207-1273) indicate that he would have been heir to a flourishing tradition of Arab/Persian science, medicine and alchemy. Geber (Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan, 721-815), Rhazes (Al-Razi, 865-925), and Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) had been prominent scholars and prolific writers. By "eastern" alchemy, Rumi probably meant the kind practised from Turkey to Iran, while "western" alchemy might have been that developing in Spain through the moorish conquests but then extending further into Europe. Rumi might have been aware of the work of Albertus Magnus (1193?-1280) and other philosophers in the field.

Both alchemy and sufism can be categorised as types of gnosticism but I don't have details of the historical links between the two. This is a subject for further investigation. If anyone has good sources on this, I would appreciate information through the comment feature. In the meantime, Google has delivered me these gems:

The Ancient Egyptian Roots of Sufism argues that Sufism is not Islamic at all but a response to Islamic suppression. This view makes sense to me.

Islamic Alchemy: The Sufi Vision asserts that Sufism is the embodiment of an Islamic "system of spiritual alchemy that has as its basis the mystical experiences of Mohammed himself". There follow several useful parallels between alchemical concepts and poetic ideas in Rumi's verses (without further mention of Mo). This is a Muslim apologist trying to make Islam look good by association with Rumi.

Sufis of the New Age has a delightful photo of a naked guru who reminds me of Rumi's naked warrior on horseback. I like it. It seems to be a million miles away from orthodox Islam but well suited to California, USA. The site has a laughing Buddha on its front page and a jokes link. Yes, indeed, I do like it!

Sufism Symposium, presented by the International Association of Sufism, had a conference in 1997 devoted to alchemy in which "the entire field of inquiry assembled for the enrichment of the attendees was turned to gold, purified and unified in the alchemy of spiritual seeking." The site's article on The Origin of the School of Sufism argues that Sufism arose concurrently with Islam when the first Sufis "met on the platform, or suffe, of the mosque where Prophet Mohammed used to pray in Medina, Arabia." It sounds like a very contrived story to me. It is consistent with the idea that Sufism had to evade oppression that it would have invented a story to make it seem more acceptable to orthodox Muslims.

The Alchemy of Coming Out is an ingenious and insightful exploration of the parallels between alchemical transformations and the inner emotional and intellectual changes that occur as a result of coming to terms with being gay in a society that frowns on that. The author even finds some Koranic quotes to illustrate the alchemical "yellow stage". It matters not whether Rumi and Shams physically "consumated" their love: they were clearly two men deeply in love and deeply attached and that's "gay" enough for me.


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