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Carl Jung on Buddhist Mt. Meru and Western Alchemy

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Letters Vol. I

Lecture XIV 24th February, 1939

We reached the end of our long text in the last lecture and I expect you breathed a sigh of relief, but I must still inflict
some explanations on you.

I will briefly recapitulate the course of the process.

It falls as you will remember into three parts, Thesis, Anti-thesis and Synthesis.

The Thesis establishes the Lama’ s identity with Buddha.

He imagines his body as the Vajra or diamond body, Mahasukha, the Lord of the Mandala of Great Bliss including his female
counterpart, his Shakti.

The analysis of the Lama’s knowledge follows, he possesses every kind of knowledge and puts himself through an
examination so to speak.

He has to be certain that his knowledge is complete on every side for it is only with full understanding that he can become the

He assimilates the Buddha essence into himself.

He analyses the four functions for this purpose, personified by four Buddhas on the circle of the horizon at the four points of the compass.

These enable him to be wholly conscious, he can see and understand all his surroundings through these four guardians
of the gates, these four functions.

We find these four in all religions in some form or other, in Islam they are the four angels of East, West, North and South.

Here they are the four indispensable constituents of the Buddha.

The Anti-thesis deals with everything which could attack the Thesis, the Lama defends himself against this attack.

His humanity asserts its reality; the concupiscentia and maya, which the illusion of the senses has produced, rise against him.

To defend himself against this attack, he invokes the “all-knowing one” to become round and round; that is, he appeals to the fundamental basic perfection or totality.

The prayer for the absolution of his sins follows and the very important projection of the ten female Devatas.

This is the first time that the Yogin deals with his feminine unconscious.

The projection takes place from the centre of the four square in the circle of the horizon, and the ten female Devatas go to the eight points of the compass, zenith and nadir.

This four square is the Vihara, the cloister, where the Lama is magically enclosed.

The creation of the vajra weapons follows for the annihilation of the wicked and the anti-thesis ends with the statement that the Lama is the Void [Shunyata); that is, Buddha who is being and non-being.

Shunyata is identical with Nirvana.

The Synthesis is a positive process, in which the long sequence which I spoke of takes place.

The basis of this sequence is Shunyata from which the four elements emerge through active imagination.

Mt. Meru is built on the elements, with its towered town and the four headed Vajra on top.

A series of technical representations follows, the lotus, moon and sun, the lotus with the yoni and the moon with the lingam.

The Lama sits in the Vihara, the magic circle, as Buddha.

The sequence of symbols is exceedingly complicated and I have not yet explained it.

It is a canon of the symbolic.

The mediaeval western counterpart of the process described in our text is to be found in alchemy.

The alchemical concept of chaos is the same as that of the Void [Shunyata).

Both are the beginning, the first stage, the original condition where nothing is distinct.

Alchemy has nothing to do with the making of gold, though that is how the layman regards it.

This is a very comprehensible prejudice because of the language used by the alchemists themselves, they speak as if the making of gold were their aim.

When one reads their works attentively, however, one becomes more and more doubtful, for they search for gold in a metaphysical way and use extremely peculiar terms.

Moreover, we find passages where they directly tell us that their gold is not the ordinary gold.

When one studies the symbols which appear in alchemy closely, one finds a great deal of exceedingly interesting psychology which has never come to the daylight because only chemists have been interested in alchemy.

Their knowledge does not lie in the psychological field so the real meaning of alchemy has remained dark.

Alchemy began at latest in the first century A.D. and is really a curious process of initiation, a sort of practical Yoga.

Outwardly there is no resemblance between Yoga and alchemy, the procedure is entirely different.

Alchemy works as a sort of chemistry on actual matter and yet it is essentially Yoga and the symbols which arise in both are very similar.

Alchemy was a ” royal art”; “our philosophy” the alchemists called it.

They took infinite pains with their work, they live d their philosophy and really experienced their visions.

Berthelot’s “Collection des anciens Alchimistes grecs” contains some very early Greek texts, the “Papyrus de Leide” [Leyden], for example.

Pseudo Democritus and Komarius are the earliest alchemists we know of.

All these texts also consist of practical advice to gold makers and forgers.

There is a great deal of gold forging in the near East, many Europeans who have visited the bazaars in Cairo know that to their cost!

Old alchemy consists in prescriptions for gold smelting and so-called chemistry, and you find philosophy sandwiched in between.

We should call such philosophy mysticism, for that is the modern way of explaining everything which we do not understand.

There are also some interesting texts of a religious nature to be found in the books of Dieterich and others.

One of the earlier and most interesting of the alchemists was Zosimos who lived in the third century A. D.

He wrote in the same style as Komarius and Pseudo Democritus, chemical prescriptions with Gnostic philosophy sandwiched in between.

His principal work consists of letters to Theosebie, his soror mystica (spiritual sister).

Women played a considerable part in alchemy, and worked at it themselves.

This is not the case in Indian Yoga, with the exception of Tantrism.

Alchemy begins with the concept of chaos, the condition of the beginning of the world.

Everything is mixed together and we find the most unlikely things, such as flames with drops of water existing between them.

There are fragments of minerals and planets and the signs of the Zodiac, the opposites related to or in conflict with each other, everything is in the wildest confusion.

There is an excellent representation of this in an old book called “Le Temple des Muses”.

It is called “Le Cahosou l’origine du monde”. (See sketch p. 93.)

This chaos is thought of as dark, as we find it described in Genesis:

“And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was up on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved up on the face of the waters”

The alchemists frequently quote this last sentence.

The darkness of the beginning of the world must be impregnated by the Spirit of God.

The four rhizomata, that is the four elements, emerge from the chaos.

These are the four parts which the old Greek philosophers expressed in the tetramerein ten philosophian.

This has a double meaning for the prima materia is philosophical matter and philosophy also has to be divided into four parts.

This way of thinking is incomprehensible to us but we must think in the spirit of the Middle Ages in order to reach its meaning.

We must remember that the chemical elements of matter were still unknown, matter was a mystery and a marvel to medieval man, so everything which he did not understand was projected into it, everything that was unconscious.

The thing which we do not understand is the unconscious ruling of the psyche and our philosophy is concerned with that.

But the alchemists projected their philosophy into matter.

Real philosophy is an experience and their experience was projected into matter.

Matter was an unknown world to these old explorers, a wonderland in which the whole unconscious was projected.

So they divided matter into the four elements and philosophy into four parts.

This quartering was described as a series of four colours, first the nigredo, (darkness), then the albedo (light], then the citrinitas (yellow] and then a curious colour usually given by the Greek word ios or iosis, to become.

It is questionable what colour this is.

Berthelot sometimes translates it as violet.

The colours indicate the four directions and are the qualities of the four functions, of consciousness.

It is really a case of dividing up the unconscious into four recognisable functions, a differentiating of the chaos into a world where you can sense, think, feel and have intuitions; and from this totality Mt. Meru, the world mountain, emerges.

The old idea of chaos was that it held everything in potentia including man.

This potential man was not the biological man but the philosophical man, a peculiar being, which is also sometimes called anima.

This man was not included in any of the four elements, he was in the materia but was described as ethereal matter.

A subtle body, breath or smoke resembling, which can also be correctly described as anima.

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Anima is the feminine of animus, which is identical with the Greek word anemos which means wind or breath.

You find this concept running through alchemy and it is everywhere on earth in some form or other, even in the idea of haunted houses and ghosts.

It is something which is not immaterial but made of exceedingly refined subtle material, and it is from this that the homo philosophicus

This primal or potential being is also often called the philosophical egg, and the alchemists divide this egg into four natures or elements.

In the chaos the four are all together as a unity: in the Tetrameria this unity is separated into four; and afterwards it becomes one again;
but the second unity is the completed and perfected form of the potential unity in the chaos.

The separation of the elements is also identified with the four seasons of the year.

This establishes a connection between the homo philosophicus and time.

We find the same idea in India, Prajapati is connected with the year.

The Church’s year follows the course of Christ’s life, which ‘symbolises the course of time.

We meet this same idea with the Neo-Platonists in Chronos or Aion, creative time.

Proclus said: “Always where there is creation there is also time.”

Bergson’s “dunce creatrice” springs from this idea.

Bergson’s philosophy, which is called intuitive philosophy, is entirely intellectual except for this one intuition, and that belongs to Proclus.

The separation into four is finally brought to an end by the Conjunctio.

Mt. Meru, the world mountain, in our text is the beginning of the perfected unity.

It was a unity in the Void, we saw the course of its division into four and how everything was united again in Mt. Meru.

An old alchemist said that this perfected unity was accomplished through moral philosophy.

That is medieval language, in modern language it is accomplished by a psychological procedure, the four are separated, understood and united again.

In this connection I must mention an old author of the 16th century, a philosophical doctor, Dorneus, he was a sort of colleague of mine!

He said: “Do you know that the heaven and the earth first of all were one, and that then through the art of the Creator
they were divided into four so that you and all else could be created.”

This is an interesting intuition of the quartering which is an age-old idea, perhaps even megalithic.

An Englishman, Mr. Layard, whom I know personally, lived for some time on Malekula, in the New Hebrides.

The people there are still living in megalithic times, they have a stone cult and dolmens.

Mr. Layard found out some very interesting things.

The people of Malekula have a symbolic quartering in their initiation ceremonies.

We find exactly the same idea in alchemy, in the mortification, the quartering, of the unity in the chaos.

There are some interesting pictures in an old alchemical book, Salomon Trissmosin: Aurem Vellus.

One of them, in the Splendor Solis, shows the homo philosophicus with his four limbs cut off. [See tracing, p. 95).

We find the same theme in many alchemical texts, for instance: “Matrem mortifica, manus ejus et pedes abs cindens,” (Mortify your mother and cut off her hands and feet].

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This is exactly what is done in Malekula today, symbolically of course, not actually.

The idea behind all this is the sacrifice of the purely natural man, the sacrifice of primordial nature.

The Kavirondos say that people only become human beings through initiation, before that they are animals.

This is the sacrifice of avidya, of not knowing, of being a purely instinctive creature.

This instinctive unity is divided into four and is reunited.

This second unity is Mt. Meru.

The theme of the mountain plays an important role in alchemy.

In the allegory of the Mons Mambracus a wonderful plant grows on its summit.

It is called lunaria or lunatica, and lollium.

The latter is a real plant but the former cannot be traced, it is a phantasy plant.

The idea is that the drink made from this plant, which must be sought for on the highest peak, causes intoxication.

But it is also the panacea which is often mentioned as indispensable to alchemy in order to transform the originally imperfect prima materia and bring it over into the perfect condition.

The indispensable herb, the universal remedy, is sometimes expressed differently, Komarius speaks of it as a miraculous stone to be found on the highest peak.

In later alchemy we sometimes find the panacea represented by a King who stands on a silver mountain from which golden streams pour down.

This is a direct analogy to Mt. Meru, from which golden streams also flow down and which is surrounded by the Jambrinada River that is full of gold.

We find birds mentioned in alchemy in connection with the mountain, they fly to or live on the summits of the mountain.

The mountain corresponds to the highest point in the retort where the sublimated steam rises from the boiling materia.

There is a chapter in a book of Michael Maier’s, for instance, where the emblem at the top of the page is a vulture, sitting on the top of a mountain and saying: “I am black, white, yellow and red.”

He is four coloured, an exact parallel to our four-headed Vajra.

The symbolism used in these alchemical texts is very bewildering and when one studies it closely one realises that the thinking of these medieval explorers of nature was still very much under the influence of the language of the Fathers of the Church.

One must, therefore, carefully examine the meaning attributed to the symbols by the Church.

The early Fathers of the Church speak of the mountain as a symbol for Christ.

St. Ambrose speaks of Christ as the “mons exiguus et magnus,” (a very small mountain and at the same time a big one.) and St. Augustine as ” mons magnus ex lapide parva ” (the large mountain which came out of a small stone).

This curious idea refers to a passage in the book of Daniel where a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and smote the feet of the great image, which were of iron and clay, and broke them to pieces.

The stone then became a great mountain which filled the whole earth.

This stone was connected with Christ and he is also called the corner stone.

St. Paul speaks of:

“Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth into an holy temple in the Lord.”

So Christ is the small stone out of which the whole mountain grows and, of course, Mary is also the mountain because the
small stone comes out of her. ~Carl Jung, ETH Lecture 24Feb1939, Pages 90-96.