The Tantric Alchemist
Thomas Vaughan and the Indian Tantric Tradition
In the seventeenth century the Welsh alchemist Thomas Vaughan, and his wife and alchemical partner Rebecca, died under mysterious circumstances. What they were doing and how it might have led to their deaths has remained a secret … even though the true nature of their experiments is described in code in Vaughan’s published works.
Readers will find that the many disparate threads of an authentic spiritual tradition are woven together here in a startling tapestry that reveals—without pretense or euphemism—the psycho-sexual technique that is at the root of both Tantra and Alchemy: that is to say, of both Asian and European forms of esoteric praxis.
Using the works of Vaughan as his text, Levenda applies the “twilight language” of Tantra to the surreal prose of the alchemist and in the process lays bare the lineaments of the arcane tradition that gave rise to the legend of Christian Rosenkreutz, the reputed founder of Rosicrucianism who learned his art in the East; and to the nineteenth and twentieth century occult movements lead by such luminaries as
P.B. Randolph, Theodore Reuss, Helena Blavatsky, and Aleister Crowley who also sought (and discovered) this technology in the religions and cultures of Asia.
THE TANTRIC ALCHEMI’ST
Thomas Vaughan and the Indian Tantric Tradition
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Copyright © 2015 by Peter Levenda
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SECTION ONE: NIGREDO
ONE: An Outline of the Problem
TWO: The Chemical Marriage of Thomas and Rebecca Vaughan
THREE: The Alchemical Language
SECTION TWO: ALBEDO
FOUR: The Hermetic Contribution
FIVE: The Chinese Contribution
SIX: The Tantric Contribution
SECTION THREE: RUBEDO
SEVEN: The Anthroposophia Theomagica
EIGHT: The Anima Magica Abscondita
NINE: The Magia Adamica
Lumen de Lumine
A Note on Sources
There is no question, then, of developing new mythologies as if a mythology was a kind of fancy dress that made life more exciting. The very idea that mythology is something one invents suggests an unpardonable arrogance, as if myth were at our beck and call. Rather, it is we, the will of each and every one of us, that are at the beck and call of myth.
— Roberto Calasso1
… one may regard the myth as a projection of an existential reality which seeks its own truth in a total view of things …
— Hans Jonas2
I came to this study many years ago. In 1968, the University Press of New York published an edition of A. E. Waite’s 1919 The Works of Thomas Vaughan: Mystic and Alchemist along with a new Foreword by “Father of the Beats” Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982). I had been studying another of Waite’s works, The Book of Ceremonial Magic, as well as Aleister Crowley’s Magick In Theory and Practice, along with a copy of the Dao De Jing in English translation. I was still in high school in the Bronx and, well, it was the Sixties.
The very first article I wrote for my high school magazine (and thus the very first article I wrote about anything) was about alchemy. It concerned the famous case of the seventeenth century scientist Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579-1644) and a demonstration of the transmutation of base metal into gold in his presence, affirmed in his own writings. It was the Foreword by Rexroth in the Waite book, though, that captivated me at the time and which still resonates all these decades later.3 Rexroth set out the curriculum that I was to follow—from alchemy to Chinese and Indian alchemy, yoga, and Tantra—in order to understand what Thomas and Rebecca Vaughan were up to in the seventeenth century. In fact, it was Rexroth’s allusion to Chinese alchemy that inspired me to begin a study of written Chinese so that I would be able to locate and translate alchemical texts that had so far not been made available in English. It was that study which developed into a serious interest in Mandarin, that eventually— in 1984—found me fully involved in China trade and which set me on a course that would see me spending the better part of three decades in Asia.
All this because of a collection of writings by a seventeenth century Welsh alchemist and a foreword by a twentieth century American poet. Yet, I am not the only one to have been affected this way by Vaughan’s work.
His reputation was revived in a work by Mary Anne Atwood (1817- 1910) entitled A Suggestive Inquiry into Hermetic Philosophy. 0riginally published in 1850 and almost immediately pulled from circulation, most copies destroyed, this erudite and penetrating look at alchemy was the result of Atwood’s study of the subject while she still lived at home with her occultist father. It was her father who suggested to her that she write what was essentially the prose version of a long, hermetic poem he was composing. She did so, and her father had the 600-page book published, but without first reading it himself. When he finally did, he was shocked at the way his daughter had revealed so many alchemical secrets. He bought all the copies he could find and he and his daughter burned them in the garden outside their home, along with the only draft of his poem. A few copies of her book escaped the holocaust, however, which is how we are able to read it today.
She never wrote another book again even though she lived for sixty more years.
There is much food here for speculation and wonder, and not a little sadness, but we will restrain ourselves to the matter at hand, which is Atwood’s appraisal of the work of Thomas Vaughan. She writes, “… the one Art and medium of vital perfectibility is more clearly shown in his writings than in those of any other English author.”4 She also mentions his strange and controversial death, by saying it was due to “an overdose of the elixir.”5
It was this reference to Vaughan that excited A. E. Waite himself and moved him along a path of esoteric study.6 This path eventually led him to the Hermetic 0rder of the Golden Dawn and to the authorship of dozens of heavy tomes on virtually every occult science and discipline known at the time: from works on Kabbalah to alchemy, ceremonial magic, secret societies, the Tarot, the Holy Grail, and the like.
And it was due to Waite’s fascination with Vaughan that this writer developed his own lifelong interest, wound up in China, visited Daoist temples in Beijing and Shanghai, found himself running a sales and
marketing operation from a base in Kuala Lumpur, photographing Indian temples in Java, hunting Nazis in South America, and a host of other strange occupations … all because of Thomas Vaughan, A. E. Waite, and Kenneth Rexroth.
And especially because of alchemy.
IN MY CAREER I HAVE PUBLISHED some dozen books or more, several of which have been translated into numerous languages, and I have written many more than I have actually published. 0ver the course of the past forty years or so people have asked me to diverge from my usual position of uncommitted observer and reporter on such things as religion, politics, cults, and esoterica in order to write or speak more frankly on what it is that I believe to be true. Normally, I leave that to readers to decide for themselves; I don’t like it when someone who is supposed to be a historian or investigative journalist intrudes too much into the story being told. I like to make up my own mind about things: just give me the data, the facts as they are known, and I will take it from there. At the same time, I am very aware of the criticism levelled at historians and journalists that there is no way to extricate oneself or one’s point of view from the story being told. There is no absolute standard of truth; every history is a narrative, a story being told from a specific point of view no matter how hard we try to be objective. Indeed, my own research over the past decades has shown me that most of what we believe to be history is actually carefully crafted fiction.
In the case of such subjects as alchemy and Tantra this characteristic is even more pronounced. All works on both subjects (written by the practitioners themselves) are essentially works of fiction: they use a contrived language, replete with metaphor and allegory, disinformation and misdirection. The actual personalities and events described within these texts are surreal, impossible, and beyond ordinary human experience. Yet the texts do reveal even as they conceal. Like many spiritual texts, they refer to otherworldly events and circumstances which the literal-minded would refer to as fantasies, delusions, etc. These texts fall within a twilight zone of literature: they purport to be about real events and circumstances, but even a casual glance at them shows that this claim is difficult to defend, at least from a modern
perspective in the aftermath of the scientific revolution. If they are not real—or describe real events— then what are they about? They are obviously not meant to entertain: the language, while fantastical, often is difficult, turgid, even lugubrious. There is no perceivable story line, no narrative voice. This, taken with the insistence that what is being discussed is not what is being discussed, and you have an impossible text that defies any attempt at interpretation. Perhaps for this very reason there is a cottage industry in alchemical texts as well as in books claiming to be Tantric or to reveal Tantrism. After all, in the absence of any real information about either, one can pretty much say anything one wants by way of “revealing” the “truth” about alchemy or Tantra and who is there to contradict?
Astute readers will know that I have contributed to this literature myself, at least insofar as Tantra is concerned. But in my defense, I prefaced that work7 with a discussion of how difficult it is to authoritatively describe Tantra, when Tantra itself resists all attempts at a clinical, unimpeachable, description. For my evidence, I used the existing temples found all over the Indonesian archipelago as a way of showing—through architecture and statuary—what Tantrism meant to the people who lived there in the past and to those who still use these temples today. It was while researching that book that I came to the gradual understanding that what I was seeing before my eyes was nothing less than an alchemical literature written in stone, the Asian equivalent perhaps of Fulcanelli’s Gothic cathedrals. The obsessive focus on am ta—the Elixir Vitae of the alchemists—in the Javanese temples was one key to this discovery; the focus on the lingam and yoni (the male and female symbols, respectively) in Javanese temple architecture was another. I had also spent considerable time among the Chinese texts on Daoism, particularly a form of Daoism that has the most similarity with Western alchemy, to see if there was any kind of a continuum of knowledge bridging Chinese, Indian and European forms of alchemy, and if one could use the terms of one discipline to decode the other.
0f course, one can take these similarities too far and be accused of the sin of universalism; no one is more sensitive to this critique than I. Thus, I decided to go back and review not only Tantric literature—both primary and secondary sources—but also Western, European
The result is this book.
I have left the work of demonstrating historical connections and influences to those academics who have a head start on me in these areas, focusing instead on the actual process of alchemy and how one could conceivably translate a work of alchemy into a Tantric text, and vice versa. I hope to show that Western alchemy is nothing less than Indian Tantra and Chinese Daoism in European dress. There are other scholars who have approached this comparison gingerly and with an eye to protecting their tenures. There are still others who—more secure in their professions—have come forward with statements that are supportive of this point of view, such as Moshe Idel, Raphael Patai, and others. The influence of Asian forms of alchemy on European forms probably made its way along the Silk Route from Central Asia, and from there to Arab and Islamic scholars and practitioners, before they surfaced in the European texts. It is also possible that this was two-way traffic, and that discoveries made by European alchemists began to influence, in turn, their Asian counterparts. Eventually someone will sort all this out but in the meantime life is short and the purpose of this book is to jump-start the dialogue.
THERE IS A C0NTINUUM 0F S0RTS in my own life. My earlier focus on Javanese Tantrism led me to the discovery that the iconic form of Tantra represented by Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism—the Kālacakra Tantra—has its origins in Java. In other words, the Dalai Lama in his many initiations worldwide in the Kalachakra tradition represents a Javanese Buddhist and Javanese Tantric lineage; of which the Dalai Lama’s consecration of Borobudur in Java is but one acknowledgment. My own work on the Kalachakra Tantra (begun in 2007) proceeds apace, but in the meantime what I offer here is an approach to both Tantra and alchemy that attempts to clarify some of the central issues of both. My thesis has ramifications for the study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, as well, as it becomes increasingly difficult to study any of these disciplines in a vacuum. Kabbalah—particularly the Zohar—has many elements in common with Tantra and some Kabbalistic ideas are represented in the works of European alchemists.
What we have here is nothing less than the rudiments of the “secret tradition” that has been hinted at or claimed by various societies and guilds over the centuries. It requires only a different perspective in order to see the outlines of this tradition come into sharper focus.
I hasten to add—as I have before, in other places—that I am not the recipient of any esoteric lineage or occult initiation, so I am not breaking any vows. What I discover, I do so on my own. Therefore any mistakes I make are also my own. True, I have spent considerable time studying various spiritual and religious disciplines up close and personal (rather than solely from the comfort of a library or computer screen), and these include the Black Crown initiation from the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa when he visited New York City in 19768; learning how to pray in various mosques around the world; making offerings and meditating in Chinese Buddhist temples in New York, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Melaka, and elsewhere; attending Afro-Caribbean rituals in various places around the world; and, of course, my youthful episode among the Eastern 0rthodox churches and their “wandering” versions, through which I obtained ordination, elevation, and consecration over a period of several years. As a teenager, I belonged to the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) during the time that Dr. Karlis 0sis was its president, and was privileged to attend a presentation he gave in New York on his ingestion of LSD. I have also been on intimate terms with the Wiccan movement (since about 1973 or so) as well as various occult societies such as the 0rdo Templi 0rientis (0.T.0.) and a European iteration of the A∴A∴ based in Germany. However I was never initiated into any of these 0rders (as their leaderships will be eager to acknowledge!) regardless of some of the baseless claims made by others. My Eastern 0rthodox lineage does include a line going back to Archbishop Theodotus De Witow who was also head of the Societas Rosicruciana In America (S∴R∴I∴A∴) but that is pretty much as far as it goes.