I’d like to respond to this very important question by sharing some ancient symbols with fascinating associations from East and West.
I first came across the idea of alchemy as a teenager. I think we were studying a Shakespeare play where there was a reference to medieval chemists trying to turn base metals into gold. At the time I thought of the whole thing as a futile pursuit of little relevance to me.
Coming to Buddhism in my thirties, one of the symbols that really engaged me was that of the lotus. You’ll find lotuses everywhere in Tibetan Buddhist buildings and artwork, with most Buddhas shown seated on a lotus.
Lotuses grow in swamps, often very dank and smelly places. The exquisitely beautiful blossoms which float on the surface are powerfully at odds with where they have come from – and this is the key point of the lotus image. If we think of dissatisfaction and suffering as being represented by mud, the lotus is a symbol of transcendence.
No matter what background we have come from, or what we have endured, we can realistically aspire to rise above it. In fact, it’s because we experience difficulties and hardship in our lives that we are motivated to seek something better. Turning away from the causes of our suffering, represented by the lotus, is the first step we take on the path to enlightenment.
It was only years later that I made the discovery that the old alchemical idea of turning base metal into gold could also be seen as a metaphor. One that, intriguingly, is much the same as that of the lotus.
There are, in fact, many correlations between the symbols, parables and ideas shared in both the East and West. The origins of words themselves can sometimes be revealing. For example, Khemia, from which the word ‘alchemy’ is derived, is the name for ancient Egypt, meaning ‘land of black earth.’ Khemia was renowned as the highly fertile base where plants grew in great profusion. What was being referred to, specifically, was the land of the Nile delta.
Which brings us back to muddy swamps, and the idea that difficulty, hardship and suffering is the most fertile ground of all from which to seek a better way. A higher path.
Most of us are averse to the slightest dissatisfaction or inconvenience. We make great efforts to step clear of pain. But what if suffering is unavoidable? At some point in our life, health, wealth and happiness may all come under threat, and there’s not anything we can do about it. It is understandable that we may succumb to bitterness, anger or despair.
What alchemy, or the lotus show us, is that even in suffering we have options. We may also try to find a way to use our experience to propel us out of the darkness and towards the light. To find at least one thing that helps us give purpose to what we’re enduring, to make something positive from it.
This is a theme I explore much further in my book, The Queen’s Corgi: On Purpose.
‘I never thought alchemy had anything to do with me. Or corgis,’ the Queen replied. ‘It seems I was mistaken.’
Michael nodded. ‘It’s another universal archetype. The idea actually comes from an ancient Egyptian word for the black earth of the Nile. It was only from such darkness that life, in all its richness, could spring forth. In the East there is a similar concept – no mud, no lotus. Only through suffering is transcendence possible.’
‘So we should all strive to be alchemists?’ confirmed the Queen.
‘Indeed.’ Outside, great banks of grey clouds suddenly lifted, and for the first time that morning, a shaft of sunlight broke through. ‘We can give purpose to our dissatisfaction when we find a way to use it, when it gives rise to a flowering of exquisite beauty.’
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