Alchemical Gold and the Pursuit of the Mercurial Elixir

An Analysis of Two Alchemical Treatises from the Tibetan Buddhist Canon

in Asian Medicine
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This article focuses on the analysis of two Tibetan treatises on iatrochemistry, The Treatise on the Mercurial Elixir (Dngul chu grub pa’i bstan bcos) and the Compendium on the Transmutation into Gold (Gser ’gyur bstan bcos bsdus pa). These texts belong to the rasaśāstra genre that were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan by Orgyenpa Rinchenpel (O rgyan pa Rin chen dpal, 1229/30–1309) and integrated into the Tibetan Buddhist Canon of the Tengyur (Bstan ’gyur). The treatises deal with the processing of mercury, which is indispensable to convert metals into gold (gser ’gyur) and to accomplish the ‘mercurial elixir’ (dngul chu’i bcud len). The texts start with the description of a ‘pink-coloured’ (dmar skya mdog) compound, which is described as the amalgam of ‘moonlight-exposed tin’ (gsha’ tshe zla ba phyogs), gold, and copper. According to the texts, mercury has to be ‘amalgamated’ (sbyor ba) with ‘minerals that devour its poisons’ (za byed khams) and with ‘eight metals that bind it’ (’ching khams brgyad); at the same time, mercury is cooked with ‘red substances’ (dmar sde tshan) and other herbal extracts, types of urine and salts, and reduced to ashes. Starting with an outline of the earliest Tibetan medical sources on mercury, I analyse the two treatises with regard to their entire materia alchemica and the respective purification methods aimed at ‘obtaining essences’ (snying stobs), which are then to be absorbed by mercury. I argue that the two thirteenth-century treatises were particularly significant in the process of consolidating pharmaceutical practices based on mercury and the merging of alchemical and medical knowledge in Tibet.

Alchemical Gold and the Pursuit of the Mercurial Elixir

An Analysis of Two Alchemical Treatises from the Tibetan Buddhist Canon

in Asian Medicine

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References

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4

Tōh 4313Bstan ’gyur (Sde dge) vol. 203 (mdo ’grel ngo) ff. 1r/1–7r/3.

5

Tōh 4313Bstan ’gyur (Sde dge) vol. 203 (mdo ’grel ngo) ff. 7r/3–8v/4. For Prafulla C. Ray’s translation of the gbb see Ray (ed.) 1956 pp. 466–73.

6

Tōh 4313Bstan ’gyur (Pe cin) (sna tshogs ngo) vol. 114 pp. 843–59 and Tōh 4313 Bstan ’gyur (Pe cin) (sna tshogs ngo) vol. 114 pp. 860–6. Note that the Pe cin edition only provides page numbers not folios.

18

See Samuel 2010.

19

See Fenner 1979pp. 151–79.

20

Tōh 4313Bstan ’gyur (Sde dge) vol. 203 (mdo ’grel ngo) ff. 17v/1–18r/2. This work describes how to purify mercury obtain ‘the white silver’ and prepare mercury pills for medicinal and rejuvenating purposes.

25

Li 2011p. 126.

30

White 1996p. 144.

72

Dash 1986p. 74.

74

Gawa Dorjé 1995p. 74.

104

According to Gawa Dorjé 1995p. 254 this plant is Thlaspi arvense L. It could also refer to camel’s milk which is often used in these operations. See Dash 1986 p. 180.

110

According to Das 1998p. 421 this is Crataeva roxburghii. This could be a synonym of vāruṇa which is identified as Crataeva nurvala Buch.-Ham by Dash 1994b p. 201.

111

According to Dash 1994bp. 256 this is Vitex negundo.

113

See Monier-Williams 1960p. 801 and also p. 1051 where we find śatru as Asparagus racemosus L. In my opinion shatri could be Asparagus racemosus L. which according to Dash 1986 p. 56 who mentions śatāvaharī is used to prepare a kind of vinegar for processing mercury.

115

According to Gawa Dorjé 1995p. 216 this is Datura stramonium L.

116

According to Gawa Dorjé 1995p. 149 this is the Capsicum frutescens L.

122

Gawa Dorjé 1995p. 245 identifies it as Aconitum kongboense Lauener.

123

Rock salt. See Dash 1986p. 154.

126

Ibid. p. 156.

127

Ibid. p. 92. Pasang Yonten 1998 p. 203.

129

Ibid. p. 94.

137

According to Dash 1994bp. 556 this could be the ‘grasshopper’ (bye ma or bye’u). Sékhar Künga Tséring 1997 p. 177 identifies it as gurgum.

146

See White 1996pp. 209–13.

151

Wallace 2009pp. 277–300.

156

White 1996 and Samuel 2010.

Figures

  • View in gallery
    The Treatise on the Mercurial Elixir, from the Shantarakshita Library at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India. This manuscript is about 300 years old and belongs to a collection that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama brought to India when fleeing Tibet. (Photo: Barbara Gerke)
  • View in gallery
    The pentagonal system of the five elements and their corresponding metals
  • View in gallery
    The lists of mahārasa and uparasa and their identifications, according to three sources83
  • View in gallery

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