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Alchemical Gold and the Pursuit of the Mercurial Elixir

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An Analysis of Two Alchemical Treatises from the Tibetan Buddhist Canon

image of Asian Medicine

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.

Affiliations: 1: University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’


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