Buddhist Alchemists

The two most famous Buddhist alchemists of ancient India were the Mahasiddhas Nagarjuna and his student, Kharnaripa, who is also known as Aryadeva. From India, the mahasiddha tradition continued on into Tibet from the 8th Century A.C.E. onward, communicated through the rich lives of many saints too numerous to name here. A few of the more famous Buddhist alchemists known in Tibet were the Indian master Guru Padmasambhava and his lineage of saints called the tertons, or "treasure revealers." Of special mention are the tertons Thangtong Gyalpo and Nyala Pema Dudul. Many of the stories below are hard to believe, but tread carefully through these lines: there is an inverse relationship between cynicism and a sense of wonder...

Nagarjuna's enlightenment experience is described in his brief biography, which is found in the Songs of the Eighty-Four Mahasiddhas. The account below is the oral tradition version of Nagarjuna's song, transmitted to Keith Dowman by Bhakha Rinpoche:

For many years Nagarjuna had been a famous scholar of the first Buddhist university, Nalanda, where he was the penultimate philosophy professor. But hungry for true wisdom instead of book learning, Nagarjuna began propitiating Tara, yearning for the attainment that would give him the power to actually benefit other beings.

The place he sought attainment was Rajgiri, near Vulture's Peak, a location blessed by Gautama Buddha. There he committed himself to a retreat intent upon connecting with the Twelve Consorts of the Supreme Elementals.


And so they came to challenge him. On the first day, there was an earthquake, which was the trial of the earth element goddess. The second day, a vast flood poured over his retreat spot; the trial of the water element. On the third day, a holocaust of fire burned through the place, the trial by fire. On the fourth day, violent tornadoes and whirlwinds blew, threatening him with a trial by wind. On the fifth day, a shower of weapons fell from the sky, threatening to pierce him. This was the trial of the space element, for weapons like spears knives and arrows kill by creating space in vital organs. On the sixth day, vajra thunderbolts fell on the spot where he sat in retreat, the unity of all the elemental energies together, but he remained unperturbed. On the seventh day, the Elemental Consorts gathered to attack him in person, but they failed to distract him from the great compassionate committment that he had set his heart on.

Defeated, they appeared before him saying, "What do you need? We will provide you with whatever you want." He asked them for enough food to sustain him during his retreat and spent twelve years at that spot, opening his heart to wisdom. During that time the Elemental Consorts provided him with four handfuls of rice and five handfuls of vegetables each day.

At the end of twelve years, he had one hundred and eight Elemental Consorts under his command, and he had the power to turn mountains into gold, although he was restrained from performing this miracle because of the strife it would have caused the locale.

Dowman writes that Nagarjuna's alchemical sadhana or meditation practice is called "The Alchemy of Mercury" (Sanskrit: Parada-rasayana). Nagarjuna was one of India's preeminent rasayana-siddhas, (rasa meaning "gold" and siddha meaning "master of miracles") the accomplishment of which can be described as the ability to apply the alchemical process at every level of his being. Nagarjuna's enlightenment reads as a symbolic tale that speaks of his reintegration of the five fundamental elemental energies. The only way these elements could have harmed him was if he was cut off from or in disharmony with the elemental powers that he encountered: for fire cannot burn fire, nor does water drown water, and so on. As he harmonized and integrated the pure elemental energies within his mindstream, the outer appearances of these elements could find nothing to smash, drown, burn, blow apart or explode. And as a result of this alchemical awakening he was able to manifest the outer sign of his realization, the capacity to transform earth and stone into gold.

Nagarjuna's work was well known in India before the Muslim invasion, which erased most traces of Tantric Buddhism that had not been transmitted via the Silk Road and by other means to practitioners in Nepal, Tibet and elsewhere. Al-buruni, a Muslim traveler and journalist of the eleventh century writes: "A famous representative of the science (of rasayana) was Nagarjuna, born at Fort Daihak, close to Somnath (in Sindh). He used to excel at the art and compiled a book which contains the essence of all literature on that subject and is very rare. He lived a hundred years before our epoch." (See Dowman's Masters of Mahamudra, p. 120)

Kharnaripa also spent many years at the monastic college Nalanda, where he became a preceptor to over a thousand monks and taught numerous scholars. But like Nagarjuna, he felt a great yearning for true wisdom beyond the intellect, so he left Nalanda in search of Nagarjuna. He met a fisherman along the way who was actually a great spiritual being, the Bodhisattva Manjusri in disguise, and asked him where Nagarjuna could be found. The fisherman told him that Nagarjuna lived nearby in the jungle, where he spent his time gathering the required ingredients for his elixir of immortality. Kharnaripa found him there, and asked to be taken as a disciple. After receiving much instruction, a tree nymph appeared to him and gave him delicacies, which he brought to Nagarjuna. But when Nagarjuna went to see the nymph for himself, he was only able to see her head and shoulder. When he asked why he was not able to see her whole form as Kharnaripa had, she told him that he still had some traces of lust, whereas his student had none.


At this point, Nagarjuna and Kharnaripa agreed it was time to take the alchemical medicine, and Nagarjuna drank some, passing it to his student. Kharnaripa threw the bowl of medicine on the ground, where a leaf miraculously sprouted before their eyes. "If you waste this precious medicine, you must prepare some more by yourself!" Nagarjuna told him. Kharnaripa then urinated into the bowl and handed it to Nagarjuna, causing Nagarjuna to burst out laughing. Nagarjuna threw this liquid onto a branch which immediately bloomed like before. At that moment, Nagarjuna turned to his student and said, "Now that you have bloomed, do not remain in the realms of suffering."

Kharnaripa's story of enlightenment is unique in the Eighty-Four Songs in that it involves the preparation and use of alchemical elixir. But Kharnaripa manifests wholeness beyond the need for any catalyst, which is the true accomplishment of alchemy; Kharnaripa does not drink the elixir, but throws it on the ground because he has finally recognized himself as whole and complete. The tale clarifies the fact that sacred ritual empowerment substances are merely reminders that stir our dormant or unrecognized innate completeness and awakeness, and not "holy things" that make us "clean" or "complete." Completeness is what we discover within, it is not something we manufacture or something given to us by holy beings.

At that point, Nagarjuna tests Kharnaripa one more time, scolding him about wasting the sacred substance. Although we can say completeness need only be discovered within, we also must acknowledge that this is something that cannot be faked; we cannot convince ourselves that we embody any degree of wisdom that only remains a concept, a set of adages that is not completely assimilated into our being. So along the way we must make use of catalysts such as practices and tools that our teacher shares with us. These instructions, items, and rituals that are shared must be treated with utmost respect or we can lose contact with our innate wakefulness along the way.

But Kharnaripa rises to the occasion and proves to Nagarjuna that he has completely assimilated the teachings and made them his own: he urinates into the bowl. Obviously, the color of the liquid is gold, and this is a good joke. But on another level, there is profound symbolism here: Kharnaripa is demonstrating the fact that he has gone beyond the concept of "waste" or "impurity." What was previously considered "impure" has now become an elixir that causes a barren branch to bloom miraculously. And this elixir is not just a copy of Nagarjuna's recipe, but a sign of the power of lineage: Nagarjuna's alchemical recipe has been drunk by Kharnaripa and becomes him, and he becomes the elixir, which is not rendered into waste, but emerges as a unique liquid that is potent and miraculously untainted.

Guru Rinpoche

Guru Padmasambhava
Guru Padmasambhava had twenty-five heart disciples, women and men who attained complete realization through his inspiration and their walk on the path of wisdom and compassion. While together, this great Guru and his disciples completely merged their mindstreams, and all abided in the absolute wisdom state beyond any concept of separation or unity. Out of this sublime state of supreme understanding, they made aspirations to benefit beings throughout history, far into the future. This was the auspicious connection and wish that was the birth of one of the most unstoppable forces of creative power, the treasure or, in Tibetan, "terma" tradition of Buddhism that has flooded out of Tibet and into the rest of the world. These treasures appear based on the wisdom of saints who reemerge throughout human history to benefit beings of different proclivities and locales. As their wisdom dawns again during their upbringing, they reveal profound teachings appropriate to the circumstances of their culture and the needs of the era. As this wisdom stirs within the terton's unique personality and language, this tradition has the potential to maintain a freshness that is resistant to dogmatism and stagnation. These treasure teachings and the tertons who reveal them have appeared since the eleventh century up to the present day.

Through his powerful intention, Guru Rinpoche hid these treasures within each of the five elements. As it is said in the revelatory biography, the Padma Kai'Thang (which is itself a terma): "If one discerns clearly, there are eighteen kinds of treasures...the eighteenth is the admirable treasure, the coffers of which are as many as the treasures, earth, water, fire, wind, sky, mountains and rocks, [this kind of treasure has] admirable guardians, admirable revealers, admirable time and admirable conversion." (Vol. I p. 333) And as the Third Dodrupchen Rinpoche wrote in his authoritative treatise on the Terma Tradition, Wonder Ocean, these treasures remain uncorrupted throughout time until their revelation, as they cannot be destroyed by fire, wind, water or earth. (p. 69)

Thangtong Gyalpo

Thangtong Gyalpo
Thangtong Gyalpo was a true Tibetan "renaissance man:" he was an accomplished artist, intrepid explorer and statesman, an engineer, doctor, mystic, miracle worker and even a blacksmith. Above and beyond these diverse proclivities, as a composer and playwright he is celebrated as the founder of the Tibetan Opera tradition. His miraculous activities as an alchemist were a result of his accomplishment on the visionary path of the terma tradition: he had the ability to work ably with whatever circumstances presented themselves to him. After being poisoned by a jealous lama, he remained in meditation for a week and discovered the cure through the process of revelation. The formula he discovered is called "Drubthob Rika" in Tibetan, the "White Yogi pill," and is still used successfully to counteract poison.

He had a vision of local elemental spirits who gave him a gift of blueprints for suspension bridges that had never been seen before in Tibet at that point in the Thirteenth Century. As he began to construct the chain links for these massive bridges, his alchemical wisdom was put to practice, resulting in an iron alloy that has not rusted to this day. His smelting methods still remain a mystery.

As a visionary alchemist, he tangibly manifested the wisdom of the "elixir of immortality" by living to the ripe old age of 125. He was famous for his accomplishment and transmission of the long-life ceremony, which is displayed in the iconography of this statue. This statue was possibly made by his own hand, and shows him holding the vase full of the elixir of immortality and a pill of longevity in his other hand.

Nyala Pema Dudul
Drubje Pema Dudul
Drubje Pema Dudul was a master from Nyarong, Southeastern Tibet who lived a modest life as a terton, but died in a spectacular manner shared by many in the Dzogchen tradition: he manifested what is called "Jalu," the "Rainbow Body" at the time of his death. The Rainbow Body is a sign of the perfection of the alchemical process during the after death state in the Dzogchen tradition. At the time of Pema Dudul's death, this miraculous occurrence was not unprecedented in Tibet; in fact, incredibly, there were records and accounts that reached above a thousand instances of this miracle.

In his extensive treatise The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, Dudjom Rinpoche writes, "It is impossible too, to enumerate all those who passed into the rainbow body by the paths of the profound treasures of the Great Perfection, as exemplified by the Southern [Termas of Pema Lingpa] and the Northern [Termas of Rigdzin Godemchen]. Even during this late age, this may still be illustrated." (p. 919)

In his spiritual classic, the bestselling book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche writes: "This may be very difficult for us now to believe, but the factual history of Dzogchen lineage is full of examples of individuals who attained rainbow light body, and as Dudjom Rinpoche often used to point out, this is not just ancient history. Of the many examples, I would like to choose one of the most recent, and one of with which I have a personal connection. In 1952 there was a famous instance of the rainbow body in the East of Tibet, witnessed by many people. The man who attained it, Sonam Namgyal, was the father of my tutor and the beginning of this book.

He was a very simple, humble person, who made his way as an itinerant stone carver, carving mantras and sacred texts. Some say he had been a hunter in his youth, and had received a teaching from a great master. No one really knew he was a practitioner; he was truly what you would call a "hidden yogin."

....he then fell ill, or seemed to, but became strangely, increasingly happy. When he illness got worse, his family called in masters and doctors. His son told him he should rememberthe teachings he had been given. But his response to his son was, "Everything is illusion, but I am confident that all is well."

Just before his death at seventy-nine, he said " All I ask is that when I die, don't move my body for a week." When he died his family wrapped his body and invited Lamas and monks to come and practice for him. They placed the body in a small room in the house, and they could not help noticing that although he had been a tall person, they had no trouble getting it in, as if he were becoming smaller. At the same time, an extraodinary display of rainbow-coloured light was seen all around the house. When they looked into the room on the sixth day, they saw that the body was getting smaller and smaller. On the eight day after his death, the morning in which the funeral had been arranged, the undertakers arrived to collect the body. When they undid its coverings, they found nothing inside but his nails and hair. My masters Jamyang Khyentse asked for these be brought to him, and verified that this was a case of the rainbow body."

This phenomena is presently being studied by Father Francis Tiso, a Roman Catholic priest and Tibetan scholar. Interestingly, the most recently known phenomenon of this occurrence took place in Nyarong in 1998, in the area where Nyala Pema Dudul lived at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It is believed that this most recent Rainbow Body Master, Khenpo Achos, although a Gelugpa monk, was a lineage holder of Drubje Pema Dudul's Dzogchen teachings.

The Dzogchen teachings are considered the pinnacle of Buddhist meditation practices, and often the practices are centered around working directly with the nature of the five elements. The five element practices that Nyala Pema Dudul revealed as terma was called "Sky-Encompassing Self-Liberation" (Kha'-Khyab Rang-Drol in Tibetan), and within that series of teachings there is a practice of alchemy called "Chulen of the Three Dimensions." The picture below is of the cave where he revealed this terma.

Sky Terma Cave
Chulen literally means "taking the substance." There are many types of chulen that have various applications. Tsi dang contains eight ingredients which work together to strengthen and coordinate the function of the major organs. Its main effect is physical health and youthfulness. Another type of chulen is called rotsa, which is used specifically to strengthen and balance energy; so there are many different kinds of chulen traditions and medicines.

In the contemplation tradition of chulen, the pills are used in conjunction with meditations and yoga in order to recognize awareness as the pure nature of the elements. The practice is a gradual process where the practitioner weans himself from eating solid food, and attainment of the practice is the development of the ability to subsist on the pure essence of the elements themselves. At that point, the practitioner no longer has to eat anything.

The teaching instructs the practitioner on the preparation of medicinal pills, and the method of visualization, breathing and yogic techniques to reintegrate the practitioner's inner and outer experience of the elements back into its natural state. As Namkhai Norbu writes, "Chu is the essential substance of the elements: it maintains the physical body and, if our energy is uncoordinated, it co-ordinates it, if it is weak, it reinforces it. Therefore, chudlen is useful, above all, to harmonize energy and develop clarity...The Body of Light (Jalu) can manifest when the principles of Dzogchen are combined with Chulen." The terma text itself mentions that when the great saint Yeshe Tsogyal asked Guru Padmasambhava for these teachings, he replied, "Listen. There are many methods to achieve total realization, but in particular, there is the Chulen of the Three Dimensions, which embodies infinite qualifications." In Drubje Pema Dudul's biography, it is said that he practiced Chulen with a little solid food for the first three years, Chulen of medicinal pills for the next three years, and Chulen of absorbing the essence of the elements directly from space for the final three years of his retreat. At the conclusion of his nine year retreat he had attained full enlightenment as his teacher the Mahasiddha Choying Rangdrol had predicted.

Jalu Temple of Pema Dudul

When Drubje Pema Dudul knew his time was near, he called all of his students back to the area where he lived, and after giving them each his heart advice and practicing the Feast Offering with them, he had them follow him up a mountain, where he set up a small tent and asked them to sew the door shut. With the instructions that they should practice the Feast Offering together for a week before checking on him, they witnessed numerous rainbows appear over the mountain and the surrounding area. When they returned to the spot where his tent stood, they found it still sewn shut; opening it, they found his body had disappeared. His meditation belt and cloak were in a heap, within which they found all of his hair and twenty nails from his hands and feet. This picture is of the shrine built over the spot where he manifested the Rainbow Body.

Drubje Pema Dudul's lineage continues through many masters, including Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Wangdor Rinpoche, as well as Tulku Serdo Rinpoche, Khandro Sherab Lhamo, and Lama Pema Karma.


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