Mind purifies itself to reveal what is already the case. Therefore alchemy is not a process of turning lead into gold; it is the realization that lead was the gold all along.
– David Chaim Smith
True esoteric wisdom is by definition hard to come by. In our age of superabundant information this has not changed. Even though there seems to be greater accessibility, there is also a thicker wall of chaff that must be dealt with to get the actual wheat. Luckily sometimes one can break through new age mishmash and spiritual materialism facade and find a rare jewel. The work of David Chaim Smith, an artist and a practitioner fully in-merged in the contemplative path, is one of those rare opportunities to connect with a strand of living mystical wisdom. This becomes more clear with each of his books, which are crafted in a unique blend of poetic “twilight language” and beautiful occult artwork that acts as a kind of resonant vessel to further intuitive understanding.
His latest opus Deep Principles of Kabbalistic Alchemy is without a doubt his most detailed and lucid exposition of what can be called a system of contemplative alchemy, structured in kabbalistic symbolism and imagery. “In its deepest sense, contemplation is a form of alchemy that transmutes and consumes dualistic divisions”, he writes. His contemplative discipline, based on “realization not revelation”, is wholly oriented to the recognition of what he calls the “ground”, the basis of all phenomena which is non-dual with En Sof (literally “No End”, the Infinite). As such, the transcendent and the immanent, the absolute and the relative, meet in an ever-present juncture where the alchemy of contemplation is a sparkling possibility. This juncture is the actual spot of perception, where “the sense meets the sense field, and mind face its thoughts.”
Smith leads us through a complex system of contemplative wisdom that aims to realize “the essential nature of all phenomena”, a realization that in itself is an alchemical distillation and at the same time a bathing in the uncontainable light of En Sof. Although this is the greatest of tasks, and entails careful study and commitment, what makes Deep Principles of Kabbalistic Alchemy stand out from his earlier works is the simple and clear-cut way in with which the view is laid out, a true summation of years of practice.“The beginning of the alchemy of contemplation is a shift on the view: a view that returns always to the ground.” The central tenet of the view which he calls “non-emanationism” is that the tzimtzum, which is a sort of kabbalistic foundation story, never happened, it is just a keystone symbol, a root paradox, through which all relative phenomena of manifestation can be read and brought back to their ground. The tzimtzum is generally known as the contraction or withdrawal of the divine light from a center point into the periphery. As the light pulls back from a point, a space is vacated where worlds can manifest. From this “proto-history” of the world is derived the kabbalistic struggle of the tikkun, the necessity to act-out a redemption of the world; from this event it is also believed that the array of the five worlds of the kabbalistic system differ in the presence or absence of the divine light of En Sof, each being in gradual diminishment, as emanation would have. And it is also because of this belief that the sefirot—that forms as the geometric configuration of the vacating of the light— is deemed as a causal, hierarchical structure that must be traversed as one would climb a ladder or a tree following coordinates in space. But changing the view of the tzimtzum changes all of this. “The contraction and vacancy mark the ultimate paradox. How can the infinite be voided or divided? These actions only apply to finite material substances, so how can they be applied to En Sof? These material conclusions cannot be applied to the contraction, but yet displacement appears, and therein lies the paradox. Once this paradox is understood in cosmic terms it can be applied to every detail of manifestation”. Through this paradox one might be able to understand the equalization of the supposedly radically opposed sefira keter and malkut, or the nullity of speaking in absolute terms of ascending and descending motions.
The non-emanationist view spoused by Smith holds that the light (aur) of En Sof is wholly present, without diminishment, everywhere in space “infinity reflects itself in each detail of its appearing.” En Sof is always thrusting itself in luminosity as an open expanse where forever dawns the possibility of recognition, as appearances and awareness are equalized. Smith calls this “the lightning flash of the alef.” Alef is the quintessential symbol of wholeness, what is constantly thrusted or “spoken into manifestation” by the “voice of silence”, a creative dynamism symbolized by the letter yud. Alef and yud are “two sides of the same coin”, which Smith further calls a “secret mercury”, a universal solvent, “both whole and dynamic”. The secret mercury enables the recognition of the ground through its porous, unfixed and energetic nature capable of conveying poetic resonances that break through conceptual constructs.
The reader of occult texts will be specially amazed by how Smith derives the whole set of correspondences between the macrocosmos and the microcosmos that characterize hermetic philosophy from the primordial gesture of the tzimtzum (a sort of ghostly and ubiquitous solve et coagula), rendering them all relative and subservient. Because it is unfathomable and ungraspable, in the tzimtzum, the point of absolute non-dual light becomes symbolically a vertical line (kav yosher), a “contrast… for the mind to establish its bearings”. This is “the root of all dimensionality for all relative points of view and the relationships between them” and of all temporality and motion (which is always a relationship between points). The primordial gesture is what appears as forms and evermore complex relationships projected through the glass of mind, that can always recognize the non-dual nature of the ground or further reify it through fixating in the different associative links. Smith tells us that the kav yosher of the tzimtzum corresponds to the central channel of the subtle body and to the central pillar of the Tree of Life (the link between keter and malkut), and with the drops of the sun and moon in the alchemical vessel. Through this cosmic and embryonic gesture one understands that “embodiment and enworldment have a common basis.” A gesture that, as must remembered in order not to reify the relative connecting points, actually never happened, but magically still appears.
The most radical aspect of this view, and what sets it apart from other Western mystical systems such as Monism, is that it is careful not to posit an ultimate independent entity that comprehends and gives meaning to all others, such as God, the One or the Universal Mind (or even En Sof if it’s reified as “something”). All concepts must burn in the sacrificial fire. According to Smith the non-emanationist view holds that the ground and all of its phenomena are source-less and substance-less, ungraspable and reference-less, timeless, unborn and without a cause. At each juncture, perception can reify or recognize the essential nature of phenomena, which are nothing but the mercurial motion of the ground. Reification crystallizes and amasses as the individual and collective habit fields of perception that substantiate the dynamism of En Sof and unfold as outer and inner, subject and object constructs. This scenario is the one found in the Aristotelean concept of hylic matter and is the basis of the contemporary materialistic view of reality where only concrete things, that can be separated and measured, are considered real and relevant. On the other hand, recognizing the magical, uncontainable display of the light without fixation situates us in the free space of what kabbalistic texts refer to as avira, the luminous ethereal nature of the ground.
Upon establishing the the view, Smith unfolds a thorough system of symbols that the reader can encounter as an immersive field of resonances —the inhabitants of a “gnosemic” cosmos— where conceptual fixations can be dissolved by what he calls the “fire of non-dimensionality” and ordinary consciousness can be transmuted into the “secret mercury” of non-dual, identity-less awareness. He even provides “magical weapons” for the use of the reader that wants to practice: a “flaming sword” to cut through obscurations —kabbalistically intwined with the serpent of Paradise—, which becomes, through alchemical contemplation, a cognizing arrow, “its flight becomes so completely subsumed by expanse that object-less-ness and subject-less-ness open together, as a bright unknowing that renders conventional modes of knowing dull by comparison. Who is there to know? What is there to be known?” This weapons obviously are just symbolical tools to break though the shells (or klipot) of the reifying mind and move into a paradoxical ground, that which the Zohar calls “a lamp of darkness” and Christian Neoplatonic Pseudo-Dionysus referred to as “a brilliant darkness”. A famous passage of The Mystical Theology states: “Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” In this sense the magical weapons are tools of unknowing, of deconstructing the deeply ingrained habit patterns of dualistic perception. Smith’s contemplative mysticism is also in a way a via negativa, where conventional knowing and perception must be dismantled, and with them the apparent solidity of worlds and souls.
The type of alchemy with which Smith suffuses and cross-pollinates kabbalistic symbols, upon which the contemplation is centred, is an alchemy whose primary matter is phenomena itself. Phenomena are “milked” or “suckled” in what he calls a “distillation”, a “pulling gesture” that resonantes with the coagulating aspect of the alchemical axiom solve et coagula and with the root paradox of the tzimtum. The other aspect is a an alchemical “bath” that consists in the actual surrender into gnosis, “a total annihilation and rebirth of all structures”, an equalization with the ground. Although discursive language forces us to consider the distillation and the bath as two separate things, Smith tells us that they are not independent, but a “single uninterrupted magical continuum”. Reifying this aspects of the primordial gesture is what makes us assume that things actually are coming and going or that “birth and death” even occur.
In the second part of the book, Smith introduces us to the “nine chambers”, roughly speaking a way to delve into the nature of keter (something that is forbidden in some kabbalistic texts). The nine chambers are originally found in the Zohar 1:65 and in chapter 24 of Rebbe Nachman’s Likutey Moharan. Smith tells us they are “how phenomena is raised to its crown” in an “ultimate mystical bath” that assumes the form of nine chambers or courtyards. “The purpose of the nine chambers is to bring the body of all phenomena to its final tikkun, as a sacrificial offering to its own intrinsic essentiality. Essentiality is found nowhere but in the immediacy of the assertion of phenomena itself. Therefore phenomena is brought back to itself through the chambers. In this sense, the lower nine sefirot are not brought to keter as an escape from their manifest functions. On the contrary, keter crowns those functions in glory, which is their destiny.”
In the last chapter Smith provides a set of keys or “gnostic attributes” to unlock this most esoteric of mysteries. He presents a device fashioned in nine chambers that echoes the magic square of Saturn, a mnemonic device with which many occultists will be familiar. The reader will also appreciate a ver helpful glossary of key terms at the back of the book and of course the dozens of magical and kabbalistic diagrams accompanying the alchemical processes the work describes, which are quite unique and have no actual paragon in contemporary esotericism. Such an aesthetic quality in service of spiritual function is to be found perhaps only in the old alchemical plates used to illustrate the books of some of the most accomplished alchemists of the 17th and 18th centuries. This is the sense one gets in general with David Chaim Smith’s work, that one might be witnessing the rare apparition of true mystical wisdom in times where materialism and new age spirituality threaten the continuity of genuine lineages of gnostic realization.
Deep Principles of Kabbalistic Alchemy will be published in the spring of 2017; look for it on Amazon. All images shown in this review are reproduced from the book, courtesy of David Chaim Smith (www.davidchaimsmith.com).
Alejandro Martínez Gallardo is cofounder of the website Pijamasurf, a widely read news outlet and one of the leading referents in the discussion of consciousness and spirituality in Latin America. In 2015 he created Cadena Áurea, a project to spread the philosophy and practice of Eastern and Western mystical traditions. He runs the website cadenaaurea.com and occasionally hosts, with professor Ernesto Priani, a podcast of the same name, mainly focussing on Neoplatonism, alchemy, magic and Hermeticism.
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- David Chaim Smith’s “Deep Principles of Kabbalistic Alchemy” - Mar 15, 2017