"Alchemy" is one of the most commonly used metaphors for spiritual transformation. The turning of dross into something valuable and useful is something which has forever obsessed the human imagination. Unfortunately, people often become attached to the surface meaning of religious metaphors and thereby miss their true meaning.
This doesn't just lead to misunderstanding and wasted time; it can be downright dangerous. One may waste time looking for the Holy Grail, or trying to go to the Western Paradise. One may spend years attempting to turn lead into gold. Or, like the first Chinese emperor, Chin Shih Huang Ti, they may seriously damage their health and shorten their lives imbibing elixirs to make themselves immortal. Chin's attempts at immortality led to insanity. The immortality he was searching for never appeared.
However, beneath the surface, the religious metaphor always points to something much more valuable than these acquired things; and it's accessible to everyone... right here, right now! "If they were a snake, they would bite you," as my mother used to say during my morning pre-school search for the holy grail of socks.
True alchemy means the return to the true self. The common Buddhist metaphor of the emergence of a pure white lotus from the fetid swamp refers to the wisdom of this awakening. Actually, the swamp and the lotus are one. When we find that our true lotus appears automatically, we don't have to do anything.
What is the secret elixir which will produce this result? The recipe is very simple.
First, keep a mind which is before thinking. If you do that just now, we call that try mind.
Next, make your direction clear. Our direction is to help our suffering world. As Zen Master Seung Sahn says, if your direction is clear your whole live is clear; if it isn't, your whole life is not clear.
If we keep this mind, the emotions of desire and anger are changed into great love and great compassion. Our ignorance becomes wisdom. If we take this elixir moment to moment, that is true alchemy. True alchemy means no alchemy; actually the result has already appeared. Why practice alchemy?
A monk asked Ching Ch'ing, "I'm pecking out; master, please peck in." Master Ching said, "Are you alive or not?" The monk said, "If I were not alive, people would jeer at me." Ching said, "You, too, are a man in the weeds." If you were the monk and Ching Ch'ing said, "Are you alive or not?", what could you do?