The Secret of the Golden Flower

Imagine life as the ultimate game, where the formless explores forms and the timeless experiences time. Imagine the infinite pretending to be finite. But this is a game of forgetfulness. It’s designed to make us forget we’re playing a game; to mistake our role in the game for the only life we’ll ever have. What would it be like to wake up in that game? To realize, or remember, that we’re only sojourning through this world of temporary wonders, that we are not thought, we are what watches thought. You are not your body, your mind, your emotions, your mind, all parts of the game, you are what plays the game.

The Chinese classic 太乙金華宗旨, The Secret of the Golden Flower, is about how to wake up in the game, or as Cleary translates it “turning around the light.” The light is consciousness. Light is always leaking in the vortex that is creation. Our consciousness pours out of us chasing after objects, and objectified people, we desire or fear. We are tossed by our emotions like a rowboat in rough sea. Everything seems more real to us than ourselves, and more important to us. For many any distraction is preferable to sitting quietly in self-reflection. What does turning around the light mean? Focusing on the source of consciousness. An exercise favored by the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi who advised students to ask themselves “Who am I?” For example: am I my body. But I have these thoughts. So no, I’m not merely a body. Am I my thoughts? No, those are always changing. At the end of this exercise the meditator arrives the same experience described by The Secret of the Golden Flower: pure formless timeless consciousness.

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In The Secret of the Golden Flower the lower soul is that part of us which creates and sustains body and mind. Thinking, we are told, is the breathing of the lower soul. The Secret of the Golden Flower tells us that the lower soul is attracted to death. We certainly see all around us a world in love with death. From religious zealots beheading innocents to kids playing games that allow them to kill millions, from films that glorify the kinetic details of carnage to endless TV shows about murders real and imagined, fascination with death is the common denominator. Most of us live our lives conscious of only the lower soul. But we also have another soul, or rather, the part of our soul that is watching, having never become involved in the minutiae of physical organs and mental tricks like language.

The higher soul, we are told by The Secret of the Golden Flower, loves life. Most of us have epiphanies when our minds seem to open to sky-like consciousness and a sense of deep appreciation overcomes us. Those moments when we love life give us glimpses of our true nature. In the Rig Veda this is signified by a profound but simple symbol. “Two birds on a branch. One bird eats, the other watches.” The bird absorbed in eating is the lower soul. The bird watching is the higher. The Secret of the Golden FlowerBut they are not really separate. They are one soul, only that being so focused on incarnation the soul forgets itself.

The game of life seems so real, so dire, so insistent, the lower soul forgets about its higher powers. Paul Brunton called this higher soul “the overself.” The popular term in the American New Age movement has been “the higher self.” Other cultural representations of this mystery make more complicated divisions than simply higher and lower. Plato described the soul in three parts. Among the Neoplatonists the anatomy of the soul included more, becoming a ladder from the perfection of the unknowable source of all beauty, harmony, truth and being all the way down to the physical matter souls use to build forms.

The ancient Egyptians also divided the soul into more than three parts. Theosophy, with seven “vehicles of the soul” helped popularize the idea of the astral body at the turn of the 20th century, offering their own diagram of the different parts of a soul. First_Principles_of_Thesophy_066 Theosophical Society helpful diagram by Jinarajadasa  CARL JUNG, RICHARD WILHELM AND THE PERILS OF TRANSLATION  

The Secret of the Golden Flower is not the first spiritual classic from Asia to suffer rough translation. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was in part a concoction of Evans-Wentz who gave the impression that he had translated a singular holy book, when in fact there are many Tibetan books devoted to navigating the bardos. In 2006 Oxford University Press published The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead where Brian Cueavas revealed that Evans-Wentz wasn’t above “channeling” his own content to fill in what he thought might be missing. Oxford had published Evans-Wentz in the first place, in 1927, and with their imprimatur his translation became the standard on which many others, psychedelic, scholarly, and popular, were based.

$_57 Richard Wilhelm published his German translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower in 1923, with an introduction by Carl Jung. The English translation of Wilhelm’s work by Carl Baynes followed in 1931. Wilhelm’s translation is beautiful and greatly influenced Jung and generations of readers, however it suffers from serious inaccuracies detailed by Thomas Cleary in his more scholarly 1993 translation. Here is what Carl Jung had to say about Wilhelm: “I first met Richard Wilhelm at Count Keyserling’s during a meeting of the “School of Wisdom” in Darmstadt. That was in the early twenties. In 1923 we invited him to Zurich and he spoke on the I Ching (or Yi Jing) at the Psychology Club.


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