Review: David Chaim Smith’s work on Kabbalah and AlchemySeptember 19, 2017
David Chaim Smith’s 2017 book Deep Principles of Kabbalistic Alchemy is unique in the literature of western esotericism. In my opinion, until this point, no text had directly addressed the root basis of all phenomenal appearance in such a way that the reader is introduced to the concept and how it functions in technically accurate detail. This root basis is termed “the ground,” or ground of all phenomena, in Smith’s work. To express it in its most simple dynamics, contemplative mysticism is a view that endeavors to realize that the ground is all there is and that our perception is the display function of that; perceiver and all that is perceived are the same. Of course, this is only the starting point of contemplative mysticism, but this alone is a radical departure from the constantly marketed view of materialist reductionist reality.
In its deepest sense, contemplation is a form of alchemy that transmutes and consumes dualistic divisions. Through the disciplined practice of contemplation the sense of the mind’s autonomy and the structure of its understanding can drown in the ground, or root basis of all things, which is the primordial essence. This is predicated upon the recognition and isolation of the ground, which is known as its distillation. The ground is the alchemical quintessence that dissolves the boundary between internal awareness and external appearances, while it continues to paradoxically pour itself out as the seemingly diverse spectrum of phenomena. When recognized within its outpouring the quintessential ground becomes a total bath beyond the grasp of identification and identity, beyond any point of reference. It is within the dynamism of this reference-less-ness that gnosis is realized. (Deep Principles of Kabbalistic Alchemy, 2-3)
Being the editor of Smith’s book, and because David spends the majority of his time in retreat, there was an exceptional opportunity to present some of his work in a public forum at an event dubbed “Alchemy & Transformation 2017” which took place at Ezekiel Bates Lodge A.F. & A.M. in Attleboro, Massachusetts on the afternoon of Saturday, 29 July. In order to prepare for the presentation, David and I met twice to discuss the form and content of the presentation. He impressed upon me the importance of conveying his work in the most precise and clear way possible in order to make it accessible. Because of the great value I place on David’s work, its origins, and the respect I have for him, it was of paramount importance to me to deliver a meaningful presentation and convey the same love I have for this material to everyone attending. David guided me, as he has for years, to better understand and articulate the work he creates.
To approach this form of mysticism, one may question its value as a spiritual path. What is the reason for embracing the simplicity and openness of contemplation as a practice? Ideally, the mystic views consensus reality as superficial and lacking in ultimate meaning. Contemplation is not just thinking about things, or philosophizing. Rather, it is an investigation into the very meaning of meaning itself. By giving greater priority to the quest for ultimate meaning, the experience of the contemplator can be radically shifted and life may divulge the secrets of wisdom-bliss. This is the motivation for mysticism and can be seen as integral to many esoteric traditions.
David’s work uses the existing Kabbalistic symbol set and terminology, but radically alters the view. Instead of the emanationist cosmological system with which most western esotericists are familiar, Smith posits a non-emanationist model whereby En Sof, in all its fullness and potential, is present in every scintilla of phenomenal appearance. It is only a lack of clear perception that prevents appreciation of the display of the infinite, instead we habitually “fall” into experience as mundane reality. Rather than an acquisition of knowledge or experiences (which is the concern of typical beings, as well as many esoteric traditions), contemplation is concerned with wisdom and meaning; therefore it is more akin to an un-knowing of no-thingness.
In order to bridge the divide between typical conceptual reality and gnosis, David has adapted the symbolism of Kabbalah and alchemy – two traditions that, at their root, are also concerned with realization about the nature of mind and appearance. The alchemical symbolism is crucial to appreciating the dynamics involved in the contemplative process. Alchemically represented as distillation and bath phases, these two aspects of contemplative practice can best be described as concentration and release. In a practical sense, the mystic focuses attention on a specific concept or form, drawing vital impressions, then releases attention so that concept and form dissolve and the practitioner is able to bathe in the feeling tone resonances left behind. This dynamic of focus and letting go repeatedly is a process that can be applied to perception itself so that the mystic’s practice encompasses everything at all times, consuming and transforming the very nature of reality so that the perceiver and what is perceived are no longer separate in any way.
The fuel that feeds the alchemical fire of this contemplative process is desire itself. Typical human desire is concerned with worldly things. The desire of the contemplative mystic has been re-directed from worldly concerns to love of wisdom — the transparency and lucency of phenomenal appearance. “Desire force as the primordial luminosity is re-examined, and re-routed from temporary concerns to realization of its own nature — which is the ground.” Smith has further refined this concept of alchemical fire desire force into four definitive types: thinking, feeling, ideal (abstraction), and gnosis. These four types of fire correspond to three types of baths: thinking and feeling result in the bath of circumstance in the body-mind, feeling and ideal result in the bath of resonances in the dream body, and gnosis results in the bath of silence in the wisdom body. This is just one example that deserves much greater explanation, but provides an opening through which the dynamic functionality of this alchemical symbolism within contemplation is revealed.
Another crucial aspect of this alchemical symbolism is that of the Secret Mercury. As the contemplator begins to recognize the essentiality of the perceiver / perceived as not separate, the equalizing factor is the secret mercury itself.
“The secret mercury is the ground in action, once its nature is established as the equalizing factor between subject / object. This allows the work to actually USE the dynamic force within duality without falling prey to it . . . because it is ground anyway.”
Although the designation “secret” pertains to an extremely rare realization, the secret mercury is inherent within the delusion of independent worlds and souls. The ordinary deluded form of the mercury has always been the most secret light of En Sof all along, in disguise. This understanding is the basis of the view. All relative appearances are secretly En Sof, and nothing can possibly interfere with that except our own projections. Even if this precept is only understood conceptually, it utterly transforms the meaning of the field of display.” (Deep Principles of Kabbalistic Alchemy, 109-10)
This seems to be an extraordinary aspect of the secret mercury — that once one becomes even aware of the view (that the ground is the root basis of all phenomenal appearance and perceived and perceiver are not separate), that a self-generating feedback loop is engaged whereby the refining of perception occurs as the ground gazes at and through itself. The alchemy begins with the construct of concepts and through their contemplation vital impressions are drawn out and alchemically refined. The alchemical refining of perception requires the appreciation of the feeling tones, perceptional resonances, and subtle emotional textures that contemplation (concentration and release) fosters. The appreciation and deep love for contemplation of the ground, by the ground, causes the arousal of bliss-wisdom, ecstasy, and silence.
Smith is quick to point out that the contemplative process that he practices and describes in his book is in no way a refining of an individual will.
“Will is just personal desire; cosmic will just extends it into a pseudo-theistic fantasy.”
The path of the mystic is a relinquishment of even the concept of an individual, let alone an individual will. Only a true love and devotion to wisdom and the ground of all being can fuel this path. There is no place for fantasies about power, knowledge, attainment, titles, or any worldly concern.
Like other mystical traditions, contemplative mysticism is identified with those that could be termed apophatic, such as the mystical theology of (pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite or Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s bittul, or nullification. The approach to the divine can only be described in negative terms like ineffable, no-thing, or En Sof because it is beyond thing-ness and cannot be classified, categorized, or described accurately in any positive way as language itself conveys multiplicity. So twilight language and symbolism are the tools that must be used to refer to what is truly indescribable. Considering the challenge, Smith has done a remarkable job.
Finally, I must comment on the illustrations and artwork that are the hallmark of Smith’s work. Basically, these images are all highly technical cartographic diagrams — ever more subtle registers of the ground gazing at itself. But Smith is quick to point out that, “all my diagrams are just points, lines, and circles. These root elements need explanation. They are the same as the 3 heads in Zohar and root stream drop in The Fountain of Wisdom.” While the explanation required is quite outside the scope of this essay, I want to note how grounded Smith’s work is in geometry and Kabbalistic tradition. My introduction to this work almost ten years ago inevitably altered the course of my own esoteric study and practice and my hope is that others will come to appreciate it in the same way.
About the author of this article – Greg Kaminsky is a scholar of Western esotericism, currently pursuing a graduate degree in Medieval Studies at Harvard University Extension School. Greg has been a lifelong student of history, religion, and esotericism since his upbringing. In addition to pursuing these interests academically, Greg is the host and producer of a long-running podcast, Occult of Personality at http://occultofpersonality.net, that explores the esoteric with authors and experts in the field. His desire to create the podcast in 2006 began with a life-long compulsion to learn more about ancient civilizations, world religions, symbolism, and the underlying hidden wisdom which they contain, but only convey to the initiated. With well over 180 episodes completed and many thousands of listeners every month, the podcast continues to grow in popularity and prestige. As part of the journey to learn about the esoteric while doing the podcast, he was initiated into several traditions including Freemasonry.
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