Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, A Fable About Following Your Dream
Coelho is a man who has struggled in life. As a teenager with literary talent and interests, his arch-conservative parents involuntarily committed him to a mental institution where he was given electroshock therapy. As a young man in the 1960s, the military dictatorship of Brazil jailed and tortured him due to the perceived subversive nature of a cartoon strip he had created. James the Just (the brother of Jesus) tells us "Count it as pure joy my brothers all the trials and tribulations you encounter for they build character." Paulo Coelho persevered through his struggles and succeeded in becoming an international best-selling author. His life is instructive on its own merit apart from his works of fiction.
The Alchemist is the story of a young, Spanish shepherd who sets upon a journey to follow his life's dream. The boy had previously studied at a seminary pursuant to his family's wishes but left because "he couldn't have found God in the seminary." He became a shepherd as that was the only way poor rural people of his country were afforded an opportunity to travel. The shepherd meets a mysterious old man fn1 who tells him:
There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth. * * * To realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation. All things are one. And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
The boy has had a recurring dream that there is a treasure awaiting him at the pyramids in Egypt. The old man encourages the boy to sell his sheep and follow his dream, his destiny, into Egypt. To make a long story short, the boy suffers many trials and tribulations during his journey but does indeed find his treasure. However, the treasure was not in Egypt but buried under the spot in Spain where his dream had originally come to him. A second person helps him along the way while he is in the deserts of Egypt, an Alchemist.
Many people have written about the meaning behind the story. I'll just add a few thoughts of my own. Coelho has clearly written us an allegorical fable. But what does it mean? In the above quote, the words "All things are one" seem misplaced, not connected with the thought being conveyed. In a work so compact, so well written, one can be sure those words have meaning and are there for a reason. Let us rewrite the above quote starting with the misplaced words:
All things are one. The soul of the universe is one with your own soul and every other soul that exists. Your destiny is to realize that you and the universe are one and, as you awaken to this truth, all the universe shall conspire to help you along this path.
The treasure that lies at the end of our quest, at the end of the rainbow, is not material. The treasure is merely self-awareness of oneness with the universe. Just as the boy ultimately found the treasure not in a faraway land but, rather, in his own homeland, so too with us the treasure of self-realization is to be found within ourselves. fn2 The sheep who keep their eyes to the ground only interested in food and water? They represent all of us asleep in the material world who are totally unaware of the treasure that lies within our own hearts.
Where does the boy dream of his treasure and, later, ultimately attain his treasure? "Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy had once stood." This analogizes the bohdi tree where the Buddha gain spiritual enlightenment. The Buddha found enlightenment meditating at the base of the tree just as the boy found his treasure buried at the base of the tree. See also the tree of knowledge in Genesis.
One final comment. The alchemist in the Egyptian desert is a minor character in the book appearing on but on a few pages. Why is the book named after him? Did the shepherd boy become an alchemist, thus, the title refers to him? The boy never wavered from his mission of finding the treasure. How could he be thought of as an alchemist? The commonly-held definition of an alchemist is one in search of a mysterious substance (aka "the philosopher's stone") said to be capable of turning common base elements such as lead into pure gold. There is a spiritual component to alchemy and my belief is that Coelho was referring to this aspect of alchemy in his book. We humans have a soul which is encased in gross materials of the physical world (our bodies). The vast multitude of humans (i.e., the sheep) know only the physical aspect of their existence. When an individual realizes his or her oneness with the universal soul, he or she sheds identification with the material world thereby raising consciousness higher to the purer spiritual realm. Put another way, the lead of our physical world is transformed into the gold of the spiritual. If we see the "treasure" as a metaphor for self-realization, then the boy does indeed become an alchemist in finding his treasure as he has learned how to turn his bodily lead into spiritual gold.
Joe's Primer on Myth And Religious Parables
Footnote 1: The old man at the beginning of the book who sets the boy on his journey identifies himself only as "the king of Salem". Salem is an ancient name for Jerusalem. In the Book of Genesis from the Bible, the king of Salem is named Melchizedek and he is also identified as a priest from whom Abraham accepts a blessing and gives a tithe of 1/10 of all his possessions. The mystery or confusion of this passage in Genesis is that at the time of Abraham, Jerusalem was not a Jewish city but, rather, a Canaanite one. Was Abraham acknowledging that the Most High God of the Canaanites and his God were one in the same?
Footnote 2: Those familiar with the Gospel According to Thomas (from the Nag Hammadi library) may have noticed an allusion to Logion 3. The concept that the "treasure" of self-realization lies within ourselves can be equated with the statement of Jesus that the kingdom of God lies within us:
Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you. (emphasis added)