Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
An idea that’s taken wide hold in occultism in recent years says that any notions of ancient, oriental wise men (or women) are romantic and sentimental, and must be discarded. Fascination with the Mahatmas of Theosophy or the Secret Chiefs of Hermetic tradition, and the wonders of Tibetan lamas or Japanese Zenmasters, let alone mountain-dwelling adepts of other traditions or extraterrestrial guides …. all of it is bunkum. We need to weight the scales on the skeptical side, says this viewpoint, so that we never again allow ourselves to be gulled by occult romanticisms.
One author who has laboured hard to debunk sentimentality about Tibet is Donald S. Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. His 1998 book, Prisoners of Shangri-La, takes aim at our notion of Tibetan culture and religion being caught within a fiction of wise, compassionate lamas and relatively wise and relatively compassionate Tibetan subjects following them. Last year, he went after a different psychological projection in a volume of lectures, The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. In this, he attacks the Buddha created by anti-Christian westerners, finding in their ideas a synthetic individual who met a certain need, but never existed historically, and does not fairly represent the actual Siddhartha Gautama. Here’s a quote from the book:
“The Buddha was first encountered by European missionaries and travelers as but one of many idols, an idol known by many names. It was only in the late 17th century that the conclusion began to be drawn that the various statues seen in Siam, Cathay, Japan, and Ceylon, each with a different name, all represented the same god. And it was not until the early 19th century that it was known with certainty that that god had been a man, and that that man had been born in India. By that time, Buddhism was all but dead in India, and European scholars, many of whom had never met a Buddhist or set foot in Asia, created a new Buddha, a Buddha made from manuscripts.”
I like Lopez’ writing. I also appreciate how his university courses must attract starry-eyed seekers, looking for instant dharma with a side-order of pithy aphorisms, and that he feels an obligation to disillusion these people. Tepoztlan, the quirky town near my home in Mexico, has dozens of people who are after some similar easy-drinking spiritual Kool-Aid, and every weekend some of them offer lectures or two-day intensives for stressed-out city dwellers to tune up their chakras and get that side-order of aphorisms to see them through the rest of the month.
I try to be open-minded, but sometimes, the sight of the violet-tinted publicity material makes me nauseous.
But as I tried to write a blog post praising Lopez’ books and attitude, I began wondering about this, and this piece did a U-turn on me. What I found was that the more I looked back at my teenage infatuation with Buddhism, the more I saw how it had served me.
I’m uncomfortable with low-cal New Age spirituality, and I take heart from how Aleister Crowley, mocking ‘Toshosophists’ or the false adepti among his Golden Dawn colleagues, felt similarly intolerant a century ago. It’s too easy to make a selection of spiritual ideas and use them, not as a means to deeper insight, but as a prophylactic against hard truth. Only the person solidly in touch with his or her inner jerk, and conscious of personal doubts and anxieties, is close to forging a usable personal dharma. This applies to Thelemites affecting a confrontational warrior stance as much as, at the other end of the scale, wallowers in the aforementioned buckets of violet-tinted ink.
But part of my job is to train people in magick and occultism, which means learning what ideas they came to first. Whether it’s Drunvalo Melchizedek, his polar opposite Kenneth Grant, or some other teacher following whatever star, it serves a definite purpose provided –provided – there’s an end to the attachment at some point. And the kind of idealised Tibetan Buddhism Lopez rails against can be equally useful.
We’ve come to see projecting in this manner as a bugbear, a dysfunctional evil whereby (for example) we see all our own failings in our friends or partners, but not in ourselves; or in another race that is somehow unclean, inferior or undesirable. And certainly you only need to look at some of the hate websites around, or Facebook on a bad day, to see how destructive and stupid disowned psychology can be. The ranting individual, realising his or her comments could be construed as narrow-minded if examined too closely, calls on the higher authority of God, scripture or societal norms so as to project back onto his or her own self a rightness and justice that’s clearly absent in the original remarks.
And so remains stuck in defiant ignorance.
But this also indicates the usefulness of projection for anyone who sees personal failings and makes an effort to probe the roots of them. Most mystery schools of which I’m aware (my own Temple included) place strong emphasis on observing projection as a means of unearthing the ideas, attitudes and fears that we can’t otherwise allow ourselves to see. Acceptance of such ‘forbidden’ thoughts is necessary for serious progress in the Great Work.
To quote Crowley in a relevant section on the Devil card in The Book of Thoth:
“The formula of this card is then the complete appreciation of all existing things. He rejoices in the rugged and the barren no less than in the smooth and the fertile. All things equally exalt him. He represents the finding of ecstasy in every phenomenon, however naturally repugnant; he transcends all limitations; he is Pan; he is All.” And such complete appreciation is impossible without first defusing some of the buried or half-buried stuff that leads to our rejection of unpalatable ideas, experiences or people.
Back to 19-year-old me and Buddhism for a moment. I was intrigued by Christianity, but very scared of it: wisely so, because it can be nasty. Buddha – and I mean Lopez’ westernised ‘Buddha made from manuscripts’– seemed weighty enough to counterbalance my fear of dark, damnation-propounding Christianity, and also allowed me to project onto him and the bodhisattvas a bunch of ideas about what a human might be, as well as what might be wonderful in the world. I was able to imagine things in relation to Buddha that I couldn’t in a purely western perspective. He offered a concept of serenity in the face of the eternal-life-or-hell roll of the spiritual dice that Christians advocated. And while God supposedly dwelt in some heavenly eternity, Buddha and the sutras that derived from his teaching offered the concept of attainable eternity, and the means to attain it.
Without a figure from wholly outside my own times and culture, I wouldn’t have found the means to explore this matter without preconditions. Christian saints’ writings give hints of deeper ideas, but they knew they had to stay within the guidelines. What I came at that time to call ‘raw mind’ in myself was looking for something well outside any kind of lines, in order to discover its own nature without pious or moralistic restrictions. And Buddha was ‘clean’ enough that he let me do this.
This topic becomes touchier when we come to the Rosicrucian mythos whence Crowley’s own notions of Secret Chiefs arise. There are Thelemites and other magicians who rigorously scorn the literal possibility of such beings, and who refuse to discuss the possibility of hidden masters guiding mystery schools or specific magicians. Yet this concept is foundational to applied magick. We need the idea of advanced adepts and invisible masters, sometimes historical and sometimes mythical, to help form ideas of the possibility of great attainment. They provide the foil that helps us retain our sanity. And they offer an archetypal basis for structuring Qabalistic work in the frantic world in which we live. That is, they provide a focus in the mind for constellating certain ideas and perspectives that won’t, for whatever reason, form within the usual levels of mind.
There is also the open question of whether so many advanced adepts were deluded, or whether such discarnate intelligences have actual existence. The more I try to fix my own answers, the less the Universe shows itself interested in assisting my hidebound approach.
Magick requires not naive credulity, as its critics smugly insist, but a strong ability to fantasise at will. Whether the angels, elementals and intelligences have objective existence or not, we can never grasp what they represent without allowing ourselves to believe and play the game with all our hearts. The same principle is true of the mystique we wrap around Masters, historical or mythical.
Projection is always projection, and we can’t abandon our critical faculties without risking becoming either fanatics, or stained by contact with too much violet ink. But just as Lopez has been criticised in reviews for being too stern in his judgements, so by a corresponding token do we need enchantment in order to perform magick. At some ultimate stage, when we drop all the veils of our projected ideas (as represented by the Priestess card in the Thoth deck), we can finally realise the Essence of what it’s All Been About, all along. Till then, positive projection will have its function, and remain as much of a tool in the hands of the wise as it can be an obstacle to growth in the fingers of the foolish.
Love is the law, love under will,