Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
The Younghusband expedition entered Lhasa, the capital of Tibet in 1904, the same year The Book of the Law was given. As a piece of colonial history, it’s scarcely a footnote, but it did mean that in time, scholars would have access to all the scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism. Walter Evans-Wentz didn’t go to Tibet in order to produce his iffy translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927, but this popular (if inaccurate) version appeared because interest in the country was developing, following Col. Younghusband’s incursion two decades earlier.
Daisetz T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism came out in 1934, and was translated into English shortly thereafter. Prior to that, there’d been little on the topic available in the English language, except for some scholarly editions of work produced by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th Century. Suzuki’s own teacher, Soyen Shaku, had one of his books published in the U.S. in 1906, but it seems to have created little interest. Paul Carus’ The Gospel of Buddhism (1894) was widely read, but it is a collection of aphorisms and paraphrases more than an exposition of Mahayana philosophy.
My point here is that most of what we take today as mainstream in the mystical field was unknown in Europe or the USA before World War I, and not known about from a wide range of authors until two generations later than that. Aleister Crowley’s understanding of Buddhism was essentially what he’d learned about the Theravada School from his mentor Allan Bennett, since he makes scarcely any references to Chinese Buddhism in his Confessions or elsewhere. And in Theravada, there is no Self, and a liberated Arhat no longer exists in any conventional sense, so couldn’t possibly reincarnate as a Bodhisattva. Also, Crowley’s opinion of Carus (chapter 76 of The Confessions) was that “I had always known Paul Carus for an ass since he published The Gospel of Buddah (sic)…”
So, we can safely conclude that he found this work of little significance.
Thus, when The Book of the Law came with the verse: “all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains,” (II, v. 9), Crowley the then-Theravadan-Buddhist was suitably upset, and the following verse is a smug-sounding reprimand to him over this. But it was inconceivable to him at the time that there was anything to ‘remain’ in the end.
The order of the A.’.A.’. was set up more than a century ago by Crowley, with George Cecil Jones as his primary co-worker. They both knew western mystical and magickal traditions, and they owned well-thumbed copies of Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East; but the Mahayana traditions, despite Madame Blavatsky’s earlier advocacy, were largely ignored by them. Even yoga, one of Crowley’s proudest areas of expertise, was known to him in very few of its many forms. He had been exposed to the eastern mysticism of areas controlled or influenced by British colonialism (India, Ceylon, Burma and China) and what lay beyond that, he knew little about.
The point of all this is that the A.’.A.’. was constructed from the materials to hand, namely Qabalah, pagan classical learning, and certain techniques of hatha and raja yoga. Had it been started a half-century later, who can say what its standard curriculum might have included? Dzogchen for the Zelator? Sufi turning for Practici? Zazen for the Dominus Liminis?
It should be pointed out that initiates of A.’.A.’. are instructed to follow as they are led by their Angel, and to construct or adopt rituals and devotional practices as they are so guided. If hours of pranayama and tireless Enochian invocations are not indicated, so be it. The HGA knows best.
But it remains a fact that the system Crowley and Jones bequeathed to us is, primarily, predicated upon the Qabalistic Tree of Life, using it as the skeleton for all that follows. In the encyclopedic 777, he published correspondences for such things as the Islamic heavens and the Buddhist trances: but the book uses the Tree as its foundation, rather than putting Qabalistic symbolism into a Buddhist or Muslim background.
Likewise, the number symbolism in The Book of the Law and many other features and terms it uses can only be comprehended Qabalistically. The Book is itself a new Qabalah, and Qabalah is foundational to Thelema.
Now, while many Tibetan teachers have come west in the past four decades, as well as a few Zenmasters, there has been no corresponding flood, nor scarcely a trickle, of Thelemic Adepts into Asia. We’re still too busy establishing our tradition.
My point with all this is not that we need to evangelise ‘the East,’ since if they want us, they can find us online and ask. Its deeper significance is that almost any applicant at a Thelemic mystery school’s portal will say, “I’ve studied Sant Mat; or Prajnamarita; or Kundalini yoga; or Advaita; or Tai Chi… (etc., etc.)” But except for people coming from Wicca or Golden Dawn-based schools, it’s very rare for an applicant to cite experience of a western path; and certainly not monastic prayer; or study of Paracelsus or the Rhenish mystics; or the alchemical writings of Basil Valentinus, Michael Maier or Thomas Vaughan.
This means that any realisations they’ve had arose via the eastern schools. Or perhaps more problematic, any ideas they have about realisation derive from them, which means an expectation of some kind of pow-zap satori coming in from all points at once, but (overall) in a somewhat Sunyata-meets-pantheism horizontal manner. “All is God and there is no God,” and that, it’s hoped, is that.
This produces an instinctive resistance or even repugnance towards the hierarchical nature of the Tree of Life, with Kether, the Crown, at the top, mundane (unillumined) conscious existence down at the bottom in Malkuth, and series of stages of illumination between them, each designated by an official and numbered grade of attainment. The most critical of these stages is the sephirah of Tiphereth, which delimits and celebrates the irrevocable union with the Holy Guardian Angel in the famous (infamous…?) experience called Knowledge and Conversation. But each sephirah on the Tree has its own revelations to impart; and this definitely seems to violate Zen or Daoist all-at-once principles of enlightenment. The theological term for the self-emptying that must precede K&C is kenosis, and in the Zen world, nothing (supposedly) enters into it. The (non)entering itself is the entire point.
Now, as anyone who has spent serious time in a zendo will tell you (or so my few such informants have told me), enlightenment isn’t the same thing as kensho or full satori. There is progressive deepening all the way down the line (or up the mountain), and there are reasons why people who’ve had a kensho are not automatically named Zenmasters. Any degree of Gnosis or Buddha-consciousness needs time to ripen. But the emphasis in Zen practice is on non-duality, and the fact that Buddha-nature is present in all things as well as being wholly void. Seen from the outside, it’s the diametrical opposite of ascending some Tree.
The resolution of this, naturally if disappointingly, is for each of us to discover (assuming it is a problem). Working towards K&C involves “division hither homeward,” and the problems that arise for us contain remarkable keys to the road ahead. I started with Buddhism in my teens, so I’ve been around this mulberry bush more than a few times, and it took me a long time to admit that it was an issue for me. But in the end, it loosened my fixation on certain images and concepts of how attainment might come.
As progressively more people move on from simple Thelemic ideologies about Will and awareness, and examine their own dilemmas in the growing light of individual Gnosis, the easier it will be to broaden the dialogue here. Crowley, given his lack of apparent interest in Mahayana Buddhism of all kinds, is little help to us, except perhaps in hard-to-find texts such as his commentary on Liber LXV. And there, as often happens in his deeper writings, he seems to move from the perspective of the Adeptus Minor to that of the Magister Templi in the blink of a semicolon.
But as with any dilemma, exploring it honestly is what exposes the underlying assumptions. The human mind likes visual analogies, which is why the Tree has been such an enduring symbol, and why Tibetan Buddhism uses such developed imagery. Yet the Tree is no more intrinsically real than the premises of a koan or the mythical stories surrounding a deity chosen for bhakti work – something, by the by, that D. T. Suzuki eventually concluded offers us a more sure route to awakening than Zen practice.
But maybe his HGA prodded him into that one.
Love is the law, love under will.