Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
This past weekend, I was exchanging emails with a friend who studies with followers of the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa, who died in 1987, is strongly associated with the notion of ‘crazy wisdom,’ which is a concept from the Tibetan Tantric traditions, but has also been applied to certain of the Russian startsy, as well as various figures in Zen and a few in Christianity as well. However, for Christians the preferred term would be ‘holy fools,’ such as St. Francis of Assisi; and predictably, sexuality is excluded from the picture with such people.
I have another friend who has studied both western mystery traditions and some of the Tibetan schools in depth, over more than four decades. He is sometimes amused at how western occultism is seen as ‘black magick,’ while the Tibetans, with their wrathful deities drinking blood from skulls, or human practitioners performing rites in cemeteries, get pretty much a free pass because the whole business is understood as being symbolic.
Thus, to say you studied under Trungpa personally, as a man who lives near me once did, is to gain many coolness points. Yet to say you are following the lineage established by Aleister Crowley is still, except in limited circles, to achieve the diametrical opposite. And this despite the fact that crazy wisdom was Crowley’s home base.
Trungpa, to create his Shambhala tradition, abandoned his monk’s robes and vows, married an English teenager, bedded other female students, became a heroic consumer of alcohol and, according to some sources, snorted cocaine as well. Above all, he stripped away all the Tibetan fripperies – the enduring fantasy of the mystic east, the Buddhist mystique, and any reverence for things alien to his students’ own experience. He saw his task as one of shocking or insulting his students in order to break the grip of the ego. That led him into a lot of trouble, but also endeared him to many people who realised that compassion has nothing to do with being nice to people who need and want to lose their illusions.
It’s hard to read about Trungpa, or watch the various videos featuring him or his heirs, and not feel envious. Youtube is still full of rubbish about Crowley featuring sinister music and endless references to black magick. Not that Crowley eschewed the dark side at all, but not being oriental, he didn’t have the free pass Trungpa does. The Rinpoche always looked and sounded like a lama, whatever he did, so he always had a Get Out of Jail Free card. Which, given his hard-partying ways, he came close to needing more than once.
My comments probably sound resentful, but they’re really an expression of frustration that we still don’t recognise modern westerners as spiritually attained souls. J. G. Bennett? Israel Regardie? C.G. Jung, perhaps? Or the various teachers behind the lineage I belong to, such as Karl Germer, Jane Wolfe or Phyllis Seckler? At best they get a C-plus compared to a real, live Rinpoche. We prefer to dissect their character flaws, or recite old war-stories about their personality clashes from ages ago. We only acknowledge the safely dead: St. John of the Cross, or maybe Miguel de Molinos.
Thelema of course stresses individual realisation to such an extent that the idea of a guru or lineage-holder is almost alien to it. Yet perpetually, people fall into the trap of exalting individuality over transcendence, or personal attainment over the universality of the teachings Thelema has conveyed from the past into the future. For many people, the recitation of Saints in the Gnostic Mass, for example, is a laundry list, and little more.
Trungpa’s own adherents clearly place him in a very deep tradition, and while he dropped the Tibetan language, the English translations heard on the videos are clearly Mahayana Buddhist in origin. He worked tirelessly to bring his deeper understanding to his many western students, but he could not, for obvious reasons, deny his own birthright and training.
Something Trungpa and Crowley shared was a keen awareness that we’ve been moving into a long period of intense stress and darkness, and which is intensifying. Both tried, in their different ways, to get their students to grasp the essential, ever-present reality underlying their own nature, in order that the Supernal Light should be carried through this darkness. But I have to wonder – do most people who’ve heard of Crowley even know that he was even interested in profound meditative trances, let alone explored them throughout his life? Or care that he did so?
Will we ever see regular Ph.D dissertations on Crowley’s commentaries to Liber LXV, or comparing Liber Aleph with Sufi texts? Can we overcome our own anti-guru stance sufficiently to promote Crowley as a man of profoundly original insight and attainment, to be compared favourably to eastern contemporaries such as Paramahansa Yogananda, or Neem Karoli Baba? He is praised as a libertarian idol and an apostle of personal freedom, but much more rarely as a teacher of a deep and challenging path. The crazy side of his wisdom is still a little too scary for many people.
As a father-figure teacher, Crowley is constantly disruptive, since in his written legacy, he refuses to ‘sit still’ and be the recipient of devotional reverence without mocking it. Trungpa, equally, poked relentless fun at students who fell into that habit. He knew that taking the guru too seriously means we’re taking ourselves too seriously. But I have the impression Crowley was more successful than the Rinpoche. He was, though, very capable of leaving a bad taste behind him.
Perhaps we have to take His Beastliness as he is, and not try to dress him up in the Magus’ robes and regalia. But at times, as when introducing my own affiliation to new people, I do wish I could simply say, “He was – you know, like Trungpa, crazy wise.”
It would save a lot of bother.
Love is the law, love under will.