Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
A friend of mine trained for years with a well-known Tibetan rimpoche, and sometimes we trade notes on spiritual perspectives. But usually we end up in a place where, for him, Buddhism is The Truth, while for me it’s another way to move towards an undefinable end – “thus ye have star & star, system & system,” as scripture declares. It took me some time to realise what we were doing, because we all think of Buddhists as highly tolerant, and my friend aims to be so. But his teacher demonstrated and expounded a high degree of attainment to him, and it has made him something of a fundamentalist. The Vajrayana paradigm is the ne plus ultra for him, while the Thelemic paradigm still strikes me as being under construction.
When we look at Ancient Egypt, or Ancient Rome, or medieval Europe, we find ourselves dealing not just with cultural and historical information, but specific cosmic paradigms. For the Egyptians, the Nile Valley was a world on its own, and the gods were related intimately to it and to a specific sense of how the universe operated according to Ma’at, or Truth. The Romans, with a respectful if ironic nod to the Greeks, saw a more mechanistic (and less geographically restricted) universe set in motion by the gods, and with themselves as the dominant factor on the material plane. Medieval Europe re-imagined a version of antiquity and melded it with a careful redaction of Biblical ideas. The neoPlatonic concept of a cosmos of concentric levels has its dark echo in Dante’s Inferno, with its various circles of Hell, as well as a brighter version in the sephiroth of the Tree of Life.
Thelema came into a world that was rapidly becoming paradigm-less in this older sense. Darwin had upended Biblical fundamentalism, and Freud was working to complete the job, as was Einstein and his many colleagues in the field of physics. What the scientists and theoreticians left standing, Stalin, Hitler and a bunch of small-time imitators set out to demolish. We are still living in the wake of all that today. While many people drawn to Thelema know what they want to reject, mainstream Christianity frequently being at the top of the list, discovering or constructing a different paradigm isn’t an easy job in a world where we have decided, or think we’ve decided, to jettison most of the old landmarks.
Aleister Crowley was a paradigm person – in fact, he worked from several of them. One thing that makes him inaccessible at times is that, unless you have some grasp of Protestant Biblical traditions, a good dictionary of Sanskrit terminology related to Raja Yoga, and at least a passing familiarity with Gautama Buddha and his world, and what the late 19th Century made of him, his primary reference points can seem obscure or arbitrary.
Crowley was further influenced by various western philosophers: notably Bishop George Berkeley, whose Idealism parallels Hindu concepts of reality as a phenomenon of mind, and by Immanuel Kant, one of Berkeley’s intellectual heirs. He is less prone to quote ‘hard-concept’ authorities such as Descartes or Aristotle. In consequence, Crowley’s presentation of The Book of the Law comes through these filters he had, even if he cast a remarkably broad philosophical and mystical net to develop that presentation.
What, I often wonder, would he have made of the spiritually aware community in the decade after his death in 1947? Zen, so little known in his early years, became a significant factor, supported to some extent by atheistic existentialism. Students who in 1895 might have quoted Hume, Berkeley or Nietzsche would have thrown out lines from Sartre about ‘authenticity’ (a kissing cousin to the notion of True Will), or have cited Heidegger on being-in-the-world. Actually quoting sutras or koans wasn’t so common – Zen in the west was owned more by Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and the other beat writers at that time as much as by serious practitioners – but the ideas of no-mind and mindfulness had entered the zeitgeist.
Another decade and perhaps they would have been earnestly quoting Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man, banned by the Vatican for many years and which presented a Christianity utterly unknown in Crowley’s youth. Add a few more years, and the tenets of Tibetan Vajrayana and Dzogchen would have come into play.
And so on.
My point here is not to criticise Crowley for having been who he was, living when he was. He was extraordinary in his reach. But he placed certain strictures on the system of the A.’. A.’. as a result of his interests, and maybe more to the point, slanted practical Thelemic studies in ways for which we still need to compensate.
Raja Yoga was what he had learned in Ceylon in 1900, in the brief but intense period that produced his first dhyana, described in chapter 28 of his Confessions. He had already mastered the Golden Dawn system of Hermetic Qabalah, and so he had these twin foundations to his system because of his direct experience of the results they produced. The inclusion of Raja Yoga in what he taught also gave his system the appearance of universality, not just relevance for western students. I suspect, because of British domination of India, as well as the work of far-travelling apostles such as Swami Vivikenanda, that Raja Yoga was also better known in the west than the Buddhist systems.
There are people who have told me that their primary breakthrough came from Pranayama, and I don’t doubt them. But I possess two diary volumes of my own experiments with it that are full of endless references to a minor sinus problem that became a major one, labouring lungs, various bits of advice offered by well-intentioned friends and, in the end, a sense of futility and tedium. I didn’t have any Big Moments, certainly not compared to some planetary invocations I’ve done, or even spontaneous insights that arose at work or while I was washing the dishes.
As a result, I have for years had a wary attitude to the formally prescribed A.’.A.’. system. Instead, I’ve been forced into my own corner where I have looked at things varying from Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian) devotions to certain Christian visualisation work that helped me address inner blockages by allowing through thoughts and feelings I was repressing. (My last public talk in Toronto was on esoteric Christian spirituality).
There is no decisive conclusion here, beyond the obvious one. To do one’s True Will, and to come to spiritual attention, requires using the full range of skilful means available to us today.
Including, I don’t doubt, my friend’s Dzogchen practices and Vajrayana visualisations.
Love is the law, love under will,