Progress is largely the result of the process of synthesis. A molecule may “progress” into more structuralized forms by bonding with certain other molecules to form a synthesis of a new molecule – for example, an Oxygen molecule combines with two Hydrogen molecules to form the synthesis, H20. Humanity progresses with the “synthesis” or union of male & female and the consequent production of a physical child. Many leaps in technology and philosophy have also come from the concise synthesis of previous conflicting ideas into a new “child”-idea. The correct summarization of past knowledge and integration of that information with new and diverse ideas gives much potential for further knowledge. This work is a synthesis of the two apparently differing traditions of Buddhist and Thelemic thought. These traditions will each be examined through a major text – the Dhammapada in the case of Buddhism, and Liber AL vel Legis, or The Book of the Law, for Thelema.
The word “tradition” is used in favor of “philosophy,” “religion,” or any other in this work, for Buddhism and Thelema both do not exactly fit the definitions of either of these terms and to use them to describe would be to confine them to something smaller than they really are. They both could be called religious-scientific-mystical-psychological-philosophical traditions to an extent, but the secertain adjectives will not be used except in certain situations to reflect the wide-ranging nature of both Buddhism and Thelema. The broadness of the term ‘tradition’ reflects the seemingly endless implications and applications of Buddhist and Thelemic thought.
Although these traditions originated on nearly opposite sides of the earth, they are much more complementary than one might initially imagine. A common misconception is that one must “convert” to a certain religion or tradition and maintain this allegiance to be considered part of that tradition. For both Buddhism and Thelema, this perception is false. Buddhists, especially in modern times with instantaneous world-wide communication now being a reality, often emphasize the universality of their own teachings and their applicability to other traditions. For Thelema, this is equally true, as we will see, and requires no Judeo-Christian notion of “conversion.” It will be found that it is very possible to be a “Buddhist Thelemite,” a “Thelemic Buddhist,” or a “Buddhist Thelemic Protestant, etc.” if you choose to label yourself as such (although I see little benefit in doing such).1 Swami Vivekananda once said, “The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.” This is truly the sentiment that must be kept in mind. Even so, we may not even consider ourselves part of a specific tradition but still be able to gain useful insight from study of another. It is possible to acknowledge the validity of the Thelemic maxims “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” (AL I:40) “Love is the law, love under will,” (AL I:57) and “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt” (AL III:60) and simultaneously accept various Buddhist theories, metaphors, and especially practices as will be seen; similarly, Buddhist concepts such as impermanence (anicca), not-self (anatta), and suffering (dukkha) can help a Thelemite gain better insight into themselves and the universe. Although this is true, there are some interesting and important discrepancies in theory between the two traditions that need to be understood as well. This work shows the comparisons between Buddhism and Thelema through close study of the Dhammapada and Liber AL vel Legis, allowing the reader to better understand each tradition in the light of the other. By viewing a certain idea from two standpoints – that of a Thelemite and that of a Buddhist – one may also gain a more objective outlook at that particular idea. As an aside, it should be acknowledged from the very start that there is an unfathomable amount of texts, beliefs, and practices aside from those delineated in Dhammapada which is why this text is essentially used as a foundation – for its concise brevity and simplicity.
This work will first briefly examine the histories of both of these texts. A slight emphasis on Thelema and its respective text Liber AL vel Legis is given in this work because much more is known about the author, Aleister Crowley, and his life than of the Dhammapada. Further, the scope of literature about Buddhism, which has existed since about 500 BCE, is tremendous compared to that relating to Thelema and Liber AL vel Legis, which was written just over a century ago. The reticence to write about Liber AL vel Legis in the past is unfortunate but it is being overcome. This lack of an academic foundation of literature on Thelema causes much confusion and trepidation amongst budding Thelemites, for they often are confused by the large amount of literature and do not understand how to integrate their knowledge of disparate traditions. Often, Thelemites have had the misconception that Thelema looks down upon other traditions or sees them as unworthy. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth as will be seen later. To help relieve this lack of a Thelemic understanding of other traditions, this work is offered as a small consolation.
Similarities in theory and practice will be examined to allow us to understand that these two traditions are more complementary than opposing and also to see each tradition’s respective strengths and weaknesses. Contrasting elements of theory will also be investigated to understand the fundamental differences between these two traditions and to appreciate their distinctiveness. Essentially, the reader will hopefully obtain a well-rounded and balanced knowledge base about the relationship between Thelema and Buddhism to inform their own previous knowledge to form a synthesis – an improved and transformed outlook on Buddhism, Thelema, and, hopefully existence in general.
Part 1: A Brief History of the Dhammapada
The Dhammapada is a famous and highly popular Buddhist scripture of 423 stanzas from the Pali Tipitaka, which refers to the collection of Pali scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. Although there are other versions of The Dhammapada, including the Patna Dharmapada of 414 stanzas, the Udanavarga with over 1000 stanzas, and the Gandhari Dharmapada of 540 stanzas, we will be looking solely at the version in Pali, which many assumed was the original Dhammapada until recently2 and generally is the most familiar.
Unlike many other Buddhist scriptures which contain lengthy stories and parables, the Dhammapada is a collection of extremely concise and vibrant stanzas that are much like aphorisms in their poignancy. Although we do not have enough space to go into the differences between Theravada Buddhism and its later developments of Mahayana, Tibetan, Zen, Vajrayana, etc., it should be understood that although the Dhammapada is part of the canon of Theravada literature3, it is still read and beloved by Buddhists of all sects.4 In the introduction to Eknath Easwaran’s translation, Stephen Ruppenthal goes as far as to compare the importance of the Dhammpada for Buddhism to the importance of the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus for Christianity. He claims that, “if everything else were lost, we would need nothing more than the Dhammapada to follow the way of the Buddha.”5 For this reason, we will focus on this text; it will provide the foundational framework of our understanding of Buddhism so we may compare concepts that are found with those in the sacred text of Thelema, Liber AL vel Legis. There is not one overall, accepted belief-system about what constitutes Buddhism. As mentioned before, there are many different sects and offshoots in Buddhism that each hold their own unique views. Ruppenthal goes on in his introduction to say that “The Buddha did not leave a static structure of belief that we can affirm and be done with.”6 Although this is unfortunate, the Dhammapada may be the closest we will get to such a universal teaching in Buddhism.
“Dhammapada” itself literally means the “The path of Dhamma,” or “verses on Dhamma”.7 The word dhamma, a Pali word which is more well-known as “dharma” in Sanskrit, translates to mean truth, law (universal and man-made), duty and/or righteousness. Most importantly, in Buddhist texts, the word dhamma is often used to refer to Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, an exact translation is not possible but essentially refers to the path of truth or law as set forth by Buddha.
Buddha did not write anything himself, but his disciples memorized his teachings and transmitted them orally. The Pali Tipitaka which contains the Dhammapada, was written down in the last century BCE from oral tradition.8 Because Crowley refers to Max Muller’s translation of the Dhammapada in various places, quotations from this text will be taken from this edition to understand most clearly and precisely the way in which the language of Buddhism influenced Crowley.
Part 2: A Brief History of Liber AL vel Legis & the Tradition of Thelema
Liber AL vel Legis is also known as “The Book of the Law,” “Liber AL” (pronounced “Lee-ber El”), “Liber Legis” (“Book of the Law” in Latin), “Liber 220” and other names, all of which refer to the same text. This book was “received” by Aleister Crowley on the three consecutive days of April 8, 9, and 10 in 1904. He claims to have heard a voice over his left shoulder for exactly one hour each day, starting right at noon, dictating the three chapters of Liber AL vel Legis on each day.
Crowley identified this being who was dictating Liber AL vel Legis as “Aiwass.” He writes in Equinox of the Gods, “[Aiwass] is the name given by W. to P. as that of her informant”9 meaning that Rose Crowley, his wife, initially gave Crowley (who is “P.” or Frater Perdurabo, which was a motto Crowley took on as a Neophyte in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1898) the name of this being. He continues, “Also it is the name given as that of the revealer of Liber
Legis”10 which is in conformity with line 7 of chapter 1 in Liber AL vel Legis (henceforth noted in the form of “AL I:7”): “Behold! It is revealed by Aiwass, the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat.” Crowley admits, “whether Aiwass is a spiritual being, or a man known to Fra. P., is a matter of the merest conjecture.”11 Crowley sometimes felt that Aiwass was a spiritual being, his own Holy Guardian Angel, his True Self, his subconscious, or just an adept. Who Aiwass actually was is really not of concern in this treatise, for what is said in Liber AL vel Legis should stand on its own merit – “Success is your proof,” as it says in AL III:46. Either way, to Crowley, “this Book [Liber AL vel Legis] proves: there is a Person thinking and acting in a praeterhuman manner, either without a body of flesh, or with the power of communicating telepathically with men and inscrutably directing their actions.”12
The reception of The Book of the Law was an event so complex and important that Crowley attempted to describe its reception in three places. First, it was described in 1910 in “The Temple of Solomon the King,” which was an essay that appeared in various numbers of The Equinox journal that Crowley issued. Secondly, Crowley describes this reception in 1929 in The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. Thirdly, he made a more formal attempt at writing the history of the reception with The Equinox of the Gods in 1936. Besides describing the actual process of receiving the Book, Crowley wrote three different commentaries at three different times on Liber AL vel Legis – an “Old” comment from The Equinox in 1912, a “New” comment composed in Cefalu, and the “Djeridensis Working” or “The Comment Called D” from November of 1923.13 He wrote the comment that appears at the end of most editions in Tunis in 1926. This book is intended to primarily be a comparative work, not a historical work. Therefore, if the reader wishes to more fully understand this complex event and examine the details, he/she is referred to the three works mentioned above and the various biographies on Aleister Crowley (especially Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley by Lawrence Sutin and Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley by Richard Kaczynski).
The tradition of Thelema could be said to have been formally inaugurated when Crowley received Liber AL vel Legis in 1904. In Liber AL it is declared “The word of the Law is Θελημα” (AL I:39) which is “Thelema,” or “Will” in Greek. It continues, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” (AL I:40) and also “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt” (AL III:60), as if we hadn’t already gotten the picture. An argument against the idea that Crowley established Thelema in 1904 with the reception of Liber AL might mention that the words “Do what thou wilt” have been uttered at least twice before. Firstly, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote “Dilige, et quod vis fac” in his Confessions at the end of the 4th century CE, which means “Love, and do what thou wilt.” Here St. Augustine means that if one loves God, one is free to act because their will is surrendered to the will of God (and therefore apparently can’t possibly act wrongly). Though the wording is extremely similar, this is not what is meant by Liber AL vel Legis in its aphorisms of “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” (AL I:40) and “Love is the law, love under will” (AL I:57). As Crowley says in “Message of the Master Therion” so concisely, “While Will is the Law, the nature of that Will is Love. Love is as it were a byproduct of that Will; it does not contradict or supersede that Will; and if apparent contradiction should arise in any crisis, it is the Will that will guide us aright. Lo, while in The Book of the Law is much of Love, there is no word of Sentimentality.” Here he explicitly states that the “Love” in Liber AL is not the sentimental love that many think of when first hearing the word, and it is especially not love of the orthodox Judeo-Christian-Islamic notion of a vengeful Father-in-the-sky God. The idea of “Love” in a Thelemic context will be more fully treated in later chapters.
Secondly, Francois Rabelais, possibly inspired by this aphorism from St. Augustine, proclaimed “Fay ce que voudras” (“Do what thou wilt” in French) in his masterpiece Gargantua & Pantagruel in the 16th century CE. “Do what thou wilt” was the motto of his utopian “Abbey of Thelema,” which would later be taken as a model for Crowley’s own Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Italy. According to Crowley in an unfinished essay entitled “The Antecedents of Thelema,” the “Do what thou wilt” of Rabelais is much more in conformity with the doctrines of Thelema than St.Augustine’s, especially in light of the conduct of the Abbey that Rabelais imagined. Crowley had read and was most definitely influenced by both of these authors.14 In the 18th century, Sir Francis Dashwood, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain and founder of The Hellfire Club, would later be influenced by Rabelais’ writing. Apparently, “fay ce que voudras” from Gargantua & Pantagruel was written on the doorway of the abbey that Dashwood created in Medmenham, England.15
Beyond the mere phrase of “Do what thou wilt,” there is an unfathomable amount of similarities of Thelema with various other systems of thought. Truly, Aleister Crowley did not fashion the idea of Thelema out of nothing. There are similarities with Buddhism (as this book is written to partly investigate), Hinduism, Taoism, Gnosticism, Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Qabalah, and other traditions. There are also similarities with the philosophies of Westerners like Nietzsche, Kant, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Schopenhauer. Aleister Crowley studied many traditions and read an unfathomable amount of books, which can be seen by the sheer amount of seemingly divergent references he is able to relate to in his various writings. Crowley saw a universal understanding of different systems of thought necessary for the spiritual aspirant, which can be seen in that he recommends a plethora of books for the average student to read in his various writings. Themes in Liber AL vel Legis unmistakably reflect ideas that occupied Crowley’s attention throughout his studies prior to the reception of the book: the “Khu” (AL I:8), “Khabs” (AL I:8-9; II:2), “Nuit,” “Hadit,” “Ra-Hoor-Khuit,” and “Hoor-paar- kraat” (AL I:7, II:8) of the Egyptian tradition, the idea of the precession of the Equinoxes (AL I:49) from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the “Kiblah” (AL III:10) and “Kaaba” (AL III:41) from Islam, the Biblical symbolism of the Beast (AL I:15, III:14, 22) and Scarlet Woman (AL I:15, III:14, 43) from Book of Revelations, and large amounts of Qabalistic, numerological clues and riddles (AL I:24-25, 28, 60; II:15-16, 76, etc.) all appear in Liber AL.
It is obvious these traditions all had an influence on how Crowley would interpret and develop Thelema. Through much study of these various systems, they obviously had an influence on him. If Liber AL vel Legis is taken to be a product of part of Crowley’s psyche, subconscious, or “higher self,” one can clearly see the importance of these apparently divergent systems to Thelema. From all of this we may conclude that although Crowley formally established the tradition of Thelema with the reception of Liber AL vel Legis in April of 1904, it was not drawn out of thin air but from an amazingly eclectic variety of spiritual, intellectual, and intuitive sources. In fact, it is this rich background of relations to many divergent spiritual and intellectual traditions that makes Thelema founded in and a fulfillment of the wisdom of the past.
Part 3: The Influence of Buddhism on Aleister Crowley
At the time Aleister Crowley was exploring the Buddhist tradition, Eastern religions were generally looked upon as primitive or exotic by the Western world. The first translation of the Dhammapada into English came only in 1869 from Max Müller. This translation was later featured more prominently in the “Sacred Books of the East” series in 1885, issued when Aleister Crowley was 10 years old. Crowley was one of the first Western students to seriously explore and explain Buddhism as a legitimate spiritual, psychological, and philosophical system.16
The influence of Buddhism on Aleister Crowley comes primarily from one man – Allan Bennett (1872-1923). Bennett was arguably the first Englishman to be accepted in a Buddhist monastery, he created the International Buddhist Society in 1903 in Burma, issued the periodical Buddhism, and led the first Buddhist mission to England in 1908.17 In short, he was a very powerful and prominent figure in the early effort to bring Buddhism to the West in the beginning of the 20th century.
Crowley first met Bennett at a Golden Dawn ritual ceremony. Bennett had been initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a pseudo-Masonic and Hermetic fraternity, in 1894 and proceeded to the Second Order thereof in 1895; he was a talented magician and was very close to MacGregor Mathers, the head of the Order.18 As described in Crowley’s Confessions, while disrobing after the ritual, Bennett approached Crowley and said “Little brother, you have been meddling with the Goetia!” which are demons that are descsribed in the famous 17th century grimoire known as the Lemegeton. Crowley said that he hadn’t been doing anything of the sort, to which Bennett replied, “In that case, the Goetia has been meddling with you.”19 Clearly impressed by the man, Crowley called him the next day to receive instruction on the occult from him. Crowley moved into his flat on Chancery Lane and became Bennett’s student in ceremonial magic and Buddhism for a while. They formed a harmonious relationship and, apparently, Bennett even saw fit to teach Crowley things from the Second Order of the Golden Dawn to which he formally was not entitled to learn.20 Allan Bennett’s asthma was complicated by London’s climate so, combined with the fact that he also wished to study the Eastern traditions with the legitimate native teachers, he moved to Ceylon.21
Sutin observes that “Crowley was approaching the viewpoint of Theravada Buddhism” in 1900 as illustrated by the ideas in his poem “The Growth of God” from his stay in Mexico.22 The poem has themes of suffering and dissolution of the self which is common in Buddhism. In April of 1901, Crowley stopped in San Francisco before his trip to meet with Bennet in Ceylon. While there, he spent most of his time in Chinatown and a Buddhist temple, burning incense.23 Crowley later arrived in Japan and attempted to enter Buddhist monasteries here, but he was turned away.24 Both of these occurrences show the growing interest and absorption Crowley had in Buddhist studies in 1901 – just three years before the reception of Liber AL vel Legis.
In Ceylon, Bennett was the tutor of the sons of P. Ramanathan, a Shaivite Hindu (a sect that worships Shiva as the supreme God), who in turn taught Bennett the practices of yoga.25 Crowley joined Bennet as a student of Ramanathan for merely a week, and then he suggested to Bennet that they continue their studies that they had begun earlier in London by moving to Kandy in the middle of Ceylon.26 They left Ramanathan and studied yoga intensely in Kandy. Sutin claims that “fundamentally, most of what Crowley knew firsthand of yoga came from his six weeks with Bennett in Ceylon.”27 At this time, Crowley claims to have attained the meditative state of dhyana on October 1 and 2 of 1901.28 Very soon after this success, Crowley moved on to other pursuits – namely, the climbing of the infamous mountain K2 with Oscar Eckenstein during the spring of 1902.
In November of 1902, Bennett left to Burma to study in a Buddhist monastery – the first English man to do so – under the Lamma Sayadaw Kyoung, and Crowley departed to attempt the K2 climb. At this monastery, Bennett would take on the name of Bhikku Ananda Metteyya.29
In 1902, Crowley made his way back to Burma for about a week to visit Allan Bennett and speak about Buddhism and the practice of magic. Bennett had parted with the practice of magic and obviously turned strongly towards Buddhism.30 Although at this time Crowley was strongly Buddhist in his ideals, he would not abandon the practice of magic completely like Bennett. Crowley would go on to publicize the practice of magic – renamed “magick” by him “to distinguish the Science of the Magi from all its counterfeits”31 like stage tricks and illusions – by publishing such books as Magick in Theory and Practice in 1929.
The most important testaments to Crowley’s Buddhist thought in this period are his essays “Berashith” (1902), “The Three Characteristics” (1902), and “Science and Buddhism” (1903). In “Berashith,” which is the first Hebrew word in the book of Genesis from the Old Testament that is usually translated as “In the Beginning”, there is much evidence of Crowley’s Buddhist viewpoint during these years just prior to the reception of Liber AL vel Legis. The purpose of the essay, as explained in the first few lines, is “explaining the divergences between the three great forms of religion now existing in the world—Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, and of adapting them to ontological science by conclusions not mystical but mathematical.” Here we can see plainly that Crowley was not only profoundly influenced by these religious traditions but also simultaneously adopted a scientific standpoint in assessing their truths. There is a parenthetical note by Crowley in this essay which refers to Max Muller’s translation of the Dhammapada. These are some of the first proofs in writing we have that Crowley was familiar with the Buddhist doctrine – especially the Dhammapada. In 1929, he clearly called the Dhammapada “the best of the Buddhist classics”32 in a reading list he was assigning to aspirants. Further, he shows knowledge of Schopenhauer who studied and had similar ideas to those of Buddhism. Crowley goes on in the essay to explain Buddha’s interesting attitude toward metaphysical questions, who generally says that they are irrelevant to relieving present suffering.
After a short paragraph attempting to explain the nature of nirvana, Crowley says, “On mature consideration, therefore, I confidently and deliberately take my refuge in the Triple Gem. Namo Tasso Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa!” This, obviously a Buddhist saying, translates as “Hail unto Thee, the Blessed One, the Perfect One, the Enlightened One!” according to Crowley. The “Triple Gem” mentioned is also known as the “Three Jewels,” the “Three Treasures,” and when said by Buddhists for refuge, they are called the “Three Refuges.” They refer to the three things that a Buddhist takes refuge in: buddha, the dhamma, and the sangha.33 These three refuges are explained in part XII of “Science and Buddhism,” an essay that will be investigated in more depth later. The Buddha, in this context, is most likely referring to the historical personage of the Buddha, Shakyamuni. Crowley affirms this when he says, “that there was once a man who found the Way is my encouragement.” Dhamma (or dharma), as explained in Part 1 of this essay, specifically refers to Buddha’s teachings and the practice thereof in this context.34 Crowley defines dhamma as, “the Law underlying phenomena and its unchanging certainty; the Law given by the Buddha to show us the Way, the inevitable tendency to Persistence in Motion or Rest — and Persistence, even in Motion, negates change in consciousness — these observed orders of fact are our bases.”35 Sangha is a word that means “assembly” and refers to all those beings that have attained various stages of attainment; also, especially for the monastic Buddhists, the sangha is the community of ordained monks and nuns.36 For taking refuge in the sangha, Crowley explains this means “…these are not isolated efforts on my part; although in one sense isolation is eternally perfect and can never be overcome (i.e. on normal planes), in another sense associates are possible and desirable. One third of humanity are Buddhists; add men of Science and we form an absolute majority; among Buddhists a very large proportion have deliberately gone out from social life of any kind to tread these paths of Research.”37 The idea is that one takes refuge in the fact that there are many others on the same path as oneself. Essentially, this succinctly shows Crowley’s devotion to Buddhism in a phrase. To top it off, the entire essay is ended with the famous Buddhist mantra, “OM MANI PADME HOUM.”
Further, Crowley took the name Abhavananda while in Ceylon, which means “the bliss of non-existence.” He refers to himself as this name in various parts of the essay, “The Three Characteristics,” which was first published in 1902. This “bliss of non-existence” refers to the Buddhist notion of nirvana which literally means “extinction” or “extinguishing.” The essay “The Three Characteristics” is a series of fictional accounts illustrating various Buddhist ideas. The title of the essay itself refers to the fundamental Buddhist theory of the three characteristics of all things that exist: suffering (dukkha), impermanence (anicca), and lack of independent self (anatta). This short writing is further proof of Crowley’s strongly Buddhist viewpoint before Liber AL vel Legis’s reception.
In 1903, just a year prior to the reception of Liber AL vel Legis, Crowley wrote an essay entitled “Science and Buddhism.” Its self-proclaimed purpose is, “to draw a strict comparison between the modern scientific conceptions of Phenomena and their explanation, where such exists, and the ancient ideas of the Buddhists; to show that Buddhism, alike in theory and practice, is a scientific religion; a logical superstructure on a basis of experimentally verifiable truth; and that its method is identical with that of science.” Crowley hoped that this scientific approach to Buddhism would lead to a more empirical understanding of consciousness.38 One interesting example of Crowley’s scientific approach to his studies comes when he starts to explain the tenets of Buddhism in this essay. He says, “The essential features of Buddhism have been summed up by the Buddha himself. To me, of course, what the Buddha said or did not say is immaterial; a thing is true or not true, whoever said it.” We must adopt this same attitude towards Thelema as well as Buddhism if we are to maintain a philosophy that is grounded in reality instead of blind faith and dogma. This is essential and what differentiates Thelema from many other systems that, instead of referencing reality and science, set up a priori ideals and attempt to conform the world they see to those ideals, no matter how absurd. An example of this is a Christian who interprets the Bible literally trying to explain the existence of dinosaur fossils. This scientific approach to consciousness allows us to maintain an interest in claims by Buddhists, Thelemites, and other traditions while reserving the right to discard claims if science and the test of experience prove the truth to be different.
Around this time of writing “Science and Buddhism,” Crowley had two reservations about his Buddhist principles: firstly, he knew that Hindu meditation practices were effective, and, secondly, he could not deny the reality of magic.39 Crowley said, “I cannot deny that certain phenomena do accompany the use of certain rituals; I only deny the usefulness of such methods to the White Adept.”40 By this he meant that it was obvious that magic was efficacious but he reserved whether they were useful to the “White Adept” which usually refers to one focused solely on spiritual attainment.
After Liber AL vel Legis was received in April of 1904, Crowley slowly abandoned his Buddhist principles and adopted the view of Thelema, although Thelema does not entirely contradict Buddhist teachings as will be shown. He did not do this without a profound sense of conflict, and it could be said that he never could completely overcome a certain conflict in his being with the system set forward in Liber AL. Sutin explains this tumultuous tension succinctly when he says, “The striking paradox of [Crowley] is that, for all his lifelong devotion to the cause of Thelema, he often allowed that he himself could not quite overcome an internal resistance to its teachings. He deemed it vicious, amoral, lamentable in its unremitting contempt for pity, crudely styled, disdainful toward his own Buddhistic leanings – these complaints continued throughout the remaining decades of his life.”41 In 1906, Crowley met Alan Bennett (Ananda Metteyya) again in Burma but was now more skeptical of the moral restrictions enforced on Buddhists and its deterministic approach to enlightenment.42 Bennett believed strongly that one’s karma largely determines one’s life, especially one’s ability for spiritual achievements. Crowley felt that this was theoretically sound but practically, if the individual will is believed to have no power, then “self-enervation alone could result.”43 This shows the beginnings of Crowley’s failing faith in Buddhist principles.
After 1904 and the reception of Liber AL, the subject of Buddhism is treated by Crowley every now and then in places like “The Temple of Solomon the King” in The Equinox Vol.I No.1-10 around 1909-1913, his commentary to H.P. Blavatsky’s The Voice of Silence from The Equinox Vol.III No.1 in 1919, the commentaries to Liber LXV written around 1923 in Tunisia, and his Little Essays Toward Truth in 1938. Obviously the principles of Buddhism left their indelible mark on Crowley who evidently contemplated their significance and sometimes referred various concepts and states of consciousness found in the study of Thelema against ideas in Buddhism for the rest of his life.
Essentially, we can see the profound influence Buddhism had on Crowley, especially in the years immediately preceding the reception of Liber AL vel Legis. For this reason the importance of understanding the similarities between Buddhism and Thelema, which is based around Liber AL vel Legis, becomes particularly apparent. An understanding of Buddhism will complement our understanding of Thelema and, likewise, an understanding of Thelema will complement our understanding of Buddhism.
Part 4: Liber AL’s View of Buddhism
The views expressed in Liber AL vel Legis, especially in the third chapter, can be considered to be “harsh” to some. This hostility in Liber AL becomes especially apparent when Horus (the Hawk-headed sky and solar god of the Egyptians), under the form of Ra-Hoor-Khuit, curses many foreign traditions in these memorable lines:
“I am in a secret fourfold word, the blasphemy against all gods of men. Curse them! Curse them! Curse them! With my Hawk’s head I peck at the eyes of Jesus as he hangs upon the cross. I flap my wings in the face of Mohammed & blind him. With my claws I tear out the flesh of the Indian and the Buddhist, Mongol and Din. Bahlasti! Ompehda! I spit on your crapulous creeds.” –Liber AL III:49-54
Firstly, it should be known that Crowley admits Hinduism (“the Indian”), Buddhism, Confucianism (“Mongol”) or perhaps Taoism and Jewish Qabalah (“Din”) are, in theory, “metaphysically and mystically comprehensive enough to assure… the possession of much truth.”44 He notes that these traditions have their flesh attacked unlike Jesus, who represents Christianity and has his eyes attacked, and Mohammed who represents Islam and has his face attacked. In this case, the eyes & face represent the point-of-view of the tradition and the flesh represents their practice. This indicates that in those whose flesh was only attacked – the Hindu, Confucianist, Qabalist, and Buddhist traditions – “the metaphysics, or point of view, is correct… but the practice imperfect.” Essentially, Crowley is saying that there are many pretenders, false gurus, and general misunderstanding and imperfection in the practice of these traditions. To be true, every single tradition has its share of extremists and charlatans; there are always a few people that can give an ideology a bad name. Unfortunately, Thelema is not excluded from this. The reason Horus attacks Jesus’ eyes is because, “it is the eyes of ‘Jesus’ — his point of view — that must be destroyed.”45 The reason the face of Mohammed is attacked is that, “Mohammed’s point of view is wrong too; but he needs no such sharp correction as ‘Jesus.’ It is his face — his outward semblance — that is to be covered with His wings. The tenets of Islam, correctly interpreted, are not far from our Way of Life and Light and Love and Liberty. This applies especially to the secret tenets. The external creed is mere nonsense suited to the intelligence of the peoples among whom it was promulgated; but even so, Islam is Magnificent in practice. Its code is that of a man of courage and honour and self-respect.”46
Secondly, it should be noted that Aleister Crowley admitted, “The third chapter [of Liber AL vel Legis] seemed to me gratuitously atrocious.”47 The book challenged many of his beliefs at the time of its reception, especially ideas like compassion in Buddhism, which will be discussed in a later chapter. It is plain to see that Crowley deeply respected all traditions of the past and was an extremely vigorous reader in all subjects, so this attack must have also seemed needlessly violent. This respect Crowley had makes it obvious that these lines did not come from a conscious attempt to smear the religions of the past.
Further, earlier in Liber AL vel Legis it is said, “…Aum! All words are sacred and all prophets true; save only that they understand a little…” (AL I:56). Crowley comments succinctly on this line saying, “All religions have some truth. We possess all intellectual truth, and some, not all, mystic truth.”48 We can clearly see that Liber AL does not condemn all other past religions, philosophies, truths, rituals, etc. Using common sense we can understand that the traditions of the past, especially those named in AL III:49-54, contain some truths and insights but also much falsity, obscurity, and dogma. Thelema distinguishes itself from the rest of these traditions by holding a scientific attitude toward phenomena. If we discover facts in the world that contradict our interpretations of Liber AL vel Legis, it is apparent that one must either acknowledge the interpretation of the line is incorrect or the line itself is incorrect and must be superseded by current knowledge. We must adapt our point-of-view to the facts, not the facts to our point-of-view.
This scientific attitude in Thelema is precisely what is being implied in the lengthy quotation of curses that heads this chapter. Crowley asserts, “Thelema is Magick, and Magick is Science, the antithesis of the religious hypothesis… Also, see The Book of the Law, III:49-54.”49 Crowley asserts that Thelema is “the antithesis of the religious hypothesis” and then cites the exact lines that are quoted at the beginning of this chapter (AL III:49-54). This cursing by Horus of all these religious traditions is now understood to be against their religious theories and dogmatism. Further, Crowley explains, “It is particularly to be noted that Magick, so often mixed up in the popular idea of a religion, has nothing to do with it. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of religion; it is, even more than Physical Science, its irreconcilable enemy.50 Thelema is to be established under scientific lines, as already explained.
Coming back to the cursing of the past religious traditions in Liber AL III:49-54, we’ve understood these to be attacks against imperfect practice and the religious dogma and superstitions found in each. Further meaning of these curses can be derived from the first phrase mentioned: “I am in the secret four-fold word that is a blasphemy against all the gods of men.” Crowley explains, “The evident interpretation of this is to take the [secret four-fold] word to be ‘Do what thou wilt,’ which is a secret word, because its meaning for every man is his own inmost secret. And it is the most profound blasphemy possible against all ‘gods of men,’ because it makes every man his own God.”51 Now we understand that the “four-fold word” is “Do what thou wilt” (which “there is no law beyond…” [AL III:60] in Thelema) is a “blasphemy” and “curse” because it establishes every man (all of humanity) as their own God. Although this is not much of a blasphemy for a non-theistic tradition like Buddhism, it certainly is to any that holds an external God to be supreme. One important aspect of Thelema is that it does not depend on grace from God, grace from guru, initiations from esoteric societies for figureheads, or anything ‘external’ in the normal sense.
…To be continued…
IAO131 is the editor of Journal of Thelemic Studies, and writer on many topics at the website: http://www.iao131.com
1 Vivekananda, Swami. “Address at the Final Session” from Addresses at The Parliament of Religions. Retrieved on 5/20/07 from: <http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda/volume_1/vol_1_frame.htm>
2 J.R. Carter & M. Palihawadana. The Dhammapada. Oxford University Press. Oxford, NY (2000), pg.xii
3 Carter & Palihawadana 2000, pg.xi.
5 Easwaran, Eknath. The Dhammapada. The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation (2004), pg.7
6 Easwaran 2004, pg.7-8.
7 Easwaran 2004, pg.295.
8 Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, 2nd edn, Routledge, London, 2006, pg.3.
9 Crowley, Aleister. The Equinox of the Gods. 1936, ch.6.
12 Crowley, Aleister. The Equinox of the Gods. 1936, ch.7.
13 Sutin, Lawrence. Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley. St. Martin’s Griffin, NY (2000), p.316.
14 Crowley, Aleister. The Revival of Magick. Thelema Media (March 1998).
15 Encyclopedia Britannica (1911). Buckingham.
16 Sutin 2000, pg.4.
17 Sutin 2000, pg.97.
18 Sutin 2000, pg.64.
19 Crowley, Aleister. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, chapter 20.
20 Sutin 2000, pg.66.
21 Sutin 2000, p.70.
22 Sutin 2000, p.81.
23 Sutin 2000, p.86.
24 Sutin 2000, p.89.
25 Sutin 2000, p.90.
26 Sutin 2000, p.91.
27 Sutin 2000, p.95.
28 Sutin 2000, p.94.
29 Sutin 2000, p.96-97.
30 Sutin 2000, p.98.
31 Crowley, Aleister. Book Four: Part II.
32 Crowley, Aleister. (1929) Magick Without Tears, Appendix I.
33 Carter, J.R. & M. Palihawadana 2000, pg.78.
34 Carter, J.R. & M. Palihawadana 2000, pg.72.
35 Crowley, Aleister. “Science and Buddhism,” part XII.
36 Carter, J.R. & M. Palihawadana 2000, pg.78.
37 Crowley, Aleister. “Science and Buddhism,” part XII.
38 Sutin 2000, pg.108.
39 Sutin 2000, pg.108-109.
40 Crowley, Aleister & Fuller, J.F.C. “The Temple of Solomon the King” in The Equinox I(4) (London: 1910), p.177
41 Sutin 2000, pg.139.
42 Sutin 2000, pg.162-163.
44 Crowley, Aleister. The Law is For All, III:53.
45 Crowley, Aleister. The Law is For All, III:51.
46 Crowley, Aleister. The Law is For All, III:52.
47 Sutin 2000, pg.130.
48 Crowley, Aleister. The Law is For All, I:56.
49 Crowley, Aleister. The Revival of Magick, “Antecedents of Thelema”.
50 Crowley, Aleister. Magick Without Tears, ch.6.