Thelema & Buddhism – Pt. 5: War & Conquering by IAO131

“I forbid argument. Conquer! That is enough.”
–Liber AL vel Legis III:11

“My disciples are proud and beautiful; they are strong and swift;
they rule their way like mighty conquerors.”

–Liber Tzaddi vel Hermeticus, line 24 

We have already encountered Horus – known in various forms in Liber AL vel Legis as Hoor-paar-kraat, Heru-pa-kraath, Heru-Ra-Ha, and most commonly as Ra-Hoor-Khuit –while discussing the “curses” in the previous installment [1]. In the beginning of the third chapter of Liber AL, Ra-Hoor-Khuit declares, “Now let it be first understood that I am a god of War and of Vengeance” (AL III:3). These martial themes of war, vengeance, and conquest are apparent throughout Liber AL vel Legis, especially in the third chapter: they deserve further investigation and understanding before we reject it all as immature squabbling. In this age where humanity has gone through two World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, two wars in Iraq, and many more, humanity largely sees war as monstrous and certainly not spiritual. The notions of war as chivalrous and honorable have long since passed. M. Brewster Smith, psychology professor and former president of the American Psychological Association,  once clearly summarized this idea when he said, “My generation’s experience of war – World  War II and since – involved little heroism and much wretched slogging it out in grim necessity and loyalty to one’s buddies… Since the defeat of the Axis powers of World War II, it has become uncommon in the world of Westernized nations to hear war idealized as an ennobling discipline: Now we cast our military adventures and our preparation for them in the guise of reluctant defense.” [2] After all of these horrors, one might ask oneself whether it is possible to rationally come to terms with these ideas of war in ourselves and the world…

Thelema is one of many traditions that attempt to wed the shunned martial aspects of the universe to the spiritual aspects. This has a long tradition with the famous knight-monks of the Knights Templar, the “engaged Buddhists” of the Vietnam War, the mujahideen of Islam, the “Sacred Path of the Warrior” of the more modern Shambhala movement, and not to mention the nearly inexhaustible amount of warrior symbols and archetypes from around the world. This includes the epic story of Arjuna on the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, the plethora of stories about Knights winning some honor in the Medieval Ages, and even the symbolic kirpan dagger worn by Sikhs. Even Jesus, whom many think is the ideal of the “meek and mild,” once said “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” [3] Aleister Crowley reinforces this motif of the spiritual warrior in the Thelemic tradition when he poetically proclaims, “Mighty and terrible and glorious as [Love] is, however, it is but the pennon upon the sacred lance of Will, the damascened inscription upon the swords of the Knight-monks of Thelema.”[4]

War & Conflict 

Liber AL vel Legis, as mentioned in earlier installments, is not merely a step into the future but is also a fulfillment of the wisdom of the past. In the past, war was respected and understood more clearly than in these days. Joseph Campbell explains about the cultures of the past that, “There is… the cruel fact to be recognized that killing is the precondition of all  living whatsoever: life lives on life, eats life, and would otherwise not exist. To some this terrible necessity is fundamentally unacceptable, and such people have, at times, brought forth mythologies of a way to perpetual peace. However, those have not been the people generally who have survived in what Darwin termed the universal struggle for existence. Rather, it has been those who have been reconciled to the nature of life on this earth. Plainly and simply: it has been the nations, tribes, and peoples bred to mythologies of war that have survived to communicate their life-supporting mythic lore to descendants.”[5] In this sense, war is understood to be a sort of symbol of the struggle of life and the necessary expression thereof. Those who affirm life and its struggle for existence are those who “have been reconciled to the nature of life on this earth,” and Thelema represents one of the most modern fulfillments of this life-affirming view of the universe.

Crowley explained his distaste for the motif of denying or distorting this life-affirming view when he said, “My primary objection to Christianity is ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild,’ the pacifist, the conscientious objector, the Tolstoyan, the ‘passive resister.’… ‘Jesus’ himself, in the legend, ‘set his face as a flint to go to Jerusalem,’ with the foreknowledge of his fate. But Christians have not emphasized that heroism since the Crusades. The sloppy sentimental Jesus of the Sunday-school is the only survivor; and the War killed him, thank Ares!” [6] Here Crowley implies that the true image of Jesus should be one who ‘set his face as a flint to go to Jerusalem’ without fear or weakness, which brings back once again the images of Jesus bringing “not… peace, but a sword.” [7] We see that a “mythology,” a symbolic understanding of the universe, which embraces war is one that acknowledges the inherent conflict in life but nonetheless affirms it all. Crowley emphatically declares, “All leaders of men are active, finding pleasure even in toil, hardship, and defeat: they accept every Event as proper to their chosen course of action, and conquer even when they are beaten down for the moment. They die at the crisis of the battle, with failure certain; yet they rejoice, having lived and loved and fought and done their will; those for whose cause they fought will reap at last where they have sowed” [8] (emphasis added) This attitude of conquering all obstacles and, most importantly, rejoicing in both happiness and hardship is an important angle to interpret the use of “conquering” and “war” in the tradition of Thelema and the text of Liber AL vel Legis.

Further concerning war, Campbell explains, “Heraclitus declared war to be the creator of all great things; and in the words again of Spengler, ‘The one who lacks courage to be a hammer comes off in the role of the anvil.’ Many a sensitive mind, reacting to this unwelcome truth, has found nature intolerable, and has cried down all those best fit to live as ‘wicked,’ ‘evil,’ or ‘monstrous,’ setting up instead, as a counter-ideal, the model of him who turns the other cheek and whose kingdom is not of this world.” [9] In this sense, the mythologies of “war” are understood to be “life-affirming” or “world-affirming” in contrast to those mythologies of “peace” which posit a perfect land in another world. Examples of this are abound in all cultures of the world. Christianity’s notion of heaven in the clouds is the most obvious reference, but there are also other traditions that attempt to escape this world including Pure Land Buddhism, or Amidism, which is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism that believes one is supposedly guaranteed rebirth into the pure land of enlightenment if one merely has devotion towards or prays to “Amitabha Buddha.” These are both views of religious traditions that cause the aspirant to look outside of him or herself for salvation, an attitude fundamentally rejected by Thelema.

As asserted in the previous installment, one important aspect of Thelema is that it does not depend on grace from God, grace from guru, initiations from esoteric societies, from figureheads, or anything ‘external’ in the normal sense. Liber AL vel Legis summarizes its view on this in in the line, “Every man and every woman is a star” (AL I:3). Explaining this important facet of Thelemic philosophy, he continues, “We are not to regard ourselves as base beings, without whose sphere is Light or ‘God’. Our minds and bodies are veils of the Light within. The uninitiate is a ‘Dark Star,’ and the Great Work for him is to make his veils transparent by ‘purifying’ them. This ‘purification’ is really ‘simplification’; it is not that the veil is dirty, but that the complexity of its folds makes it opaque. The Great Work therefore consists principally in the solution of complexes. Everything in itself is perfect, but when things are muddled, they become ‘evil’.” [10] This concisely lays forth the life-affirming and especially individually-affirming message of Liber AL vel Legis and Thelema. Essentially, in Thelema, divinity is understood to be inherent within, except it is veiled in a complexity of “folds,” which are essentially one’s psychological “complexes.” This is an entirely valid  psychological approach as well, which was later taken up by later individuals including Jung and his ruminations about “individuation” and “complexes” and Freud’s notions of “repression” and “neurosis.” This all relates back to the maxim “Every man and every woman is a star” (AL I:3) in that every man and every woman is a “light unto themselves,” a star (“Khabs”), with no absolute need for exterior powers like grace of God or guru to fulfill their unique will.


Now we will begin looking at the lines in the Dhammapada which talk about the notions conquering. The most important lines of the Dhammapada that have a bearing on this subject come in the eighth chapter:

“If one man conquer in battle a thousand times thousand men, and if another conquer himself, he is the greatest of conquerors. One’s own self conquered is better than all other people; not even a god, a Gandharva [animal spirits], not Mara [Death & the tempter] with Brahman [limitless Godhead] could change into defeat the victory of a man who has vanquished himself, and always lives under restraint.” [11]
-Dhammapada, lines 103-104

These lines synthesize the previous ruminations about the necessity of accepting all facets of life including conflict, and it forms a new and extremely important view of “conquering.” Before, we understood that the self is a ‘warrior’ who rejoices in struggles and  hardships. Now we can understand that although there are many external obstacles, the one’s which are most important and most difficult to conquer are the internal obstacles. Once again, Buddha emphasizes this by saying “If one man conquer in battle a thousand times thousand  men, and if another conquer himself, he is the greatest of conquerors.” Crowley thought this line so important that he said in regards to it,“This is the whole of Buddhism, as it is of any and all systems of self-control.” [12] Further, he explains that “[Buddhism] (the Dharma) is to be attained to by the wise, each one for himself. Salvation rests on Work, and not on Faith, not in reforming the so-called fallen, but in conquering oneself.” [13] The Dharma is here simply the path of illuminated consciousness, of one who, in terms of Thelema, is doing his or her Will.

A question may initially arise from this: Is Thelema itself “a system of self-control” that Crowley refers to, like Buddhism? Crowley answers this question quite clearly by himself when he asserts, “About 90% of Thelema, at a guess, is nothing but self-discipline. One is only allowed to do anything and everything so as to have more scope for exercising that virtue,” [14] and also, “What is true for every School is equally true for every individual. Success in life, on the basis of the Law of Thelema, implies severe self-discipline.” [15] The difference in self-discipline in Thelema from Buddhism is that, in Thelema, there are no a priori ‘wrong’ actions except those that somehow restrict or impede one’s Will.

This exact assertion of conquering oneself can be seen paralleled by the famous yogi Swami Vivekananda’s proclamation, “He who conquers self conquers all.” It also may been seen in Eliphas Levi’s declaration, “the magnum opus is pre-eminently the creation of man by himself, that is, the full and complete conquest which he can make of his faculties and his future; it is pre-eminently the perfect emancipation of his will.” [16] Here, Levi acknowledges that this conquering of oneself is precisely what is needed to ‘perfectly emancipate’ the Will.

With this, I end with a question posed by Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra” that I pose to the readers of this essay,

“Art thou the victorious one, the self-conqueror , the ruler of thy passions, the mastery of thy virtues? Thus do I ask thee.” [17]


[1] The Journal of Thelemic Studies, Vol.I, No.1

[2] Smith, M. Brewster. “Nationalism, Ethnocentrism, and the New World Order.” (1992)

[3] King James Version of the Bible. Matthew 10:34

[4] Crowley, Aleister. “Liber II The Message of the Master Therion” from The Equinox III(1). (Detroit: Universal, 1919)

[5] Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By, p.169. Penguin Books (1972)

[6] Crowley, Aleister. The Law is For All. III:57

[7] King James Version of the Bible. Matthew 10:34

[8] Crowley, Aleister. Djeridensis Comment (By Aleister Crowley, c. 1923. Copyright © O.T.O. Crowley himself never published it, but it did appear in “The Magical Link” IX(4)–X(2), 1995/96.) AL II:18.

[9] Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By, p.170. Penguin Books (1972)

[10] Crowley, Aleister. The Law is For All. I:8

[11] Muller, Max. Dhammapada. (1885), Ch.8 lines 103-105

[12] Crowley, Aleister. The Equinox vol.1 no.4, p.140

[13] Ibid

[14] Crowley, Aleister. Magick Without Tears, ch.70

[15] Crowley, Aleister. Magick Without Tears, ch.8

[16] Levi, Eliphas. Transcendental Magic, ch.12

[17] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra, ch.20