Monday, January 14, 2008

Thelema and the Pure View

This article started off as a comment that I was considering posting on Pyrrhotechnics, a blog belonging to a friend and OTO brother, but never actually made it into the comments there or onto the previous version of this blog. My friend was commenting on people who consider themselves Thelemites but nonetheless criticize Aleister Crowley without really understanding his work or practicing his teachings. In response, I posted the following:

Tibetan Buddhists address similar issues with regard to the proper attitude to take toward their lamas in a very succint manner. In their tradition it is said that it is said that if the lama is viewed as an ordinary human, the resulting attainment is that of an ordinary human; if the lama is viewed as a Buddha, the resulting attainment is that of a Buddha; and if the lama is viewed as a dog, the resulting attainment is that of a dog.

Substitute Magus for Buddha and this same idea strikes me as applicable to the proper attitude to take toward Crowley in Thelema.

"Is a God to live in a dog? No!"

The attitude of regarding a Tibetan lama (which incidentally is the Tibetan translation of the more familiar sanskrit guru) as a Buddha is called the Pure View. On the surface it seems counterintuitive, especially since lamas do not actually claim to be enlightened beings themselves and in many cases will actively deny being enlightened if asked. In effect, this attitude could be criticized as "faking it" - you may know that the person giving the teaching does not claim enlightenment, but you are deliberately choosing to regard his or her words as enlightened speech anyway.

Judging from the history of Eastern religious movements in the West, Westerners are not very good at cultivating this sort of attitude. The tendency seems to be for Westerners to either accept every word the teacher utters as truth, or to devalue both the teacher and the teachings. There seems to be little middle ground, which I would argue gives rise to the criticism of Western teachers such as Crowley. Furthermore, this sort of black and white thinking strikes me as sloppy and not particularly conducive to the cultivation of genuine spiritual realization.

The Pure View does not require an abandonment of critical thinking regarding the teachings themselves. Crowley published an extensive set of spiritual techniques and practices, and I do not believe I have ever met anyone who actually makes use of all of them. Thelema is a very individualistic spiritual path and it is left for every student to decide for themselves whether or not a given teaching is appropriate or useful. It does, however, counteract pointless criticism of the teacher. If you believe a spiritual teacher to be genuine you should respect him or her as though you would respect a fully enlightened being.

Where Westerners seem to have problems is that they often assume that if they do not hold the same opinions and have the same personal quirks as their teacher there is something wrong with them. Frederick Lenz, for example, was a self-proclaimed teacher of "American Buddhism" and told his students what movies they should watch, what music they should listen to, and where they should work - all the while collecting the majority of their income. That anyone went along with that sort of teaching amazes me - it simply is irrelevant whether or not you and your teacher like the same movies. I have some things in common with Crowley - for example, I enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction, ritual magick, philosophy, and chess. On the other hand, I have little interest in mountaineering, writing poetry, or painting.

Crowley produced an enormous body of written work and for better or worse just about every opinion he held is likely in print somewhere. However, unlike most other gurus and teachers he actually helps his students out by offering a handy classification system for his writings. From Thelemapedia:
  • Class [A] consists of books of which may be changed not so much as the style of a letter: that is, they represent the utterance of an Adept entirely beyond the criticism of even the Visible Head of the Organization.
  • Class [B] consists of books or essays which are the result of ordinary scholarship, enlightened and earnest.
  • Class [C] consists of matter which is to be regarded rather as suggestive than anything else.
  • Class [D] consists of the Official Rituals and Instructions.
  • Class [E] consists of manifestos, broadsides, epistles and other public statements. Some publications are composite, and pertain to more than one class.

Furthermore, Crowley considered himself a Scientific Illuminist who practiced "The method of science, the aim of religion." One of the key points of the scientific method is its universality. If a chemist discovers that two substances appear to interact a certain way, the proper scientific response is to replicate the experiment and see if the original reaction can be reproduced. It would be ridiculous to claim that the experiment must be wrong because the chemist who discovered it holds an unpopular political opinion or has problems in their personal life, and to engage in a lengthy debate over the merits of such accusations rather than just running the experiment does nothing to advance the discipline of chemistry. By definitition, Scientific Illuminism does not work with a static body of teachings, but instead allows for experimentation and improvement. If you do the work, this becomes obvious - as long as you work along experimental lines and test out your practices as you modify them.

Buddhist teachings regarding the Pure View are actually very similar to Crowley's advice given in Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae:

In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth, and the Paths, of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether they exist or not. By doing certain things certain results follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.

Whether or not the Pure View has objective validity, the practice itself is important and useful and can lead to real spiritual awakening.

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1 comment:

Ben Sandler said...

Thanks for this blogpost. A new resource for the occult (specifically of Thelema) is the new Journal of Thelemic Studies, the first issue of which is available for free at … hope you enjoy!