Sudden Enlightenment and Thelema

For the past 4 years Zen Buddhism has taken over as my prominent system of study, and I often find myself in reflection on Thelema as it expedited my understanding and approach of the more sophisticated and/or esoteric aspects of Zen writings and poetry. The difference between the two systems (on the surface) is that Zen is meant to be understood, and therefor approached as the ‘sudden enlightenment’ school of Buddhism – it is the teaching of Buddhism which existed before the scriptures and the sayings, and before the physical birth of the Buddha; it is the understanding outside of the written word. This understanding was passed down through mind-to-mind transmission, which was in essence a Master accepting that their student eventually shared in the understanding. Sadly, Thelema didn’t progress much beyond the writings of Crowley, which is a great shame, as in comparison, Buddhist thinkers and writers span out, cross borders, and leave their lineages abundant new sayings, perspectives and texts to study, which allowed the fleshing out of ideas and concepts for easier comprehension, and a robust rich tradition appealing to all varieties of minds.

With Thelema, you can point out that Aleister Crowley taught that ‘Magick’ is not used in the woo woo sense of the word, but that every intended act, be it reaching for a doorknob, my writing this now, or even your reading this… every intended act is a magical act. The system has concepts such as pure will, and every student (for however long a student) of Thelema will know the axiom, ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, love is the law, love under will.‘ This is pointing to a consistent practice of awareness, and elsewhere in the writings a student would come across the same matters that another would encounter in studying Zen, namely samadhi, non-duality, emptiness etc. However, Thelema suffers due to its lack of proper lineage, which is quite sad given its tender age. It has been kept alive for the most part by publishers, and academics who prattle about and pick apart this and that. Many online who claim an understanding of Thelema (that may be legitimate) could have read a few Crowley quotes, or a book or two and find resonance with the system, getting the gist of the teaching – in Buddhism, this is paralleled, where monks or students hear a single line of a sutra and attain an instant realization. In the Buddhist tradition this would be chocked up to having studied in a past life and having the realization in the current life as a fruit of those past life actions. One may understand Thelema and state so, though there would be sticklers of Passage X, or Book Y, and Academic Z’s work ready to dismiss them, but all of this is play fencing and intellectual posturing. Though to be fair, there is more than just understanding the teaching, there is the required cultivation of the Great Work. While there may be shared appreciation in Thelema for Crowley’s writing and teachings, there’s seldom a shared appreciation in shared understanding, and shared cultivation.

On the other hand, there are those who will claim magick is all about spirits, god forms, angels, demons, correspondences and rituals, though if asked to point out successful magicians of this craft, they’re likely to point at writers who regurgitated these matters and made a pretty penny in so doing. I’d compare them to one who offers a service crafting custom maps that lead to treasures, though when asked what treasures they’ve obtained from the pursuit, the map maker points to their padded bank account and their expensive jewellery, living off having successfully sold thousands of maps for a good fortune. Their misdirection would be funny, if it wasn’t also tragic. That Crowley contributed to the Goetia, and wrote about various rituals and evocations, unfortunately this is all some pin-point as their focus and this conceptualization of magic is then presented as the whole work of Thelema, when it couldn’t be farther from the truth. This deceptive image is what oozed out into the mainstream and will likely be what comes to the mind of another who hears of one’s interest in Crowley, or Thelema. I’m of the perspective that such rituals are black.

The Book of the Law states in Chapter 2, verse 6: “I am the flame that burns in every heart of man, and in the core of every star. I am Life, and the giver of Life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the knowledge of death.” The knowledge of death is awareness of impermanence. In Buddhism it is known as the doctrine of dependent origination. Knowing dependent origination, one maintains awareness in the present moment and consider their actions in the light of this understanding. In Buddhism there is the concept of ‘no-self’, which a part of the emptiness, non-dual transcendence doctrine (Prajñāpāramitā) which is echoed in Thelema. For example the Book of the Law states, ‘Nothing is a secret key of this law’ and ‘The Perfect and the Perfect are one Perfect and not two; nay, are none!’ This ties into dependent origination, which if unfamiliar, is that everything is empty of self because everything arises in dependence of another thing. Nothing, including yourself, myself, or any reader is independent because everything is dependent. Because everything arises in dependence of a cause, it is considered empty of self existence, as all is transient. With ‘the knowledge of death’ (nirvana), one can realize the root of their causality, of their current conditioning, and return back into the pure Nothing that they are. Put more beautifully in the Book of the Law,Since I am Infinite Space, and the Infinite Stars thereof, do ye also thus. Bind nothing! Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing & any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt.’

To act as this ‘non-self’ and to act in accordance with the ‘dharma’ or flow of life, is called Wu Wei, or to be doing non-doing, or it is said that such one’s actions are done in samadhi. This classification of doing is usually attributed to the compassionate bodhisattva class (those who act in accordance with the dharma, who possess the three bodies of the buddha and who manifest the fruits of the triple gem; true speech, true thought, true action). This could be paralleled to the pure will of Thelema. Aleister Crowley wrote in The Stag Beetle that to transcend the sense of individuality, one can find union through love, and states that one should ‘Die daily’, even further providing the note that the Master is urging his pupils to practice samadhi every day. Again we can draw reference to a Zen Master, such as Bankei Yotaku’s teaching who wrote, ‘Die—then live day and night within the world. Once you’ve done this, then you can hold the world right in your hand!’

Back to sudden enlightenment! Zen was set up as the ‘sudden enlightenment’ school opposed to gradual enlightenment. This is mostly a theatrical division, but this matter of sudden and gradual enlightenment serves a greater purpose in dealing with the different minds that approach the system of Buddhism. Zen Master Zongmi explored various combinations and they can be usefully summed up as: (1) gradual cultivation followed by sudden enlightenment is like gradually chopping down a tree until it suddenly falls, (2) sudden cultivation followed by gradual enlightenment is like immediately discerning a target and then gradually learning how to hit it with an arrow, (3) gradual cultivation and gradual enlightenment is like ascending a tower with the vista expanding with each upward step, (4) sudden enlightenment and sudden cultivation is rare and depends upon gradual cultivation in a past life, and (5) sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation is like an infant who is born with all their limbs, but must slowly learn how to use them.

Zen has the helpful pointer of the four elements (also found in Thelema) which the body is comprised of. Zen Master Chinul looked at sudden awakening and said that ‘when the ordinary man is deluded, he assumes the four great elements are his body and the false thoughts are his mind. He does not know that his own nature is the true dharma-body; [dharmakaya] he does not know that his numinous awareness is the true buddha. He looks for the buddha outside his mind. While he is thus wandering aimlessly, the entrance to the road might by chance be pointed out by a wise adviser. If in one thought he then follows back the light of his mind to its source and sees his own original nature, he will discover that the ground of this nature is innately free of defilement, and that he himself is originally endowed with the non-outflow wisdom-nature which is not a hair’s breadth different from that of all the buddhas. Hence it is called sudden awakening.‘ While this awakening takes place suddenly, habit-energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly, so they must then continue to cultivate while relying on the awakening, which is why it’s called gradual cultivation.

Realizing however that ‘mind is Buddha’ (a common Zen saying) is pointing to the space element in the center of the four great elements, which is also represented by Vairocana Buddha. For reference, search out a mapping of the Five Conquerors, also known as the Five Wisdom Buddhas. The Book of the Law states, ‘I am unique & conqueror. I am not of the slaves that perish. Be they damned & dead! Amen. (This is of the 4: there is a fifth who is invisible, & therein am I as a babe in an egg.)‘ The five wisdom buddhas also represent the trikaya or three-body theory of buddhahood which will be examined in future posts. I bring them up here, as for sustenance, the trikaya relies on the triple gem; Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha which then enables the true speech, true thought and true actions.

In Zen one realizes their mind is the Buddha (enlightened), the Dharma 法 (translated as Law, for example: 法の書 is the Book of the Law) is the principle teaching which one takes refuge in to attain that realization, and the Sangha is the community who share in this understanding and from it spread the dharma and alleviate the suffering of others with their great work. As Crowley wrote in Berashith, ‘On mature consideration, therefore, I confidently and deliberately take my refuge in the Triple Gem.’ Unfortunately, Thelema’s sangha is… seemingly non-existent. Sure, there are forums of discord and arm flailing, and there is the Order, though it is in disarray and would be more aptly named the Disorder. There are arguments over who took up the mantle for Crowley, there is debate and discussion over who possesses the rightful robe and bowl, or should I say wand and chalice, there is finger pointing over whose lineage is legitimate or not… yet there is no fruitful demonstrations of anything beyond academic work, childish play, posturing, and incessant in-fighting. They all disqualify themselves from the conversation of authentic lineage as soon as they speak. This lineage question is not even that important either, as lineage and transmissions in traditions historically have not been legitimate, take much of the mind-to-mind transmission in the Asian Buddhist traditions, and with research you find many are fabrications. This was done for the schools to legitimize themselves to government, etc. Does this make their resulting understanding false? Does this turn the fruit rotten? Does it render its teachers and students fraudulent? When one erects a teaching that accords with the truth, they take up the dharma right where they are, and if they can demonstrate that they share in the Buddha’s understanding, they create from then on a legitimate lineage from where they stand. Is Aleister Crowley One? Can no one understand?

I stand firm in desiring the existence of a sudden enlightenment school of Thelema. My favourite style of Zen writing is the koan or case studies, they are, in my opinion, the epitome of the sudden enlightenment tradition. I look to forge my own Thelemic sangha online, where others can transmute the truths in Crowley’s teachings into unique koan style cases for easier promulgation and study. I’ve already initiated that work and will share my progress with its creation here. For example, please read the case of Initiation, also known as Ctenodiscus Crispatus. It utilizes a teaching of Aleister Crowley on the Great Work and initiation, he wrote ‘The uninitiated is a ‘Dark Star’, and the Great Work for him is to make his veils transparent by ‘purifying’ them.‘ Crowley states that one is innately perfect, or pure, but our complexes may muddy us. Zen Master Yangqi said to an assembly, ‘When body and mind are pure, objects are pure; when objects are pure, body and mind are pure. Do you know what I’m getting at? The coin that was lost in the river must be retrieved from the river.’ The Thelemic source material is ripe for the picking, and concepts such as the HGA (holy guardian angel), crossing the abyss, evocations and invocations, and the Thelemic Qabalah all could use an obliteration in a device as useful and effective as the koan.

May you find it accords with your will to participate, or at least read along. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the dharma law, love is the dharma law, love under will.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this verse from the discourses of Zen Master Wuyi Yuanlai,

‘The Masters of ancient times said:
Bravely let go
On the edge of the cliff.
Throw yourself into the Abyss
With decision and courage.
You only revive after death.
Verily, this is the Truth!’

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