Danger, Will Robinson!

The bulk of the message in this post is really the linked video below. It is well worth watching in its entirety, but if you are *ahem* ‘time poor’ or simply lazy then watch from 5:00 onwards.

The gist of the matter is simple:

(1) meditation, particularly ‘mindfulness meditation’ is not the universal panacea that many modern exponents in the West are portraying it as.

(2) somatic, psychic and spiritual problems can, and probably will at some point, arise from extended meditation practice. This is normal.

(3) traditionally these  problems were dealt with and transformed by methods and frameworks other than meditation itself.

(4) removing meditation practice from its spiritual and traditional context, for example teaching it as part of adult night school once a week, democratises the practise but does not address the problems and potential transformation that arises due to its practice.

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Specifically and simply in a Buddhist context we need to remember the order of the Noble Eightfold Path.

  1. Right understanding or view – (Wisdom)
  2. Right intention – (Wisdom)
  3. Right speech – (Ethical conduct)
  4. Right action – (Ethical conduct)
  5. Right livelihood – (Ethical conduct)
  6. Right effort – (Concentration)
  7. Right mindfulness – (Concentration)
  8. Right concentration – (Concentration)

Notice what comes in at number one? In fact the practise side of things (concentration) does not start until we’ve developed some wisdom and ethics. Without these, depth meditation is at best useless or self-focused and at worst a precursor to psychic disintegration.

This is why these vast and gracious traditions developed around depth spiritual practices, traditions that include ethics, intellectual development, community engagement and service, without which practise is sterile. It is why traditionalist philosophy espouses the practice of an exoteric religion to house, ground and contain our esoteric transformations. It is why, in the video, HH the Dalai Lama refused to bless a new monastery that did not include a library but focused solely on meditation practise.

Stop Outer Order Magic Now!

We can apply this argument directly to Western depth spirituality, particularly magic. It is why, traditionally, magic was not really a part of the Outer Order of the Golden Dawn. It is why a religious or Masonic path was often seen as desirable before (and during and after) the practice of depth magic – to develop ethics and communal service. It is why there are repeated psychic problems with newcomers who practice magic from day one. Just look at any Facebook magic forum for examples.

I am probably a lone or lonely voice in this respect, but there you go 🙂 I’ll finish quoting myself from a similar post:

“Right understanding. This is not a practice, but an attitude, a focal point, a giving up of the ego’s sovereignty. It is the neophyte in the Inner Light tradition declaring ‘I desire to know in order to serve‘.” 🙂

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Legitimate Spirituality and the New Age: an esoteric perspective

Borrowed from DMK 🙂

Over on his blog Donald Michael Kraig has a swipe at the New Age – mainly for its huckster qualities and logical fallacies. Nice. Scoot on over and have a look.

Now, I’ve done a bit of New Age bashing in my time, getting thrown out of two bookshops for … er… ‘enthusiastic’ expression of my opinions. The first was in Perth when the owner informed me that she ‘deserved’ to go travelling six months of the year, and therefore had no intention of lowering prices or donating to charity. I patiently explained that if she ‘deserved’ such luxury, so did everyone else on the planet (the majority of whom worked harder) and the resultant carbon mess of six billion people jet-setting around would kill us all. She then said she ‘had the karma’ for it, and others probably didn’t. It was then I got a mite ‘enthused’.

The other time was on visit to Melbourne and a new age ‘Witchy shop’. It was a slow time of the day so the owner was instructing a new assistant in how to sell pre-made ‘spell boxes’ at $40 a pop. I eaves dropped. Oh, come on – you would too. 🙂

It was clearly obvious that the assistant had never done any magic. At all, at all. In response to her questioning the owner about what to do if a customer asked about the spells, the owner said, “oh, just make it up, they’ll never know, they [the boxes] are all the same anyway”. Again, my enthusiasm rose and I interrupted with some force… and smartly was ‘asked’ to leave.

So I know where DMK is coming from. Still, I have other issues with the New Age industry and had a nice long article explaining it all on previous website. I’ve used a few bits and pieces from it on MOTO before but thought I’d plonk the whole thing here. I’ve added just a little bit extra and hopefully the whole thing reads OK 🙂 But enough preamble… here it is.

A few years ago a friend of mine, Angela, described her spirituality to me as ‘living life, seeing friends…walking on the beach…doing it all.’ She was clear she was ‘spiritual’ and that her spirituality was right and valid for her. She read the odd spiritual book – mostly bestsellers like the Celestine Prophecy – and was peripherally aware of spiritual practices and practiced Western styled hatha yoga. She was very happy she lived in a world that had grown beyond the ‘strictures of control’ which previously governed individual expression. She viewed organised religion as outdated and destined to crumble from within as individuals found their own self-defined spiritually.

Angela is not alone in her views, many of which are invisible dogmas in today’s New Age community. Pondering Angela’s description of her spirituality I was struck with a number of questions: what exactly is spirituality?; what is not spirituality?; can we judge any individual expression of spirituality, and if so how, using what criteria?

The Spiritual and the Religious

Contemporary definitions of spirituality often point to the experience of the sacred in contrast with the attempt made by religion to understand, express and represent the sacred through temporal activity and symbolism. Spirituality is therefore a personal knowledge, an individual embracing of the sacred while religion seeks a communal manifestation. While there does not need to be any conflict between the two – many people with individual spiritual experiences still consciously embrace organised religion – there is often tension between them. A quick scan of internet dating services will find many people describing themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Just like Angela.

The individual nature of spirituality reflects the modern origins of the word and points out a matter of crucial significance: if each of us has our own, self contained spirituality then whatever we experience as spirituality is, ipse facto spirituality. Angela’s walk on the beach, a yogini’s dharana on Kali and a devout Catholic taking mass are therefore all spiritual experiences.

However, by this definition a white extremist Christian exhorting and practicing the cleansing of inferior races is also a spiritual experience simply because it has been experienced as such. Here we run into a paradox, since it is precisely those modern, western secular values that permit us to practice spirituality divorced from religion that are affronted and threatened by activities like white extremism. Yet, logically we cannot but allow the label of spirituality to be applied to these experiences – if they are felt as spiritual by the individuals involved (no matter how repellent we personally find them). If we cannot judge – another invisible New Age dogma – we must not judge in any case.

Most of us – and if we are to judge from the literature, certainly most of the New Age community – do not like to think hard about issues like these. It is much easier to go on practicing our cappuccino credit card spirituality than face difficult questions and decisions. However, as often pointed out we are interdependent beings and our choices, practices, actions and non-actions influence and support the status quo around us. So, as spiritual people if we do not address these issues we support the misuse of spiritual concepts and ideas.

It is blissfully easy to practice spirituality (particularly New Age spirituality) in today’s modern west – it is everywhere, ready to be consumed and taken home in nice, neat packages. From a traditional religious perspective much New Age spirituality means little. Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying describes how parts of Australia and California are similar to the Gods realm in Buddhist cosmology with the Gods (and us):

…lounging on beaches and in gardens, flooded by brilliant sunshine, listening to any kind of music they choose, intoxicated by every kind of stimulant, high on meditation, yoga, bodywork, and ways of improving themselves, but never taxing their brains, never confronting any complex or painful situation, never conscious of their true nature, and so anesthetized that they are never aware of what their condition really is.” (page 113).

Despite this rosy picture and the ‘follow your bliss’ bumper stickers, true inner and outer transformation is rarely consistently and exclusively enjoyable since it expands us to a realm beyond our regular mental and emotional comfort zones. It is very easy however to simply enjoy the ‘bliss’ of spirituality, like the Gods. Whenever he felt a student was slipping into this, Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the foremost teachers of Tibetan Buddhism to the west, used to grab them by the shoulders and shout “Buddhism is supposed to SHAKE-YOU-UP!” The same reality is shown in the western esoteric saying:

God is not comfortable,

He is not a kind uncle.

He is an earthquake.

The Good and the Bad

My personal way of making sense of these issues draws from two viewpoints. The first was clarified for me over twenty years ago when I attended a ‘conference on spirituality’. Throughout the morning we heard from witches and Sufis, green activists and bishops. Then Sister Veronica Brady (even back then a venerable wisdom sage) spoke: ‘Everyone’s been talking about spirituality’, she said, ‘but we have to realise there is good spirituality and there is bad spirituality. Good spirituality is obedient to God, and bad spirituality isn’t’. What a breath of fresh air! Even if we did not agree, at least it was something to sink our teeth into; some meat to balance the soft tofu of the morning.

I think it is fair to say that Sister Veronica presented accurately the traditional viewpoint shared by most authentic religious and esoteric schools: for our spiritual experience – our life – to be authentic and ‘good’ we must be in submission to the will of God. To put it in more palatable New Age language: we need to align our everyday ‘lower-self’ with the spiritual impetus from our Sacred One(s) that seeks to manifest through us. The same reality is referred to in both sentences, the crucial matter being surrender to the divine. Spirituality without this surrender is polluted and corrupted by our own petty ego concerns; in New Age language – our spirituality can become a vehicle for the expression of our patterns, addictions and ‘issues’. We’ve all seen people like this I’m sure, maybe even in the morning mirror.

What criteria we may use to discern if there is authentic surrender within our – or another’s – spirituality we will discuss later. For now I wish to explore the second way I make sense of the multitude of (to my mind) strange spiritualities abroad these days. This focuses on what exactly is and is not spirituality. The Sr Veronica approach I feel is useful to sort the wheat from the chaff. But with walks on beaches, Anglican high masses, healing from sexual abuse and racist murder all being claimed as spiritual, I think we need some yardstick of discrimination of what we may accept as spirituality before attempting to see if it is good or bad. I find this discrimination offered by traditional esotericism.

An Esoteric View

On the surface the New Age appears to have much in common with traditional esotericism and one the unique features of the New Age is the availability of aspects of esoteric lore outside a formal exoteric structure. Esoteric spirituality is distinguished by its penetrating insight and practice concerning all levels of reality, its acceptance of the visible, the invisible and the heavenly.

Nearly all traditional esoteric paths across the world share a common view of the universe. At the most fundamental level the traditionalist view posits three interacting ‘worlds’ or spheres of existence. There is the physical, temporal world of phenomena. There is the eternal, uncreated, unchanging world of spiritual reality. And between these two worlds there also exists a world of transition and inner experience, often loosely called the ‘astral’ by modern western spirituality and by traditionalists, the psychic realm. This world functions as bridge between the upper and lower realms of spiritual reality and physical existence.

The worlds are not separate to each other and function as a continuum. How they function and inform each other is crucial to the full realisation of the human being. As a brief example of this we can look at how at three aspects of outer western religion – sacrament, doctrine and myth – are temporal representations of inner reality.

Physical Manifestation Sacrament Doctrine Myth
Psychic Experience Blessing Realisation Relationship
Spiritual Experience Power Truth Reality

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A central understanding here is that human psychic experience lies between the outer (physical) and the inner (spiritual) world. Ideally it is informed by both: correct and balanced doctrine combining with openness to spiritual truth to create a personal realisation; correctly performed sacramental acts combining with spiritual powers to create interior blessing; and inspiring myth combining with the spiritual reality it points to in order to create a renewed sense of relationship.

Astral-psychic experience is not spiritual experience, though the two are often confused in today’s New Age community. This confusion stems from two errors: firstly, the conflation of spirituality with personal development and healing, and secondly the assumption that the presence of elements of esoteric teachings within the New Age makes that spirituality esoteric and authentic. Of the first, Lama Ngakpa Chogyam says:

…it’s very important that people look at their own personal pain in a ‘non-esoteric’ manner before they shroud their own neurosis in the cloak of arcane mysteries.  The intrinsic Mystery of Being is mysterious enough without filtering our involvement with its methods of Realisation through the web of belligerent potty training.’ (Psychology and the Spiritual Traditions, p.33)

The modern appropriation of spiritual language, frameworks and techniques for personal and psychological adjustment does not mean the two spheres – personal growth and spiritual unfoldment – are one. While related, the two are not the same and the esoteric traditions clearly distinguish between them.

In esoteric Qabalah the centralising state of consciousness, called Tiphareth looks ‘down’ towards the personal and ‘up’ towards the transpersonal. This shows the interrelation of the two, while recognising that the correct ‘upward’ view – the motivation and awareness of the individual – is required to embrace what is beyond us. Writing on Christian mysticism Theodore J. Nottingham embraces the traditional view that spiritual unfoldment does not come about “through intellectual or emotional development” but through “another state of being”. (Theodore J Nottingham: The Mysticism of Christian Teaching).

True spirituality is concerned with fostering this other state of being, which most esoteric traditions recognise as both immanent (within each of us) and transcendent (beyond all of us). Spiritual practices and frameworks will certainly give succour to our personal pain and it is appropriate to seek God to overcome pain. However, if our motivation for spiritual practice remains within this realm – the realm of the self seeking somatic, mental or emotional healing – this is where we will remain. We will never go beyond ourselves to the ‘other state of being’; we will never develop the right view and enter the eternal. The New Age homogenisation of healing and spirituality only adds to this tendency and encourages us to remain forever in the personal while seeing it as spiritual.

The esoteric and ancient religious traditions teach us to go beyond the personal while never neglecting our individual pain. An example made familiar through the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings is Tong-len, literally ‘giving and receiving’. In this meditation we consciously take on the suffering of others and give them the means for relief of suffering. By focusing away from the self we enter the realm of the spiritual and any personal healing is simply a by-product.

Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemplative Anglican priest with much esoteric study is even more stark in her review of western spirituality writing:

As Buddhism observed long ago, pain and pleasure are simply two ends of the old “egoic stick.” As long as one is drawing one’s vital energy from self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-expression, even in service of the purest and noblest of causes, one is still orbiting within the egoic feedback loop. As long as happiness and a personal sense of self-worth are still the measures by which one relates to life and adjusts one’s heading; as long as vitality is the measure of spiritual wellbeing, one is trapped within the egoic feedback system. These are not moral judgments; they are descriptive criteria. And by these criteria, it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego. (http://www.sacredweb.com/online_articles/sw4_bourgeault.html)

Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault

Here the good Rev is talking about all western spirituality, not just the New Age, including Jewish, Christian, Pagan and magical too. Read her article. Not sure about you, but it fairly makes me humble and sheepish. People believe they are practicing spirituality but they are not actually going beyond the pleasure-pain circuit, and thus not beyond their own selves which are temporal not spiritual in the actual sense of the word. They remain within astral experience, undergoing all sorts of healing and actualising processesmbut never getting to the core of reality.

The Astral-Psychic Emphasis

With reference to the three world model discussed earlier, much New Age spirituality emphasises the experiential, the astral-psychic realm. It is unwilling to create effectual outer forms of expression, such as ritual, doctrine and moral codes, since it is consciously trying to avoid being ‘religious’. Therefore the astral-psychic experience is rarely fully grounded in daily communal life and transformation rarely achieved. Traditionally the outer forms of a spirituality housed and contained the inner experience and meaning provided by the esoteric. Both were required for full transformation and expression of the divine.

New Age spirituality is also mostly unable to provide meaningful spiritual world experience since such experience builds upon both outer form and consistent astral-psychic experience over a number of years. The lack of in-depth teachings, the need for commercial success, the highly changing nature of the community and the individualistic nature of New Age practitioners in effect precludes consistent experience of the spiritual world. Instead there is a distinct tendency to assume astral-psychic experience as spiritual experience, when the two are separate states of being.

Let us be clear: astral visions, aura readings, clairvoyance, channelling, energy grids, past lives, invocations, channelled messages from the Pleiades are psychic not spiritual experiences.

The Pleiades

While it is true that all of these concepts and techniques form part of various esoteric arts and schools, they are traditionally seen as empty in and by themselves, merely as gateways to transformation. True spirituality is something else, something completely different. The emphasis on the astral-psychic realm within the New Age hinders us passing through the gateway to the eternal offered by esoteric techniques and concepts. Instead we assume we have passed the gate and that our experiences are in and by themselves spiritual.

All esoteric schools assert true spiritual unfoldment takes many years of guided focus upon the eternal and away from the highly charged experiences offered within the astral-psychic realm. It for this reason techniques such as those listed above were traditionally labelled as ‘dangerous’: it is easy to focus upon the effects the technique has upon our self rather than focusing upon the One, to whom the technique points.

Discernment

So back to our questions, what is and is not spirituality? It is a life lived in coherence with the divine which, slowly and consistently remakes the complete person. Traditionally, spirituality is not personal development or healing. It is not any technique or experience. Spirituality requires some level of renunciation, some measure of re-creation of ourselves in accordance to revelation of deeper truth. And ultimately it stands at odds with modern New Age belief: the esoteric view is that the revelations of the upper world point to immutable, eternal verities which are independent of human choice and perception. The New Age focus on ‘choosing our own reality’ and embracing our ‘own truth’ stands in direct contradiction to this traditional understanding. The fundamental difference is the modern valorisation of the individual in contrast with the traditional need for surrender of individualistic concerns. This brings us back to how we may discern the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ spiritualities out there.

When discussing the authenticity of theistic spiritual experiences His Holiness the Dalai Lama says:

If someone shows genuine love and compassion toward fellow human brothers and sisters, and toward the Earth itself, then I think we can be sure that that person really respect’s God’s message, they emulate God’s love for humanity. Conversely, I believe that the faith of someone who professes belief in God and yet shows no love or compassion toward other human beings is highly questionable. (Essence of the Heart Sutra, p12.)

We may discern or test spirituality by the active expression of love and compassion by its followers (or for individual spiritualities, follower, singular). If we are, in Sister Veronica’s words, obedient to God we are surrendered to and drawing from the higher, spiritual world and this inevitably changes and ultimately shatters the core of the ego-me approach to life. We become automatically and naturally more compassionate and concerned with others, with the transpersonal, with the whole of life. Our motivation changes to consider others without thought, artifice or pretence. Any true spirituality will reflect this. Father Matthew Fox, the foremost exponent of creation-centred spirituality puts it simply:

‘The test of a spirituality is in its justice making; does it create justice?’

The active creation of justice is central to all true and effective spiritualities. Justice heals the world, repairs and unites the scattered fragments of the divine body, restores the right-balance-order of the Universe, symbolised in Ancient Egypt as the Goddess Maat. If our spirituality does not inspire and insist on active justice making throughout the world it is incomplete, lacking or simply not spirituality at all. From this viewpoint the white Christian extremist does not practice ‘good’ spirituality (if he practices any real spirituality at all). Nor does my friend, Angela. Nor do many people involved in roundabout ‘heal-me’ or ‘transcend-me-off-this-planet’ New Age spirituality.

Our Human Denial

Is this me?

Of course, as imperfect human beings we can easily fool ourselves into believing our spirituality is compassionate, or that by healing ourselves we heal the world, and all is well. Such delusions are comforting but unreal. They function in the same manner as the notion that the ‘spirits’ of accident victims, AIDS sufferers and birds killed as a result of Bird-Flu are all whisked ‘upwards’ by beneficent angels just before physical death. They serve no other purpose than to provide comfort to our ordered little lives. A moment’s thought or analysis will see through the falsity of such beliefs (such as the fact that AIDS victims suffer greatly in the years before imminent death and witnesses of car accidents report extended, active expressions of agony in victims before they die). Those of us who are reassured by these and other New Age fancies are seeking ego-comfort and are avoiding being challenged out of our self focused lives.

Monthly credit-card compassion while we wander through our affluent lives from one workshop to the next, like the Buddhists Gods mentioned earlier, is well and good. But it can also place a barrier to the active expression of justice within our lives and hinder our spiritual unfoldment. As imperfect beings we are good at denial and delusion and it is easy to assume we have acted on the call of Maat – of justice – when we have not. It is for this reason that all esoteric traditions teach introspection and self-analysis early in the path. One of the simplest, best modern expressions of this comes from the activist-Witch Starhawk, where she advises us to meditate upon and honestly answer these questions daily:

  • How does my spiritual practice and daily life serve the earth?
  • How does my spiritual practice and daily life affect the poorest third of humanity?
  • How will my spiritual practice and daily life affect the generations to come in the future?

While facing these questions with honesty is hard and painful, it is important not to turn our gaze away from the effects our lives and choices have upon the world. The western culture teaches us to avoid pain and deny responsibility, to switch off, either through not thinking about the hard issues or embracing uncompassionate forms of theology. True spirituality is directly counter to this tendency and requires us to bridge the gap between our spiritual, personal, political and communal lives. There is no difference between these spheres of activity; the personal is political is spiritual.

Therefore our personal choices, political actions and spiritual practices need to cohere as one. The discomfort and distress we may experience when facing this reality is divinity moving through us, realigning our lives and changing us to serve. If we are to call ourselves spiritual, then we must be open to this discomfort, open to the pain of Goddess as well as her ecstasy; free and willing enough to suffer with and to act to end suffering. Ultimately, if we are not involved in the world, then why are we here?

A quick note on advanced practices

In my callow youth I was very much focused on the practical aspects of magic and spirituality. I would scrutinise any potential literary purchases with a careful eye – those that did not contain practical instructions were destined to enter the ‘maybe later’ category. This reflected both my own search for inner workings (as detailed in this post) and the emphasis on orthopraxy within the magical traditions.

This very understandable focus on practice within magic contrasts the development of western Christianity’s focus on creed and orthodoxy since the Renaissance.  Christians believe and magicians do – so the story goes. Of course, there are plenty of Christians, such as the Eastern Orthodox, who have a strong orthopraxis element. And interestingly, there are a number of magicians who adhere to certain aspects of their tradition (such as Secret Chiefs) via trust and faith without direct experience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂

Now a heavy focus on practice alone can be a problem in itself. It took me a while (and many sighs from my teacher) to realise this, even though the nub of the matter is contained in this pithy saying I heard when a teenager:

Though a robe be washed a thousand times, how can it be clean if it is washed in dirty water?

Lobsang Rampa

This was described to me as a ‘Buddhist’ aphorism, though it’s just as likely to have stemmed from Rampaism for all I know. Here the various methods of practice are the ways to wash our clothes and the water is the context, the motivation and environment in which we practice. So, no matter how many times we practice, no matter what techniques we use, if our motivation and ideas are wrong or undeveloped we will not transform.

This is something I fairly hammer home in By Names and Images, repeating it several times, as I have seen the results of not understanding this principle far too many times in the magical community. To quote that old veteran of the esoteric, Gareth Knight:

To avoid unbalanced conditions of the astral light it is not sufficient simply to perform particular banishing formulae; what is required is the tranquillity of mind and heart that comes from stable outer life relationships and a selfless dedication.

I therefore get a little concerned when I hear of the heavy focus on practice, with people desiring more ‘advanced’ practices (secret, naturally) that they assume will ‘develop’ them further, ‘advance’ their understanding and raise their grade. Or something like that. I have known and know several folk who stay in dysfunctional groups because their leader has a promised advanced techniques in the next grade as a carrot. Since the publication of my book I have been corresponding with a few magicians in this exact situation, hopefully bringing a different perspective to the matter. The trick of course is to look at those promising the ‘advanced’ techniques and see if they show signs of being deeply transformed… or not? Look at their writings, their actions, the presence of compassion and tolerance in their lives… or not.

Now spiritual techniques are wonderful, and there certainly are junior, intermediate and ‘advanced’ forms, the latter type one would not use with novices. However, techniques themselves are not enough. Cutting and pasting from elsewhere:

Put simply, spiritual unfoldment is not the same as ecstasy or altered states of awareness nor is it brought on or developed solely by repeated experiences of the same. Other qualities, such as discipline, morality, compassion, altruism, introspection, and community service are required.

It is in this context we should read this article: Anders Behring Breivik used meditation to kill – he’s not the first.

Ayatollah Khomeini

Some readers of this blog may also be surprised to know that that icon of hatred, bigotry and murder, the late Ayatollah Khomeini was an accomplished and respected practitioner of Islamic mysticism, Irfan.

Meditation is not enough. Mysticism is not enough. Magic – even the most intense and ‘powerful’ advanced, secret-third-order-sex-magic – is not enough. The writer of the above article comes at the problem from a Buddhist perspective.

… the Buddha made right understanding the first item in his eightfold path because he knew that everyone is guided by a worldview and underlying beliefs. His teachings seek to reshape those views so they eliminate attachment and support liberation. Ultimately, that includes attachment to doctrines, but discarding them too soon means that pre-existing beliefs and prevailing opinion go unchallenged.

Right understanding. This is not a practice, but an attitude, a focal point, a giving up of the ego’s sovereignty. It is the neophyte in the Inner Light tradition declaring ‘I desire to know in order to serve‘. Nuff said? 🙂

A Short Humble Attempt at a Modern Explanation of Emptiness

Vairochana -Embodiment of Emptiness

Vairochana -Embodiment of Emptiness

The Mahayana Buddhist concept of Emptiness is one of the foundations of many Buddhist traditions. It is not an easy concept to really and viscerally grasp outside of an intellectual or conceptual appreciation. Indeed full understanding of emptiness is one of the qualities of enlightenment which is a goal of the Mahayana path in order to alleviate all sentient beings from suffering. To this end Buddhists all over the world keep trying to understand this wonderful view. Those of us lucky enough to have received a Higher Tantric initiation have vowed to remember emptiness at least once every day. A little while ago I remembered through a very modern medium.

I needed to electronically transfer some money into a friend’s bank account and was given an incorrect account number. After transferring the money “it” disappeared from my account. Over the next two days “it” never arrived in her account. Then suddenly “it” was refunded back into my account. So, I wondered, where was “it” in the meantime?

Pondering a bit more set me thinking: of course “it”, the amount in question, never really existed in the same way as a brick, a potato or even punch in the nose. “It” only existed via the mutual interaction of several bank computers that said that in one moment “it” was in “my” account and then “it” was … nowhere…before the computers interacted once more and said that “it” was in existence again in “my” account.

Now this is very similar to the Buddhist concept of emptiness, that each of us, each phenomenon of all types and on all levels only comes into existence via a process of mutual co-arising. In this case the money only existed in “my” account when the causes and conditions arose (my wages) so that it would arise as a positive figure in my ledger. When I did eventually successfully transfer the money, “it” only arose into existence within my friend’s account with the right causes and conditions – several computers agreeing that “it” was now “hers”. My loss was her gain – her and I and the banks and the computers were all engaged and enmeshed in mutual co-arising through interdependence of her positive balance, my negative balance and the banks’ fees.

Of course even physical money works in the same way, the bank notes and coins being nothing more than mutually agreed contracts. The online version however, has a certain immediate poignancy lacking in any physical example. It also avoids an obvious train of thought where the “value” of a dollar note can be seen more or less as an inhabiting or attached entity to the physical paper/plastic, in the same manner as a soul is attached to or inhabits a person. And of course Buddhist is quite clear the soul, as an eternal, unchanging, independent entity does not exist. Then again, given the state of much of the world’s currency and the recent volatility of the Australian Dollar, perhaps it could be a useful pointer to the mutability of the soul or “higher being”. 🙂

Buddhism and the Male Self.

We have just returned from a retreat at the lovely, though chilly Origins Centre at Balingup. This centre supports and is supported by the Coorain Buddhist Centre on the next property. It was a very wonderful and reflective time, though not without some challenges. The outer forms of these challenges were several men who were also there. The inner, most important, aspect of course is my own.

When I was a teenager several things (besides the pull of Magic) stopped me becoming very involved in Buddhism. One was the erroneous belief I would have to sit in hard to attain postures. Another was the quality of the men who seem to proliferate in Buddhist circles. I never wanted to end up like that. M, also on retreat with me, described it well: “spineless, boundary-less, all over the place and spacey”. My judgement is that this state of affairs is not just normal ungroundedness, but something else. There seems such an effort, conscious or otherwise, to display only positive qualities that the life force is muted or distorted.

Despite all the problems I have with the Pagan community, at least the men there are solid and you know what you are getting. You may not like it, but it is right there before you. The young (and not so young) men in Buddhism are often, in my experience, different. I actually find it hard to spend much time in their company, which I know says more about me than about them.

I find it curious that the actual leaders of the traditions these men practice are entirely lacking in these qualities that I perceive and disturb me. Leaders like Lama Chime, Ven. Thubten Lodey. Lama Zopa Rinpoche are gusty, vital, compassionate and solid men.

There are two interrelated issues here that I think may result in this situation. These are, of course, the concept of the self and sex. In Paganism the self is viewed very differently than in Buddhism and is rarely deconstructed so thoroughly, and often unwisely as occurs with young eager Buddhist men. The Pagan male self is also intimately connected with the sacred sexual force, the self being a vehicle to express this force within the world – the ‘I’ that comes into being when we desire sex with someone else. Now I think most Pagans get a lot of this wrong and some Pagan circles are as murky as a nightclub when the American Fleet is in, but at least Pagan men are expressing something.

The misunderstanding of the Buddhist concept of no-self by young men is one of the core issues here. I’ve talked about this before (this post) so won’t say much, other than by attempting not to ‘have’ a self, whether consciously or unconsciously, nothing results other than distortion.  Similarly with the sexual force, the most divine force in our embodied life. Our western culture, I believe, still cannot easily make the super-fine distinction between transmutation of the sexual force (for example, Buddhist Tantra) and repression (for example, Catholic celibacy).

Over half of the western Buddhists ordained as nuns and monks give back their vows within a few years, and often because of the sex issue. Our culture does not support healthy celibacy, let alone complete sexual transmutation without any physical expression. Tibetan Buddhism, despite some of it schools requiring celibate Sangha, was never sexually negative in the same way as most Christian traditions have been. The iconography, the very heart of Tantra itself is replete with sexual imagery and explicit descriptions.

It takes a lot of retraining to go beyond a culture and so many of these young Western men are trying to transmute via the way of Tantra but subconsciously repressing like a Catholic monk. The results are not edifying. At least to my mind and perceptions. Thoughts anyone?

The Blessing of Change, the Self and the Neophyte Meditation.

In my quest for Samsaric relief while stuck in Freeway traffic (see this post) I have dug into one of those boxes in the shed. The object of the search was some music cassettes I had recorded over 20 years ago. This involved the ancient arts of recording from a friend’s LP disc (precursor to copying files from CD to IPod) or hitting record at the right moments when the ‘Album Hour’ was playing on the radio (downloading from the Net).

In an effort to maximize resources, we would plonk unrelated songs at the end of an album to fill up space. And so it was I came across treasures like Aztec Camera’s liquid-light acoustic version of Van Halen’s “You Might As Well Jump”. And, sadly, “Love Me Slowly” by Dollar. Now the picture to the right will give you a perfect taste of the genre and feel of the song, which should cause anyone with any taste to immediately start gagging. I remember chasing it up because of its producer, Trevor Horn.

And just yesterday my mother (who has been ‘tidying’) presented me with a letter and newspaper piece I wrote when a naff Pagan teenager, in which I display ideas I’d forgotten about. This and my obvious once-upon-a-time liking of ‘music-to-make-you-vomit’ made me praise the Gods for blessings of change.

While it is obvious that ‘I’ did once like Dollar, and that ‘I’ did hold opinions I now cringe at (though ‘I’ have no memory of them) can those ‘I’s  be considered ‘me’ now?

If yes, then what is the constant essence, the unchanging identity, which enables the 18 year old Pagan ‘I’ to be the same person as the 42 year old Buddhist ‘I’?  And if we do not identify with that unchanging identity that connects the numerous ‘I’s along the way, can we be said to exist in any meaningful way at all?

If no, then why do we consider these two ‘I’s the same person (in this case me)? Is it just the convention of name? (bearing in mind that ‘I’ changed mine). Is the convention of having the same body/face? (and what part does plastic surgery and amputation play in this?). And if they are not the same ‘person’ then what marks the boundaries between one ‘person’ and another ‘person’? Do we become a new person every few years? After a radical change of opinion? After a major life event? After an initiation? After death? After sleep? After sex? (Of course we may become a different person during sex, but that’s another mystery) 🙂

The answers to these questions ultimately lead to enlightenment, so of course we are very keen on them. From an esoteric point of view we are constantly changing, constantly dying and being reborn: through physical death, every time we sleep, orgasm, meditate deeply and in smaller ways throughout the day:

“For the moment of death is every moment and at every moment we may rise in the Light as One, knowing ourselves for the first time.”

The western esoteric traditions, drawing from theistic antecedents postulate the existence of an unchanging Essential Self, unborn and hence undying around which both our lower and higher attributes of ‘self’ formulate, incarnation after incarnation. Many non-theistic traditions, like Mahayana Buddhism, argue there is no independent, self-existing essential self, and views all manifestations of the ‘self’, including serial incarnations, as dependant on causes and conditions alone.

The two, apparently divergent point of views can be graphically represented. In the western view the Soul or Essential Self is the thread of light connecting a string of pearls, each one of which is an incarnation. So at the centre of each incarnation is the Essential Self, eternal, unborn and dying, beyond stain, perfect and therefore unchanging. This centre gives rise to and is the focal point of the lower self life.

In the Buddhist view each incarnation can be considered a layer of lemons in a box. Each layer determines the subsequent layer (incarnation) by the way it is laid out (karma), but there is no essential Self within the lemon box, nor is there an exterior force that lays out the lemons. So while it is right to say every layer is the same person, the connecting factor is no where to be found, yet it is still there. Because without the lemons (person) in layer 1, layer 2 does not exist and so on.

It is important to understand two things about the Buddhist viewpoint. Firstly, the philosophy of no-self does say we do not exist, only that we do not exist as an independent entity which we may point to. We obviously exist, but only on in a conventional sense (like the convention of naming and physical form). Our existence on the conventional level is real, otherwise who is typing and who is reading? We exist though only through co-arising in interdependence with all and from causes and conditions such as Karma.

Secondly, our conventional selves are extremely important, a view that is different to some mistaken views of Buddhism which sees negation of the self as the goal. If there is no Higher or Essential Self to be found, then our conventional self is the only way of accessing and changing who we are.

The Traditionalist and esoteric viewpoint, as well as the exoteric pluralist viewpoint, is that there is only Truth and all authentic traditions simply point to that Truth. So the esoteric and Buddhist views must be pointing to the same mystery and can be reconciled. More and more I can see this is the case, and is one of the reasons why I get so excited when studying Vajrayana Tantra alongside the RR et AC tradition.

Many modern magicians and Pagans make some fundamental errors in reasoning and some wide assumptions when it comes to the concept of the self. I’ve mentioned some of these before (see this post) and examples like pointing to and naming the Higher Self or believing the Higher Self engages in psychic battles or finding parking spaces are others. Holding any belief in the ‘reality’ of concepts like these is ultimately producing more barriers to illumination.

The way through such barriers is mercifully given in the Golden Dawn tradition right at the start of the journey in the form of the Neophyte Meditation (this is the most potent and beautiful variant):

“God is the circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”.

This meditation is naturally replete in meaning and blessing and one of these relates to the concept of the self. We may relate the centre to Buddhist idea of  the ever present conventional self, the magical ‘Lower Self’ – the ‘I’ that is always around even though one year it may be an 18 year old gay Marxist, and another year a 49 year old straight Liberal voter. This conventional self cannot exist alone – it is at the centre where everyone exists – and is interdependent with all – it is formulated by the environment around us and our responses to it. We cannot be a Marxist alone, a Liberal voter alone or human alone.

The circumference we can relate to the Buddhist concept of no-self, the magical Essential Self, and is empty of existence and reality, yet is still there. ‘I’, the lower conventional self, cannot experience this circumference; it is nowhere to be found. Yet it contains and gives rise to the conventional, lower self at the centre (no centre without a circumference). From a magical Qabalistic viewpoint, a personal level we can relate this to the Empty Room of Daath and on a transpersonal level to the Negatively Existing Ain. The process of ‘moving’, interrelating between centre and circumference can be related to the Higher Self or in Vajrayana to the Beatitude Body.

Once we grasp, even imperfectly the true nature of self, once we experience the true power of this meditation we are changed forever. And it is so freely available for anyone to do, right where you are sitting now. This is so wonderful and so beautiful it deserves to be celebrated over and over. Hence this post 🙂

Buddhism, the DL and I – a journey to the Empty Room

Writing my recent post on Christianity was so useful for me in clarifying my ideas and thoughts through retrospection and responding to comments, that I am repeating the process with Buddhism.

Back in the dark days of the early 80s there were virtually no books on Tibetan Buddhism in Perth, but the UWA library had a few. The first one I read was The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa. Like many people I found it and his subsequent books a gob-smacking read. Fortunately I had also read enough on Buddhism in encyclopaedias that a dark suspicion began to arise that perhaps the Dewey Decimal Classification of this work as ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ was slightly off. To me it seemed more like an oriental Boys Own Adventure version of Theosophy, which I was also hungrily devouring at the time.

If you do not know the Rampa Story, basically it was one of the most original literary con jobs of the century. The author of the books claimed to be a Tibetan Lama of high rank now living in the west. The book’s descriptions of oddities like Yetis, operations to open the ‘Third Eye’, a heavy focus on psychic powers and lack of basic Tibetan Buddhist knowledge led to an investigation. This revealed that the author was not a Lama from Lhasa, but really a Plumber from Plympton, one Cyril Hoskin who had simply changed his name to Lobsang Rampa.

Cyril/Lobsang however, when confronted with these inconvenient facts responded beautifully with great panache: he was indeed born as Cyril Hoskin, but Cyril had psychically swapped bodies with Lobsang because Lobsang’s body was worn out, and so now he was Lobsang. This must be one of the earliest recorded claims of the New Age ‘Walk-In’ concept (1960). Not one for embarrassment or scuttling away with his tail between his legs, Cyril/Lobsang cheerfully maintained this reality and went on to write a dozen or so more books until his death in 1981.

Despite numerous exposes and the sheer lack of actual Tibetan Buddhist teachings, Cyril/Lobsang sold very well. Even today I still come across the occasional person who believes it was all real. There are still websites devoted to his teachings.

With this initial exposure to ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ my venturing could only go upwards 🙂 I attended some talks and meditation sessions given by various Theravadan teachers, but nothing moved me completely. I did however have the chance to hear Ven. Ajan Brahm talk and these were some great teachings.

Meanwhile I progressed with my western spiritual traditions and only glanced eastwards occasionally. Then in the late 80s a friend quit Wicca in high dudgeon and, after a few false starts, found her way to Tibetan Buddhism and her teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche. On her advice I attended some teachings with Cecile Kwait. Now here there was something real and powerful, and I sensed a tremendous tradition behind it all. I had of course been aware for sometime that aspects of Tibetan Buddhism were in some ways similar to the high magical traditions such as the RR et AC. And while Cecile did not reveal any of these, her grounded spiritual presence and real spirituality touched me.

Then in 1992 His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Australia and my life changed. At this stage I was sceptical about Enlightenment in general and Masters in particular. The ones I had read and met had left me unconvinced. But I went along with an old school friend, just because it seemed like a good opportunity. Together with thousands of others we crammed into a packed Entertainment Centre and wondered at the drawing power of the Buddhist Monk about to talk to us. Shortly before he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and I guess many people, like my friend, were there largely on that basis.

After a short preamble, His Holiness wandered onto the stage. As soon as I saw him I burst into tears and felt myself touched by a very strong, beautiful and incredibly holy presence. I had the same experience last year during his visit and teachings also. As he spoke, the Dalai Lama was simple, direct and practical, full of love and really said nothing new. However, I left that day completely whacked around, my reality changed and forever different.

Despite, for many reasons, continuing to focus exclusively on the western traditions (apart from the practice of Tong-len and dedication), I have kept the free booklet received on that day on some altar in my home ever since. Old and battered now, you can see read the text of this booklet and a brief personal account (not mine) of the visit here.

As the years went by I read more about Tibetan Buddhism but never practiced, preferring to get adept in my base tradition first. The more I read though the more delighted I was that there was this living tradition that offered such intense beauty, wisdom and compassionate action.

The correlation between the traditions is sometimes hard to see; after all the western traditions are originally theistic, newly monistic and Buddhism clearly non-theistic. However, at root there is only Truth, so all authentic traditions must point to the same Mystery. The Qabalah helped this process immensely. And once I got over the terminology and translations I found linkages and correspondences galore.

For example, one of the basic Buddhist concepts is that of Five Aggregates which make up the individual person, but since they are empty of intrinsic existence they are not the person – no self can be found within any Aggregate, even though our conventional identity is bound up and within the Aggregates. The five Aggregates are translated into English in different ways, one of the best I’ve seen is that by Robert Thurman (Dad of Uma):

Matter: five elements (earth, water etc.) or five sense objects and senses.

Sensation: pleasure, pain, and indifference associated with the five senses.

Concepts: all images and words used to organise experience.

Volition: desires, hates, delusions, and many other emotions.

Consciousness: five sense consciousness and mental consciousness.

Anyone with rudimentary Qabalistic knowledge can see the correlation to the lower five Sephrioth, Malkuth through Tipahreth. And indeed in western Hermetic magic the self which operates within these five Sephrioth is in fact the ‘lower’ self, the false self that does not in actuality exist beyond this life and convention.

Several years ago I completed my 20 years apprenticeship in the western traditions and felt ready to experience other traditions. We started attending Wongkurs with Lama Chime of the Origins Centre. A Wongkur is an empowerment or initiation into the current or blessing stream of a particular manifestation of Mystery, most often a Bodhisattva or deity. In simple terms, during the Wongkur the Lama (teacher) remembers that they and the deity are non-different. Through this remembrance and via certain ritual actions on the inner and outer levels, the Lama helps the ‘audience’ to also remember their own non-difference with the deity. By doing so the ‘audience’ receives seeds of blessings that with further meditation upon the deity can bring about deep transformation.

Each Wongkur was naturally a special and a sacred gift, Lama Chime describing them as ‘scared theatre’ and I felt much resonance with this approach and that of the RR et AC. Chime is a wonderful, grounded and beautiful teacher; if you get an opportunity to attend any of his teachings, do so 🙂

We also started attending teachings and meditations at the Hayagriva Centre in South Perth with Ven. Dondrub. The Hayagriva centre is part of the worldwide Fellowship for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a large Gelupa tradition with much prestige, and dare I say it, money. Started by the incredible Lama Yeshe, the FPMT is now directed by his disciple, the equally incredible, Lama Ropa Rinpoche. The beauty and scale of the Gompa at Hayagriva reminded me, in a way, of a rich protestant church sometimes. It was very different to the humble sessions with Lama Chime. I have to admit to ‘heretical’ questioning of the scale and expense of some FPMT projects.

In May 2006 I was blessed to attend a three day Higher Tantric 1000 Armed Chenrezig initiation with Lama Zopa. If you have met or attended teachings with him you will know how these times are literally a mind-blowing blessing. Lama Zopa taught and guided us through the initiation until 3am in the morning. I have never seen an initiation so magically conducted; somehow Lama Zopa managed to personally initiate over 300 people.

At one point he slowly looked around the Gompa, chanting the sacred OM MANI PADME HUM, connecting with each person. I met his eyes briefly and his presence as Chenrezig was literally next to me and touching me. His enlightened state was awesome to witness.

The more I read, studied and practiced the more Tibetan Buddhism began to resonate with me. There are a number of reasons for this, and this shows up some deficiencies in the Western traditions:

  • The Bodhisattva Vow to develop oneself to help others and to keep incarnating until all sentient beings reach an end to suffering;
  • Honouring and working with the land spirits;
  • The recognition of impermanence, even within the tradition itself, leading to openness for re-visioning;
  • Seamless incorporation of the magical into the religious, through ritual, dance, prophecy and other means;
  • Teachers who are trained and skilled in the esoteric as well as exoteric aspects of their religious forms;
  • Processes and practices that lead towards enlightenment. Robert Thurman speaks of the ‘Enlightenment Engine’ of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • The skilful method of Tantra which utilises our primal energies to achieve transformation.

Of course, nothing is perfect and there are many instances of problems within the tradition and the people who practice it. Overall however, I am very impressed with the tradition’s capacity, thoroughness, compassion and skill.

Recently we have been very lucky to attend classes, rituals and meditations at the Phendheling Centre with Ven. Thupten Lodey. This has been very special and this little centre fairly pulsates with compassion. I am also learning, that despite the plethora of Tibetan Buddhist books detailing minutiae of Vajrayana practices and wisdom, there are still secrets revealed by the Lama at the appropriate time.

This is a wonderful journey, and though I am only just starting it this late in life, I am glad I have the foundation of my core tradition. In that way I am ever more aware of the unity of mystery throughout all people, ages, traditions and religions.

May All Beings Be Well; May All Beings Be Happy
Peace; Peace; Peace.