Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tantric Thelema & The Invocation of Ra-Hoor-Khuit in the manner of the Buddhist Mahayoga Tantras

Book Review: Tantric Thelema: & The Invocation of Ra-Hoor-Khuit in the manner of the Buddhist Mahayoga Tantras by Sam Webster (Concrescent Press, 2010)

This is an interesting and unusual book that combines two very important world-view systems. It is a synthesis, a syncretistic mix of the philosophy and culture of Thelema and that of Vajrayana Buddhism, which is considered to be a form of Mahayana Buddhism. The author is also a scholar and practitioner of modern paganism and seems to identify as a pagan. I am rather ambivalent about the mixture as sometimes it seems brilliant and other times not so much. In any case, I think it is a good comparison and I think that both systems are very workable and useful to the world.

The cover of the book is endowed with a commissioned painting painted by Kat Lunoe and is called the All-Beneficent Ra-Hoor-Khuit. He is depicted in the Tantric Buddhist style with elements of Egyptian and Indian culture. It is a very nice painting. In the text, Ra-Hoor-Khuit is depicted as a wrathful deity in accord with his war god mode in the Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis) but the painting depicts this form of Horus in the manner of a peaceful deity, seated cross-legged with hands down. Liber AL has been described as a revelatory text but the author also sees it as following the format of a text known as a tantra and builds on this similarity to develop his model.

Webster notes in the preface that practitioners of Thelema are quite diverse in their overall worldviews and I would tend to agree. There are certainly other hybrid Thelema syncretisms – the Gnostic Voudon current, Chaos Magick variants, earlier attempts to Thelematize other groups, etc. The author is also the founder of the Open-Source Order of the Golden Dawn and calls himself a priest of Hermes. As far as his own preferences for identity I noticed he refers to pagans often as “us”, to Tibetan Buddhists as “them” and to thelemites sometimes as us and sometimes as them. He dedicates the work to his wife who passed away before it was finished. It is written as an epistle to her and contains dialogue that indicates him teaching it to her, often addressing her as “dear one”. “beloved”, or “my love”. I must admit this is a slight bit annoying at times but does not really detract from the work.

The author cites his sources for connecting these two systems. One was Stephen Beyer’s “The Cult of Tara” which is a detailed account of Tibetan ritual that is compared to Renaissance and 19th century magical systems. Another is Crowley himself who studied Buddhism quite a bit but he was not known to study the Vajrayana system. Some parallels he makes are that of deity yoga in the tantric systems and invocation of the godform in Golden Dawn and Thelema. Another is the word “law” in the Book of the Law and the dharma as law. Law in some ways connotes “worldview” or rules of behavior based on worldview. Both of these systems in my opinion have some built-in flexibility and minimal amounts of strict dogma which is strengthening as well as practical. Another interesting parallel he makes is that of Nuit, as the Mother of Space, Crowleys altered/enhanced form of the Egyptian night-sky goddess Nut, and the Buddhist notion of “void” or “emptiness” (shunyata) sometimes represented by the goddess Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom). Another interesting parallel is that of Hadit as Buddha nature, which is also referred to as one’s capacity or potential to become awakened. This Buddha nature is considered the basis of the tantric system in Buddhism – although not for so-called Hindu tantra. Ra-Hoor-Khuit then becomes the Yidam deity, or the deity one works with in frequent practice in order to awaken. He sees this relationship in the Book of the Law in the following:

Nu is my refuge
as Hadit my light
and Ra-Hoor-Khu
is the strength, force,
vigor of my arms

Here the refuge is emptiness, the light is that of possibility, and the force is that of the willed work.

Webster laments the pagan traditions generally not invoking lofty intentions such as the Mahayana aspiration to benefit all beings. The goal of Buddhism is seen as enlightenment and while the classical pagan traditions may have such aspirations they are not emphasized. The Vajrayana is a special case where the so-called delusions like desire and anger are applied in the quest for enlightenment. Modern paganism seems to resonate with such methods to a certain extent. He compares the pagan movement to the tantric movement in India as depicted by Miranda Shaw in Passionate Enlightenment, where there was a strong female element.

The author introduces the traditional Buddhist practices of ‘going for refuge’ and ‘dedicating merit’. Going for refuge is simply acknowledging one’s generally deluded state and asking for help, initially from the legendary enlightened beings and current ‘masters’, secondly, from the ‘Ground of Being’, the metaphorical source from which all things arise, and thirdly, from our own enlightened nature that is temporarily obscured. Magickally he gives the refuge practice by reciting three Ahs, one each for ‘asking for help’, ‘receiving help’, and ‘sharing help.’ He also gives Aleister Crowley’s Buddhist refuge blurb from Chapter XII form his “Science and Buddhism” which gives the traditional refuges as Buddha (one who found the Way), Dhamma (the Law that shows the Way), and Sangha (those who have gone before along the Way). Taking refuge is traditionally done as the beginning of any practice.

At the end of any practice there is dedication and distribution of merit accrued from the practice. This is a way of sharing any benefits with others and developing a habit of doing so. Actively working to decrease one’s delusions is considered to generate merit that is transferable. This is a feature of the Mahayana and likely derives from earlier traditions of Indian and Vedic asceticism, though it is not the same.

He introduces another practice, indeed the key to Mahayana, which is the cultivation of the ‘mind of enlightenment’ called bodhicitta. This has also been referred to as the altruistic aspiration. The three features: refuge, bodhicitta, and dedication of merit, have been called Good at the Beginning, Good in the Middle, and Good at the End. He mentions a form of bodhicitta practiced in the Dzogchen tradition that emphasizes the already enlightened nature of all beings and the inherent purity of all things. He sees this form as suitable for pagans but does not explain why. I don’t think I agree as Dzogchen is said to be suitable for exemplary types who have previously removed much delusion and merely one’s magico-religious leanings do not dispose one to be exemplary in this way.

Tantric practice often involves specific visualization and supposition or contrivance of a pure universe composed of deific forces. Thus, one’s teacher is seen as the Buddha, or at least as the official representation of Buddha Nature. Ultimately, the guru is our own Buddha Nature, which can be compared favorably to the Holy Guardian Angel, Daemon, or Bornless One, in the Western Esoteric Systems. In Tantric ritual there is initially the ‘empowerment’, or initiation, where power is officially magically transferred from guru and enlightened beings to the practitioner(s). In this practice, Hadit, represented by the Winged Globe, is seen as Buddha Nature, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit is seen as the deity figure to be practiced in the ensuing deity yoga, so empowerment comes from these two ‘forms’.

Next he examines the Two Accumulations of the Mahayana path: Merit, or good karma, and Wisdom, which is said to be non-conceptual understanding of emptiness. He describes these as ‘powers’.  He also goes through the “Four Immeasurables”: cultivating for all beings sincere wishes for happiness, freedom from suffering, joy, and equanimity. Again he ties these to the syllable “Ah” for ritual purposes.

He again discusses the concept of ground/pleroma/void/vacuum in terms of philosophy, religion, and science. This is equated with Prajnaparamita as the Goddess of Wisdom and the Mother of Buddhas. He also equates it with Nuit as Goddess of Infinite Space. He also notes Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther describing shunyata (emptiness) as “an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” as well as a similar quotes from St. Bonaventure (1221-74) and Blaise Pascal (1670). Nuit is described in Liber AL in the same manner, her center being Hadit. I should also note that there is a paradoxical concept in astrophysics described in a similar way – that every place is effectively the center of the universe. He also describes the Dzogchen notion of self-liberation of all encountered phenomena but his explanation is not easy to follow.

As seed syllables for the chakras (a visualization practice in tantra) Webster offers AL, NU, RE (ray), HAD, and Ah. This is a practice in empowerment as well as subsequent deity yoga. He explains deity yoga as parallel with godform invocation in the Western magick sense – though I think there can be significant differences. He seems to see both in more the Western esoteric sense of deity being entity. Devotion to deity is practiced in Buddhist Tantra but it is the qualities of the deity that one is devoted to rather than the deity itself. The theistic situation is feigned in a sense but the subsequent devotion is said to create a resonance that affects the practitioner. There are other reasons for the format as well having to do with karma, form, and rebirth, but this is not discussed. In terms of deity, I think the Buddhist Tantric approach and the Western esoteric approach have significant differences and I think he approaches it from a predominantly Western esoteric orientation. But I also think this is fine as long as one does not become too theistic with it. Deity yoga in Buddhist Tantra is a technique rather than union with a deity being a goal in itself. The same may or may not be true with mages and pagans as there is much diversity in their degrees of theism. He compares the stages of deity yoga with some methods given in the Corpus Hermeticum. He gives several steps and half-steps such as ‘generation in front’, ‘arising as’, and ‘fulfillment’ but most tantric texts refer to the two stages: generation and completion, the developing and perfecting stages. One is generation as the deity. The other is the dissolution of the deity into emptiness. Much of the rest of the book is a description of this “rite” of deity yoga of Ra-Hoor-Khuit. There are interesting parts of it with Thelemic phrases and symbols and Tantric methods intertwining. The syllables appear as symbols: HAD – white winged globe; RE – red solar disk; NU – blue Nu pot (an Egyptian hieroglyph); and AL – a golden Aleph-Lamed (here the two Hebrew Letters entwined representing AL – a key of the Book of the Law proclaimed by Frater Achad).

He goes into considerable detail with the method and stages. Much of this seems rather lengthy to me. I realize some Tantric rituals are lengthy but there are concise ones as well and much of tantric practice can involve repeating one’s rite several times a day so that a concise one is better in that sense. Another aspect is the repeating of a mantra during the context of the ritual. He uses an interesting method here called “calling the khu” from the Golden Dawn which refers to the Egyptian idea of the hawk as representing the essence of the deity. The khu, or akh, is called with the chant composed by Crowley from an interpretation of the Stele of Revealing. It is called the Aka Dua chant and is a standard thelemic mantra:

Aka dua / tuf ur biu / bi ache fu / dudu nur af / an nuteru

He gives some interesting information about a magick word of the Aeon of Horus; Abrahadabra. He calls it the Word of Manifestation or Action and equates the eleven letters with the descending lightning bolt path down through the Sephira of the Tree of Life. He notes two different pronunciations: the seven-fold – A-ba-ra-ha-da-ba-ra, which can correspond to the planetary forces, and the five-fold – Ab-ra-had-ab-ra, which can correspond to the elemental forces. Abrahadabra is also given as a mantra to be recited/repeated during the main rite.

In the rite, he exchanges the adoration of the Five Buddha Families for the four faces of the sun of Egyptian lore. To this he adds Heru-Ra-Ha to make five. Curiously, he does not use the same configuration as Liber Resh vel Helios or the Golden Dawn system, but notes that Kephra was associated with dawn rather than midnight, Ra with noon, Atum with sunset (as in Liber Resh), and Het-Hoor with midnight - in ancient Egypt.

He goes through a few different invocations of Horus, from Crowley and Rose, and one adapted form Crowley’s works. He also gives descriptions for Ra-Hoor-Khuit of “Vivid Appearance” and “Recollection of Purity” – which are methods of describing the deity and the deity’s qualities that are common to Vajrayana deity yoga sadhanas. 

Dissolution of the deity is done in the traditional manner with first dissolving into seed syllable, in this case the AL. Then one re-arises as oneself but also as the deity, in the “Body of Innate Union”. At this point he suggests some fitting words from Liber AL. As a closing he gives a Thelemic blessing as well as the traditional Buddhist dedication of merit.

Next, he goes through the tantric format of “arising as the deity”. He distinguishes this from “generation in front” where the deity is visualized in front of one. Often in tantric practice these stages are concurrent. Though he does not mention this – the external deity is called the wisdom being (jnanasattva) and the internal deity (sometimes arising as) is called the commitment being (samayasattva). Later he does suggest the wisdom being as being the “khu”. Here again, in place of the five Buddha families empowering one with light from the visualization, he utilizes the Egyptian solar gods of the course of the sun. The fitting recitation for this is the adoration in Liber AL beginning with “Appear on the throne of Ra…”. The Egyptian subtle body components, ie. khu, ka, khabs, would seem to be conducive to providing light for visualization. As Ra-Hoor-Khu  there is also khu in the name. As before in this stage, there is mantra and finally the dissolution of the deity.

The fulfillment phase of mahayoga tantra is said to occur after one has mastered and memorized the rites and completed vast amounts of mantra. In typical sadhanas, this would occur after on has dissolved the deity and rests in the meditative equipoise of emptiness. He does not talk too much about it as it is said to require significant meditative ability. There are also various yogic practices involving winds, drops, and channels, that are undertaken. He notes that one may use the chakras or the sephira of Qabala as points of the inner body. Incidentally, he notes that the original source of Qabala is likely to be Mesopotamia.

The section on initiation/empowerment involves the creation of an initiation ritual as an introduction to the practice of the deity yoga. He makes an interesting comparison or correspondence between the four bodies of Buddha and the four worlds of Qabala – perhaps a bit far-reaching trying to parallel everything. I think the better comparison is to the four realms that each Buddha-body manifests within rather than the bodies, or kayas themselves. Empowerments, as is this one, are often similar to the deity yoga practice in many ways but also have differences. Consecration of implements and transfer of so-called “blessing-energy” – usually from a long-practiced lineage of meditators, is passed on. In the case of this empowerment there is no such lineage and one must rely on sincere desire to tap the potential energy of the deity-form and what it represents, in this case the Lord of Will and Action. He suggests that at some point people will have done this and be able to pass on the energy. The initiation given is rather lengthy but he does mention much flexibility in composing such a rite. My own preference would be for something far simpler and quicker as too much ceremony is not often practical for me.

Next, he gives a possible “yab-yum” rite, where a couple ceremonially engages in sexual tantra. Here, he also reiterates that Ra-Hoor-Khuit, may be experienced in a male form – Ra-Hoor-Khuit, or a female form, Ra-Hoor-Khut. A female would appear as Ra-Hoor-Khut, the daughter of Nuit. So here the couple unites as invoked godforms. I should note that in Buddhist tantra the idea is that since everyone has the potential to become awakened, to rediscover their original awakened nature, then it is permissible to be deific through sustained mindful aspiration that one is the actual deity, the actual awakened one in the pure land. This capacity to be awakened, the Buddha Nature, is the basis of the whole tantric system according to Buddhist lore. It is part aspiration and part knowingly contrived.

Next he offers a Thelemic Ganachakra. A ganachakra is a feast gathering of a group of tantric initiates. In the lore, the group would get together, sing realization songs, and ritually feast, which might also include the usual tantric social taboos, meat, alcohol/drugs, and sex. He divides this into Source and Armature. The Source is a basic outline of the rite and its nature. In this thelema case, it is women invoking Ra-Hoor-Khut as the Scarlet Woman and the men invoking Ra-Hoor-Khuit as the Beast. The Armature is a rite in the form of a mass with a eucharist. Here the celebrants make up the deities of a mandala. Eucharistic tantric feasts are fairly common among both Buddhists and Hindus and maybe Jains as well. The substances to be imbibed are consecrated. The fluids of sexual union are such a substance, whether real, or symbolic as is now mostly the case. Here there are clear parallels to Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. Aeon 131 has written an interesting comparison of the Gnostic Mass to a Hindu Tantric Puja.

The last chapter is a Thelemic Powa. Powa is a yogic method of transferring consciousness out through the top of one’s head. It is predominantly a death practice but is also used in offering practices such as Chod. The rite is usually meant to propel one through the syllable ‘hri’ to the pure land of Buddha Amitabha where one can most easily attain enlightenment but here it is associated with the syllables HAD, RE, and NU (in a different configuration than the previous rite). Webster notes that he was asked to compose this rite for his own healing from depression. He also incorporates the first verses from Crowley’s “Book of the Heart Girt with a Serpent.” This is some profound symbolic poetry that offers some fascinating syncretistic analysis of the awakening/dying/rebirthing/initiation/transmutation process. Kundalini, the slain and risen Osiris, the sprouting of seed, the blossoming of a flower, the change from form to formlessness, and encountering the great depths of time and the unknown, are all involved. Webster offers some interesting commentary on these 20 lines. Powa, like kundalini, is the fostering of an upward force. In terms of the internal “pranas” I have read or heard one time that the force involved is similar to the fierce and uncontrollable upward force of vomiting

The full rite for the mahayoga invocation of Ra-Hoor-Khuit is given in an appendix. This is followed by a bibliography.

Overall, this is an interesting book, breeching unusual territory in the comparative and syncretistic sense. Sometimes he seems to hit the mark and at other times off so I seem to be rather ambivalent about its overall practicality. Perhaps if a concise form was developed I would find it more practical. With so many methods, doctrines, and styles it can be said that we live in an age of synthesis or fusion. Even so, I think such fusion can backfire at times. He does a fair job of presenting Buddhist tantra as a subdivision of Mahayana but doing something in a tantric style with a few references to Mahayana ideals may not root the practice in the Mahayana. So the question would be: Is it a Vajrayana (Buddhist Mahayana Tantric) practice or is it a Thelemic practice in the Vajrayana style? Either way is fine I would guess but I think maybe it might be better to work that out ahead of time. In any case, I think that the exquisite view of the Mahayana, the subtly powerful technology of tantra, and the magickal emphasis on love and will in Thelema – are all three powerful systems of theory and practice that can be allied in various ways.


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