Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.


Friday, January 31, 2014

Mailbag: Thelema and Zen

In the comments section of a recent post, I addressed a question about why I expound Thelema as opposed to Buddhism or esoteric Christianity. The unspoken assumption there is that Thelema (that is, the way I present Thelema, which is the way that Thelema actually is, as opposed to the fantasy weirdness that many others present it as) is awfully similar – or perhaps even essentially identical – to those other systems.


The assumption reminds me of a private exchange I had many moons ago about the differences between Thelema and Zen. My response illustrates Thelema’s unique characteristics by contrast.


My correspondent writes:

Hi Los,

I just read Shun-Ryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind: Beginners Mind". And I was wondering, in what ways, practically speaking, would you say Thelema differs from the Zen approach? Because really, they seem very similar to me. That is when we define Thelema in the way you and Erwin do, as being something other than the practices and dogmas which are often bundled with it.
To quote Suzuki, "Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking for a human being , there is no other practice than this practice; there is no other way of life than this way of life."
 Isn't that there the essence of Thelema, the true will, our "true nature" manifesting in the moment? Doesn't what is generally understood as Thelema lack for the simplicity of the Zen approach? Isn't much of it distractionary and even counter-productive? In short what does Thelema offer that Zen does not?

An excerpt from my response appears below the cut.

Suzuki's "Zen Mind: Beginner's Mind" is a great text. If you're interested in Zen, there's a nice (very short) book on the subject by Watts entitled "This is It." And Erwin's made reference a few times to another very good Zen book, "Everyday Zen" by Charlotte "Joko" Beck.
As you note, there are similarities between Thelema and Zen. Of course, there are also similarities between Thelema and Taoism, Thelema and Hinduism (or at least Hindu yoga), Thelema and Christianity, etc., etc.
In one sense, these similarities should come as no surprise at all. Human beings are human beings, after all, and we should expect "spiritual" systems to come up with similar ways to address similar problems all over the world. But at the same time, each of those systems needs something to distinguish them from the others (if not, there'd be no point in having distinct "systems" to begin with).
I'd say the primary difference between Thelema and Zen is that Thelema has a fully-developed concept of "True Will" (both in terms of theory and practice) that allows us to "course correct" (in a way that Zen never emphasizes) and to discuss and evaluate decisions that we make in our lives.
I've described "discovering the True Will" before as a process of catching oneself in the midst of making mistakes perceiving and then correcting in the moment. Although Zen puts a lot of emphasis on paying attention and mindfulness, it doesn't really clearly tell us what we're supposed to do once we *do* pay attention. Arguably, sufficient attention will smooth out these problems all by itself in the long run, but Zen doesn't give us the useful technical vocabulary with which to make the most of our mindfulness exercises.
Further, Zen doesn't have a concept of "True Will" in the sense of a "life path," for lack of a better term. To be clear, the "true will" isn't some kind of "plan" that has been destined since the beginning of time, but it is a route through life that emerges all on its own. Part of the usefulness of familiarity with the will is that one can infer where it's likely to go next, and one can plan accordingly.
When one makes decisions that have an effect on the long-term future, for example, one has to -- of necessity -- draw upon one's tentative conclusions about the will and what it would be happiest doing. Zen doesn't have language for addressing this kind of stuff: it's very much about switching off the mind, but it doesn't give any practical indications of what to do once the mind has been switched off (or how to continue to navigate the world once the mind has been turned back on).
Naturally, it goes without saying that one's decisions then have to be tested by observing the will in real-time. It can be useful to form a mental representation of the True Will, but not as a guide to action: a mental representation of the True Will merely helps the conscious mind in manifesting that will, always subject to revision based upon observation. If one were to only pay attention to the mental representation of the True Will, one might very well miss that the will now wants to do something totally different.

11 comments:

  1. Very interesting stuff Los. Zen is practical like Hessle's Thelema, which, incidentally is the real Thelema. You outlined some problems with Zen in terms of True Will. The other flaws of Zen are the sensai-student relationship. In my opinion we as individuals do not need the approval of a guru in how we answer or deal with a koan that has been doled out to us by him. What do you think about this?

    I like the flexible approach to meditation in Zen i.e. there are no demands or pressures to do ludicrously painful and dangerous Hindustani "asanas" or nostril-squeezing breath control in order to control the mind.

    For all it's maverick tradition there is still a strong current of Buddhist religiosity in Zen which let's it down. There's that reliance of lineage also. Lineage is very important in Zen in terms of who was ordained by who going back centuries.

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    1. "The other flaws of Zen are the sensai-student relationship. In my opinion we as individuals do not need the approval of a guru in how we answer or deal with a koan that has been doled out to us by him. What do you think about this?"

      Yeah, I definitely agree. Crowley, of course, was pretty keen on guru-style enlightenment (especially since he got to be the guru). To an extent, I suppose it might be a useful will-building exercise to swear an oath of “holy obedience” and follow it diligently (I’ll explore that point further whenever I get around to finishing my essay on the wand). But realistically, there are much better ways of building the will – and much less creepy ways – than swearing “obedience” to some lunkhead who gets his jollies from pretending to be a “guru.”

      We can certainly say that a “guru” is totally unnecessary for attainment and completely optional for those who have a bizarre pathological need to be told what to do. For all practical purposes for healthy individuals, any benefits of having a “guru” are immensely outweighed by all the potential negatives.


      “I like the flexible approach to meditation in Zen i.e. there are no demands or pressures to do ludicrously painful and dangerous Hindustani "asanas" or nostril-squeezing breath control in order to control the mind.”

      Yeah. There’s really no reason to subject yourself to those things. I mean, people can go for it if they want, but the bread and butter of the practice is learning to pay better attention. To an extent, “conquering the body” is a useful concept, but just sitting still and not scratching is fine for the purposes of Thelema.


      "For all it's maverick tradition there is still a strong current of Buddhist religiosity in Zen which let's it down. There's that reliance of lineage also. Lineage is very important in Zen in terms of who was ordained by who going back centuries."

      Another good reminder that supernaturalist quacks exist in all cultures.

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    2. Nothing in Zen Buddhism says you HAVE to swear allegiance to a guru in order to find attainment. That's more the style of Tibetan Buddhism. Zen Buddhism emphasizes that a teacher is more qualified to lead someone down the "path" (magga) than for one to do it alone.

      That being said, there have been a number of Zen Buddhist iconoclasts and hermits who took matters into their own hands. Whether these individuals can be considered 'pratekyabuddha' (a buddha enlightened by his/her own efforts) is debatable.

      The abbot from Empty Gate Zen Center, Bon Seong, has told students not to get hung up on the rituals and formalities of Zen, but to see "what the sutras are pointing to." It's my opinion that many religions, and many "enlightenment traditions" in general, are all pointing to something similar.

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    3. ... Although I should point out that when you take the five precepts (pancasila), as a Buddhist, you're basically committing to taking on some level of teaching. This is in no way meant to get rid of someone's individual practice, however.

      Yet, in Liber AL Ra-Hoor says "I tear out the flesh of the Indian and the Buddhist, Mongol and Din. / Bahlasti! Ompehda! I spit on your crapulous creeds..."

      Crowley, at the time that Liber AL was written, said that the book turned his "Buddhism on its head."

      I don't take this to mean that Buddhism is "wrong"--quite the contrary, as it seems that a certain degree of Buddhism makes its way into Thelema--but that Thelema, as a philosophy of absolute spiritual freedom, transcends the doctrines and restraints of the Dharma.

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  2. Yes lol it is,"creepy" swearing allegiance to a guru.

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  3. Excellent work! However, I've had some trouble commenting on your posts...

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    1. I think you have to be signed in to Google in order to comment on a post.

      If you're still having trouble, send me an email, and I'll see if there's anything I can do to sort it out.

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    2. Ah, OK. Thank you for letting me know. I've tried commenting on your site using my Wordpress account ('The Grand Tangent') and it seems not to work.

      In any case...

      Thelema and Zen are by far two of my favorite spiritual traditions. Though they emphasize different things, they seem to get down to the nitty gritty of the human condition quite well.

      I've spent time with both, and I [semi-]regularly do both Liber Resh and zazen, as well as kinhin (Japanese Zen Buddhist walking meditation) and sometimes suizen (Japanese Zen Buddhist meditation using the shakuhachi bamboo flute).

      Both Buddhism and Thelema on the whole have their merits. And, while some (religious) Thelemites are quick to compare Thelema to the Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism and so forth), especially with groups like Ordo Sunyata Vajra being around, I think the simplicity of Thelema's main philosophical injunctions actually line up better with Zen Buddhism than other forms of Buddhism.

      Zen's main focus, as opposed to the heavy emphasis on ritual, chanting, etc. in other forms of Buddhism (though Zen does have these... it just doesn't make as much of a big deal about them) is meditation. In Zen, meditation is (at least if you believe Dogen) "enlightenment itself," just being in this moment, neither coming nor going, neither averse nor attached to anything. This is a form of Dharana ("control of thought"), which figures into Thelemic practice, in its own way.

      While Thelema has a slew of rituals, as passed down from Crowley and his antecedents, the main idea is self-empowerment and the discovery of True Will, which--to my mind, at least--is ideally an individual's unification with All or the Absolute, which is Ayin (as per Hermeticism and Thelemic Kabbalah, similar to Sunyata, or Emptiness, in Zen Buddhism), and the manifestation of their course in existence based on this unification. To me, True Will is what happens when there is no separation between being and doing, action and existence, as one has (according to Crowley) "the inertia of the universe behind him." This very much reminds me of Taoism (which heavily influenced Zen), and the notion of being "one with the Way".

      Interestingly, Crowley equates the Tao with Ayin in the 'Book of Thoth'. The AA also equates the attainment of the highest grade within that order, 'Ipsissimus', with the Buddhist 'anatta'.

      Anyway, I feel that, while Zen and Thelema differ profoundly in their focus and means of attainment, they both aim to bring a person to their potential, whatever that might mean.

      "In all systems of religion is to be found a system of Initiation, which may be defined as the process by which a man comes to learn that unknown Crown."

      -- Crowley

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    3. In Zen, meditation is (at least if you believe Dogen) "enlightenment itself," just being in this moment, neither coming nor going, neither averse nor attached to anything.

      Yes, I’ve heard it described this way: when you meditate, you don’t sit and shut off your thoughts in order to achieve a result – sitting and shutting off your thoughts IS the result.

      A lot of people miss that point, especially people who come from a Western tradition focused on ideas like “attainment,” which is often imagined to be a superhuman state, instead of a concrete, very achievable state.

      Incidentally, you don’t have to “believe Dogen” to come to any of these conclusions. You just have to clearly define “meditation” and “enlightenment” and argue logically from those definitions in order to come to this conclusion. The truth does not depend on what some guy says, and it certainly doesn’t depend on what we want to “believe.”

      While Thelema has a slew of rituals, as passed down from Crowley and his antecedents, the main idea is self-empowerment and the discovery of True Will, which--to my mind, at least--is ideally an individual's unification with All or the Absolute, which is Ayin (as per Hermeticism and Thelemic Kabbalah, similar to Sunyata, or Emptiness, in Zen Buddhism), and the manifestation of their course in existence based on this unification.

      Generally, the True Self (whose dynamic aspect is the True Will) is attributed to Tipareth on the Tree of Life, and the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (Crowley’s favorite metaphor for discovering the True Will) occurs at the grade attributed to Tipareth, 5=6.

      I see no reason to insist that discovering the True Will should be attributed any higher than Tipareth – the other Sephiroth pertain to different attainments. But this is just a minor quibble, since the Tree is just a map, and its symbols can be used by different people in a variety of ways.

      To me, True Will is what happens when there is no separation between being and doing, action and existence, as one has (according to Crowley) "the inertia of the universe behind him." This very much reminds me of Taoism (which heavily influenced Zen), and the notion of being "one with the Way".

      Yeah, there’s a sense in which all of that is correct, but I tend to be of the opinion that unless one means something relatively concrete and definitive, this sort of talk slips too easily into the language of flakiness.

      To me, True Will is what happens when a person learns to pay attention – specifically, when a person learns to pay attention to his actual inclinations and to the ways in which his mind/thoughts normally distorts perception of those inclinations.

      Again, I’m talking about discovering these facts in *concrete* and *specific* ways. It’s not enough to get into a trance state and just imagine that you’re “going with the flow” while you go about making all the normal mistakes of perception that human beings are wont to make.

      For me, Thelema is about learning how *your* individual mind specifically distorts impressions and distracts you. The answers to this question will be very specific and very different from individual to individual. Discovering the True Will essentially consists in getting so good at this process that you’re able to “catch” your mind distracting you in real time. When you do this, you can “course correct” by redirecting your focus back onto your Will.

      Basically, all of the practices – including meditation – are preliminaries for the real work, which consists of observing yourself in real time, in your day-to-day life. It’s very possible to attain without once doing any meditation or ritual magick – but for many people, practices like those are helpful, as is having a clear terminology indicating what the goal is and how to achieve it.

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    4. There is something to say for the fact that Tiphareth lies in the center of the Tree... that it's "fed" by most of the sefirot, including the upper three beyond the Veil of the Abyss (Kether, Chokmah, and Binah)... But, as you say, this is very much a quibble, as the whole system is symbolic and in many ways subjective.

      In many ways I see the understanding of the True Will as being on par with great mindfulness, which itself can lead to "right action"--collectively representing two of the branches of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. Granted, Buddhism makes more specific moral injunctions than does Thelema, which seems a bit more of a "spiritual anarchy" to me.

      Anyway, it seems quite mindful to me in terms of, as you say, "catching" the mind, getting to know it so intimately that you catch yourself in the process of clouding your thoughts or consciousness.

      I agree, however, that in the actual *enactment* of the True Will one needs to be clear with oneself--in a manner of deep integrity and self-awareness--as to the matter at hand, and the course of one's actions.

      I very much agree with your assessment, though I have my own way of putting it, and some additional nuances I'd add. Granted, we all come to different conclusions on matters of the "inner life," albeit with a surprising and refreshing amount of mutual understanding.

      I am curious to know about your involvement in Thelema, and spiritual practice more generally. Has this been something you've contemplated or actively pursued for a while now?

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    5. I very much agree with your assessment, though I have my own way of putting it, and some additional nuances I'd add.

      Sure. No two idioms are going to be identical, but the whole purpose of coming up with common terminology for the things we’re talking about and specific definitions of those terms (“True Will,” “distorting influences of the mind,” “mental restriction,” “mindfulness,” etc.) is to enable communication.

      Developing a common language for this subject allows people to *teach* others how to practice and how to attain. In theory, “attainment” is a subject that can be studied, much as engineering is a subject that can be studied. And just as each new class of engineers doesn’t have to re-invent engineering anew – they can learn about it from engineers who have come before – so too can each new crop of “seekers” learn how to attain from those who have come before.

      This is the point of that conversation we were having on your blog about being clear about what we mean by terms. The more precise the terminology, the more easily we can communicate and teach.

      I am curious to know about your involvement in Thelema, and spiritual practice more generally. Has this been something you've contemplated or actively pursued for a while now?

      I've been studying and practicing Thelema for nearly fifteen years now. Before that, I dabbled in various other "occult" subjects.

      I would say that for those fifteen years I've been practicing "magick" in its broadest sense of "The Science and Art of Causing Change to occur in conformity with Will." In its more restricted sense of ceremonies that attempt to cause change through some "supernatural" mechanism, I practiced "magick" for a few years (with lots of [what I thought were] "results") before I realized how stupid it was (and how dumb I was being).

      Any other questions, just ask.

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