Buddhist Influence On Aleister Crowley

Buddhist Influence On Aleister Crowley Cover “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the Law, there is no Law beyond do what thou wilt.”

In examining the doctrines and teachings of the majority of modern occult traditions one finds themes relating to Aleister Crowley recurring quite frequently. These schools of Western esoteric practice bear very little in common with each other except for their common ties to Crowley. The wiccan Rede “Do what thou wilt, but harm none” is an adaptation of Crowley’s law of Thelema “Do what thou wilt. Love is the law, love under will.” (Crowley, 1976, pg. 50) Dr. Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set (an offshoot of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan) also has strong roots in the works of Crowley. Crowley’s principle ‘revelatory’ text, The Book of the Law, proclaimed the dawning of a new world age (The Aeon of Horus) in which Crowley was the Magus of this new age. Aquino drew upon this idea when he formed the Temple of Set. The world age of Crowley, in the Setian worldview, lasted until the Equinox of the common year 1966, when HarWer and Set were fused as one composite being. And so commenced the time of Set-HarWer - known as the Age of Satan - which was to bridge the expiring Aeon of HarWer and the forthcoming Aeon of Xeper. (Aquino) Thus, we can clearly see that Crowley’s work has had a very wide range of influence of both left and right hand paths.

One could easily devote one’s life to tracing Crowley’s influence on various different magical lodges and other organizations, but that is not my intent here. A more interesting, and perhaps more valuable task would be to flush out what it was that influenced Crowley himself. A quick look at any of his material soon shows that Crowley was quite an eclectic fellow and borrowed ideas and imagery from many different traditions. Crowley’s title of Ankh-F-N-Khonsu, and use of the Gods Horus, Hadit, and Nuit within The Book of the Law show his use of Egyptian mythology and religion. The title of the Beast that he also uses for himself within The Book of the Law shows the impact that Christian apocalyptic ideology has had on him.

Of the many different forms of religion that have influenced Crowley, Buddhism would probably be one of the last of which most people would think of. The Book of the Law does not speak very kindly of Buddhism: “With my [the Egyptian God Horus] claws I tear out the flesh of the Indian and the Buddhist, Mongol and Din.” (Crowley, 1976, pg. 47) I intend to show, however, that this statement is quite misleading and that Crowley did indeed have a fair amount of Buddhist influence in his work. Unfortunately Crowley was quite prolific in his writing and a close, scrutinizing exegesis of his works is certainly out of the question for an essay of such a small size. Instead we shall examine some of his more obscure writings which seem to have been swept under the rug, and examining his most important book: The Book of the Law. If we can show that The Book of the Law had significant Buddhist influence then one can confidently say that all of Crowley’s work has at least some Buddhist influence since The Book of the Law provides the groundwork for the majority of the rest of his writing.

Most of Crowley’s views on Buddhism are laid out for us clearly in his essay Science and Buddhism. The goal of Crowley’s essay is to compare modern scientific conceptions with Buddhism and show that Buddhism is a ‘scientific religion’. The fact that Crowley chose such a goal for his paper is not surprising at all considering the era in which he lived in. A large momentum of movements comparing science and religion had been built by the time that Crowley had written this essay (1903). Key to this scientific religion movement was Paul Carus (b. 1852). Carus’ goal was to propound, develop, and establish the Religion of Science... In order to establish the Religion of Science it is by no means necessary to abolish the old religions, but only to purify them and develop their higher possibilities, so that their mythologies shall be changed into strictly scientific conceptions. It is intended to preserve of the old religions all that is true and good, but to purify their faith by rejecting superstitions and irrational elements, and to discard, unrelentingly, their errors. (Sharf, pg. 14)

Crowley considers this response of Buddhism to be inadequate and instead wants to “assert the absoluteness of the Qabalistic zero.” (Crowley, 1906, pg. 236) If we consider space to be infinite, as the physicists do, then we are left with two possibilities as to the nature of matter and the universe. Either matter fills space completely and thus is infinitely great, or if not then we must say that matter is infinitely small. Whether the universe is one billion light years across or is only three meters in diameter is irrelevant since either way it is infinitely small and in effect nothing. If on the other hand matter is infinite then either God is crowded out of the picture or this infinite matter is God Her/Himself. If God is infinite matter itself then we are presented with the problem of “why should an infinite Ego fill a nonexistent body with imaginary food cooked in thought over an illusionary fire by a cook that is not there?”

Thus, Crowley chose to claim that matter is finite, then investigates whether or not we can claim that the universe began with nothing. He defines ‘zero’ as being the absence of extension in any of the categories, and no positive proposition is valid regarding nothingness. If we were to suppose that time, space, being, heaviness, and hunger are the only categories then we could express a man x as x t + s + b + h + h. If this man eats then he is longer extended into the category of hunger. If you isolate this poor man and cut him off from time and gravity then you’d be left with x s + b. Should this man cease to occupy space and to exist then the result would be x0 which equals 1. Thus, whatever x is if it can be raised to the power of zero then the result is unity and the x factor itself is eliminated. If there was a zero before the existence of things then the zero could not have been extended in any of the categories because there would not have existed any categories for it to be extended into.

Crowley believes that the goal of the majority of religions is the annihilation of the self by dissolving one’s self into an infinite deity. Buddhism, however, aims at extinction period. Thus, the Hindu goal of merging into Brahman is illusionary, but the practices to arrive there may be useful at least in the early stages. Crowley summarizes the task of the Buddhist as

He must plunge every particle of his being into one idea: right views, aspirations, word, deed, life, willpower, meditation, rapture, such are the stages of his liberation, which resolves itself into a struggle against the laws of causality. He cannot prevent past causes from taking effect, but he can prevent present causes from having any future result. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 240)

To still present causes from having future results Crowley advocates meditation which he defines as the absolute restraint of the mind to the contemplation of a single object. To Crowley mindfulness must be achieved prior to meditation. For a person to become mindful she or he must first have iron willpower. Crowley perceives magical ceremony to have entirely identical ends as meditation, and is a magnificent rocket ship to Nirvana. Through sensation, action, and though the magician indicates the single goal of the ritual.

Although The Book of the Law may talk about ripping the flesh off of the Buddhist, it does contain in it another reference to Buddhism that is not negative at all. In the third chapter of The Book of the Law Crowley says, “Choose ye an island! Fortify it!” (Crowley, 1976, pg. 39) This seems to be a reference to the section of the Dhammapada that Crowley translates as, “Let the wise man an island build against the fatal current strong.” (Crowley, 1976, pg. 46) Juan Mascaro translates the same passage as, “The wise man who by watchfulness conquers thoughtlessness is as one free from sorrows ascends the palace of wisdom and there, from its high terrace, sees those in sorrow below; even as a wise strong man on the holy mountain might behold the many unwise far down below on the plain.” (Mascaro, pgs. 38-39) It is clear that Crowley has departed from regular translations of the Dhammapada with this one particular line, and I believe The Book of the Law is referring to this line of the Dhammapada. Normally this statement is interpreted as one of paranoia and violence which it is commonly interpreted as - especially with the description of Horus as a “god of War and Vengeance.” (Crowley, 1906, pg. 39) just above the line regarding the island. However, if one interprets this ‘island’ as one’s own mind, and protecting it to mean meditating and keeping out false thoughts then this would indeed be a very Buddhist concept. This combined with the prevalent theme of nothingness (as represented by Nuit) makes The Book of the Law a book that is very compatible with Buddhist philosophy. Crowley’s statement of tearing the flesh of the Buddhist is no less anti-Buddhist than the Ch’an monk who claims that the Buddha is a stick of dung.

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