Our era of profound spiritual crisis is equally an era of spiritual forment rivaled only by that time two thousand years ago that saw the emergence of Gnosticism, Christianity, and the Hermetic Tradition in the West and Mahayana Buddhism and Vedanta in the East. Today, as then, this transformative crisis is being fueled by the confluence of cultures, none of which will remain the same for that contact. Two such cultures, contemporary Paganism and Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism, have the potential to deeply revitalize each other and positively effect our world.
Problems with Pagan Practice
Paganism has survived awful abuse for thousands of years. It is a testimony to the vitality and resilience of the culture that it survives in any form today. Outside of the Roman and Greek Churches, contemporary Paganism preserves the only remaining living ritual tradition in the West. Protestantism has vestiges of ritual in baptism and such rites but mostly is a preaching tradition. Even the High Churches have preserved only a narrow range of ritual practice. The Pagans however still create rituals from generative grammars as needed to supplement the more established forms. Yet due to the abuse the tradition has experienced the degree of self-critical reflection and refinement of that ritual tradition is very thin. At most we have only a generation or two’s examination of our process, which, while helpful, is no match for a thousand years of sustained attention.
Over the years of practicing Pagan magickal ritual I have noticed a variety of consistent problems with our practice. Many solutions for these have been attempted with varying success. When I was introduced to the Tibetan contemplative tradition, (read Vajrayana) one of the points my teacher made was how the practitioners noted problems with their practices and with insight (and I suspect lots of trial and error and sharing results) they were able to solve them. Indeed, he noted, most books of Tibetan ritual practice were structured with the first chapter or so giving the practice itself and the remaining many chapters delineate all the ways the practice could go wrong and how to fix them. He also shared some of the more general techniques and what they were remedies for. Perhaps because ritual is ritual and it is humans doing it regardless where on the world they are, the same problems he mentioned among the Buddhists I had seen among Pagans. Shamelessly, and in true Hermetic manner, I began applying some of the remedies in my own ritual practice and with my community. Needless to say it helped.
One of these that was very easy to adopt was the dedication of the benefit of the ritual to all beings (this of course includes the ritual practitioners). Either by verbally dedicating the benefit in this manner or by ‘sweeping’ the good that we have done into an energy ball in the center of the ritual space and tossing it up into the sky to rain down on all beings, we were easily able to incorporate this ritual element. However effective as this sharing might be, the most immediate benefit to the group was the complete absence of the post-ritual blues, ungroundedness and general irritability that I and many other practitioners have experienced. Instead a calm sense of satisfaction tends to pervades the space.
Another more pervasive issue among magickal practitioners is the problem of magick going awry or causing harm, which it can easily do since it is refracted through our subconsciousnesses (thus not wholly under our conscious control) and since it is simply a power of nature. With our practice of magick comes an interaction with the world that requires, due to its power, a deeper level of responsibility and accountability and for non-practitioners. Instead we regularly cause trouble for ourselves, but this is more due to a lack of skill than necessity.
Looking back over our history, I suspect that in the frightful need to transmit the how the Western Magical Tradition lost the why. In the face of oppression and ridicule the practice of magick was nearly, but not successfully, exterminated. But those who transmitted the core of our way forward in time did not include as inherent the process of rooting our work in compassion.
Perhaps those who bequeathed us the magickal tradition thought it obvious or maybe the view as to what magick is to be used for never arose. But its absence today, this lack of high intention cripples us. Though we value the Earth and root to it when we do our work, this is not enough to place the momentum of the greatest good for all behind our magickal efforts, our spells and rites. Yet by generating compassion we can invoke the inherent power of the entire Universe driving us all toward our eventual enlightenment to strengthen and fulfill our magick.
The Buddhists call this “boddhichitta” and make a particular point of generating it at the beginning of every ritual. This is also what the Mahayana brought to the magick users of India and Tibet, giving rise to Buddhist Tantra and the Vajrayana.
Vajrayana is what happens when a magickal culture becomes Buddhist and decides on Compassion. And is not compassion needed by every person, organization, business, government, etc.? Thus a practice that makes a virtue of compassion/Boddhichitta would be helpful to and for all. But, when done by magick users it is particularly powerful. Is it not our responsibility, since we have the power, to invoke compassionate action? In a deep sense this is a means of casting a vote in the ultimate franchise by determining what kind of world we live in.
The great hope that we can integrate Vajrayana practice in Pagan ritual is made clear by Steven Beyer’s work “The Cult of Tara”. There he shows that the only way to interpret Tibetan ritual practice is to take seriously their view of the reality of magick. To do this Beyer had to turn to the Western magickal tradition to find useful categories of analysis. When he returned with these tools to the Tibetan culture, he found that the same (not merely similar) methods were being used in both traditions. I note in my study that the principle difference, besides the presence of the Buddhist view, is the that Tibetan techniques are much more thorough.
The structural identity of the two systems permits us to conclude that should the Pagani adopt the practice of generating Boddhichitta they will (potentially) achieve the same result, a compassion based practice that is both effective and helpful to self and others.
Should the Pagani let themselves be effected by an alien culture
The contemporary Pagan and Magickal communities share an oddly interconnected history with the Buddhadharma. While some scholars have suggested connections between classical Paganism and the classical Far East and some connections may be found during the Renaissance, it is with the first translations of the eastern holy texts into European languages that the initial and most obvious effect appears and that in reaction. Christopher McIntosh, in his biography of Eliphas Levi, determined that one of Levi’s motivations was a sense that it is all well and good that the eastern traditions have all these esoteric spiritual practices, but so has the West-we just have to dig harder. And so while the Transcendentalists and German Romantics were enraptured by the Upanishads and the Bagavadgita and Pali Cannon, Levi was fusing Hebraic Kabbalah with the Tarot and goetic conjurations and Paracelcian elemental work with Agrippa’s methods.
Within a generation Madam Blavatski would be in contact with “the Tibetan” and other teachers from the orient and claimed that her Secret Doctrine was rooted in Buddhist Teachings. While this last was debatable due to the doctrine of the soul she presented being contrary to fundamental Buddhist teachings, both the text and her teachings show evidence of Buddhist philosophy intertwined with western occult thought. Joscelyn Godwin tracks this process in his Theosophical Enlightenment.
In the next generation, Aleister Crowley takes up the same attraction to Buddhism in its Sri Lankan form partly under the tutelage of Alan Bennett, his principal teacher of magick. Crowley later integrated the yogic techniques they learned from their teacher with magickal practice, and further blended some Buddhist principles into the Thelemic Holy Books, particularly Liber B vel Magus. Bennett went even farther by abandoning magick and becoming a Buddhist Monk, the second westerner to do so. He formed the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland, an organization to bring Buddhism to the west, but the severe monastic tradition he brought was not readily accepted by Europeans. Godwin, at the end of his book, wonders what it would have been like if Bennett and Crowley had discovered Tantric Buddhism, the Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. What would have happened then? [It is clear that Crowley did not have any significant experience of Tibetan Buddhism since in his last great work, the Thoth Tarot deck which he created with Lady Frieda Harris, the Two of Wands depicts what he calls crossed Dorje and the Ten of Wands presents two more. However the image is not of a dorje wand or scepter but of a Purba, a three edged ceremonial knife.]
One of the key features of Buddhism is its thrust towards enlightenment. The classical Pagan tradition had similar goals. Plato had his aspiration towards Beauty through philosophy, Plotinus towards the One through contemplation. The Mystery traditions were said to free the aspirant from the fear of death and secure a pleasant afterlife. Christianity itself holds out the hope of heaven. Yet, while in each of these systems the ultimate aim was clearly formulated, in contemporary Paganism the goal is vague. Some speak of enlightenment, or of attaining unity with the Godhead (Goddess-head?) or perhaps some particular deity. Ceremonialists have inherited the Renaissance goal of the divinization of the Mage, or Prospero’s attainment of becoming one with the Cosmos and being able to wield its power. However, the methods of attainment are unclear.
Even this being the case, I would still contend that the strongest notions about our goal in Pagan practice are deeply influenced by the impact of eastern religions on our society. Any ideas we have about enlightenment are qualified by our apprehension of Buddhist concepts of Nirvana and the Vedanta Hindu Moksha or Liberation. Some of this comes from the historical intertwining of Buddhism with the Magical tradition. Some of this comes from the efflorescence of the Sixties, formative years for the current Pagan Revival.
Nonetheless there is a certain alien quality to these views with respect to the contemporary Pagan view of the divineness of the Earth. Each of them postulate that there is some place else, some place better, where we would rather be. This is Gnostic dualism, and leads, as amply demonstrated by our current ecological crisis, to the denigration of the here and now, of the world on which we live, even of our bodies and the pleasure available in the immediate moment.
But when we push past the initial understandings of Buddhism, past the Theravada/Hinavana, past the Mahayana, we can find in the most exalted forms of Buddhism a view that corresponds directly to the Pagan view of the sanctity of the immediate. It is in the Vajrayana of Tantric Buddhism and in Dzogchen, “the Great Perfection” that we find a explicit positive valuation of the world and the body. In Vajrayana, the challenging aspects of the world are not avoided, like the Theravadin, or antidoted as in Mahayana, but embraced and transformed into pristine and purified wisdoms. The Vajrayana practitioner strives to experience all sound as mantra (divine speech) all vision as mandala (divine image) as well as all the senses pure and holy, and all beings as Goddesses and Gods, something H.V. Gunther calls the symbolic recreation of the world. In a sense, Pagans strive to do no less. One less than ultimate goal of Paganism is to live in a world that is loved and respected and cared for by all the people in it. To do this most Pagans strive to see the very Earth as divine. Many of our rituals embody the value of a sacred world and many of them seek to “heal the Earth” (however this is understood). Many Pagan ritual also focus on experiencing and calling forth the innate divine nature in the participants. There, of course, remains the question of the efficacy of these rites.
In the pinnacle of Buddhism, the Great Perfection or Dzogchen, this process is taken to its ultimate conclusion, foregoing the transformational quality of Vajrayana. Rather the Dzogchen practitioner seeks the inherent purity in all things, and integrates with the experience while not seeking to change anything about it. This is in accord with the Pagan contra-gnostic view of the immediate goodness of the here and now. In Dzogchen this process is said to liberate the practitioner from creating any more karma and eventually lead to the Great Transference in which the body is transformed in to pure awareness and light upon death, or in advanced practitioners even before then. Certain deep teachings of the Ceremonialist path speak to this realization, yet it is the distinct failing of the Western path that we have not produced anyone of the caliber of a Tibetan Tulku.
Fortunately we are not finished. If we examine the history of Vajrayana’s creation and development as outlined by Miranda Shaw in Passionate Enlightenment we can see that the contemporary Pagan movement is in a state very similar to that of the cultural stratum out of which Tantric Buddhism arose and also similar to pre-Buddhist Tibet when Padmasambhava arrived to spread the Dharma.
Unfortunately the Pagan tradition is floundering and needs a deeper, richer, tap root by which to develop itself beyond mere spellcraft and seasonal celebrations. When Buddhism escaped the hands of the monastics and attained to the greater view of the Mahayana it began to spread outside the Buddhist philosophical colleges to the villages and craftsfolk. There, among the native magick using folk of India who were used to honoring the seasons and their many Deities, some heard the call of the greater view. They embraced the understanding of the void nature at the ground of things (Shunyata) and saw that compassion (Boddhichitta) was the necessary corollary and result. Rather than give up the magick and methods for worship they had known for countless generations, they brought them to bear on the task of attaining to the complete realization of this View. Thus was born Tantric, Vajrayana Buddhism.
I find it striking that, according to Shaw, it was circles of women seeking buddhahood in feminine form (contrary to the prevailing dogma) that lead to this development. They were usually common folk and craftswomen and are accompanied by tales of their enterprising and accomplished skillfulness. They welcomed men into these circles but always with the requirement of the adoration of the feminine as the embodiment of the goal. This is little different from contemporary Pagan circles, whether Gardinarian, Thelemic, Eclectic or Dianic. The automatic authority available to women on the Pagan path is a powerful attraction to women (and men) and one of its deepest strengths.
And so if Pagan folk can learn from Buddhism about sharing the benefit, the compassionate basis for action and a variety of ritual techniques, what can Buddhism learn from Paganism? In a number of conversations I have had during the writing of this essay with folk on this frontier, humor is the first quality mentioned. While I have found Tibetan teachers to be of good humor and Sogyal Rinpoche, in his Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to stress the need for humor, the Pagani raise humor and general silliness to a high, even spiritual art. This levity brings a joy of spirit and a resilience and freshness of soul to the work, especially necessary when our rites become to pompous or weighted with needless gravity. A sense of humor is also required when one is a member of an oppressed under class in order to survive.
Perhaps this is the greatest gift we can offer in return. We believe we belong here is this world now, for all the reasons discussed above. We have been hunted and ridiculed for two thousand years, yet we remain. It is our humor in the presence of the Divine and the Ultimate and our sense of belonging here and now that we can share with the Buddhists and all practitioners. This is what has given us the ability to survive, and this we wish for all oppressed folk of good will.
Godwin, Joscelyn. The Theosophical Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
McIntosh, Christopher. Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival. London: Rider and Company, 1972.
Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Sogyal Rinpoche. Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992.
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