Chapter 54


The voyage to Rangoon was uneventful and delightful. The weather was perfect; for a wonder, the shores and spine of western Burma were on show. There was a fearful fascination in those deadly beauties. I cursed again the fate that had driven me back in 1902 from the sombre slopes of the Arakans. I had rather I had left my bones to Bleach upon those pestilential peaks.

Yet my mind — thanks be to the most high eternal gods! — can never rest for more than an albatross's glide upon the slopes of the past. Today, writing my memories, I feel as if I were playing a sort of practical joke upon myself. I am hot on the trail of the future. I can imagine myself on my deathbed, spent utterly with lust to touch the next world, like a boy asking for his first kiss from a woman.

Beyond Burma lay mysterious China; I conjured up a cloud of amusing phantasies. Romance and adventure. I am incurable; though I have had all the good thinks of life, nearly all my life, though I no longer value them or enjoy them for themselves, I still enjoy the idea of them. I embrace hardship and privation with ecstatic delight; I want everything that the world holds; I would go to prison or to the scaffold for the sake of the experience. I have never grown out of the infantile belief that the universe was made for me to suck. I grow delirious to contemplate the delicious horrors that are certain to happen to me. This is the keynote of my life, the untrammelled delight in every possibility of existence, potential or actual. Fear had been eliminated from me by the fact that I look back with the keenest interest and pleasure to the events which at the time were torture unassuaged.

Imagine, then, how I gloried in the low of the silken waters about the ship, in the fantastically immaterial outlines of the Arakan hills, in the gloom of the gracious frondage of the forests, in the curves of the cobra coast, in the sinister stories of wreck and piracy which haunt that desolate abyss through which we were steaming, where for nine months of the year one can scarce distinguish between sky and sea, so dark and damp is the air, so subtly steaming the swell of ocean; while beyond, as in a hashish dream, arose the highlands of china, provinces all but unknown even to civilized Chinese themselves. There, primrose to purple, was the promise of undreamed-of tribes of men, strangely tattooed and dressed, with awful customs and mysterious rites, beyond imagination and yet brutally actual, folk with sublimity carven of simplicity and depravity woven of the most complex madness. {460}

I went toward China, my veins bursting with some colossal bliss that I had never yet experienced. I boiled with love for the unknown, the more so that my brain was overcharged with grisly imaginings bred of Octave Mirbeau's Le Jardin des Supplices, combined with fervid actualities born of the feeling that I was (after all) treading, though reverently and afar off, in the footsteps of my boyhood's hero, Richard Francis Burton.

The approaches to Rangoon are of the most turbulent kind. The river is always the same violent angry dirty flood. It seems to be desperately annoyed with itself about something, possibly at having to pass through Rangoon, which is a wretchedly provincial and artificial town, saved from utter insignificance by one crowing glory, the Shwe Dagon pagoda.

The Buddhists of Burma cannot be induced to do anything which might contribute to their welfare or that of their religion; but they are ridiculously lavish in building new dagobas or regilding old ones. Shortly before my arrival an immense sum of money had been collected to lay plate of pure gold on the Htee of the Shwe Dagon, and while this operation was in progress, a tigress indiscreetly walked into the city one night, climbed the scaffolding and was shot by an Englishman. The outrage to the community, which objects to the slaying, even by accident, of an insect, was causing serious political trouble. Their most holy shrine defiled by deliberate murder! There was also considerable friction between the petty English authorities and the Buddhist ponggis of European extraction who were trying to settle in Rangoon, live the holy life and revive Buddhism as a missionary religion. European officials in a colony are necessarily nuisances to themselves; the consequently try to pass it on to somebody else, on the principle of school bullies — the prototype of the administration.

I personally met with the greatest courtesy and kindness from the authorities in Burma, but the country is not so settled socially as India, and the climate is so abominable that there is every excuse for irritability on the part of anyone unfortunate enough to have to live there. It is, however, a pity that the administration should look with such provincial suspicion upon people like Allan Bennett, that they should fancy political dangers when a European chooses to study native religion. This disfavour extended to their own officials whenever they happened to have sufficient intelligence to take a sympathetic interest in the people and their customs and beliefs. Fielding Hall, a judge, found himself quite unpopular in official circles on account of his excellent though somewhat sentimental book The Soul of a People.

The Englishman in all the colonies that I have visited, except in India, which is not a colony, is childishly jealous of his supposed superiority to the native. He has convinced himself that he represents a step ahead in evolution and he is fantastically afraid of “going fanti”; so he has his knife into anyone who has a good word to say for the people. {461}

Allan Bennett, by becoming a Buddhist monk, was a lining witness that some Europeans thought Burmese beliefs better than their European equivalents; and the idea — so far as an idea may be ascribed to an official — was that native agitators might use this as an argument that British rule in Burma was unjustified. The whole ratiocination is an utter muddle; but men are not governed by reason, either individually or politically. There is, therefore, some excuse for the anxiety of the administration.

At the same time, the example of India should have been enough. British prestige in India rested on the real moral superiority of courage, truthfulness, justice an self-control. It has been destroyed by the attempt to replace this irrational lever of iron by the rotten laths of reason. We should never have shown our weakness to the Indian student who fills Bengal with the tale of his sexual conquest of white women, our servant girls who took these sons of pettifoggers for princes. We should never have sent out middle-class pets-of-examiners to govern the aristocratically minded inhabitants of the tongue of Asia. Duxmia — I suspect some very wise bird — wrote in Vanity Fair (October 13th, 1907):

The British Empire was not built up by public school boys, for the excellent and all sufficient reason that while it was really being built up the public schools did not exist. The men who defeated Napoleon and crushed the Indian Mutiny were sons of country squires, educated in private seminaries, or by tutors on their fathers' own estates, often left to run wild among grooms and stableboys, and obtaining their military or colonial posts through purchase or influence, certainly not through examinations. And never let it be forgotten that the Navy, the one efficient service we possess, is officered by men who have not been to public schools.

It is the plain truth. Our new intellectual Y.M.C.A. snobbery has sucked away our spinal marrow.

I left my family in the hotel and went to stay with Allan, who had been advanced from a simple bikkhu to a sayadaw in his choung (monastery) some two miles from the city. Thornton's remark about the discontinuity of the ego had begun to take hold. I was anxious to confer with my old guru as thoroughly as possible. His view at this time was that, no matter how earnestly and skillfully one practised, one could not obtain Samadhi, and a fortiori, Arhatship, unless one's Kamma (Karma) was, so to speak, ripe. His theory was that one must comply with the Dhamma in all respects to give oneself a chance, but to do so was no guarantee of success. That depended on coincidence. His analogy was this:

Suppose you are a point of a wheel and wish to touch a certain stone on the road, it is obviously necessary to take up your position on the rim of the {462} wheel, bet even so you may be at the top of the wheel just at the moment when the wagon passes over the stone.

I said: “How does this doctrine differ from that of shir Parananda, who said that Samadhi depended on 'the grace of the Lord Shiva'?” He smiled grimly and said that Shri Parananda's doctrine was not Buddhism!

In any case, I resented those views. I clung passionately to my belief that a man's progress depended upon personal prowess. No doubt this is philosophically absurd, but I still maintain that it is practical good sense. The conversation, nevertheless, turned to considerations of what my Kamma had in store for me. “This might be discovered,” he said, “by acquiring the Magical Memory.” This is equivalent to Sammasati, Right Recollection, the seventh step on the Noble Eightfold Path. I must explain what this means.

The Buddhist theory of metempsychosis does not involve, like the corresponding Hindu idea, the survival of the individual. There is in fact no ego to survive. When a Buddhist says that he remembers the events of his boyhood, he does not imply that he is the boy in question. He is not; nor is he the man, elephant, bat, hare or what-not of “his” previous incarnation. The wave that breaks on the shore is not composed of the same particles of water as the “same” wave (as we call it) a minute earlier. Incarnation are successive phenomena causally connected but not identical. It would have been incorrect for the Buddha to say “I was that holy hare”. He should express the facts as follows: There is a consciousness of a tendency to perceive that holy hare and this man Gautama Buddha, as collection of impressions in which the one partially determines the other. This connection tends to produce the illusion of an ego whose experiences include the phenomena associated, then with the hare, now with the Gautama.

There are two main methods of acquiring the Magical Memory as defined above. One is to train the normal memory to work backwards instead of forwards, so that any past action is presented to the mind after the manner of a cinematograph film set running in the reverse direction. (I never succeeded fully in acquiring the technique of this method.) The other is to deduce from present circumstances those which gave rise to them.

Just so, one may deduce from the examination of a position on a chessboard what line of pay brought it about. One could not be absolutely sure; the pieces might have been set up by a madman; but granted that the position is intelligible, the laws of probability make it as certain as anything can be that it arose in a certain way. Now in considering one's life one has more material for investigation than a single position; one has a series of successive positions. Intelligent inquiry ought to be able to deduce not only the unknown past, but the unknown future. We have no hesitation in reconstructing the boyhood of Swinburne — presuming the absence of {463} direct information – from his works. His poetry proclaims that he studied classics sympathetically and profoundly, that he was influenced by pantheistic, anti-clerical and republican friends, and so on.

Astronomers, again, observing an infinitesimally short section of the course of a planet or star, confidentally pronounce on its position in the past and the future, and even in some cases calculate its complete orbit. There is therefore nothing a priori absurd in trying to discover one's own nature, history and prospects, at least within very wide limits, from careful consideration of one's known characteristics and environment. “Explore the rivers of the soul,” says Zoroaster, “whence and in what order thou has come.” I saw that if I was to be intelligible to myself, I must do so, and this resolution resulted in the critical events which made the months of November, December, January and February the most important period of my life so far as my personal attitude to myself and the universe was concerned.

His life as a bikkhu had not been too good for my guru. The abstinence from food after sunset is bad for the health, bit Allan found that after three weeks he got into the habit. But he was likely to be haunted by the ghost of his dead appetite. He had, moreover, got into a very shocking state physically from lack of proper hygiene and perhaps also of proper medical attention, as well as from his determination to carry out the strict rules of the Order. He had acquired a number of tropical complaints.

I felt that my poetry had been undergoing a transition and I was not sure of my feet. Allen told me that he thought the most magical line in English was Coleridge's “And ice, mast high, went floating by.” The comparison is not with mountains or cathedrals, though they are taller than masts. The imminence of the ice is expressed by the phrase chosen and the reader is put upon the deck of a ship. He becomes, maugre his teeth one of the companions of the Ancient Mariner.

This conversation led to my endeavouring to put a certain vividness of phraseology into my poetry. “The Eyes of Pharaoh” was my first attempt to give vivid and immediate images. I chose my similes so as to strengthen the main theme. Later in the month, at Mandalay, I wrote approximately half of “Sir Palmede the Saracen”. The idea of this book was to five an account of the Mystic Path in a series of episodes, and each episode was to constitute a definite arrangement of colour and form. Thus, Section I shows the blue and yellow of sea and sand, a knight in silver armour riding along their junction to a point where an albatross circles round a mutilated corpse.

One further subject remained for discussion. I had it in my mind to put spiritual research on a scientific basis. The first step was to get mankind to agree on a language. Allan maintained that a perfectly adequate terminology existed already in the Abhidhamma, the metaphysical section of the Buddhist {464} canon. I could not deny the excellence of his intention, but from the point of view of the average Western student, the terms are so jawbreaking as to be heartbreaking. I said: We already possess a universal language which does not depend on grammar. The fundamentals of mathematics are the basis of the Holy Cabbala. It is natural and proper to represent the cosmos, or any part of it, or any operation of it, or the operation of any part of it, by the symbols of pure mathematics.

On November 15th we started up the Irrawaddy by the steamship Java and reached Mandalay on the twenty-first. I spent my days and nights leaning over the rail, watching the wavelets of the great river and the flyingfish. I became insane. There I was, lean, stern, brown and immobile; and there was a set of disconnected phenomena, each with a sufficient reason in itself, and the whole of them uniting to produce another phenomenon; but there was no connection between one set of reasons and the other. Each wavelet was caused by certain physical conditions and the effect of the total was to slow down the revolution of the earth. But neither the socalled transitory, nor the so-called permanent, phenomenon was ultimately intelligible. Further, what I called “I” was simply a machine which recorded the impact of various phenomena.

I wrote, “About now I may count my speculative criticism of the reason as not only proved and understood, but realized.” And the following day, “the misery of this is simply sickening; — I can write no more.” The influence of the river journey itself had something to say to this. It is a vast implacable flood. The tangled forests on the banks seem like a symbol of disorder, desolation and disease. Religion itself becomes offensively monotonous. On every point of vantage are pagodas — stupid stalagmites of stagnant piety. There is only one dagoba with any pretence to beauty. The eccentricity is explained thus. Even the atrophied ambition of architects had become sick of perpetual plagiarism. The contractor went to the queen and asked how he should build it. She extruded one of her breasts and said, “Take that for a model.” He did so, and the result is a refreshing relief from the routine of the regular dagoba.

But the prevailing impression is one of putrefaction. Moored to the steamer were flats piled with fish. The sun rotted them to the point when they became unfit for food. The stench was incomparable; it somehow fitted with the state of my soul. At mandalay I exhibited this state by this entry in my diary, “Saw palace and 450,001,293,847 pagodas.” The criticism is unjust: I had not counted them. There is, however, one good pagoda in the city, the Arrakan, and there is one really beautiful Buddha Rupa. It is said that this statue is the only one which is a portrait of Gautama from life. This may or may not by; at least it is free from the sickening conventionality of the regular smirking stupidity. The real glory of Mandalay consists of the {465} tables of the law. There are ten thousand slabs engraved with the canon, each under a canopy to protect it from the weather. I thought I had done rather well in the matter of book production, but I had to admit I was sitting with jack high against a royal flush.

Mandalay is ghastly most of the year. It is practically under water all the summer. At least fifty per cent of the European residents are on the sick list and a goodly proportion of these die outright. There is little to choose between the Irrawaddy basin and the worst parts of West Africa.

Yet the dwellers thereof talked as if they were in a health resort whenever the Salween valley was mentioned by some intrepid spirit. This was encouraging, as my main objective involved crossing the Salween. The map had fascinated me. The Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze Kiang run parallel for a considerable distance and they are so near together that it only took me three days between the first two of these rivers; yet the first reaches the sea at Moulmein, in the Gulf of Martaban, the second below Bangkok in the Gulf of Siam, with the whole of the Malay peninsula between them, while the third turns suddenly from south to north of east and reaches the Yellow Sea thousands of miles away. The “divides” or watersheds between these three rivers during their dramatic parallelism must evidently be mountains of the most interesting type. I wanted to visit a corner of the earth which appealed thus vividly to my imagination.

Incidentally, there were practical difficulties. I had at this time no notion that everybody was a perfect idiot. I could not understand the parochial psychology of the average Englishman. Even Litton, the British counsul at Tengyueh, wrote, “I will say frankly that I had no idea that Mrs. Crowley or a child would be with you, and that while there is really no reason why they should not go to Yunnanfu, along the main road, they will, I fear, suffer a good deal of discomfort and inconvenience on the road from the inquisitiveness and impertinence of the Chinamen: which will try your temper. I would also recommend you to dress in Chinese style, and if Mrs. Crowley would not object to a Chinese lady's upper garment or jacket, she would attract much less attention and be less subject to annoyance.”

I did not in the least understand that the average Englishman actually resents being asked to sleep in a bedroom which has not been furnished in the Tottenham Court Road, and has not not and cold water laid on. I did not understand that his fears invariably cause him to interpret the natural curiosity of villagers who have never seen Europeans in their lives, as insolence and hostility. I did not understand that he regarded it incumbent on him to instruct the population who have been highly civilized for thousands of years in the rudiments of politeness and morality, to say nothing of religion. I knew, as I know that two and two make four, that it is only necessary to behave like a gentleman in order to calm the apprehensions {466} of the aborigines and to appeal to the fundamental fact that all men are brothers. By this I do not mean anything stupid, sodden and sentimental; I mean that all men equally require food, clothing and shelter, in the first place; and in the second, security from aggression in respect of life and property.

Litton himself understood and appreciated the Chinese character perfectly. Though he was only the counsul of the most remote town of the most remote province of the most remote empire on earth, he ruled that whole province by the sheer strength of the superiority conferred by sympathy, integrity and moral courage. But his experience had not led him to expect that any other Englishman's character could coincide with his own at all these critical points.

The irritability and insularity of the Englishman, with his snobbishness, pomposity and cant, had established a prejudice on the part of the authorities against allowing Englishmen to visit the interior of China. My countrymen could be relied upon to make mischief out of the most unpromising materials. Therefore, while the government of France encouraged its citizens to explore the province, Whitehall made it as difficult as possible for Britons. I got my permission only after senseless delay and encompassed by ridiculous restrictions.

On November 23rd I went on board the Irrawaddy for Bhamo, but for one cause or another she did not leave Mandalay till the twenty-ninth. There are two defiles to be passed. The river is constructed by outcrops of rock so as to form rapids so dangerous as to be navigable only with extreme caution. I reached Bhamo on December 1st.

The Irrawaddy is the scene of one of the most exciting commercial gambles of the world. At the head of the waters are mines of jade, and huge blocks of the crude mineral are shipped on rafts to merchants lower down. These blocks are bought by auction. It may almost be said that the purchaser relies on his clairvoyance, for there is no scientific means of determining what will happen when the block is split. The purchaser proceeds to split it and takes his loss or profit accordingly. The process is then repeated as the jade goes down the river. By the time it reaches Rangoon, it has been cut up into small sections an its ultimate value is approximately determined. During its transit fortunes have been made or lost.

Though the upper river passes through hilly country, it still signals its sinister message of decay and death. A dramatic incident had stamped the fact on my memory. On the steamer was an old man, a distinguished official who had intended to retire from the service and take his pension a month or two before. He had been personally requested by the lieutenant governor to postpone his return to England that he might facilitate the arrangements for the visit of the Prince of Wales. The conversation of Europeans in these parts {467} of the earth is inexpressibly morbid; they seem obsessed by the ever present probability of death. The official tried to conceal his panic by loudly asserting a medical theory of his own, that plague, cholera, dysentery and typhoid (the four princes of the blood royal in the palace of King Death) were merely varieties of malarial fever. I said scornfully, “Next time you get cholera, I hope they'll give you quinine.” The joke came three days later, when he died of cholera. I do not know whether they gave him quinine or not.

Bhamo is a delightful outpost. One is outside the malarial stewing of the jungle. But I got to hate it, as I wanted to proceed to China, and was held up for seventeen days by the non-arrival of my passport. The delay was partly deliberate. The deputy commissioner was absent; and his assistant was an Eurasian, who took the greatest delight in annoying the white man. I ultimately got leave to proceed over his head, and having done so rubbed it in with the following letter:

16.12.05 Dak Bungalow, Bhamo
Dear Sir,
In response to your thoughtful suggestion (conveyed in your favour of yesterday's date), I did myself the honour of presuming to enter into telegraphic communication with H.B.M. Consul at Tengyueh. I will being to your notice, with your kind permission, my intention to leave Bhamo tomorrow in consequence o the information thus conveyed; but I will refrain from agitating you with other portions of his communication.

These, though, I suspect, will sooner or later be brought before you by His Honour the Lieutenant governor of Burma; and I trust that you will extend to this gentleman's observations the same prompt courtesy and intelligent attention which you have hitherto been graciously pleased to condescend to bestow upon mine.

I must overwhelm myself in due expressions of gratitude for the untiring pains you have so willing given yourself on my behalf, and trust that efforts so unintermitted have had no prejudicial effect upon your constitution.

I am sure that you have thoroughly enjoyed yourself, virtue being its own reward, and I am sure I can express no more welcome good wish than that fate may soon send you another real white man to treat you as you have treated me.

I have the honour to be, Dear Sir,
Saint E. A. Crowley
The Assistant Commissioner, Bhamo

I am not a snob or a puritan, but Eurasians do get on my nerves. I do not {468} believe that their universally admitted baseness is due to a mixture of blood or the presumable peculiarity of their parents; but that they are forced into vileness by the attitude of both their white and coloured neighbours. A similar case is presented by the Jew, who really does only too often possess the bad qualities for which he is disliked; but they are not proper to his race. No people can show finer specimens of humanity. The Hebrew poets and prophets are sublime. The Jewish soldier is courageous, the Jewish rich man generous. The race possesses imagination, romance, loyalty, probity and humanity in an exceptional degree.

But the Jew has been persecuted so relentlessly that his survival has depended on the development of his worst qualities; avarice, servility, falseness, cunning and the rest. Even the highest-class Eurasians such as Ananda Koomaraswamy suffer acutely from the shame of being considered outcast. The irrationality and injustice of their neighbours heightens the feeling and it breeds the very abominations which the snobbish inhumanity of their fellow-men expects of them.

With the departure from Bhamo may be said to begin a new phase of my career. Up to this point, I have been able to interweave the strands of my three lives; the lives of the soul, the mind and the body; or, more accurately, in the language of the Cabbala, the Neschamah, the Ruach and the Nephesch. The Hebrew sages have made an admirably simple, significant and accurate classification.

The Neschamah is that aspiration which in most men is no more than a void and voiceless longing. It become articulate only when it compels the Ruach to interpret it. The Nephesch, or animal soul, is not the body itself; the body is excremental, of the Qliphoth or shells. The Nephesch is that coherent brute which animates it, from the reflexes to the highest forms of conscious activity. These again are only cognizable when they translate themselves to the Ruach.

The Ruach lastly is the machine of the mind converging on a central consciousness, which appears to be the ego. The true ego is, however, above Neschamah, whose occasional messages to the Ruach warn the human ego of the existence of his superior. Such communications maybe welcomed or resented, encouraged or stifled. Initiation consists in identifying the human self with the divine, and the man who does not strain constantly to this end is simply a brute made wretched and ashamed by the fact of selfconsciousness.

I find by experience that this theory represents the facts very closely. I thought it necessary to give at least the bare skeleton, because the next months of our story compel me. It is no longer possible to interweave my three lives. My ordinary career becomes a welter of strange adventures, some of the most uncanny kind; yet the spiritual life is all-important and {469} absolutely simple. The one is linked to the other only by the fact that my adventures appear as if they were so many obstacles deliberately put in the way of my performing the Operation of the Sacred Magick of Abra-Melin the Mage. I shall deal first with the life of the senses. {470}

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