Buddhist Influence on Aleister Crowley
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 Crowleys law of Thelema Do what thou wilt. Love is the law, love under will. (Crowley, 1976, pg. 50) Dr. Michael Aquinos Temple of Set (an offshoot of Anton LaVeys Church of Satan) also has strong roots in the works of Crowley. Crowleys 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 Crowleys work has had a very wide range of influence of both left and right hand paths.
One could easily devote ones life to tracing Crowleys 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. Crowleys 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 Crowleys 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 Crowleys views on Buddhism are laid out for us clearly in his essay Science and Buddhism. The goal of Crowleys 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)
Carus search for scientific religious truth eventually lead him to Buddhism which he saw as being the religious tradition that was best representative of his Religion of Science. The influence of Carus on Crowley is unmistakable since we find Crowley immediately stating that he does not want to take literal interpretations of obviously fictional passages, but when Buddhism condescends to be vulgarly scientific; to observe, to classify, to think; I conceive we may take the matter seriously, and accord a reasonable investigation to its assertions. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 245)
Crowley begins his scientific examination of Buddhism with the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that existence is sorrow. Crowley claims that the same truth is stated by Huxley in Evolution and Ethics, and that Huxley also states that the amount of pain that a creature endures varies with the degree of consciousness of the being. The second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is desire. Here, Crowleys comparison of science and Buddhism becomes a little preposterous. He includes under the category of suffering the tendency of two molecules of hydrogen and chlorine to combine under certain conditions. He reasons that if death is painful to himself that it is also so for a molecule. The existence of desire is unpleasant - particularly the desire to continue to exist. The third truth is that the cessation of desire is the cessation of sorrow. This is of course is a simple logical inference from the second truth and needs no further explanation. The final truth is that there is a method of realizing the third truth, which is the eightfold path. As science progresses it tries to increase the happiness in our lives, and decrease the amount of suffering and thus it has similar goals to Buddhism.
In comparing Buddhist cosmology and science Crowley tries to show that the law of karma is identical to the law of causation. He gives the example if I place a stone on the roof of a house, it is sure to fall sooner or later; i.e. as soon as the conditions permit. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 249)
The next area of Buddhist cosmology that Crowley looks at are the three characteristics, which are change (anikka), sorrow (dukkha), absence of an Ego (anatta). To explain anikka Crowley once again refers us to Huxley who claims that what we perceive to be at rest is really unperceived activity, and in every part, at every moment, the state of the cosmos is the expression of a transitory adjustment of contending forces, a scene of strife, in which all the combatants fall in turn. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 246) Crowley utilizes the arguments of George Berkeley (matter is immaterial) to do away with Hindu ideas of a changeless, and perfect atman. The arguments of David Hume are added to those of Berkeley, doing away with the mind as well - since we dont really have any proof for the existence of ones own ego, except for the circular Cartesian I am argument which is no proof at all. Crowley with an example makes this more clear. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 247) The ordinary person makes the claim, I lift my arm. The Buddhist instead states, There is a lifting of an arm. This is known to the Buddhist through sensation and consequently our earlier statement becomes, There is a sensation of the lifting of an arm. The sensation is perceived by the Buddhist and now we have, There is a perception of a sensation of the lifting of an arm. The perception is caused by the inherent tendency to perceive we have, There is a tendency to perceive the sensation of the lifting of an arm. The last step we are able to make is to the consciousness of the tendency, and our final claim is, There is a consciousness of a tendency to perceive the sensation of a lifting of an arm. It is not possible to go further back, because there is no reason to believe, without any evidence, that there is some unity behind all consciousness.
The three characteristics are further explained by Crowley in his own jataka tale entitled The Three Characteristics. The story is framed by a larger tale of Sakyamuni telling a jataka story to a group of arahats in modern India. Gautamas tale begins with the weaver Suraj Ju and his wife Chandi who have a child Perdu R Abu. This name is significant since perdurabo was Crowleys motto while he was a member of the Golden Dawn which he joined in 1898. Perdu R Abu grew up, built a house and had wives. He saw his wives grow old and saw that a change occurred, and that in his heart a change also occurred. He examined other things in the wilderness and determined that everything is doomed to change, is subject to sorrow, and lacks any Ego.
Jehjaour, an evil magician, saw Perdu R Abu in his crystal ball, and realized that Abu was not far away from enlightenment and upon Abus arahatship Jehjaour would be destroyed. The name of Jehjaour is also significant because Iehi Aour (Let there be light) is the magical motto that Allan MacGregor Bennett took on for himself, and thus his role as the villain in this Jataka is indicative of Crowleys falling away from the Golden Dawn. Jehjaour appealed to many different Deities for help to no avail. Eventually, though, he did procure the favour of Ganesha who was upset that Perdu R Abu had abandoned Him claiming that the Gods are just as mortal as humans. Ganesha told Jehjaour that in only seven rebirths Abu will cease to be reborn, and that they must ensure that each of Abus rebirths are as long as possible.
First Perdu R Abu is reincarnated as an elephant - the longest living of the beasts. This perceptive elephant took notice of the changes of the seasons, saw the forest as being full of sorrow, and nobody need preach to him the absence of an ego, for the brutes have had more sense than to ever imagine there was one. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 227) The elephant spent his days seated in meditation and took no notice at all when Ganesha manifested His divine form before him. When the elephant was only seventeen he was killed by some bacteria.
Next Ganesha reincarnated Abu as a parrot that is supposed to live for five hundred years. The parrot lived merrily in the forest and engaged in the ordinary passions. One day a Tibetan monk entered the forest and chanted, Aum Mani Padme Hum. The parrot mimicked the Lama, practiced the mantra every day, and realized the three characteristics. Eventually the parrot became the pet of an elderly lady who soon tired of its continuous chanting and had its neck wrung. The poor parrot was only eight years old.
Ganesha was infuriated at being foiled again and this time made Abu be reborn as a Nat (an elemental spirit) that would live ten thousand years. The family of Nats lived in the hollow of a tree, and one day a bhikkhu came and made his home in the same tree. The British Government learned of the Bhikkhu living in the tree and that he received offerings from the villagers every day. The young Nat overheard the governments plans of evicting the monk, and cutting down the tree. From the governments plans the Nat learned of sorrow, impermanence, and insubstantiality. The Bhikkhu was evicted, the tree chopped down, and the family of Nats perished (these events are very similar to Genesis 3). Abu the Nat had only reached the age of three.
Ganesha made the next incarnation of Abu be a flute-girl before Indras throne, thus dooming Abu to live for one hundred thousand years. Abu was the prettiest of Indras flute-girls and played the sweetest songs on her flute. One day while she was playing she realized the four Noble Truths. Shortly after a mosquito flew into her flute and all that came out was buzzing. Indra was furious and slew her on the spot. She was only eight months old.
Indra was for guillotined for this heinous murder and Ganesha ensured that Perdu R Abu received the position. As Indra was entertaining Lady Bhavani one day, His mind wandered and He perceived a bank and saw within it sorrow, impermanence, and of course lack of Ego in the bankers. Lady Bhavani was enraged by Indra not paying attention to her and swallowed him whole. Indra had lived only seven days.
Jehjaour was very worried at this point for Perdu R Abu was not far off from arahatship. Ganesha set Jehjaours mind at ease by having Abu reincarnated as Maha Brahma. Abus only job as Brahma was to sustain the universe through meditation. He had read the Bible and understood the horrible results that would happen to humankind if a Deity decides to interfere. Brahma was confused, though, since he was supposed to be above all change, yet only an hour ago he was Indra. As he was pondering this, he saw a holy man meditating under a Bo-tree. Brahma went before Sakyamuni and asked to be enlightened. He wanted to know how he had risen from change and death to the state of being unchangeable. Gautama explained to Brahma that everything - including Brahma - has the three characteristics of suffering, change, and insubstantiality. Someone can define a quirk as a two-sided triangle ... but that does not prove the actual existence of any such oxymoron. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 230) Likewise, defining Brahma as eternal and unchangeable does not mean that He really is so. Shortly after, Huxlananda Swami (Thomas Henry Huxley) published a paper that shocked Brahma and caused his death at only six days old.
The death of Brahma enraged Jehjaour so much that his hate engulfed him and caused both himself and Mara to die and be reborn in Avici Hell to suffer the worst fate possible - being reborn as a clergyman of the Church of England. Perdu R Abu on the other hand was reborn to Western parents, and was there listening to the Buddhas jataka tale. This man was Brother Abhavananda (Bliss-of-non-existence one of Crowleys Eastern names). The Buddha asked him what the predicate of all existing things is and Abhavananda replied with the three characteristics. The Buddha then declared Perdu R Abu an Arahat and explained that he was the bacteria, the old lady, the British government, the mosquito, Bhavani, and Huxlananda Swami that caused the death of Abu in each life.
This tale is interesting since it shows Perdu R Abu actually working against the normal system of things and he obtains greater and greater ability at realizing truth the higher up he goes in the forms of rebirth. Normally a human rebirth is most desirable and someone in the position of Maha Brahma would never have a chance at realizing the three characteristics.
The next work of Aleister Crowley that we shall investigate is his Essay in Ontology in which he attempts to reconcile all the three major religious traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity) using mathematics instead of mysticism. It is interesting to note, however, that in the end of his paper he reverts back to mysticism, and applauds Buddhism as the only spiritual path of any significant importance. He begins his attempt at answering the metaphysical question of creation by examining the problem of the coexistence of infinite and finite beings. He represents this coexistence as a mathematical equation:
x = G + S + M (x - the purpose of the universe, G - God, S - Satan, M - humankind)
Therefore, one could easily express M as the resultant of G, S, and -x. If, however, God is infinite then the other factors cannot possibly affect it and thus Satan, humankind, and the purpose of the universe drop out of the picture. The very definition of God as infinite denies the existence and importance of humankind implicitly. If we instead define God as finite then we have obliterated the usual Christian reasons for worship and there would be no reason for worshipping G over S since either could be considered supreme. As a result of this problem, Crowley decides to define God as a finite being. This, of course, is an idea that is very compatible with Buddhism which does not see the Gods as infinite, or as being the ultimate creators of the universe.
If an infinitely powerful Deity did not create the universe then we are left with the problem of how the universe came into being, and how space and matter came to be. Crowley sums up the Buddhist teaching on this matter as the following:
Whence whither, why, we know not; but we do know that we are here, that we dislike being here, that there is a way out of the whole loathsome affair - let us make haste and take it! (Crowley, 1906, pg. 236)
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 youd 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. This nothingness extended in no categories can be expressed as 00. Crowley uses the following equation to illustrate the transformation of nothingness into a finite universe:
The multiplication of the infinitely great by the infinitely small results in an unknown finite number extended into an unknown number of categories. Thus, because of mere chance this complicated system of things came out of nothing. We should not misinterpret this as meaning that this nothingness existed for the idea of existence was just as much unformulated as that of toasted cheese. (Crowley, 1906, pg. 237) We should also not think of this nothingness as a void occupying infinite space since that would be extending our zero into the category of space.
In The Book of the Law this original nothingness is referred to as Nuit. Nuit is the Egyptian Goddess of the sky, and was the wife of Seb and the mother of Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. She represented the feminine principle which was active at the creation of the universe. (Budge, pg. 120) To Crowley, Nuit was the sum total of all potential outcomes and possibilities out of which any individual substance was created. We find Crowley crying out to Nuit, O Nuit, continuous one of Heaven, let it be ever thus; that men speak not of Thee as One but as None; and let them speak not of thee at all, since thou art continuous! (Crowley, 1976, pg. 21) The act of the primordial nothing begetting the universe is described in the Law as None, breathed the light, faint & faery, of the stars, and two. (Crowley, 1976, pg. 22) Here the light, faint & faery is referring to the One (Hindu Brahman, Gnostic Pleroma, Taoist Chi) and the two refers to the dualities of masculine/feminine, good/evil, God/Demon, Yin and Yang. This account of creation is strikingly similar to the one given in chapter 42 of the Tao-Te Ching:
The Way gave birth to the One;
The One gave birth to the Two. (Henricks, pg. 11)
What is the end result of all this? It is that we are stuck here in a finite universe occupied by a myriad of finite beings all battling against one another and the war of the contending forces as they grind themselves down to the final resultant must cause endless agony. Thus, through contemplation of this system of things Aleister Crowley came to realize the first noble truth. Once one has realized the necessity of suffering the next step is to figure out a method for the cessation of suffering. In theory one could wait until the finite universe gets reabsorbed back into the original nothingness out of which the universe was created. Unfortunately the category of causality has been formed and has already accumulated sufficient momentum that the reassimilation of the universe into the original cosmic nothing is nearly impossible.
Crowley believes that the goal of the majority of religions is the annihilation of the self by dissolving ones 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 ones 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. Crowleys statement of tearing the flesh of the Buddhist is no less anti-Buddhist than the Chan monk who claims that the Buddha is a stick of dung.
Budge, E. A. Wallis. Egyptian Religion. New York: Gramercy Books, 1959.
Crowley, Aleister. The Book of the Law. Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1976
Crowley, Aleister. Collected Works of Aleister Crowley Vol. II. Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth, 1906.
Lao-Tzu. Te-Tao Ching. Translated by Robert G. Henricks. New York: Ballatine Books, 1989.
Sharf, Robert H. Zen of Japanese Nationalism. History of Religions, Vol. 33 No. 1