The Thelemic Tradition
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law …
It was in the schism of 1900, when the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn broke apart into separate groups, that the origins of the Thelemic dispensation lie. The Golden Dawn was (is) one of the West's most sophisticated organizations of practicing magicians, but it had disrupted its initial manifestation by abrogating its spiritual mandate in favor of social friction. A young man named Aleister Crowley, a high-grade initiate of the Order, became disillusioned and left Europe to travel the world in search of the roots of the Order's mandate. When he returned, he brought with him the seeds of a new spiritual tradition. He called it Thelema, a Greek word meaning Will.
Thelema postulates, as its fundamental premise, that each individual has a basic underlying purpose, destiny or direction in life, which it calls the True Will. Thelema is therefore at the bedrock level self-definitional since it is nothing other than the call to one's True Will. This self-definition is not, however, determined solely by one's personality, but rather by one's deepest true self. It is therefore necessary for each individual to themselves undertake the process of self-knowledge to discover their own True Will, and to do that True Will and nothing else.
This is the most fundamental concept of Thelema, by no means unique to it alone. Above and beyond this is the specific Thelemic tradition, deriving from received texts, teachings and practices laid down by Crowley and others, among which are the exercises described in this book. Their purpose is self-gnosis. They are not the only possible exercises to accomplish this, nor are they for everyone, but they are available to and intended for those whose will it is to undertake their discipline.
While Crowley is the historical progenitor of Thelema and its first (not last) prophet, Thelema is a tradition that is greater than him and is not limited to his own understanding of it. Crowley's fundamental teaching was for everyone to express their inherent individual divinity, to be themselves, not to be him. His system, as it has evolved over time, is intended as one possible tool for this aim. However, it is not necessary to be a Crowlian to be a Thelemite. This point being made, it should also be noted that the teachings and rituals of Thelema, including but not limited to those originating from Crowley, embody important and objective possibilities of being, based soundly upon a deep connection to the universal archetypes of the perennial tradition. Thelema rewards engaged contemplation of its traditions, but this is a world apart from uncritical, blind imitation of those traditions.
The Thelemic tradition is composed of several integral components. To use a Sufi distinction, it consists both of a Tariqua, or inner esoteric aspect, as well as a Sharia, or social exoteric way of being. The Tariqua of Thelema is synonymous with Magick. Crowley wrote it ending with a 'K', its older Renaissance spelling, both to differentiate it from stage performance and to emphasize Magick as a continuation and synthesis of the Western Esoteric Tradition of alchemy, theurgy, Hermeticism, Solomonic magic, Rosicrucianism, Templarism, Kabbalah and other less well defined folk customs.
Magick is inclusive, not just of Western forms of practice, but of Eastern techniques as well. Crowley studied both Buddhist and Hindu forms of yoga in Sri Lanka and India and these are fully incorporated into the Thelemic synthesis of spiritual techniques.
Another important aspect of Magick are the Holy Books of Thelema, a series of inspired sacred texts received by Crowley in various trance states. Received intermittently from 1904-1911, the most important is The Book of the Law, written by supernatural dictation in Cairo, Egypt in 1904. A cryptic, challenging and dense text of 220 verses, The Book of the Law is fundamental to the Thelemic tradition, providing both its spiritual mandate and core teachings. It and the other Holy Books are more directly discussed in chapter 6.
Though no one can perform the process of self-gnosis for anyone else, it is nevertheless possible for people to assist each other. Therefore, participation in a community of individuals who share this common aspiration becomes of value. This is the purpose of the magical orders of Thelema, as well as of the general community of Thelemites. An Order is a place to practice Magick with others, to learn and to teach, and to receive initiatory empowerments. Some of these initiatory systems are discussed in chapter 4. Group work is the place where the Tariqua and Sharia meet in an integral linking, because in a group, as in the general world, the initiate is interacting with others, and must come into a relationship of mutual freedom with them.
The problems inherent in community cannot be left unaddressed in a personal spiritual practice because a person, in their total being, is not an autonomous monad, but is a social animal, always in interaction with a world of spiritually co-equal individuals. Tariqua and Sharia are therefore flipsides of the same coin, neither complete without the other. Tariqua is the inner, and Sharia the outer aspect of a single integral way of being.
Rather then endorsing some contingent, culturally specific set of behaviors, as in Islamic Sharia, Thelema instead posits, as its fundamental ethic of social interaction the so-called Law of Thelema. Derived from The Book of the Law, this is the statement: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law", and its corollary: "Love is the law, love under will." (AL I: 40, I: 57)
Any Thelemic collective, to be such, must attempt to create an open society: a space of freedom and liberty such that every individual without exception may act to fulfill their own understanding of this Law. This realization of freedom is the direct responsibility of each individual as such, and necessarily entails the total and uncompromising respect and non-interference of the same right in others. Thelema is freedom, and this requires respect both for one’s own freedom as well as the freedom of others.
If we succeed in making our own lives an example of these principles, then Thelema may yet help to save and sustain the world. Or, instead, it can be yet another tool for people to use to hate and to hurt each other. In the words of Andre VandenBroeck:
"Above, there can be found a diamond of ideas, each facet sparkling with creative light.
Below, it is business as usual: the same trite prejudices, the same failures of the intellect."
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Many individuals will come to Thelema by inner prompting and will find their needs met by the social community or by the rich intellectual possibilities of the system and its associated disciplines. This book is not written for these individuals, as sophisticated and rewarding as these exoteric pursuits are. Nor is this book intended as a totally general, from scratch introduction to Thelema or Magick. No general survey can be a substitute for engaging with a tradition's foundational texts. Rather, it is intended for individuals who have read some Crowley and who have experienced that irresistible need to pursue a deeper engagement with the esoteric aspect of Thelema, to uncover and engage with the spiritual root of the tradition: to seek the fullest possible self knowledge without compromise — but who might be confused how to concretely proceed. Various basic categories of practice are therefore explained, in a rough order. Most of the standard canon of Thelemic rituals are also presented, which can be used as is, or as a base for a more personalized practice. The rituals are provided with a symbolic commentary. It is in the nature of symbolism to be over-determined, and therefore the commentary provided should not be considered exhaustive or even necessarily 'correct'. Only through the considered, attentive practice of these rituals can the individual magician discover their meaning for themselves. It is hoped that the commentaries can be a tool for that task.
In work with correspondence, symbolism and archetype, the Thelemic tradition stresses the value of personalization. Symbolism is a living reality of diverse and fuid meaning, and to the extent that the magician strives to develop a personal synthesis, rather than simply a rote repetition, they will be rewarded. This book contains aspects of my own synthesis, which may be of help in this.
VandenBroeck, Andre, Al-Kemi: A Memoir: Hermetic, Occult, Political and Private Aspects of R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, Lindisfarne Press, Hudson, New York, 1987. Pg. 242.