I recently read a book by Sam Webster called “Tantric Thelema”. He points out that a Tantra, in the Buddhist tradition, is a manual of practice, and many of them take the same basic form, some short and some long — “here is the practice… here are the common failings of the practice; these are the solutions to those failings. Here is the advanced practice… here or the failings of this practice; here are the solutions to those failures.” (Bear with me here…)
Two of the first practices discussed in this interesting tome is the process of taking refuge, and the process of dedicating merit. While I’m not a practitioner of Thelema by any means, nor a member of Thelemic orders, and the specific formulae that Sam invented to bring these two concepts into Thelema, I have to say that I was deeply moved, awed even, by the ritual concepts he was attempting to introduce to an effectively Pagan audience.
The first practice, taking refuge, is asking for help. It’s starting all rituals by asking all the vast quantities of beings — spirits, gods, ancestors, angels, ghosts, ministers of grace, demons, eudaimones, faeries and all — to be active participants in the work of the ritual. They’re all invited, visible and invisible beings all, to help participate in the magic.
The second practice, dedicating merit, is the solution to the common failing of the first practice. You could easily get a swelled head, summoning all those beings to participate in your ritual work as a pagan, especially if you gradually became aware that they REALLY DO SHOW UP when you call. So you end the ritual work with a dedication of all the energy you just raised up, to the enlightenment of the world and of all beings. Not just yourself. Not only yourself. All of reality.
As I said, I’m not a Thelemite, and I’m not clear on how these formulae as ritualized in this book work out for people of that path. I do know that Sam Webster has got me thinking some highly unusual thoughts these days, and I’m wondering how to incorporate these two core ideas into my own practices.
As an additional aside, the front cover image of Horus, surrounded by the tools and emblems of Tantric Buddhism and Western Magic, makes me seriously groove out as an artist and a lover of symbolism. I can’t even begin to explain how happy it makes me to see it.
[…] Book Review: Tantric Thelema — Sam Webster seemed to think that Thelema was broken, and that it could be fixed by adding certain practices from Tantra to Thelema. Most of the book went over my head at the time, as I wasn’t either a Buddhist or a Thelemite, and I’m still not. All the same, finding this review makes me think the book is worth another read-through, sometime soon. I think it presents a number of really important ideas about ways that both magical and pagan practice can be repaired. […]
[…] Opus’s brand of Hermetic ritual, and Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery. Even the book on Tantric Thelema, which i so liked, has not influenced my work in magical studies nearly as much as Jason has. So […]
thanks for the reply. Yes, as you say the practices and the motivation behind them are missing from contemporary esoteric and Pagan circles in the west. It is very sad. However, there are a few *ahem*, folk and traditions who include them 🙂 . I’ve snuck a little into my book (the dedication at the end of practice) and have been getting positive feedback. So things I think are changing. Mr Webster and OSOGD have a large part of that 🙂
Well, one of the things that I thought you in particular would appreciate about this book is the presence of a very Tantric/Tibetan Ra-Hoor-Kuit or Horus painting on the front cover. It would appeal to your apparent sensibilities on display in By Names and Images, and it certainly works in conjunction with what I’ve learned, however imperfectly, through drawing practice. I realize we can’t judge a book by its cover (ha-ha! The truism becomes useful), but at the same time the image is an icon, in all the senses of the word — it conveys how color, shape, visualization, and symbol can all be used to develop a compassion-based magical practice.
My magical practice has certainly had that as a component, but it’s also been focused on helping me, me me, too. And yet, as I’ve learned through some of my tai chi exercises, you can’t hold onto the energy for too long, or it builds up and stagnates. You want it to flow in, and flow out. What Webster’s done is show me that the metaphysical awareness I have already had… can and should be expressed ritually.
thanks for this review. It has got me more interested in this book. I have always liked what I have seen of the conjunction of Tibetan Buddhist practices and Thelema from Sam Webster. What interests me here is your comment about going for refuge as ‘ asking for help’.
From my own Vajarana initiations and studies, I think most Buddhist teachers would see Refuge as more than help. Maybe it’s just the wording or my interpretation? I certainly am not being critical here, only explorative 🙂
The act of taking refuge means we are unable to do anything without the aid of those we take refuge in. So it’s not a western magician, convinced of their own existence, standing centre circle, asking for assistance in the ritual about to be performed. In my own practice, I go for refuge, THEN ask for assitance from the beings you mention.
Refuge is a spiritual practice in itself, a way of starting right, of aligning ourselves with truth, as the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha we take refuge in are really non-different to our own interdependant nature. We take refuge, or state the truth of our conditioned/conventional/lower self’s reliance on Buddha – the possibilty of illumination, Dharma – the teachings/tradition that may take us there, and Sangha – the community on the Path, including those who have gone there before us.
This is essentially the same thing as esoteric Christianity and some forms of Orthododox Christianity, where we are reliant on Christ to become as Christ, through the teachings of the Church (or school), guided by our spiritual guides. It all coheres.
I certainly don’t disagree with anything you’re saying here. I know very little of Buddhism beyond what I teach to my exoteric students — that is, sixth and seventh graders — who rarely need to know more than the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. If I teach a few basic breathing techniques beyond that or some meditation, great — I’ve gone above and beyond what I must do. But I’ve been a haphazard student of Buddhism at best; anyone with the slightest bit of practice is already ahead of me. 🙂
What really moved me, though, was the idea that a ritual should begin — not with our ritual separation by means of circling and quartering… but with the general alignment of ourselves with all beings. And then, once our work is complete, of submitting our work back to the universe, for the benefit of all beings. It struck me as a deeply beautiful idea, and one which is missing from the pagan gatherings I’ve attended: so many people doing deeply personal work even in the midst of public celebrations and ceremony, and then collapsing in exhaustion at the end because they couldn’t complete their vision or power quest or unlock level 4 or whatever. Webster’s presentation is different: even as a magician, you’re a temporary holder and recipient and custodian of teachings, you’re part of a community, and there’s a cloud of witnesses here to help you; do the work now with their help; pass the energy you create on to every being that needs it.”
I’m hardly a lama or a guru or an abbot or prior or novice-master to be explaining this well; but it struck me that this is what I find missing from so much of my pagan community experiences, and I will now find ways to integrate consciously into my work.