Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why I’m Not Right Hand Path

Ooo… did I get your attention? It’s true, I don’t consider myself a Right Hand Path magician or Pagan. In fact, I’m growing tired of the whole notion, and find it a distraction from any clear understanding of ancient magical practice or ethics.

The origins of the idea of Right and Left Hand Paths do not go far back into the Atlantean pre-dawn of human spirituality. They are not inherent in world esotericism, and do not represent a cosmic battle of epic proportions, still raging in the dark places of the spiritual world. That’s all nonsense. I find the sources for the idea of Right Hand Path and Left Hand Path to come from three primary roots in modern occultism, two of which seem pretty worthless to me from a polytheistic traditional perspective.

1: Post-Zoroastrian Moral Dualism. This is yer reg’lar ole good-vs-evil, dayside vs nightside cliché. It was fully realized first in the theology of the early monotheism of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. This system plainly divided nature into nice-n-pleasant vs nasty-n-dangerous, so snakes and scorpions: evil, bunnies and birdies: good. This sort of thing extended all the way to the thrones of heaven with the Good God and the very-nearly-equal Evil God in conflict, drawing human souls into their legions through virtue or vice. Well before the Christian era the Persians had their tales of sects of evil-god worshipping sorcerers, and legends of anti-societal secret cults, though there’s little evidence of such persons actually existing.

Greeks and Romans expressed a fear of dangerous, Underworld-worshipping hags, but it’s far from clear that such categories of magic-users actually existed. But in European pagan systems there does not seem to have been an ‘Opponent of the Gods’, or ‘Prince of Darkness’ sort of figure. Trickster Gods may have been annoying, but they served the cosmos. The old powers that preceded the current gang of Gods had been defeated or bound by treaty and also served the World Order, however grumpily. Thor was kept busy keeping the giants in line, but they all who knew who was king.

So, as a Celtic polytheist the whole idea of a War Between Good and Evil just doesn’t have any spiritual meaning. Good and evil are human cultural norms, not divine commandments. Of course the Gods prefer bravery to cowardice, honor to lies, but they don’t give us the laws or the ethics of our local tribe. Those come from human sages, passed down and revised in each generation. The world is full of spirits, just as it is full of beasts and plants and meadows and mountains. Some will be more pleasant, and some less so, some even dangerous. There is no conspiracy of dangerous spirits to make human life miserable, no faction of spirits who seek to overthrow the Gods. The Gods aren’t engaged in a life-or-death struggle with some tribe of opponents, they are not the bright side in a war between light and dark. Death and Life are not on different teams, and Darkness and Light, blossom and rot, all turn together in the Great Dance of All Things.

2: Submission Theologies and Anti-World Gnosticism.
These days we see so-called “anti-cosmic” ideas, claiming that there are deities that work against the powers of cosmos, who would return existence to some imagined primordial chaos. Usually this is mingled with some sort of Nietzche-Punk notion that the Gods of cosmos seek to have ‘followers’, or worse, slaves, who all march in sheeplike lock-step (never mind that contradiction, and never mind that wolves are more abjectly servile than sheep will ever be…) with the will of the divine. This all harks back to early Christian gnosticism, in which matter and social reality were considered 'debased' 'sinful' and an entrapment, from which mortals might seek escape.

There is a strain of mysticism (an example here) that teaches the goal of subsuming the individual self into an All-being of some kind. This is plainly part of ancient Indic systems, and there are threads that run all the way into Europe, including some varieties of Christian mysticism. On a more exoteric level, many religions teach that the individual will should be subjected to, or subsumed in, the will of the divine. Some of these go so far as to make a sin of the kind of pride that would value individual spirit and will. I was dismayed to see a book from a modern Wiccan author that taught that ‘magic’ was the uniting of the personal will with the divine will, and that efforts to change the world through personal spiritual power were wrongheaded! None of that for me thanks.

Once again a hard polytheism offers a very different solution. As I understand the cosmos, there simply is no ‘providential will’ which guides and keeps all things in the place it has made for them. The Gods each and all manifest the divine will, and sometimes they are in discord. There may be an all-mind of the cosmos, but that all-mind is impersonal, non-volitional and universal. Making union with it may have a great deal of value, in that it brings a personal will into union with the all-creating potential. I rather think that’s how the gods do godding – by applying the right forces using their individual will from the perspective of the all-mind. The gods (and thus the cosmos) don’t have a unified will, but they participate in a unified awareness.

So, since I also hold that every individual spirit also participates in the divine, it makes sense to me to say that the individual will is itself a direct expression of the divine will. There is no need for us to find a way to unify our will with that of the cosmos – our wills are already the will of the cosmos, at least locally. When we do magic, (or engineering, for that matter) we make our own will real in the world, and that is the will of nature. What this means is that while we can have the guidance and vision of the Gods to support us we are, in the end, on our own to succeed or fail as individuals and as a species by our strength and wisdom. That’s a basically Left-Hand idea, in the modern constructions.

That said, I think Left Hand Path ideas err in another direction. From them we hear of the merit of something called ‘isolate intelligence’. They seem to mean by this that their ‘Luciferian’ spirituality creates individuals who operate outside of and even ‘above’ the common group-mind of existence and nature. This seems to be based on that Miltonian notion expressed as “non serviam” – I will not serve. This sort of spiritualized defiance might make sense if we lived in a world where some God or cadre of Gods demanded human obedience and enforced that demand with punishment.

However in polytheism the gods are not our Lords – at least not in any rulership sense. We enter into bargains with them; we offer to them and receive blessings in turn. We take on obligations, sometimes, and breaking an obligation is never a good thing in a system that depends on mutual obligation to work. It just makes sense to be friends with strong beings, and traditional societies were made up not of rugged individualists, but of those who could successfully cooperate and live interdependently. Isolate intelligence doesn’t seem to be worth much in a world where life must be sustained by corporate effort. Sometimes I think the whole notion is stained by monotheism. Some left-handies seem to imagine that they could become omnipotent in their own cosmos, the only authority in their own realm. But without an omnipotent being anywhere at all, there’s no reason to think such a thing even possible. There are no gods who do not co-work with all of existence, there is no authority available except that gained in relationship and even in monarchies, the king is probably kidding himself when he claims to be truly the ruler of all. Personal sovereignty doesn’t free you from obligation to the cosmos; it just clarifies your place in it. Since no being is a supreme sovereign in the macrocosm, I see no reason to expect to become one in the microcosm. The best we could do (and still be persons…) would be to be *a* god, not ‘God’, and a god isn’t omnipotent or all-knowing.

So, since I don’t think that the world is a battleground between forces of good and evil, or freedom and slavery (same thing), I see no reason to choose sides. That means I don’t think light is more holy than darkness or freedom more spiritual than social obligation. I don’t think I “have to serve somebody”, as the song says, but I’m willing to serve my guests including the Gods and Spirits, when they come to the fire. But I keep my own hearth, and my life belongs to me, not to some higher power.

3: Tantra, Eastern Lore and Antinomianism. The one place in world occultism where Right Hand and Left Hand Path has some actual cultural context is in the tantric schools of Indic mysticism and its Buddhist inheritors. In those systems Right Hand refers to ritual systems that ritualize and symbolize some of the key symbols of the tantric way, rather than pursue them literally. Ritual intercourse becomes a set of mudras with dorje and bell, etc. Right Hand work is usually considered safe for beginners, instructive without being too dangerous. The Left Hand Path is characterized by more direct and physical versions of the techniques, employing ritual sexual intercourse, violation of taboo and visualization of wrathful and risky deities. It is considered better for those with some training, and is sometimes called a ‘short-cut’ to mystical attainment.

As far as I can tell, Blavatsky is responsible for misrepresenting the idea of the Right and Left Hand Paths to western readers. The reputation of Left Hand tantrics in India’s popular imagination is often as ‘black magicians’ who might be able to work a dark trick for a householder but are generally dangerous people. In fact the more extreme sects of tantrics employ such spooky measures as meditating seated on rotting corpses and other revulsion-mysticism. Blavatsky took this folklore and unusual practice and tied it to the western dualistic idea of ‘servants of evil’. Perhaps she followed Eliphas Levi, who fantasized about schools of black magicians for which there is no historical evidence. Through Theosophy the eastern two-hand model was reinterpreted in light of good-vs-evil mythology.

Beginning more or less with the books of Kenneth Grant we see the notion of Vedantic non-dual philosophy wedded with a gothic, witchy-sorcerous aesthetic. Grant wanted us to believe that the ‘demons’ and Lovecraftian Elder Gods of his writing were ‘wrathful deities’ and that they provoke fear because they represent the scary destruction of manifest existence by the experience of unmanifest cosmic consciousness. All this is odd because by eastern standards it doesn’t get more ‘right hand’ than Vedanta, it seems to me.
As you can imagine, the discovery of a real Left Hand Path in Indian lore caught the imagination of the more gothic occult element in the west. It’s a short leap from historical tantric weirdness to quasi-legendary European witches’ sabbats, with their reported ritual sex, cannibalism etc. The image of Shiva Mahadev, the lord of magic in much Indic religion includes serpents, trident (i.e. pitchfork…), nakedness and phallic worship. Those romantically inclined toward wanting a ‘devil’ can surely find one in Shiva, Lord of Ghosts.

On this point, I find myself in sympathy with the Left Hand Path. There is big power to be had in making the body one’s magical tool and in indulging the senses as a way to enflame and empower the soul. There is also plenty of power in the deliberate breaking of social taboo. While we often think of that power as being turned to practical magical goals, it is just as often used to advance the personal spirit towards union with divinity. Neopaganism is itself founded on antinomian basics – ‘harm none and do what you will’ is a plainly Left Hand Path saying, as is, more plainly, its Thelemic original. That does rob taboo-breaking of some of its juice, but as Paganism becomes more tribal and exoteric, I’ll wager we’ll once again see the chance for those night-circles of initiates that used to make the Brahmins so nervous.

What seems to be missed by some is that, in tantra, right hand and left hand work both have the same ultimate goals, the same definition of enlightenment. There is no war between the God-forms of the Right Hand and those of the Left – all are working in and with the cosmos and its order. Neither method attempts to create isolate intelligence, or to overthrow the power of the Gods. In both cases the tantric seeks to make Samadhi – to unify his being with the divine being, at least sometimes. This example of a traditional right-hand-left-hand distinction is one of style and method, not of goal or philosophy.

For me, the dualistic spiritual notions of the Right and Left Hand Paths are both just too off-center, too exaggerated to bother with. On the Right one finds the sunshine and birdies crew. Some of these folks do seem determined to turn Paganism into submission religion, to rinse away the occultism and sorcery from the traditions, leaving humans at the mercy of the Gods and Spirits. Some of this is simply leakage from Christianity, such as the admonition that magic should not be used for personal benefit. As far as I can tell this seems to come through ‘spiritual workers’ who combine hoodoo spellcasting, uncrossing and blessing with Christian theology and deity-forms. They classically teach the no-magic-for-yourself rule, though it still may owe more to ‘Charmed’ in modern times than to any more traditional source. As far as I can see, there is zero tradition in most folk magic against using magic to benefit yourself and your loved ones.

On the Left one finds equally stereotypical “dark” types who imagine that skulls are cooler than rainbows. They make every effort to seem powerful and dangerous by contrast with those “fluffy” types, and are cranking away at tired old clichés of gargoyles and daemonolatry. They seem, to me, to miss the point of the depth and power of the Old Gods by trying to pound them into a dualistic, freedom-vs-slavery set of peg-holes. Are these folks any more likely to engage in cursing or various malefica than your common-or-garden magic-user? I tend to doubt it. Punching someone in the nose is usually evidence of stupidity, and so is the spiteful throwing of curses. While there must, just by percentages, be stupid magic users, most Left Hand Path types don’t really seem the type for magical violence. After all, being prayed against by some white-light warrior is no more pleasant than having the black flame licking your heels.

Do I hold with the Wiccan Rede? Well, rede means advice, not law or commandment, and the Rede is good advice, especially for those with a little skill at self-awareness and self-management. I’m sure there are circumstances where I might curse or bind, or defend myself with bat or knife – fortunately mostly none of those occasions have ever occurred so far in my life. I might use violence, whether physical or occult. I have no intrinsic ethical refusal of violence. It is more often foolish than wise, however, and I have managed to avoid it, as I intend to continue to do.

Do I hold with karma, or a Threefold Return? I think that we cannot work our wills without involving ourselves in the methods we use. Methods that involve pain will become painful, poisonous methods will fill a life with poison. Of course weasely finagling or simple bullying can stave off bad outcomes from distasteful deeds – at least for a while. Personally I don’t consider that either wise or admirable. Mostly I think it’s foolish not to expect your life to be made more vile by deeds that make others feel bad.

Do I think that preventing “bad karma” is deeply important in a spiritual or practical way? Not so much. We all live in the web of fate, and personally I do not seek a way out of the round of life in the manifest world. I think that the joys of material living at least balance out the sorrows (most days I think there’s more delight than sorrow, but I’m a privileged westerner). In the same way, I think that for most folks the small kindnesses we might do more than balance out our small ill deeds, and most of us will probably face the future with no great weight of debt.

One of the definitions of a hero is someone who takes on a terrible deed for the good of his people. Some great slaying, whether in numbers or in size of opponent, some trick or cheat, theft or sly feint brings a great good to the clan. Does the good done for others outweigh the ill deed that brings it? Ask Tyr.

So, ethics and discernment are always situational, in my opinion, and what is just proper in one place may be quite improper in another. Some rules in Pagan ethics seem rather inflexible, like hospitality, or filial piety. However these are often the cause of tragic failures in the tales, and perhaps there’s something for modern Pagans to learn from that.

Do I seek the dissolution of ego in the divine? I don’t. I think the ego is a whole and holy part of the human self, and the all-mind is always present, always available to the skilled. The ability to vanish into the All is valuable both spiritually and in magic, but I don’t see it as some sort of ultimate goal. It is the work of the wise to manage ego, spirit, flesh and all in one Self.

Do I seek to elevate my personal spirit into divinity? Sort of. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a supreme being, so I don’t expect to become one, but maybe if I get real good at this magic and mysticism stuff my spirit will persist to aid the future folk. Is that being “God”? No, it’s more like being a god (even a very small one), but that’s probably good enough. Or, maybe I’ll come back as a squirrel…Or three squirrels…

In a context of most Indo-European Paganism the idea of two moral factions in conflict, and of the need to choose sides, just doesn’t exist. The Gods are the Gods, the War at the dawn of time is over, and all is whole and holy as it is. There are scary gods, homely pleasant gods, wild ones, civic ones, enough for each individual to choose what sort of spiritual power they seek. The raving band of wild-women on the night-hill is just as holy as the white-robed priest at the Fire, and they all serve the same cosmos. I neither reject the service of the Gods and the binding web of nature, nor do I submit myself to it – I take my place in it as a human and a magician, and take turns surfing the flow and working my will.


Auberon Draenen Wen said...

An this is why I love to read your stuff Ian

Grey Catsidhe said...

This was a spectacular post, Ian. I hope you don't mind, but I posted a link to it on my blog and a forum I like. This was just too good not to share.


Rufus Opus said...

Ian, you're obviously a dupe of the evil chthonic black brotherhood that live under icebergs in switzerland. Poor guy. All that stuff you said? It's just what they WANT you to think.

You're so going to hel. ;)

fivesight said...

My cinnamints exactly. LOL. Great post.

Julian said...

A view both well considered and worthy of great respect.
Thank you for sharing it.


Eurynome Dances said...

This is excellent, Ian. Never have I read what rings so true for myself! Yay! Blessings, Bendis

Steve Lavoie said...

I agree with most of what you said, but I do believe there is a Devil (in a sense). He is what most magicians will call an eggregore, created by thousands of believers over hundreds of years, that makes him very potent and a threat to anyone under its attack. I believe that all the demons and devils (in the sense of All-Evil being) are such eggregores. And to say that there are no Spirits out there who hate us and would go out of their way to harm us, I don’t buy. Some Entities out there might (are) out to no good by us, they might be fellow humans (who passed) we pissed off or some other spirit who do not particularly like us (personally or as a race). Just look at how we treat our planet, the animals around us and yes, even each other. Let’s face it; we are not always the poster boys/girls of goodness and love and respect.
Left and right hand; heaven and hell, all inventions of main stream religions to better control and manipulate the mass and karma is to make us feel better, I don’t believe in it. How do you explain those people who do bad things and get away with it, ex: drug cartel leader who live in luxury without ever thinking twice about having people killed; or those poor children who go hungry or are beaten and raped, what did they do to deserve such a fate? How about those soldiers who kill to protect us, where do they fit in to this? No, we believe karma will take care of it so we can sit on our fat butts and pretend the problems do not exist.
My personal point of view.

Joseph Phillip said...

Personally, I'm rather agnostic when it comes to God's. However, if they have anything close to personalities, such as we have... Hah! All bets are of the table. Regardless, I do realize that the only way I will ever get a clearer understanding of the world we live in, is by considering others perspectives. As I read your article, I was like "sounds good, yep that too" and then I hit your thoughts on Ego... I'm "Oh hell yeah, finally someone that thinks like I do!" You are so correct that hubris must be avoided at all cost. However, I will always do things in my self-interest. That actually is a really good thing for those around me, since I do things for others.. just because it makes me feel good about myself and that is enough to feed my ego.

Raymond said...

So... I agree with the comment about LHP and RHP basically having the same goal in the Eastern traditions. I don't know why that never seems to get mentioned. I think this is the first time I've seen that pointed out.

That being said...

I don't believe in the literal existence of gods or an afterlife, but if there is one... My hypothesis would be something like... Most people don't actually _have_ a... cohesive (?)... self to begin with. This is what's behind the Buddhist concept of anatta. Not that "I" don't exist, but that "I" is not a singular thing, but a multiplicity of 'streams,' if you will.

This is actually backed up by modern neuroscience, at least according to some authors. Search Amazon for something like "the self illusion" and you should turn up several titles which are based on scientific data.

For a different angle, you can look into what is called "parts therapy" in NLP, or "ego state therapy," or "internal family systems."

From this pov, then, we could reinterpret LHP as something like "creating a cohesive self" so that one can genuinely talk about having a (singular) Will, and hypothetically existing post-mortem as a distinct Self (this is that "isolate intelligence" bit, and sometimes you'll see a reference to being "self created"), while the RHP'er is reabsorbed back into whatever preconscious, amorphous 'energy' they were before incarnating (what might actually be behind the process of transmigration).

I think Evola would have called this "the path of the ancestors" (lunar, and returning to the source) vs "the path of the stars" (solar, and becoming an individual). Not citing J.E. as an 'authority' - just crediting the source of the phrases used. And I could be misusing his terminology.