Review: Tantric Thelema, by Sam Webster

tantric thelema Tantric Thelema & The Invocation of Ra-Hoor-Khuit in the manner of the Buddhist Mahayoga Tantras – Sam Webster
Concrescent Press, 2010, 114pp., 9780984372904.

When one studies the history of Buddhism they cannot help but notice that Buddhism changes with every culture it encounters. As it spreads it encounters new ethics, new cultural norms, new magickal systems, new gods and demons, and in time these may become part of the tradition. At first look some might be confused by the integration of Crowley’s Thelema with Buddhism, but one must realize that in many ways this is just another of the hundreds of shifts in Buddhism, except this time we’re seeing it as it occurs.

Tantric Thelema is what it sounds like, Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) combined with Thelema, but probably in a way deeper than most readers expect, it is a combination of ritual structure and underlying theological practices of Buddhism with the figures and Law of Thelema. What is deeper than expected (and I’ll admit I was not expecting too much) was how thoughtfully and appropriately the systems have been combined. I’m sure we’ve all read a book, or blog entry, or been to a ritual and seen someone combine two systems with no more depth or understanding than changing a desktop theme. They call “elemental” Orishas in the Angelic corners, regardless of how they interact, or switch out Hebrew names for Egyptian names (poorly translated) cause they like them better, and so on. Yet, as someone who is a devout Tantric Buddhist (whether I want to be or not), and arguably a Thelemite I cannot help but be amazed at how well Sam Webster has integrated these systems.

Now to clarify my statement, and Webster’s, this is a book about Thelema, as he states “I don’t teach Buddhism, but I do see this work as an implementation of the Buddhadharma. If you want to learn Vajrayana, go find a competent teacher and do the work.” (ix) That being said this book is also one of the clearest explanations I’ve ever read on Tantric invocation, but this book is geared around a Thelemic form. Another aspect in this combination I would like to applaud Webster for is his use of technique but not symbols. While he relates everything back to Buddhist ritual he does not use Buddhist mantras, or seed syllables, or combine Buddhist and non-Buddhist figures. He understands “[t]his would be a theft of identity and culture and thus unjustifiable. But using the principles as published and duly translated is righteous as a recovery of a replacement of our own lost technology.” (xiv) So from a perspective of respect to the tradition, that as an admirable trait, also a wise decision in terms of avoiding mismatching things in catastrophic ways, as one often sees in poorly synthesized traditions. Too often in these combined systems the creator uses symbols because they’re traditional, even if they get misapplied, but Webster focuses on the process of invocation and the underlying theology, instead of copying the symbol set.

The text begins with explaining how and why Buddhism and Thelema work together, which seem unlikely on the surface, but Webster intelligently and skillfully links some of the major figures and concepts of the traditions, and also shows a nuanced understanding of Buddhism that allows him to understand Ra-Hoor-Khuit as a Bodhisattva. After the theoretical ground is laid Webster begins a systematic introduction into the practices of Tantric Thelema beginning with a Thelemic form of Taking Refuge, through Dedication of Merit, Empowerments and eventual Front and Self Generations (Evocation and Invocation in Western magickal terms). He also includes some “beta” rituals which haven’t been as thorough tested or practiced yet including a Yab-Yum ritual (spiritual sexual congress) and a phowa (an ejection of consciousness ritual used at the time of death). The book claims to have 47 Tantric Thelemic practices in it, which sounds a bit overwhelming, but really they’re all small elements of a handful of larger and more complex rituals.

Ra-Hoor-KhutMy only complaint about the text and the rituals is the inclusion of the figure of Ra-Hoor-Khut (not Khuit) who is essentially a female form of Ra-Hoor-Khuit mixed in with Nuit. I have nothing wrong with the concept of her, but she is used in major rituals in a way that I find unnecessary and not in line with the Buddhist methodologies. In the act of invocation one calls upon her, in order to further the invocation ritual in a way that is untraditional (an odd complaint in a text like this) and not strictly needed. Perhaps my issue here is the fact that I feel she isn’t explained clearly and I don’t know why she’s included in the process and feel that wasn’t made clear. I’ve worked the rituals both without her and with her, and I’ve found they are just as effective and powerful, but that without her they flow more. What I would like to see is a set of ritual practices around Ra-Hoor-Khut on her own. (Which I might add to my short list of Thelemic Tantric rituals I’ve been toying with.)

Don't judge my wallpaper.

Don’t judge my wallpaper.

Now that I’ve explained the text, let me take a step back and explain what this means to me. As mentioned I’m both a very devout Vajrayana Buddhist, and a Thelemite in many ways, so it was interesting and useful to see how these aspects of my beliefs could work together. More than that, I maintain that this book, while not about Buddhism, is one of the most straightforward explanations on Buddhist invocatory ritual I’ve ever read, which has been useful as a textual reference since then. I first read this book about two years ago, and I’ve wanted to review it since then, but more than any other magickal book I’ve read in the past decade this one demanded I work through it and explore. Here I am, two years later, finally reviewing, and still working with it, I’ve found the system to be very effective and satisfying. While it in no way replaces my Buddhist practices it works well to bring some of my Western work more in line with it. I have even gone so far as to order a print of the Ra-Hoor-Khuit image, and create my own thangka frame for it, so it now is on display for my working no different from my thangkas of Machik Labdrön or Yamantaka. I’ve created and used malas dedicated to the system (as well as sell them on my etsy). While I don’t think you need to have an interest in Buddhism to make this ritual system work, I think it is worth looking into if you’re already drawn to Thelema, or feel drawn to it but can’t connect with the system perhaps the (re)centring of Thelema around compassion will help make that connect.

Though the text is short, it is one of the most intriguing and in-depth works I’ve come across in a long time, and would be beneficial for a wide variety of people from either or both traditions.

ABRAHADABRA

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For those interested in picking up either a print of Ra-Hoor-Khuit or Ra-Hoor-Khut both can be purchased on The Thelesis Aura website, along with other great pieces by the artist Kat Lunoe. EDIT: Kat has just corrected me, currently there are no Ra-Hoor-Khuit prints available, only Ra-Hoor-Khut, so if you’re interested check back from time to time.

And for those interested in the malas I’ve made for the practices you can find the listing here, including options for a four coloured mala or a six coloured mala, depending on which system within the text you’re drawn to.

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