Review: Drawing Down the Spirits, by Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera

2015/03/06

ddtsDrawing Down the Spirits: The Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Possession – Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera
Destiny Books, 2009, 9781594772696, 338pp.

The idea and practice of spirit possession is one that is growing in the modern magickal and pagan communities. Despite the long and deep roots in a variety of traditions all across the world the practice more or less died out in Western traditions, but in the last decade or so it’s an idea and experience that is becoming more popular. In this book Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera start to fill in the gaps for the Western traditions and open up the conversation of possession.

First off, this is not a how-to book. If you’re looking to learn how to be possessed you can stop reading this review now because this isn’t the book you want. Filan and Kaldera suggest that people can’t learn to be possessed generally, it’s something that’s “wired” into you, and while I’m not sure I agree they still make very solid points about the role of the horse. (Horse is a term from the African diaspora religions for someone being possessed or ridden by the spirits, and is borrowed in this book.)

While not a how-to guide, the book is very thorough for what it does cover: the history of possession, traditions around the world, theories behind it and the spirits called into the horse. There are two elements to the text that really hit me as crucial reading for those getting into possession, but not from a tradition with an understanding or living history of the practice. The first is about the care of the horse, both in terms of the woogity and the mundane. They discuss how possession should be treated in safe, sane, and consensual manner, how to work with the spirits to set up boundaries. It might seem great to be able to be ridden by a patron deity, but despite ideas that such figures only work for your best interest, sometimes a spirit may go for a ride when it’s not wanted or even problematic. Kaldera and Filan give ideas for negotiating with the spirits, and ways to invite and close off possessions.

On the mundane side they cover the depth of what needs to be considered before, during, and after a possession. For instance most people inexperienced with possession might think it just happens, the horse stops, opens, and the god steps in, but the period of transition between self and possession can be a bit rough on the body, the horse might lose control of their limbs, so it’s addressed how to make sure they’re safe in that process. Also an emphasis on aftercare is covered, because having another spirit controlling your actions for a while isn’t necessarily the most comfortable or easy experience. The horse may need to be lulled back to the themselves, given food and drink, or a quiet place alone to settle down, and all of these ideas and more are laid out for the reader.

The second element I felt was crucial for readers is the discussion of the role of the horse in the community. Filan and Kaldera show how the horse is a social role, it’s not about the horse being someone big and important, but about what they can do for their religious community. Between the care and the context, I think the modern practitioner and group can get a sense of how to work with possession.

The book is written in a way that shifts back and forth from theory to experience, it’s filled with a variety of stories from Kaldera and Filan’s past that illustrate their points, without having so many that the text seems to be more about discussing cool experiences to prove how awesome the authors think they are.

As said right away, if you want a how-to guide on possession, this isn’t it, but if you’re curious about the phenomena or part of a group working with it, this text will help explain and explore what it means to work with the spirits in this way.

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Review: Female Deities in Buddhism, by Vessantara

2013/06/28

female deitiesFemale Deities in Buddhism: A Concise Guide – Vessantara
Windhorse Publications, 2003, 126pp, 1899579532.

Women have an interesting place within Buddhism. You get patriarchal Buddhist cultures (and all that comes with that) that embrace a beautiful diversity of female figures. In this book Vessantara explores the nature and the role of these divine women, specifically focusing on the context of Vajrayana Buddhism, as the gender roles in different forms of Buddhism are as diverse as the rest of their beliefs. He explains why these figures are important to the tradition, as well as why they are important and relevant to practitioners of all sexes and/or genders. Some of his opinions are idealized, Vajrayana Buddhist cultures have that odd mix of sexism/patriarchy and veneration of divine feminine, and Vessantara focuses on the latter, though giving a complete/honest presentation of women in Vajrayana Buddhism would quickly swell into another argument altogether.

The “primary” or most common female figures are discussed -your Taras and Prajnaparamita and Quan-Yin- along with a nice sampling of more uncommon ones, such as my dear Machik Labdrön. The histories of the figures are discussed often from multiple perspectives. You get the history of their practice, when it arose and how it has changed, where they came from. You get the history of the figure’s life, if she was human, or took human form, how that life played out. And you get the mythic history, where she emanated from, what was the cause of her creation and why she is here to help. They’re discussed with their descriptions, their role in the traditions, and practices related to them. It doesn’t include how to perform the practices, that is beyond the scope of the text, but lets you know what practices are associated with whom, and when they share similar practices how they vary.

As is to be expected with any text there are a few issues, most of them are not problematic but there is one I want to call attention to. In the section on Machik Labdrön the text says that Machik was taught chöd by her teacher Padampa Sangye. No early text supports this idea, Machik was the founder of the tradition, and is the only female founder in Vajrayana, attempts to attribute her amazing system to her male teacher seem to be more about reducing the power and prestige of this woman. I might not have felt the need to comment, but chöd is obviously important to me, and I find it unfortunate that in a book that tries to revere the female figures of Buddhism that it supports a patriarchal erasure of the genius of one of Tibet’s greatest female saints. (It’s worth noting while other female figures have specific texts referenced in the Selected Reading section, the book by Machik (supposedly, unlikely) or books about her are lacking)

Each section tends to include some poetry about the different figures too, at first I was put off by Vessantara inserting his own poetry into the text, but I came to appreciate a modern, personal connection and expression of devotion to the female figures of Buddhism. Poetry to the female divinities in Buddhism isn’t uncommon, but translations out of Sanskrit and Tibetan rarely do it justice, so original English poetry does make sense. The book is nothing in-depth, it is a concise guide as it says, but it is enough if you’re looking for an introduction to the figures. Personally I felt the book could have been longer, with a bit more focus on each figure, but will admit unless Vessantara was an expert on some of the figures it would be difficult. If you’re looking for a way into the figures of Buddhism, especially, but not limited to, the female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas then this text will serve that purpose. There is also a selected reading list in the back of the book that if you find any of the figures particularly appealing you can use the reading list to direct your study toward her. The book is barely more than 100 pages, but for what it does and what it’s for it’s a pretty good hundred pages.

(Edit: Since some people may be looking into information on a specific figure I decided I might as well list who is discussed in the text.
Tara: Green, White, Red, Yellow, 21 Taras. Vijaya. Prajnaparamita/Yumchenmo. Vajrayogini, and Vajravarahi. Kurukulla. Machik Labdrön. Yeshe Tsogyal. Simhamukha. Palden Lhamo. Ekajata/Ekajati. Kuan-Yin.)


Review: Reiki and the Healing Buddha – Maureen J. Kelly

2013/04/25

reikihealingbuddhaReiki and the Healing Buddha – Maureen J. Kelly
Full Circle, 2001, 206pp, 8176210323.

It’s rare to find a book that as soon as I see it I want it. It’s even rarer to find a book that as soon as I see it and realize how horrible it will be I want it, but I’m a masochist and this book didn’t disappoint in this respect. The basic premise of this fairy tale book is that Reiki is actually an ancient Buddhist form of healing, and if you connect all the pieces you can realize that. The author leads us through her exploration of different traits of the Healing Buddha and his practice, and Reiki, and how they link in her mind.

So where to start with this book? First let’s tackle the title. “Reiki and the Healing Buddha,” the healing Buddha refers to Sangay Menla, or Bhaishajya Guru, also known as the Medicine Buddha. The cover of the text has a picture of Chenrezig on it though, a completely different figure. Why? Frankly I think it suits how much the author knows about both Buddhism and Reiki, but let’s build that case.

The author thanks Mikao Usui (founder of Reiki) for “rediscovering Reiki, for bringing it out of the Buddhist monastery” (iii) which would imply Reiki wasn’t created by Usui-sensei, and that Buddhists were hiding it all this time. What a fun fantasy. Strange that there are no Buddhist texts or teachings that match the idea of Reiki as energy healing. Also it makes perfect sense for monks, being the horrible people that they are, to keep the secrets of health to themselves, let everyone else suffer is the motto of the Buddhist monks, right?

“Because Reiki comes from Buddhism…”(11) at this point in the book she’s made no case that Reiki has anything to do with Buddhism, you’re just supposed to trust her, but the way she creates evidence would be frightening if it weren’t hilarious. Some may just be translations and traditions, like her chart of the Buddhas and their colours and directions being wrong (14), but others is just made up. “The Reiki Master symbol can be found within the first two vows made by the Healing Buddha” (23) which she later explains that when the Medicine Buddha says “I have been born into the world” (26) it really means being initiated with the “Reiki Master symbol” (27), because that’s not a stretch, and being born is too obvious. She constantly tries to link ideas, but can never support, and rarely explains. For instance she takes four of the eight symbols in the ashtamangala, decides they are the real important ones, and that they secretly represent the four Reiki symbols (50). She very briefly explains it later, but it is literally less than one sentence for each connection (77). She explains the idea of paying for Reiki (which the insistence on it purely a Western thing) comes from the Healing Buddha sutra that says people won’t understand the Medicine Buddha’s teaching unless they pay for it (193). Admittedly it’s been a while since I read that, but I don’t remember that, and it seems not to be the right attitude. I guess it’s let everyone else suffer, unless they can afford my hourly rate?

Her knowledge of Buddhism is flawed, she makes reference to the Earth Goddess in Buddhism (who is the same as Sekhmet, Isis, Mary, Hera, and so on (31)), and that Chenrezig became Tara because there wasn’t a female Bodhisattva (32) which if you know the stories of Tara’s first vow is more insulting to women than anything. Since she believes Reiki is Buddhist she recommends the readers just go out and get Buddhist initiations (34/35) because it’s not like it’s a religion and you should take it seriously, and it’s not like these initiations have vows you have to obey for the rest of your life and should be thought out and prepared for. Her sources and translations are just as odd as everything else, according to her in the sutra of the Healing Buddha untimely death is caused by “illness treated by hoodoo.” (38) It’s a little known fact that the ancient Buddhists of India hated hoodoo, totally true.

Her Reiki understanding is just as bad, but it’s typical for what you’d see from a practitioner of a Takata-lineage of Reiki. What surprises me is she’s somewhat aware of the history and process, but ignores it. She mentions how there are twelve hand positions, but some teach twenty-seven or more, and they may not be part of the original system of Reiki. (They weren’t, they were added in by Hayashi because some students were too “dull” to sense where Reiki needed to be) Despite this, she still explains that these twelve are really and truly representations of the Twelve Yaksha generals (51) despite the fact that there weren’t in the original system or created by Usui-sensei (sorry, “rediscovered”). (Sidenote: “Rediscovered” irks me throughout the book, nowhere does she make a case for Reiki being a pre-existent tradition, so it cannot be rediscovered. It can be Buddhist inspired (and it was to a degree, but not how she thinks) but that doesn’t make it a “rediscovery” any more than my version of my mom’s vanilla cake is a “rediscovery” of what cake is.) She mentions there is no proof that Usui-sensai studied at Chicago University, or headed a Christian school in Japan (147) (he did neither) but then goes on to explain that he studied at Chicago University and headed a Christian school in Japan (149) because she likes that story, creatively ignoring of facts, even after she discredits them. She also claims that once you reach the “third degree” you have to pick a higher being “similar to or the same as Angels” (129) to work with, and idea so removed and alien from Reiki it boggles me, but hey it supports her idea to connect it to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas so why not?

She has gems of logic like “The Power symbol is the only Reiki symbol which does not come from a written language which may mean that it is older than most written languages” (84) which is another hilarious jump in logic. It’s not a word, so obviously it’s pre-text, that’s right, Reiki now goes back to before writing existed. Or that the “Mental/Emotional symbol” is actually Long A from the Gupta Alphabet (96), but if you know your symbols, go look at the alphabet, see if you agree. She also spends a surprising amount of time analyzing clockwise and counter-clockwise symbols and how horrible clockwise is to our bodies (86) unfortunately for her the original symbol she’s talking about was clockwise, somewhere in Takata’s lineage it got reversed. Or that because Manjushri’s text was translated into Chinese (from Pali/Sanskrit) in the third century, it makes sense that he was linked to the Japanese tradition at the time (114), if you understand that, please let me know.

It’s not just Buddhism and Reiki she gets wrong, but reality. “It is my belief that the Rei of Reiki is one of the rays of the light spectrum which has yet to be discovered by scientists.” (6) It’s energy sure, but she lists the entire Electromagnetic Spectrum, and apparently Reiki is hiding beyond the edges somewhere, making it weaker that AM radio, or more powerful Cosmic Rays. Scientizing the occult is one thing, but bad scientizing is horrid. It’s worse, for “scientists have found that memories of things learned by a parent can be passed on to a child through the memories contained in genes.” (104) Which is another fun fantasy. “In quantum physics it is said that quantum waves can go both forward and backward in time” (122) because her science wasn’t bad enough yet. She calls the Mesopotamian religion one of “Light/Life” (13) which means she’s never read anything about it.

All of this bad research and horrible synthesis is made worse by the self-description of “being a very practical, feet on the ground, type of person” (129) who just assumes everything is a sign of ancient Reiki. What gets me is I could have agreed with some parts of her synthesis if she talked about it in terms of personal experience, of unsubstantiated personal gnosis, or personal symbolism. By trying way way too hard to pretend to be well researched and historical, whatever value she put forth in this book was ruined. While I picked this book up not expecting anything good, it was horrible to a degree I didn’t expect, and even for that perverse pleasure I don’t recommend this text be bought by anyone.

If I were to sum up her logic and argument in a simple image it would be this:

reikialien


Review: Eastern Body, Western Mind – Anodea Judith

2013/02/14

eastern bodyEastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self – Anodea Judith
Celestial Arts. 1996. 502pp. 9780890878156.

I’ll confess, I’ve had this book for years now but could never bring myself around to reading it. I suspected it would be horrible and newagey. Currently though a friend of mine attends Naropa University, and apparently it’s used in one of eir psychology courses, so I decided to give it a chance.

The basic premise of the book is to relate the chakra system to Western psychology. Anodea Judith doesn’t really focus on one school of thought, shifting from Jung to Reich to Freud and others, but her main focus is on developmental theory. Each chakra is given an entire chapter, which is then broken down with basic explanations of what the chakra does on a physical, energetic, and mental level, as well as looking at the period of life it represents what traumas may be present, what these traumas do to the person on all levels, how the chakras react, and of course what can be done to help fix this. She does what I have to consider a very thorough and good job of exploring the chakras and linking them to the psychological model.

Her explanations are well constructed and seem consistent in themselves and with my experience. What impressed me though was how realistic she was. She give examples of people who had been through the traumas, how it affected them, what it did to their body, mind, and energy, and she talked about what advice she gave them to help deal with these issues. Nowhere does she proclaim how amazing she is for having cured these people, in fact she next mentions them being “fixed”. A lot of books that deal with energetic diagnosis and healing read more like bragging rights “I could tell by the way he held his hands he had cancer and abandonment issues, so we sang Kumbaya and he was healed.” Not only are these examples unrealistic, but they’re not helpful, and probably damaging. But Judith never went there, she acknowledges that even when handling a trauma on all levels at once you still have a lot of work to do, it will take a lot of time and effort, and may never be truly fixed, only better. To me it was great to see a more realistic approach and an acknowledgement of the limitation of the techniques.

Now trauma can be a strong word, so I should clarify this isn’t just a book about dealing with the energy system of people who have been abused (for an example of trauma), but traumas include various disruptive events that all of us have experienced some of. Premature birth, physical injury, emotionally dominating or absent parents, continual criticism, and a lot more, I can guarantee that everyone has had some of the traumas listed, and could see themselves somewhere in the descriptions. She makes a few factual mistakes, attributing “Tat Tvam Asi” to Buddhism, or saying the mantras are only supposed to be silent, but she also has a good understanding of many other aspects, in fact this work is the first time I saw a model of the criss-crossing Ida and Pingala that actually made sense. The information and interpretation is of great use if you’re just looking to understand yourself, your partner, your parents, or anyone, and it’s even better if you’re looking to navigate or improve these issues. I’m glad I got over my concerns about the book and actually gave it a read, it was worth it.


Review: Geomancy – Franz Hartmann

2011/12/20

Geomancy: A Method of Divination – Franz Hartmann
Ibis, 1889. 2005. 222pp. 0892541016.

Geomancy is one of my favourite methods of divination, there is something beautifully elegant in the way the figures change into each other, the flux and flow leading from a handful of simple dots into a complex reading of twelve or more figures. Yet it is also a system that is often overlooked, and the reprinting of Geomancy will hopefully help with that. Using a stick and sand, paper and pencil, or even dice (my preference), and a bit of practice and you can quickly be engaged in some very deep explorations of the world.

Hartmann’s Geomancy was originally published in 1889 but despite being an excellent book and still being relevant today it never saw much circulation. This edition, published 115 years later, is the original book but the contents have been reorganized to make it easier to use and navigate. This book starts off with the basics of geomancy as a system: the symbols, the casting, the associations, and quickly moves into detailed examples. The layout, with the previous one unknown to me, is a very useful method building up in complexity as you read, as well as being logically laid out for later examination.

The method and style of geomancy in the book is an older form, the astrological and planetary associations taken from Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy. This might be confusing if you’re used to a newer system like that shown in John Michael Greer’s The Art and Practice of Geomancy (which is still an excellent book), and I’m not sure how to synthesize them. The book also gives a new order for the planetary hours that I’ve never seen before and I do find confusing, the order of the planetary days.

The book has a structural position that I enjoy, it starts off with saying it is “recommended to keep a book for the purpose of entering the result of one’s calculations in practising Geomancy concerning future events.” (4) Without recording and analyzing your results you’ll never know how good you actually are, how helpful your reading is. Simple, and a dead horse I beat, but I love seeing authors stress the importance of recording your readings.

Related perhaps to being so structural is how much detail is put into the examples of the book. These examples explain what everything means according to the position/house they fall in when using an astrological cast. To get even more detailed 16 questions are asked and every possible outcome of the Witnesses and Judge is detailed so you can learn that reading as well as to begin to understand how it all comes together. These 2048 answers aren’t Hartmann’s original work, but are translated from a German text from the sixteenth century.

In order to be complete, the book (now) ends with a section on astrology, detailing the traits of the planets as well as their sympathies/antipathies with each other, and an explanation of the zodiac. The book’s appendix gives several different geomancy charts that the reader can photocopy and make use of to organize their readings.

If you’re looking for more information on this relatively unappreciated system of divination then this would be the book you’d want. If you’re looking to combine it into more of a magickal practice I’d suggest pairing it with The Art and Practice of Geomancy. Some of the attributions are different, but the rest of the procedures will work well together, especially with the deeper divinatory insight from Hartmann’s book.


Review: Chöd Practice in the Bön Tradition – Alejandro Chaoul

2011/07/07

Chöd Practice in the Bön Tradition: Tracing the origins of chöd (gcod) in the Bön tradition, a dialogic approach cutting through sectarian boundaries – Alejandro Chaoul, Forewards by Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
Snow Lion. 2009. 116 pp. with appendices. 9781559392921.

Chöd is a fairly obscure practice from Tibetan Buddhism and it also appears within Bön, the pre-Buddhist “shamanic” religion of Tibet. It is generally conceived as a Buddhist practice, framed in Buddhist imagery and philosophy, and the mythology places it firmly within the realm of Buddhism by use of its founder Machik Labdron, a Tibetan Buddhist saint. Yet in Bön the philosophy and mythology are a bit different though the practice is largely similar. So where did chöd come from?

Chaoul makes, what he believes, to be the first real study of chöd within Bön tradition. The book based upon his MA thesis at the University of Virginia, where he tried to find the interconnection between the two chöd practices. He did not focus on trying to find an origin for chöd but instead focused on how the practice has been shared and exchanged and developed between the two traditions. One tradition was not viewed as more legitimate or superior, instead Chaoul states “that the beauty of this rich, intricate, and often misunderstood practice, is to be found in the coexistence of many different views, which can expand beyond the traditional horizons delimited by social, academic, and sectarian boundaries.” (4)

I find this a curious and interesting case; as a perfect example of what he was studying Chaoul included in the book the sadhana called in English “The Laughter of the Dakinis” which is a sadhana within my lineage as well, even though his source is Bön and my lineage is Buddhist. So there I find not just the general sharing, but a specific ritual within both traditions. Personally it was a great book to read because of my lineage, my lama taught me (and understands this) through the Buddhist perspective and it was great to see the other, less common, perspective.

In fact in my initial chöd training I learnt that chöd had incorporated aspects from Bön, as it had from tantra and sutra traditions and even Hinduism, but I was unaware that there was a full chöd tradition within Bön. Most of this book made sense, and I could see the exchanges and changes, and some parts had me really wondering. For example when describing the tools the damaru (drum) is described as being made from two skulls (53) whereas I was taught, quite emphatically, that the damaru is to be acacia wood and the skull drums are from an unrelated tradition but due to similar appearance get associated with chöd, but should never be used for chöd. (Sidenote: The damaru shown on the cover is quite clearly not made from skulls) Things like this intrigue me, I want to learn is this a difference between Bön and Buddhist chöd, or is this lineage specific and my lama was speaking from his bias?

This book is highly academic, as mentioned it was based upon an MA thesis, it has 299 endnotes (to help make the point), so if you’re looking for an easy read, this isn’t it. This book is not appropriate for someone curious about chöd or looking to learn it, too much of the knowledge, history, mythology, and philosophy is chöd specific. For those studying chöd the complete sadhana of “The Laughter of the Dakinis” is included and “intended for use by those who have received transmission and explanation from an authentic lineage holder” (69) and if you are a chödpa (Buddhist or Bönpo) with an academic or bookworm leaning, this book is an excellent read and resource.


Review: Magic in the Biblical World – ed. Todd E. Klutz

2011/04/12

Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon – edited by Todd E. Klutz
T & T Clark International – Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 245. 2003. 261pp. 0567083624.

“[A]lthough the increasingly recognized shortcomings of defining ‘magic’ as a primitive form of behaviour exemplifying a type of mentality different from and inferior to that of ‘religion’ had become apparent to a handful of scholars by the 1950s, the majority of authorities continued long after this to assume that such definitions were valid and useful.” (2)

This issue is central to the text, essentially every chapter –each being an essay by a different researcher– devoted some time to trying to define magic in relationship to religion. The papers originally came from the Magic in the World of the Bible colloquium in 1999, the focus was not on the validity or reality of magic, or the question of Jesus as a magician, but instead the focus was to understand the notion of magic in the social and legal world of the historical context of the Bible.

This is an academic text, not a practical or theoretical manual, within the covers of the books it is all about history, language, and politics. Only two spells, from Sefer ha-Razim, are given in the book and only so that paper may dissect the ideology behind the spells.

It is commonly believed that to Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths the distinction between magic and miracle is that miracles are from YHWH, and magic is from other sources. The first two parts of the text, of three, grapple with this idea, is it valid and historical? To do so they provide a close reading of the mentions of magic and miracles, the Hebrew and Greek words used for them, and the names applied to the practitioners. Parts of this discussion are highly specialized, requiring an understanding of ancient Hebrew and Greek grammar to follow, but if you can work through the language (or perhaps skip it all together) the conclusions are interesting, and intimate that in the Biblical world magic and miracle weren’t as definitive of categories as many people think.

The paper “Magic and Scepticism in and around the First Christian Century” was quite intriguing. In it the author analyzed the magic/miracles of the early apostles and the reactions in the texts, and begs the question did people really believe and accept magic/miracles to the extent we believe they did, or was the population they were trying to convert sceptic not just of their faith, but of faith and miracles in general. It includes some really interesting reading of the evidence.

Part III of the book was of the most interest to me, as the title “’Magic’ in Disreputable Books from Late Antiquity” may imply. In these papers the authors dealt with Sefer ha-Razim, The Testament of Solomon, and the origins and etymology of Alchemy. The focus was largely to analyze the clearly magical tradition that existed and the source and ideology behind these practices. Here we get a close reading of the Greek artifacts left in Sefer ha-Razim and the astrological implications in The Testament of Solomon.

As I said early on, this is an academic text, this is not a practical or theoretical manual. If you’re looking to practice a Biblical form of magick, this book will be of little to no use for you. If you’re a historian with a passion for the Biblical tradition and/or Biblical magick this book may be of little practical use, but will be without a doubt fascinating and insightful.


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