Notes on the Heart Sutra

Slightly different track for today’s post.  A handful of people know that I have a deep respect and appreciation for Buddhism, especially the Thai Forest and Japanese forms of the religion/philosophy.  It was one of the first alternative religious traditions I was ever exposed to, and something I’ve taken more than a passing fancy in studying on my own; had I more time and energy and resources, I’d dedicate myself a lot more to it seriously than I can, but alas, my path is slightly different and does not (yet) allow for it.  Still, it’s always got a high place in my heart, and recently I’ve been dwelling on one of my favorite texts in the entire Buddhist canon: the Heart Sutra.  It’s a deep abiding not-quite-joy to recite and to meditate on, and given its popularity, I figure I may as well recognize it here.  Sure, it’s a slight departure from the usual Hermetic stuff on this blog, but I never claimed to stick to any one particular track, and I think bringing this up to most people’s awareness would do them and the general occulture some minor amount of good.

There have been endless translations of the Heart Sutra into any number of languages, but a problem is that it really is a summary overview of so much of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and teaching that it can almost be considered a CliffsNotes-type of sutra; unpacking everything would pretty much necessitate a full exploration of Buddhist thought, which is just a little out of the scope of this blog.  I find that the one by Jayarava (provided in 2013 on his blog) is particularly excellent for modern readers, but below is another one based on the one available on Wikisource that I’ve modified for diction and clarity, with links to any possible Buddhist reference for terms or concepts that I can manage:

The Great Sutra of the Heart of Perfection of Wisdom

When the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara was practicing the profound perfection of wisdom, he examined the five aggregates of existence and saw that they were all empty of all suffering and affliction.

Śāriputra, form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form.  Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form.  Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also such as this.

O Śāriputra, all experienced phenomena are empty: not created, not destroyed, not dirty, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing.  This is because in emptiness there is no form, sensation, perception, volition, or consciousness.  There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or thoughts; no form, sound, scent, taste, sensation, or dharma; no field of vision, up through no realm of thoughts.  There is no ignorance nor end of ignorance, even up to and including no old age and death, nor end of old age and of death.  There is no suffering, its accumulation, its elimination, nor path.  There is no knowledge and no attainment.

Because there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on the perfection of wisdom, and their minds have no obstructions.  Since they have no obstructions, they have no fears.  Because they are detached from perverse delusions, their ultimate result is the release from suffering.  Because all buddhas abiding in the past, present, and future rely on the perfection of wisdom, they attain the highest-possible perfect awakening.

Therefore, know that the perfection of wisdom is a great spiritual charm, a great brilliant charm, an unsurpassed charm, an unequaled charm.  It can truly remove all afflictions.  This is true and real, this is no lie.  Speak the charm of the perfection of wisdom; the charm is spoken thus:

GATE GATE PĀRAGATE PĀRASAṂGATE BODHI SVĀHĀ

The Heart of Wisdom Sutra

So what does this all mean?  In many ways, the Heart Sutra is an ultra-condensed form of Mahayana Buddhist teaching, and the earlier/original versions of the text don’t even have the usual context set and setting.  The slightly longer form establishes the frame for the discussion of the Heart Sutra like this: at one point in time, the Buddha was gathered with a great community on the mountain of Vulture’s Peak (Gṛdhrakūṭa), east of the ancient city of Rājagṛha (modern Rajgir in India) .  Amidst all the monks, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (also known as Guan Yin, Kannon, or Chenrezig) was practicing Prajñāpāramitā.  The Buddha himself entered a deep state of meditation and awareness, and by his powers, induced his disciple Śāriputra to approach Avalokiteśvara and ask the bodhisattva how one should go about practicing Prajñāpāramitā.   Avalokiteśvara then replied with the above sutra, describing what Prajñāpāramitā and how to practice it.  At this point, the Buddha himself left his state of meditation to praise Avalokiteśvara on the discourse, and that both he and every possible buddha ever approves of it, and then everyone lived happily ever after.

So what is Avalokiteśvara saying?  Basically, everything is empty.  This isn’t to say that everything is nothing a la nihilism, but that everything that exists or that is experienced is simply a construct.  Every entity does not exist as a thing-in-itself, concrete and independent from the rest of reality and existence, but that every possible thing lacks an intrinsic identity, quality, or existence.  Everything exists because of everything else that has gone before it so that it can be constructed; it is “empty” only so far as regards an independent nature.  My coffee cup on my desk, for instance, only exists because:

  • I bought it to exist in my life
  • I put it where it is for it to exist on my desk
  • The materials for it were harvested by other people
  • The processes to craft it were handled by other people
  • I, the harvesters, and crafters were all born and nourished by the actions of other people, who in turn were born and nourished by the actions of yet other people, ad infinitum
  • The materials for the coffee cup and all possible nourishment were generated/recycled through natural meteorological, geological, and cosmological forces

In other words, there is no part of this coffee cup that exists on its own without the input, causes, actions, or reactions of everyone and everything else that has gone before it; it is empty of “itself”, because there is no “self”.  There is no “being”, only “interbeing”; nothing is independent, because everything depends on everything else.  That is emptiness, generally speaking, and Avalokiteśvara describes the aggregates of existence (five skandhās) as all being empty: material form of objects, the sensory experiences of objects, the sensory and mental processes that registers and perceives objects, the mental actions and constructions triggered by objects, and the consciousness, awareness, and discernments we make involving objects.  All of these things are empty, no one of them existing apart from each other or the objects themselves, and for that matter anything else that exists in the cosmos.  But, going beyond that, Avalokiteśvara describes all phenomena as empty, as well.  The exact word here is dharma, which we usually mean as “law” or “doctrine” (as in Buddhism or Hinduism itself), but its meaning is wide enough to capture all possible phenomena, all monads or atoms, as empty.  It is out of these dharmas that the skandhās themselves are made, so if an object is the result of the processes and phenomena that developed it, then each process and phenomenon itself is likewise the result of other dharmas that developed it.  Thus, there is no thing, neither local or temporal nor material nor procedural, that exists apart of anything else.  Everything is the result of the interplay of everything else; there is nothing intrinsic to anything, no law nor self nor quality nor idea.  It is Heraclitus’ παντα ρει (“everything flows”) taken to its logical extreme.

Again consider, however, my coffee cup.  Speaking less philosophically, it is currently empty of drink, and yet it is not empty at all, since it is volumetrically full of air.  By pouring coffee into the mug, I have not really “created” coffee, but simply transformed the location of coffee from the coffee pot to the mug; I have not destroyed the air inside the mug, but instead displaced it.  I did not do this as its own divinely-inspired, pure-of-need action, but I poured coffee because I wanted coffee and needed something convenient to drink it from.  Because the act of pouring coffee took place within the greater context of my life, the act cannot be considered on its own but as an aggregate formed from everything else in my life, as well as an aggregate forming my life itself; there is no true “start” or “end” to the act of pouring coffee, just as there is no “start” or “end” to the existence of coffee itself; it is formed from water and coffee beans and heat, yes, but at what point do these stop being separate things that have never been coffee and start becoming a single thing that is only coffee? At what point does coffee no longer stay coffee but becomes something else that was never coffee?  These questions have no answer, because there is no intrinsic “coffee” to consider.  Thus, there can be no purity or contamination of coffee, just a series of phenomena and experiences and aggregates that collectively make something that I can give the label of “coffee” to for the time being.  As Avalokiteśvara says, “not created, not destroyed, not dirty, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing”.

It then follows that literally all of Buddhist thought—the five skandhās themselves, the eighteen dhātus of objects/sense faculties/consciousness that operate through the skandhās, the twelve nidanas of causes and effects that provide the basis for birth and rebirth in this world of suffering, the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha himself declared upon his enlightenment, even the notion of knowledge or wisdom itself or the ten bhūmis or stages of achieving them—are all empty.  All of it.  Everything is empty, therefore the whole religious philosophy and practices within it of Buddhism must all likewise be empty.  There is nothing intrinsic to Buddhism that makes it Buddhism, holy, special, or powerful; it’s the result of everything else and is the cause of everything else just as much as everything else is.  It’s not that it’s nothing, but that it’s part and parcel of everything, just as much as everything else is.  In other words, it’s reaffirming and emphasizing the teaching of Buddhism in its own terms, and because of this, the whole notion of Prajñāpāramitā (which is basically the wholesale realization of the foregoing and the insights and awareness it provides) is what gets bodhisattvas to where they’re trying to go.  If nothing has its own independent qualities, then nothing can be considered intrinsically scary.  If nothing can be scary, then there is nothing to fear.  If there is nothing to fear, then there is nothing to escape or hide from.  If there is nothing to escape or hide from, there is nothing to lie about.  If there is nothing to lie about, then there is nothing to be deluded about.  If there is nothing to be deluded about, then there is nothing stopping you from being free of suffering and illusion.  And, if you can be free from suffering and illusion, then there’s nothing stopping you from achieving the whole goal of the whole shebang: complete, utter, total enlightenment.  You’re already there, because there is no such thing as getting there, you just haven’t realized it yet, because you haven’t seen how empty you are yet or how empty your world is yet.

In other words, Prajñāpāramitā—the perfection of wisdom itself—is the full realization and insight of emptiness.  By this and this alone, everything else in the bodhisattva path of awakening follows.  The Heart Sutra recalls this very thing, to remind us that awareness of emptiness is the perfection of wisdom, and that by its recitation, we gird ourselves with the strength and compassion of wisdom itself for the sake of liberation.

So, onto chanting it.  The Heart Sutra, as can be seen above, is a pretty short text, if not one of (or the most) shortest in the Mahayana Buddhist canon.  For this reason, it’s a favorite for people to chant as an entire thing, and it’s not uncommon for it to be chanted daily at monasteries or temples across the world.  Current academia on the origins of the Heart Sutra suggest that it was originally composed in Chinese, and then back-translated into Sanskrit (or the hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit that was in use for many such texts, which is not properly Sanskrit as such).  The Chinese text is what was disseminated throughout Asia, and though it was historically recited in any number of local languages, they all rely on the same fundamental Chinese text using their respective Sinitic methods of recital; I prefer the Sino-Japanese style of reading this text mostly because I can actually trust and understand Japanese phonology.  The transcription below comes from Andrew May’s website, modified for diacritics and organization; note that hyphens link multi-character words together, and are generally (but not always) limited to Sanskrit-derived names or words (e.g. Han-nya-ha-ra-mi-ta for Sanskrit Prajñāpāramita, or Sha-ri-shi for Śāriputra).  In general, one syllable matches one character, though some characters are two syllables (e.g. 厄 “yaku”).

摩訶般若波羅蜜多心經 MA-KA HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA SHIN GYŌ
觀自在菩薩行深般若波羅蜜多時 KAN-JI-ZAI BO-SATSU GYŌ JIN HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA JI
照見五蘊皆空度一切苦厄 SHŌ KEN GO UN KAI KŪ DO IS-SAI KU YAKU
舍利子色不異空空不異色 SHA-RI-SHI SHIKI FU I KŪ KŪ FU I SHIKI
色即是空空即是色 SHIKI SOKU ZE KŪ KŪ SOKU ZE SHIKI
受想行識亦復如是 JU SŌ GYŌ SHIKI YAKU BU NYO ZE
舍利子是諸法空相 SHA-RI-SHI ZE SHO HŌ KŪ SŌ
不生不滅不垢不淨不增不減 FU SHŌ FU METSU FU KU FU JŌ FU ZŌ FU GEN
是故空中無色無受想行識 ZE KO KŪ CHŪ MU SHIKI MU JU SŌ GYŌ SHIKI
無眼耳鼻舌身意無色聲香味觸法 MU GEN NI BI ZE SHIN I MU SHIKI SHŌ KŌ MI SOKU HŌ
無眼界乃至無意識界 MU GEN KAI NAI SHI MU I SHIKI KAI
無無明亦無無明盡 MU MU MYŌ YAKU MU MU MYŌ JIN
乃至無老死亦無老死盡 NAI SHI MU RŌ SHI YAKU MU RŌ SHI JIN
無苦集滅道無智亦無得 MU KU SHŪ METSU DŌ MU CHI YAKU MU TOKU
以無所得故菩提薩埵依般若波羅蜜多 I MU SHO TOKU KO BO-DAI-SAT-TA E HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
故心無罣礙無罣礙故無有恐怖 KO SHIN MU KEI GE MU KEI GE KO MU U KU FU
遠離一切顛倒夢想究竟涅槃 WON RI IS-SAI TEN DŌ MU SŌ KU GYŌ NE-HAN
三世諸佛依般若波羅蜜多 SAN ZE SHO BUTSU E HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
故得阿耨多羅三藐三菩提 KO TOKU A-NOKU-TA-RA SAM-MYAKU-SAM-BO-DAI
故知般若波羅蜜多 KO CHI HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
是大神咒是大明咒 ZE DAI JIN SHU ZE DAI MYŌ SHU
是無上咒是無等等咒 ZE MU JŌ SHU ZE MU TŌ DŌ SHU
能除一切苦真實不虛 NŌ JO IS-SAI KU SHIN JITSU FU KO
故說般若波羅蜜多咒即說咒曰 KO SETSU HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA SHU SOKU SETSU SHU WATSU
揭帝揭帝般羅揭帝般羅僧揭帝菩提薩婆訶 GYA-TEI GYA-TEI HA-RA-GYA-TEI HA-RA-SŌ-GYA-TEI BŌ-JI SO-WA-KA
般若心經 HAN-NYA SHIN GYŌ

I translated whatever technical terms I could in the above translation, but there’s the notable exception about the final set of words.  This is generally considered a mantra, and mantras aren’t generally translated; their potency generally is said to lie in the actual sound and vocalization of them and less in any meaning, but Jayarava’s translation of the mantra here has it as “gone, gone, gone over, gone over to the other side, awake, svāhā” (where “svāhā” is a typical end to a mantra, literally meaning “well said” but used to mean something like “all hail”, “so be it”, or “amen”).  He’s also gone over the mantra in a more in-depth manner elsewhere, and notes that the descriptions of the mantra as great, brilliant, unsurpassed, and unequaled are usually epithets for the Buddha, and thus liken or equate the mantra itself to the Buddha, but that it’s less a mantra and more of a dhāraṇī or vidyā, in either case something more akin to a spell or magical invocation.  Thus, I’ve translated it above with the word “charm”, based on how the word is used for similar “words of power” sequences in more Western texts like the PGM (which, it would seem, would be a translation that even Jayarava might agree with).  In any case, the mantra-dhāraṇī-vidyā-charm-spell would be pronounced /gəte gəte pɑːrəgəte pɑːrəsəⁿgəte bod̪ʱi sʋɑːhɑː/ or, for a less IPA-based approach, “guh-tay guh-tay pah-ruh-guh-tay pah-ruh-sahn-guh-tay bohd-hee swah-hah”, if you wanted to use the proper Sanskrit pronunciation, though again, any vulgate language that the whole sutra is recited in would use its corresponding Sinitic readings of the characters 揭帝揭帝般羅揭帝般羅僧揭帝菩提薩婆訶, which were used in early/middle Chinese to transcribe the Sanskrit sounds themselves.

An excellent rendition of this text in Japanese is that of the Sōtō Zen monk and teacher Taisen Deshimaru, who in this particular recording leads a group of Buddhists in reciting the sutra.  The recording opens up with a brief bell meditation, recites the sutra three times at an increasingly fast but rhythmic pace, and concludes with  a slow recitation of different texts after the 7:26 mark:

I share this all not just because it’s been on my mind lately and I wanted to have some sort of outlet for it, but because it reminds me, in a grand sense, that we’re all in this together.  There is nothing that you’ve done that hasn’t affected me, nor vice versa; there is nothing that exists that hasn’t impacted the existence of anything else.  There’s another saying about emptiness: “if it exists, then one speck of dust exists; if it doesn’t, then the whole cosmos doesn’t either”.  We’re all here because each and everyone one of us is here; everything that is happening (or has, or will) is happening because, with, by, and for us, endlessly and continuously, just as we exist/happen for the sake of everything else.  As Ghandi (actually) said, “all the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body; if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change”.  

In other words, be good or be good at it.  The entire cosmos is literally riding on it.

(also oh my god Kalagni I’m so sorry if I bungled any of this, please fix anything that’s broken)

On Aspects in Geomantic Interpretation

Geomantically interpreting the House Chart usually necessitates a bit of knowledge about astrology.  Even though geomancy can be interpreted completely without relying on any sort of astrological symbolism or techniques, one of the biggest innovations that geomancy developed was to incorporate these very same symbols and methods into geomantic technique.  When looked at the right way, the integration is often flawless and seamless, and a good number of techniques and ideas that apply in astrological divination apply either identically or in parallel ways to geomantic divination.  This isn’t usually the case for the Shield Chart, of course, but for the House Chart?  The more astrology proper you know, the better off you are in geomancy; geomancy has often been called “astrology’s little sister”, and for good reason.

Still, though, not all astrological tricks can be borrowed directly into geomancy, and of those that can, some may need tweaking or a complete rehaul of the technique to get the ideas behind the trick to properly apply to geomancy.  Among such techniques that astrology can lend to geomancy, what we consider to be a major, integral technique in one art can be considered a minor detail in the other.  And, of course, there are always those techniques that are barely understood at all in either system but we laud them as among the best and greatest things ever until we take a step back to actually try to understand the damned thing at all.

Bearing all that in mind, here’s a few thoughts and explanations of astrological aspect, why we use them the way we do astrologically, and how they can be applied to geomantic interpretation of the House Chart.  I suggest that you grab a drink and settle in for this.

What is an aspect?  The word comes from Latin ad+spicere, meaning “to look at” or “to regard”, but in its form aspectus it can also refer to appearances, countenances, or coming into sight of something else.  Although I suppose it’s possible that you could see any planet from any position of any other planet, considering the planets as mathematical volumeless points in the sky, only a handful of specific spatial arrangements are considered to be proper aspects based on their geometry within the circle of the Zodiac.  More properly, I suppose it’s better to say that aspects are based upon the geometry presented within the Thema Mundi, the astrological-mythological chart of the beginning of creation that is fundamental to exploring and understanding many of the basic symbols of astrology:

Thema Mundi

(No, this is not actually a real chart; note the positions of Mercury and Venus in relation to the Sun.  We know.  It’s not intended to actually represent any point in time besides Creation itself, and was an important teaching tool used in Hellenistic astrology.  Of particular importance, note how the chart starts with the ascendant in Cancer, not Aries; the natural world we live in is of a nurturing, cool nature exemplified most by watery Cancer, and not the harsh, aggressive nature of fiery Aries.)

The Thema Mundi is what establishes the planetary rulerships of the signs themselves.  Judging from a location in the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun and Moon (the two luminaries whose motion only ever proceeds forward) are given to the two signs of the brightest and hottest time of the year, the Moon to feminine/receptive/cool Cancer and the Sun to masculine/active/warm Leo.  After this, we assign Mercury to Virgo, Venus to Libra, Mars to Scorpio, Jupiter to Sagittarius, and Saturn to Capricorn.  Because the planets can only ever be in one place at any one time, the other signs are left empty, but we can envision the non-luminaries to be in a “mirror world” in the signs opposite the axis formed between Cancer/Leo and Capricorn/Aquarius; thus, Saturn gets “mirrored” into Aquarius from Capricorn, Jupiter into Pisces from Sagittarius, Mars into Aries from Scorpio, Venus into Taurus from Libra, and Mercury into Gemini from Virgo.  The Sun and Moon, being two distinct luminaries already in their own signs, do not get mirrored.

Planetary Rulerships of the Signs

Now, consider the positions of the planets in relationship to the luminaries:

  • Mercury is 30° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Mercury is a neutral force, blending like with like and opposite with opposite, always changing and always in flux.  The angular relationship between Mercury and its nearest luminary is that of the semi-sextile, a mutable and weak relationship that doesn’t mean or do much either which way.
  • Venus is 60° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Venus is a pleasant planet, inducing joy and pleasure and which opens up the door to opportunity and happiness, though it can be fickle.  The angular relationship between Venus and its nearest luminary is that of the sextile, a relationship that tends to harmony but requires energy and action in order to keep the relationship fortunate and well.
  • Mars is 90° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Mars is the planet of separation, strife, heat, anger, and war.  The angular relationship between Mars and its nearest luminary is that of the square, indicating a relationship of tension, strife, resistance, and problems that, although they can be surpassed and built upon, are not easy to overcome.
  • Jupiter is 120° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  Jupiter is the planet of blessing, benefice, and heavenly wonder.  The angular relationship between Jupiter and its nearest luminary is that of the trine, indicating a relationship of harmony, luck, ease, and prosperity.
  • Saturn is 180° from the Moon or the Sun on the opposite side.  Saturn, the darkest and coldest planet placed in the darkest and coldest sign, is found in the opposite sign as the luminaries in the brightest and warmest signs of the year; Saturn is the planet of cursing, curses, and being cursed, of death compared to the life of the luminaries.  Not only that, but the angular relationship formed between Saturn and its directly-opposing luminary crossed boundaries into a true mirror-world opposition, which is the relationship of extremes, rivalry, enmity, and difficulty.
  • Saturn is 150° from the Sun on the right, or from the Moon on the left.  More on this later.

Note that the relationships we care about in the list above are in particular angular arrangements such that the angle is a proper divisor of the circle of 360°: it takes twelve semi-sextiles to make a complete loop (12 × 30° = 360°), six sextiles (6 × 60° = 360°), four squares (4 × 90° = 360°), three trines (3 × 120° = 360°), and two oppositions (2 × 180° = 360°).  Additionally, since the zodiac (and the House Chart we use in astrology) is already divided up into twelve sections, an angular arrangement that does the same thing doesn’t show us anything new or more important that the simple progression of signs from one to the next, or of houses from one to the next, doesn’t also already tell us.  This leaves us with four major angular relationships, or aspects: sextile, square, trine, and opposition, each of which is exemplified best by its “thematic” presence in the Thema Mundi: Venus is the aspect-producing planet of the sextile, Mars of the square, Jupiter of the trine, and Saturn of the opposition.

However, we don’t have to limit ourselves to talking just about degree-based angular relationships when it comes to aspects.  In fact, it’s arguably more traditional to talk about them in terms of whole signs (and, thus, houses), and the idea is the same as before.  Mercury is one sign away from its luminary for the semi-sextile aspect, Venus two for sextile, Mars three for square, Jupiter four (for trine), and Saturn six for opposition.  This is the distinction between partile and platick aspects, where partile aspects are measured by the “parts” of signs (i.e. the exact degrees) and platick aspects by the “broad areas” of whole signs at a time; while we moderns generally consider partile aspects to be what really counts (ideally exact by angle, though we allow the wiggle-room of orbs for the planets), it would have been just as valid in Hellenistic and traditional astrology to consider platick aspects based on sign relationships between the location of any two particular planets.  In the above talk about the Thema Mundi, it’s actually more proper and traditional to note the angular relationships of the planets to the luminaries based on how many signs/houses they are away rather than how many degrees of celestial longitude they are away.  If we count by signs, then we have the nifty association between aspects and sign relationships:

  • Signs in sextile share the same temperature of element (i.e. hot Fire and Air, cold Water and Earth) and different modality.  They understand what each other needs and uplift/sustain each other in their complementary ways.
  • Signs in square are of the opposite element but same modality.  They understand how each other works and work in the same way, but they have the opposite views and goals and needs.
  • Signs in trine share the same element.  They understand what each other needs and join with each other in common purpose.
  • Signs in opposition share the same temperature of element as well as the same modality.  They conflict because they operate in the same way, and share the same passion but for different goals and needs, leading to rivalry and conflict.  So different, yet so similar at the same time!

But this leads to something interesting: if there are only aspects based on whole-sign counting, what about two planets that are found in signs that have no such relationship?  We already counted differences of one sign (semi-sextile), two sign (sextile), three (square), four (trine), and six (opposition), and if it’s more than six, we can simply flip the calculation to get a corresponding opposite-direction same-type aspect.  This leaves the relationships unclear when we have differences of zero signs and five signs away:

  • If there are zero signs between two planets, then they’re in the same sign, or more ideally, at a 0° difference.  In other words, this is conjunction of two planets, where instead of there being a relationship, there is a true unity and melding of force, power, and presence.  Relationships can only happen when there is a distance or difference, but in conjunction, there is neither; thus, a conjunction is not a type of aspect, technically speaking, because there’s no “other planet” for each to look at, since they become one and the same force.
  • If there are five signs between two planets, then they’re…weird.  They have nothing to relate to each other: they’re of different elements yet not opposing elements (e.g. Fire and Earth), and are not of the same modality.  If conjunction is a complete identity of essence, then this relationship is complete dissonance, and is called inconjunct; the angular relationship of 150° is called the quincunx, but the idea is the same.  This is the complete lack of relationship, which in traditional astrology was considered worse than any relationship at all (no matter how bad).

In addition to the complete dissonance bit of the inconjunct, there was a notion of certain places being “unseen” from any particular place in the House Chart.  From the ascendant, consider that houses VI (illness) and VIII (death) are inconjunct with house I (life).  While being close to the aspect (“seen”) of opposition, they are just out of range of vision, just off to the side of focus.  It’s like when you’re staring at a particular distant point: you have that point in complete view, but things just off to the side?  You can’t look at them the same way, things slide out unnoticed, or change without being seen.  This “just off to the side” quality of the inconjunct lends them to “being unseen”.  Similarly, we can say the same thing for houses XII and II: while there is technically an aspect for these (semi-sextile, 30° or one sign away), house XII (enemies) is inimical to house I (life) in the same way houses VI and VIII are, and worse, house XII is “right behind” house I, and thus is also unseen.  House II (property) isn’t usually considered negative, but it is similarly “unseen” because it is too close, too under-the-nose, to be properly regarded as an aspected house.  This leaves the relationships of one sign away and five sign away as anti-aspects, or more properly, averted.  Aversion indicates an anti-relationship: a lack of communication or awareness, a disability to understand and be understood, and a lack of control in either direction.  This is why, for the sake of astrology, the 30° relationship is at best trivial and meaningless, and at worst is as bad as the 150° quincunx.

Okay!  So much for an introduction on aspects.  Where does that leave us?  Well, we have particular angular relationships that, for the sake of both traditional astrology and geomancy, we can determine based on how far two particular things are in the House Chart based on how many signs/houses come between them:

  • Sextile: two houses away, the relationship of Venus.  Luck, opportunity, happiness, fickle fortune.
  • Square: three houses away, the relationship of Mars.  Strife, fighting, conflict, construction.
  • Trine: four houses away, the relationship of Jupiter.  Blessing, ease, harmony, prosperity.
  • Opposition: six houses away, the relationship of Saturn.  Rivalry, enmity, enemies, tension.

And, in addition, we have three non-aspects:

  • Conjunction: same house in the same location, the identification of the two luminaries as one light.  Two forces that become one.
  • Semi-sextile: one house away, the anti-relationship/aversion of Mercury.  Being too close to properly see or control.
  • Inconjunct: five houses away, the anti-relationship/aversion of Saturn.  Being just out of sight to properly see or understand.

In geomancy, we can use aspects to better understand the relationship between two particular figures in the House Chart, or the effects a given figure has on another figure based on the angular house-based relationship between them.  The naïve and simplistic way of doing this is to take any particular figure as your significator, and interpret the figures two, three, four, and six houses away as being in aspect to the significator.

Just to make things a little more exciting, let’s add in two more distinctions to our expanding set of aspects, shall we?  In geomantic interpretation, not only is it the number of houses away that matters for an aspect, but also the direction of the aspect, or dexter and sinister aspects, which are ultimately based on the natural motion of the planets as seen from the Earth:

  • Dexter aspects (literally “right”, as in “right-handed”) are counted clockwise around the House Chart from the aspecting figure to the aspected figure.  For instance, the trine formed by House V onto house I is a dexter trine, because the aspect is made going clockwise around the chart from house V to house I.  Dexter aspects go against the natural flow of the signs of the Zodiac, or said another way, against the usual counterclockwise numbering of the houses.  These are considered to be more direct, effective, obvious, blatant, or vigorous.
  • Sinister aspects (literally “left) are counted counterclockwise around the House Chart from the aspecting figure to the aspected figure.  For instance, the trine formed by House IX onto house I is a sinister trine, because the aspect is made going counterclockwise around the chart from house IX to house I.  Sinister aspects go with the natural flow of the signs of the Zodiac, or said another way, with the usual counterclockwise numbering of the houses.  These are considered to be more subtle, hidden, weak, slow, or indirect than dexter aspects.

Thus, consider the following geomantic House Chart:

If we were to consider house IV (Tristitia) as our significator, then we find the following figures in aspect with it:

  • Dexter sextile: house VI, Cauda Draconis
  • Dexter square: house VII, Amissio
  • Dexter trine: house VIII, Fortuna Minor
  • Opposition: house X, Cauda Draconis
  • Sinister trine: house XII, Coniunctio
  • Sinister square: house I, Via
  • Sinister sextile: house II, Acquisitio

Note that opposition, because it is six houses away, is always on the opposite point of the House Chart.  Therefore, it is only ever an opposition, and cannot be dexter or sinister.  Also note that we don’t count semi-sextiles or quincunxes here; although we can technically mark these as aspects, given their “unseen” nature, it’s better to say that there is no relationship between house IV and houses V, IX, XI, and III.  For similar reasons, because only one figure can only ever appear in any given house, there is no notion of conjunction in the geomantic House Chart (outside of perfection, of course, but that’s a different topic that I’ll bring up in a bit).

As a facile way of using aspects in geomantic interpretation (though it is useful when learning how to interpret aspects!), we could find every figure that makes an aspect to a particular significator and interpret them to get a whole lot of details about all possible things that are acting upon, influencing, or impelling the significator to act a particular way.  However, I find this to be a whole lot more than I care to deal with, and often provides more confused data than usable information, so I typically limit the use of aspects in my own geomantic practice to only two significators at a time, and even then, only when either one or both of the significators pass.  Consider that two houses may already be in a “fixed” aspect relationship by virtue of where they are.  Marriage, for instance, is always going to be represented in house VII, so in a query about marriage, it’s trivial and useless to say that the significators of querent and quesited are in an opposition aspect (houses I and VII), because opposition is inherent to the house of marriage, and therefore is more a subject for philosophical introspection on the subject in general rather than helpful divination and guidance in a particular matter involving the subject.  We can’t use the “real houses” of the significators for determining aspect alone, so we must use something else.

In the case where one of the significators passes elsewhere in the chart, it may form an aspect to the other significator based on the house the significator passes to in relation to the “real house” of the other significator.  Consider in the above House Chart a case where we’re investigating the topic of marriage, so we have house I (Via) representing the querent and house VII (Amissio) representing the marriage or spouse-to-be.  Via in house I and Amissio in house VII, in their own “real houses”, don’t make an aspect, but Amissio passes from house VII to house IX.  House IX is in aspect with house I, so we can say that Amissio (significator of the quesited in house VII) makes a sinister trine to Via (significator of the querent in house I) by means of house IX.  Thus, we can say that the spouse-to-be and the querent are in a good relationship together, characterized by quiet peace and modest harmony, possibly involving matters involving academia, spirituality, or foreign travel, especially on the part of the spouse-to-be and how they incorporate the querent into their own life.  The aspect here reveals what their relationship is like; how each of them are individually is determined more by the figures themselves.

So, in this more limited, exacting, and useful way of interpreting aspect in the geomantic House Chart, we can determine the relationship between two significators if one of them passes to a house that aspects the other in its own “real house”.  If one of them passes but into an averted house (a house that is one or five away from the “real house”), then there is no relationship, which can be interpreted either not at all (modern) or in the more dire unseen, uncontrolled, incommunicable way (traditional).  What happens if both figures pass elsewhere in the chart?  Say we have an example where, for another chart about marriage, Coniunctio in house I passes to house IX and Amissio in house VII passes to house III.  There are two aspects here: the significator of the querent makes a dexter sextile onto the significator of the quesited (house IX onto house VII), and likewise, the quesited makes a dexter sextile onto the querent (house III onto house I).  In this case, both significators pass, and there’s a third aspect being made here: the opposition between houses III and IX!  This aspect doesn’t involve either real house of the significators, but is still another relationship between the significators that needs to be accounted for.  This is where yet another dichotomy can come into play for us:

  • Direct aspect: an aspect made by one significator that passes elsewhere in the chart onto the real house of the other significator.  Indicates the direct, known, or intended effects one significator has upon the other.  Direct aspects (with the exception of opposition) will be either dexter or sinister, using the real house being aspected to as a point of orientation.
  • Indirect aspect: an aspect made by both significators from the houses each passes to onto the other, not involving the real houses of either significator.  Side effects that result from the actions and interactions of the significators, or emergent properties of their relationship that are unknown or unintended by either party.  Indirect aspects cannot be considered dexter or sinister since there is no direction inherent to them, since both figures pass equally.

Thus, in this relationship where Coniunctio and Amissio both have direct dexter sextiles upon each other with the indirect opposition between them, the querent and quesited generally get along pretty well as each opens up new doors for the other and provides glee and luck for each other, but there’s this nagging tension that seems to result as they get closer, this weird difficulty that leaves only a soft echo in the dark corners of their minds; their friends don’t seem to get along the longer they hang out, and there’s this weird unspoken division that both of them subconsciously work around.  That’s what an indirect aspect is: an emergent property or a side-effect of the actions and interactions of both parties acting upon each other.  It’s not always the case that an indirect aspect can be formed when both significators pass, but when one can, even if it’s a subtle or minor thing, it’s usually important enough to note because of how easy it is to overlook in the real world.

What about if one significator passes to multiple other houses, each of which aspects the real house of the other significator?  In this case, despite the confusion, it’s actually pretty straightforward: there are multiple aspects, so first interpret each one separately then see how they’re all connected and fit into a bigger picture.  In such a case, can the same significator make indirect aspects with itself?  No, it cannot; when considering two or more significators, an aspect must be made between two different significators so as to indicate a relationship.  A relationship indicates two distinct parties to relate to each other; just as a significator passing to another house cannot aspect its own real house, a significator passing to multiple houses cannot form an indirect aspect amongst its passing houses.  Rather, it’s better to analyze what that same significator is doing in so many houses, and how they’re all connected and fitting into the same overall or overarching action or set of actions, and how they all impact or influence the other significator both separately and in unison.

That’s what I do to use aspect in interpreting geomantic house charts; the technique is fairly straightforward, though there is a bit of nuance between dexter and sinister as well as direct and indirect.  So, why do I use aspect?  Aspect indicates a relationship between two significators that results in their actions one upon the other (not necessarily “upon each other!”) which can affect a particular situation as a whole, or offer more details into the specific nature of the two parties acting on their own or interacting with each other.  The keyword here is “relationship”; aspects indicate the existence and nature of relationships, if any, between the significators and, if one exists, how it plays out between the two significators.

What I do not use aspect for is as a type of perfection.  Perfection, as I’ve written about before, is a method of geomantic interpretation that uses the motion of the figures in the House Chart to determine whether a particular situation will happen (if the chart perfects) or won’t happen (if the chart denies perfection).  Both perfection and aspect utilize the passing of the significators with and around each other, but to my mind, I find that they are distinct techniques that answer fundamentally different questions of the geomantic chart.  This is something I disagree with JMG on; in his “Art and Practice of Geomancy”, he says that aspect functions as a weaker kind of perfection alongside the usual occupation, conjunction, mutation, and translation.  If the chart denies perfection, such that none of the four major kinds of perfection are present in the chart, then JMG says that beneficial aspects that are made between the significators can be used to affirm the chart, and negative aspects (along with no aspects, along with the outright denial from proper perfection) can be used to reinforce a denial in the chart, or to weaken another perfection.

In my experience, however, I haven’t seen this to be borne out, and so I don’t consider aspect-as-perfection as useful.  I’m familiar with the fact that perfection in horary astrology (which is where the whole idea of where perfection came from) uses aspects in order to accomplish its types of perfection: aspect made between the two significators, translation by a third faster-moving body making aspects to both, or collection by both significators making an aspect to a third slower-moving body.  However, we’ve departed from this by “tweaking” the understanding of perfection for the purposes of fitting it into a geomantic system; in this case, we really only consider conjunction (in the sense of one “body” identifying with the other, as in perfection by occupation, or going to meet another, as in perfection by conjunction or mutation).  We’ve broken the identification of perfection and aspect by limiting ourselves to a non-aspect type of passing.  Plus, although horary astrology has a number of ways where perfection can be denied based on the motion of other planets to interfere with the aspects being made or other astrological mishaps, there’s no such idea in geomantic perfection; the only way a geomantic chart can deny perfection is the absence of the four types of perfection.

While an argument can be made that “because perfection comes from astrology, and astrological perfection uses aspects, we should use aspects in geomantic perfection”, I would counter that since we’ve effectively come up with a new set of geomancy-specific rules that we only call “perfection” because although it accomplishes much the same aim in astrology, the methods are completely different and follow a different logic.  Perfection inspects how the figures pass irrespective of angular relationships between the significators, and is almost always sufficient to accurately answer the query.  If the chart perfects, the thing inquired will happen, and if the chart denies perfection, the thing inquired will not happen; that’s the end of the statement.  Perfection, as I’ve said before, only answers whether something will or won’t happen and, if it will happen, how it will be accomplished.  Aspect, on the other hand, answers to the existence and nature of relationships between different parties/events/situations.  Perfection answers the “what will happen” and “how”, while aspect answers “where” and “what kind”; aspect is well-suited to talk about the goodness or badness of something, but not to determining whether something will happen or not.

It can often be helpful to interpret perfection and aspect alongside each other to get a better grasp of the nature of a situation:

  • Perfection, no aspect: The situation will happen, but beyond the involvement of the parties in the situation, there is no other action being taken by either significator, or there are no side-effects or other intentions, or there are no other worlds/circles of work being pulled into the situation
  • Perfection, aspect by the quesited onto the querent: Will happen, and the quesited is producing an effect or engaging in a relationship with the querent
  • Perfection, aspect by the querent onto the quesited: Will happen, and the querent is producing an effect or engaging in a relationship with the quesited
  • Perfection, aspects by both significators onto each other: Will happen, and both significators are engaging in a relationship with each other, possibly with side-effects or emergent properties that they are unaware of
  • Perfection, good aspects: Will happen, and will turn out favorably for the significator(s) having good aspects made to it
  • Perfection, bad aspects: Will happen, and will turn out unfavorably for the significator(s) having bad aspects made to it
  • Perfection, both good and bad aspects: Will happen, but the result will be a mixed bag depending on the different effects and acts made upon the significator(s)
  • No perfection, … : All the above goes for all the “no perfection” situations, except the thing inquired about will not happen

In other words, this is just a fancier, aspect-specific version of the following chart I’ve used before when discussing perfection vs. favorability:

Good figures Bad figures
Chart perfects Will happen,
situation will turn out well
Will happen,
situation will turn out badly
Chart denies Will not happen,
situation will turn out well
Will not happen,
situation will turn out badly

Perfection and aspect are both useful techniques in geomancy, but I see them as answering different kinds of questions within a given chart.  If what you want to know is how good or bad something is, where a certain party is acting from onto a given situation or person, or what kinds of influences are upon a given situation or person, then aspect is a fantastic way to deduce the nature of relationships between different parties, if any should exist at all.  If what you want to know is whether something will happen or not, perfection is excellent.  Both can be combined to yield a well-rounded, detailed, and thorough answer, but I caution against confusing “niceness of a situation” with “accomplishment of intention”.  Just as I warn against confusing perfection with favorability, I warn against misusing or confusing aspect into saying something it may not be equipped to say.  While I understand why aspect can be used as a type of perfection, I find that it doesn’t often say anything that perfection already hasn’t said when it comes to the “will/won’t” question, and that it has much better and more detailed applications answering the questions about relationships between the significators, both on its own and alongside the technique of perfection.

 

The Nature of Trust of a Tool

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, “Elissa” by the Crüxshadows, has a particularly poignant bridge towards the end:

Everyone has a purpose
Hidden within our lives
Something we were meant to do
Or feel before we die

It’s not particularly hard to interpret this in a Hermetic or other occult sense, if you know anything about True Will or, said another way, divine destiny.  Everyone is, in some sense, a tool of the Divine or of the Almighty.  Everyone has something that we Chose and Want to accomplish in this world we find ourselves born in, something that only we can properly accomplish.  It’s not just anything, but a particular something that is the only Thing, the only Point or Cause, of our being incarnated here.  Everything we do in our lives is either essential development and build-up to attaining and maintaining that Thing, or nonessential window-dressing that can add flavor (either sweetness or bitterness) to that goal.  So long as we Work towards that Thing, no matter how roundabout or directly, we’re doing what we need to do; we might make it easier or harder for ourselves in the process, and we may very well get waylaid or misled on our paths, but the point still stands that there is a Thing that we must Do, and all that we Work towards is in service of that Thing.

I’ve brought up the idea before that, if we envision the whole grand scheme of things, the Cosmos, as a giant machine, then everyone is a gear in that machine.  So long as we keep on doing what we need to do, every part works in harmony with every other part, and the machine works well.  If even one part, however, gets out of sync or decides to revolt, then much of the rest of the system we find ourselves in can malfunction or break down, and other parts have to accommodate the malfunction until things get into proper working order again.  (This is why life isn’t perfect, I suppose.)  Kalagni of Blue Flame Magick once described this to me (in a discussion on True Will) as how a solar system works: the planets don’t need to think or plan or consciously strive towards orbiting the Sun, they just do it naturally as an expression of their selves and their purpose.  But imagine, dear reader, if a rogue planet suddenly whipped itself into our solar system, or worse, imagine if one of our own planets suddenly got a wild hare up its axis of rotation and jumped out of its orbit.  What happens?  The other planets get knocked out of their own orbits, potentially colliding with other planets or celestial bodies, and the whole system gets out of whack until it finds a new equilibrium to settle down in.  There’s no guarantee that this equilibrium will be equivalent to the previous one, or that the solar system as a whole will survive such an accident, but hey, shit happens.  The Cosmos will do what it needs to do in order to work out its own problems, and its our job to make sure that we do our own Work accordingly to handle our Will, regardless of what the vicissitudes of fate throw at us.

Rather than just thinking of ourselves as gears in a machine, however, consider this from another perspective: that we are tools in the hands of God.  Same idea, just a slightly different expression, but now we pick up other and different concerns.  Every tool is built so as to fix a particular problem: a hammer pushes things in, a crowbar gets things out, tape holds things together quickly but temporarily, glue holds things together over time but more permanently, and so forth.  Every tool has one particular job that it does well; it’s rare to find a true multipurpose tool, since a tool that tries to do many things equally well doesn’t do any particularly thing exceptionally well, especially when compared to a true single-purpose tool.  We each have a particular purpose, and we are the tool built to Work towards that purpose.  Finding what that purpose is (specifically or generally) can not only tell us what we need to do, but also tell us more about ourselves, what we were meant to do, and why we came into the world to do it.  A sword does not hammer in nails, and trying to use a sword as a hammer can result in chipped blades, bent nails, and an overall terrible job of doing something that probably was meant for someone else.

But there’s more to this metaphor of us being made as cosmic tools.  Tools must be properly maintained in order to do their job, either well or even passably.  Consider the sword (and for this, I suggest taking a short detour and reading Meti’s Sword Manual, a text written in service of my new favorite webcomic, Kill Six Billion Demons, which I think every occultist today should read and follow because it’s wonderful).  A sword must be kept oiled so as to prevent rust, out of extreme heat so that it does not warp, and sharpened so that it can actually cut; a sword is made for cutting, and so everything the sword does must be in service of that purpose, and the sword must be kept in a good condition so as to be able to accomplish that purpose.  Further, even when a sword is used to cut, it must be used in a proper way: trying to cut a hardwood tree or a stone will often yield a nicked, chipped, or broken blade, leaving it in a worse condition than it was before due to improper use; another tool for cutting of that specific type, such as an axe or a chisel, would be better, even though they all “cut” in some sense.  It is a combination of knowing both how to maintain a tool before it is used and when to use a tool that preserves the tool for when it is truly needed to do its job well.

Moreover, all a sword does is cut; it is a tool for cutting, and it does so without thought, leaving thought to the wielder of the sword.  A sword does not second-guess itself, and a sword does not make half-cuts or mock-cuts.  A sword cuts, just as its wielder intends for it to.  In the hands of a skilled swordsman, a sword can cut God; in the hands of an untrained one, a sword will cut everything except the intended target, usually the wielder himself.  The sword does not particularly care, because the sword’s purpose is not to plan how to cut, just to cut.  Happily, when we talk about Divinity, we can generally assume that God and the gods are Platonically capital-G Good, and therefore know what is Good and True, and therefore, as tools in their hands, we can have faith that they will not use us when we are not meant to be used.  It’s when we try to act on our own that we need to either have trust in ourselves to do what is right when it is right, or to abandon the situation entirely and avoid what should be avoided.  It’s when we take matters into our own hands, or leave ourselves to be put into the hands of anything less than Divinity, that we risk putting ourselves in harm’s way more than is absolutely necessary, and risk coming out all the worse for it.

How much trust do you put in yourself to know what is proper for you to do?  How can you trust yourself to do what is right and proper for you when the moment is called for?

I’ve been mulling over these problems over the past few days, and…well, it hasn’t been the most pleasant of self-conversations.  I admit that I enjoy dealing in absolutes as much as the next ceremonial magician (or, for that matter, human being with a finite consciousness that likes using rubrics and models of reality qua reality), and I would like to say that I trust myself to do what is right in all circumstances, that I am trustworthy to all.  To do so, however, would be a lie, and I can feel it singeing my heart whenever I even try to complete the thought of saying it.  I, myself, have done a number of regrettable, unfortunate, downright shitty things that I would like to say that I’ve put behind me, that I’ve learned from, that I’ve become better than.  And…the truth is, I haven’t.  I still beat myself up for some of the things I’ve done and said, as much as I try to forgive myself.  I still worry about slipping up again, about making the same mistakes, about committing the same crimes in the future and hurting those whom I hold dear, or myself, or my opportunities and chances for making myself better.  I fear that I’m going to be no better than I always have been, making the same excuses for the same bullshit that I would pull over and over again even given half a chance at it, even though I know better from my own experience that I should never have done them even once.

So, no, I can’t say that I trust myself as a rule, or that I trust myself in all situations to do what’s right in all cases where it’s called for.  I don’t see myself as trustworthy, and honestly, considering why others might consider me trustworthy makes me feel like an awful liar who’s mislead anyone and everyone who’s even cast an eye towards me.  And yet, I know that I have no immediate reason or way to betray these people, nor do I want to.  With even a little introspection, I know what can mislead me into a bad course of action, and what my triggers and temptations are, and I know that within a certain set of parameters, there’s neither any reason nor way to betray them, so I can be trusted, at least a little bit.  I’ve come to appreciate the saying “I trust them as far as I can throw them” in a more nuanced light; within a certain range of expectations and situations, I can be trustworthy, and I can claim to properly and rightfully hold trust, even for myself without that heart-singe, up to a point.  It’s beyond that point that I worry, because I know that if I were to go beyond such a point where it’s not just possible but probable for me to slip up, it’d be more difficult (not impossible!) to come out the other end without erring.

I can’t say that I absolutely trust myself, but I can say that I trust myself up to a point.  For most people, with whom my interactions are limited to a particular sphere of life or action, the points at which I can’t be trusted fall so far out of that sphere that there’s no need to consider me to be anything but trustworthy.  For others, though, the story changes.  I can be trusted with qualifications, and though I’d like to say I’m trustworthy without them, I can’t honestly say that.

While I accept that—mostly, and without the burn of telling a lie to myself—I’m not satisfied with it.  Far from it; while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hate myself for not being trustworthy across all cases and situations, I’m certainly not pleased with myself for it, and I want to make myself better.  I want to be able to do my Work without the distractions of regret, fear, worry, self-loathing, and that calls for either papering over the root cause and hoping it never rears its ugly head again (hah!), or actually doing the Work to improve myself to make my overall Work better without such distraction, as much as I am able.  As a sword, I must make sure that I am in the right condition to do my Work, and only limit myself to the range of Work that I am able to do in the form and condition I’m in; more than that, I must hone, tune, and strengthen myself to be able to push my limits, within which I am comfortable enough to work without distraction, and understand the areas into which I push my boundaries and limits.  If I am trustworthy only up to a point, by my own estimation, I need to push that point further so that I can become more trustworthy, and strive to not simply strut past it without care and end up wrecking myself or, worse, those around me.

Self-knowledge, either given to one by oracle or discovered through one’s own life, can hurt in the process of obtaining it.  But they who know more about themselves know how to live differently and better than if they had no such knowledge.  I know the situations in which I risk my own well-being, happiness, and success, and I stride into them at my own peril.  Dealing in absolutes as I do, the nebulous and unpredictable “being at risk of erring and not knowing how I would act” is tantamount to the definite “I will err”, and it’s safer to simply stay out of situations that I’ve been warned away from.  Should the case arise that I find myself in such a situation, it’d behoove me to find my way back out at my earliest convenience while keeping up my guard.  Still, I don’t want to be limited to this; even if the nature of my being is always to be temped by a particular set of things, there’s nothing saying I can’t strengthen myself to resist them all the more while also building myself up to avoid them at the same time.

A tool, in order to accomplish its purpose, must be in the right condition for it to be used; it must be built, maintained, and strengthened well, and having done so, it will serve a lifetime (or more) of wonders.  But a tool is only as useful as the skill of the one who wields it.  When we take ourselves into our own hands, regardless of whether that’s proper and right for us to do so, we must be sure to know how to condition the tool of our Selves as well as the limitations of use thereof, while always striving to increase our skill and reach of using the tool.  There may be upper limits to what we can accomplish, both as tool and wielder, but so long as we always strive to reach them, we’re doing all the Work we can in service of our Will.

Work, Lineage, and Auturgy

I’m going through an interesting development in my life, pursuant to the awesome life choices I made back in October.  It’s the cause for several sets of changes, some of which are more immediately felt than others, some of which are more mental or intellectual than others.  One of those intellectual realizations I’ve made is how stark the difference is between different kinds of Work based on how one obtains access to it, and I think it bears discussing how that plays out within one’s own practice.

For most of my magical practice, I’ve largely worked on my own, sometimes with one or two other people, but it’s largely been an independent process.  I’ve made my own tools and consecrated them, I built my own temple, I learned my prayers and rituals and made up my own in the process, and I’ve built up my own body of knowledge, wisdom, and expertise.  I’m not saying I did this fully on my own; I proudly claim Fr. Rufus Opus as my instructor and mentor, but that’s all he is: an instructor, one who instructs.  He passed nothing onto me that I could not have obtained elsewhere, but he taught me where to look and offered guidance, tips, and advice of the process that he explicitly claims is a series of self-initiations into the spheres of the elements, the planets, and the Self.  No matter how much instruction or mentorship he provides, it doesn’t change the fact that all the Work to be done must be done, developed, and built by one’s own self.  It’s been a long road and highly educational, and extraordinarily worth it to build up your own Power and maintain it for your own ends.

And yet, that’s far from the only way to operate.  Just because that’s one method of Work doesn’t mean that it’s the only kind of Work out there, and the other is a matter of initiation into a lineage.  Consider that, in October, I was initiated by my godparent into a religion that spans centuries across several continents.  I was initiated by my godfather, who was initiated by his godmother, she by her godmother, she by her godfather, and so forth on many more times back to a time when we forget names.  In the duration from the first godparent we all share in common to my own initiation, prayers and songs and protocols have been developed as a type of pact with our divinities, and all the power that my godfather has was shared and passed along to me; what applies to him in the religion largely applies to me, as well, and I follow the precepts and protocols of this religion to obtain the same benefits.  They pre-existed my own initiation, and my initiation is a pact I make with our divinities that I can rely on this huge body of Work that was already done so long as I accept the terms and conditions.  I’m free to build up more power and pacts on my own, of course, but I pass down what was passed onto me, and as a result, keep the lineage going.  I don’t need to independently develop these pacts or these powers or these protocols; all I had to do was accept them.  The Work was done before my time, and now I participate in that same Work of the lineage.

It’s because of this distinction that I want to make explicit a difference between lineaged Work and what I call “αυτουργια” (“auturgy” in a modern spelling), or self-driven, self-sustained, self-begun Work that is without lineage and independent of it.  Most Western Hermetic work nowadays is auturgic in nature; we learn from books with nobody to initiate ourselves and little pre-existing power or pacts to rely on, and instead we must forge our own tools, protocols, and power to accomplish our Work.  Sure, we rely on the work done by our forebears, but they’re only passing on their instructions to us.  They do not hand us power or have their pacts take effect over ourselves, and many of the pacts they made with their spirits do not necessarily work for us the same way; we must make new pacts in the process of our auturgic Work.  This is starkly different from lineaged Work, where such power is already in place, and all you need to do is be given license to interact with it.

To make the distinction clear, take for example a particular tool you might use in ritual, say a crystal shewstone or the very area itself used in the Trithemian conjuration ritual.  The Trithemian ritual does not prescribe a consecration for either of these things to be done ahead of time, as might be done for some of the tools in the Key of Solomon; rather, they are consecrated in the ritual itself for the purposes of that specific instance of the ritual:

…O inanimate creature of God, be sanctified, consecrated, and blessed, so that no evil phantasy may appear in you, and that all spirits within you speak intelligibly, truly, and without the least ambiguity.  Amen.

…In the name of the thrice-holy Tetragrammaton Elohim Tzabaoth, I consecrate this piece of ground for my defense, so that no evil spirit may have power to break these bounds prescribed here.  Amen.

Whenever the Trithemian ritual is performed, the shewstone or the ritual area is consecrated for as long as that ritual is performed, and after which the consecration isn’t technically valid anymore.  Every time the ritual is performed, these things must be consecrated again in order for them to be useful in the ritual being performed at that instance.  Over time, with repeated application, the residual power and blessing build up, so that they eventually become powerful tools in their own right.  For example, the original wand I made for conjuration was nothing more than a pine dowel woodburned according to the instructions of the ritual (as Fr. RO taught it); it was not previously consecrated, but its use in conjuration over and over eventually made it a tool of power that gave it the same “oomph” that my ebony Wand of Art, made of ebony and gold and silver and crystal and consecrated over the course of a week, already had from the get-go.  There was a lot of prep involved in the ebony Wand that the pine wand didn’t go through, but over time, the pine wand was conditioned, programmed, and “seasoned” enough to have the same power that the ebony Wand would have had from the get-go.  However, I used that pine wand near-constantly for a full two years before I made my ebony Wand, and it took quite a bit of time for it to attain that same strength.  The ebony Wand, however, already had all that power as soon as I made it, given the use of powerful natural materials and the layers of consecration I put upon it, and it quite easily became even more powerful at a faster rate than the pine wand ever had.  This is why, in many cases, texts like the Key of Solomon have all those elaborate consecration rituals for pretty much everything the magician touches, from quills and paints to knives both utility and spiritual.  By taking the effort of consecrating each of the tools ahead of time, you don’t need to consecrate them on-the-fly each time you use them; simply pick them up and go.  But, to make sure that the consecrations are done right, you too need to be consecrated, purified, and prepared so as to make sure that all the other consecrations are effective.  The Key of Solomon is important in the Western Hermetic tradition because it implies a set of preexisting pacts and processes that one must enter into so as to make the most of the system; Solomon bound the demons, and in some sense the demons are still bound to Solomon’s word, and they will honor whatever Solomon did regardless of who performs it nowadays, and Solomon passed along the pentacles that he received so as to accomplish miraculous works for us to use so long as we make them in the same way he did.  You could make something similar and make a temporary consecration upon it, but you’d need to do the same thing over and over again every time you used it; likewise, you could make a pact with a new spirit that Solomon never contacted, but you wouldn’t be able to rely on the pacts and processes Solomon used because that spirit was never bound by them originally, so you’d need to make a new set of pacts and protocols with that spirit with new, perhaps unpredictable effects or side-effects.

Take that same idea, of on-the-fly consecrations versus pact-based protocols of consecration, and apply it to the idea of whole systems of magic, and you have the auturgia/lineage difference.  On the one hand, you’re building yourself up through new practices that do not rely on preexisting powers or pacts, and on the other hand, you’re being given a set of protocols and pacts that already work and have been worked and have had power put into them.  In the former, you have freedom to do and develop pretty much as you please for your Work, and you get out of it what you put into it.  In the latter, the system is already powerful and stable, and it relies only on your agreements to the terms and conditions in order to do your Work.  As a more modern example, consider the religion I was just initiated into versus the Mathesis practice I’m developing.  In the former, I have been initiated into a godfamily which has maintained practices, protocols, pacts, and powers that they are allowing me access to so long as I continue to work with them and learn with them, and they all received the same from their initiators and godparents, and so forth; our divinities are accustomed to hearing these songs and prayers from us, and know how to act and react accordingly; both the divinities and the initiates know what to expect from each other, so long as we rely on the protocols that have been passed down onto us; we know what works, what doesn’t, what’s approved, what’s disapproved, what’s safe, what’s dangerous.  We all support each other and lend each other our powers and assistance in order to do what we must do, and we all serve as a system of checks and balances on each other to make sure we’re all still doing everything right.  (Note that the word “tradition” literally means “that which is handed down”; if it’s not handed down to you, it’s not a tradition.)  On the other hand, in Mathesis, I’m working directly with the theoi and letters in a novel, experimental way and seeing what works and what doesn’t, what pacts can be made and what pacts should be made, and what practices to develop as useful and what to ignore as useless.  There’s nothing binding me to anything done previously, because nothing has been done previously.  There’s not a lot of power in it yet, because I haven’t yet tapped into what’s powerful, and that’s because I’m still finding out what’s powerful about it.  Mathesis is, as of now, a strictly auturgic practice that relies on no community because there are none others who are initiated into it; it relies on no sacred body of wisdom because there hasn’t been enough wisdom yet to be built up into a body; it relies on no firm protocols because everything is so nebulous and experimental.

However, there’s a way for Mathesis to change itself from being an auturgic practice into a lineaged one.  Once I build it up enough as a system of theurgic exploration and development, once I refine some of the techniques a bit more, once I establish pacts and fail-safes when I work with the spirits, it can be passed onto others.  Once others become initiated into Mathesis, it becomes a lineage, even if it’s just one godparent-godchild step that exists.  At that point, I’ll be able to pass on the powers, pacts, and protocols that have been developed for another to tap into and use, and grant them access to that same power.  Over time, that initiate will be able to initiate others.  With each person that becomes initiated, the fertility of the tradition grows, adding new ideas, powers, and developments to the mix that allow it to grow and develop and mature as a proper tradition.  Will that happen?  Depends on how far I take Mathesis myself; if I never pass it on, then it’d just be something I did by myself for myself, but if I do pass it on, it’ll be passed onto others.  It was an old Greek ideal for a father to pass on his inheritance to his children “in at least the same condition as I received it, if not better”; if an initiate can add to the tradition in a useful, helpful way that grants it more power and stability and maturity, fantastic!  But if not, so long as they can pass on the tradition in the same way they received it without augmentation, and certainly without detriment or loss, then that’s all that’s needed for a tradition or lineage to survive.

From the perspective of a new initiate into a lineage who is accustomed to auturgic Hermetic work, it’s something a relief that most of the heavy Work of pact-building, empowerment, and protocol-development has already been done for me; I just need to be taught the practices, pacts, protocols, and plans that make the tradition work after having gone through them.  In fact, I don’t learn any practice in the religion without it first being done to me; the act of undergoing a ceremony is itself a kind of initiation that grants me access to learning what and how a thing is done.  Compared to auturgic Work, so much is honestly experimental: “I don’t know what this will do to me, but I need to study how to do it in order to accomplish it, and then later I can build upon it”.  It’s one of the reasons why I suggest all newcomers to Hermetic work follow rituals as they are written as closely as possible without innovation first so as to get them accustomed to the baseline practice, and only once they have the baseline set firmly in both the execution of the ritual and the expectation of effects should they innovate, take shortcuts, or change the ritual.  If you’re going to experiment, do so wisely, and only after you know what to expect.

Is there such a thing as a lineaged Hermetic tradition?  Absolutely!  Any initiatory practice done by others, from one generation of initiates to the next, is a lineage: the Golden Dawn and Gardnerian/Alexandrian Wicca are some prime examples that come to mind.  You have a lodge or a temple or a coven that initiates new members and teaches them their practices, protocols, and pacts to new initiates, and then those initiates (if/when ready) go on to initiate their own spiritual godchildren.  Of course, this is more the exception rather than the norm in the Western world; most people choose an auturgic practice, whether because they can’t stand “coven politics”, because they don’t have access to a spiritual family, or because they’re unfit for initiation themselves.  This doesn’t mean they can’t do the Work they need to, but it might be a path that has its own challenges.  Don’t get me wrong, lineaged Work has its own difficulties and problems: politics, policing of character and behavior, agreement to sometimes distasteful practices, and so forth, but it’s a price one must pay.  No such restrictions are there for the auturge, but they have the problems of having nothing to build upon and everything to build.  I suppose it’s a situation where there’s one product and multiple methods of payment available for it.

Are auturgic systems of practice any less worthwhile than lineaged ones?  No, and far from it!  My devotion, love, and respect for the Greek theoi remains unchanged, if not greater than before, but compared to the divinities I was just initiated to, there’s such a stark difference of presence: the divinities I was initiated to are already so powerful when I received them into my life, while I must continuously forge and reforge and strengthen my connection to the theoi in order to achieve the same level of presence.  Both sets of entities can hear me and work with me, but there’s so much less up-front work to do with the initiated divinities that I have to do with the non-initiated theoi because I was not initiated into a tradition of theoi-worship; pacts were not maintained, prayers were not continuously made, and protocols were not remembered, and I must do all the work to dust off whatever I can find and fill in the gaps where necessary so as to “bring the system online” again, as it were.  To continue to use a computer metaphor, it’s much easier for an online gamer to pick a game that already exists and simply get an account and log in, abiding by the terms and conditions and UI-issues and non-intuitive in-game quirks that exist, rather than plan a game idea, code the game, build a server to host the game, and get people to play the game with them.  Same result, different routes and costs to get there.

There’s a difference between simply teaching someone a spiritual/magical system and initiating them into it.  Fr. RO teaches me a kind of magic, but leaves the actual work to me; he did not initiate me into Hermeticism, and this is no fault against him; it never could have been, as it was never his goal to initiate people into a system that he himself was never initiated into, nor needed initiation.  My godfather is teaching me another kind of practice, but he had to initiate me into it so that all the same things that work for him can also work for me, giving me the license and right to work with it that otherwise I would had to pick and guess at.  I see many teachers of Western systems, but few initiators.  There are some Hermetic magicians out there who are, indeed, initiating students into a particular set of practices and pacts, passing on their own license and power onto their students, but this is the uncommon exception to the usual practice.  We don’t often think of Hermetic magic as a kind of initiation-/lineage-based practice, but in many cases, it probably should be.  I know for a fact that some of the powers and blessings we receive from the spheres, such as the Hymns of Silence, can be passed onto others who are ready, but I’ve rarely heard of a magician doing this for their students.

Given the general quietude of the occult blogosphere, and how so much has petered out or calmed down over the past few years (my own blog included!), I wonder if this is a sort of predicament-shift that is facing many people who got into magic around the Great Blogosphere Renaissance, and how many others are wondering this same thing I am now.