Episode 121: The Great Work of Western Magick
Alan Chapman is a Western magick practitioner, and the author of the newly released book, Advanced Magick for Beginners.
Alan found his way into the field of Chaos magick through the work of Aleister Crowley and since has worked with a powerful technique called
"the Holy Guardian Angel," which very much like the guru yoga techniques
of the Vajrayana schools, allows one to surrender to an external guide
on the path to enlightenment.
Alan shares with us the details of the Western occult tradition, including its core purpose of enlightenment, which he calls "the great work" of magick. He also connects some of the spiritual practices of magick with the Buddhist maps and models. Finally, he shares with us some of the details of a project he has recently launched called Open Enlightenment, whose purpose is to promote a transparent and open discussion surrounding the nature of enlightenment throughout the world's mystical traditions.
Ryan: Hello Buddhists Geeks listeners, this is Ryan Oelke. We have a guest in the studio today, which is awesome. And, I already like him because he has a book with a grenade on the front of it. And we are going to talk about that, so. Vince is here too.
Vince: Not only that. But he also has a psychedelic Buddha shirt on where there’s a Buddha head in the middle and then circling it in layers of concentric Buddha heads is like this psychedelic Buddha head explosion.
Ryan: I love it.
Vince: And ah, explosion relates to grenade, which relates to our guest’s book. And we’ve got in the studio today Alan Chapman. He’s the author of the recently published Advanced Magick For Beginners.
Alan: Thank you very much for having me.
Vince: Yeah. Thanks for be here man.
Ryan: Dude, listen to that accent. I mean, we are trying only actually have guests on that are from like the U.K. or Croatia preferably.
Vince: Yeah. I mean last week we had Susan Blackmore on, and we’re keeping it real with the U.K. Alan’s on a six-month trip around the world? A year-long trip?
Alan: Eight months. Eight months.
Vince: Eight months.
Alan: Eight month honeymoon.
Vince: With your recent...
Alan: Yeah. My new wife. New bride. Yeah.
Vince: So you guys are traveling through the states and decided to drop in Boulder and talk to the BGeeks.
Alan: That’s correct, yes.
Ryan: I feel special.
Alan: It’s the only reason. It’s the only reason I’ve come traveling is to get on this show.
Vince: To get here.
Ryan: You went to India, everywhere else, you’re just like, eventually it’s going to lead to Boulder.
Alan: To something good.
Ryan: Right now.
Ryan: This moment. I love it.
Vince: Cool. Well, it’s great to have you here man, and we’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while. As soon as I saw this book I realized we need to talk to you. Soon as I heard about what you are doing in the… I guess we could call it the Western Occult tradition?
Alan: Yeah. That’s good.
Vince: And we’ll get into that. Actually, let’s go ahead and jump into that now.
Vince: Because I think, we’ve never really talked on Buddhist Geeks about specifically another tradition. So we’re branching out in this episode. But we are going to tie it back into the Buddhist tradition because you also have practice experience and definite interest in the Buddhist tradition. And actually, I guess were kind of Dharma brothers in away since we both have a similar teacher we found very influential.
Alan: Yes. I’d agree with that. I’d just like to say thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to introduce my tradition to some of your listeners. I think they might find some of the elements within that tradition helpful. I know I have certainly found elements in the Buddhist, various Buddhist traditions helpful with my own progress, within my tradition. I think that might be true both ways.
Vince: Cool. Well let’s jump in. I’ll be honest with you Alan…
Alan: Please do. Please do. [laughter]
Vince: When I first, heard of the magic tradition. I couldn’t but help think of myself really as a younger, geekier, person, playing dungeons and dragons…
Alan: Geekier, geekier?
Vince: Geekier, yeah.
Alan: Is that possible? [laughter]
Ryan: I was wondering the same thing. [laughter]
Vince: [laughter] Ok. Well, in any case. I had the thought of somebody in robes...
Vince: ...that’s older, geeky and playing Dungeons and Dragons. This is kind of the image that comes to mind and I think I am not completely alone in that perception. And I know that’s a misperception, so let’s talk about what magic really is. And also where does it come from?
Alan: Ok. I don’t think it’s... it would be unfair to say it’s a misperception because actually I think a lot of people get involved in magic, just because of the surface culture features of it. Where you dress up in robes and wave wands and that kind of thing. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, if it gets people actually studying the tradition, in depth, in some way. But the tradition itself actually started… I mean, there are some people who might say it started in ancient Egypt. And certainly the Greeks believed that. But it definitely has it roots about three thousand years ago in Hellenistic Greece, where it started, really with one man, which was Pythagoras. You might know him as the mathematical genius but he was also the inventor of the Pentagram, if you could event such a thing. And that of course is a big cultural feature of the magical tradition, the pentagram. And he also invented… he was the first know person to use monasticism. Like his followers were encouraged to live with him. And apparently they didn’t--eating beans was forbidden. I don’t really know if that’s true.
Vince: I’ve heard that. Yeah.
Alan: But, yeah, the monks, the Pythagorean monks, weren’t allowed to eat beans. He also invented ipsosophy, which is a method of divination, by ascribing certain words numerical values. And working out the different meanings of words based on those numerical values. If that makes sense. And that’s a big part of Kabbalah today. And that fed into Jewish mysticism. He was also the very first person to describe himself as a philosopher or a lover of wisdom. Now philosophy is where it really kicks off, where enlightenment really does come to the fore, and the work of Plato, the Platonists, and later on Plotinus and Proclus, they offered an intellectual means of, not only, understanding the world but enlightenment itself. And that that understanding and going through a certain process, which Plato described as… He said it was akin to going through a birth, and described it as philosophical midwifery, that was his job. To help people understand the problems they have with the world where they don’t understand and by going through, leading them through a process they can disabuse themselves of certain false beliefs about themselves and reality that they’ve inherited, usually from the culture. And that would eventually lead to them looking at reality as it is. Something very similar to vipassana, except it’s not a discreet practice where you sit down for say and hour and just look at reality. It was more of a… by thinking about reality and understanding it the mind would naturally incline the philosopher to consider reality as it is and that would eventually lead to direct personal experiences of what we would call today enlightenment. And it’s interesting to consider that the Platonic forms, the Greek word for form is, actually means to behold or experience. So when you think about Platonic forms such as the Good itself of Beauty itself or Justice it’s actually talking about an experience of those things. So, at the moment in the west when we think of Platonism or philosophy it’s usually as some kind of dead end intellectual argument to see the world in some way. So that’s really where the enlightenment tradition began for the west, and philosophy isn’t regarded that way now in the west. And it was, I think it was, in the sixth century Christian emperor Justinian came along and closed Plato’s Academy, which had been around for a thousand years. No doubt churning out enlightened people, I’m sure of it.
And that’s when the western tradition really went underground in the West and we see a lot of the Greek metaphysics of philosophy being impart into Christian mysticism thanks to the Greek theologian Pseudo-Dionysius, who was a massive influence in Christian mysticism. In fact he’s probably responsible for most of it. His work also fed into alchemy in the Middle Ages. And, now, this is where we get to the part where you might start thinking of robes and wands, and…
Vince: Dungeons and Dragons? [laughter]
Alan: …Dungeons and Dragons and that kind of thing. And that’s mostly because it was mostly underground. Whenever it did surface the teachings were always hidden, they were always, you know there’s a big use of metaphors especially with alchemy which was, they talked about transforming base metals into gold and the base metals was basically the self, and the gold was the realized person. Then after alchemy you have Rosacrucianism, Free masonry, and then you have the occult revival of the twentieth century and then we arrive at Aleister Crowley, who was really the first saint, if you like, of the western tradition that was open and honest about it. He didn’t really go about it the best way. He was quite egotistical and that didn’t really help in terms of understanding the tradition. He very much played on the satanic aspects of magic, cause he liked to shock and disgust Christians, especially the bigoted kind of Christian. And so that’s, that’s really where I sort of come into the tradition, this, so this tradition is really, it’s three thousand years old as far as I can work out, but after Crowley’s death, his work was mostly misunderstood. The pupils he left behind weren’t of a… They didn’t really have any practical experience, they weren’t really good, and in the seventies a man called Peter Caroll came along, and he decided to get rid of all of the nonsense that had accrued around magic. I mean, especially to do with the whole dungeons and dragons aspect of it. He decided to get rid of all that and just work out what the actual, what actual techniques worked in terms of gaining a magical result. And that was the birth of chaos magic. Wow chaos magic took on board a lot of post-modern ideas, and the aim of it, the aim of the chaos magic current if you like, was to use belief as a tool to cause magical effects. But as soon as that happens the three thousand year old aim of the traditions which was enlightenment, went out the window and just became one just one more belief that you could play around with to gain magical effects there was no absolute truth. There was no intrinsic validity in any world view beyond providing personal satisfaction for the post-modern magician. And that's where the tradition really reached a dead end. It's become quite nihilistic.
How I got into magic, was basically I found out... [laughter] I was interested in Dungeons and Dragons as a child. And I came across a book of ghost stories and in there was a part about Aleister Crowley. And I found it very surprising that there was a man that, at least the authors of the book, believed to be a genuine magician. That magic actually existed. And then when I was 15, I rather embarrassingly bought a copy of his book Magic in Theory and Practice. And that's when I realized that there was some truth to it. And that's when I first realized, as well, what the aim was. So I eventually got into chaos magic because it was much easier than trying to follow Crowley's instructions. But I came to the point where I was more or less concerned with developing what you would call in Buddhism, I suppose, the siddhis, or the psychic powers.
Alan: And for me, magic was all about power. It was about imposing my will on the world, causing things to occur. And someone suggested to me that maybe I should try this old practice, which Crowley, it was the mainstay of his magical organization known as the A.A. And that was working with what’s called the Holy Guardian Angel. Now this practice goes back at least to the 15th century. There's a book called The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, where he worked with the Holy Guardian Angel. But we also know that in ancient Greece there was what they called the Daemon or the Genius or the Augoeides, which is more or less the same entity for all intents and purposes. I can't really speculate whether they worked with it in the same way. Yeah, so someone suggested that I work with the Holy Guardian Angle. And I started doing that work and before long I started getting results that I wasn't expecting. And I suddenly realized that my ego wasn't the be-all and end-all of the universe, that there was...
Vince: Whoa, hold on! [laughter]
Alan: [laughter] Yeah. Shattering, shattering. Shattering realization. Yeah, and I started going through a process that Crowley predicted, that you'd go through these recognizable stages and I eventually came across Daniel Ingram's work, where he outlines a very clear Four Path Theravada model. Which I'm sure your listeners are aware of. And that to me was a great help in terms of working out where I was at in my own tradition. And as I progressed through the various different stages, the parallels were apparent. And my tradition seemed to be describing exactly the same thing, what the Theravada tradition describes.
Vince: Nice, and that process, which we call the process of enlightenment or illumination, is in your book you talk about that being the great work of magic.
Alan: The term the great work really comes from alchemy, where they called it "the great work". It was what they were aiming towards. And it seems to take a long time to do it. And most people thought that the alchemists were failures and they never did produce gold from lead. But that was if you took them in a literal sense.
Vince: In a literal sense.
Alan: Which, yeah… I don't know where someone would have got that idea from. If you ever read an alchemical text, they are highly metaphorical, almost indecipherable. But the term "the great work" has carried on through the tradition. I mean, up to this point we've got elements of, and I certainly work with different elements from, not only from philosophy, but from alchemy, Rosacrucianism, and free masonry. Especially Crowley's stuff. And the wonderful contributions of post-modernism and chaos magick, which were important for the tradition in terms of understanding that there isn't just one way. There isn't just one route to the great work. There isn't just one way of causing magical effects. But we're now at a point where the misunderstanding of post-modernism, which I call extreme post-modernism, is it needs to be addressed. It needs to be... The aim of our tradition needs to be reinstated and I think it needs to be presented in a more appropriate means for the West. Because I think most people aren't even aware that there is a tradition of enlightenment peculiar to the West, that has various different features or practices or techniques that you don't find anywhere else. And I think they're of value and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.
Vince: And that really is part of what you write about in Advanced Magick for Beginners.
Alan: Yeah, well I'm hoping that the book is a... I want it to be bridge from chaos magick to the more serious side of enlightenment. And in the book, I don't really talk so much about maps and models. There's a basic one in there. I mean that stuff's going to follow. I think we'll talk about it later on with Open Enlightenment. But really I hope it's... I wanted to write a very short, hopefully funny, introduction to magick, so that people can immediately get to grips with it and start doing some of the exercises and experiencing magical results. And really getting to grips with what it means to be a magician beyond the Dungeons and Dragons, cheesy, clichéd image.
Ryan: So yeah. I really appreciate this background because I think you're right. There's so much confusion in the West around what magick is and people do think like Harry Potter, and stuff like that. And not thinking it's a legitimate path to realization. So what I'd like to hear is give me something really tangible. Like what does it feel like? You know what I mean? So I'm going to open your book and pull one of the practices out. What's that tangibly look like, in terms of a practice?
Alan: Well, I mean the core practice of magick is working with the Holy Guardian Angel. And that's essentially... I mean, before I started practicing it, the only material they had available was... it was basically a case of performing a ritual where you would command the angel to appear. And you would do this over and over and over again until it did appear. And then that was really the end of the work, and you'd succeeded. But through my own experience, and seeing the experience of others that have performed the same practice, it's really a practice of surrender. I mean, the first thing you realize when you make a breakthrough with the Holy Guardian Angel and you begin to experience what's called "the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel,” which I'll describe in more practical terms in a moment, you come to realize that there's something much bigger than you. And you are now taking part in a process that is essentially... I mean, you might not even like being taken in that direction. And in our tradition we do have a term for magicians that don't want to give up their ego. That don't want to acknowledge the fact that their ego isn't the be-all and end-all of the universe. We call them black brothers. They're not actually black people…
Ryan: I was confused for a minute.
Alan: Yeah, it's a bit of a Victorian term. It's this distinction between white brothers and black brothers. Like…
Vince: Good and evil, kind of?
Alan: Yeah well, this is where you get... you see, this is a bit cheesy. This is where we get into like the white magick and the black magick.
Vince: Let's get cheesy, buddy.
Ryan: Put that cheese down.
Alan: [laughter] Generally, when people think about white magick and black magick it’s people performing magic or spells, if you like, for some kind of end that you can either describe as evil or good. Like, if you do a blessing for someone, that's white magick. If you do a curse, that's black magick. The distinction means if you are doing anything other than getting enlightened. If you are doing anything other than attempting to transcend what you're already experiencing. If you're not trying to get at the truth, or to experience God, or working with the Holy Guardian Angel, then you've strayed off the path. The you’re indulging something that is essentially just a distraction from what you should be doing. And I think that's very similar to the Buddhist conception of working with the psychic powers, like you can get lost. Also with concentration states. You can get lost in all kinds of jhanas and become a jhana junkie. Or start messing around with psychic powers. And that's really just a distraction from what you should really be doing with your practice. So the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, that's really when you begin to experience synchronicities, which is when events occur that have a similar meaning. Say you do a ritual to make some money. You will then have an experience outside of the ritual space where you will obtain some money, and it's basically that they have the same meaning. If you do magick you will not experience... like a genie won't pop up with a bag of cash and give it to you. It's never outside of the realms of what you might call the objective world. It doesn't break the laws of reality or anything like that. It's basically about the meaning of an experience. And you can create experiences that have a particular meaning that you desire. So it is possible to get rich using magick. It's not a cop out to say that you don't get genies to pop up with bags of cash.
Vince: Is that how you're on your eight month trip?
Vince: I was going to wait till after the show and ask what your secret was!
Ryan: I think we end the show right now and get some genies going. [all laugh]
Alan: So it's what I was saying about the knowledge and conversation of the holy guardian angel. That's when you begin to experience synchronicities where it's a direct communication from your angel. And what you discover is that teachings, or specific techniques, or certain experiences that you need to go through, will occur at just at exactly the right time you need them to occur. It's almost like the Holy Guardian Angel is a guru. And you never have to...it's never really a case of having to sit down and try and work out what you should do next. You actually have something that's bigger than yourself. It's almost like a attactor that’s in the future. It's almost like an accelerated process of becoming enlightened. At least that's the way it seemed to me and to a friend of mine, Duncan Bafford. We've got a website together called the Baptist’s Head.
Yeah, so it's a very different process from just doing straight out meditation in that you have...It's a process of surrender, bu it's also a process of being guided towards the great work. And in the book, I talk about various different techniques. Like composing rituals, doing divination and that kind of thing. And they're all useful. I mean, it's useful to practice those techniques and get a result in themselves, like say obtaining some money. Only in the sense that you then understand ritual and can use it for the purpose that it needs to be used for. See what I mean?
Vince: The great work.
Alan: Yeah. Working with Holy Guardian Angel, yeah. And then in my own experience, I had a dream where my Holy Guardian Angel was in there. And he told me to use a tarot deck as a method of communication. Then I obtained one and learned the tarot. If I have questions I can then communicate with my angel through the tarot. And I've found that to be of great use.
It's also worth bearing in mind that...I know I'm coming from a different, a bit of a left field...a different direction from what most listeners… Most listeners will probably just do meditative practice and then work out where they're going with the maps and models and stuff. But even if you do that, the most driest meditation technique, you will come across very strange phenomenon. Whether it's entities popping up. Whether it’s visions, dreams. I mean, I've never had a single bona fide spiritual experience that didn't also bring other stuff with it. Those kind of things, I don't think they're exclusive to the magical tradition. I think they happen all the time, to everyone. And they're things that aren't really dealt with. And I think just ignoring them isn't the most helpful way of dealing with those things.
Vince: Yeah. I mean, when you say that, I just think of the vast Buddhist cosmology and all the worlds and beings and especially in the Tibetan tradition.
Alan: Oh, definitely in the Tibetan tradition.
Vince: They just...to the nth degree. So, I mean, what you're saying absolutely makes sense. That those are a real dimension, a real aspect of spiritual experience.
Alan: Yeah, certainly, definitely. Yeah.
Vince: Cool. Well, switching gears a little bit and talking about where you're bringing all of this in your personal life. You were telling me earlier about this newly launched site OpenEnlightenment.org. And I want to ask you what is open enlightenment? And why is it important?
Alan: I think there are a lot of problems with enlightenment, per se. How we understand enlightenment. I mean, we're at a point in history now where we are privileged to be able to have access to various different traditions that deal with enlightenment in very different ways. And I think it's time that we reviewed all of that material and come up with a more... and attempt to at least understand enlightenment in the most useful and accessible fashion. The truth is enlightenment, as far as I'm concerned, is the root of all spirituality. It's the root of all the major traditions around the world. Lao Tzu, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohamed -- all those people were basically humans who became enlightened and then tried to point other people in the same direction. The most recent one of those was like...was it 2000 years ago? I don’t think their teachings are really as appropriate for someone living in the 21st century. I think a lot of that stuff can be updated. I think we can understand it in a much more useful and helpful context than what we have in the past. And Open Enlightenment I hope will provide that context.
There are various problems with enlightenment that I won't go into now but I will deal with on the site and discuss. For instance, like the problems with... are there the multiple awakenings or is there just one awakening described by all traditions, which is they're talking about the same thing? That kind of thing. And I think we need to have an open and honest debate about enlightenment. Talk about our own experience of it so that we can understand it. And I think that's very important, because I realized at the point of my enlightenment that it's what I'd been looking for my entire life. I described it at the time as, “before enlightenment I was distinct and separate. But after enlightenment I was distinct and whole.” And that wholeness, that completion... I mean sometimes, it's described as the end of insight practice. But for me, I don't necessarily see it as an end, but I see it as finding an absolute identity, if you like. Or discovering the absolute truth about who I am and my relationship to the world. And I realized that I'd spent my entire life looking for that completion or that wholeness in my family relationships, in love, in music, in art, in my career, in drinking beer, in doing drugs. All kinds of things. That's what I'd been looking for: that wholeness, that completion. And then up until that point that I was enlightened I'd never done any of those things for their own sake. And after enlightenment it's as if, you know, for the first time you can really live your life and enjoy life for what it actually is. The thing that it is. So I think that's important because I think that's what everyone is looking for. Is that wholeness, that completion. And that’s why I think it’s important that we talk about this stuff.