Thoughts on defining religion and its application to Buddhism and Thelema

by Tau Aleph

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

The problem with defining religion is to include what should be included and to exclude what should not be included. If we define religion so broadly as to include atheism, I contend that the word can no longer be distinguished from ‘belief’. It seems to me that the study of religion(s) originally developed as part of the study of societies. In that context, it makes no sense to define religion so as to include a personal, idiosyncratic belief system which is not shared by at least a noticeable portion of the society in which it arose.

This suggests that the phrase “organized religion” is redundant. In order for a belief system to be a religion in addition to simply being a belief system, some level of organization or institutionalization is implied. People must meet to practice together, and I personally believe that at least some belief in deity and/or some act of worship must be involved.

To take Buddhism as an example, a sect of Buddhism which simply believes in meditation upon emptiness, a concept with a lot of philosophical definition, is simply a form of yoga. I hope that we can agree that yoga itself is not a religion, as its practice does not require any particular religious belief.

So where is the dividing line between yoga and religion? I suggest that it occurs when people who do not understand the technical meaning and practice of the yoga engage in paying reverence to the symbols of that yoga. Some spiritual traditions may encourage this as being a way to get people to do a number of things, including exposing them to the tradition, finding patrons or donors to support the work of those who are actually doing the practice, to inculcate moral values which bring social stability to prevent the overthrow of the ashram or monastery, etc.

In Buddhism, clearly there are sects such as Theravada which revere the Buddha as a divine being, someone with exceptional powers, etc. These sects are clearly religious. However, the teaching of the Buddha himself was that everyone has the same potential for enlightenment, that it is not a supernatural condition but one that is inherent to everyone and which can be attained by understanding the teaching and applying it.

Thelema is very similar. Nuit is clearly equivalent to the Buddhist concept of emptiness, and Liber AL is clearly an instruction for attaining samadhi by focusing kundalini (Hadit) solely upon Nuit (emptiness). In this sense, it is simply a yoga, regardless of its religious trappings.

Now, even the Buddhists know that some people must first develop a respectful attitude toward the “three jewels” and so there are more religiously oriented practices of symbolizing them by objects on an altar, prostrating, taking refuge, worship, etc. When one starts to include what is inessential to the yoga, such as Liber Resh, the Gnostic Mass, etc., then one has moved into religious practice. It is not necessary to understand to underlying yoga of Liber AL to engage in a religious approach to it, nor does it necessarily lead to an understanding of the yoga for all people. Some will get trapped in the “Thelema is a religion” mindset and find that this satisfies the hole left by abandoning whatever religion they were brought up in. Some will be able to use ritual to approach and discover the underlying meaning.

But, if one takes a system such as Buddhism or Thelema which has both yogic and religious manifestations, and does not acknowledge that it is broader than religion, then one has indeed done the mischief that Crowley warned against in chapter 31 of Magick without Tears. After all, there are three grades. Is the viewpoint or understanding of Thelema the same for both the Hermit and the Man of Earth? If we let one grade define Thelema as a religion are we not guilty of the sin of restriction? Can one expect those whose viewpoint is different to continue to associate with those that insist that Thelema cannot be practiced without Canon, Mass, and other religious trappings. If an organization does define Thelema as solely a religion, which grade(s) of Thelemites end up being excluded?

The problem as I see it is that defining Thelema as a religion is not simply an intellectual exercise. It is one with social implications that the religious, particularly those of a fundamentalist bent, seem to be quite willing to ignore. And is not ignorance, along with superstition, tyranny, and oppression, one of the things which many Thelemites claim to be doing battle against?

My suggestion is to allow for a broader and more inclusive definition of Thelema, to listen to those who don’t consider it a religion, and to accept that there are at least three “grades”, personality types, predispositions or whatnot who are all valid Thelemites but who may not always agree on what Thelema is.

Love is the law, love under will.

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