Aleister Crowley, Western Esotericism and Zen Buddhist Koans

In Book 4 by Frater Perdurambo (Aleister Crowley) and Soror Virkama we are presented with, in the middle of a discussion of the nuances of meditation, a series of mystical hermeneutics on the topic of common nursery rhymes.

“Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater, / Had a wife and couldn’t keep her. / He put her in a peanut shell; / Then he kept her very well.

This early authentic text of the Hinayana School of Buddhism is much esteemed even to-day by the more cultured and devoted followers of that school.

The pumpkin is of course the symbol of resurrection, as is familiar to all students of the story of Jonah and the gourd.

Peter is therefore the Arahat who has put an end to his series of resurrections. That he is called Peter is a reference to the symbolizing of Arahats as stones in the great wall of the guardians of mankind. His wife is of course )by the usual symbolism) his body, which he could not keep until he put her in a peanut shell, the yellow robe of a Bhikkhu.

Buddha said that if any man became an Arahat he must either take the vows of a Bhikkhu that very day, or die, and it is this saying of Buddha’s that the unknown poet wished to commemorate.

Taffy was a Welshman, / Taffy was a thief; / Taffy came to my house / And stole a leg of beef. / I went to Taffy’s house; / Taffy was in bed. / I took a carving knife, / And cut of Taffy’s head.

Taffy is merely short for Taphtatharath, the Spirit of Mercury and the God of Welshmen or thieves. ‘My house’ is f course equivalent to ‘my magick circle.’ Note that Beth, the letter of Mercury and ‘The Magus,’ means ‘a house’,

The beef is a symbol of the Bull, Apis the Redeemer. This is therefore that which is written: ‘Oh my God, disguise thy glory! come as a thief, and let us steal away the sacraments!’

In the following verse we find that Taffy is ‘in bed,’ owing to the operation of the sacrament. The great task of the Alchemist has been accomplished; the mercury is fixed.

One can then take the Holy Dagger, and separate the Caput Mortuum from the Elixer. Some Alchemists beleive that the beef presents that dense physical substance which is imbibed by Mercury for his fixation; but here as always we should prefer the more spiritual interpretation.”

What is to be made of this? Crowley, and his pupil Soror Virakam seemed to be well aware of the potential for scorn and ridicule when choosing to admit this chapter into the work, and yet felt that its substance was important enough to risk such attacks, and indeed, in a footnote, preemptively chide their imagined detractors:

“This chapter was dictated in answer to a casual remark by Soror Virakam. Fra. P. said jokingly that everything contained the Truth, if you knew how to find it; and, being challenged, proceeded to make good. It is here inserted, not for any value that it may have, but to test the reader. If it is thought to be a joke, the reader is one useless kind of fool; if it is thought that Fra. P. believes that the makers of the rimes had any occult intention, he is another useless kind of fool. Soror Virakam chose the rimes at hazard.”

This segment of Crowley is in many ways an elucidating example of much hermenutical wrangling in occult and mystical thought in the west. Whether it’s Emanuel Swedenborg’s aggressively creative re-reading of the books of the old testament in his Arcana Cœlestia, or the countless interpretations of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, western esoteric thought has a long history of performing intense, some would say obsessive and imaginary, re-readings to access the inner meaning of texts that are deemed to have some spiritual importance.

Comparing this to some branches of eastern thought, such as the koans of Zen Buddhism, that seem to actively challenge such hermetical practices themselves as worldly in the face of the immediacy of enlightenment and the inability of common reason to perceive it.

To borrow some examples from Wikipedia:

A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, “What is Buddha?” Dongshan said, “Three pounds of flax.”

A monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him. / Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?” / The monk replied, “Yes, I have.” / “Then go wash your bowl”, said Zhaozhou. / At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

Yet in Crowley and Soror Virakam’s admonition perhaps it is possible that these two traditions, while beginning from different  direction (a kind of symbolic restlessness on the one hand and a symbolic quietude on the other), ultimately arrive, upon reflection, to quite similar ends.

After extensive training in the connections and interconnections of occult symbols and principles, a certain kind of hermeneutic intensity becomes almost second nature, almost automatic, so much so that any material can be deconstructed and reconstituted into a part of the archetypes of occult semiotics, and show how all is one, if only in our associations. However, to prevent the extremes of what could be called a kind of cosmic, semiotic paranoia, this understanding can not be achieved in the western context unless one recognizes the ephemeral and ultimately human nature of any given instantiation, such as nursery rhymes, so that the process of making associations with them becomes meditative, almost in the same manner as a Zen Buddhist Koan.

I can’t say more than this at present, as it is only a slight tugging on my own, sometimes paranoid hermenutical drive, but at this point is something to consider.

(Admittedly a somewhat disconcerting image, and the music tends to drown out the speech, but at present the only youtube clip I could find of this particular part of Alan Watts’ lectures on Zen)

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