Buddhism and Witchcraft, Part 1, Suffering and Desire

“The teachings of Buddha are eternal, but even then Buddha did not proclaim them to be infallible. The religion of Buddha has the capacity to change according to times, a quality which no other religion can claim to have…Now what is the basis of Buddhism? If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason. There is an element of flexibility inherent in it, which is not found in any other religion.”
~Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

Gautama Buddha.
Image from History Simplified.

Two days ago is the date celebrated in much of Asia as the birthday of the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, believed to be the latest of many, many Buddhas, called the Thousand Buddhas, but specifically the 28th of the Buddhas whose names are “known”.  (Some areas celebrate his death and enlightenment on that day as well, and some areas celebrate it on other dates.  For more information, see here.)  By tradition, he was born 2555 years ago.  Buddhism is one of the largest religions in the world today.  (Fifth or sixth, depending on how you do the counting.  See this page for details.)

The general story of his life is that he was born a prince.  His father wanted him to be a great king and isolated him from suffering and aging.  One day, he saw something, probably an old man, and realized that the sheltered life of privilege and wealth he had lived wasn’t all there was. After seeing some other things, he snuck out and went to find an end to suffering.

He lived as an ascetic, trying to completely deny the body, thinking that was the way.  He withered away to almost nothing.  At the lowest, he was bathing and collapsed in the river and almost drowned.  He reconsidered and decided deprivation wasn’t the answer either.

Recalling a memory of watching his father as a child, he decided to try contemplation.  This was the Middle Way, not privilege and wealth, and not asceticism and deprivation, but a way between them.  He went and sat below a tree by a river in contemplation.  After 49 days, he obtained Enlightenment.

He debated whether he should teach others the way to Enlightenment or not.  He finally decided to teach and spent the rest of his life teaching.

Thomas the Rhymer by Kinuko Craft.
Image from Lionheart Designs.

When I read about the Middle Way, I think of the 17th century poem, Thomas the Rhymer.  When Thomas is riding with the Queen of Elfland they stop in a desert place and she says to him:

‘Light down, light down now, true Thomas,
  And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide ye there a little space,
  And I will show you ferlies three.  40

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
  So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
  Though after it but few inquires.

‘And see ye not yon braid, braid road,  45
  That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
  Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

‘And see ye not yon bonny road
  That winds about the fernie brae?  50
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
  Where thou and I this night maun gae.

I always imagined it being the Path of Righteous on my left hand, the Path of Wickedness on my left, and the Road to Elfland being between the two in front of me, the Middle Way.  Many neopagans, Wiccans, and witches have made a lot of this set of verses, but I won’t talk more on it right now, since this is a bunny trail, not the subject I want to write on.

What I do want to discuss is the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, believed to have been taught by the Buddha.  In simple terms, they are:

  1. Suffering does exist
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

No one who has lived long in this world would doubt the first Truth.  Yes, there is suffering in this world.  Even look at Christianity.  There are people who think a Christian doesn’t suffer, that God would protect them from suffering, that after becoming a Christian, all is prosperity and happiness.  But Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33 NIV)  He gives hope of an end to suffering, but promises that there will be suffering in this world.

Detail of Tryptich by Johfra
Bosschart.  Image from
The Witch of Forest Grove blog.

It’s on the second and third point that I diverge.  In my “religion”, desire is the purest of emotions and the thing that brings us to “Enlightenment”, that brings us to the Divine.  I’ve written about Desire a fair amount in the past, so I won’t reiterate it all here, but I’ll say a few things.  The world comes into being through the Desire of the Divine.  In Feri, this is the Star Goddess, God Herself, seeing Herself in the dark mirror of space and, feeling Desire for Herself, makes love to Herself.  From Her esctasy, from that first Divine Orgasm, the world is made (one way to view the myth anyway).  In Kabbalah as I know it, this is G-d having Desire for something else, and this Desire is the Tzimtzum, the Contraction, G-d withdrawing and creating a space that isn’t Him so that the world could exist.  It is Night in Robert Cochrane’s Basic Structure of the Craft, Desiring union and hence creating the masculine.  This Desire is reflected in the Neshamah, the Godself.  She is said to be female because she has a hollow space in her that wants to be filled, like the womb in a woman.  The hollow place is her Desire for the Divine.  This Desire is what makes her not content with the way things are, it’s what moves us to do something, to find something, to change.  It’s what drives us not to be static and stale.  Desire is the drive that moves us toward the Divine, that causes us to walk the Path.

While the second and third Truths are true, it’s the judgement of them I disagree with.  Yes, suffering is a result of desire, but does that make desire bad?  I don’t think so.  Because desire is also the cause of joy.  And in both suffering and joy, Truth, Wisdom, Divinity, can be found.  It isn’t by eliminating desire, but by embracing it.  Not the small, fleeting desires, but True Desire, the Desire for the Divine.  The small desires are the things Cochrane addresses in his witch ‘Law’, “Do not do what you desire, do what is necessary.”  And these desires do lead to suffering and do lead away from the Divine.  Maybe these are what Buddha saw.  But to do away with all desire won’t lead you to Enlightenment, but to a world that is just grey with no colour, no joy, no Beauty.  For Beauty is the Divine, and Beauty is what I long for above all and what I seek in all things.

Dharma Wheel.
When it has eight spokes,
they represent the Eightfold Path.
Image from the Middle Way blog.

Though I disagree with the need to do away with all desire, or even all suffering, coming back to the fourth Truth, I do agree, not with it being the path to do away with desire, but with the Eightfold Path leading in the right direction.  The Path is thus:

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

I think these things mesh with witchcraft quite nicely.  But only if you define what is right by what comes from yourself, the gods, and the spirits, not social norms.  But even Buddhism has teachings that address this.  One text (I read about it today, but don’t remember where now) talks about doing everything possible to thwart social norms.

Death by baldrakul
on Photobucket.

One last point.  Buddhism treats aging and death as part of suffering, part of what needs to be overcome.  Witchcraft, however, sees death very differently, as I’ve talked in a couple posts lately.  The last line of Cochrane’s witch ‘Law’ would be very foreign to traditional Buddhism, at least if I understand Buddhism correctly:  “When all else is lost, and not until then, prepare to die with dignity.”

Image from À Sombra do Freixo
(In the Shadow of Ash) blog
.
Desire
By Muninn’s Kiss

I desire you, oh Great Goddess,
Mother of all there is.
I desire you, oh Quakoralina,
Black Virgin of Outer Space.

My heart cries out, my soul cries out,
My longing is all for you.
Toward you is all I am,
You who walks amongst the stars.

I desire to desire,
I long to long,
I lust to lust,
All for you, oh Sugmad.

All I am is burnt away,
All I am is blown away,
All I am is washed away,
All I am crumbs away.

And Desire is all that’s left.

FFF,
~Muninn’s Kiss