In this post I’m going to be talking a little about aliens. Tibetan ones, specifically. Also, sex magic. Bear with me now. A lot of this may be quite unfamiliar, esoteric territory for Savage Minds readers, but it’s territory that I think is anthropologically interesting. In addition to being an under-appreciated slice of Orientalist history, the Tibetan alien is an exquisitely weird gateway into a number of issues relating to epistemology, ontology, and ‘truth’. The convoluted history of the Tibetan alien opens up a space for thinking about the construction of ‘tradition’ and its relationship to religious practice and experience. It also beams a light on the politics of other-ness, both as they relate to issues of cultural appropriation and personal spiritual transformation.
To begin, let’s travel first to Dharamsala, North India, 1992.
There, Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack (1929-2004) had a conversation with the Dalai Lama about aliens. Mack was no rube when it came to extra-terrestrials. Having already spent decades conducting research with hundreds of extra-terrestrial ‘experiencers’ in North America, he had built a career on trying to make sense of the alien abduction experience. The Dalai Lama, apparently, knew a thing or two about aliens as well. He explained to Mack and a small group that aliens too were sentient beings in the universe. He also corroborated Mack’s theory that these entities were making contact because they were disturbed by humans’ destruction of the environment. A few years later in 1999, Dr Mack met with the Dalai Lama again in Dharamsala, India, as part of a symposium on world peace. During this visit, Mack recorded an interview where he shared some thoughts about the Dalai Lama and aliens. According to Mack, for high-level Tibetan lamas like the Dalai Lama who “live at the level of…mystical formlessness,” dramatic alien contact and abduction was unlikely. Realized beings like the Dalai Lama were already used to being contacted by “a vast array of entities and beings that are very real for them in the cosmos” and so they took for granted a contra-materialist, contra-Western worldview where “things can cross from the unseen world into the material world.” It thus simply didn’t make sense for them to have the kind of shattering, consciousness-expanding abduction experiences that were typical of Mack’s more run-of-the-mill North American research subjects. In other words, the Dalai Lama’s level of consciousness was so advanced, so other or ‘alien’ to mainstream thinking, that it made encountering an avant-garde alien consciousness pretty redundant. Simply put, the Dalai Lama was already on the aliens’ wave-length.
By contrast, Mack’s research with apparently sane, sincere, non-opportunistic and otherwise disconnected alien ‘experiencers’ had come to have “a shattering impact on [his] views of the nature of the cosmos”. In struggling to steer a middle path between equally dissatisfying ‘psychosocial/cultural’ and ‘literalist, there-really-must-be-flesh-
To understand this, we need to back-track from 1999 to 1918. Sometime in that year, English occultist and sex magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) had an encounter with a spirit in New York. Crowley was no stranger to communication with disincarnate entities. As a dedicated ritual magician, he had by 1918 already spent the better part of his life experimenting with various esoteric methods for contacting non-human entities (as a case in point, in 1904, he had been contacted by Ancient Egyptian deities in Cairo who named him the prophet of a New Age, and transmitted to him the foundational scripture for his new religious movement, Thelema). Something of a gatecrasher, the being who contacted Crowley unbidden in 1918 in the midst of the magician’s other ritual activities sported a large, swollen head devoid of ears and slit-like eyes. The being called itself ‘LAM’, a name which Crowley correctly identified as the Tibetan word for ‘way’ or ‘path’. Claiming that Lam was the soul of a dead Tibetan Buddhist teacher or lama, Crowley included a drawing he had made of the entity in an exhibition of his artwork called ‘Dead Souls’, which he organized in Greenwich New York in 1919. He also included a copy of Lam’s portrait in his esoteric periodical the Equinox in the same year. There it appeared as the front-piece to his critical commentary on ‘The Voice of Silence,’ a book of supposedly ancient – and Buddhist – wisdom which had been channelled by the infamous Russian/Ukranian clairvoyant Madame Blavatsky twenty years prior. (Blavatsky (1831-1891), the so-called ‘grandmother of the New Age’ was co-founder of the esoteric organization known as the Theosophical Society (formally est. 1875 in New York), who as I mentioned in my last post claimed to be in contact with highly evolved spiritual Masters from the East who lived in Tibet and were the ultimate dispensors of the teachings of the ‘Universal Wisdom-religion’ which the Theosophical Society claimed to embody.)
Lam only resurfaced in Crowley’s records again in 1945, when Crowley invited his student and personal secretary at the time Kenneth Grant (1924-2011) to select any piece of artwork he liked from the old mage’s portfolio as a gift. Grant chose the portrait of Lam – or as he later recounted it, Lam chose him. Following Crowley’s death, as one of Crowley’s chief heirs and executors, Grant played a major role in preserving, disseminating, and reinterpreting the occultist’s teachings. As part of his reformulations of Thelema and Crowley’s take on sex magic, Grant became convinced that Lam and many of the beings Crowley had trafficked with were in fact extra-terrestrials. For Grant, Crowley’s encounter with Lam represented the first and perhaps most momentous example of the phenomenon of ‘grey alien’ contact, which by the start of the 1960s was increasingly becoming a part of popular culture. Although Crowley really didn’t seem to make much of Lam while alive and had little interest in aliens per se, Lam the (Tibetan) extra-terrestrial became a key figure in Grant’s new esoteric cosmology. Circulating his theories about Crowley’s legacy and Lam through various publications, Grant encouraged other ritual magicians to conduct their own experiments to contact the being. These activities, along with Grant’s statements about Lam and the ritual procedures he suggested for contacting it, became the barebones of a new religious phenomenon. ‘The Cult of Lam’ was born.
The association between Tibet, secret esoteric knowledge and extra-terrestrials has reoccurred in film, literature, and new religious movements for virtually one and a half centuries. Indeed, ‘Tibet’ and ‘extraterrestrial’ may represent two of the greatest signifiers of otherness in Western religious history. Before the advent of physical space travel, Tibet was the quintessential spiritual ‘outer space’ of the Western imagination, an ultimate orientalist frontier that transcended ordinary time and place. The story of the first grey (Tibetan) alien is thus a story of this conflation of two kinds of otherness, of a long legacy of exotic (mis)representations of Tibet by outsiders. Yet it is also a story about the blurring of the boundaries between Western and Indo-Tibetan esoteric traditions. Researchers have sometimes traced the origins of the iconic grey alien to testimony from Barney and Betty Hill, an American couple from rural New Hampshire whose account of being jointly abducted by aliens in 1961 received significant media attention. Grant and the Cult of Lam, however, suggest a different genealogy.
Grant’s creative re-interpretations of Crowley and Western esotericism are legendary in occult circles (fellow ritual magician and graphic novelist Alan Moore has described Grant as “a sasquatch at a vicarage tea-party…too big to dismiss, too weird to feel entirely comfortable about.”) While Crowley had little to no direct knowledge about Hindu and Buddhist tantra or the fictional mythologies of American weird fiction ‘cosmic horror’ writer H.P. Lovecraft, Grant strongly linked both of these to his teacher’s legacy. Through his work, Grant fleshed out three inter-connected claims : 1) the apparently fictional corpus of self-avowed atheist-materialist Lovecraft was the product of psychic contact with actual extraterrestrial forces 2) these forces were parallel if not identical to those with which Crowley had engaged as part of his own magical activities; and 3) these activities and Crowley’s ‘Cult’ Thelema represented the latest and most relevant expression of primordial teachings whose ultimate source was extra-terrestrial, and which had been preserved in Hindu and Buddhist tantra and a handful of other esoteric traditions around the world. Crowley’s ‘Latest Tantra’ was merely a new and refined iteration of “the pre-Christian Gnosis, the Cult of Shaitan”, the much maligned Double-Horned and Hidden God who long ago in Egypt had been known as Set. This Gnosis was embodied in what Grant called the ‘Draconian’ or ‘Typhonian’ Tradition. Named for the Greek god Typhon, this Tradition was associated with similar primal, non-anthropomorphic, and demonized deities from various mythologies. Grant’s ideas and somewhat macabre aesthetic came to have a major influence on the so-called ‘Left Hand Path’, a loosely connected grouping of contemporary magickal and occult traditions that emphasize active engagment with the ‘dark’, transgressive and demonic as a path to wholeness, self-transformation and empowerment.
It’s safe to say that most Tibetans and scholars of Tibetan Buddhism wouldn’t accept Grant’s claims about the extra-terrestrial origins of Indo-Tibetan esotericism, nor credit his intensely weird and ghoulish re-interpretations of tantric practice. And still, exotifications of various non-Western ‘Significant Others’ have been central to the construction of modern esoteric traditions and the mythic histories that legitimate them. By now, a lot has been written on the place of Tibet in the Western imagination. Much of this scholarship has been concerned with exposing the dangers of enduring romantic misrepresentations and mystifications of Tibet, what have been short-handed variously as the ‘myth of Shangri-La’ or ‘Virtual’, ‘Dreamworld’ Tibet. In existing scholarship, Western occultists who have promulgated key fantasies about Tibet have often appeared as either supremely naive dupes or as supremely manipulative con-men. Yet on closer inspection, Crowley and Grant’s orientations to tradition and truth complicate this picture. While a lot of attention has gone to Grant’s recasting of Lam-as-extra-terrestrial in occult circles, less focus has gone to the document in which Lam first appeared in print. Crowley’s critical commentary on Blavatsky and her teachings is thus revealing in a number of ways. It represents one early example of a ‘modern’ magician directly responding to inconsistencies and historical fabrications in occult tradition.
Before receiving his new scripture the ‘Book of the Law’ in Cairo, Crowley spent time studying Hindu and Buddhist meditation in India, Ceylon and Burma. Before his revelation, he considered himself a Buddhist and his critique of Theosophy and Blavatsky was predicated in part on his knowledge of Western scholarship on Buddhism and his direct experience practicing Buddhist meditation under the guidance of Charles Henry Allan Bennet (1872-1923) his former ritual magic mentor, (a.k.a. Bhikku Ananda Metteyya, Bennett was the second Englishman to ever be ordained as a monk in the Theravada tradition). In Crowley’s commentary, his superior knowledge of academic scholarship, but also his direct experience and attainments in yoga and meditation make him especially qualified to present the Buddha’s teachings. At the same time, his status as ‘Logos of the Aeon’, as the newest World Teacher, allow him to place the Buddha’s teachings in a larger framework of historical ages and perennial gnosis in which Thelema stands as the most recent and most ultimate revelation. Crowley was well aware that Blavatsky had little concern or capacity for scholarly accuracy. Blavatsky’s claims to have visited and studied in Tibet were shaky at best. In his autobiography, Crowley called Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled an “unscholarly hotchpotch of fact and fable”. Still, in his commentary he approves of Blavatsky’s ‘forgery’ by defending her accomplishment as a naive but gifted esotericist. Crowley critiques Blavatsky for fudging Buddhist terminology and philosophy yet he also rails against merely academic commentators. He uses a set of opaque metaphors to suggest that while Blavatsky’s ‘esoteric Buddhism’ was a ruse, it was a nonetheless strategic one. He proposes that ‘Oriental lore’ was something that Blavatsky had put on, like African hunters putting on ‘dead ostrich skins’ to draw close and unawares to their prey, or was something she had constructed, like a Trojan horse, to gain access to some strongly guarded location.
We know that Crowley regarded Blavatsky not merely as a fraud but as someone with real spiritual realization, so such analogies are about more than just debunking a skilled con-woman. Crowley here implies that historical cultural traditions are a means to an end, a strategic springboard for capturing and articulating a higher more transcendent Gnosis or Truth. While Crowley considers it important to point out Blavatsky’s terrible scholarship and inaccuracies, it remains that careful scholarship alone is not enough. The best translator of esoteric wisdom, ‘Oriental’ or otherwise, must understand his subject, and to have understanding one must be a practicing and accomplished mystic oneself. We know Crowley was concerned about Theosophical rivals and interested in bringing Theosophists into the Thelemic fold. The simplest interpretation of Crowley’s advertising of his contact with Lam may thus be his more general competitiveness towards Theosophy. By making Lam the patron of his book, Crowley may well have been saying, “Look! I too have been contacted by Tibetan masters! I too know the Way”. But Lam’s significance goes beyond mere branding in a competitive spiritual marketplace. Appearing in The Equinox and as the guiding genius of Crowley’s commentary on Blavatsky’s pseudo-Buddhism, Lam comes coincidentally to stand for Crowley’s complex positions on the relationship between spiritual truth, esoteric tradition, expert knowledge, and personal experience. Under Lam’s hooded gaze, we see the articulation of a new, contemporary philosophy of magic, one supposedly grounded in scientific empiricism and agnosticism, which, while revolving around a set of specific procedures grounded in tradition, posits an end-goal – illumination – that transcends historical and cultural particulars. This orientation towards magic appears too, for example in the opening of one of Crowley’s books on basic magical training:
Transcendent gnosis and the widening of the mind’s horizons are thus ultimately more important than the particular methods, the trappings of tradition or ‘tricks’ one uses to ‘hunt’ and achieve these. This idea would come to fruition in Grant’s work, which in turn would come to have a great influence on later ‘pragmatic’ magical developments like ‘Chaos Magic’ with its war-cry of ‘nothing is true, everything is permissible’.
In my last post, I mentioned Rothstein’s work on the ‘ufological turn’ in post-Blavatsky Theosophical movements, where, as historical Tibet became progressively de-mystified and accessible, Tibetan Spiritual Masters were recast as benign Space Brothers. Rothstein sees this shift as being about narrowing the Masters ontologically, as making them (ironically) more down-to-earth, more rational and corporeal. Grant’s extra-terrestrialism does the opposite. Extra-terrestrialism serves as a master key for Grant to dive head long into a maddening soup of material and traditions, where the lines between outer and inner reality, literal and figurative, fact and fabrication are permanently blurrry. Engaging with what he called the non-rational, suppressed ‘nightside’ of consciousness, a parallel world of hidden possibility he dubbed ‘Universe B’, Grant revels in liminality. His magical adventures in consciousness take place in the spaces between waking and sleep, between subjective and objective reality, in a space he calls the ‘mauve zone’. To make his unexpected connections Grant relies as much on hidden qabalistic word/number correspondences and ritually-induced visions as on academic (and not-so-academic) scholarship, which he cites alongside lines from works of narrative fiction as if they were equivalent sources. In this way, for example, he ‘proves’ that the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism is of a piece with H.P. Lovecraft’s pantheon of vast amoral alien gods, and that Lam as Leader of the Greys, is the Master of a new Aeon, a gateway to trans-plutonian forces who brought tantric Buddhist teachings to Bhutan/Tibet from outer space millenia ago.
At times Grant seems to insist on the positive existence of extra-terrestrial forces, at times they seem a grand metaphor for the transpersonal, for inner and outer ‘cosmic’ or transcendent truths. As with Mack, such distinctions quickly get hazy, even irrelevant. Grant’s cryptic language, his shared emphasis on Indo-Tibetan non-dual philosophies, is a strategic form of para-rational ‘creative imagining’, “a new manner of communication” (what scholar Henrik Bogdan has called an alternative epistemology) that is designed to make the mind receptive to “an influx of certain concepts that can, if received undistortedly, fertilize the unknown dimensions of…consciousness.” For all his weirdness and multiple (often conflicting) claims, Grant, like Crowley before him, prioritized individual experimentation, with each magician being expected to find their own way in inner and outer realms, reaping their own insights through ritual, reflection and experimentation with non-human entities. Contemporary post-Crowleyan magicians’ agnostic stance, their relativisim in the face of religious ‘tradition’ and their utilitarian approach to belief can thus give rise to a highly idiosyncratic spiritual omnivorism. Peter Levenda, writing about Grant’s contributions to occultism, excuses Grant’s distortions of various religious traditions by describing approvingly how Grant and magicians like him cannibalize non-Western traditions, dissecting them and detaching them from their native socio-political contexts to extract from them powerful active ingredients or ‘technologies’ for spiritual transformation. This approach gives rise to what occultist Phil Hine has described as an attitude of ‘natives have traditions, (we less naive) magicians have techniques’.
Religious syncretism goes back to contemporary Western esotericism’s origins in the religiously hybrid landscape of Greco-Roman Egypt . The idea of a perennial philosophy that transcended and united different cultural and religious traditions is likewise old, pre-dating Blavatsky’s promotion of a universal Wisdom-Religion. These ideas remain vital in contemporary magical practice today. The politics of universalism, however, and appeals to transcendent, ‘esoteric’ truths can mean that when challenged on their representation of non-Western traditions, Western esotericists can do as Blavatsky did and dismiss those indigenous positions as ‘merely exoteric’. One of Blavatsky’s key strategies for accounting for primary or secondary native sources that contradicted her representations of Indian and Tibetan history and culture was to claim that such perspectives were at best partial, at worst wholly misled. The average Western scholar, and even the ordinary Hindu or Buddhist priest could not be expected to have access to the deeper, true mysteries to which she and a handful of others were privy, caught up as they were in either academic materialism or quotidian ritual priorities. By contrasting her superior ‘esoteric’ perspective with the supposedly exoteric misapprehensions of the masses and orthodox texts, Blavatsky could thus position her personal, Orientalist take on ‘true Buddhism’ or Hinduism as paramount, something Crowley himself calls Blavatsky out on in his 1919 commentaries. The individual syncretic magician thus becomes an unassailable authority, and the perspective of the Western re-interpreter remains secure and privileged.
My stance as an anthropologist of contemporary Tibet and as someone with a personal background in Western esotericism made me curious to understand both how contemporary magicians today were understanding Lam’s ‘Tibetan-ness’ and were engaging with non-Western traditions like Tibetan Buddhism. What is clear is that access to reliable information about Tibetan culture and history has not caused Western esotericists to abandon commitments to either historical Tibet or their own ‘fabricated’ Western esoteric traditions. Preliminary interactions with magicians engaging with the Typhonian Tradition and related esoteric currents have revealed that many practitioners are in fact engaging with Tibetan tantric Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhist teachers directly as students (and with indigenous experts from other cultural contexts as well) in complex ways. Scholars have characterized Left Hand Path, neo-tantric traditions like Grant’s that incorporate ‘transgressive’ sexuality as arising from the heady intersection of late modern, neo-liberal individualism and consumption, New Age orientalist fantasy and the ongoing globalization of Indo-Tibetan tantric traditions. Such practices represent a complex melding of Asian tantric traditions with distinctly western esoteric practices, most particularly with ‘sex magic’ (what Hugh Urban has defined as as “not just any loose association of sex and spirituality, and not simply the optimization of sensual pleasure during intercourse, but rather the explicit use of orgasm (whether heterosexual, homosexual, or autoerotic) as a means to create magical effects in the external world”.
Western practices and histories of sex magic have often been conflated with Asian tantric ones and vice versa, resulting in a situation where, as Urban puts it, neo-tantric and Asian tantric traditions have been “hopelessly muddled”. Acknowledging the reality of hybridity is one thing, but so far very little ethnographically-focused research has been done to understand how contemporary neo-tantric practitioners are parsing this ‘hopeless muddle’ in practice. That magicians are practicing ‘orthodox’ Tibetan Buddhism under Tibetan teachers, while simultaneously engaging with deeply syncretic post-Theosophic practices, should make it clear how much more complicated the politics of either syncretism or ‘conversion’ is in contemporary Western esoteric practice.
The Tibetan alien is one way of approaching this complex terrain. On one level, it points to a special, even fetishized role for certain non-Western cultures as mediators of truth – Tibetan Buddhism and its representatives, a la Mack, as having some privileged understanding of higher awareness that can explain modern mysteries. On another level, the alien is a sign that gestures ‘Beyond’ toward an ineffable, transcendent Gnosis that resolves the tensions between truth and fiction, subjective and objective reality. While by no means all contemporary ritual magicians credit Grant-style extra-terrestrialism, the alien serves for some practitioners as a mechanism for managing both religious and epistemological heterogeneity.
More anthropological research is needed to understand how individual practitioners manage their commitments to different ‘Masters’, to different religious traditions and lineages, each with their own distinct vocabularies and notions of right practice. How do contemporary Western esoteric practices that promote the forging of idiosyncratic and hybrid ‘personal’ systems sit alongside Tibetan Buddhism as transmitted by living Tibetan teachers, with its concern for scriptural precedent and its wariness of outright innovation? Can one be an orthodox tantric practitioner and a ‘neo’ one at the same times? How does one compartmentalize (or not) one’s multiple spiritual ‘lives’ and lineages, and when, where and how can Gnosis or Illumination be said to defy all boundaries?
These questions are preliminary, mere scratches on the surface of the complex cross-fertilizations, contestations and collaborations that have taken place and continue to do so between native and neo-practitioners. Like another alien enthusiast, though, I want to believe that future research will deepen our understanding of these dynamics.