Nikolas Schreck on Religion, Magic, and the Left Hand Path. Excerpts from a 2007 correspondence with Comparative Religion student F.D. Jalisco’s series of interviews with ”alternative religion” teachers.
After a long time in the Hindu vamamarg tantra you converted to the Buddhist tantra. Can you say why you decided to make this change?
Nikolas Schreck: Taking refuge in Buddhism wasn’t a conscious decision. It was the result of spontaneous insights that came to me during a particularly intensive meditation session. Namely, what this flash of realization consisted of was that three of the basic Buddhist precepts I’d previously not accepted were undeniably true.
I don’t know how technical you want your paper to be, so I’ll try to put this in relatively simple terms. As you know, the Hindu-based Vama Marga’s yogic practices purify the personal atman, or eternal indestructible soul, refining it and dissolving the clouds of maya until the atman attains the state of one’s chosen deity, or ishtara-deva.
During this particular meditation, however, it dawned on me that yoking one’s mind to simply reincarnate as a deity rather than as a human being was still a relatively low step in the process of liberation. This accords with the Buddhist teaching that most of the gods are still enmeshed in the chain of samsara, and that their positive karma will eventually run out, which will return them to the lower states of being, such as human, animal, ghost, and hell-being. Through that realization, I understood that the aim of union with deity central to the Hindu-based Vama Marga was only one stage, but was not the end of the journey by any means.
The second understanding - and this came without words or conceptual thinking - was that the atman itself was an illusion of maya. In other words, what reincarnates is not a personal permanent soul. It’s merely another temporary and ever-changing set of mental conditions created by one’s actions in this and previous lives. And more importantly, that without letting go of that most subtle spiritual distillation of the ego, one could not possibly be liberated.
The third understanding, and this one broke most dramatically with my own deeply-seated belief system of many decades, was that all that appears to exist is not only maya, as it’s understood in the Hindu-based Vama Marga, but is in fact empty of all qualities when perceived without one’s subjective lens obscuring reality as it is. Previously, I worked on the thesis that behind the play of maya there was a permanently ”real” state of things hidden under the illusion. That idea popped like a balloon during the meditation as well.
Now, I had learned from many Buddhist meditation teachers in the past, most in the Zen tradition. But I had always accepted their meditation techniques without accepting the Buddhist truths stipulating the nature of the god realm as part of the wheel of suffering, rather than transcendent of it, the non-existence of a permanent soul, and emptiness.
In 1983, when my teacher gave me the abisheka into the Vama Marga, I made the typical youthful error of seeking only power, or Shakti, in the feminine force of the left-hand path. And Shakti certainly does provide power. It took many decades of meditative taming of the ego before I accepted that the Hindu left-hand path’s understanding of the leftwards feminine force as power is extremely limited if it’s not balanced by Buddhist left-hand path devotion to the feminine as wisdom, or prajna.
What was also lacking in my previous practice was one of the main things separating Hindu Tantra from Buddhist Tantra – specifically, that the final goal of initiation is not to be reborn in the bliss of the god realm but is to take up the bodhisatttva way of freeing all sentient beings from the causes of suffering.
A few days after this meditation, I experienced a vision too complicated to describe here. But it confirmed this change of spiritual direction. That convinced me to take refuge in the Three Jewels from a monk. I told him I thought it was ironic that it was through decades of meditative worship of the Hindu goddess Kali that I broke through to Buddhism. In a matter-of-fact way he said that in his native Sri Lanka some believe that Kali has been liberated by accepting the precepts of Buddhism, so he didn’t think it was strange at all. And when I took the Tantric vows shortly thereafter, I discovered that Kali is in fact revered in the pantheon of the vajrayana yidams.
Can you explain the difference in these kinds of left-hand yoga?
Really, the pujas, meditative practice, the mudras, mantras, asanas, chakras and the belief in karma, rebirth, maya, siddhis, non-dualism, the absolute necessity of a guru, and the centrality of the feminine are almost identical in Buddhist and Hindu Tantra, so there isn’t anything radically different about the practice itself. Rather, it’s the specific Buddhist intention driving the practice that makes the crucial difference.
Also, it’s relevant that in both left-hand and right-hand path Hinduism, Buddha Shakyamuni is revered as an avatar of the god Vishnu, who is said to have originated left hand path Tantric practice in this world in the nirmanayakaya of the historical Gautama Siddartha. I think Tantra, speaking on the relative historical level of being, is far more ancient than either Hinduism or Buddhism, which in themselves are only Western words for spiritual phenomena predating and transcending this current world we find ourselves in.
Is this what Zeena and you mean in your book Demons of the Flesh when you use the phrase ”sinister current” to describe what you describe as a ”universal phenomenon”?
Nikolas Schreck: Yes, even though that book expresses our outlook as of the year 2000, which was when we wrote it, I’d still maintain that one can find the basic elements of a left-hand path Tantric worship of the feminine in all religious experience. Not only in Asia but in esoteric Christianity and Sufic Islam, shamanism, siedhr in Nordic religion, the Shekhina in the Kabbala, the Middle Eastern worship of Astarte/Ishtar, and many of the ancient mystery cults.
That’s because the left-hand path is simply the way reality is. This can be demonstrated not in theory but by the empirical results of the physical practice. In this Kali Yuga of spiritual ignorance, of course, the vast majority of Westerners who erroneously label themselves as ”left hand path” are no such thing. They’re usually practicing the exact opposite of the left hand path. To avoid this semantic confusion, in certain contexts, we adopt ”the sinister current” as a less culturally-bound description of convenience for this ultimately nameless tradition. Ultimately, the words are less important than the practice.
In the Demons of the Flesh introduction it says that the book was written through a ”third mind” technique. Can you explain it?
Nikolas Schreck: The third mind is a phrase coined by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs to describe what is actually a very ancient method allowing two collaborators to enter a state of consciousness bridging and transcending both individual minds into a third transpersonal force. Our intention was not merely to explain the left-hand path male-female union in rational terms but to actually demonstrate it in the composition of the book. This is the method Zeena and I used in Radio Werewolf as well and when performing other rituals meant to manifest a particular result, which was sustained throughout our writing of Demons of the Flesh.
If the left path is ”the way of woman” why are there so few women left hand gurus and teachers?
Nikolas Schreck: The same reason there are so few female symphony conductors or generals. The deep-rooted sexism and misogyny that poisons secular society also prevails in spiritual circles. Most men are too rigid in their primitive understanding of masculinity to drop their macho posturing to open up to a female teacher to the degree necessary for initiation to occur.
Backwards sexism on the part of women also comes into play. This is revealed by the fact that it’s primarily women who devote themselves to the few female spiritual teachers active at this time, which makes men wrongly assume that a female teacher is only good for ”girl stuff.” Ironically, one reason why so few people of any gender really ”get” the left hand path is because they’re blinded by the very same socially manufactured gender stereotypes which left hand path practice dissolves.
I’m not speaking theoretically either. As a witness to Zeena’s leadership positions in the Church of Satan. The Werewolf Order, the Temple of Set and the Sethian Liberation Movement, I’ve seen first hand how the discomfort a female authority figure causes among shaky male egos challenged by female power has been the root cause of the many controversies and emotional crises which ensued.
Our society allows men more leeway to expose the Emperor’s New Clothes, and even encourages it to a certain extent as part of the monkey level male competition. But should a woman dare break from her status as meek and obedient lamb outside the approved roles of daughter, mother, wife, helpmate and groupie, this touches a sensitive psychosexual nerve in misogynistic men that makes them strike out to defend what they see as their threatened territory.
To provide an example from the secular world, you never see an article in the news commenting on what clothes a male politician wears. But articles about Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and many other women in leadership positions often comment on their apparel or their appearance. And that’s with women who are in ”respectable” authority positions. When it comes to a woman with authority in a spiritual context, the situation is ever more extreme. If you look like Mother Teresa or Madame Blavatsky, you’re allowed to be a female spiritual leader. But if you’re an attractive woman, it pushes so many buttons in the delicate masculine psyche that only the strongest and most balanced men can benefit from a female guru’s teaching under the current conditions.
It’s also worth noting that due to the inherent sexism in organized religious structures, the great female spiritual teachers, with some exceptions, such as Hildegard von Bingen, have been yoginis operating independently of the patriarchal power structure.
In 2002, your wife resigned as the High Priestess of the Temple of Set to form with sixty colleagues SLM, a new religion to the god Seth. Is this action an inevitable part of the history of schisms in alternative religion (i.e A. Crowley leaving the Golden Dawn to make the A.A, J. Krishnamurti and R. Steiner quit Theosophy, Ouspensky splits from Gurdjieff, etc.?)
Nikolas Schreck: Not only in ”alternative religion”, a phrase I find as meaningless as ”alternative music.” Most religions began as schismatic sects. After his enlightenment, didn’t Shakyamuni Buddha break with the religious orthodoxy of his time and his own place as a kshatriya in the Indian caste system? Then, the Egyptian dissident Moses taught his disciples to break with paganism to follow a new law. And the subversive ministry of the apostate Jesus which followed was based on his own schism. Just as the prophet Mohammed repudiated Arabic polytheism in Mecca to found Sunnite Islam, which in turn led to the Schiite and Ismailite schisms. More recently, I gather there was some difference of opinion between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church.
Of the comparisons you made, though, the only one which fits Zeena’s situation is your analogue of Krishhnamurti leaving Theosophy and the Order of the Eastern Star. Both Zeena and Krishnamurti were raised from a very early age to fulfill certain pre-ordained roles as leaders in corrupt fraudulent business organizations masquerading as ”religions” which in fact were only money-making publicity vehicles.
And when they acquired genuine spiritual insight which showed them the falsity of the systems they were raised in, both Krishnamurti and Zeena forcefully rejected the fraudulent enterprises they were groomed to continue and forged their own paths.
As for your other comparisons, unlike Krishnamurti’s blunt denunciation of Blavatsky’s pseudo-religious racket Theosophy and Zeena’s forceful rejection of the LaVey/Aquino strain of anthropocentric solipsism wrongly called ”Satanism”, Crowley never really broke with the hoax-based Golden Dawn system, just as Ouspensky only repudiated the person Gurdjieff, while still honoring Gurdjieff’s equally bogus ideas. However, I wouldn’t say the schisms in religious history are intrinsic to religion itself. It has more to do with the human animal’s naturally disputatious nature.
In some material from the SLM, it says Seth is ”one of the secret names of God”. Does that mean SLM’s a monotheist religion?
Nikolas Schreck: No. When we say that Seth, Abraxas, Typhon, etc. are the secret names of God we are speaking of the true nature of the specific deity which the three principal Abrahamic Middle Eastern faiths worship to this day. However, even though Seth is, in Gnostic terms, the Archon of this Aion, or the supreme ruler of this realm of being, this doesn’t mean that he is the sole deity by any means. Equally important to the Sethian cult, for instance, is the worship of Seth’s brides Astarte and Anath, and Seth’s relation to the other gods in the Egyptian pantheon, which, as Zeena has often said, form a necessary part of what she calls ”the cosmic ecology.”
Furthermore, certain aspects of the god known as Seth manifest in many other non-Egyptian cultural contexts in such forms as the Aztec Tezcatlipoca, the Nordic Loki, The Phoenician Baal, the Native American Coyote, and so forth. Another important aspect of ancient Sethian tradition is that he is the god who rules all the other gods, so that through Him, his devotees can call on any deity, as one specific spell from the Gnostic era that we use in our liturgy makes clear.
As far as monotheism goes, this is a more complicated question than it seems. In both of the two traditions fused into the syncretic Sethian Liberation Movement -namely the ancient Egyptian and the pan-Indian Tantric - the apparent polytheism was actually a kind of monotheism. To the Egyptians, the gods were known as ”The One in the Many”, just as in Tantra, all the Hindu devas and Buddhist yidams are understood to be various facets of the One. From a non-dual perspective, when all obscurations are purified there is ultimately only One.
What advice do you give to someone starting an initiation in the 21st century?
Nikolas Schreck: Each individual case requires appropriate counsel relevant to one’s current level of intelligence, life’s experience, receptivity, character, and sense of discipline. And since those attributes can only be built up over many previous lifetimes of practice, the proper circumstances allowing one to be ripe for further initiation must be in place. Still, a few general guidelines may help to avoid the most common pitfalls for the beginner.
These rules of thumb apply to any time, but initiation in a Kali Yuga is particularly difficult. The materialistic culture of ego, greed, endless infotainment, media distraction, and permanent digital overload offers the worst possible conditions for even cultivating basic sanity and presence of mind let alone spiritual development.
Our culture is noise, and wisdom and mystical experiencecomes from silence. How many people in the 21st century can throw their cell phones and their computers out the window and sit alone with themselves for hours at a time without compulsively communicating?
In this day and age, you’d have to make a conscious radical break with the dominant beliefs and socially dictated behaviors to even gain enough inner silence and clarity to begin to consider a spiritual path. The first step in liberation is to sever the outer bonds to social norms and expectations. That includes forcefully giving up all of your addictive behaviors and compulsions, which is so hard for some people to do that they pretty much remain stuck there without ever getting to actual initiatory practice. If you can’t stop smoking, drinking, overeating, shopping, gambling, playing video games, endlessly surfing the web, and all of these other time-wasting, self-destructive habits, how can you ever break the much harder to kick addiction to the ego?
Unless you renounce worldly values and the obligatory consumer lifestyle peer pressure demands, any attempt at initiation will be an exercise in self-delusion. Then you must skillfully and compassionately disengage from those people in your immediate environment whose negative and materialistic concerns are likely to discourage you from your initiation. Then you must just as skillfully replace them with those who will encourage your liberation without any vested interest of their own. Most people’s desire to be liked at all costs will prevent them from even coming close to taking this necessary step.
If you break with the hectic multi-tasking modern lifestyle and its social obligations, the harder work of unbinding the inner fetters begins. Before a prospective initiate of any path can make any meaningful progress, it has to be understood that the principal obstacle to one’s initiation is not outside your mind but is your own ego and the millions of delusions it generates. This means fully accepting without justification or rationalization that you have been wrong, and then making a firm decision to change your way of life in accordance with reality.
In other words, you must adjust your life to suit your initiation, not the other way around. You have to take complete karmic responsibility for your life and your state of mind instead of blaming anything or anyone else. And you must realize that despite the good will of many living and discarnate teachers and spiritual beings who wish you well, it’s up to you to transform yourself for the better through hard daily work.
If you take up a religious practice without the firm resolution of overcoming your ego, then you’ll simply be using spiritual trappings to bolster your own sense of importance and self-identity. The majority of those seeking spiritual development of some kind are really only looking for an exotic entertainment, escapism, or distraction that will flatter the ego. Occultism in general, and the New Age movement which came out of it, are particularly prone to this kind of self-absorbed hobby religiosity, or weekend initiation. When such spiritual consumers are faced with the prospect of making a commitment to master an arduous lifelong practice whose aim is to dispel the ego, rather than give succor to their self-obsession, that’s usually the end of their so-called initiation, and they’ll move on to a more comfortable pastime.
Having come to these conclusions, you must choose a path and a teacher. If you wander aimlessly from one tradition to the other like a fickle sight-seeing tourist without finally accepting guidance to a clearly articulated specific goal from a more experienced initiate, you’ll never get anywhere. So after serious study and testing of various initiatory environments, you must commit with firm devotion. Here we bump into another particularly harmful modern obstacle, the stubborn refusal to learn from anything higher than one’s precious self, which goes hand in hand with the postmodern wishy-washiness that can’t accept a valid authority who knows more than you do and who can teach you something that is unequivocally 100% true.
Keeping up the stamina required to realize even the basic foundation of initiation is what ultimately determines how far you can go. Perseverance is crucial.
I’ve observed again and again that if a prospective initiate has never truly loved on the material relative level of being then it’s impossible for them to develop the intensity of spiritual and ultimate love fundamental to all genuine initiatory practice. Two other character traits are essential as well. Those who’ve led a completely comfortable life without any suffering or obstacles to overcome won’t be able to develop the unqualified compassion for all beings which is the seed of liberation. And those who aren’t driven in their quest by a sense of mystery that inspires burning curiosity will never have the motivation to carry on through the ups and downs of initiation.
When I sent my questions you wrote that you don’t think comparative religion scholarship or academic study of magic really helps to understand these things. Why not?
Nikolas Schreck: Performing an autopsy on someone you love isn’t going to help you understand love. Studying oceanography textbooks won’t make you a good swimmer. Mysticism and magic can only be understood from within, not from without, no matter how sympathetic the observer. Understanding them requires doing, not studying. The non-dual state of mind spiritual practice demands is antithetical to scholarly method. The initiate purifies the error of splitting reality into subject and object. The very nature of the academic mindset hardens the dualistic fallacy, strengthening the illusion of being an independent objective self dispassionately surveying an ”outer” object of study.
Academia also encourages competition, oneupmanship, pride, reward, status-seeking, respectability and security. Of all of the many institutionally accredited scholars of religion and magic I’ve known, I can’t think of one who made initiatory progress until they abandoned the arrested development and safety of the ivory tower. That doesn’t mean that scholarly methods can’t uncover useful data which can serve initiation. Of course you must have your facts right. But I doubt that initiation can occur with one foot planted in the living grave of academia. Especially in the past thirty years, with almost all university level study of spirituality infected by politically correct postmodern hostility to religion and tradition.
A lot of alternative religion leaders I interviewed predict that from the crises of the 21st century an era of spiritual progress will appear. What do you think of this?
Nikolas Schreck: I don’t share their optimism. This rosy prognosis of humanity’s imminent spiritual betterment derives from applying naive 19th century notions of continual scientific progress to initiation. I suppose you refer to such concepts as Theosophy’s ”New Age”, Thelema’s ”Aeon of Horus” Scientology’s ”Golden Age”, or the 2010 fad. On the contrary, the traditional teachings make it clear that as this Kali Yuga, the time of the five degeneracies, continues to worsen, only a small minority of human beings will have the capacity to practice any kind of authentic spiritual tradition at all.
As we can see by merely looking around us, almost all modern industrialized societies have surrendered completely to secular positivism and materialism. Most of the established organized religions have lost their meaning and direction. The feel-good new age marketing ploys that have sprung up in their place are exactly the kind of degenerate pseudo-spirituality symptomatic of a Kali Yuga.
As Rene Guenon’s useful term has it, almost all of what passes for esoteric training in the contemporary world is actually ”counter-initiation” in that it offers the outer surface of mysticism but is hollow at its core. One example of this that comes to mind is the so-called ”Occulture” which reduces the actual practice of magic and mysticism to mere subcultural aesthetics and symbolic entertainment.
There will be a ”new age of spiritual progress” many thousands of years from now when this Kali Yuga gives way to the next Golden Age. But as has happened endlessly before, a Golden Age always devolves to a Silver Age and eventually back to another Kali Yuga, which will begin the whole absurd cycle again. As with all conditioned phenomena in the realm of samsara, the only way out of this recurring cycle of birth, decay, and inevitable death and rebirth is to break out of the karmic chain that keeps us bound to this world once and for all. In fact, clinging to the utopian hope of some universal spiritual revolution keeps the would-be initiate attached to this relative world and the illusion of historical time. True initiation transcends place and time altogether.
We could discuss the ramifications of these abstract ideas forever. But in the long run, if theory doesn’t lead to practice, such concerns distract from initiation itself. What truly matters in any situation is to get beyond discursive thought by developing the discipline to use every day wisely to patiently meditate and refine one’s practice. To quote that great spiritual master Elvis Presley’s immortal words, ”too much conversation, not enough action.”