Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Thelema is an all-encompassing paradigm, and therefore it deals with all aspects of life. A universal experience of all people – and all living things – is death. What then is the view of death and the afterlife in Thelema?
We may examine this question first by understanding what Thelemites do not believe. Thelema does not have a conception of death like that of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). There is no notion of a heaven or hell that is beyond this world. There is no notion of Judgment for our moral actions or beliefs. This much is clear to anyone who has performed even a cursory review of the Thelemic literary corpus.
Thelema also does not have a conception of death like that of the Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism). There is no notion of a desire to escape Samsara, the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. There is also no notion of reincarnating in order to perfect the soul or achieve enlightenment throughout several lifetimes. This topic has been treated in a previous essay entitled “New Aeon Initiation” and Crowley has written, “The idea of incarnations ‘perfecting’ a thing originally perfect by definition is imbecile.” Thelemites see life and the world of duality as providing the opportunity for the “chance of union” (Liber AL I:29), to experience the joy of “love under will.”
Several questions still remain: Does Thelema hold the belief that we have only one life (like Abrahamic religions) or that we have many lives (like Dharmic religions)? Is there anything that survives death? If there are many lives, is there something that travels from life to life or are they all distinct in some way?
The first difficulty in figuring out Thelema’s approach to death is that the term “death” is used in at least two ways: firstly, it refers to the physical death of the body and, secondly, it refers to the spiritual experience of the death of the sense of self which is called “Crossing the Abyss” in this system. We may see the distinction in many places, and Crowley himself often differentiates the two ideas such as when he writes, “The death of the individual is his awakening to the impersonal immortality of Hadit. This applies less to physical death than to the Crossing of the Abyss.”
The “soul” in Thelema is understood to be something that is eternal and without quality – it is something beyond space and beyond time and identical with God or Godhead Itself. In the above quotation, Crowley explains that the death of the individual – what is often called the ego-self – causes an identity with Hadit which is “impersonal” – that is, not having anything to do with what we might ascribe to the personality or any personal qualities whatsoever – and “immortal” – that is, it does not ever die. What Crowley is describing is “the Crossing of the Abyss” which is an experience that one has while physically alive. Initiation or the process of “spiritual progress” essentially involves coming to conscious awareness and identity with this Self or Soul. When describing this Soul in a Three-in-One fashion, composed of Jechidah, Chiah, and Neshamah, Crowley writes, “It is the work of Initiation to journey inwards to them” (emphasis in the original).
This is a very basic understanding of the “death” that is involved in the Crossing of the Abyss. But what of the death of the physical body? Again, it is difficult to determine which references to death and dying are speaking about physical or spiritual death. There are many mentions of death in the Holy Books of Thelema, but there is one clear mention of the death of the body in The Book of the Law: “Think not, o king, upon that lie: That Thou Must Die: verily thou shalt not die, but live. Now let it be understood: If the body of the King dissolve, he shall remain in pure ecstasy for ever” (Liber AL II:21). The line itself, specifically “If the body of the King dissolve, he shall remain in pure ecstasy for ever”, is not particularly clear. Does this mean that when the body dies, we enter into an eternal ecstasy rather than incarnating ever again? Does it mean that we enter into the ecstasy that is beyond time (so to speak) and then enter back into space and time with every new incarnation? Is it simply a metaphor for the Crossing of the Abyss that happens to use the image of the body? Crowley comments on this line,
“One’s ‘immortal soul’ is a different kind of thing altogether from one’s mortal vesture. This Soul is a particular Star, with its own peculiar qualities, of course; but these qualities are all ‘eternal,’ and part of the nature of the Soul. This Soul being a monistic consciousness, it is unable to appreciate itself and its qualities, as explained in a previous entry; so it realizes itself by the device of duality, with the limitations of time, space and causality.”
Here we see the clear understanding that the immortal soul is not the same as the “mortal vesture,” which presumably refers to the mind (including the personality) and body of the individual. Also, Crowley contrasts the “eternal” Soul or Star with duality, which includes “time, space, and causality.” This re-affirms the notion that the Soul is beyond these things.
In his “Djeridensis Comment” (or “The Comment Called D”), Crowley writes on this line:
“The root of all such error is the belief of Kings that they are mortal. This is confuse their essence with that basis of a certain class of events which refers to the kind of life which includes death. Aiwass insists that if the body dissolve its King remains in timeless rapture. For his events have ceased; and he stands in a single state of joy as made one with Nuit. Should he wish further knowledge of himself, he must choose some other means by which to measure it, by which to set in motion a fresh series of events.”
Here we have a little more information. The idea that the Soul is eternal and the true essence and identity of everyone is re-affirmed, and it is once again contrasted with impermanent things (“a certain class of events which refers to the kind of life which includes death”) such as the “mortal vesture” mentioned previously. More importantly, we have a clarification to the line “If the body of the King dissolve, he shall remain in pure ecstasy for ever.” After death, “events have ceased” and the Soul is in ecstasy or joy. If the Soul desires “further knowledge of himself” (which we know to mean experience in the world of duality), there needs to be “some other means” to “set in motion a fresh series of events” – that is, a new incarnation.
We now have the basic conception of death in Thelema. The true essence and identity of every person, the Soul or Star, is perfect and beyond space, time, and causality. It is essentially a “monistic consciousess” (the Zero/0 of the Thelemic ontology) so it has to incarnate into a specific mind and body in order to have experience (the Two/2 of the Thelemic ontology). When the person’s body dies, the Soul remains in formless, timeless ecstasy or joy when not incarnated.
This is a consistent and satisfactory answer to the question of death, yet some questions remain unanswered. Specifically, is there any thread temporally tying together the lives of a Soul? That is, is there any notion of reincarnation or metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul)? After all, didn’t Crowley himself claim to have “past lives”? It is indeed logically possible that we may not believe in the notion of escaping Samsara or perfecting our souls yet still believe in some form of connection between lives.
If we look, the official website of U.S. Grand Lodge O.T.O. explicitly states a belief in metempsychosis. That being said, on this website it is said that the “Body of Light” is subject to metempsychosis and not necessarily the Soul of which we have been speaking. Let’s look at what Crowley himself said about the idea of metempsychosis.
In a chapter in Liber Aleph entitled “De Morte” (“On Death”), Crowley begins with this sentence, “Thou hast made Question of me concerning Death, and this is my Opinion, of which I say not: this is the Truth.” This disclaimer is not given for any other chapter, nor is it typical of his writing on Thelema to write in such a skeptical or reticent fashion. Interestingly, he begins his short treatise “Liber ThIShARB” (a document that details the practice of going backwards in one’s memory including back to past lives) in a similar way. He starts the document with these words, “May be. It has not been possible to construct this book on a basis of pure Scepticism. This matters less, as the practice leads to Scepticism, and it may be through it.” In “Liber ThIShARB,” Crowley is extremely explicit about the validity of these “memories,” saying repeatedly that they must be viewed skeptically and be checked with facts to ascertain if they are valid. He writes, “But let him not trust his memory to assert its conclusions as fact, and act thereupon, without most adequate confirmation.” It should be clear that Crowley treated this subject of the afterlife with great caution and critical thinking.
Coming back to the chapter “De Morte” from Liber Aleph, keeping Crowley’s disclaimer in mind, we can continue to examine the rest of what he says. Crowley then explains the idea of the Soul incarnating into a mind and body. He writes that the soul “inhabiteth a Tabernacle of Illusion, a Body and Mind. And this Tabernacle is Subject to the Law of Change, for it is complex, and diffuse reacting to every Stimulus or Impression.” This affirms the previously mentioned idea that the mind and body are impermanent vehicles of the immortal Soul. He continues:
“If then the mind be attached constantly to the Body, Death hath no Power to decompose it wholly, but a decaying Shell of the dead Man, his Mind holding together for a little his Body of Light, haunteth the Earth, seeking a new Tabernacle (in its Error that feareth Change) in some other Body. These Shells are broken away utterly from the Star that did enlighten them, and they are Vampires, obsessing them that adventure themselves into the Astral World without Magical Protection, or invoke them, as do the Spiritists. For by Death is Man released only from the Gross Body, at the first, and is complete otherwise upon the Astral Plane, as he was in his Life. But this Wholeness suffereth Stress, and its Girders are loosened, the weaker first and after that the stronger.”
Here is one possibility that Crowley expounds: if your mind is attached to the body, the mind will hold together and “haunt the Earth” but it has “broken away utterly from the Star.” The idea being that the mind can, in some way, persist beyond death but it is no longer connected to the Star or Soul. These “Shells” can account for some of what is seen in the “astral world,” what Spiritists communicate with, and potentially for other phenomena such as ghosts. Crowley then continues in the next chapter, contrasting this notion with what happens to Adepts after death (I apologize for the long quotation but it is all pertinent):
“Consider now in this Light what shall come to the Adept, to him that hath aspired constantly and firmly to his Star, attuning the Mind unto the Musick of its Will. In him, if his Mind be knit perfectly together is itself, and conjoined with the Star, is so strong a Confection that it breaketh away easily not only from the Gross Body, but the fine. It is this Fine Body which bindeth it to the Astral, as did the Gross to the Material World so then it accomplisheth willingly the Sacrament of a second Death and leaveth the Body of Light. But the Mind, cleaveth closely, by Right of its Harmony, and Might of its Love, to its Star, resisteth the Ministers of Disruption, for a Season, according to its Strength. Now, if this Star be of those that are bound by the Great Oath, incarnating without Remission because of Delight in the Cosmic Sacrament, it seeketh a new Vehicle in the appointed Way, and indwelleth the Fœtus of a Child, and quickeneth it. And if at this Time the mind of its Former Tabernacle yet cling to it, then is there Continuity of Character, and it may be Memory, between the two Vehicles. This is, briefly and without Elaboration, is the Way of Asar in Amennti, according to mine Opinion, of which I say not: This is the Truth.”
The basic idea is that Adepts spend their lives attuning their minds to the Will and so the mind can “cleave closely… to its Star” and incarnate into a new body. This allows for “Continuity of Character, and it may be Memory, between the two Vehicles,” which is the basic understanding of reincarnation and the basis for the belief in past lives. It is interesting, though, that Crowley appears to believe the continuity between lives is only possible for Adepts who have trained their minds thoroughly. Also of note is that Crowley, in ending this chapter on death, says once again “according to mine Opinion, of which I say not: This is the Truth.”
We can see that Crowley did indeed entertain a notion of metempsychosis, but one that is limited in a way to Adepts. We can also see that Crowley was especially careful to be skeptical and encourage skepticism around this issue. No other chapter in Liber Aleph contains such a disclaimer, let alone one both at the beginning and end of the discussion. The Holy Books themselves are not explicitly clear about this issue. Though there is an identification between Aleister Crowley and Ankh-af-na-khonsu in Liber AL (such as I:14 and I:36), it is not explicit whether this is a literal or symbolic statement (the latter of which Liber AL is clearly full of).
In conclusion, Thelema is a system where we believe each individual has a Soul or Star which is perfect, impersonal, and also beyond space, time, causality, and any form of duality. The Soul incarnates into the world of duality through a mind and body. When the physical body dies, and when not incarnated in general, the Soul remains in a timeless, formless ecstasy. All of this can be agreed upon, being that it is consistently affirmed and re-affirmed throughout Thelemic Holy Books as well as in Crowley’s commentaries to these texts. Beyond this, Crowley maintained that it is possible for the mind to “cleave” to a Star if one is an Adept, and this can lead to a “continuity of character” as well as the memory of past lives. That being said, Crowley had an atypical skepticism and cautiousness around this issue. This idea of some kind of continuity of character through lives remains to be explored by each Thelemite, confirmed or rejected based on experience, checking the facts, and utility.
I want to end this essay by very briefly touching upon the last of the criteria just mentioned: utility. I encourage Thelemites – and magicians in general – to consider the usefulness of believing in past lives. Supposing for a moment that it is true that you have past lives, each life presents an entirely unique situation: you are born in a different place, with a different family, a different physiology (including genetic predispositions), possibly a different language, a different culture, a different experience being raised, a different peer group, exposure to different ideas at different times, etc. It is my personal opinion that, for example, the fact you are interested in trains as a child doesn’t mean you should be a train conductor or engineer as an adult. If one’s own childhood may not necessarily supply the necessary information to discover and accomplish your Will, how much less pertinent would information about a previous life? Further, we may so easily fall victim to that demon that appears to plague occultists of all stripes: the demon of Glamor. It is plain that there is a large possibility of an “ego trip” were one to think that you were Buddha, Caesar, or any figure of importance. There is a glamor in the claim to past lives, especially the glamor in possessing some kind of strange or powerful access to memories across lifetimes. Crowley himself warned about this in Magick Without Tears when he wrote, “You ask if we, meaning, I suppose, the English, are now reincarnating the Egyptians. When I was a boy it was the Romans, while the French undertook the same thankless office for the Greeks. I say ‘deadly poison’ because when you analyse you see at once that this is a device for flattering yourself. You have a great reverence for the people who produced Luxor and the Pyramids; and it makes you feel nice and comfortable inside if you think that you were running around in those days as Rameses II or a high priest in Thebes or something equally congenial.” I am not discouraging the belief in or the practice of obtaining memories of past lives, but I encourage any readers of this essay to think very critically about the utility of memories of past lives. I hope that you seriously consider the possibility and consequences of falling prey to the glamor of the idea and remember that Crowley himself was very skeptical, repeating “this is my Opinion, of which I say not: this is the Truth.”
Love is the law, love under will.