Returning to the Lojong Slogans (with Iamblichus This Time)

I’m working my way through G. Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul (2nd ed.) While at the laundromat yesterday, I read the chapters “Ritual and the Human Hierarchy” and “Ritual as Cosmogony.” The chapters rely on De Mysteriis, with injections of De Anima and some other texts.

Essentially, human souls are divided into three groups, with different types of theurgy appropriate to each cohort: material, intermediate, and noetic. Material offerings/rituals are most appropriate for the first, immaterial/noetic for the last, and the intermediate is a mixture of the two. It’s safe to assume that almost everyone needs to start at the first point and that jumping to a level that one hasn’t prepared for is a Really Bad Idea. (See the purification stuff in my blog post clarifying theurgy for some similar statements; there, I used an analogy of weightlifting.) Immaterial gifts are things like intellectual labor, virtue, and the fruits of wisdom Material ones are things like sacrifice (Shaw, p. 170). Shaw also repeatedly compares the human souls prepared for the highest level of theurgy to bodhisattvas due to their (mostly-pure) embodiment.

Shaw says that “in the view of Iamblichus, such premature noetic worship was being encouraged in Platonic schools, and Porphyry, his chief rival, was a prime example of one who attempted to short-circuit the material gods and daimons” (p. 175-176). Hence the statement earlier that going for religious worship above one’s preparation could create imbalance, thus the “Bad Idea” comment earlier. Shortly thereafter, Shaw writes:

The ritual objects awakened corresponding sunthēmata in the soul, and for each soul its unification was proportionate to its level of existence. Thus, a noetically received union communicated a more intense awareness of the One than a union received through material objects. Yet the philia was the same, and the noetic theurgist would not have disdained material sacrifices[,] for he already comprehended them through a vital identification with their energeiai (cf. DM 8, 3-6). Again, in theurgy[,] the soul did not escape from generation but assimilated itself to the demiurgy of the world. (p. 179)

And then there’s the other bit — the purposes for embodiment Shaw describes as outlined in a table on p. 172: The materiality-driven souls are here for judgment/punishment (not to be read in a pejorative sense, but in a “school of hard knocks” and “trial by fire” one); the intermediate for developing virtue and purging out the bad via training and correction; and the noetic to essentially be a force that draws down from the Gods to be a blessing to others.

This morning while scrubbing my shower (yeah, I think a lot while cleaning), possibly driven by the repeated mention of bodhisattvas, I was thinking about how one knows which types of worship one should focus on and concluded that it’s probably not possible to know and that the bedrock is the bedrock for a reason. I then went on to think about the types of personal shortcomings I need to work on — a few things that I saw in my old journals, a few things that are newer.

While thinking about the noetic group, my mind raced over how one might even begin to help the fracturing among our communities and what true healing looks like — whether it is even possible with the way things are going and have gone. Yesterday, I saw a morning presentation on GIS mapping of the Cambodian Genocide, and I remember sitting in that auditorium looking at the photographs of the 1.7 million people murdered (~21% of Cambodia’s entire population) considering what Plato said about human governments and politicians and unjust states; I thought about Iamblichus and human striving towards the Good. My heart broke sitting there. When I was (metaphorically) on fire in the late spring/early summer, one of the things that had opened up in my mind’s eye was an image of the world baking under the searing sun (based on projections of dry/wet zone patterns that are predicted with global temperature increase), with all we know slipping away with the heat and fire. My mind connected the mental image to how Apollôn slew Python. I’ve been wondering if things have been too far gone for a while now, thus unsettled by that mental image; it hurts nearly as much as my realization at seven that the Sun would one day swallow the Earth and all of the beautiful things here. Our polytheistic communities don’t exist in a vacuum. Every sorrow in the world at large impacts our communities because we are in this world, not separate from it. It would be a labor worthy of Herakles to tackle all of this.

The swarm of thoughts ended with the first Lojong slogan — First, train in the preliminaries. It was calming. In a polytheistic-theurgic, not Buddhist, sense, preliminaries means the reading of sacred texts, familiarizing the self with the way things are done, knowing what is at stake, learning about the Gods, contemplating virtue and how to become a better person, and the performance of sacred ritual. If the groundwork of theurgy is physical offerings, what does the rest matter? Put on your own mask before assisting others.


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