64. Ethics and the Powers
Once we have dealt with our initial reactions to the powers and have gotten more into them, we run into the perennial question related to their ethical use. It is an endless topic of TV shows, movies, legends, novels, and the like. Much advice is available ranging from, “Stay the heck away from them,” to “Cultivate them consciously so as to use them for good.” These are very old themes, and we see them in texts over 2,000 years old exactly the way we see them today.
Spiritual traditions across the board have a clear love/hate relationship with the powers, and if you begin to experiment with them you will come to understand why. The stories of the Buddha demonstrate clearly that he and those around him found them extremely fascinating, occasionally useful, and often profound. In fact, there are many canonical stories of the Buddha using his powers starting just after his enlightenment and continuing right up to the end. The Buddha singled out praiseworthy individuals in the suttas, and he gave the most praise to arahants who could attain the formless realms and powers. On the flip side, the Buddha also clearly stated that the powers are dangerous, a distraction, and abhorrent. Just as with any powerful energy, such as sexual energy, the powers tend to reveal our true colors, as it were.
The various Buddhist schools also have widely varying attitudes toward the powers. Zen basically says they are all illusion and should be ignored, this being the sum of their public advice on the subject. As a Tibetan nun pointed out to me, in the Mahayana and Vajrayana systems that developed in India and were brought to and maintained throughout Tibet, the powers were intended to be of benefit to others within the context of strict ethical disciplines that included the vowed morality of the fundamental vehicle: Hinayana, which literally translates as “small vehicle”; the universal vehicle, or Mahayana (literally “the great vehicle”); and/or the Vajrayana (“the diamond vehicle”). Unfortunately, powers in the hands of those with questionable ethics, insufficient training and mastery, and wrong intention—regardless of the vehicle they follow—will clearly degenerate into something they were not originally intended for. You can read about abuses in many places and across the centuries. The Theravadins fall somewhere between the “totally ignore the siddhis” attitude of Zen and the “cultivate the siddhis intentionally but with extremely careful observance of vows and strong morality as part of practice” of the Tibetans. There are, however, differences in emphases between the sub-schools of all the major branches of Buddhism.
Some powers are relatively ethically benign: experiencing sensations such as simple colors and sounds, unrelated to formed images of beings, pose few ethical dilemmas most of the time. Things you do to yourself, such as energetic manipulation to relieve back tension or resolve a headache—generally not a problem. Using the powers at an archetypal level to gain insight into yourself and your past and the like—usually okay and maybe quite helpful. All these might be termed “private powers” in that they are basically about you and your own “internal” experience. Most of the time the “private powers” are just fine. Where it gets more delicate is when we start to get into anything that has to do with anyone else.
At this point I realize I am going to lose some of you, and that’s okay, but I ask you to keep reading with an open mind and store this next part away somewhere in case you should ever need it. You never know that what might seem crazy today just might make sense tomorrow. Powers that we use to manipulate others, the world around us, or to gain knowledge that we otherwise would not have access to is where the ethics often start to get dicey. These are powers that explicitly involve other people in a much more direct way. There are plenty of abilities that it seems we can learn on this front.
I would generally urge caution about formally and consciously tapping into the sort of power that involves manipulating anything beyond your own body or mind. It is vital to remember that you will reap what you sow; that is, effects resemble causes when considering the formal use of such power. Kind intention is essential, but even this is often not enough to keep us from screwing up when we give in to the temptation to formally manipulate the world in unusual ways. Power corrupts, as the adage goes.
I personally am very much influenced by the fictional character of Ogion the Silent from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel A Wizard of Earthsea, whose deep respect for the complexities involved in magick makes him extremely cautious with his otherwise phenomenal power. I strongly recommend you read this book, since it serves not only as a brilliant allegory to the issues that surround the powers and how much you can screw up with them, but also the arc of the story also reads almost exactly like an insight map.
Tangentially, I think that the Western world needs more fantasy stories and legends that incorporate real elements of map and practice theory like those presented here. If you have writing talent and an experiential understanding of the fruits of the dharma, please consider writing those stories.
Just as with anything else you would do to or with someone, consent is extremely important. Even then, there is something about the intimacy of magickal manipulation that can yield results we didn’t know could enter the mix. It is simply impossible to understand or perceive the full implications of any act, and this applies many times over for the powers, as they are weird and this is a weirdness that is very hard to understand even in simple terms. Reality and causality are extremely complex and, for most, inscrutable.
It is very easy to deceive ourselves regarding the purity and integrity of our intentions. What is deep down in the level of our hearts, guts, and groins is what matters in magick, as that is where emotional energy resides. The powers often come from those deep emotional centers. Those are also deep levels of ourselves that we typically aren’t honestly connected to. Thus, even if we believe we told someone what we were going to do and they agreed to it, there is going to be other stuff from more primal, less conscious parts of ourselves that will very likely enter the exchange. If they are okay with that as sophisticated and consenting adults, fine, but most adults are not sophisticated when it comes to the powers.
Secondly, that part about “exchange” is important. One of the essential insights that makes the powers work is the appreciation of the interdependent and interconnected nature of the universe, though we don’t have to appreciate those for the powers to occur. Still, the greater our appreciation of interconnection, the more the powers can flow. The essential and hopefully obvious point about interconnection is that just as the object of any spell we cast is connected to us and so is a part of the web of causality, just so are we connected to them.
Think of it as a two-way channel, though actually this interwoven reality is even more direct and interdependent than that. Anyone and anything we manipulate magickally reinforces that connection and communication. We are also exposing ourselves to their energetic aspects—the emotional, primal, and magickal ones—just as they are being exposed to ours. That contact is going to have effects on both sides, so I highly recommend careful consideration of what those effects might be before doing anything formal, not that you are likely to be able to know the full scope of those effects and what awaits you and them.
Consider the basic physiological model of the brain, in which the world we experience is happening inside a brain somewhere. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Pathways that are reinforced grow stronger. Let’s say that Betty starts doing a bunch of magickal workings related to Bob. Those neuronal connections between the parts of Betty’s brain that map to the experience of Bob are going to be reinforced by that strongly emotional, strongly concentrated attention. Do you really want more of your brain wired more strongly to aspects of Bob? If not, don’t go there. [Thanks to my grandparents for posthumously lending their names to this book. Yay, ancestors!]
Then there is the spontaneous magick, the magick we didn’t consciously intend, know would happen, or had no way of knowing could happen, and just occurred seemingly out of nowhere. The universe is lawful and causal, but it can appear very mysterious and opaque. Seemingly spontaneous and unintended magick is still ethically complex, as effects will occur, but more important is what happens next time. If a power has occurred once, then you know what it is and can be more conscious about it, such as to resolve to have it happen only when you wish it to. Such resolutions don’t always work perfectly, nor are they always reproducible or verifiable, but, when heartfelt and well-intended, they generally do pretty well. Note: my editor cautioned that I may have a naively trusting blind spot here, and perhaps I do. Still, the point remains.
As an example, let’s say that through inclination or just “random luck” (meaning causality too complex to comprehend) you begin to “read” or sense the thoughts and emotions of others. Do you want to tell them this, or even act on these intuitive feelings on the assumption that they are correct? You might get the sense that you can manipulate others’ emotions or energetic states in ways that would be considered magickal. Is this a good idea? There are no easy answers to some of the ethical and practical questions that can arise from the siddhis, but I would advise extreme caution and restraint. Respect others’ rights and remember that actions done for other than compassionate purposes are likely to cause an ugly backlash. In fact—and this is crucial to understand—even actions done with compassionate intentions can have an ugly backlash, particularly if you cannot truly discern another’s situation or developmental stage, so again, care and restraint are often best.
You are hopefully selective and prudent in relation to how you would touch others’ physical bodies, so take the same care with their minds and energetic systems. If you are going to be doing these sorts of practices on other people, getting permission beforehand is not only polite, but also critical, as the entities and situations that you interact with and reach out to also affect you. When you enter someone’s home turf, they are quite likely to have the home court advantage.
When you suddenly feel you can manipulate things like the moods and energetic systems of those around you, you may find the temptation hard to resist. When you suddenly seem to know information about people that you wouldn’t normally have known, you could easily give in to the temptation to show off or exploit that knowledge. Even if you are generally blessed with a well-developed, integrated, and relatively automatic morality for ordinary ethical issues, it can just be so cool to have unexpected additional capabilities, and this can very easily and quickly cause you to go astray in both the short- and long-term. It is so easy to imagine that whatever we are doing is in another’s best interests and not realize the completely selfish and blind aspects of our extremely limited understanding and assessment of the situation. Further, situations that initially appear bad can lead to surprisingly good results and vice versa.
Then, as mentioned earlier, there is the question of blatantly dark magick. It is magick based on greed, hatred, and delusion, or more specifically lust, anger, fear, arrogance, cruelty, the desire for vengeance, and the like. The issue with the powers is that once the gate is opened, once we know where the juice is, how to use it, etc., letting the powers slip or rush out can get easy, and then temptation sets in.
Even if the powers don’t come easily and require large set-ups and building up concentration with days of practice and so on, magick based on dark and unsavory feelings can be very compelling, and those energies can sneak out of an even slightly cracked gate with force and speed. We might rationalize our lapse of judgment and imagine that something good will come of it, some personal gain or even some wrong righted, some justice done, and perhaps something good will be in the mix of results, but harm leads to harm, darkness to darkness, and evil to evil. The potential is great for the runaway train of extremely damaging self-deception, motives, and actions. Putting a self-rationalizing spin on it cements that self-deception. It’s nearly impossible to back-pedal from such scenarios, and crawling out of the resulting abyss may cost lifetimes.
Strong magick comes out of deeply personal feelings and strong intent. Whatever magickal acts we do, we write those imprints within ourselves. If they are dark, we strongly write that darkness into our internal wiring.
Do good in this world. Write light, compassion, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, empathy, healing, respect, patience, and peace on the fabric of your mind and this interdependent world. That is my very best advice. Avoid learning the hard way: it can be tragic and destructive for a long time and in many ways for all involved and even for those not directly involved.
I am quite aware of the relatively sophisticated arguments that would say that all magick is grey magick, rather than strictly black or white, in that it may benefit some, harm others, and create all sorts of unintended effects whose merits and downsides may not be apparent, as with all actions in this world. It is a reasonable argument. Yet, while acknowledging the grey magick argument as true in some ways, there is still much to be said for staying far to the light and moral end of the path whenever possible, realizing that the best intentions can cause trouble.