Virtues and Vices of the Sephiroth

by Tom Schuler

The following 11 classic essays were first published in 2007 on the alt.magick usenet group by Tom Schuler. They give pithy practical advice for the practicing magician as they attempt the Great Work, and they were of inestimable assistance in the personal development of many members of the group, myself included.

Malkuth

For each of the sephiroth in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, there is a virtue and a vice assigned. In the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the magician, each of these virtues and vices manifest continually. By attending to them, identifying their operations in one's daily life, and accentuating the virtues while moderating the vices, the magician equilibrates the sephiroth in his or her personality and progresses in the Great Work.

In the lowest sephirah, Malkuth, the assigned virtue is "discrimination" and the vice "inertia".

Discrimination is the ability to accurately detect differences between things. We detect these differences with our five senses. What is real in the sephirah of Malkuth is what can be sensed by vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. So it behooves the magician to hone those senses as finely as possible, within the organic potential of their particular bodies. To do so demands that we pay attention to the world of phenomena to a much greater degree than many of us would like. Because magick appeals to those trying to escape unpleasant reality, the prospect of having to pay even closer attention to it is simply not appealing. Yet, mastery of the virtue of discrimination is essential. Indeed, until it is mastered, all "higher" virtues are unattainable because they are drifting in the ambiguous illusions and distortions of what have been called the "higher planes".

In Dante's "Inferno", the way out of Hell is found only by descending into it's very depths. So it is with transcendence of the sephirah of Malkuth. Until you have mastered your senses and can use them to distinguish what is real from what is illusory, the sephirah of Yesod will be nothing more than a maze of illusions, each path turning back on itself, each seeming solution leading only to return to the same problem restated in yet another way. There's no help for it. The aspirant to the Great Work must first master materialism. Not *renounce* it. *Master* it. 

The magician must be able to function effectively in the world of five senses alone. So shut off those psychic flashes and intuitive insights. They are of no use here. If you can't get along without them while you master your senses, you aren't going to get along in the Great Work at all. Put away your Tarot Cards, your pendulums, your spells, and all that stuff. It's time to do something *hard* for a change. Consider it magical boot camp. If you're going to mount an assault on the City of God, you mystic warriors, you're going to have to get your hands dirty.

One of the most essential discriminations we can make is between reality and appearances. Even our senses, as reliable as they are, can become confused, feeding us illusory images which we mistakenly interpret as reality. How, using only those senses, can we penetrate illusions of the senses?

The solution to this problem is the use of multiple viewpoints and sensory modalities. The fewer viewpoints used, the fewer senses involved, the greater the possibility of undetected error. Contrarily, the more viewpoints used and the more sensory modalities employed, the smaller the possibility of error. It never reaches zero, of course. No observation in Malkuth is without the possibility of error, but one can lessen the chances of error quite considerably. The use of multiple viewpoints suggests replication of one's experiments by independent sources as well as by repeated and carefully controlled experiments on one's own. Sound familiar? It's our old friend, the "scientific method", the best and brightest child of the materialist philosophy.

Until you have mastered the scientific method (again, not merely renounced it) your efforts at progressing in a real understanding of magick is simply going to result in chasing your tail through an infinite series of self-created and self-sustained illusions. Apparently, that's good enough for most occultists and other magico-religious types, but real students of magick are hoping for better.

Now there is an aspect of Malkuth that makes the task of mastering the scientific method difficult. It's inertia. This is the vice of Malkuth. Operations in Malkuth take time. Lots of time. Loads and loads of time. Glacial time. Geological time. You are going to get bored. You are going to get distracted. You're going to get impatient. You are going to want to get onto something more interesting and you're going to want to do it *right now*. And if you indulge that impatience and abandon your time-consuming, painstakingly careful experiments, you immediately lose whatever progress you've made and end up back at square one. That means you've gone nowhere. You are sitting still. Inertia.

It takes enormous energy of will and endurance to master the virtue of Discrimination and the vice of Inertia. It is by the practice of the virtue of the sephirah of Malkuth and the struggle to overcome its vice that the magician hones his or her will.

Yesod

As we master the materialistic world of Malkuth, we see the world in a deterministic way. Effect inexorably follows cause. Time flows in one direction only and what's done is done. We can do nothing but follow the rules. There is no choice. Material things are as they are, not as we might wish them to be. We are simply a complex mechanisms in a mechanistic world, our behavior is determined by the causes that elicit them. When we are hungry, we seek food. When we are tired, we seek rest. It's as simple as that, even though it seems very complex because of all those causes and effects going on simultaneously.

And so we come to the limit of Malkuth, the world of reflexes and inborn instinct. To go further in our development, we must find a way to free ourselves from these bonds of determinism. We have the neurological equipment to do it. We have the capacity to create extremely detailed representations of the world in our imaginations. These representations of the world allow us to do "thought experiments". We use our imaginations to create a representation of the universe and conduct experiments in it that we couldn't possibly conduct in the material world. By doing so, we begin to see beyond the moment, beyond the sensible and immediate.

This capacity to generate images of anything we want is the nature of Yesod, which bears the title "Treasure house of Images".

The virtue of Yesod is independence. In the sephirah of Malkuth, the world operates like a machine and so do the organisms within it. Yet, because of our ability to imagine the world and perform experiments impossible to arrange materially, we escape from the tyranny of physical laws. We become independent of the rules by creating within ourselves a world in which we may suspend or enforce any rule we wish. It is at this point that magick enters the world. The relationship between the world we imagine and the world of physical reality in which our bodies reside is our first experience of the Hermetic Axiom, "As above, so below". We discover that we can imagine things that do not exist and, thought diligent effort, we can make those things exist. Immaterial thought becomes material fact.

Suddenly, we are no longer the slaves of the machine but voluntary participants, selecting our roles and determining our own place and function by means of a powerful imaging tool that not only represents the universe but also ourselves in relation to it.

Yet, it is possible to get so attentive to the wonders of our inner universe that we fail to notice that we are no longer attending to the physical world. We spend our time dreaming but never bother to take any action to connect those dreams to the physical world. Thus, the vice of Yesod is idleness. We become lost in the infinitude of our imagination. It's really, really, easy to do this. It's so attractive and flattering to rule one's own world. It's so easy to command the universe of our imagination. Yet, by losing ourselves in the dream, nothing we do, none of our wonderful efforts and beautiful creativity, ever gets all the way back to Earth. Our magick remains ungrounded, affecting nothing but our own feelings.

About the only thing that can protect us from falling victim to that vice is the virtue of Malkuth, discrimination, by which we can perceive the difference between the dream of reality and the physical reality upon which it is based. So it is with every virtue of every sephirah. Each virtue rescues us from the trap of the vice of the next.

Hod

In Malkuth, we experience the world as sensation. In Yesod, we experience an imaginative representation of that world of sensation. Hod takes the mental representation of reality that begins in Yesod and advances it yet one more level of abstraction. In Hod, we see a symbolic representation of that imaginative representation of the world of sensation. This is an enormously important advance. It is by representing our imaginations as symbols that we can communicate the contents of our minds to one another, thus linking our individual thoughts and experiences together with others for the very first time. And perhaps equally importantly, we can store information outside our bodies in the form of written words, symbols, and pictures, thus preserving our experience beyond our lifetimes and transmitting it beyond our presence.

It is through the symbolic activity of Hod that we teach ourselves that relationships between ideas can be appreciated and examined as abstract principles, giving rise to reason and logic. In Hod, we teach ourselves to think effectively. And we gain the capacity to teach others to do the same. This is the first sephirah in which a connection appears between individuals instead of manifesting as an entirely private operation.

We can also note that Hod is the first sephirah to appear on one of the opposed Pillars of the Tree, Boaz and Jakin, Form and Force, Severity and Mercy. So it isn't surprising to find that polarity is expressed more clearly here than in the sephiroth of the Middle Pillar.

Here we see for the first time the virtue and vice of a sephirah which are clearly opposites on one another. In Malkuth, the virtue is discrimination and the vice inertia. In Yesod, the virtue is independence and the vice idleness. Drawing some sort of oppostion between these terms takes some effort, but, in Hod, it is easy to see their polarity even at first glance.

With our new-found power to communicate, we also find something new emerging in the capacity for virtue and vice. The sensory experiences of Malkuth may not always be accurate, but they are indeed what we feel. The imaginative world we create in our brains may not always correspond accurately to the world of sensation, but, again, it does represent an authentic inner feeling. But now, in the operations of the sephirah of Hod, we can represent our sensations and imagination in a way that does not correspond at all to our authentic feelings. We have acquired the ability to lie, to symbolize something that does not represent our true feelings or sensations at all.

Herein arise the virtue and vice of Hod, honesty and dishonesty.

It is often expedient, even at times necessary, to lie to our fellow human beings. Lies are the lubricant without which social organizations could not function. It is only by denying our unimportant difficulties with one another that we can keep them from impeding the more important ways in which we must get along if we are to survive. We tell each other that we don't mind our respective and inevitably irritating foibles. 

We reassure our children even when we feel unsure ourselves. This sort of dishonesty is not the vice of Hod. It is a "de-vice" of Hod by which we surmount our private impulses to achieve a desirable social outcome. What constitutes the virtue of honesty and the vice of dishonesty in Hod is our use of symbolic representation in self-talk.

It is of vital importance to our continuing journey through the sephiroth that we do not confuse ourselves by telling ourselves lies. The magician must be ruthlessly honest. Any lie we embrace in our self-talk will inhibit our future functioning in higher sephiroth. As usual, it will be the virtues of the lower sephiroth which will provide the key for achieving the virtue of honesty in Hod. We cannot deny our senses in Malkuth or the feelings that arise in our imaginative world of Yesod. We must constantly use the virtue of discrimination to perceive the differences between our words and our feelings. We must constantly use the virtue of independence to revise our inner pictures of ourselves in the light of our reason. By doing so, we avoid the ego's propensity to tell itself whatever flatters and protects it rather than what may be true.

Hod is on the Pillar of Severity. It is not forgiving and nurturing. It is as cold as the sea and as sharp as a sword. Honesty with oneself is no soft and reassuring thing. It is often harsh and never kind. This is a difficult virtue to master and a tricky vice to avoid. The difference between rationality and rationalization is difficult to distinguish.

Netzach

Netzach is the first sephirah in which our principle focus reaches beyond self-concern. In Hod we discovered the ability to communicate with others but our focus was still largely internal, concerned with the transformation of the feelings/sensations of Malkuth and Yesod into abstracted symbols. In Netzach, our focus goes beyond self and into the feelings evoked by our interrelationship with others. In Netzach arise relational feelings like camaraderie, affection, antipathy, and regard.

In Netzach, our image of ourselves is in a context in which we are not the center of the universe but are, instead, a part of a much greater whole. That whole becomes the center of the universe, rather than the self. Most immediately, this manifests as our attachment to a group, whose integrity is vital to our survival. We become members of a team. We identify with our family, our friends, our tribe.

There is a new aspect to our perception of reality that manifests in Netzach. It is the communal reality of shared experience. An event is not "real" unless it affects others as well as oneself. "Did you see what I saw?" becomes a major reality-testing strategy. If others do not perceive what you perceive, it will generate doubts as to whether or not one's private experience (or at least one's interpretation of that experience) is "real". As a result, cultural differences in perceived reality vary from one another and, so convincing is our feeling of communal reality, we honestly feel that *our* culture expresses a fundamental truth about reality and any disagreement from that is folly. 

 The power of the church congregation to define reality for its members is an operation of Netzach, for example.

Another important manifestation of Netzach is the bonding that comes of shared emotional experience. The more emotionally powerful that experience is, the deeper is the bond that develops from it. Friendships formed in foxholes are among the most enduring and profound of all.

The community matrix of Netzach is the basis for this sephirah's virtue and vice. Again, here on the Pillar of Mercy, existing in dynamic balance with its opposite on the Pillar of Severity, we see that the virtue and vice are expressed as clear opposites. The virtue of Netzach is unselfishness. Its vice is selfishness.

It's easy to see how unselfishness fits here. As a member of the community, one's obligation goes beyond immediate gratification of one's desires. Impulsive desire is trumped by responsibility to the group. One's willingness to delay personal gratification out of regard for one's loved ones and fellows is the basis of all politeness and kindness. It is the first manifestation of nurturance and civility.

The vice is less easily understood because it's not personal. Of course, personal selfishness leads to unkindness within the group, but that is powerfully counteracted by the emotional dynamic of the group and is not the greatest danger here. The most destructive aspect of the vice of Netzach is the insularity of the in-group. It is xenophobia, intolerance of strangers, the rejection of other groups by defining them as "bad" as opposed to the in-group's "good". 

Racial and religious intolerance are manifestations of the vice of Netzach. So also is the cult mentality, wherein all worth and value comes from within the cult and all outside it are the cult's enemies and are demonized and dehumanized. Those within are "sacred". Those without are "profane".

The virtue of Netzach must transcend the individual and the local group. It must be inclusive, not exclusive. Elitism in all forms is an expression of the vice of Netzach and a clue to the lack of connection of such groups to the higher levels of consciousness expressed in Tiphareth and beyond.

Again, we see that the key to overcoming the vice of Netzach comes from applying the virtues of the lower sephiroth, the cutting rationality of Hod, the independence of mind in Yesod, and the capacity in Malkuth to discriminate what physically *is* from what *should be*. For example, when confronted with the assertion that the brains of Africans are smaller than the brains of European, we physically measure them, employing a rational method, and discover that this social fiction is untrue. It is important to acknowledge the social-emotional reality of shared experience but it is inadvisable to try to use that as one's sole criterion to decide what is real in other ways. We must be willing and able at all times to challenge the intolerance of the in-group / out-group polarity. Only be so doing do we come to truly understand the social reality of Netzach and access its power in a way that lets us transcend it.

Tiphareth

The virtue of Tiphareth is devotion to the Great Work. The vice of Tiphareth is pride.

Tiphareth is the sephirah in which one transcends personality and personal identity. So far in this series, I've outlined a progressive expansion of consciousness from the body to the mind and on to the society. Here in Tiphareth we expand yet again. This time, the self is transcended. In Netzach, we discovered how important it is to become unselfish, to defer to a larger goal than one's personal desires. Yet, it is self-interest that motivates that deference to the group, since the group maximizes our own survival and prosperity and that of those extensions of ourselves into the future, our offspring.

In Tiphareth, for the first time, we become aware that there is a greater reality, a reality in which self is utterly unimportant except as a means to a much greater end. Bringing our actions into harmony with that greater reality is what has come to be called "the Great Work".

What may be difficult to understand is why devotion to the Great Work begins here, as the virtue of Tiphareth when it might seem that one could hardly even get started on the path of magick without a fixed devotion to the Great Work. It is because, without having the spiritual experience of Tiphareth, variously described as the "Mysteries of the Crucifixion" or "Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel", one has no proper grasp of just what the Great Work actually means. Prior to the expansion of consciousness in Tiphareth, one has only oneself as a reference point. Everything revolves around the personality of the individual. However, the death-and-rebirth experience of Tiphareth (exemplified by the mythic death and rebirth of Jesus) expands consciousness beyond the self for the first time. A point of view arises in which self is not only deferred but almost entirely irrelevant. Consciousness is no longer centered on the individual but is diffused throughout the the universe.

This is an ancient and primordial transcendent entity, a consciousness that precedes the rise of the organism as a focus of awareness. It is a consciousness without identity, without focus, and without location. It flows through the self but is not dependent on the self.

This consciousness is barely perceived by the consciousness of Malkuth and prompts the spiritual experience of Malkuth, the Vision of the Holy Guardian Angel, that vague but persistent sense that there is something transcendent within us. However, because this consciousness is not fully recognized, the Great Work it does is not understood. It is represented in Yesod as the myths of the gods, saints, and heroes. It is conceived in Hod as the orderliness, the unifying principle of the universe. In Netzach, it becomes religion and the value of self-sacrifice. But in Tiphareth, it comes fully and directly into our awareness. Only then can true devotion to the Great Work arise. Prior to the operations of Tiphareth, we have only analogues by which to understand it and those analogues are severely limited by the tinyness of the organism. The consciousness manifesting in Tiphareth is vast and timeless. It is impossible to represent it accurately in a consciousness located and limited in space-time.

Tiphareth is a gateway between the Divine and the Mundane. The God descends, the human ascends.

In order to let that consciousness arise fully, it is necessary to let go of our attachment to self, not just to self-interest, as we did in Netzach, but to the whole notion of individual existence. From the point of view of the lower sephiroth, this appears as a fearsome, monstrous veil. It is sometimes represented as a demon that tears the body, mind, and heart to shreds and devours them. We can only proceed on the path of the magician by facing that demon, by letting it disintegrate our local consciousness.

Following that experience, a new sense of self arises. The power that first pushed our consciousness into existence from insensate matter still operates and, once the self is destroyed, that healthy mechanism generates a new one. First comes death, then rebirth. Yet, this reborn self now contains a memory of an experience that transcends itself and a formula for how to do it again.

Now comes the opportunity for the vice of Tiphareth. Having transcended the self once, having a memory of becoming something so vast and ancient, we can delude ourselves that we are now beyond all that and have become a superhuman being. We become convinced of our superiority, of our elite status as one of the Enlightened. 

We become proud, and, in our pride, we cling even harder to our oh-so-important new self. Having once destroyed ourselves, we think it is no longer necessary to do it again. After all, we can *feel* that primordial consciousness within us still. But that feeling is a representation in Yesod. It is a memory of an event, not the ongoing event itself.

Immediately after the death-rebirth experience of Tiphareth, we continue to feel that ecstasy, that serenity, that joy for quite a while. Our friends and associates notice it and are deeply impressed. We take on a new and enhanced social status. We are sought out as a teacher and a sage. Then the power of the experience begins, ever so slowly, to fade as more immediate experiences are overlaid on this memory. The feeling of transcendence becomes stale and what Chogyam Trungpa described as "spiritual materialism" sets in. We feel the need to preserve our new status as an Enlightened Being, even as we find the feeling of it fading away. The more we cling to this spiritual materialism, the more the feeling fades. It cannot be renewed because we cling to yet another self and we're clinging even harder than ever. We may even find that our formula, that method that worked so well the first time, no longer works. This is because, in our pride, we watch ourselves go through the actions and say in our hearts, "Now I will regain that wonderful feeling and all the status that comes with it." And it is exactly that which prevents us from achieving it again.

The death-rebirth experience is not the ultimate experience of magick. It's not something to be experienced once and then cherished as an achievement of the Great Work. In fact, it's only the start. There is a whole lot of Work left to do and a lot more to learn about the path of the magician.

As always, the trick to escaping the vice of Tiphareth involves the virtues mastered in lower sephiroth. We must be able to discriminate between the experience itself and its representation in our minds. We must be able to envision that something beyond the self may have more than one aspect and that not all those aspects have been explored. We must hold fast to our principles and continue to experiment in a careful and rational way, facing the results as we get them. And we must remember, always, to be unselfish in our actions, maintaining as far as possible a humble position in society. By sticking to these virtues, we can see through the trap of pride and attain mastery of the gateway between the mundane and the spiritual.

Geburah

When discussing any virtue and vice in sephiroth above Tiphareth, we must be continually aware that the states of consciousness we are concerned with are ego-transcendent. Our expression and intellectual understanding of them is going to be a reflection of their operation in terms that apply below Tiphareth. What I have to say here is going to be somewhat ambiguous and have aspects to it that are simultaneously accurate and inaccurate. Such ambiguity is impossible to dispel when trying to describe an operation that does not fit the limitations of the language. It's a bit like trying to draw a picture of a hypersphere on a piece of paper. What you draw will be as accurate as you can make it, but will also fail to be a perfect representation of the object in question because the medium of representation does not have the necessary number of dimensions available to it. That being said, let us try to forge onward.

With the arrival at the state of ego-transcendence in Tiphareth, there is a timeless stillness to everything. All motion in space is insignificant, the passage of time is irrelevant. All sense of purpose is lost. There is nothing to do because there is no one to do it and no greater or lesser importance to this over that.

Then, in that great stillness, something moves. Indeed it is not a thing moving within the stillness but the stillness itself which shifts. It is as if there is some faint breeze carrying everything along in a direction that cannot be described. For lack of a better term, we may call this breeze "Tao". The Way. The magician feels the motion of Tao directly and begins to move with it. By moving with the Tao, the magician comes to a new state of consciousness in which the motion of Tao is manifested in all the lower spheres. This motion is irresistible. It cannot be swayed or denied. It is the Strength of Geburah.

The virtue of Geburah is courage or energy. It is the power of Tao that manifests as the "energy" aspect of this virtue. However, the other aspect, which is often described as "courage", is really the same thing but seen from another perspective. The magician who moves with Tao cares nothing for consequences. It is the motion itself which is all-important, not the result. So, if the result involves "negative" effects to the magician or to the things his or her personality may cherish, that doesn't matter at all.

The motion of Tao is ruthless. It makes no allowance for that which does not conform to its movement. Anything that opposes the flow of Tao is brushed aside, crushed, or entirely annihilated. This applies to any feature of the magician's personality which does not harmonize completely with the flow. Any attachment, any attempt to cling to something which is moving with the Tao is simply blown away.

Now I've been talking about Geburah using fluid analogies like "flow" or "breeze". Yet, Geburah is commonly attributed to fiery imagery. This is, in my interpretation for the purposes of this discussion, an attempt to reflect the vastly energetic quality of Geburah and its ruthlessness with that which does not move with its irresistible flow. Also, another way to understand what is going on in the state of consciousness of Geburah is through the image of an alchemical distillation of the ego-transcendent state achieved in Tiphareth. We may recall that the experience of Tiphareth is transient. The self dies and is then reborn. Tiphareth consciousness is a kensho experience, a "lesser" enlightenment. 


It mixes aspects of the human and the divine. In Geburah, those human aspects are left behind, just as impurities in a liquid are removed when the essence is evaporated (by heating it, of course) and recondensed in a distilled form. In Geburah, the death and rebirth cycle is accomplished over and over. Each new iteration removes some more of the materialistic aspects of the personality. What remains is the movement of Tao itself, expressed in human form but not in human feeling.

The vice of Geburah is cruelty or destruction. When translated to the personality, the ruthless power of Geburah can become a tyrannical rigidity, an insistence on strict obedience with punishment that seems all out of proportion to the importance of the disobedience itself. It's an attitude that might be described as applying the death sentence for a parking violation.

What transforms the virtue of Geburah into its vice is the application of its energy to a purpose which is not actually in harmony with Tao. Instead, it is diverted to a purpose which has little of nothing to do with the Great Work but is of concern only to the human personality of the magician. Yet again, the key to avoiding the vice of Geburah lies in the proper application of the virtue of the lower sephiroth. If one has mastered the virtue of Tiphareth, devotion to the Great Work, one will not allow oneself to divert the energy of Geburah to that which does not further the Great Work.

Chesed

In order to understand what is happening to the magician's consciousness in Chesed, it might be a good idea to deal first with the shamanic nature of magick and how it differs from priesthood.

In Joseph Campbell's "The Masks of God", he describes the difference in these two ways of interacting with the spiritual.

"Among the Indians of North America two contrasting mythologies appear, according to whether the tribes are hunters or planters. Those that are primarily hunters emphasize in their religious life the individual fast for the gaining of visions. The boy of twelve or thirteen is left by his father in some lonesome place, with a little fire to keep the beasts away, and there he fasts and prays, four days or more, until some spiritual visitant comes in a dream, in human or animal form, to speak to him and give him power. His later career will be determined by this vision; for his familiar may confer the power to cure people as a shaman, the power to attract and slaughter animals, or the ability to become a warrior. And if the benefits gained are not sufficient for the young man's ambitions, he may fast again, as often as he likes..."

Among the planting tribes -- the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo dwellers -- life is organized around rich and complex ceremonies of their masked gods. These are elaborate rites in which the whole community participates, scheduled according to a religious calendar and conducted by societies of trained priests... In such a society there is little room for individual play. There is a rigid relationship not only of the individual to his fellows, but also of village life to the calendar cycle; for the planters are intensely aware of their dependency on the gods of the elements. One short period of too much or too little rain at the critical moment, and the whole year of labor results in famine. Whereas for the hunter -- hunter's luck is a very different thing...


The contrast between the two worlds may be seen more sharply by comparing the priest and the shaman. The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own. The spiritual visitants who came to him in vision had never been seen before by any other; they were his particular familiars and protectors. The masked gods of the Pueblos, on the other hand, the corn-gods and cloud-gods, served by societies of strictly organized and very orderly priests, are well known patrons of the entire village and have been prayed to and represented in the ceremonial dances since time out of mind."

The magician is by and large a solitary figure, even when functioning within a group. The development of consciousness is an individual matter and one's interactions with spiritual beings and phenomena are unique and personal. In this way, the magician operates as a shaman.

However, here in Chesed, the shamanistic approach reaches its conclusion.

In Chesed, consciousness itself reaches its endpoint. Beyond this sephirah what principles exist cannot accurately be called consciousness, since awareness itself, as we understand it, ends here. Individuality means nothing. Desire gains no purchase, having no place to attach. There is only the flow of creativity from the supernals expressed directly into the lower sephiroth. The magician no longer moves with the Tao but has become the flow itself.

The mythologies of all humanity are encompassed in Chesed, hence its identification with the great progenitor, world-creator gods. 

Every mythology springs into being from the flow of divine emanation as it descends into Chesed from the Supernals. The shamanistic magician lives and works within these mythologies, interacting with and learning from all the beings inhabiting them.

On our journey up the Tree, we have passed through many states of consciousness and here we arrive at the last and most rarified of them, the source of myth itself. It is through the mastery of the virtue of Chesed that the whole of mythic life becomes one with us. We are no longer a player in the drama but have become the drama itself. The shaman ceases to exist as the individual and the environment become the "One Thing" described in the Smagardine Tablet of Hermes. Movement from the outer world of men to the inner world of spirit is no longer applicable since these two worlds are now totally subsumed in an ineffable oneness.

The only way to proceed is to take up a priestly role instead of a shamanic role and relate to the Supernals as something impersonal, that which that has no personal relationship with anybody but relates instead to the whole of the sentient universe.

The virtue of Chesed reflects the sense of congruency between the magician and the world of creation. That virtue is called "obedience". The magician's Will is identical with the flow of creation and cannot diverge from it. Nor can the world itself defy that Will. In the words of Dante, "This has been willed where what is willed must be." All is obedient.

The vice of Chesed is similarly a reflection of the fact that the magician is one with the universe. There is no single vice assigned to Chesed. There are many. Each reflects an error of the lower sephiroth. There is the tyranny of Geburah, the pride of Tiphareth, the bigotry of Netzach, the hypocrisy of Hod, the procrastination of Yesod, and the gluttony of Malkuth. Each of these arises from disobedience to the flow of divine Will.

Da'ath

Transcending Chesed, the consciousness of the magician enters the Abyss. Da'ath is the "invisible sephirah" that spans the Abyss and is often seen as congruent with it (although it really isn't congruent, since there is nothing for it to be congruent to).

One doesn't "master" Da'ath as one might master any of the lower sephiroth. Its virtues and vices are not meant as means of mastery but as reflections of the nature of the magician's consciousness as it enters the Abyss from Chesed and reaches to the Supernals, which lie beyond it. It is not a fully realized sephirah, but a portal , a borderline, a bardo between the individual and the divine. Thus it has no features such as the ten sephiroth have, and that's why it's "invisible".

The virtue of Da'ath is detachment or perfect justice. Justice is impartial, attached to nothing. There is no Mercy in this justice nor is there any Severity. Good and evil are meaningless here, as is punishment and reward. The justice of Da'ath is that the Abyss works both ways. All consciousness falls into it and all consciousness arises from it. It does not hold it or change it in any way. There is no transformation of consciousness in Da'ath. Its symbol is the two-faced god of doorways, Janus.

The way to handle all bardo experiences is essentially the same. You let go of what is on one side and accept what is on the other. This is Da'ath's virtue of detachment.

The vices of Da'ath are what keep the magician from entering the Abyss. These are inertia, cowardice, and pride. All these vices involve clinging to what one has, an unwillingness to let go of what we think is "important" or to relinquish the familiar for the unfamiliar.

Another vice of Da'ath is apathy, which is detachment without vitality. The apathetic person does not attach importance to things, but unimportance, which is simply the flip side of the coin. The consciousness of the Adept in the Abyss sees neither importance nor unimportance to anything. All things are one and all are equally sacred and profane. It is due to the vitality of the spiritual energy emanating from the Supernals that consciousness is involved in all of reality, actively participating even in the perfection of its detachment. It is the vitality of consciousness that is the essence of magick and that which brings about change in conformity with Will.

From the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:

"With great capacity it ascends from earth to heaven. Again it descends to earth, and takes back the power of the above and the below. Thus you will receive the glory of the distinctiveness of the world. All obscurity will flee from you. This is the whole most strong strength of all strength, for it overcomes all subtle things, and penetrates all solid things. Thus was the world created. From this comes marvelous adaptations of which this is the procedure."

I think we'll leave it at that. With Da'ath, the words of Lao Tse ring especially true. "More words count less."

Binah

Having crossed the Abyss, the magician has moved beyond individuality. What remains is something that we can scarcely recognize as consciousness at all. It might be described (inadequately and contrarily, of course) as "unconscious consciousness". It is oceanic. This is the vast, bitter sea of Binah, the lowest of the three so-called "Supernal Sephiroth" of the Tree of Life.

We can appreciate the Supernals individually only in a very limited way. They are so abstract that they have no substance in and of themselves. They are simply principles and can only be recognized when compared with other principles. Qabalistically, they become much more comprehensible when viewed as a tripartite system. "Binah" means "Understanding". What is being understood is the Wisdom of Chokmah, which is the expression of Kether, the Crown.

We can begin to grasp the abstract function of Binah by observing it in action on the lower sephiroth that reflect it. In Hod, the inarticulate feelings of Netzach coalesce into concepts which can then be manipulated as if they were objects. In Geburah, the authority of Chesed becomes power which can then be used. In Binah the Logos, the Word of God, takes form and thus is the universe created.

Binah is an empty vessel with no sides. It is space, the unbounded container for all of creation. In and of itself it has no meaning at all. Only when contrasted with what it contains is it comprehensible at all, just as what it contains is incomprehensible without the container.

Binah, in Hermetic qabalah, is associated with Saturn. Saturn is a curious sort of god. He was one of the very few gods of the Roman pantheon who existed before the whole Greek pantheon was subsumed into it.

 Saturn was the god of plants and nature. His Roman feast, Saturnalia, was a festival situated at a time between harvest and planting, a free time. In the temples, the statue of Saturn was bound with cords all year, signifying the mastery of humanity over the plants and animals which were harnessed to our bidding by agriculture. We humans were equally bound to the rules of Saturn as expressed in the way the crops had to be treated to grow properly, so the binding actually worked both ways. Saturn became associated with all the rules, all the things we *had* to do in order produce the food we needed to eat.

Saturnalia, being a time in which the farms were idle, became a festival in which the rules were suspended. Saturn was unbound and anything could happen. Punishment of slaves was abated and they were allowed to speak disrespectfully to their masters, gambling that was ordinarily outlawed was allowed, huge parties were thrown, and everything generally went to hell for a while.

Later, as the Greek pantheon transformed the Roman one, Saturn attained a more cosmic stature as father of the father of the gods. His authority was supreme and could only be usurped by his child, a fate Saturn did not like, so he was very careful to eat all his children, swallowing them whole. His mother, Ops, hid her son Jupiter from Saturn, substituting a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Jupiter matured and returned to castrate his father and take over the rule of heaven.

Thus we see the progression in the evolution of consciousness from the vast, black, all-consuming receptivity of Binah, which swallows everything, to the creative and ecstatic joy of Chesed, drawing the power of the Supernals and projecting it as the universe itself.

From the other direction, the all-powerful sorcerer, commanding everything, surrenders the Self and, passing through the Abyss, dissolves itself in the sea of Binah, becoming utterly and completely silent, open for the first time to the Logos, the Word of Creation.

Thus the virtue of Binah is silence. Silence is perfect receptivity. It asserts nothing. It is empty, awaiting fulfillment. You can only learn when you listen. You can only listen when you stop talking. Silence is the state of being in which all symbolism ceases. Nothing represents anything else. Everything is as it is. There is no thought. There is no feeling. The universe is raw awareness and has no means at all to express itself. The Master of the Temple is not playing with toys, not working with little representations of reality in his mind. The Master of the Temple is immersed in Reality.

The vice of Binah is avarice. Binah awaits fulfillment. It receives. Yet, if reception becomes selfish, an end unto itself, it cannot let go of that which enters. It clings. By clinging it stops progress. It hoards. Everything must be owned, must be contained. To own it, you must command it. To command it, you must have its essential image, its Name. Thus everything must be represented, explained, narrated. It is the first and purest form of avarice to want to own our experience by making it into a story.

As we have seen in the lower sephiroth, the way out of the vice of Binah is the virtue of the sphere before it. In this case, we look to the virtue of Da'ath, which is detachment. We don't fall victim to avarice if we don't cling to the things we receive. If we let go as easily as we grasp, we can be informed by Wisdom without becoming a jealous hoarder of knowledge.

Chokmah

Chokmah is associated with the Will itself. Of itself it is purely potential; it has no purpose, no direction, and no manifestation. It simply IS. The word "chokmah" itself means "wisdom" and is paired with the word "binah", meaning "understanding". Wisdom is not passive, but active. Wisdom arises from right action whereas understanding arises from clear perception.

The feeling that one might best associate with Chokmah is the male orgasm, a mindless paroxysm rushing forth in all directions, filled with creative potential but having no form in which to manifest that creativity. Until shaped and directed by the formative receptivity of Binah, the divine power of Chokmah can do nothing,

The virtue of Chokmah is described variously as devotion, good, or completion of the Great Work. Its vice is evil, when one admits of any vice to this sephiroth at all. Chokmah represents all possibilities, including all those possibilities for good as well as all possibilities for evil. 


We may argue that "good" and "evil" are irrelevant value judgments in non-dualistic consciousness, but as is inevitable when discussing consciousness in the Supernals, the words we use fall far short as adequate descriptors. That which is "good" in Chokmah is that which encounters form and proceeds into manifestation. That which is "evil" is that which fails to encounter form and dissipates itself uselessly. The Qlippoth associated with Chokmah are the Hinderers and have the primary quality of arbitrariness. This expresses the disorganization and the ultimate futility of undirected energy.

The lesson we can come away with in the contemplation of the virtue and vice of Chokmah is that our efforts cannot be purely arbitrary. There must be an unswerving plan, direction, and goal for work to be accomplished. The physical definition of "work" is "force acting upon an object to cause displacement." There are three operative words in this definition, which correspond to the Supernals themselves. "Cause" relates to Kether. It is the Prime Cause, the FIAT LUX. "Force" relates to Chokmah, which is the energy that proceeds from the Cause. "Displacement" relates to Binah, which directs the energy of Chokmah into specific movement.

Crowley comments on the nature of magical consciousness in Chokmah in "Confessions":

"In The Vision and the Voice, the attainment of the grade of Master of the Temple was symbolized by the adept pouring every drop of his blood, that is his whole individual life, into the Cup of the Scarlet Woman, who represents Universal Impersonal Life. There remains therefore (to pursue the imagery) of the adept "nothing but a little pile of dust". In a subsequent vision the Grade of Magus is foreshadowed; and the figure is that this dust is burnt into "a white ash", which ash is preserved in an Urn. It is difficult to convey the appropriateness of this symbolism, but the general idea is that the earthly or receptive part of the Master is destroyed. That which remains has passed through fire; and is therefore, in a sense, of the nature of fire. The Urn is engraved with a word or symbol expressive of the nature of the being whose ash is therein. The Magus is thus, of course, not a person in any ordinary sense; he represents a certain nature or idea. To put it otherwise, we may say, the Magus is a word."

Kether

Now we've come as far as it is possible to come. And we discover that we're right back at the beginning. We're right where we've been sitting all along. We've slid through the sephiroth like a serpent climbing a tree and when we got to the top, we also found the root. The wyrm swallows his own tail. Kether is in Malkuth and Malkuth is in Kether.

Kether is the most profound of all sephiroth, the most basic, the loftiest, the purest expression of God that there ever can be. And yet it's so common and so obvious that we mostly just take it for granted. We overlook it. Why not? It's always there. And yet, even though it is right there, as close as it's possible to get, we cannot grasp it. We cannot make it our possession.

It is infinitesimal and universal and eternal. The consciousness of Kether is experienced but not conceived. It is both immediately obvious and yet its essence cannot be contained in our minds. Kether permeates every aspect of every form of intelligence. It is the consciousness of consciousness. What Lao Tsu called "Tao" is what qabalists call "Kether".

"The Tao is like an empty container: it can never be emptied and can never be filled. Infinitely deep, it is the source of all things. It dulls the sharp, unties the knotted, shades the lighted, and unites all of creation with dust.

It is hidden but always present. I don't know who gave birth to it. It is older than the concept of God." -- Tao Te Ching, Translator J. H. McDonald

"It is said 'He is found and He is not found;' for He cannot be clearly comprehended; but He hath as it were been formed; neither yet is He to be known of any, since He is the Ancient of the Ancient Ones. But in his conformation is He known; as also He is the Eternal of the Eternal Ones, the Ancient of the Ancient Ones, the Concealed of the Concealed Ones; and in His symbols is He knowable and unknowable." -- Sepher Ha-Zohar, the Greater Holy Assembly, Translator S. L. Mathers.

Kether is what's happening right now, right at this very precise moment. By the time you become aware that you are aware, this precise moment called "now" has moved on. 

It precedes everything we can possibly experience. Thus it is seen as something in smooth, effortless motion, such as a river. It is fluid. The Tao Te Ching compares Tao to water because of the feeling of motion and total permeability of the eternal present. It is eternal because, while it does not endure, it just keeps going on. The 'now" does not linger but it's never gone. It's outside of time, which is the measure of endurance.

The inconceivable, infinitesimal, universal, boundless, eternal present is reality. You cannot get beyond it because there's nothing to get beyond. You cannot escape it because there's nowhere to escape from or to. It is always right now and it's always what's happening. There is nothing at all we can do to affect it at all because there's nothing to oppose. No work can be done there because no displacement can occur infinitesimally. There's nothing to move and nowhere to move it. Once no more work can be done, work is as complete as it's ever going to be.

Kether's virtue is often attributed to be the "Completion of the Great Work" and that seems to fit what I've been describing. There is no vice. This is as good as it gets. And if this doesn't satisfy you, nothing will.

Written by Tom Schuler (2007). This material was placed into the Public Domain by Tom.