Many years ago when I first started studying Tibetan Buddhism and was looking for recommendations for cool, magic oriented, Lamas I had the good fortune to sit privately and get some advice from Glenn Mullin. He gave it some thought and said “well you could go with a Nyingma Lama but unless they knew you they would make you do that rediculous Ngondro…”. Ngondro just means going forth, but when most people use it they are referring to a series of practices that begins with making 100,000 prostrations. Many Lamas treat this as a pre-req for teachings, and I was curious about this statement so I stopped him right there and asked him what he meant, and I can’t remember his exact wording so I won’t quote it, but it was something like this:
Ngondro was basically developed to keep monks busy. You get a bunch of little reprobate kids from bandit tribes that become monks at an early age and if you don’t give them something to do all day they start stabbing each other. Telling a 12 year old monk to do 100,000 prostrations is one thing, telling an overweight 30 year old American to do that is something else entirely.
This taught me an important lesson not only about Buddhism but religion and ritual in general - always keep motivation in mind.
As Magicians we are very often looking to the past as well as to foreign lands for resources. In the 80′s and 90′s the tendency was for magicians to reject anything that took to long, seemed overly religious, or that they simply did not like. Since the new millennium the tendency has been exactly the opposite: accept anything and everything that a text or tradition dictates as if it was holy writ. Of course I am exaggerating a bit but we should be on guard against either one of these extremes.
When adopting or adapting rituals and exercises into my life I try to keep in mind the motivations of the people who established them. I ask questions:
Was this designed by a career magician? Instructions to repeat a mantra for six full days, or require lots of expensive equipment, might be presented that way because it is necessary for the result or it might be because it is something that someone can justify charging a client for.
Are there politics involved? For instance you would have to be blind to think that the fact Tibet was a Theocracy has nothing to do with the overwhelming emphasis on Guru Yoga.
Was this designed to fill time? As mentioned above, Monks, Nuns, and even Lodge members have to have something to do to fill time.
Was this cut to short to save time? Just as a ritual might run long to keep young monks busy, some rituals I have seen are cut much too short in order to fit into busy schedules.
Was this meant to be hidden? Some rituals involve hidden images, ordinary items, or other methods that would be useful from hiding the practice from the prying eyes. A concern that would have been dire in other times and places, but less so here and now. A debate in many ATR’s right now is whether or not Catholic Saint representations of Orishas and Loa should be abandoned because there is now the ability to worship openly. Sex Magic rites that would have been scandalous 100 years ago now seem tame when compared to what you can find on the net.
There are too many questions to list them all here, but the next time you are examining a grimoire, papryri, or other text think about the people that wrote it, the culture that they came from, the job they had, and what exactly they were trying to accomplish.