Offerings at a Hermetic Shrine

It probably hasn’t escaped the notice of many of my readers that much of my recent research and reading focuses on the classical Hermetic stuff.  As a general rule of thumb, I like using the best-available dating of the Emerald Tablet from the Kitāb Sirr al-Ḫalīqa (“Book of the Secrets of Creation”) as a cut-off, so sometime around the 6th or 7th century CE; that which is written before this is what I consider “classical Hermeticism”, and after this “post-classical Hermeticism” (ranging from medieval to Renaissance to modern, depending on the time period and geographic origin of a given text).  I like dividing these texts up in this way because, at least in western Europe prior to Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in the 15th century, this cut-off date roughly corresponds to a shift in the overall focus of Hermetic texts.  While there was always a heavy practical/technical component involved in Hermeticism at all points in time, there was a much stronger and more pronounced mystical and theosophical (or, more traditionally, philosophical/theoretical) bent to many such texts, as evidenced by the Corpus Hermeticum, the Armenian Definitions of Hermēs Trismegistos to Asklēpios, the Latin Asclepius or Perfect Sermon, and the like.  After this point, however—roughly coinciding with the Roman Empire’s closing of pagan temples in the 4th and 5th centuries—much of the mystical stuff seemed to have faded into the background, and the more practical and magical stuff was not only left but was also drastically expanded, with the more mystical components no longer being provided by Greco-Egyptian religiosity but by Christianity and Islam.

However, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any further mystical or religious elements in post-classical Hermeticism.  On the contrary, there’s plenty of it to be found, albeit in a diminished and somewhat preserved state.  In a number of grimoires, magical manuals, and historical records written, we see reference to particular practices that don’t cleanly fit as merely magical or occult, but rather descriptions of things that would be classified more as worship.  I find this to be super fascinating because, outside of a small handful of things from classical Hermetic texts, we don’t have a big notion of what actual worship would have been like for a Hermeticist as a Hermeticist, rather than as someone participating in general Greco-Egyptian or Hellenistic temple cult more generally.  For instance, turning to a few of the classical texts, we see a few ideas:

  • CH I.29—30: nighttime (pre-sleep?) prayers
  • CH XIII.15: face east for morning/sunrise prayers and south for evening/sunset prayers
  • AH 41: face west for evening/sunset prayers and east for morning/sunrise prayers, no use of incense when praying to God, prayers are followed by a ritual embrace and ritual vegetarian/bloodless meal

And…well, without reading in between the lines of the rest of the classical Hermetic texts too much (e.g. does CH IV suggest a ritual baptism?), that’s about all we get.

As can be seen just now, I like using abbreviations to refer to particular Hermetic texts, like CH for Corpus Hermeticum, AH for the Latin Asclepius, DH for the Armenian Definitions, and so forth.  I have compiled a whole index of Hermetic texts and references for the benefit of the Hermetic House of Life Discord server, where I list all the abbreviations for the major texts based on our current state of Hermetic scholarship.  The numbering of the CH and AH is pretty well-known across many modern texts, while the SH (Hermetic fragments and excerpts from the Anthology of John of Stobi, aka Stobaeus) numbering is based on that originally given in Walter Scott’s four-volume Hermetica series in the first part of the 20th century.  However, there’s also the FH and TH texts—though “texts” might be a bit of a stretch.  These stand for “Hermetic Fragments” and “Hermetic Testimonies”, the former being smaller quotes or excerpts preserved in other authors, the latter being accounts of or about Hermēs Trismegistos and Hermeticism.  M. David Litwa’s Hermetica II contains an abundant wealth of FH and TH texts, and introduces them accordingly:

When approaching the Hermetic fragments, one must distinguish between a direct citation, a paraphrase, the employment of Hermetic ideas, and the mere naming of Hermes Thrice Great. In this section (FH), I strive to print only direct citations or paraphrases of Hermes Thrice Great. Moreover, I favor passages that do not appear elsewhere in Hermetic literature. Thus citations of CH and Ascl. by later authors are not included. Those interested in authors who employ Hermetic ideas or who refer in passing to Hermes should proceed to the Testimonies concerning Hermes Thrice Great (TH).

As for the TH specifically:

The Hermetic testimonies printed here range from the late third century BCE until the fifteenth century CE. The authors quoted are Jewish, Phoenician, Hellenic, Christian, and Muslim. They all present different portraits of Hermes that cannot easily be reconciled. For example, the Jewish writer Artapanus identified Hermes with Moses the great culture hero. The Christian Athenagoras indicated that Hermes was a deified king like Alexander the Great. Iamblichus the Neoplatonic philosopher presented Hermes as a god. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, depicted him as an idolater and demonically inspired prophet. The Alexandrian philosopher Hermias presented Hermes as triply incarnated. The Muslim writer Abū Ma‘shar said that there were three different Hermeses. The first of these built the pyramids in Egypt; the second was a Babylonian scholar; and the third was an expert on poisons. According to the magical handbook the Picatrix, Hermes was the builder of a mystical, multi-colored city featuring a wondrous temple to the Sun and an array of animated statues.

Whatever their diversity of content, these testimonies show that Hermes the philosopher and culture hero was never far removed from Hermes the magus and master of esoteric lore. Hermes was the inventor of writing according to Philo of Byblos. Yet according to the same author, he used his magic spells to help Kronos defeat his enemies. Arnobius put Hermes in the company of Pythagoras and Plato. Yet the Peratic author linked Hermes with Ostanes and Zoroaster (called Zoroastris), the chief Persian magi. For the philosopher Iamblichus, Hermes was the great guide to theurgists. In turn, most Arabic writers viewed Hermes as an expert on astrology and alchemy. Such testimonies indicate that the constructed boundary between “philosophical” and “technical” Hermetic writings remains questionable.

Although the following testimonies are wide-ranging, they are hardly exhaustive. We do not trace the reception history of the Asclepius by Latin writers after Augustine, since this work has already been done. Moreover, some works attributed to Hermes – such as the Arabic Rebuke of the Soul – are too long to be included here and are available elsewhere. There are dozens more Arabic and medieval Latin sources that make mention of Hermes, often in passing. A great number of these are alchemical, astrological, and magical texts that somehow feature Hermes or are attributed to him. Even today, this material remains largely uncharted by scholars. A full and exhaustive record of Hermetic testimonies can only await new critical editions and studies of these materials.

In a sense, while we might consider texts like CH, AH, DH, and the like to be primary sources and the FH texts to be quasi-primary or secondary sources, the TH texts that Litwa gives are tertiary at best, if not outright stories about some variant or other of Hermēs rather than necessarily being Hermetic.  As a case in point, Litwa opens up a few sources from the third to first centures BCE, like a quote from Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, written well before our usual dating of even the earliest CH texts.  Likewise, there’s also stuff from medieval Arabic and Latin texts which show abundant Islamicization or Christianization of Hermēs Trismegistos, or other adaptations of this pagan prophet to a non-pagan cultural milieu.  And yet, despite this, we still get some interesting accounts about what Hermēs and his followers (were thought to have) taught and practiced.

For instance, consider Litwa’s TH 37b, better known as book III, chapter 7 from the Picatrix:

The sages who made these prayers and sacrifices to the planets in mosques did all of the foregoing things. While the planet moved through eight degrees of heaven, they would sacrifice one animal, and similarly when it declined by another eight degrees they would offer another sacrifice. They say that Hermēs commanded them to do this in mosques or in their own churches. These sages say of the aforementioned Hermēs that he was the lord of the three flowers of things, that is, king, prophet, and sage. They require that no animal of two colors, nor black, nor having a broken bone nor a horn broken in any way, nor an injured eye, nor having any flaw in its body, be sacrificed in their mosques. When they behead an animal, they take out its liver at once. They examine it, and if they find any defect or spot in it, they say that the lord of that place has some notable impediment. They then cut up the liver and give it to one of the bystanders to eat.

Perhaps more fascinatingly, we can turn instead to TH 28, which Litwa draws from sections 7.8—10.19 of the Kitāb Muẖtār al-Ḥikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim (“Compendium of Maxims and Aphorisms”, otherwise known as Dicts or Sayings of the Philosophers) by Abū al-Wafā’ Al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik:

He preached God’s judgment, belief in God’s unity, humankind’s worship (of God), and saving souls from punishment. He incited (people) to abstain piously from this world, to act justly, and to seek salvation in the next world. He commanded them to perform prayers that he stated for them in manners that he explained to them, and to fast on recognized days of each month, to undertake holy war against the enemies of the religion, and to give charity from (their) possessions and to assist the weak with it. He bound them with oaths of ritual purity from pollutants, menstruation, and touching the dead. He ordered them to forbid eating pig, donkey, camel, dog, and other foods. He forbade intoxication from every type of beverage, and stated this in the most severe terms.

He established many feasts for them at recognized times, and prayers and offerings in them. One (of these) is that of the entry of the sun into the beginnings (that is, the first degrees) of the signs of the zodiac. Another is that of the sightings of the new moon and that of the times of astrological conjunctions. And whenever the planets arrive at their houses and exaltations or are aspected with other planets, they make an offering. The offerings for what he prescribed include three things: incense, sacrificial animals, and wine. Of the first fruits of aromatic plants they offer roses. Of grains, they offer wheat and barley, of fruit, grapes, and of drink, wine.

We also see something similar to TH 28 in the following excerpt from the Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal (“Brief History of Nations”) by Gregory Bar Hebraeus, specifically the section “On the Three Hermēses”.  Although this isn’t in Litwa’s Hermetica II (and thus lacks a TH number), Walter Scott provides a Latin translation of this bit in his fourth volume of his Hermetica series:

It is also handed down that the first Hermēs founded a hundred and eighty cities, the smallest of which is Ruhā (Edessa, Urfa); and that he prescribed to people the worship of God: fasting, prayers, alms, that they held feasts whenever the planets were in their own domicile in the descendant or in the ascendant as well as on each new moon and whenever the Sun entered any of the twelve signs; they would offer the first fruits of all crops and the best perfumes and wine; and he did not prohibit inebriation or illicit foods.

Based on all of these testimonies regarding Hermēs and Hermetic “religion”, such as it might have been considered by Islamic or Christian authors that well postdated the classical heyday of Hermeticism, we can still see clearly non-Islamic and non-Christian stuff going on.  We get, for example, a set of feasts and celebrations to be done according to particular astrological phenomena:

  • New moon (i.e. first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after syzygy with the Sun)
  • Sun ingresses into a new sign
  • Planets ingress into their domiciles
  • Planets arrive at their degrees of exaltations
  • Planets arrive into conjunction with one another (and possibly other aspects)

For these feasts (in addition to the ones we know were observed classically even if not listed here, like the Sun ingressing into individual decans as opposed to general signs or the full Moon in addition to the new Moon), we also get notions of things given in offering sacrifice: incense/perfume, wine, flowers (especially roses), grains (especially barley and wheat), fruit (especially grapes), and sacrificial animals (with the conditions that they should be unblemished and healthy, of a single colors, and not black).  We also see notions about ritual purity and prohibited foodstuffs and drinks, some of which might seem Islamic on the surface of them but which can reasonably be tied to historical prohibitions from Greco-Roman times for Egyptian priests.

And, of course, this is just limiting ourselves to just what Hermēs (was claimed to have) taught.  If we expand our scope slightly, we can then also account for some of the accounts involving the Sabians of Harran, who took the Hermetic texts as their gospel in an attempt to become a People of the Book (given an identification of Hermēs Trismegistos with the quranic prophet Idris and thus the patriarch Enoch).  If we turn back to Tārīẖ Muẖtaṣar al-Duwal for a moment, we also see another section, “On the Practices of the Sabians”:

What is known about the sect of the Sabians among us is that their confession is exactly the same as the confession of the ancient Chaldaeans, their qiblah is the North Pole, and they diligently pursue the four intellectual virtues. It is also imposed on them to pray three times [a day]: first, a half-hour or less before sunrise, which is completed with eight bows when the sun is rising, each of which contains three prayers; secondly, a prayer finished at noon, when the sun begins to move downwards, and this consists of five kneelings, each of which contains three prayers; third, with a prayer similar to the second, to be finished when the sun sets.

There are fasts imposed on them: one of thirty days, the first day of which is the eighth of ‘Ādar (i.e. Hebrew Adar); also one of nine days, the first of which is the ninth of Kānūn I (i.e. Hebrew Kīslev); and one of seven days, the first of which is the eighth of Šubāṭ (i.e. Hebrew Šẹvat).

They invoke the stars and offer many sacrifices, from which they do not eat, but which are consumed by fire. They abstain from eating beans and garlic, and some also from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils. Their sayings are near to the sayings of the philosophers; and they have the firmest arguments to prove the unity of God. They assert that the souls of transgressors are tortured for nine thousand ages, but then return to the mercy of God.

Based on these practices of the Sabians, we can also gather the following information:

  • Prayer and worship practices
    • Pray facing the north
    • Prostration-based prayer practice not unlike the Islamic rak’ah, each prostration having three prayers
    • Pray three times a day
      • A half hour or less before sunrise with eight prostrations
      • Just after noon (as the Sun begins to descend) with five prostrations
      • Just before sunset (to be completed as the Sun sets) with five prostrations
    • Animal sacrifices are burned whole without being eaten
  • Fasts
    • Thirty-day fast starting on the eighth day of Adar (roughly February or March)
    • Nine-day fast starting on the ninth day of Kislev (roughly November or December)
    • Seven-day fast starting on the eighth day of Shevat (roughly January or February)
  • Prohibited foods
    • All abstain from (cultivated) beans and garlic
    • Some abstain from wild beans, cabbage, kale, and lentils

It’s in light of all of this that I think that, even if we have a dearth of classical evidence of Hermetic rites and processes of worship, I think we have plenty of post-classical stuff that we can extrapolate from and work with all the same.  It might take a bit of sifting and reconfiguration, but as an attempt at (re)constructing a Hermetic practice based on available evidence, we have a surprising abundance of stuff to work with that makes sense for Hermetic stuff in general.

All of that is my introduction to talking specifically about shrine offerings.  Yes, while the notion of Hermetic feasts or holidays is certainly important, we also learn plenty about what they offered for such practices, and it’s that specific idea that I’ve been considering lately.  While I’m still settling on a firm notion of what a proper Hermetic shrine should consist of, at least for me (beyond, at least, the presence of a shrine lamp), I still want to take into account the notion of what sorts of offerings the above TH excerpts suggest, in tandem with my own experience of offerings and exposure to other approaches I’ve seen elsewhere, because offerings constitute a huge part of my own practice.  Sure, in a Hermetic view, the big focus of it all is on God rather than the gods, and to God one should offer nothing except pure offerings of speech in silence—but that’s just for God, not the gods, who do reasonably get quite a lot more and whose importance should never be underestimated in supporting a Hermeticist’s work and way.  And, while one could simply wing it and freestyle sets of offerings based on the above quite easily, I like having particular processes and protocols in place to give myself a formal foundation of practice.

To that end, while any given shrine should have a few basic necessities and other accouterment that facilitate worship and veneration (such as implements of prayer like bells or beads, books for reciting prayers or reading scripture, etc.), I would think that one should first get a set of dishes to make offerings with.  Based on the excerpts above, we know that the big things offered were incense, wine, grains, fruit, and flowers, so we can use this as a basis for figuring out what sorts of dishes we’d need.  My thoughts on this would be:

  • Twelve dishes should be used for formal offerings:
    • One tray (bowl, tripod, brazier, censer, thurible, boat, etc.) for incense offerings
    • Three candle holders or oil lamps for light offerings
    • Two vases for flower offerings
    • Two cups for liquid offerings
    • Two bowls for grain offerings
    • Two plates for fruit offerings
  • The dishes used may be reasonably small (e.g. shot glasses, rice/ice cream bowls, and bread/butter plates), especially for household or private practice where large offerings are not practical
  • The dishes used should be made in a matching style or aesthetic
  • The dishes used should be non-porous, water-safe, and corrosion-resistant
  • The dishes used should be free of cracks, dents, chips, scratches, or other blemishes
  • The dishes used may be repurposed from other mundane uses after thorough cleaning, if otherwise in good condition, but once used for shrine offerings should not otherwise be used for mundane purposes again
  • Extra candle holders/oil lamps, cups, bowls, and plates may be obtained as replacements or for additional offerings beyond formal offerings
  • Extra saucers or small plates may be used for candle holders to collect any wax that drips off them
  • When not in use, the offering dishes should be safely kept in storage near the shrine

Knowing the types of offerings to be made and the dishes used for them, we can then consider a set of guidelines for what specific offerings to make, how to choose certain offerings, the order of preference when considering particular types of offerings, and what offerings might go well with what other offerings.  Again, based on the above excerpts and my own experience in offerings with my own preferences I’ve developed:

  • All dishes used to make offerings should be removed from shrine storage, rinsed with clean water, and completely dried before use
  • Offerings may be made all at once before the formal start of a ritual, or may be offered one-by-one as a part of the ritual, but each individual type of offering (e.g. “wine” or “wine and water” as appropriate, but “flowers” generically instead of “one vase of flowers and another vase of flowers”) should be specifically enumerated and identified regardless
  • Incense and light must always be offered, but after these, at least one other offering must be made
    • The type of non-incense/non-light offering(s) can be one or more of liquids, grains, fruits, or flowers, according to availability and preference
    • Keep to a symbolic but reasonable number of offering dishes (e.g. three, seven, ten, or twelve dishes, as appropriate to the offering and occasion)
      • Three dishes are offered as a bare but common minimum
      • Twelve dishes are offered as a rare maximum
    • For more common or quotidian offerings, offering fewer dishes is acceptable and encouraged
  • When offering incense:
    • May be offered in self-igniting form (e.g. sticks) or loose form (e.g. resin grains or powders on top of charcoals), as desired
    • Amount of incense may be done in an appropriate number (e.g. three sticks or three scoops of powder)
    • Incense is ideally composed from odiferous substances appropriate to the offering
    • Incense used for offering should be pleasant, or at the very least not harsh
    • Any incense offered, regardless of the number of kinds or amount used, is all considered as one single offering (as it should all be offered on the one single dish)
  • When offering light:
    • At least one light in all cases, but:
      • Only one light should be offered if only three dishes are being offered
      • Two lights may be offered, if desired, if an offering is for an observance that occurs once a month or less and if one is offering more than three dishes
      • Three lights should be reserved only for the largest and grandest/rarest of offerings
    • If more than one light is offered, all such lights should be identical
    • Any light offered should burn for at least thirty minutes but no longer than twelve hours
    • If candles are used:
      • They may always be white or undyed
      • They may also be in a color appropriate to the offering
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • If oil lamps are used:
      • They may be of any non-animal source appropriate to the offering (olive oil always being acceptable)
      • They may also be of an animal source if rendered from the fat of appropriate animals previously sacrificed
      • They should not be blended of multiple sources (e.g. no mixes of olive oil and sesame oil)
      • They should not be artificially scented
    • Wicks used to burn for candles or oil lamps should be of a natural, undyed fabric (e.g. cotton or linen)
  • When offering flowers:
    • If more than one vase is used for offering, all vases should have the same kinds of flowers
    • Roses are most preferred before any other flower
    • The flowers should be in a color and number appropriate to the offering
    • It is best to use only fresh flowers, ideally cut immediately prior to offering
    • If desired (especially for rare or special events), a fresh spray of evergreens may also be included behind the flowers, with fragrant and non-spiny evergreens (e.g. laurel, cinnamon, star anise) being most preferred
  • When offering liquids:
    • If making two liquid offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of liquids
    • Wine (i.e. any non-distilled fermented beverage not of an animal source) and/or clean cool water are preferred before other liquids (e.g. distilled liquor, tea, coffee, soda)
      • For highly frequent offerings (especially daily), water is preferred before wine
      • For less frequent offerings, wine is preferred before water
    • Liquids which can turn moldy or sour (like fresh milk or non-fermented juice) should be offered sparingly, if at all
    • Old or soured wine is discouraged from being offered
    • Any liquid offered must be safe to drink (at least in moderation) for human consumption
  • When offering grains:
    • If making two grain offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two different kinds of grains
    • Barley is most preferred
    • Wheat is preferred second after barley and before other grains (e.g. oats, rice, millet)
    • Grains may be cooked or uncooked before offering
    • If cooked grains are offered, they should be freshly cooked, unsalted and unseasoned
    • If uncooked grains are offered, it is best to use the first portion of a harvest or otherwise use grains that are not aged or stored for a long period of time
    • If cooked or uncooked grain cannot be obtained, bread or another cooked non-bean staple food may be offered instead
  • When offering fruits:
    • If making two fruit offerings in a single ritual, it is best to offer two kinds of fruits
    • Grapes are most preferred before any other fruit
    • Any fruit offered should be sweet rather than sour or bitter
    • It is best to use only fresh fruit, ideally obtained immediately prior to offering
    • Fruit should be free of blemishes or injury
    • Fruit should be gently washed before offering
    • Fruit should not be cut up or sliced before offering
    • If fresh fruit cannot be obtained, dried fruit or other prepared non-meat non-staple food (most preferably desserts) may be offered instead

Make a special note of the avoidance of beans and meat in the above offerings (under grain and fruit offerings, respectively).  While one might reasonably avoid beans (fresh or dried) in general (especially given a longstanding Pythagorean avoidance of them), I also recognize that they are a staple food all the same for many people the whole world over; likewise, different kinds of meat may well be offered in sacrifice especially if an animal sacrifice is being performed and not offered as part of a holocaust.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these things cannot be offered in a context of this sort of shrine offering, but rather, I suggest that they shouldn’t be offered as part of this particular formalized offering approach.  Instead, dishes of beans or meat may be offered as additional offerings beyond the formal set of things to be offered, not as substitutes for them.

Similarly, note the deal with water and wine above.  I have always made these two liquids a staple of my own offering practice for many years now, but I’ve gone back and forth on when and how much to offer of either.  I recognize that, based on the TH excerpts above, even if wine was not consumed, it was certainly offered, with water being nowhere mentioned; however, I also consider water to be a universal offering, and not everyone is able to obtain wine or to use it in highly frequent offerings (like those on a daily or even weekly basis).  Because of that, I generally prefer giving water primarily for frequent or low-key offerings, but wine becomes primary for high-key or less-frequent ones.  Your mileage, as ever, may vary, and if you can afford to offer wine regularly, then please feel free to!  Note that I use the term “wine” here generically to refer to any non-distilled fermented beverage, so that would include drinks like beer, sake, toddy, and the like, but not anything distilled like araq, whiskey, vodka, baijiu, or soju.  For similar reasons as above with meat, I would also encourage not offering animal-derived liquids like milk, arkhi, kumis, or eggnog as part of the formal set of offerings, but may be offered beyond them.  As for mead (non-distilled) or honey liqueur (distilled), however, I’ll leave that to one’s determination about whether it qualifies as an extraordinary or ordinary offering, since it is technically derived from animals (bees) but can be argued otherwise.

But that’s not all!  In addition to figuring out what offerings to make, we should also consider how to arrange them in the shrine.  This is, admittedly, a really flexible thing in general, but in addition to how I like setting up my own shrines, I also like to take a hint and a bit of inspiration from the arrangements of Japanese Buddhist shrines, especially in household butsudan arrangements as exemplified here or here (both Shingon) or here (Jōdo Shinshū).  This isn’t to merely ape or appropriate them, but to give an idea of a formal way of arranging fairly universal offerings that are specifically highlighted in those TH texts above in a way that makes sense, at least for myself

  • The lights and incense tray should generally be placed in the center closest to the icon in the shrine, with other offerings placed in front of them slightly further away from the icon in the shrine or on the sides of these
  • When placing lights:
    • If one light is offered, it should be placed either directly in front of the incense tray, behind it on a slightly elevated surface, or to the right of it
    • If two lights are offered, they should be placed on either side of the incense tray
    • If three lights are offered, they should be placed in a row in front of the incense tray with one directly in front of it or behind it on a slightly elevated surface, and the other two on either side of the incense tray
  • When placing flowers:
    • If one vase is offered, it should be placed to the left, either to the left of the incense tray (if only one light is offered and placed on the right of the tray) or to the left of the offering area in general
    • If two vases are offered, they should be placed on the outermost left and right of the offering area
  • When placing liquids:
    • If one cup is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost left (opposite a single grain offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single grain offering is not present)
    • If two cups are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the innermost left and right
  • When placing grains:
    • If one bowl is offered, it should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the innermost right (opposite a single liquid offering, if also present) or in the center (if a single liquid offering is not present)
    • If two bowls are offered, they should be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the inner left and right (but on the outside of liquid offerings, if also present)
  • When placing fruit:
    • If one plate is offered, it may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, either to the left or right (but in balance with any other single offering, if also present)
    • If two places are offered, they may be placed in front of the incense tray and lights, to the outer left and right (outside of the liquid/grain offerings but inside of the flowers, if any of those are also present)

Likewise, after having made offerings, we should also consider how to remove them once the ritual is done and after some time has elapsed:

  • For incense offerings:
    • Any incense should burn out on their own before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
    • Incense ash may be tamped down in the tray to hold future offerings of incense, repurposed, or disposed
  • Lights may be allowed to safely burn out on their own or be extinguished after a reasonable time, but they must go out or be put out before the offering can be considered complete to be removed
  • For flower offerings:
    • Flowers are to be removed upon wilting, though the water in the vases may be changed out once a day to preserve them as long as desired before they wilt
    • Flowers may be consumed, repurposed, composted, or returned to nature
  • For liquid offerings:
    • Non-water liquids are to be removed within twenty-four hours and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
    • Water is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, or dumped onto dry earth
  • For grain offerings:
    • Cooked grains are to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Uncooked grains are to be removed within a week and either used for immediate cooking (i.e. not to be mixed with other grains back into storage) and consumption or repurposing, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-grain staple food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
  • For fruit offerings:
    • Fruit is to be removed within a week and consumed, repurposed, composted, or scattered outside for animals
    • Non-fruit prepared food is to be removed within twelve hours and consumed, repurposed, composed, or scattered outside for animals
  • All dishes used to make offerings should be thoroughly cleaned after each use, then put away safely into shrine storage
  • Any method of disposal should be done respectfully
  • Anything consumed may be done so by eating or drinking by the offerant/priest, their household/temple, or given freely as charity to others in need
  • Anything repurposed may be done so by being used in baths, washes, medicine, incenses, oils, or other purposes as deemed appropriate by the offerant/priest

I’m something of a split mind when it comes to whether and how to make use of things offered after they’ve been offered.  In one respect, things that are offered belong to the entity being offered to, and so aren’t for our use anymore; on the other hand, the act of us making an offering is often one of communion as well as sacrifice, in which we can share in the presence of a divine entity by means of the things we offer.  As a rule, any offering that begins to mold, decompose, or “turn bad” in any way should be disposed of immediately (its essence and any possible use of the offering has basically been fully consumed by the entity being offered to, especially when such decomposition happens at an otherwise remarkable rare), but given a reasonable timeframe to allow things to be consumed, whatever is left may be shared so that nothing ever goes to waste in any sense.  To that end, I’d leave it to an individual whether they give anything they offer fully away to the entity, or to give it and then partake in part of it themselves in any reasonable and respectful manner.

So, what about some example layouts?

Example offering layouts (list not intended to be exhaustive but only illustrative of different compositions):

  • Three dishes: The simplest possible layout, consisting of the incense tray, one light, and some other offering that is neither incense or light.  This could be a cup of wine/water/some other liquid, a bowl of barley/wheat/some other grain, a plate of grapes/oranges/some other fruit, or a vase of roses/carnations/some other flowers.  The incense tray would be front and center, the candle would go to the right of the tray, and the other offering would go to the left of the tray.  Easy.
  • Five dishes: This is where we can easily change things up into a lot of different variations really quickly.
    • For instance, one could make a five-dish non-edible offering consisting of incense, two lights, and two vases of flowers, arranged entirely symmetrically all in a row with the incense in the middle, the lights on either side of the tray, and the flowers on the far sides beyond the lights.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine (placed in front of the incense), a bowl of barley (placed on the right of the wine), and a vase of flowers (placed on the left of the wine).
  • Seven dishes: Even more possibilities arise!
    • We could try a symmetric layout of mixed offerings consisting of incense, two lights (placed on either side of the incense), one cup of wine and one bowl of barley (placed in front of the incense, liquid on the left and grain on the right), and two vases of flowers on the far left and right of the offering.  Instead of grains or liquids, one might also offer a plate of grapes instead, placed accordingly.
    • For a symmetric layout of two liquids and no grains, one would take the above layout and offer both wine and water, wine on the left and water on the right.
    • For a symmetric layout of two grains and no liquids, one would take the above layout again and offer both barley and wheat berries, barley on the left and water on the right.
    • One could instead make a varied offering consisting of incense in the middle, one light (placed behind and above the incense), a cup of wine and a cup of water (placed directly in front of the incense, wine on the left and water on the right), a bowl of barley (placed in the center in front of the two cups), a plate of grapes (placed to the right of the grains), and a vase of flowers (placed to the left of the grains).
  • Ten dishes: Now we’re getting fancy, and we start getting into having a full spread showing off a full set of all kinds offerings.  For this, the incense would be placed in the center as always, with a single light placed behind and above the incense.  In front of the incense would be placed a cup of wine and a cup of water together (wine on the left and water on the right); to the left of the cups would go a bowl of barley and to the right a bowl of wheat.  To the left of the barley would go a plate of grapes; to the right of the wheat would go a plate of some other fruit, like oranges.  Outside of all of these, on the far left and right, would go the vases of flowers.
  • Twelve dishes: Basically the same as ten dishes, except with the addition of two additional lights.  These would go on either side of the incense tray, with the third remaining behind and above the incense tray or all three arranged in a row in front of it and behind the two cups of liquid.  This would be the maximum formal offering, reserved only for the grandest or rarest of circumstances (like a solar new year or a rare astrological event).

Of course, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t offer more than just the above, like extra plates of food or drink, especially for making offerings for rarer events like the once-every-20-years Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.  Rather, I intend all of the above as a sort of template upon which one can arrange for making offerings of various scales and styles, covering all the necessary bases that make a sine qua non of Hermetic offerings (at least according to the Hermetic testimonies available to us).  As for determining how many dishes to set out for an offering and how to gauge the specialness of any given event, well, that’s more a matter of practicality and availability; in general, I’m a fan of the Spartan and laconic notion of not being too extravagant too often so that one might always have something to offer, and let’s be honest, sometimes there’s just not a whole lot of need or reason to offer more than light, incense, and water.  Still, when there is a need or reason to do so, at least I have a few guidelines to set things up for myself to keep myself in line without having to worry too much about the details on the fly.

The Hermetic Refranations and Repentances

I admit: I haven’t been keeping up with my daily practice.  In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve really done much of anything spiritual as of late, besides the bare minimum of shrine upkeep and keeping things clean around my house, and the most I’ve done is just study and discuss and listen and write, all of which are important but none of which take the place of actual practice and Work, all of which are necessary but none of which is sufficient unto themselves for doing what I need to be doing.  I can give all sorts of reasons for this, some of which are more reasonable than others, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve fallen out of the habit of regular spiritual practice and work.  It’s happened before, and I know that even if I get back on the ball that I’ll fall off again at some point, but that doesn’t change the fact that I really should spend more time in my temple again and at least get back into the habit of daily prayers and meditation.  I know that this is a cycle of mine, where at times I’ll be really good for spiritual work, and at other times I won’t be.  There are good and bad things that happen in either phase of the cycle, of course, and it tends to last for however long it lasts.

Lately, however, I can feel something stirring again—a pining to get back to spiritual practice (if not the actual inspiration and determination to do it, at least yet), a resurgence of ideas to explore, a wellspring of things to try out and write up.  Lately, I’ve been reconsidering how I want to do my shrines, my prayer practice, what the prayers I say are, whether I want to add in new prayers or take out old ones—all this to the effect that maybe my practice as it was, before I had fallen off the ball, was perhaps getting stale and oppressive, and maybe I just needed to break from it all in more ways than one.  After all, in breaking from things, I can also more easily break them apart, see what’s missing, what can be used to fill in the gaps, and whatnot.

To that end, I’ve been drafting and considering adding two new prayers to my prayer rule, in addition to the ones I know I’ll already be using (a little more elaborate but based on the prayer rule I outlined in this post, making use of the Triple Trisagion and the Prayer of Thanksgiving).  These two prayers are what I call “The Refranations” and “The Repentances”, respectively, and…well, you can probably guess what they’re about right from the name: the first is a prayer that dedicates myself to refraining from particular acts, and the second is a prayer that admits my faults and flaws and seeks to repent from them by confessing them and seeking forgiveness.  I wasn’t in the habit of doing either of these two things before; sure, I have my Prayer of Refuge which includes a good confessional bit and seeks forgiveness, and I’ve rewritten a sort of Solomonic confessional prayer (specifically based on book I, chapters 4 through 5 from the Key of Solomon) for my Preces Castri prayer book.  That said, I never really put much stock in the notion of sin, per se, as a Hermeticist: sure, we all make mistakes, but we’re all part of God and all doing the best we can (even if we’re mislead at times).  I suppose I see these things less in a Catholic or Western Christian notion of “crimes” and more as an Orthodox or Eastern Christian notion of “sickness”, and I shouldn’t necessarily feel bad about being sick, so long as I care enough to get better from it.

Lately, though, I’ve been reconsidering that comparatively nonchalant “it’ll resolve itself” type of approach.  One of my longstanding spiritual influences is that of Buddhism generally, and I’ve lately been looking into daily Buddhist household practices from various Buddhist cultures, sects, and traditions for inspiration (to say nothing of shrine arrangements based on Japanese butsudan).  One thing I’ve seen recommended for daily (or otherwise regular) recital and contemplation is that of the Pañcaśīla, or Five Precepts: five fundamental commitments one makes in Buddhism that forms a fundamental system of morality in Buddhism, a Buddhist parallel to the Jewish Ten Commandments.  All lay and monastic followers strive to uphold these precepts (with some lay followers also taking on some more precepts on holy days, and monastic followers having many more precepts to uphold at all times), and so these provide a useful thing to think on every day for many Buddhists the whole world over.  While I don’t quite see anything in the Hermetic texts suggesting negative commandments of behavior, e.g. “thou shalt not do X”, I did consider the energies of the planets from CH I and the irrational tormentors of matter from CH XIII and how those can be reframed as conducive to “sins” of a sort, following the 42 Negative Confessions from Egyptian funerary ritual.

Bearing that in mind, I came up with a short “prayer” of sorts which I call “the Refranations”, which are my Hermetic sevenfold parallel to the daily recital of the Five Precepts in Buddhism:

That I might flee death, darkness, and evil,
that I might strive for life, light, and goodness,
that I might continue on the way of wisdom,
that I might avoid the errors of drive and desire,
that I might subdue my temperament and senses,
that I might be saved from punishment and disgrace,
that I might not be heedless and not be evil:

I will refrain from corruption.
I will refrain from machination.
I will refrain from lust.
I will refrain from arrogance.
I will refrain from audacity.
I will refrain from greed.
I will refrain from falsehood.

For the first part of the Refranations, I specifically drew on language from CH I.18—19, CH I.24, CH I.28—29, CH XII.23, and CH XIII.21.  That first part is basically an appeal and reminder to the self for what the whole purpose is of the prayer, while the latter part is the actual statement of things I will refrain from—”will” being an important part of the formula here, not just as an indication of the future tense in English, but also as a statement of planning and intention, so not just that I will refrain, but that I will to refrain.  The phrasing of the second part originally incorporated both the planetary energies from CH I and the irrational tormentors of matter from CH XIII, e.g. “I will refrain from coveting and intemperance”, but I decided to keep things simpler, especially in light of the consideration that (as I claim) the tormentors of CH XIII were based on the energies of CH I.  I also considered having a seven-times-seven set of repentances, one set of seven for each day of the week, with each set focused on one of the bundles of planetary “sins” I introduced in my earlier post about the tormentors and the Negative Confessions; while I think such a practice could be useful for more intensive periods of spiritual devotion and focus, as I mention in that post being a Mussar-like practice, I figured that for regular recital something much simpler would be better, especially for all-around usage.

Of these two verses, it’s the second verse that is the meat of the Refranations, as they are literally statements of what I will refrain from; the first verse is more like an introduction or preliminary meditation, and while I like it, I’m not entirely sure I’ll keep that in the future as I actually set about using this prayer.  I suppose it could be useful in a chain or sequence of prayers, especially to mark a transition, but for the purposes of contemplation and moral orientation, I don’t think it’s as important.  Alternatively, I could reorder and assign each of the initial seven contemplations as being a specific thing to strive for by means of each of the Refranations themselves, based on a very loose association between them and the planet of the energy to be refrained from.  Admittedly, I do like this approach better, but it remains to be seen which is more effective in practice when I’m actually reciting my prayers themselves.

That I might flee death, darkness, and evil,
I will refrain from corruption.

That I might continue on the way of wisdom,
I will refrain from machination.

That I might avoid the errors of drive and desire,
I will refrain from lust.

That I might strive for life, light, and goodness,
I will refrain from arrogance.

That I might subdue my temperament and senses,
I will refrain from audacity.

That I might be saved from punishment and disgrace,
I will refrain from greed.

That I might not be heedless and not be evil,
I will refrain from falsehood.

At any rate, the sevenfold nature here of the statements of refraining reflects the dominance of the seven planets and their energies/tormentors that incite me towards mundanity and all that continues this cycle of generation and corruption I find myself in.  Although these are energies that are attached to the soul (at least according to Poimandrēs’ account to Hermēs in CH I.25), and thus to an extent something I can probably not fully purify myself without perfecting a divine ascent in some form or another, I can still do my best to abstain from engaging with those energies, which also doubles as training for when I do eventually give up (or have to give up) those energies as part of that divine ascent.  And yes, for those who picked up on it: the use of the term refranation here is also a nod to horary astrology, where two planets are moving towards an aspect with each other, but one abruptly stops and turns retrograde, separating away again before the aspect can perfect (which is delightfully illustrated here on Twitter by @authormischief).  Fitting enough, since these things I refrain from are planetary in and of themselves, but in this context, “refranation” also reminds me that I need to catch myself before I commit them or engage in them, no matter how close I am to them, so long as and however I can.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I necessarily will be able to catch myself before I engage in these things.  I do not claim to be a paragon of morality, and I know my behavior is far from perfect at any given moment; my actions, speech, and thoughts are not always in line with what I know they should be.  In other words—for one reason or another, whether I intend to or not—I can and do fuck up.  It’s not great of me, and I need to hold myself to account for that.  More than that, though, I should also be aware that my fuck-ups don’t necessarily just affect only me; rather, they affect everyone around me in one way or another.  Heck, even if such failings of mine were only to affect me directly, the fact that I am not able to hold myself to the good standards I set for myself means that I am not fully living up to what others deserve of me, which is basically depriving them of what they should get from me by those selfsame standards that I set for myself.  Whether directly or indirectly, my faults and failings can and do affect the world I live in, merely because I live in it, and for that, I need to hold myself to account.  It’s easy to think that I’ll be able to do so upon realizing that I’ve fucked up, but let’s be honest, sometimes we all need to have our noses shoved in the shit we put out in the world, whether we do so ourselves or by others who need to call us out for our shit.  This is why confession is a thing, notably for many Christians but also for many Buddhists as well, especially in monastic communities, because in holding ourselves and each other to account, we not only remind ourselves of the things we’ve done wrong, but learn how we can redress them, fix them, and hold ourselves back from engaging with them in the future.  If we consider these things crimes, then we learn what it is we did and what the punishment and payment for it is; if we consider these things sickness, then we learn what it is that got us sick and what the treatment and prevention for it is.

To that end, I wrote another prayer, “the Repentances”.  A bit longer than the Refranations, sure, but then, there’s more that needs to be said, since this prayer is not just a matter of confessing that which I’ve done wrong, but seeking forgiveness for it, as well.  The trigger for me writing this prayer was learning about the Awgatha/Okāsa, the so-called “common Buddhist prayer”, a formulaic prayer used in Burmese Buddhism that includes a minor act of confession as well as paying homage to the Triple Gem of Buddhism, as well as one’s parents and teachers, but I took the notion more broadly and expanded it in a way that, I feel, addresses what needs to be addressed:

Without giving thought to what I have said or done,
I have acted as one without mind.
Without mind have I acted with irreverence,
and in irreverence have I journeyed in error,
and in error have I partnered with ignorance.

In my irreverence, error, and ignorance
I have transgressed the laws of Heaven and Earth
by means of my senses, deeds, speech, and thoughts,
by doing that which I should I not have done,
by not doing that which I should have done.

For all that I have done openly or secretly,
for all that I have committed against divinity and nature,
that I might be held to account to level the balance,
I confess myself to all who hear me,
and I seek forgiveness from all who hear me.

With raised hands and lowered head
I throw myself before the gods who judge me
and seek their forgiveness and mercy for my irreverence
that, in reverence, I might be freed from the pyre of suffering
and receive the fire of light that illumines the mind.

With raised hands and lowered head
I throw myself before the sages who teach me
and seek their forgiveness and wisdom for my error
that, in attainment, I might be saved from the flood of corruption
and receive the water of life that nourishes the soul.

With raised hands and lowered head
I throw myself before the travelers who walk with me
and seek their forgiveness and assistance for my ignorance
that, in knowledge, I might be cleansed from the stench of vice
and receive the incense of virtue that refines the body.

I confess my irreverence, error, and ignorance;
may I be forgiven, o gods and sages and travelers!
In this light, life and virtue do I worship the One;
so too do I pray that I might always have a good mind
and uphold reverence, attainment, and knowledge.

For this prayer, I relied heavily on language from CH I.20, CH I.22—23, CH I.28, CH VII.1—2, CH IX.4, CH X.8, and CH X.22, but the overall structure and content of the prayer is a bit more extrapolated.  Sure, I took some inspiration from my Prayer of Refuge and that Solomonic confession prayer I mentioned above, but I also took the notion of confessing to and seeking forgiveness from the gods, the sages (i.e. Hermēs Trismegistos and others), and my colleagues/peers/fellow students on the Way from several different places.  For one, it’s a tip to continue one of the notions from my Sending of Peace and by recognizing the various powers and forces in my life, whether divine or human, but from there, it gets a little hazy.  It makes sense to me to seek forgiveness from those around me “the travelers who walk with me”, as I also recognize them in my Prayer of the Itinerant, because they are the ones who stand to most immediately be affected by that which I do, for good or ill.  More metaphorically, even if not present (whether dead or just being divine/mythic entities), I also seek forgiveness from the sages, teachers, and guides who have, one way or another, led me to where I am today; after all, what I do wrong I cannot blame them for, and what wrong I do besmirches their teachings and disrespects them who taught me better.

But the gods?  Sure, them too; I originally had “divine spirits” here, but I figured that “gods” was a shorter way to communicate that notion.  This is a notion that is not absent from Hermeticism: CH I.23 talks about the “avenging daimōn” who assails “the thoughtless and evil and wicked and envious and greedy and violent and irreverent”; section 28 of the Asclepius talks about “the chief demon who weighs and judges [the soul’s] merit” and determines its destination after death; and SH 7 talks about Justice, “the greatest female daimōn”, who is “appointed to be a punisher of human beings who err upon the earth”.  While I personally consider these to be more mythic depictions of how and why things happen (with there being no greater punisher to ourselves than our own folly when you get right down to it, all else being a matter of cause and effect whether in this world or the next), I do accept that it is a belief in some Hermetic texts that there is some divine entity that judges humanity and treats them accordingly.  Even then, though, I also need to remember that that which I do wrong doesn’t just affect those in the world around me, but the very world around me itself, and thus the gods who create and maintain and administer this world.  To wit, I piss in a river, I don’t just annoy those who are swimming in it, but I also annoy the spirits who live in that river, too.

Moreover, if we were to dig into the Egyptian roots of Hermeticism a bit more, we shouldn’t forget how a human is judged in the Weighing of the Heart, watched over and administered by the gods themselves.  While I don’t think that all of creation is necessarily a zero-sum game (all bets are off once you throw Infinity into the mix, which is why so much magic works so well despite all odds), I do need to recognize that everything I do starts a chain of cause and effect, action and reaction.  While apologizing to a broken plate doesn’t repair the plate, it does get me to a point where maybe I can replace the plate or make a new one, and in that, gives me a hope that I can redress the balance of things that I unbalance with my actions, and in so doing unburden myself of the guilt and shame I accrue from my misdeeds.  I may not be able to sway the judgment of the gods for what I’ve done, whether intentionally or otherwise, but in recognizing what it is I’ve done, I can equip myself with the knowledge, awareness, and mindfulness to address my faults and redress the balance in the future to make up for it as best as I’m able to, or at least to do what I can to cause no further harm.  This, in addition to remembering what it is I’m doing and how to do things better, is the purpose of my Repentances: to do what I can to fix what I’ve done.  And it’s not just about the things I’ve necessarily done by actions, but also by speech and thought, as well, which are as volatile and powerful as anything else I work with.

In addition to this threefold model of confessing and seeking forgiveness from the gods, the sages, and the fellow travelers on the Way, I’ve also incorporated a threefold model of the means by which I confess and am forgiven, centered around the imagery of fire, water, and incense.  In addition to being the fundamental things I offer in my spiritual practice for pretty much anything to anyone, I wanted to tie them a bit to the notion that God is “life and light” from CH I—at least for fire (for Light) and water (for Life), though I suppose Life would be better paralleled by spirit, since the demiurge in CH I.9 is introduced as being spoken into being of “fire and spirit” from God’s “light and life”.  However, seeing how those who hearkened to Hermēs’ teaching in CH I.29 were “nourished from the ambrosial water”, I figured to give water to this instead, and instead referred incense to…well, frankly, the last section of the Asclepius, where Hermēs tells his disciplines not to burn incense for offering to God.  Rather, this incense (in addition to being something I can offer) isn’t so much for God as it for me, not as an offering to myself but to prepare myself for offering my prayers and, indeed, myself to God.  Fire, water, incense—these things are offerings I make, sure, but they are also symbols of things that I offer as well as strive for, and they are also agents of purification and sanctification so that I can continue my own Work.

Of these two prayers, especially for independent or solitary practice, I’d consider the Refranations to be more important than the Repentances, but they’re both important and useful in their own ways, especially in the course of constant self-reflection and mindfulness (which the opening and final verses of the Repentances explicitly calls out).  While I don’t consider (any more, as much) Hermeticism to be a religion properly so much as a path of mysticism and spiritual development, that doesn’t change the fact that there’s still this impetus to learn, grow, and do better that is common to both mysticism and religion, where my very behavior and character is itself a means by which I offer worship to God and the gods.  While a mere expression of wanting to change and do better is not necessarily the same as actually doing better, it is an important part of that process (viz. “the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one”).  In an ideal world, I wouldn’t need to set aside a specific prayer to call to mind my own follies and faults—heck, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t be committing such things to begin with—but in lieu of constant self-reflection, setting aside some time in a dedicated practice to doing just that is still a good thing.

To me, these two prayers of the Refranations and the Repentances work well together—though I presented them in reverse of how I’d actually use them.  I’d recite the Repentances first, and that as one of the first things (if not the very first thing) I should recite for my own prayer rule; heck, I could even link up the mentions of fire, water, and incense by setting up my shrine’s offerings with those very things, lighting a candle and pouring fresh water and setting incense to burn, but that’s totally secondary to the real purpose of this prayer, which is to remember the things I’ve done (or not done) wrong, that I might instead come to my Work with a clean heart just as I come with clean hands, a scrubbing of my conscience as I’ve brushed my teeth and face.  While I could immediately then recite the Refranations (which would totally work as its own practice), I would probably recite this much later in my prayer rule, as one of the last things I’d recite before some sort of summary closing.  That way, as I close my prayers, I can walk away from my shrine fully reminded of how to live my life and do my Work, prepared to hold myself to a high standard with the goals and methods firmly fixed in my mind.

At least, that’s the idea anyway, the goal I have in mind.  I actually need to put these prayers to the proof first to see how much they actually help in that, as well as to give them enough tries to see if the language and rhythm flows as nicely when spoken aloud as they sound in my head.  For now, these prayers are just drafts, but I do hope to start using them soon—which, hey, gives me another reason to get back to the practice I should be keeping up with, anyway.  In the meantime, perhaps my change in thinking about these things (a literal μετάνοια, the Greek word often translated in to English as “repentance”) can be a source of inspiration for others, as well.

Third Book like a First Sermon: Book III of the Corpus Hermeticum

Perhaps fitting for all those Carcers I got in the yearly readings I did at the start of 2020, these past few weeks have been marked by self-isolation and quarantine both voluntary and involuntary for many of us. Frankly, this has been an excellent time for me; not only do I naturally take to a hermitic life, but I don’t have to waste time commuting, getting dressed, or the like, and can instead spend more time in my daily prayers and meditations, more time doing rituals, more time writing, more time reading, and more time sleeping. (Well, maybe not sleeping, but one can always hope.) In addition to being a hermitic time, it is also—surprising positively nobody—a rather Hermetic time for me, as well. I’m going back more and more lately, it seems to what I’ve been calling the “Hermetic canon”: the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, the Stobaean Fragments, and various other bits of classical Hermetic bits and pieces that have been compiled throughout the centuries and translated thanks to the like of Brian Copenhaver, M. David Litwa, Clement Salaman, A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugière, Walter Scott (vols. one, two, and three), and the like back and back through time. For me, I’ve been diving in deeper and deeper, contemplating and mulling over these texts, as they rightly and well deserve. They are, after all, the foundation of Hermetic thought, belief, and practice. So, it’s not uncommon that I’ll crack open my copy of Copenhaver or Litwa as I curl up in bed, read a few passages, and think them over as my head stops thinking and starts dreaming. It’s not exactly light reading, of course, but it’s a hard meal to take for the mind, full of roughage and slow-digesting nutrients—and thus among the most nutritious for the soul.

Although a number of the books of the Corpus Hermeticum are well-known and well-loved and have their own nicknames—Book I as the Divine Poemander, Book IV as the Mixing-Bowl, Book X as the Key, and so on—it’s Book III that recently caught my attention. It’s succinctly titled The Sacred Discourse of Hermēs Trismegistos (Ἑρμοῦ τοῦ Τρισμεγίστου λόγοσ ἱερός according to Scott, Ἑρμοῦ ἱερός λόγος according to Nock/Festugière), and like its short name, is a short section of the Corpus Hermeticum, indeed, coming in at only 23 (oddly long) lines of text, broken down into five short paragraphs. The trouble is, however, that the original manuscript is badly preserved, with rather lengthy lacunae on the seventh, thirteenth, and fourteenth lines, and with the first eight lines having a chunk cut off of them at the end. We also don’t have a good idea of when the text was written; some suggest as early as the third century bce, others as late as the third century ce. But what we do have, I think, is probably one of the best introductions to what Hermeticism (or Hermetism), the “Way of Hermēs”, is really all about.

Grab a drink and buckle in, dear reader. We’re going on a bit of a trip this time.

In his notes on his translation, Scott says that Book III:

…is so corrupt as to be almost wholly meaningless; and I have altered it with a free hand. It is not likely that the conjecturally emended text which is here printed is precisely what the author wrote; but I think it probable that, in the main at least, it correctly represents his meaning.

There is no necessity to take this little piece to be an extract from a longer treatise; it appears to be a complete whole in itself, and it is rounded off by a recurrence, in the concluding words, to the same thought with which it began. It is the concentrated essence of some unknown Egyptian’s reflections on the universe.

The author of Corp. III had read the first chapter of Genesis. It is impossible to doubt this, when we compare the corresponding passages in detail [between Genesis 1:1—3, 7, 11, 13, 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28 and Book III]. It is evident then that the writer of Corp. III knew the Mosaic account of the creation. But he also knew the Stoic cosmology; and in this document, he has tried to harmonize the one with the other, and so “reconcile Genesis with science”.

We have fragments of another cosmogony, which appears to have been likewise derived in part from Genesis and in part from Stoic science, but was said by its author to be based on the writings of Thoth, whom the Greeks called Hermēs Trismegistus,—namely, the cosmogony of Sanchuniathon, as reported by Philo Byblius; and it seems worth while to compare this with Corp. III…

Nock and Festugière in their notes instead comment that (my translation, with the generous help of Google Translate from the French original):

According to the remarks of L. Ménard, this whole treatise is full of inconsistencies and obscurity. This is probably due, at least in part, to the corruption of the text. In this case, the comparison with some of the variants from the Stobaean Fragments testifies to the small chance we have to correct errors that go back to the very sources of the [Hermetic] tradition. But a large part of the obscurity is also undoubtedly attributable to the author; he likes the long, sonorous words and the style of the Septuagint, which recalls the extreme obscurity of the Greek versions of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Further, we do not here have a cosmogony in the genre of Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum or of the Korē Kosmou; this is a ἱερός λόγος and, in fact, is a prose hymn.

The background of this book is worthy of attention. We do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part. God is in the universe, and is not transcendent from nor separate of the universe: there are these and other marks of Stoic influence and traces of Platonism (cf. Scott and Ferguson IV, p. XLVII for a Neopythagorean parallel in §4). Everything else comes from the Septuagint. However, the ideas of redemption and immortality [which we find earlier in Book I and elsewhere in the Hermetic canon] are absent. One moves, in fact, in the atmosphere of Judaism of the kind of Ecclesiastes, before eschatological hopes for nature or for the individual had become important and before, in certain circles, one had highlighted, like the Greeks, the opposition of the soul and the body, which was a constant idea in Philo (who was hardly the first, eschatologically speaking). Perhaps this treatise is of older date than many others in the Corpus, and it was accepted as it is, because of the affinities which it presents with the circle where the rest of the treatises were composed.

Copenhaver notes the various issues and debates over Book III in his footnotes to his translation. It is certainly a conflicted part of the Corpus Hermeticum, and it doesn’t help that the lacunae are formidable here, but which Scott and Nock/Festugière have attempted to repair admirably, giving us reasonably complete translations (with caveats) later on courtesy of Copenhaver and Salaman, as well as earlier translators like G.R.S. Mead from 1906 or John Everard from 1650. Of them all, Scott really seems to do his own thing, with everyone else remaining in more-or-less agreement about what the text says (to varying levels of accuracy, of course). Although Nock and Festugière give their own summary and outline of Book III, I want to give my own, based on their translation and version of the text, as opposed to what Scott gives. This isn’t a full version of the text, for which I’d suggest reading Copenhaver or Salaman, but it hits on all the same essential things, broken down into five fairly short paragraphs:

  1. God, the gods, and godly Nature is the glory of all things.
    1. God is Mind, Nature, and Matter.
    2. God is the beginning of the All.
    3. God is Wisdom that shows all things.
    4. The gods, who have their beginning in God, perform and consist of the creation of the cosmos.
  2. The creation of the world.
    1. In the beginning was boundless darkness, water, and spirit, all existing in chaos.
    2. Light descended upon the chaos, and the elements solidified out of the chaos.
    3. The gods separated out the part of nature that could generate and regenerate, and divided it among themselves.
    4. In the moment of separation of the elements but before the formation of matter, the subtle elements (Fire and Air) rose up and the dense elements (Water and Earth) remained behind mixed together.
    5. The world was created, bounded by Fire and set aloft in the air of the cosmos, borne by spirit.
    6. The heavens formed in seven layers around the world.
    7. The gods became visible in the shapes of the stars and their constellations, the constellations conforming themselves to the gods.
    8. The heavens around the world began to rotate by spirit.
  3. The creation of life.
    1. The gods created life according to the powers and responsibilities given unto them, making animals and plants.
    2. The gods created humanity in all its generations to know the works of God and to increase and multiply.
    3. The gods created the souls of humanity for the bodies of humanity to contemplate creation and to discover all things.
  4. The way of life.
    1. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of virtue and wisdom.
    2. To know God, to contemplate creation, etc. is the beginning of release from the works of the world.
    3. The things of the world will fade, and will be remade anew through the processes of Nature set in motion by the gods.
  5. All the powers of nature in the cosmos are divine, for nature is divine.

The cosmogony of Book III reads a little weird to Scott and Nock/Festugière: as Nock and Festugière noted, “we do not start, as in Book I, with Light, but, in the normal order, with darkness: sand here plays a role analogous to that which we see in what Damascius knew as an Egyptian cosmology, and the celestial gods have and play their part”. But I would counter that by saying it’s virtually the same thing as what’s given in Book I, when Poimandrēs reveals the origin of creation to Hermēs, just from the perspective of creation rather than the creator. Per Copenhaver:

I saw an endless vision in which everything became light—clear and joyful—and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended—fearful and gloomy—coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a snake. Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. Then an inarticulate cry like the voice of fire came forth from it. But from the light…a holy word mounted upon the watery nature, and untempered fire leapt up from the watery nature to the height above. The fire was nimble and piercing and active as well, and because the air was light it followed after spirit and rose up to the fire away from earth and water so that it seemed suspended from the fire. Earth and water stayed behind, mixed with one another, so that earth could not be distinguished from water, but they were stirred to hear by the spiritual word that moved upon them.

Note that this vision of revelation is given to Hermēs from the perspective of God, who (arguably does or does not) exist in Light. Before the creation of matter itself, all is Light; it’s only when God makes a little room within himself, within the Light, can there be a darkness, within which matter can manifest and take shape, and once it does, God sends forth from the Light the Logos, the “holy word”, which puts the process of creation into motion. That’s virtually what we see here in Book III, too, just from the perspective of the space-within-God where matter first manifests; after all, darkness was the beginning of creation, but God preexisted creation in Light.  In other words, Light is still pre-eminent in Creation, it’s just that it hasn’t reached where the darkness existed “by divine power in chaos”.  Likewise, although Nock and Festugière claim that Book III has God being only immanent without being transcendent of creation, that can only really be said if you ignore any implications of transcendence in this account of creation; just because something is not made explicit doesn’t mean the text denies it. I see no real issue here in mismatch between the cosmogonies of Book I and Book III; it’s just that Book III is easier to grok from what we or other common people might expect, already born and present here in creation.

But it’s the third paragraph of Book III that really struck me as important as I’ve been reading it. After describing the creation of animals and plants, the gods (which Scott takes to refer to the four elements themselves, acting as demiurges under God, though the text pretty clearly seems to refer to the gods of the stars and also maybe the planets) create the race of humanity. But it’s not just creation for creation’s own sake; rather, the gods create humanity for a particular set of…ideals, goals, aims, or purposes, I guess, for humanity to aspire to. Going with Copenhaver’s translation, based on Nock and Festugière, “the gods sowed the generations of humans to…”:

  1. To know the works of God
  2. To be a working witness to Nature
  3. To increase the number of mankind
  4. To master all things under Heaven
  5. To know that which is Good
  6. To increase by increasing
  7. To multiply by multiplying

But the text continues after this and gives another list, saying that “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate to…”:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To contemplate the paths of the heavenly gods
  3. To contemplate the works of God
  4. To contemplate the working of Nature
  5. To examine the things that are good
  6. To know the power of God
  7. To know the whirling changes of fair and foul
  8. To discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good

As opposed to Nock and Festugière, who follow the text as it is lacunae and all, Scott heavily amends and “repairs” the text and proposes a different wording and suggestions for the lacunae here, causing notable drift between his translation and what other translators propose. He only gives (only can give?) the following list of goals, which reads like a combination of what Nock and Festugière have above. Scott suggests that, given the similarity of these two lists based on their phrasing, “the two passages cannot have been intended to stand together in the same paragraph; one of them must have been written as an alternative or substitute for the other”. Thus, the Scott translation says that God (not the gods) created to:

  1. To contemplate Heaven
  2. To have dominion over all things under Heaven
  3. To know the power of God
  4. To witness the workings of Nature
  5. To mark what things are good
  6. To discern the diverse natures of things good and bad (elsewhere: to learn to distinguish good things from bad things)
  7. To invent all manner of cunning arts

I see Scott’s logic, I have to admit, but it also does seem a bit hacky; he does admit, after all, to altering the text freely to suit his own understanding, while Nock and Festugière preserve more of the original wording, which does seem repetitive. Perhaps, however, what Nock and Festugière have could be interpreted in a different way, a double-creation of humanity, the first material (creation of the body) and the second spiritual (creation of the soul), giving the spiritual essence of the soul one set of tasks to fulfill and the material vessel of the body another set to fulfill. That ties in closely with the wording and order of creation, following up the creation of animals and plants with humanity (“sowed the generations of humans”) and following that up with the creation of souls to inhabit human bodies (“they created every soul incarnate”). This also ties in with the wording of these different tasks: the first set are more manifest and material (mastering things under Heaven, increase the number of humanity, etc.) and the second more subtle and immaterial (to contemplate, examine, know, or discover various things).

A potential problem with this interpretation, however, is that Scott heavily argues that Book III basically denies a Platonic or spiritual understanding of immortality (of the soul, the spiritual part of humanity) which we find elsewhere in the Corpus Hermeticum as being of primary importance. According to Scott’s notes:

Corp. III shows hardly a trace of Platonism; and its writer definitely rejects the Platonic doctrine of the survival of the individual soul. It contains nothing distinctively Egyptian; and there is not the slightest sign of Christian influence. The document may be shortly described as Judaeo-Stoic. …

Each individual man, at the termination of his life on earth, “disappears” and “undergoes dissolution”. Not only is there no mention of a survival of the individual soul after the dissolution of the body, but the contrary is clearly implied. Nothing of a man continues to exist after his death, except his “name” (i.e. the memory of him in the minds of living men); and even that, in most cases, fades away in a little while. …

… Men, beasts, and plants alike (must perish). The end of the sentence is lost; but its meaning can be inferred with certainty from the context. Perhaps the author’s thought might be better expressed by writing…”all flesh is grass”. …

… If we retain these words, we must take them in connexion with ἀπομνημονεύματα τεχνουργημάτων, and the suggested thought would be this: “not only do men perish, but their works perish also; and though the names of great men may be preserved into long ages by the memorials they have left behind them, yet even the greatest will be forgotten in the end”. But the phrase is awkwardly interposed, and hardly suits the context; it cannot be said of the works of human art that they are “renewed by the operation of the stars”, in the sense in which this is said of human and animal births and vegetable growths. …

That which decays and passes away is “renewed”, but only by substitution. The individual perishes, but the race is immortal. The dead do not live again, but others are born to succeed them. And this unceasing renewal of life on earth is caused by the unvarying movements of the heavenly bodies, through the operation of which fresh births are continually taking place. The force by which the renewal is effected may be called φύσις; but φύσις is dependent on the movements of the stars, and therefore the sovereign power of God, by whom the stars themselves were made and set in motion.

Personally—based primarily on my reading of Copenhaver, and thus Nock and Festugière, which seems closer to the original text rather than the overly dour translation (and heavy-handed “repairing”) of Scott—I don’t buy this interpretation. It is true that Book III doesn’t touch on the immortality of the soul explicitly or any sort of higher goal than what was stated above as the goals of the human (whether as a whole, per Scott, or as human body and human soul, per Nock/Festugière). But consider the fourth paragraph, which Scott’s notes above describe as relating to the passing away of humanity and their works a la Ozymandias. From Copenhaver:

For [humans], [the whole of these goals for the body and soul] is the beginning of [the virtuous] life and of wise thinking as far as the course of the cycling gods destines it, and it is also the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry. In the fame of seasons they will become dim [i.e. their memory will wane and be forgotten], and, from every birth of ensouled flesh, from the sowing of crops and from every work of industry, what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle.

To me, the lack of anything substantial of what Book III says about the soul after death or the greater cosmic path of the soul as we might find in Book I or Book XIII isn’t a statement about the non-immortality of the soul at all. Rather, Book III is giving us insight into the overall purpose of what we have to do and focus on in life, any greater cosmic eschatology being irrelevant to this topic. Although this is a “sacred discourse”, I would rather argue that this is not one held to be kept secret or reserved for initiates; rather, this is a sermon to be given to people as a whole, whether or not they’re focused on a philosophical or religious life. This is a sermon that Hermēs Trismegistus might give to passers-by or to the public community who might or might not (or just might not yet) have some sort of interest in divine philosophy no matter how small, a sermon that describes in brief a summary of the creation of the world and showing a real-world, walking-the-talk way of life for those who would follow in his way. For the common people or the world at large who might have different views about where their souls might go or who might not think anything of it, it wouldn’t matter what Hermēs would say about what Poimandrēs told him about what happens to the soul after death and how to ascend through the heavenly spheres to be made God (as in Book I), so Hermēs here says nothing about it. Rather, Book III is trying to inspire people to engage in the divine work right here, right now, in this very world, in this very body that God and the gods have given us, not to put it off for some theoretical eschatology that might beggar belief. After all, it is living this divine way of life that “is the beginning of life and of wise thinking”.

By that same token, though, it is also “the beginning of their release to what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry”. How to interpret this? Scott would read this derisively as that it is our lot to die and pass away, with all that we leave behind passing away too in time, but recall that other parts of the Hermetica warn us against attachment to the world and love for the body, because it is this that traps us here in the world in an endless cycle of torturous rebirth ignorant of the Good. After all, we should not forget God’s announcement at the creation of humanity according to Book I:

… But God immediately spoke a holy speech: “Increase in increasing and multiply in multiplying, all you creatures and craftworks, and let him who is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.”

After God said this, Providence, through Fate and through the cosmic framework, caused acts of intercourse and set in train acts of birth; and all things were multiplied according to kind. The one who recognized himself attained the chosen good, but the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death.

Is this spread of humanity in the world not like what we see described in Book III, where “through the wonder-working course of the cycling gods they created every soul incarnate”, and that “what is diminished will be renewed by necessity and by the renewal that comes from the gods and by the course of nature’s measured cycle”? The wording is a bit different, but the meaning here reads identically. In fulfilling the tasks set for us in body and in soul, we begin to live a virtuous life—or, really, in the Greek original, just “way of living”, perhaps in the sense of true life, which itself is a divine blessing and virtue that corrects and heals the torments of existence along with Light and the Good. At the same time as we begin life and wisdom, we begin to free ourselves from the death of the body. The phase here of “what will remain of them after they have left great monuments on earth in works of industry” is one I interpret euphemistically to refer to our corpses, the thing that stays behind when we die as our souls move on—or should move on, at least, assuming we can free ourselves from our attachments to it, the world, and the works of the world. In many ways, Book III reads a lot like what the historical Buddha might have preached when going from town to town, describing what entering the stream would be like for those who begin on the path to enlightenment. Consider the Buddha’s second sermon, the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta:

Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.

When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: “Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.”

Although my understanding of how the Corpus Hermeticum eventually became compiled as a series of books into a single “text” is weak, if I were to compile the books myself, I’d put Book III at the very front of the line for thematic reasons before all the rest of the books of the Hermetic canon. To me, after mulling it over and chewing on it a good while, Book III reads like the introduction to the teachings and way of life that Hermēs Trismegistus teaches. All the other revelations, philosophy, mysteries, and initiations that Hermēs teaches to Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon are all well and good, but for someone who is otherwise wandering in the dark without guidance at all, Book III shines for them a beacon that can guide them to a safe harbor, planting the seed (as the gods themselves did and do in the world) of life and wisdom.

Notes on the Heart Sutra

Slightly different track for today’s post.  A handful of people know that I have a deep respect and appreciation for Buddhism, especially the Thai Forest and Japanese forms of the religion/philosophy.  It was one of the first alternative religious traditions I was ever exposed to, and something I’ve taken more than a passing fancy in studying on my own; had I more time and energy and resources, I’d dedicate myself a lot more to it seriously than I can, but alas, my path is slightly different and does not (yet) allow for it.  Still, it’s always got a high place in my heart, and recently I’ve been dwelling on one of my favorite texts in the entire Buddhist canon: the Heart Sutra.  It’s a deep abiding not-quite-joy to recite and to meditate on, and given its popularity, I figure I may as well recognize it here.  Sure, it’s a slight departure from the usual Hermetic stuff on this blog, but I never claimed to stick to any one particular track, and I think bringing this up to most people’s awareness would do them and the general occulture some minor amount of good.

There have been endless translations of the Heart Sutra into any number of languages, but a problem is that it really is a summary overview of so much of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and teaching that it can almost be considered a CliffsNotes-type of sutra; unpacking everything would pretty much necessitate a full exploration of Buddhist thought, which is just a little out of the scope of this blog.  I find that the one by Jayarava (provided in 2013 on his blog) is particularly excellent for modern readers, but below is another one based on the one available on Wikisource that I’ve modified for diction and clarity, with links to any possible Buddhist reference for terms or concepts that I can manage:

The Great Sutra of the Heart of Perfection of Wisdom

When the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara was practicing the profound perfection of wisdom, he examined the five aggregates of existence and saw that they were all empty of all suffering and affliction.

Śāriputra, form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form.  Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form.  Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also such as this.

O Śāriputra, all experienced phenomena are empty: not created, not destroyed, not dirty, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing.  This is because in emptiness there is no form, sensation, perception, volition, or consciousness.  There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or thoughts; no form, sound, scent, taste, sensation, or dharma; no field of vision, up through no realm of thoughts.  There is no ignorance nor end of ignorance, even up to and including no old age and death, nor end of old age and of death.  There is no suffering, its accumulation, its elimination, nor path.  There is no knowledge and no attainment.

Because there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on the perfection of wisdom, and their minds have no obstructions.  Since they have no obstructions, they have no fears.  Because they are detached from perverse delusions, their ultimate result is the release from suffering.  Because all buddhas abiding in the past, present, and future rely on the perfection of wisdom, they attain the highest-possible perfect awakening.

Therefore, know that the perfection of wisdom is a great spiritual charm, a great brilliant charm, an unsurpassed charm, an unequaled charm.  It can truly remove all afflictions.  This is true and real, this is no lie.  Speak the charm of the perfection of wisdom; the charm is spoken thus:

GATE GATE PĀRAGATE PĀRASAṂGATE BODHI SVĀHĀ

The Heart of Wisdom Sutra

So what does this all mean?  In many ways, the Heart Sutra is an ultra-condensed form of Mahayana Buddhist teaching, and the earlier/original versions of the text don’t even have the usual context set and setting.  The slightly longer form establishes the frame for the discussion of the Heart Sutra like this: at one point in time, the Buddha was gathered with a great community on the mountain of Vulture’s Peak (Gṛdhrakūṭa), east of the ancient city of Rājagṛha (modern Rajgir in India) .  Amidst all the monks, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (also known as Guan Yin, Kannon, or Chenrezig) was practicing Prajñāpāramitā.  The Buddha himself entered a deep state of meditation and awareness, and by his powers, induced his disciple Śāriputra to approach Avalokiteśvara and ask the bodhisattva how one should go about practicing Prajñāpāramitā.   Avalokiteśvara then replied with the above sutra, describing what Prajñāpāramitā and how to practice it.  At this point, the Buddha himself left his state of meditation to praise Avalokiteśvara on the discourse, and that both he and every possible buddha ever approves of it, and then everyone lived happily ever after.

So what is Avalokiteśvara saying?  Basically, everything is empty.  This isn’t to say that everything is nothing a la nihilism, but that everything that exists or that is experienced is simply a construct.  Every entity does not exist as a thing-in-itself, concrete and independent from the rest of reality and existence, but that every possible thing lacks an intrinsic identity, quality, or existence.  Everything exists because of everything else that has gone before it so that it can be constructed; it is “empty” only so far as regards an independent nature.  My coffee cup on my desk, for instance, only exists because:

  • I bought it to exist in my life
  • I put it where it is for it to exist on my desk
  • The materials for it were harvested by other people
  • The processes to craft it were handled by other people
  • I, the harvesters, and crafters were all born and nourished by the actions of other people, who in turn were born and nourished by the actions of yet other people, ad infinitum
  • The materials for the coffee cup and all possible nourishment were generated/recycled through natural meteorological, geological, and cosmological forces

In other words, there is no part of this coffee cup that exists on its own without the input, causes, actions, or reactions of everyone and everything else that has gone before it; it is empty of “itself”, because there is no “self”.  There is no “being”, only “interbeing”; nothing is independent, because everything depends on everything else.  That is emptiness, generally speaking, and Avalokiteśvara describes the aggregates of existence (five skandhās) as all being empty: material form of objects, the sensory experiences of objects, the sensory and mental processes that registers and perceives objects, the mental actions and constructions triggered by objects, and the consciousness, awareness, and discernments we make involving objects.  All of these things are empty, no one of them existing apart from each other or the objects themselves, and for that matter anything else that exists in the cosmos.  But, going beyond that, Avalokiteśvara describes all phenomena as empty, as well.  The exact word here is dharma, which we usually mean as “law” or “doctrine” (as in Buddhism or Hinduism itself), but its meaning is wide enough to capture all possible phenomena, all monads or atoms, as empty.  It is out of these dharmas that the skandhās themselves are made, so if an object is the result of the processes and phenomena that developed it, then each process and phenomenon itself is likewise the result of other dharmas that developed it.  Thus, there is no thing, neither local or temporal nor material nor procedural, that exists apart of anything else.  Everything is the result of the interplay of everything else; there is nothing intrinsic to anything, no law nor self nor quality nor idea.  It is Heraclitus’ παντα ρει (“everything flows”) taken to its logical extreme.

Again consider, however, my coffee cup.  Speaking less philosophically, it is currently empty of drink, and yet it is not empty at all, since it is volumetrically full of air.  By pouring coffee into the mug, I have not really “created” coffee, but simply transformed the location of coffee from the coffee pot to the mug; I have not destroyed the air inside the mug, but instead displaced it.  I did not do this as its own divinely-inspired, pure-of-need action, but I poured coffee because I wanted coffee and needed something convenient to drink it from.  Because the act of pouring coffee took place within the greater context of my life, the act cannot be considered on its own but as an aggregate formed from everything else in my life, as well as an aggregate forming my life itself; there is no true “start” or “end” to the act of pouring coffee, just as there is no “start” or “end” to the existence of coffee itself; it is formed from water and coffee beans and heat, yes, but at what point do these stop being separate things that have never been coffee and start becoming a single thing that is only coffee? At what point does coffee no longer stay coffee but becomes something else that was never coffee?  These questions have no answer, because there is no intrinsic “coffee” to consider.  Thus, there can be no purity or contamination of coffee, just a series of phenomena and experiences and aggregates that collectively make something that I can give the label of “coffee” to for the time being.  As Avalokiteśvara says, “not created, not destroyed, not dirty, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing”.

It then follows that literally all of Buddhist thought—the five skandhās themselves, the eighteen dhātus of objects/sense faculties/consciousness that operate through the skandhās, the twelve nidanas of causes and effects that provide the basis for birth and rebirth in this world of suffering, the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha himself declared upon his enlightenment, even the notion of knowledge or wisdom itself or the ten bhūmis or stages of achieving them—are all empty.  All of it.  Everything is empty, therefore the whole religious philosophy and practices within it of Buddhism must all likewise be empty.  There is nothing intrinsic to Buddhism that makes it Buddhism, holy, special, or powerful; it’s the result of everything else and is the cause of everything else just as much as everything else is.  It’s not that it’s nothing, but that it’s part and parcel of everything, just as much as everything else is.  In other words, it’s reaffirming and emphasizing the teaching of Buddhism in its own terms, and because of this, the whole notion of Prajñāpāramitā (which is basically the wholesale realization of the foregoing and the insights and awareness it provides) is what gets bodhisattvas to where they’re trying to go.  If nothing has its own independent qualities, then nothing can be considered intrinsically scary.  If nothing can be scary, then there is nothing to fear.  If there is nothing to fear, then there is nothing to escape or hide from.  If there is nothing to escape or hide from, there is nothing to lie about.  If there is nothing to lie about, then there is nothing to be deluded about.  If there is nothing to be deluded about, then there is nothing stopping you from being free of suffering and illusion.  And, if you can be free from suffering and illusion, then there’s nothing stopping you from achieving the whole goal of the whole shebang: complete, utter, total enlightenment.  You’re already there, because there is no such thing as getting there, you just haven’t realized it yet, because you haven’t seen how empty you are yet or how empty your world is yet.

In other words, Prajñāpāramitā—the perfection of wisdom itself—is the full realization and insight of emptiness.  By this and this alone, everything else in the bodhisattva path of awakening follows.  The Heart Sutra recalls this very thing, to remind us that awareness of emptiness is the perfection of wisdom, and that by its recitation, we gird ourselves with the strength and compassion of wisdom itself for the sake of liberation.

So, onto chanting it.  The Heart Sutra, as can be seen above, is a pretty short text, if not one of (or the most) shortest in the Mahayana Buddhist canon.  For this reason, it’s a favorite for people to chant as an entire thing, and it’s not uncommon for it to be chanted daily at monasteries or temples across the world.  Current academia on the origins of the Heart Sutra suggest that it was originally composed in Chinese, and then back-translated into Sanskrit (or the hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit that was in use for many such texts, which is not properly Sanskrit as such).  The Chinese text is what was disseminated throughout Asia, and though it was historically recited in any number of local languages, they all rely on the same fundamental Chinese text using their respective Sinitic methods of recital; I prefer the Sino-Japanese style of reading this text mostly because I can actually trust and understand Japanese phonology.  The transcription below comes from Andrew May’s website, modified for diacritics and organization; note that hyphens link multi-character words together, and are generally (but not always) limited to Sanskrit-derived names or words (e.g. Han-nya-ha-ra-mi-ta for Sanskrit Prajñāpāramita, or Sha-ri-shi for Śāriputra).  In general, one syllable matches one character, though some characters are two syllables (e.g. 厄 “yaku”).

摩訶般若波羅蜜多心經 MA-KA HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA SHIN GYŌ
觀自在菩薩行深般若波羅蜜多時 KAN-JI-ZAI BO-SATSU GYŌ JIN HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA JI
照見五蘊皆空度一切苦厄 SHŌ KEN GO UN KAI KŪ DO IS-SAI KU YAKU
舍利子色不異空空不異色 SHA-RI-SHI SHIKI FU I KŪ KŪ FU I SHIKI
色即是空空即是色 SHIKI SOKU ZE KŪ KŪ SOKU ZE SHIKI
受想行識亦復如是 JU SŌ GYŌ SHIKI YAKU BU NYO ZE
舍利子是諸法空相 SHA-RI-SHI ZE SHO HŌ KŪ SŌ
不生不滅不垢不淨不增不減 FU SHŌ FU METSU FU KU FU JŌ FU ZŌ FU GEN
是故空中無色無受想行識 ZE KO KŪ CHŪ MU SHIKI MU JU SŌ GYŌ SHIKI
無眼耳鼻舌身意無色聲香味觸法 MU GEN NI BI ZE SHIN I MU SHIKI SHŌ KŌ MI SOKU HŌ
無眼界乃至無意識界 MU GEN KAI NAI SHI MU I SHIKI KAI
無無明亦無無明盡 MU MU MYŌ YAKU MU MU MYŌ JIN
乃至無老死亦無老死盡 NAI SHI MU RŌ SHI YAKU MU RŌ SHI JIN
無苦集滅道無智亦無得 MU KU SHŪ METSU DŌ MU CHI YAKU MU TOKU
以無所得故菩提薩埵依般若波羅蜜多 I MU SHO TOKU KO BO-DAI-SAT-TA E HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
故心無罣礙無罣礙故無有恐怖 KO SHIN MU KEI GE MU KEI GE KO MU U KU FU
遠離一切顛倒夢想究竟涅槃 WON RI IS-SAI TEN DŌ MU SŌ KU GYŌ NE-HAN
三世諸佛依般若波羅蜜多 SAN ZE SHO BUTSU E HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
故得阿耨多羅三藐三菩提 KO TOKU A-NOKU-TA-RA SAM-MYAKU-SAM-BO-DAI
故知般若波羅蜜多 KO CHI HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
是大神咒是大明咒 ZE DAI JIN SHU ZE DAI MYŌ SHU
是無上咒是無等等咒 ZE MU JŌ SHU ZE MU TŌ DŌ SHU
能除一切苦真實不虛 NŌ JO IS-SAI KU SHIN JITSU FU KO
故說般若波羅蜜多咒即說咒曰 KO SETSU HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA SHU SOKU SETSU SHU WATSU
揭帝揭帝般羅揭帝般羅僧揭帝菩提薩婆訶 GYA-TEI GYA-TEI HA-RA-GYA-TEI HA-RA-SŌ-GYA-TEI BŌ-JI SO-WA-KA
般若心經 HAN-NYA SHIN GYŌ

I translated whatever technical terms I could in the above translation, but there’s the notable exception about the final set of words.  This is generally considered a mantra, and mantras aren’t generally translated; their potency generally is said to lie in the actual sound and vocalization of them and less in any meaning, but Jayarava’s translation of the mantra here has it as “gone, gone, gone over, gone over to the other side, awake, svāhā” (where “svāhā” is a typical end to a mantra, literally meaning “well said” but used to mean something like “all hail”, “so be it”, or “amen”).  He’s also gone over the mantra in a more in-depth manner elsewhere, and notes that the descriptions of the mantra as great, brilliant, unsurpassed, and unequaled are usually epithets for the Buddha, and thus liken or equate the mantra itself to the Buddha, but that it’s less a mantra and more of a dhāraṇī or vidyā, in either case something more akin to a spell or magical invocation.  Thus, I’ve translated it above with the word “charm”, based on how the word is used for similar “words of power” sequences in more Western texts like the PGM (which, it would seem, would be a translation that even Jayarava might agree with).  In any case, the mantra-dhāraṇī-vidyā-charm-spell would be pronounced /gəte gəte pɑːrəgəte pɑːrəsəⁿgəte bod̪ʱi sʋɑːhɑː/ or, for a less IPA-based approach, “guh-tay guh-tay pah-ruh-guh-tay pah-ruh-sahn-guh-tay bohd-hee swah-hah”, if you wanted to use the proper Sanskrit pronunciation, though again, any vulgate language that the whole sutra is recited in would use its corresponding Sinitic readings of the characters 揭帝揭帝般羅揭帝般羅僧揭帝菩提薩婆訶, which were used in early/middle Chinese to transcribe the Sanskrit sounds themselves.

An excellent rendition of this text in Japanese is that of the Sōtō Zen monk and teacher Taisen Deshimaru, who in this particular recording leads a group of Buddhists in reciting the sutra.  The recording opens up with a brief bell meditation, recites the sutra three times at an increasingly fast but rhythmic pace, and concludes with  a slow recitation of different texts after the 7:26 mark:

I share this all not just because it’s been on my mind lately and I wanted to have some sort of outlet for it, but because it reminds me, in a grand sense, that we’re all in this together.  There is nothing that you’ve done that hasn’t affected me, nor vice versa; there is nothing that exists that hasn’t impacted the existence of anything else.  There’s another saying about emptiness: “if it exists, then one speck of dust exists; if it doesn’t, then the whole cosmos doesn’t either”.  We’re all here because each and everyone one of us is here; everything that is happening (or has, or will) is happening because, with, by, and for us, endlessly and continuously, just as we exist/happen for the sake of everything else.  As Ghandi (actually) said, “all the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body; if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change”.  

In other words, be good or be good at it.  The entire cosmos is literally riding on it.

(also oh my god Kalagni I’m so sorry if I bungled any of this, please fix anything that’s broken)