Julius Evola’s The Doctrine of Awakening: Book Review

Julius Evola
The Doctrine of Awakening: The Attainment of Self-Mastery According to the Earliest Buddhist Texts
Inner Traditions, 1996

In The Yoga of Power, Julius Evola wrote about the alchemical “wet path” based on esoteric Hinduism. In The Doctrine of Awakening he turns his attention to the “dry path,” an intellectual and ascetic path of detachment based on Theravāda Buddhism.

The Buddhism that Evola presents is considerably different from the Westernized form of Mahayana Buddhism espoused by most in the modern world. Pāli Buddhism is marked by hierarchy and ascesis, combined with traditional interpretations of the Noble Eightfold Path (ariyamagga).
According to Evola:

Only in certain Western misconceptions is Buddhism — considered in later and corrupted forms—presented as a doctrine of universal compassion encouraging humanitarianism and democratic equality. (pg. 34)

Although Evola is clear that the wet and dry paths are equivalent in terms of the final goal (provided they are followed through to the end), he refers to primitive Buddhism as “almost ‘Olympian'” and describes it as a “complete and virile system of asceticism formulated during the cycle to which modern man belongs.” Pāli Buddhism, based on teachings directly from the Buddha and his disciples, contains several key elements that make it an attractive discipline:

  1. it contains a complete ascetic system;
  2. it is universally valid, and realistic;
  3. it is purely “Aryan” in spirit (see below);
  4. it is accessible even in the Kali Yuga;
  5. it is free from emotional and sentimental elements;
  6. its ascesis is conscious; and
  7. it is “almost the only system that avoids confusion between asceticism and morality” (pg. 6). Ethical precepts are judged against their positive ascetic value (i.e., what the practitioner benefits by following them).

Evola expounds considerably on the last point, that sīla (right conduct, usually encompassing right speech, right action, and right livelihood) is like the raft in a popular parable. The raft is useful for getting across the river, but you shouldn’t continue carrying it after you cross to the other side. Evola stresses that in Pāli Buddhism, right conduct was meant to be an instrument of a virtus, in the ancient sense of virile energy, rather than moralistic virtue. In fact, moral conduct “whose motive is hope in a posthumous continuation of the personality is considered to be another of the lower fetters” (pg. 83). Right conduct is the first phase of ascesis, followed by spiritual concentration and contemplation, then transcendental knowledge and spiritual illumination.

Julius Evola on the Doctrine and Manner of the Ariya

Julius EvolaThe Doctrine of Awakening details the true meaning of the ariya, always using the Theravāda Buddhist definition of a “noble person” or one who follows the path of Truth, rather than the nineteenth-to-twentieth century racial misconception of the term.

The book gives many examples of Aryan versus non-Aryan doctrines. For example, religions with a theistic concept of God are incomplete, and the natural Aryan (noble) spirit demands a concept of God that is beyond both being and nonbeing. In the canon texts, the ariya “are the Awakened Ones, those who have achieved liberation and those who are united to them since they understand, accept, and follow the ariya Doctrine of Awakening” (pg. 13). This is in accordance with the Buddhist custom that refers to all Buddhists as Arya persons (ariyapuggalas).

Another noble marker of Buddhism is its lack of proselytizing, an enterprise that almost always exists “in direct proportion to the plebian and anti-aristocratic character of a belief,” and the Buddha never appealed to the irrational, sentimental, or emotional elements in people in an attempt to convert. Evola states:

An Aryan [noble] mind has too much respect for other people, and its sense of its own dignity is too pronounced to allow it to impose its own ideas upon others, even when it knows that its ideas are correct. Accordingly, in the original cycle of Aryan civilizations, both Eastern and Western, there is not the smallest trace of divine figures being so concerned with mankind as to come near to pursuing them in order to gain their adherence and to ‘save’ them. The so-called salvationist religions . . . make their appearance both in Europe and Asia at a later date, together with a lessening of the preceding spiritual tension, with a fall from Olympian consciousness and, not least, with influxes of inferior ethnic and social elements. (pg. 17)

Other characteristics of the ariya are that he does not follow systems (again, a reference to wisdom gained by understanding) nor recognize dogmas (referring to the concept of sīla as a means of liberation rather than a moral code). In addition:

. . . having penetrated the opinions current among the people and being indifferent in the face of speculation, he leaves it to others, he remains calm among the agitated, he does not take part in the verbal battles of those who maintain: ‘This only is the truth,’ he does not consider himself equal to others, nor superior, nor inferior. (pg. 40)

Another characteristic of the Ariyan ascesis is that the adherent is able to see himself and the world as they truly are, with dignity and self-knowledge. There is no false humility, vanity, pride, or conceit (pg. 91).

The Doctrine of Awakening details the five qualities that are required of an Ariyan combatant (a disciple on the ascetic path):

  1. strength conferred by confidence;
  2. knowledge and wisdom;
  3. genuineness; truthfulness in knowing what one is; to have a true heart and a free, ductile mind (so it is capable of receiving the doctrine);
  4. virile energy: a strength of will that will repel unhealthy tendencies and states, and be able to replace delight in craving with delight in heroism; and
  5. firmness and vigor, so that one does not succumb to depression or exaltation. This requires looking after one’s physical health and avoiding troubles caused by one’s surroundings, to avoid both excessive tension and slackness.

This path is the “way of the gods” (deva-yana) described in the Upanishads, which leads one to an unconditioned state from whence there is no return. This is in contrast to the pitr-yana, in which the individual is sacrificed as “food” to various deities after death, only to experience rebirth on earth.

Julius Evola on the Caste System in Buddhism, and Spiritual Heredity

Julius Evola spends much time discussing the caste system in The Doctrine of Awakening, both its original intent and how it had degraded by the time of the Buddha. In the traditional world, the ascetic was above caste, as he could come from any caste and was free from the obligations of his caste. Evola cites a simile of the Buddha:

As one who desires fire does not ask the type of wood that in fact produces it, so from any caste may arise an ascetic or an Awakened One. (pg. 32)

The four castes are equal, in terms of their capacity for liberation. At the same time, however, Evola is clear to assert that the Buddha never tried to overthrow the caste system, which simply placed people in births due to their “past lives,” cravings (kamma), and spiritual goals. Evola cites a proclamation from Buddhist texts:

Not by caste is one a pariah, not by caste is one a brahmana; by actions is one a pariah, by actions is one a brahmana. (pg. 33)

The Doctrine of Awakening also comments at length on spiritual heredity, especially in relation to the bodhisattva—a being mainly composed of “illumination.” If such a being chooses to be born, rather than using a body of craving as a vehicle for manifestation, he will use a “celestial body.” Having such a worldview naturally means that biological heredity is reduced to “merely relative importance”:

Heredity is considered here as something much vaster: as not only that which one inherits from one’s ancestors, but also as that which comes from oneself and from antecedent identifications. Indeed, taking heredity comprehensively, only the latter is essential as far as the core of the human personality is concerned. (pg. 65-66)

Evola also distinguishes between several types of heredity:

Equally the most essential and truly ‘direct’ heredity of a being is not found in the genealogy of its earthly parents. Besides one’s own heredity of body and soma, there is samsāric heredity and, finally, there is one’s heredity that is the principle ‘from above’ clouded by ‘ignorance.’ (pg. 66)

As part of the description of heredity, Evola provides a lengthy description of the “chain of the 12 nidāna” the cause-and-effects described by the Buddha that relate to rebirth, dukkha, and manifested existence. Later he talks about the “race of the spirit” as just as important as “race of the body.” He gives as examples a “telluric” spirit, who considers self-identification with becoming and elementary forces as natural, and a “Dionysian” spirit, who opposes universal impermanence with a love of spontaneous indulgence in corruptible things. Evola also refers to the ancient Indian belief that in some men, animals were reincarnated and that some would be reborn as animals. This refers to a human life in which the “central element is guided entirely by one of those elemental forces that externally manifest themselves in the normal way in one or other animal species” (pg. 96).

How a Noble Spirit Reacts to the World

One of the most beneficial parts of The Doctrine of Awakening is Julius Evola’s many examples of what it means to be a truly noble person, and how a noble spirit reacts when it finds itself within samsāric existence. This is helpful to the reader from the standpoint of self-affirmation on the ariya path, and provides some detailed instructions about the correct mindset to have in relation to the world.

To distinguish noble beings from average ones, Evola proposes a simple test: Engage a man in an intense self-analysis. Ask him repeatedly, about many things, “Can you say: this am I? Can you really identify yourself with this?” The noble being will always answer in the negative, even when asked about identification with celestial worlds and other supersensible notions. The noble being will then leave home and renounce the world in favor of the ascetic path (pg. 75-76).

Departure (pabbajja) is necessary because ascesis cannot be done at home; to the ascetic the home is a prison, and therefore he must leave as did the Buddha, ridding himself of attachment to people and things. It is said, “Let the ascetic be alone: it is enough that he has to fight with himself” (pg. 102). However, it is important that detachment not be merely physical (in fact, at one point Evola says that mental detachment is more important in the Kali Yuga, and that home can, in some interpretations, be symbolic of the personality). Some advice is given to the disciple regarding the proper form on the ascetic path:

Therefore, do not let people’s talk affect you, do not pay too much attention to words. Do not dispute with the world, but judge it for what it is, that is to say, impermanent. The texts speak of ‘being to oneself an island, of seeking refuge in oneself and in the law, and in nothing else.’ If a man cannot find a wise, upright, and constant companion with whom he may advance in step, ‘he walks alone, as one who has renounced his kingdom, as a proud animal in the forest, calm, doing ill to none.’ (pg. 102)

This renunciation of the world is based on “knowledge” and accompanied by a “gesture of disdain and a feeling of transcendental dignity.” Evola stresses that for a noble being, one who has a strong will for the unconditioned and is of a special “race of spirit,” such a renunciation is natural and from a point of strength: solitude is wisdom. It is not a case of the noble being denying himself certain things as a mortification; rather, it is a case of a person shunning anything that is false and unworthy, from a positive and superior state:

Such a man, then, does not reject life — life that is interwoven with death—for ‘mortification,’ thereby doing violence to his own being, but because it is too little for him, and when he remembers himself, he feels it to be inadequate to his real nature. At such a moment it is natural to renounce, to cut oneself off, to stop taking part in the game. (pg. 76)

The notion that asceticism and renunciation spring from a positive element is stressed over and again in The Doctrine of Awakening:

. . . it is rather, an impulse that springs from the supernatural element in oneself that — although it has been obscured during the passage of time — still survives in ‘noble beings’ beyond their samsāric nature, like the lotus that, poised above the water, is free from the water. These are the beings who, according to a text, gradually realize that the world unveiled by ascesis is their natural place, ‘the land of their fathers,’ and that the other world — this world — is, instead, a foreign land to them. (pg. 76)

Renunciation springs from disgust in the Ariya disciple. It is this disgust that causes his detachment — from personality, from perception, from form, from objects, and from emotional states, whether pleasant or painful. In defining this process and subsequent states, Evola is clear that “Buddhism does not say: the ‘I’ does not exist—but rather: one thing only is certain, that nothing belonging to samsāric existence and personality has the nature of ‘I’” (pg. 77).

Eventually, “there is a feeling that one’s own person is a simple instrument of expression, something contingent that in due course will dissolve and disappear in the samsāric current” (pg. 82). Rather than dismay, this is a cause and source of superior strength.

During this process, an extra-samsāric element called panna should manifest itself, which arrests the samsāric current. The current is then inverted, and the vortex that once made the average man now works in the creation of the uttamapurisa, the supreme man.

*   *   *

This review covers the first part of the book; however, it is the second half of The Doctrine of Awakening in which Julius Evola delves into practical exercises for the ascetic. Although Evola’s books are often abstruse, his descriptions of the stages of Buddhist meditation are presented in a clear and easy-to-follow format. The most eager student could be occupied for years, as at the end of the book, practices are given for advanced stages of “states free from form and the extinction,” for those who have overcome the possibility of rebirth in the world of forms.

Evola draws solely from Pāli Buddhist canon in The Doctrine of Awakening, primarily from texts classified as the Sutta-pitaka, the second of the three divisions of the Pāli canon. He references the Digha Nikaya (available in English as The Long Discourses of the Buddha), the Samyutta Nikaya (available in English as The Connected Discourses of the Buddha), the Anguttara Nikaya (available in English as The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Dhammapada.

The majority of the quotes about and explanations of meditation techniques are from the Majjhima-nikāya. (I’d recommend the English translation by the English scholar-monk Bhikkhu Nanamoli (1905-1960) and Bhikkhu Bodhi, called The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, from the same series as many of the Pāli translations referenced above.)

Julius Evola’s The Doctrine of Awakening touches on many other themes that will be familiar to readers of his other books. Evola discusses the modern world, a “wet path” in primitive Buddhism, and provides comparisons between Buddhism and alchemy. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in Buddhism or Traditionalist thought.

Please visit the archives for more posts on radical traditionalism and Julius Evola.