A Bardon Community — Reflections on a Trend

Many years ago, when I was just beginning to read and practice Franz Bardon’s Initiations Into Hermetics (“IIH” for short), the Czech magician’s system of training was fairly obscure outside of some fairly serious students of occultism. Today, the situation has changed considerably, with Bardon’s writings being pretty well known to nearly every occultist, magician, or Neopagan out there. And that’s great. I’m very happy that Bardon, especially IIH, is getting more attention and is finding his way into more and more occult training routines. There’s even a growing community of Bardon practitioners out there who are doing their part to spread what, to my eyes, is the single best system of mystical and magical training native to the Western world available in any European language. This community’s growing pains, however, are all rife with their own lessons.

I’ve only recently come into contact with what I’m broadly referring to as “the Bardon community”. I’m not antisocial, but I am pretty good at keeping to myself, and I take the old injunction “To Keep Silent” pretty seriously — and apparently far more at face value than most — so I don’t tend to seek people out with whom to discuss these things. But this blog, Facebook, and other venues are obvious breaches in my fortress whereby people can find me and have conversations. So, by way of just having this blog, I found myself in discussions with a variety of people and am learning of this community that I never really knew existed as such. Much of what I’m learning is very encouraging, while some of it is quite troubling indeed. I’d like to address some of those challenges in this post, not to shame or blame anyone but to give what I think is useful food for thought that this burgeoning Bardonism might develop a healthy trunk from the strong roots Bardon himself laid down.

The first thing to strike me about the loose association of Bardon practitioners is the abundance of schools, not just in the sense of institutions intent on giving guidance to other practitioners but in the sense of competing camps of interpretation and application. In both of these senses, the various “schools of Bardonism” are prone to mislead. I do not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with a more experienced practitioner making themselves available as a resource to those coming after, and I also do not have anything necessarily against them making some money from it. After all, the time, energy, and expertise which goes into this process can be great and is deserving of tribute or acknowledgment on the part of the fortunate student. But Bardon’s works are very intentionally structured as yogic self-study. If pursued with diligence and patience, most questions will answer themselves. Any further filling-in of the outline of IIH is actually quite counterproductive, as a large portion of the educational value of IIH is exercising not only the discipline but also the creativity and even playfulness which make the exercises practical and which integrate them into our daily lives and deeper psychology.

The structure of IIH was left sparse very deliberately. Bardon did not see himself as a taskmaster nor as the dean of a school giving a precise curriculum. Though he intended that the outline be followed as written — and I strongly suggest that any students reading this take that point extremely seriously — he left all of the details out because those must be deeply personal, organically adapted to the particular needs of the individual mind and body. Just as importantly, it is the individual practitioner who must come up with this themselves! Having someone else do all of the tailoring for you is merely robbing yourself of the opportunity for self-knowledge. A Bardonic teacher, then, would ideally act like a preceptor in the Nath tradition: they are available to answer questions but mostly make it their job to turn the student back in upon themselves, saying only enough to give the student the confidence to explore more deeply and to try again with renewed vigor. To be quite terse, if you aren’t willing to fill in a lot of these apparent gaps for yourself, Bardon’s methods probably aren’t for you, at least not just yet.

This last point opens up another topic I see among some Bardonian teachers out there: the claim that Initiation Into Hermetics is somehow inaccessible to all but a minority or, put differently, that “normal people” aren’t capable of practicing it. To this I respond: No more than any other system of inner training. There is no call either to feel superior for engaging with IIH nor to put others off of it because of its difficulty. It is one thing to give someone an earnest heads-up that what they’re about to embark upon is not for the dilettante, but it is not our job to tell anyone else that they just can’t do it. As my Nath preceptor put it in regard to that tradition, if the karmas are there, you’ll find your way to it and, to large extent, that’s that. It doesn’t make anyone innately special, nor “higher” or “lower” than someone engaged in something else.

While Bardon did not consider his books to be any sort of doctrinal canon (on which more later), nevertheless it seems odd to me how many Bardonian teachers take it upon themselves to criticize the basic structure. I have heard from a few commentators, for example, that Bardon’s system is too “fiery” and not enough “watery”. I daresay such a critique actually misunderstands the Hermetic elements and how they fit together. I have yet to see from the West so balanced an approach to the elemental forces as Bardon’s; many other systems would do well to take clues from the structure of IIH (and, depending on how they do things, The Practice of Magical Evocation [PME] and Key to the True Quabbalah [KTQ] as well) to avoid the pitfalls of certain other famous modern Western occult training methods. I will leave it mostly up to the student to figure out what I mean about the nature of the elements and how they balance dynamically in IIH. It may serve for now, though, to point out that water, in the human economy, is primarily the function of the reflective mind. This includes, but is not limited to, sensation (physical and emotional), self-observation, collation of data (sensory or rational), and the capacity for devotion. The student will find all of the above quite amply represented in the work of Initiation Into Hermetics.

Finally — and I have seen others comment on this point as well — there is an abundance of, and seeming focus on, commentaries. This goes back a lot to what I said previously about the various schools and teachers in evidence in every direction within the Bardon community. Everyone also seems to have their own commentary, especially on IIH. As I observed in the last paragraph, Bardon would not have described his works as any sort of sacred canon, therefore neither should we consider anyone else’s work on the topic to be canonical. If any of these commentaries provides some helpful guidance or clarity, that’s wonderful, but we should not become obsessed by any given reading. IIH is not the Vijñāna Bhairava or the Yoga Sutras; it is not intended to be a set of mnemonic aphorisms needing to be unpacked by a Guru. For fear of repeating myself too much, yet reinforcing a very necessary point, IIH is in outline for a number of important reasons and it is up to the individual practitioner to creatively and experimentally fill in many of the gaps on their own. A commentary can, at the absolute best, only show an example of how one person filled them in. If we fall into the trap of treating someone else’s example as the sine qua non of the practice, we dead-end ourselves far more than we might believe. Worse, we may create for ourselves the illusion of progress which can be very difficult to see through as we have convinced ourselves that someone else’s experience with mastery of a given exercise is the only way to move ahead. It was precisely to avoid the pitfalls of more baroque systems common in his own day that Bardon preferred an experimental, infinitely personalized, and relatively simple approach which could be elaborated upon as much as the individual needed. In point of fact, both PME and KTQ are nonessential examples of such elaboration — which some will find to be helpful or even necessary for higher progress, and others will not need or may even experience as extravagant obstacles. This, too, parallels the way things are done in the Nath sampradāya, and this parallel is illustrative: a Guru will guide some chelas to the study of astrology, others to complex ritual magic, yet others to physical yogas, and on and on. Such guidance for one person does not mean that the same practices will be equally useful, or even useful at all, for everyone else, and the same Guru may even guide most or all students away from a practice given as necessary to another. A one-size-fits-all approach to spiritual development is as unwise as one-size-fits-all healthcare and it is for this reason that lodge, school, and church structures are incapable of granting access to the depths of esotericism.

I hope that all of the above points will be taken in the spirit in which they are intended. I really do think that Franz Bardon has left us with one of the handful of most remarkable, balanced, and flexible modes of inner training available without a qualified Guru. I think it’s a great thing that there is a growing community of practitioners who wish to share enthusiasm and encouragement in the Work, and that there are people who have been there before willing to connect with those coming up after them. But as such affiliations grow, it is important to be aware of shortcomings and stumbling blocks as they arise and before they can become deep-set diseases. Each individual must ultimately think for themselves in order to know, become independent in service to will, boldly experiment to dare, and to keep silent in order to build the inner pressure required to push ever deeper inward.