ITC 2016: Visions of a Far-Flung Future – A Moderator’s Impression
Jonathan Colbert – USA
The ITC 2016 moderator Jonathan Colbert and a tree
Like a dream of higher reminiscence, pages from a golden age tale, or visions foretelling a far-flung future, impressions and reflections of the conference well up in my mind’s eye. Twenty years ago, I would never have guessed that in my lifetime there would be a Theosophical conference with 108 people from various Theosophical traditions genuinely seeking together the heart of Theosophy and trying to learn about brotherhood by doing it. Yet the 2016 ITC Conference in Santa Barbara, California turned out to be a living example of its very theme, Theosophy and Social Responsibility.
Finding my way to the front of the room that Thursday afternoon in August, I passed by a woman intensely studying a document that offered instructions on how a wise combination of good deeds and deep knowledge were needed in the true service of humanity. It was H.P.B.’s article, “Let Every Man Prove His Own Work.” Even though the hall was clamorous with conversations and abuzz with anticipation, the woman poured over the article’s pages as if she were the only person in the room. Yes, I reflect now, this is how it will be in the future if we all keep working together! Thousands if not millions, just like her, will be intensely focused on the wisdom of H.P.B.
The labyrinth on the wonderful grounds of La Casa da Maria
A gong sounded, starting the proceedings. It reverberated through the happy hall, as people from three great Theosophical streams and many other non-affiliated Theosophists, found their chairs. As if in a dream, I took up my role as master of ceremonies, welcoming all to the conference. A remarkable harmony settled in, as if the Conference attendees were only re-convening and re-discovering a previous bond from previous lifetimes. After a moment of silence dedicated to the memory of the life, work and passing of Dara Eklund, the three presidents of ITC (from three continents), Jan Nicolaas Kind, Herman C. Vermeulen and Gene Jennings, inaugurated the conference, offering their thoughts and blessings. Carolyn Dorrance from Santa Barbara ULT then offered her cheery comments on the proceedings that would unfold.
Gene Jennings led the whole gathering on a journey of vision and imagination through “The Great Master’s Letter.” The Silent Watcher and initiation were identified in the dialogue as important realities. What an outstanding way to begin a Theosophical conference on social responsibility: with a dialogue, not a lecture, and by collectively studying a seminal text from one of the Masters of Wisdom about the sacred importance of the ‘brotherhood plank’ of the Theosophical Society. Later that evening, Martin Leiderman, the keynote speaker, delivered a beautiful presentation on The Secret Doctrine. He empowered all of us as students to approach the book with the artistic side of our nature, whether we are artists or not. He showed us how the higher imagination has much potential to unlock the mysteries within and without, and how this follows the way of nature: the universal expressing itself in the form of the particular.
Friday morning lectures from three Theosophical streams on the theme of H.P.B. and Social Responsibility showed that the philosophy of H.P.B. and her Teachers is one of action. We are not to sit in a cave, contemplating our navel, or even nirvana. We are to enter the arena of practical brotherhood and social action. From Herman C. Vermeulen we learned that the Three Fundamental Propositions of The Secret Doctrine could be elaborated into the Seven Jewels of Wisdom, as the starting point of all thought on Social Responsibility. With these Jewels, we can become truly independent searchers for truth, affirm that there is such thing as truth, gain confidence that all of us have the philosophical tools within ourselves to find that truth—and apply it to any considered course of action. Wes Amerman emphasized that we must, in putting these ideas into action, practice the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: Do No Harm. It is paramount that we know what we are doing in trying to help others. This requires wisdom. How do we go from ignorance to wisdom? Philosophy, he said, is the link. Leonie Van Gelder spoke of the uniqueness, strength, and compassion H.P. Blavatsky herself, followed by husband Minor Lile who brought out critical points in H.P.B.’s article, “Let Every Man Prove His Own Work” such as the idea that it is the combination of doing good and of doing it rightly, with knowledge—that is of key importance in practicing social responsibility.
This year, with the ITC Board’s initial trepidation, followed by a reserved blessing and finally, with great enthusiasm, we tried the innovation of featuring study circles in which all participated. I had the privilege of being involved, along with the entire Santa Barbara ULT Team led by Carolyn Dorrance, with coming up with the study circle themes. The process went through an evolution. First we started coming up with long readings. Gradually, we figured out that an inviting way to create the readings would be to collate by themes, many diverse sentences, paragraphs and passages, which would encourage reflection, conversation and the cross-pollination of ideas. The themes themselves, as they unfolded in our minds, started with some of the classic texts instructive of Theosophy and social responsibility such as H.P.B.’s The Four Golden Links in The Key To Theosophy. From there, our search for themes moved to trying to answer contemporary, urgent and difficult questions such as, how do we help nature while keeping in mind a sense of reverence? Or, what about the deeper dimensions to justice? Or, how might Theosophy help with transforming a sense of alienation into brotherhood? Of critical importance, inspiring themes were also suggested such as one from our Dutch friends on the influence of wise beings and how advanced souls represent the ultimate exemplification of social responsibility.
Four sessions of study circles took place Friday and Saturday, with one session before lunch and one after lunch each day. In each study circle were about ten participants, one of whom was pre-assigned as moderator, while another was asked to give a short summary of the reading material. The hope was that participants would have read the readings well in advance, which were posted to a special website dedicated to the 2016 ITC Conference in Santa Barbara. To be honest, neither the ULT Santa Barbara team, nor the ITC Board knew how the study circles would work out. We just hoped people would enjoy them and would appreciate the intimacy of studying in a close circle in the surroundings of nature, the sacred philosophy so dear to people’s hearts: Theosophy as taught by H. P. Blavatsky. The first round of study circles was like the first day of school with all the kids returning in the Fall. Fortunately, the first round was all on the same subject, with all participants in all study circles reviewing the Three Fundamentals of Theosophy, so it wasn’t that crucial if one ended up in the wrong group. I learned quickly that people from all of the Theosophical traditions were deeply grounded in the Three Fundamental Propositions, and had been thinking about them for most of their lives.
After lunch on Friday, all participants engaged in another round of study circles, this time in seven circles on separate topics, all pertaining to Theosophy and social responsibility. This is when many of us began to detect a great deal of pure joy. People were relaxed and let their hair down. The natural setting surely had to do with this: the Santa Barbara air, the warm sunshine, the majestic mountains to the North (a micro version of India?). But, more than anything, people were sharing what was closest to their hearts, the teachings of H.P.B. In the best sense, we became like children. The teachings themselves were thought to be important beyond anything else. Earnestness, honesty, sincere and humorous self-deprecation, admiration of the profundity of the Wisdom Religion—and above all, compassion, was in the air. One was reminded – one felt it – of the devotion and solidarity spoken of in The Secret Doctrine, when in the Golden Age of infant humanity, the wise beings lit up the fires of mind. In each circle – through the attunement of various theosophical paths to the verbum of the Theosophical Teachers – a nucleus, however nascent, of universal brotherhood had been formed.
What an excellent preparation to hear about the various approaches by Theosophical groups to the study of The Secret Doctrine together! Martin Leiderman emphasized the importance of studying the book with others, not only in study groups, but also with the “second opinion” of the many learned commentators who have spent their lives with and have written excellent articles and books on the themes discussed in The Secret Doctrine. Johanna Vermeulen clarified that we should not study only for the sake of “study” but instead should keep in mind that the only reason to study is to learn how to ameliorate the conditions of mankind, both inner and outer. She also recommended that it is better to deeply consider themes (such as Reincarnation) in the light of Theosophy, rather than to pour over any single book, page by page from the beginning to the end. Pierre Wouters articulated that the reading of The Secret Doctrine brings us into contact with the magnetism of the author, H. P. Blavatsky. While the book is complex, it is not complicated. We bring to the study much of ourselves, our limitations as well as our abilities to learn. This is why each student has to develop his or her own individual “best methodology.” Pierre brought out how the Stanzas of Dzyan, as H.P.B. highlights in the Proem, are an abstract formula that can be applied mutatis mutandis to all levels of evolution, from the greatest conceivable to down our Earth. Other points included the importance of seeing the unity of everything, of looking behind and within words in their context, and that we should not get stuck in names, but rather to discern processes.
As a harvest of this mind-expanding day, Gerry Kiffe led the entire plenary assembly through a series of short statements offered by participants. Gerry’s challenge was to see how conference participants could deliver pithy, disciplined summaries after a day consisting of no less than H.P.B.’s ideas on social responsibility, study circles on the Three Fundamentals of The Secret Doctrine, more study circles on metaphysics of brotherhood, and a plenary dialogue on Approaches to The Secret Doctrine!
As if this cosmic journey through inner-space weren’t enough, later on Friday evening, we were treated to an audio-visual, multi-media journey, through outer space with the presentation on Meta-Astronomy by Russ Lewin. Herman C. Vermeulen, who as scientist and a member of the European Space Administration team who actually landed a spacecraft on a speeding comet, was also a big contributor. We learned about Albert Einstein, the Hubble telescope, Jupiter, the Sun, the Heliosphere – and about the depths of space, time and motion. What an absolute treat that evening was!
Saturday morning, we all gathered to hear three talks on the question of why are we our brother’s keeper. Carolyn Dorrance pointed out that helping our fellow human beings all too often turns into a merely material effort. While not discounting the importance of helping on the physical plane, we must question how we can assist with a deeper kind of change. A more transformative approach is needed, she said, which can invoke creative thinking and compassion. In this approach, the barriers of who is the helper and who is the helped can be dissolved. A kind of mutuality can be developed. The influence of higher principles can be released creating a field, a “third force” that can then attract others. Domen Kocevar explored the question of how we can really achieve the feeling of one humanity. This is the only way that human beings can truly bring an end to harming one another. Yes, there are governments and corporations, but it really comes down to the individual level. It is human beings who both hurt and help one another. Why do we fail to find unity with those who are the nearest to us, especially when our differences are so slight? We need to make stronger our connection of the antaskarana, the bridge to the higher nature within. Helping others is food for the soul. Sieglinde Plocki spoke of the misunderstandings of, as well as the true meanings of, freedom, justice and responsibility. In all of life, smaller circles exist within larger ones. Everything lives for everything else. Why do we want to grow spiritually? Is it for ourselves? Or is it for the sake of others? The desire to help others is a faculty of the higher nature of every living being. To be our brother’s or sister’s keeper is the most natural thing in the world.
On day two of these of seven simultaneous study circles, people settled into a rhythm of asking questions and exploring answers. I learned much about how other students had experimented with creative acts of brotherhood. Since there were eighteen elective study circle topics (some of which were duplicated making 21), and there was only time for each conference participant to attend three, there was a real sense of ownership in one’s selection. I don’t think anyone felt managed or packaged – or that any outcomes had been pre-programed. Each participant’s experiences were self-chosen, perhaps mirroring at a micro level the self-induced and self-devised efforts of the evolutionary journey spoken of in the Third Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine. This authenticity of individual path finding lent itself to the forging of deeper bonds between participants who found themselves in the same study circles, regardless of Theosophical affiliation. Crossing the same paths of study and exploration of ideas, we found that it was only of secondary importance that as study circle mates, we were in many cases from different Theosophical traditions. Having no idea who the other participants would be when we signed up for the circles, what the outcome would be or what would even happen in each study circle, the insights generated by the diversity of human perspectives made each encounter all the more priceless. The fact that we couldn’t go to fifteen of the eighteen study circles meant that we were all the more grateful to learn a little of the experiences and insights gained on ‘the road not taken,’ by speaking to someone during lunch, break periods, or in the evenings – and made the plenary harvests all that much more indispensable. Minds were buzzing.
Saturday afternoon, we met for a plenary session where we learned about three websites, Jan Nicolaas Kind’s Theosophy Forward, Jacques Mahnich’s Theoscience and Gerry Kiffe’s (with another co-creator) Universal Theosophy, along with its twin site, Theosophy Nexus. All of these were shown to be brilliant and innovative ways of introducing Theosophy to those who might not be exposed to it if they were not able or inclined to come to a meeting. April Hejka-Ekins and Marijn Gijsbers conducted the afternoon’s plenary harvest with rich insights, gratitude and good humor. They were especially adept at the Socratic art of bringing out the thoughts and insights of the young people in attendance.
We were blessed by the extremely refreshing attendance of young people who came to the conference, listened attentively and participated with their penetrating questions. The beautiful thing about Millennials is that, just as they see the world and humanity in an effortlessly race-neutral way, and just as they care more about what kind of a person you are than what religion you profess – just so do they seem to have absolutely no problem with there being different traditions in Theosophy. They just go for the essence of Theosophy, pure and simple, and have little patience with anything short of universal brotherhood.
On Saturday night we were treated to the sounds of Indian slide guitar and tabla, played by the best two “white guys” you will probably ever hear play that kind of music, Dave Cipriani and Gregg Johnson. In the spirit of discipleship and East West transcendence, they played the works of the Indian masters as well as modern compositions.
Many of the most important efforts that have been advanced in the Theosophical Movement have been conducted by the mystery of a man and a woman working together in the service of humanity. The ITC as we know it, as a platform organization to facilitate the interaction and cross-pollination of theosophists of all the traditions as well as independent students, was largely the brainchild, labor of love and continuing gift of Sally and James Colbert. It was their dream that an intercontinental, international, interdenominational and just plain interesting people could come together as Theosophists, hear each other and partake of each other’s inspiration. Their vision, I felt, was largely behind the success of this and other ITC gatherings. We were fortunate Sunday morning, through a series of short presentations moderated by my father, James Colbert, to see and hear “phase two” of this dream: examples of how many Theosophists have been able to actually put into practice inspiring acts of theosophical service.
Jim Tepfer inaugurated Sunday morning with a penetrating presentation on the pivotal influence of Theosophy in the life, practice and message of M.K. Gandhi. This talk was clearly the fruit of a lifetime of deep reflection and will resonate in the hearts and minds of many of the attendees as we collectively move forward into a challenging future. Carol Nicholson presented a beautiful Power Point on the inspiration of the Theosophical Order of Service. Helena Kerekhazi showed us what the stand-up comediennes of the future will be like, delivering a heartwarming and inspiring account of an effort to let people know about Theosophy at The World Parliament of Religions in Utah, 2015. Johanna Vermeulen from told us about the important work of Katherine Tingley, who provided a significant Theosophical influence on some of the historical events of her time. The Dutch recognize the critical importance of vision in world affairs, and believe that Theosophy can be a key supplier of that vision now and in the future. Carolyn Dorrance spoke on the similar influence of Russian artist and theosophist Nicholas Roerich on the stage of world history. Erwin Bomas and Jan Nicolaas Kind told of some influences of Theosophy on human rights. In this presentation, I learned some of Jan Kind’s magic in introducing Theosophy to so many people. Herman C. Vermeulen and Robert Moore spoke movingly on the present state of our civilization’s approach to death. They spoke with prescience of a better future when family members and health professionals will begin to understand the process and dignity of death and dying.
The solemn joy conveyed in the applause after each presentation signified to me a deep and heartfelt appreciation of all of these efforts to put Theosophy into practice. After a brief and final harvest session and some final blessings from the three presidents of the ITC, the conference was adjourned with a reading from Rig Veda, intoning the commonality of purpose that we share as students of Theosophy.