The Society

Editorial -The Craft of being Open Minded

Jan Nicolaas Kind – Brazil

jank 419

The author

Generally speaking, openness refers to the willingness to hear and consider different ideas and to try new things. Open individuals usually accept others' values and beliefs; an open mind doesn't quickly reject oppositional opinions as wrong. People are sufficiently open-minded if they are receptive to strong arguments against their committed beliefs.

Jeremy E. Sherman - Social Science Researcher

Theosophists, no matter what tradition or stream they belong to, are supposed to be freethinkers. According to most dictionaries a freethinker is a person who rejects accepted opinions, especially those concerning religious beliefs.

Freedom of Thought is embedded into the DNA of Theosophy. As Theosophists, we think of ourselves as having open minds and the ability to think for ourselves. In some cases that’s more aspirational than actual. We have as many closed-minded people as any other organization – and according to some, even more. (1)

I always felt I had to overcome some inner hurdles as I try to grasp the real meaning of the serious conflicts that occurred in the early years among the “freethinking” pioneers of the Theosophical Society. I don’t mean to write a resume of what happened historically in those first three decades after 1875. Instead, I just mention some names here. Think of the cases involving T. Subba Row; A.O. Hume; William Judge versus Olcott and Besant; C. W. Leadbeater; B. P. Wadia and surprisingly also A.P. Sinnett. In his posthumously published, The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe he writes rather disappointedly about his memories of those early days, bringing up what, in his mind, were many question marks. Sinnett must have thought that he had a unique status in the TS, due to his association with the Mahatma Letters, which led him to believe that he was in receipt of teachings from sources beyond HPB. The London Lodge, which he ran, truly was an elite club, where members wore opulent evening dresses to meetings. Having perhaps never matched his ability to practice the precious and inclusive teachings entrusted to him by the Masters, to his intellectual understanding of them—his class-consciousness as a refined and respected Englishman defined him and confined him. By contrast, think of Colonel Olcott, who left his comfortable life and status as a New York City lawyer to embrace wholeheartedly with true brotherhood and self-sacrifice, the hardships of South Asia.

What was, or still is, the real meaning of those early quarrels, misunderstandings and at times bitter, contentious confrontations? In an organization where the “forming” of a Nucleus of Universal Brotherhood is so clearly laid out in its first object, one wouldn’t expect these clashes to happen, but they certainly did. Up until today people are still influenced by them. Are they just personality confrontations? Perhaps the significance of conflicts, or if you wish, the lesson that is to be learnt, is that they should teach us to open up, to really listen, search for solutions and improve our flexibility thus stepping out of our comfort zone. In order to step away from that “safe corridor”, the very first requirement would be to go for an unconditional open-mindedness – a feat easier said than done.

Considering how difficult true open-mindedness is to achieve, perhaps it would be beneficial to think of it as a craft of which we are apprentices. This invites us to participate in a step-by-step learning process of learning and unlearning, while acknowledging the importance of the undertaking. All forms of craftsmanship demand a gradual attunement of head, heart and hand. The craft of open-mindedness is no exception. Implicit in the idea of apprenticeship is the promising hint that there are journeyman masters and that we, too, can move in that direction.

The craft of being openminded calls for acceptance and, most importantly, tolerance. Acceptance is obviously something that is connected with knowing how certain developments took place and led to existing realities, which, by the way, doesn’t mean one has to stop being discriminative. Tolerance is possibly the most difficult one of the two, especially when there is a strong difference in points of view. Hearing an opinion, which directly opposes our own and learning to deal with that in a mature manner is a painful exercise, demanding perseverance and psychological discipline.

In Katherine Beechey’s gem Daily Meditations, on September 4, there is this delightful quotation from an Elder Brother:

TOLERANCE: “Take care not to seek to impose your standard of life, your convictions, upon others. Help them to gain their own standards, to reach their own convictions, be these what they may, provided they stimulate to nobler living.”

Our opinions, and we all have them, are stored in a rather superficial compartment of our thinking. The things we think are based on what we are fond of or detest, our preferences, tastes, quick judgements and even prejudices. If we are really eager to learn it would be necessary to go deeper, making a beginning in questioning our own beliefs which we all too often simply take for granted. Convictions are time bound. They need to be double-checked regularly and if needed, overhauled. In our search for Truth, which we can only undertake with an open mind, all convictions are transitory.

If we allow ourselves to profoundly go through this process, we become aware.

J. Krishnamurti, when asked to explain what, in his view, awareness is, said the following:

Just simple awareness! Awareness of your judgement, your prejudices, your likes and dislikes. If you see something, that seeing is the outcome of your comparison, condemnation, judgement, evaluation, is it not? When you read something, you are judging, you are criticizing, you are condemning or approving. To be aware is to see, in the very moment, this whole process of judging, evaluating, the conclusions, the conformity, the acceptance, the denials. (2)

To be open-minded is really tough at times. Most of us are (Theosophically) brought up with a set of views and values and, throughout our lives, tend to surround ourselves with people who share the same values and beliefs. Therefore, it can be difficult when we're faced with ideas that challenge our own and, though we may wish to be open-minded, we may struggle with the successful practice of it from time to time. 

Though it can be daunting, it is rewarding at the same time. To be sincere with oneself, doing away with both Mr. or Mrs. Know it all—who live in each one of us—will allow truth to come our way. Not being tangled up in accumulative knowledge, which is so very tricky, doors will open to intuitive perception and non-conditioned observation. Bounteous, will be the results.

While trying to take on those hurdles when reading or hearing about the personalities that clashed in the first years of the modern Theosophical movement, I am inclined to think that these had to do much with what I would refer to as the growing pains. All involved were relatively young in 1875 when the TS was founded in New York. For example, H.P. Blavatsky was 44, Henry Olcott 43, William Judge just 24, A. P. Sinnett 35, while Annie Besant, in 1875 not involved with the TS yet, was 28. Young women and men, full of what they felt they needed to share with the world, in the German language the word begeistert (3), much better than in English describes their states of mind. As it often goes with passionate initiatives, mistakes were bound to be made. To approach the Society’s history and the various divisive events that took place, especially after HPB’s passing in 1891, demand a fully opened mind, a mind that won’t take any sides, just observes and is freed from any conditioned thinking.

If we indeed are willing to set out on such a journey, it will soon become apparent that a learning process is most certainly about to surface, a process that will deepen our understanding and diminish our prejudices.

It is interesting to note that, as described above, Mr. Sinnett for example, a key figure in what would ultimately result in the compiling of The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, by the end of his life, was simply not able to be open-minded when he looked back at the early years of the movement. His elitism caused him to be harsh, skeptical and even rather unfriendly towards his contemporaries. Others, Henry Olcott as well as Annie Besant, in the autumn of their lives, were much better able to open up their minds, looking at themselves critically, admitting their mistakes and even revising former opinions.

In connection with what became known as the infamous Judge Case, Henry Olcott shortly before his passing stunningly admits that he had done wrong. In Sven Eek’s Damodar and the Pioneers of the Theosophical Society, there is a description of what happened. It is a long excerpt, but certainly worthy to examine it in full:

When in 1906 Colonel Olcott visited America for the last time, he wrote his old friend Mrs. Holloway-Langford asking her to see him. The latter had been out of touch with the Theosophical Society for twenty years when she left her Theosophical colleagues in London in 1886 and returned to America. She had been a personal friend of Olcott's sister, Belle Mitchell, who had passed away. Belle had been an oasis in Olcott's domestic life, always loving him in spite of the fact that she herself was a strict Presbyterian,

A sad and depressed Olcott met his old associate Laura Holloway, but his conversation, which was later published, reveals a new man who had in life's struggle at last achieved inner greatness. Laura Holloway writes:

I am sure he was wholly sincere in attributing his depression of spirits to his sorrow for this dear sister, but my sympathy for him was too genuine to admit of self-deception; I realized that loneliness and homesickness were prime factors in his case; as also were physical infirmities; and, as were memories of other faces now absent. Quite sure was I of this when he was speaking of Madame Blavatsky whom he-repeatedly characterized as his ‘dear old colleague’ who had gone on ahead of him.

“Of her he spoke as one of whom he was bereft—not only of her presence, but of her prestige. He sorely missed both and was growing to be more and more conscious that a great force had been taken out of his life, and the motive power removed from the work he was prosecuting without her; conscious, too, that his influence was departing, if not departed.

My sense of loss—the magnitude of it,’ he said, ‘ I realize more and more, as I note the trend of events in the Theosophical Society since her death. I am President-Founder, but other and younger workers are in control of its affairs: This is right, and as it should be, but H. P. B.'s mighty mentality is not here to guide and make steadfast, and her personality is missed more and more. I, too, will soon be gone, and then all the older influences that surrounded the Society will be removed.’

Suddenly it occurred to me to speak of that other able and faithful comrade who had worked with H. P. B. and himself from the first inception of the Society, and I did not resist the impulse to say to him: ‘And have you no word now for that devoted co-worker of hers and yours, toward whom, after her death, you were hostile ? He is indelibly associated in my mind with you both. Do you not mourn him at all, that dear old friend of the long ago? ‘

‘You speak Judge,’ he slowly replied.

‘Yes, of him.’

Yes, yes,’ he interrupted, ‘I know how you feel about him and always have felt.’ Then, taking my hand in his, he gave my face a searching glance, before he answered, in a manner subdued and most impressive:

‘We learn much and outgrow much, and I have lived much and learned more, particularly as regards Judge.’ . . .

’I know now, and it will comfort you to hear it; that I wronged Judge, not willfully or in malice; nevertheless, I have done this, and I regret it.’ (4)

Annie Besant in 1928, writes on Judge the following:

Judge [was] a much-loved friend and pupil of H.P.B.’s, and the channel of life to the American Branch of the T.S. A highly evolved man, with a profound realization of the deeper truths of life, he built up the Society in America from small and discouraging beginnings. No difficulties daunted him, and no apparent failures quenched his fiery devotion. . . . He was beside H.P.B. through those early days, saw the exercise of her wonderful powers, and shared in the founding of the Theosophical Society. And throughout the remainder of her life on earth, the friendship remained unbroken, and during the later years she regarded him as her one hope in America, declaring that, if the American members rejected him, she would break off all relations with them, and know them no more. . . . Spiritual and intuitional, he was also extraordinarily capable as an organizer and a leader. Then came the revelation of what was hidden under the reserved demeanor... an unquenchable energy, a profound devotion, an indomitable will. And these were held together by a single aim – the spreading of the truths of Theosophy, the building of an organization which should scatter the seeds over the land. (5)

So, with an open mind, putting all possible hindrances to form a just view aside, we might even conclude that all that occurred in those early years, the clashing of personalities, the upheavals, no matter how painful some of them were, were incidents from which we can learn. Such charitable acceptance of facts will help us to tread further on our individual Paths.

In full accordance with the open-mindedness, as Theosophists and Freethinkers, we are fortunate to have the Freedom of Thought resolution. For the purpose of this article hereunder a most relevant passage:

No teacher, or writer, from H. P. Blavatsky onwards, has any authority to impose his or her teachings or opinions on members. Every member has an equal right to follow any school of thought, but has no right to force the choice on any other. Neither a candidate for any office nor any voter can be rendered ineligible to stand or to vote, because of any opinion held, or because of membership in any school of thought.

One can conclude that in Theosophy, the so-called theological methodology, as is common in religions, is a non-starter. Theosophical theologians are not recognized. Open-mindedness and theology are not compatible.

Any known religion on our planet consists of a collection of beliefs. Each religion teaches or proclaims her own truths about the world - humanity and God (or gods). These beliefs make clear how the followers of a certain religion can find their salvation. There are scriptures, instructions on what to do and what not to do and through theology, the believers are instructed how to interpret those. All is directed towards a common kind of truth, while obedience and above all, unconditional surrender to the guidelines are unquestionable. In particular the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have through very unfortunate misinterpretations, caused and are still causing, pain and misery. This has been going on for at least 2,000 years.

In Theosophy, what HPB reintroduced to us in The Secret Doctrine—with the Stanzas as a basic starting point—forces us to be open-minded from the very start. All our previous known convictions will have to be tested and if needed put aside, if not forgotten. Our thinking has to be fully receptive for new conceptions, ideas and panoramas. This makes Theosophy as a world view unique.

It is in this way that I am convinced that the Theosophical Movement has a future and a specific task, and that this attempt by the Masters to share with us their wisdom won’t fail as long as we don’t make the same mistakes as religions have done thus far.

There cannot be any sort of conservatism, or limit to our open-minded Theosophical thinking. The various streams, now, 144 years after the foundation, have all earned their place under the sun. The gratifying fact is that the various organizations all, and this really means each one of them, in their own manner, represent a facet of the Theosophical diamond. In this respect I would reject terms such as “True Theosophy” or “Pure Theosophy” as if there is untrue or impure or pseudo Theosophy. Theosophy simply IS, or IT IS NOT Theosophy. As seekers, and not as proclaimers, we can enter that impressive figurative Theosophical library and choose which way to go.

There are groups of students who solely concentrate on the core teachings as brought forward by H. P. Blavatsky, William Judge, Robert Crosbie and other first-generation Theosophical authors. Students in the Adyar environment are, next to the voluminous literary output by Annie Besant, open to also second or third generation authors, like N. Sri Ram, I.K. Taimni, Joy Mills and John Algeo, while there is also room for the clairvoyant approaches as postulated by C.W. Leadbeater or Geoffrey Hodson. Students from both the Adyar and the Point Loma tradition agree that the works of G. de Purucker have been very helpful in understanding the teachings that were transmitted by HPB. The oeuvre and significance of J. Krishnamurti remain a much-discussed topic even today. It is evident that K., during his lifetime as well as in the years after his death in 1986, as an educationist, author, philosopher and speaker, has positively influenced millions of people around the world and inspired many within the Adyar tradition. A well-known Theosophist, who resided at Krotona, once told me that by digging into K’s work, wherein often the emphasis is on self-transformation and open-mindedness, she was better able to go deeper into the traditional or core teachings as we know them through The Secret Doctrine and The Mahatma Letters. The Dutch Theosophist Ali Ritsema in her article “Living in Truth – Where HPB and Krishnamurti meet”, writes the following:

We often get stuck in our preferred approach and don’t quite get the value in other approaches. My intention was to highlight the close similarities between Theosophy and Krishnamurti in relationship to the search for and living in Truth. Both approaches, like many other approaches, can help us to come to an understanding from within, which is, after all, the aim of our studies. (6)

To be truly open minded is a craft, and like with any other discipline, if we want to do it well, we need to prepare ourselves to patiently and consciously find our way. A mark of fulfilling it will certainly be when we come to realize that we all might come from different wells, but swim in the same river.


(1) A Freethinkers` Way to the Galaxy – Tim Wyatt 

(2) The Collected Works of J. Krishnamurti: vol. IX, Amsterdam, May 26, 1955

(3) Begeistert in German would be best translated into English with impassioned, although it is hard to find the exact equivalent

(4) Excerpt from Damodar and The Pioneers of the Theosophical Movement – Sven Eek, TPH , Adyar India [p.657-658]

(5) The Theosophist, October 1922 [p. 351]

(6) Living in Truth – Where HPB and Krishnamurti meet – Ali Ritsema

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