Introduction – Jan Nicolaas Kind
In the middle of the at times tiring Zoom Boom with its overload of events from which it is hard if not impossible to make a choice, and with no prospect for many to travel all the way to India, it is good to remind ourselves what it is like to actually BE in Adyar during an International Convention. Let’s hope that before too long we can actually pack our bags again and make that effort by going there, meeting up with all our fellow seekers in the flesh.
So, for this upcoming International Convention we ‘ll do it the Zoom way, there is no other option, but let’s focus on the year after, who knows, we all might gather together in beautiful Adyar.
In order to get the taste of it again, a truly amazing write up by Jonathan Colbert, a student of the United Lodge of Theosophists in California, who attended the 142nd International Convention in Adyar and who was also one of speakers on that occasion. (reprint TF April11, 2018)
*Jews of all backgrounds are familiar with the phrase “le-shanah ha-ba’ah bi-Yerushalayim,” “Next Year in Jerusalem.” It makes two appearances annually in Jewish liturgy: at the conclusion of the Passover Seder and at the conclusion of the Ne’ilah service of Yom Kippur.
IMPRESSIONS OF ADYAR, THE 142nd CONVENTION
Jonathan Colbert – USA
Jonathan Colbert on the Adyar podium
The sense of wonder… signifies that the world is profounder, more all-embracing and mysterious than the logic of everyday reason had taught us to believe.
Quote by Josef Pieper [German Catholic philosopher and an important figure in the resurgence of interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas in early-to-mid 20th-century philosophy.]
Like Shangri-la beneath the summer moon,
I will return again…
Let me take you there,
Come on, oh let me take you there
[Text by Robert Plant [English singer, songwriter, and musician, best known as the lead singer and lyricist of the rock band Led Zeppelin.]
A wise Theosophist told me just days before going to India for my first time, “When you go there, let India come to you.” Although I had no idea what this would mean, I sensed that a process both externally and within, would have to be allowed. Since childhood, India, the land of the rishis and of Mahatma Gandhi, “the Alma Mater” of civilization – was the goal. So when Jan Nicolaas Kind, my colleague in the International Theosophy Conferences, ITC, in consultation with Mr. Tim Boyd, the President of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, asked me as an Associate of the United Lodge of Theosophists to speak at the 142nd International Convention there, I knew it was “time.” I was told that I could speak on any topic I wanted, provided it was related to the theme of the Conference, “From Teaching to Insight: The Altruistic Heart.” When I heard that this would be the conference theme, I thought, “What a privilege to even go to such a conference, let alone be able to speak at such an occasion.” Clearly, the leadership at Adyar was trying to bring out the importance of making Theosophy a living reality in the hearts of Theosophists. Even though the lion’s share of my journey would be that of learning and listening and I felt that my speaking there was comparatively incidental, nevertheless, I was tasked with offering a talk. What might I, myself, contribute?
Questions welled up in my mind about what might be the most important thing our society needs at this point from Theosophy. Sure, the message of universal brotherhood is desperately needed in any age, but what, specifically, is needed in this particular cycle?
I didn’t start thinking about my talk in earnest, until I had boarded the Airbus A380 from LAX to Dubai. Flying at 40,000 feet, marveling that the shortest distance around the globe is over the North Pole – the mystery of Meditation, Self-study and the Therapeutics of Speech, the talk title I had registered, finally didn’t seem that foreign to me. From cruising altitude, all things subjective seemed clearer, more objective. Touching down on the Dubai tarmac in the blackness of the desert night, the landing, at least from within that big A380, seemed effortless, seamless. The Dubai airport with its capacious interiors, people movers and shopping malls, glittered and glowed. Yet it was quiet. Absent, were the echoing intercom commands heard at most airports. The only audible sounds you could hear were the muffled murmurings of travelers on the move. Amongst an itinerant village of fellow sojourners from the Middle East and the Indian Sub-continent, I finally slept on the second leg of the trip, from Dubai to Chennai.
The feel of the Chennai Airport was like a coming home for me. Christopher, a long-time worker at Adyar, found and escorted me to a place outside of the main exit and convinced me to “stand, right there.” Then a colleague of his hurried to another place out of sight and came back with a young woman with smiling eyes. Having loaded our luggage in a small car, we were soon, all four of us, careening along, Christopher in the front, his cohort at the wheel (on the right side) – ignoring nonchalantly, stop signs and signals. The woman was Virginie Schwartz, from France. Making conversation, I asked her if she had been to India before. In slightly halting English, she said that she had, but only to Northern India. Having been for several years fascinated with the Dalai Lama’s frequent references to the ancient temple university of Nalanda, I took the chance of asking her if she had ever heard of Nalanda. She knew all about Nalanda! For the remainder of the ride from the airport to Adyar, we finished each other’s sentences about the Dalai Lama and Nalanda.
I had heard ahead of time that the sleeping accommodations at Leadbeater Chambers were stoic to say the least: a room with concrete floors would be shared with three other men; a bathroom with a shower but no hot water; and with hard beds under a mosquito netting. Happy just to not be moving any more, my tired head found refuge on the pillow. For me the bed was quite comfortable. Lying on the flat, hard bed, my back settled into the gladsome relief of rest and realignment. Wow, its 5:30 A.M. – and I’m in India! Isn’t it afternoon in California? Soon I was emailing Jan Kind, “Good morning Jan, what are you up to?” Being naturally an early riser, he replied right away. He would meet me in an hour, he wrote, but why don’t I go down and get some breakfast? As the darkness of pre-dawn transitioned to light, two of my roommates, who had arrived only a couple of hours before me, arose and we introduced. They took me downstairs to Leadbeater Chambers’ diner, a roofed, yet outdoor communal eating, greeting and reuniting place where there was excellent vegetarian food and where we would now enjoy our first meal.
Midway through breakfast, I spied Jan gliding down Blavatsky Avenue on his bicycle. I see Jan once a year at ITC Conferences, and on Skype in his office in Brasilia, but now we meet for the first time in India! Soon he would give me the full tour of the campus grounds at Adyar, the world headquarters for the Theosophical Society, he pushing his bicycle on paved roads and dirt paths, me keeping up and trying to take it all in. He showed me the Great Banyan Tree, the plant nursery run by Devadas and the other landscape workers who live and work on the campus. He showed me the Adyar Theater, the tented covering of which was still being assembled. It would soon be large enough to accommodate over a thousand people. It was also where I would soon be speaking. He showed me the Administration Building where Ms. Marja Artamaa works, Headquarters Hall where H.P. Blavatsky had her office at one time (and now where Tim Boyd has his) and around the corner, the Science Building and the River Bungalow, “downstairs”, where Jan was staying, and where it is said C.W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant performed their experiments while writing their famous work Occult Chemistry. From the Buddha Temple and Colonel Olcott’s tomb, Jan and I walked along the Radha Burnier Path, closely paralleling the Adyar river, which itself flows eastward into the Bay of Bengal and the Pacific. Soon we came to a full-scale construction project; actually a renovation of what I learned was the Blavatsky Bungalow. Under the new leadership of Tim Boyd, all of the major buildings at Adyar will eventually undergo similar renovation.
Jan was especially keen to make sure that I, as his friend from ULT, would feel welcome and would enjoy the full experience of Adyar. Going to Adyar was indeed a profound, eye opening, and yes, heart-opening, experience for me. Before going to India, a ULT friend told me that what the Theosophical Society had gotten “down” is the Second Object of the Theosophical Movement, which, in its modern formulation is “To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science.” I knew that whatever truth about the Second Object and the Theosophical Society there was in that statement, it would probably evidence itself as something deeper than good scholarship or even something deeper than the existence there of the many temples, shrines and churches – Buddhist and Hindu, Zoroastrian, Sikh and Christian.
I think it was on that very first morning, that Jan introduced me to George Wester, a priest from the Liberal Catholic Church. George asked me, “Why don’t you come to my service tomorrow morning?” So I did. I had never been to a Catholic service before of any kind, let alone a Liberal Catholic one. George had explained to Jan and myself that the main idea of the Church is that the Christ principle is each person’s higher self and that the church and its rituals are a way of giving focus to a spiritual way of life. I was certainly impressed with the lighting of the candles, the solemnity, the attention to detail. About a dozen of us were in the pews. A couple of Indian women looked as though they were receiving tremendous help and benediction. George’s singing voice and heartfelt delivery, his sheer earnestness, was a testament to the healing power of sound.
One morning at dawn, I walked down to the beach to watch the sun rise. Others from the conference were already there when I arrived, mostly Indian members. Off the coast, there was a thick fog bank as opaque as the Himalayas themselves. The waves, perhaps a meter high, rolled in and lapped up on the sand, then washed back out, the continued sequence sounding like the winds moving through high altitude pines. While there were some beach joggers exercising their pranic prerogative, some of the elder Pranava yogins and yoginis on the beach, stood (some sat) facing east with palms pressed together in salutation to what was literally, at least for that morning, the Invisible Spiritual Sun. I hoped I could be like them. Could I too meditate in all three worlds, the terrestrial, the astral and celestial on the Spiritual Sun, wishing that all of humanity would benefit from its invisible golden light and its healing rays? Presently, the fog began to take form and shape, transitioning from amorphous opacity to a fiery firmament, now as dynamic and unpredictable as the tidal surge below. An opening developed. The big, orange sun came out from its cloud-eclipsed retirement. But wait a minute! The sun is gone again. But…another moment… now the sun has come through again; and again withdrawn. This dance of reveal and obscuration occurred three times before we all left the beach.
There are what seem like endless pathways at Adyar, some paved, others of the good earth. In any given direction, you can stop to gaze down a narrowing pathway as it disappears into a tunnel-like vortex. There is always the quietly asked question of, what of that road, should it be taken or not taken? Shrines and memorials witness the passage of time everywhere; vine covered arches of stone abound, man and nature coinciding. No less than a great bodhi tree stands before the Buddhist Shrine; the Great Banyan Tree residing in the heart of the premises, is thought to be over 400 years old. The sheer diversity of the flora and fauna at Adyar is staggering: hundreds of species of birds and insects for example, let alone the plethora of tree and shrub varieties. Sunlight filters down through the jungle growth in different angles at different times of the day, celebrating the kaleidoscopic diversity of the possibilities of light.
As more and more people came in from around the world, Adyar took on a new life, transitioning from the voidness of quietude – to the plentitude of nearly a thousand seekers. All come in a spirit of “I don’t know but I’m willing to learn.” Their bond isn’t so much that they all have the same teaching or even in the camaraderie of missions messianic or projects perfect – but more as fellow pilgrims, sojourners, seekers of the light as it reflects itself through the foliage of life. Their joy in reuniting periodically is that of the chance encounter of olden times when people would walk from village to village; or of modern-day hikers trekking in remote places who stop to greet each other, rest their weary muscles for a minute or two, perhaps sharing some precious water from a thermos.
The private process of the quest, the sanctity of individual self-transformation – has been jealously safeguarded in the Theosophical Society from pseudo authorities dictating to others how or what to think. No member is included or excluded by whom it is that they follow or which books suit their quest the most. Nor is anyone required to give up or renounce his or her previous religious affiliations. There really are Hindus and Buddhists, Kabalists and Christians, all seeking the beacon light of truth together at Adyar. Most, if not all, uphold a very open-textured version of their respective faiths, welcoming the light of the traditions held by their fellow seekers to filter into their own. In California we used to call such a place a Mecca for Hippies. But the seekers at Adyar are serious searchers. Their regard for truth is such that they place nothing higher. Truth’s exalted panorama of perspective cannot be finalized. The sense of wonder should never be quelled by the penultimate certainties of finitude.
It is said that Krishna helps us to find truth in whatever way we try to find it. As many seekers as there are, that’s how many paths there are to truth. Do you see how the very nature of the campus of Adyar is such an apt analogy for the richly abundant and vitally necessary diversity of approaches that there are to truth? Many kinds of flora, of fauna; many paths, many roads; many religions, many faiths; many philosophies, perspectives, sciences and systems are honored at Adyar. Even the so-called linage of theosophical writers and authors, leaders and pioneers reflect this diversity, as do even the iconoclasts.
Trying to understand Adyar is like trying to understand the sun, which itself is a great expression of electricity and magnetism, inspiration and magnanimity. Legend has it that the idea for the formation of the Theosophical Society was conceived by a brotherhood of mystics. They wanted to see what could be done to create a nucleus of spiritual regeneration, a cornerstone for future religions. Of the seventeen original founding members of the Theosophical Society back in 1875 in New York City, only its founding president, Henry S. Olcott, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and William Quan Judge became significant leaders in the Society. From what I can see, most people in the Society recognize as an authority on Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky, the great Russian occultist (and some say, founder of the New Age) and author of Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of the Silence. Theyalso recognize those whom she called her teachers, reverently referred to by her as “the Mahatmas.”
Another figure that you hear about at Adyar is Annie Besant, and Englishwoman who came into Theosophy in the last few years of the life of H.P.B. and who herself was gifted with tremendous powers of leadership. When she moved to India she became a central figure in the Indian Independence Movement, serving as the first women president of the Indian National Congress and the second person to ever hold that position. Among a plethora of projects, writing an astonishingly voluminous Theosophical oeuvre, she also worked with Charles W. Leadbeater to conduct occult research. These two functioned as mentors of a very spiritual youth whom they encountered right on the beach at Adyar, who would become the world-famous spiritual philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and who, mysteriously, was both associated and not associated with the Theosophical Society.
Since those heady days of the presence of H.P.B. and H.S. Olcott, the founding of Adyar, the Indian Independence Movement, the experiments in occult research and the discovery of Krishnamurti – the Theosophical Society has been a dynamic vehicle worldwide facilitating the search for knowledge.
On the “surface” (like the surface of the sun) its message has been anything but uniform or consistent; in fact, even from the standpoint of trying to discern a consistent Theosophical terminology, the paradoxical parade of somewhat conflicting Theosophical authorities down through the years, has been confusing at times.
Yet, what is the Theosophical Society’s message? Is it perfect sameness? Is it supposed to be all the members agreeing with each other in a perfect amalgamation of groupthink? Or is it that the road itself is most certainly better than the inn; the spiritual quest, infinitely greater than any fixed notion of the Holy Grail?