Theosophy

Voice of the Silence 11 (verses 142-160)

John Algeo – USA

Theosophy The Voice 2
Silence

The metaphor of the “three vestures,” introduced in verses 140 and 141, is continued in the following verses.

A. Verses [142-149].

[142] The Shangna robe, ’tis true, can purchase light eternal. The Shangna robe alone gives the Nirvāna of destruction; it stops rebirth, but, O lanoo, it also kills compassion. No longer can the perfect Buddhas, who don the Dharmakaya glory, help man’s salvation. Alas! shall Selves be sacrificed to Self; mankind, unto the weal of units?

 [143] Know, O beginner, this is the Open Path, the way to selfish bliss, shunned by the Bodhisattvas of the Secret Heart, the Buddhas of Compassion.

[144] To live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second.

[145] To don Nirmanakaya’s humble robe is to forego eternal bliss for Self, to help on man’s salvation. To reach Nirvana’s bliss, but to renounce it, is the supreme, the final step — the highest on renunciation’s path.

[146] Know, O disciple, this is the Secret Path, selected by the Buddhas of Perfection, who sacrificed the Self to weaker Selves.

[147] Yet, if the Doctrine of the Heart is too high winged for thee, if thou needest help thyself and fearest to offer help to others — then, thou of timid heart, be warned in time: remain content with the Eye Doctrine of the Law. Hope still. For if the Secret Path is unattainable this day, it is within thy reach tomorrow. Learn that no efforts, not the smallest — whether in right or wrong direction — can vanish from the world of causes. E’en wasted smoke remains not traceless. “A harsh word uttered in past lives is not destroyed but ever comes again.” The pepper plant will not give birth to roses, nor the sweet jessamine’s silver star to thorn or thistle turn.

[148] Thou canst create this day thy chances for thy morrow. In the Great Journey, causes sown each hour bear each its harvest of effects, for rigid justice rules the world. With mighty sweep of never-erring action, it brings to mortals lives of weal or woe, the Karmic progeny of all our former thoughts and deeds.

[149] Take then as much as merit hath in store for thee, O thou of patient heart. Be of good cheer and rest content with fate. Such is thy Karma, the Karma of the cycle of thy births, the destiny of those who, in their pain and sorrow, are born along with thee, rejoice and weep from life to life, chained to thy previous actions.

B.COMMENT. With verse 142, Blavatsky begins her interpretation of the “three vestures.” To put on the Dharmakaya vesture is to be united with the absolute, the ultimate reality, the Buddha nature. To be so united is to lose all contact with the limitations of the world, and therefore to be unable to participate in the enlightenment of others. Uniting with the absolute is, of course, the ultimate goal of all beings, but an ultimate goal is not the same thing as a proximate goal, and TheVoice ofthe Silence argues for the desirability of a different proximate goal, one devoted to teaching and helping others to find the Way.

The path of devoting oneself to help others, even at the expense of one’s own immediate freedom from the restrictions and frustrations of life, is the bodhisattva ideal advocated by Northern Buddhism. The path of seeking personal enlightenment, following the teachings of the historical Buddha to that enlightenment and thus to the freedom of nirvana, is the arhat ideal associated with Southern Buddhism.

The arhat (literally “deserving respect” or “honorable”) is thought of as entering that estate by an initiation, for which an initiation robe woven from hemp is worn. “Shangna” or “shana” is literally “hemp” or a cloth made from it; it symbolizes the acquiring of wisdom and the destroying of the separate personality, as HPB’s gloss makes clear: Gloss 22. The Shangna robe, from Shangnavasu of Rajagriha, the third great Arhat or Patriarch, as the orientalists call the hierarchy of the 33 Arhats who spread Buddhism. “Shangna robe” means, metaphorically, the acquirement of wisdom with which the Nirvana of destruction (of personality) is entered. Literally, the initiation robe of the neophytes. Edkins states that this “grass cloth” was brought to China from Tibet in the Tong Dynasty. “When an Arhan is born this plant is found growing in a clean spot” says the Chinese as also the Tibetan legend.

Verse 142 thus highlights a paradox: Perfection has no room for imperfection or pain. And so those who have attained perfection cannot participate in the pain of others (be compassionate) or in the alleviation of that pain. Only the not yet perfect can help the imperfect. Which is better — to remain imperfect and work for the welfare of the many imperfect human selves or to reach perfection in the One Self and have nothing to contribute to others?

The Voice has no trouble in answering that question. In verse 143, the first option is called the “open” or exoteric path. It is the public teaching of religions: get saved! Become enlightened! It is said to be the way to “selfish bliss.” And that is another aspect of the paradox. How can selflessness be selfish? That option is “shunned” by those who follow the “secret heart” or esoteric wisdom. They remain in the world and are Buddhas of compassion.

Yet another aspect of the paradox is set forth in verse 144. To become perfect oneself — that is, to practice the six glorious virtues — has second place in the steps one takes on the Path. The most important thing is “to live to benefit mankind.” The way to personal perfection is to forget about oneself by serving others. The six glorious virtues are the paramitas (described later in verses 198 and 206-213), as HPB’s gloss makes clear: Gloss 23. To “practice the Paramita Path” means to become a Yogi with a view of becoming an ascetic.

First, we forget about ourselves and devote ourselves to helping others. Then we can set about trying to make ourselves better by practicing spiritual disciplines and acquiring virtues that extend from the first of the pāramitās, namely, sharing what one has with others (dana or giving) to the last, namely, attaining insight into the nature of things (prajnya or intuitive wisdom).

The alternative to merging with the absolute and leaving this world is to remain in it — an alternative developed in verses 145 and 146. If we do not put on the Dharmakaya robe by becoming perfectly enlightened and merging with the absolute, we can instead put on the Nirmanakaya robe, that is, remain in this world, continue to incarnate in order to teach others and thereby help them to freedom from pain and frustration. As noted above, the Nirmanakaya Buddha is the historical Buddha, who incarnates to teach humanity.

The highest form of renunciation is not renouncing the world. It is renouncing renunciation of the world and thus remaining a part of the world. It is the “secret” or esoteric path. It is the teaching of the inner side of all great religious traditions: not to “get saved” but to “help save.” Those who take this path sacrifice their union with the great and perfect Self for the good of the weak, imperfect selves of all beings.

To follow such an ideal, however, is not easy. It requires great courage to renounce peace and ease for labor and woe. And so verse 147 says that if we do not feel up to this challenge, we should simply follow the public, exoteric religious teachings, the “eye doctrine.” But don’t despair. If we are not up to the challenge in this life today, we may be so tomorrow: Gloss 24. “Tomorrow” means the following rebirth or reincarnation.

This consolation may remind us of the ending of the poetic passage beginning “There is a road”: “For those who win onward, there is reward past all telling: the power to bless and save humanity. For those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come.” The road, the bodhisattva path, the Nirmānakāya robe is there for us. If we do not accept it this life, very well. There is always another time. The principle of karma guarantees that any effort we make will have its results, small or great, good or bad. The least attempt at spiritual progress will eventually bear fruit, as also will every wrong action: “A harsh word uttered in past lives, is not destroyed but ever comes again,” a saying that is identified in a note as one of the “Precepts of the Prasanga School.”

Verse 148 continues with a sweeping statement of the pervasiveness and inevitability of the operation of karma in our lives and in the whole world process. It applies to the entire sweep of our evolution, as the gloss says: Gloss 25. The “Great Journey” is the whole complete cycle of existences, in one Round.

Karma, however, is a complex subject — one that we often oversimplify. Some of its complexity is hinted at in verse 149, which alludes to the fact that our actions involve others. Our karma or actions affect not just ourselves, but other beings as well. We are all interlinked; we participate in each other’s lives. It is, indeed, that fact which makes this discussion of karma not a digression (as it might at first appear to be) but an integral part of the discussion of the two options apparently available to us: to seek salvation for ourselves alone, or to renounce private salvation in favor of working for the salvation of all.

The message of The Voice seems to be, not that we “should” be altruistic and concerned for others’ welfare, but instead that concern for others is the only real option. The exoteric approach, the “eye doctrine,” or “open path,” is only a stop gap measure. Because we are all karmically interlinked, and because every action we do affects all others, the bodhisattva way of service to all life is the only way.

C. Meditation. Meditate on verse 144: “To live to benefit mankind is the first step.”

The following verses 150-160 develop in some detail the concept of a communal or collective Path that we follow as part of an evolving group or band of servers who have dedicated themselves to the welfare of others.

A. Verses [150-160].

[150] Act thou for them today, and they will act for thee tomorrow.

[151] ’Tis from the bud of renunciation of the self, that springeth the sweet fruit of final Liberation.

[152] To perish doomed is he, who out of fear of Mara refrains from helping man, lest he should act for self. The pilgrim who would cool his weary limbs in running waters, yet dares not plunge for terror of the stream, risks to succumb from heat. Inaction based on selfish fear can bear but evil fruit.

[153] The selfish devotee lives to no purpose. The man who does not go through his appointed work in life — has lived in vain.

[154] Follow the wheel of life; follow the wheel of duty to race and kin, to friend and foe, and close thy mind to pleasures as to pain. Exhaust the law of Karmic retribution. Gain siddhis for thy future birth.

[155] If sun thou canst not be, then be the humble planet. Aye, if thou art debarred from flaming like the noon-day sun upon the snow-capped mount of purity eternal, then choose, O neophyte, a humbler course.

[156] Point out the way — however dimly, and lost among the host — as does the evening star to those who tread their path in darkness.

[157] Behold Migmar [Mars], as in his crimson veils his eye sweeps over slumbering Earth. Behold the fiery aura of the hand of Lhagpa [Mercury] extended in protecting love over the heads of his ascetics. Both are now servants to Nyima [the Sun], left in his absence silent watchers in the night. Yet both in kalpas past were bright nyimas, and may in future days again become two Suns. Such are the falls and rises of the Karmic Law in nature.

[158] Be, O lanoo, like them. Give light and comfort to the toiling pilgrim, and seek out him who knows still less than thou; who in his wretched desolation sits starving for the bread of Wisdom, and the bread which feeds the shadow, without a Teacher, hope, or consolation, and let him hear the Law.

[159] Tell him, O candidate, that he who makes of pride and self-regard bond-maidens to devotion; that he, who cleaving to existence, still lays his patience and submission to the Law, as a sweet flower at the feet of Shakya-Thub-pa [Buddha], becomes a srotapatti in this birth. The siddhis of perfection may loom far, far away; but the first step is taken, the stream is entered, and he may gain the eyesight of the mountain eagle, the hearing of the timid doe.

[160] Tell him, O aspirant, that true devotion may bring him back the knowledge, that knowledge which was his in former births. The deva-sight and deva-hearing are not obtained in one short birth.

B. Comment.

The “they” and “them” of verse 150 are those referred to in verse 149 who form with “thee” a karmic band, each of whose karma influences the others of the band. The members of such a band have a collective or “distributive” karma, as HPB calls it in The Key to Theosophy, in which the actions of each member of the band affect all its other members.

This concept of our karmic connection with one another within a group is a curious mirror reflection of the evolutionary principle of individualization. In evolution, consciousness moves from a group soul, one soul that manifests in a number of physical bodies simultaneously (as, for example, all the bees in a hive are expressions of a single life rather than separate ones), to smaller and smaller soul-groups, consisting of only a few embodied expressions, until the human state is reached. In becoming human, we are “individualized.” That is, the evolving entity or monad expresses itself in only one personal form at a time.

We human beings are thus the most separate, divided, isolated beings of the cosmos. The angst of isolation is the “curse” of the human “Fall” out of an integrated Eden, where we lived in harmonious but unconscious integration with other beings, into the fragmented world of self-awareness. But that is not the end of evolution. Indeed, far from being the zenith of spiritual evolution, the human state is in one sense its nadir.

From the self-aware state of isolated separateness, we evolve toward a conscious reintegration with other beings in which we each retain our separate identity but become conscious of our fundamental unity in the Ground of Being. The result is a reestablishment, not of the old group soul, but of a conscious analog of it: a self-aware collective consciousness in which each individual retains a distinct identity but also shares with all other fellow individuals a common awareness of their unity and mutual participation in the One Life.

The first step toward this conscious reintegration is the formation of karmic bands, in which evolving human souls are linked to one another by shared karma and eventually by a shared consciousness. Final liberation from the limitations of existence depends on our overcoming (or “renouncing”) the illusion of an isolated, separate self (verse 151), and that overcoming begins with the karma we share with others.

Those who try to maintain the isolated state in which human life begins at the time of their individualization from the group soul are doomed to failure, for that is an evolutionary dead end. Only when we live a life of altruistic helping, by acting for others as they act for us, do we fulfill the purpose of our lives. Our appointed work in life is to make contact with our fellows, to become part of an evolving band of distinct but interlinked souls (verses 152-153).

The first Object of the Theosophical Society is highly relevant here. The first Object is often regarded as a pious generalization, an impractical statement of an impossible ideal. It is nothing of the sort; it is very specific, very practical, and very real. The nucleus it speaks of as being formed by the Fellows of the Society is in fact one of these karmic bands or collective groups of souls. This is not to say that everyone who signs an application form and pays dues automatically becomes part of that nucleus. To say that would be superstitious. But everyone who joins the Society has thereby an opportunity to become part of this nucleus. Whether we do so or not is up to us. It has to be a conscious decision, freely taken.

Within our ever growing collective consciousness, we each have an appointed way or duty. Following that way, doing that duty without regard to the consequence to us personally, exhausts our personal karma and develops in us the higher siddhis, which are the powers of wisdom, compassion, creativity, and harmony (verse 154). Our duty is not unchanging; rather it varies with time, and we are to follow whatever duty we have at a given time. When we are a sun, we should shine like a sun; when we are a planet, we should move as planets move (155-158).

The point about relative and varying duty is illustrated by a tradition that says the present planets Mars and Mercury were in the past suns and will in the future be suns again. Verse 157 uses names for the heavenly bodies: Migmar, Lhagpa, and Nyima, of which HPB notes: Gloss 26. Nyima, the Sun in Tibetan Astrology. Migmar or Mars is symbolized by an “eye,” and Lhagpa or Mercury by a “hand.”

Like Migmar with his Eye and Lhagpa with his Hand, we are to watch over and lend a helping hand by giving light and comfort to our fellow pilgrims on the Way (verse 158). In thus sacrificing what seems to be our personal interest to “Shakya-Thub-pa” or Buddha — not just the historical Gautama Buddha, but the Eternal Buddha Nature — we enter upon the Path or into the “stream,” as verse 159 states. We become, to use a traditional Buddhist term, srotapatti, which HPB glosses: Gloss 27. Srotapatti or “he who enters in the stream” of Nirvana, unless he reaches the goal owing to some exceptional reasons, can rarely attain Nirvana in one birth. Usually a chela is said to begin the ascending effort in one life and end or reach it only in his seventh succeeding birth.

Buddhism traditionally recognizes four stages on the Path to Enlightenment and Liberation:

1. One who has entered the stream and has become free from the first three of the ten fetters, which are the illusion of being a self separate from all other selves (the basic fetter of all of us), vacillation or skeptical doubt (the special fetter of intellectuals, scholars, and scientists), and clinging to forms and rules (the special fetter of fundamentalists).

2. One who will return once only and who is nearly free from two further fetters: cravings or desires and all ill-will or aversion, that is, wanting either to have or not to have.

3. One who will return no more (but be reborn in higher worlds) and who is completely free of the first five fetters.

4. One who is worthy (an arhat), having cast off the last five fetters: desire for existence in the lower worlds of forms, desire for existence in the higher formless worlds, conceit or self-esteem, restlessness, and ignorance.

The ten fetters are wrong ways of thinking and desiring that have to be removed, one by one, as we follow the Path to the ultimate goal.

In the Theosophical tradition, these four stages are referred to as the first four initiations. It is probably best not to think of these as formal initiations like those of Freemasonry or even as wholly distinct stages of development, but as a symbol of the fact that enlightenment, liberation, or salvation does not come all at once, suddenly, but instead is a process that comes by degrees. Becoming enlightened is not like flipping a wall switch that suddenly turns on the light. Rather, it is like turning up a dimmer switch to gradually increase the light until it is as bright as possible. Still, the first step must be taken, and that beginning is a discrete event, like putting our hand on the switch or stepping through the gate onto the Path.

It took us a long while to lose the knowledge that we once had. It will take us a long while to regain it and to lose the ignorance we have replaced it with. We should not hanker after special powers and insight (“the eye-sight of the mountain eagle, the hearing of the timid doe” of verse 159 or the “deva-sight and deva-hearing” of verse 160). Instead, we should enter the stream, form the links that unite us with others, and eventually everything else will follow.

C. Meditation.

1. Consider the implications of becoming, not just a card-carrying member of the Theosophical Society, but a part of a nucleus of the universal brotherhood. In such a nucleus, what is our relationship with other members of the nucleus? What do we owe them? What do we share with them?

2. Dwell on the following poetical statement by HPB: “There is a Road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a Road. And it leads to the very heart of the universe. / I can tell you how to find those who will show you the secret gateway that opens inwardly only, and closes fast behind the neophyte forever more. / There is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer. / There is no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through. / There is no difficulty that strong intellect cannot surmount. / For those who win onward, there is reward past all telling: the power to bless and save humanity. / For those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come.”