Mastering the Cyclic Nature of Existence — I

Elena Dovalsantos – USA

Elena Dovalsantos

Elena Dovalsantos

In periods of difficulty or amidst catastrophic, life-changing events such as the current pandemic, many ask the most basic questions about life, such as: Why is this happening? Did we do anything to deserve this? What is this pandemic telling us? Are there lessons we are being made to learn? How do we navigate through a great crisis as this and come out the better for it?

The Theosophical View of Existence

Theosophy provides answers to the most fundamental questions of life based on the wisdom of the ages. It draws the common thread between the great religions of the world, philosophy, and science to provide an all-encompassing view of existence.

First and foremost, Theosophy presents a view of the universe that reveals the interconnectedness of everything. The idea that there is something that connects us all is a view that is now gaining more and more acceptance even in many fields of science.

As symbolized in Figure 1, we are like the drops in the web of life. Every drop on the web reflects the world around. Every drop shares the same essence. Any disturbance in one part of the web causes vibrations that affect the whole web. We are seeing this clearly today with the current pandemic that has changed life as we know it.

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Figure 1

In The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett (Letter 47, chron. ed.), it is written: “Nature has linked all parts of her Empire together by subtle threads of magnetic sympathy, and there is a mutual correlation even between a star and a man. .

The same sentiment is echoed in the poem “The Mistress of Vision” by Francis Thompson:

All things by immortal power,

Near or far,

Hiddenly To each other linked are,

That thou canst not stir a flower

Without troubling of a star . . .

Besides the concept of our interconnectedness, another fundamental teaching offered by Theosophy is the purpose for existence: the realization of our true nature, which is divine and ONE WITH ALL, and consequently, the perfection of all the powers latent within us.

The way to achieve this purpose is through cycles that provide endless opportunities for growth and renewal. In a cycle every period of activity is followed by a period of rest, followed by another period of activity and so on. We see this in our days and nights. We wake up each morning renewed, ready to start afresh to continue where we left off the day before. Periodicity is a fundamental law of the universe that is observable at all levels in all of Nature. We thus have not only day and night, but also birth and death, the ebb and flow of tides, changing seasons, biorhythms, blood circulation, water evaporating and condensing as rain or snow. There is also the rise and fall of civilizations, and even the revolution of planets and stars.

Cycles of Renewal

Cyclic renewal is seen at all levels great and small. Cycles are everywhere. They are so common, so much a part of ourselves and the universe, that they must have a purpose. For example, fallen leaves decompose and return to the soil to feed new growth. In the same way, a supernova explosion (the death of a massive star) provides the raw materials for future stars and planets. Cycles bring endless new beginnings. Is it not interesting that cycles are everywhere but we usually do not even stop to think about why they happen at all?

H. P. Blavatsky (HPB) wrote: “There is a purpose in every important act of Nature, whose acts are all cyclic and periodical.” (The Secret Doctrine, 1:640). Unlike scientific theories that propose randomness in evolution, Theosophy teaches “the progressive development of everything, worlds as well as atoms; and this stupendous development has neither conceivable beginning nor imaginable end.” (Ibid., 1:43).

Reincarnation is an example of cyclic renewal. It is a doctrine that has long been accepted in many of the great religions, including early Christianity, until the Second Council of Constantinople banned these teachings. However, clues to it remain in some biblical accounts.

In the concept of reincarnation, every return from life to life is a chance to gather experiences for growth until we are able to transcend human limitations and achieve enlightenment which is the knowledge of our own true being. The cyclic process of development is therefore not a closed circle but is a spiral, expanding and advancing as evolution proceeds. “The whole order of Nature evinces a progressive march towards a higher life.” (Ibid., 1:277) It is a continuous unfolding towards greater and greater expression of our true nature.

A rose, which, incidentally, has petals arranged in a spiral, starts off as a bud without much of a scent but when it is fully opened, its fragrance can spread throughout a room. Likewise, in everyday terms, we may say that someone who has matured and achieved his or her full potential has “bloomed”. In the Dhammapada, the simile of a flower in full bloom is used to describe a sage whose influence can spread far and wide in all directions. We know that the sages of old are still being studied and quoted today. We might say then that the influence of a sage even transcends time.

In India, the never-ending cycles of destruction and creation are represented by Natarâja — the Lord of the Dance, or Dancing Siva (Figure 2). It has very deep and varied meanings. We do not need to go into all of them but perhaps we can point to a few: (a) in ªiva’s right hand is the drum that beats the rhythm of creation and time; (b) in his left hand is agni, the fire of destruction; (c) in his lower right hand is a gesture that says: be not afraid, follow the path of righteousness and all will be well; (d) his front left hand points to his raised left foot, signifying the possibility of emancipation as his right foot is placed firmly on the demon of ignorance.

It is ignorance that keeps us trapped in the world or cycles of illusion. Siva dances to keep the cycles of destruction and creation going on. After all, there must be endings in order to have new beginnings. The image thus hints that over time after many cosmic cycles and lives lived in righteousness, it will be possible for us to stamp out ignorance and win our liberation from the never-ending cycles.

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Figure 2

The Law of Karma

The growth necessary for us to achieve our purpose is spurred by karma, the law of action and reaction, cause and effect, harmony, and equilibrium. With karma, we see another demonstration of a just, impersonal, and unfailing cyclic law. Whatever we do comes back to us in the same degree as the intent and energy that we put into the action. This law gives back to everyone the actual consequences of their own actions, without any regard to their moral character. Each of us will be made to atone for all sufferings which we cause, or reap in joy and gladness the fruits of all happiness and harmony that we help to produce. (HPB, The Key to Theosophy, Section 11.)

Karma never affects an individual alone, just as a disturbance in water creates ripples that can spread throughout a whole pool. In the words of HPB, the “waves oscillate backwards and forwards till at last, owing to the operation of what physicists call the law of the dissipation of energy, they are brought to rest, and the water returns to its condition of calm tranquility.” (Ibid.) This is another testament to all of us being part of a single web of life, how we all affect one another,

Karma is a great teacher. No one can avoid this law. So its lessons cannot be ignored. “Karma is that Law of readjustment which ever tends . . . to restore Harmony and preserve the balance of equilibrium, by virtue of which the Universe exists.” (Ibid.)

What does this mean for us? For as long as our actions cause a disharmony or imbalance in the equilibrium of this life that we share, we will be subjected to the karmic repercussions of our actions until balance is regained. In the same way, a beneficent action or influence will also spread throughout our whole world and bring back favorable results to the originator. We just never know how far our actions can go or how far our thoughts can travel, but travel they will.

The Global Pandemic

Let us think for a moment about what is happening in the world today with Covid-19. If everything happens for a reason, then this pandemic, with its staggering global impact, can in no way just be an accident. We know that everything that we do is recorded somewhere. In Theosophy there is the concept of the âkâshic records. HPB wrote that all the vile emanations of our planet are stored in the astral light. The astral light is the invisible region surrounding our globe equivalent to our etheric double. It is a lower region of the âkâsha, where the coarsest vibrations we have generated are collected. In time, the astral light reflects back to Earth what it has received. So HPB said that epidemics are but the effects of the influence of the astral light. (Theosophical Glossary, Collected Writings, 10:251)

With so many epidemics that have come up over the years, and now in the midst of a globally devastating pandemic, one might surmise that a great accumulation of iniquities that our humanity has generated and stored in the astral light has now returned as global karma. Divisiveness, wars, greed, cruelty to our fellow humans and to animals, destruction of our environment — all of these and more have marked much of human activity. We can see that even in the response to Covid-19 there is the general tendency to say: “My interests, my enjoyment, my rights, my welfare, my needs are more important than yours — Me first!”

It is said that we attract to ourselves what we always think of. Could it be then that our tendencies towards separateness have now attracted to us the mandatory social distancing that we are learning is not much fun? Nature is wise in her ways, always seeking to maintain balance. For example, have you noticed that while we are social distancing, there has been a boom in online theosophical programs? It is enabling many of us to study Theosophy on a regular basis with friends from across the globe. It is facilitating the spreading of these important teachings. It is bringing us theosophists closer together. Is this the new normal? Well we do not know, but it is interesting to think about.

The Ultimate Cause of Our Troubles

HPB wrote: “The one terrible and only cause of the disturbance of Harmony is selfishness in some form or another.” (The Key to Theosophy) She also wrote that we have an “inborn habit . . . of always placing [ourselves] at the center of the Universe. Whatever [one] might act, think, or feel, the irrepressible ‘I’ is sure to be the central figure.” (Collected Writings, “Morality and Pantheism”, 5:337)

Our self-centeredness is the principal cause of trouble in the world. The biggest illusion is that we see each other as separate individuals. It is not readily apparent that in essence we are all the same; that the life and spirit inside of us is the same as that in every other. This is because to the physical eye, we all look separate, we all look different. But has it not been said that “What is essential is invisible to the eye?” (A. de Saint-Exupéry, Little Prince)

Therefore, if we can perceive beyond the physical, we may be able to sense the “subtle threads of magnetic sympathy” that connect us all, as described in The Mahatma Letters. We do know that this invisible connection exists. We feel it with the ones we love. If we can all gradually widen the circle of those whom we love and care for, then maybe empathy and altruism will become natural and we can have a better world.

As shown in Figure 3, karma drags us down, again and again around the wheel of existence until we can work out the consequences of our past actions and eventually attain enlightenment.

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Figure 3

According to Buddhist philosophy, what drives this wheel is the hub containing the three poisons.

(1) Ignorance, symbolized by the pig, which does not mind living in dirty surroundings and does not discriminate much about what it eats. The poison of ignorance means being oblivious to the real nature of things: ignorance of what is permanent and unchanging; ignorance of the Real. This keeps us thirsting for material existence. We cling to this material world. In fact we are even afraid to die, no matter how much suffering we are in, not knowing that the real life is there after death. Everything in this world is impermanent, transitory, fleeting.

(2) Attachment to the objects of our desires or of the senses (symbolized by a bird that mates for life) is the second of the poisons.

(3) Anger or aversion is the third poison (symbolized by the snake which is quickly aroused and strikes back at the slightest touch). Aversion is, in a way, just another kind of attachment. The reason we shun something is because we prefer, or are attached to, something else — its opposite. So this clinging to this world of sensation is what keeps us trapped in this wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. All three poisons — ignorance, attachment, and aversion — keep us coming back again and again to the world of sorrow and disappointment, to suffer and to cause suffering.

Figure 4 is called the bhavachakra, usually found outside of Tibetan Buddhist temples. Bhava means “worldly existence” and chakra, means “wheel”. This has been variously called the wheel of cyclic existence, of worldly existence, of karma, or of birth, death, and rebirth, sometimes called samsâra in Sanskrit. (The earlier image, in Figure 3, with the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion, is at the center of the bhavachakra and drives the whole wheel.)

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Figure 4

The wheel is held by Yama, the Lord of Death, or the Demon of Impermanence. Thus, everything in the cycle is impermanent. This is why, for as long as we are in the cycle of worldly life and craving material things, we will have to suffer loss, anxiety, frustration, heartbreak, pain, suffering, and death. In the upper corners of the image are the “pure land” and the Buddha. Those who have mastered the cycles are able to transcend the wheel and are no longer subject to the illusions of terrestrial existence and worldly sorrows. They show that it is possible for us to achieve the same. We too can be free!

There is the story of a man who went to the Buddha and said: “You are enlightened. Why don’t you give us enlightenment?” The Buddha replied: “I will give people enlightenment, but first show me that [enlightenment] is what they want most.” So the man went off and asked each person he met what they would want most if they could have anything at all. The answers of course were the usual: great fortune, fame, power, health, long life. Nobody asked for enlightenment. And so it seems that we, as humanity, are still very much of this world, and are destined to be subject to the cycles for a long time still, until we decide we are ready to work to master them.

“Mastering the Cyclic Nature of Existence” means understanding what keeps us trapped in the wheel so we can avoid the pitfalls as we navigate through life. It means mastering the laws of existence, to be able to be in this world but not of it. One then becomes liberated from the karmic wheel and is able to help others to achieve the same. This is the essence of the Bodhisattva vow.

“To attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings” is the vow of the Bodhisattva. HPB’s The Voice of the Silence states: “The Bodhisattva who has won the battle, who holds the prize within his palm, yet says in his divine compassion, ‘For others’ sake this great reward I yield’, accomplishes the greater Renunciation.”

“To attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings” is the vow of the Bodhisattva. HPB’s The Voice of the Silence states: “The Bodhisattva who has won the battle, who holds the prize within his palm, yet says in his divine compassion, ‘For others’ sake this great reward I yield’, accomplishes the greater Renunciation.”

(To be continued)

This article was also published in The Theosophist, VOL. 142 NO. 11 AUGUST 2021

The Theosophist is the official organ of the President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.

To read the AUGUST, 2021 issue, click HERE

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