The Voice of the Silence 9 (Verses 101-122)

John Algeo – USA



Fragment II of The Voice of the Silence is entitled “The Two Paths,” and that title identifies its dominant metaphor: a road that branches into two paths, between which a choice must be made. Neither path is wrong; and ultimately both lead to the same place, but they pass through different landscapes on the way. However, the choice between the two paths is not an inconsequential one, and the Fragment is clearly urging us to choose a particular one of the two.

The importance of choice in our lives cannot be overstressed. The doctrine of karma tells us that every action has an inevitable consequence. But karma does not determine what action we will take. When faced with the need to act, we, like Arjuna in the Gita, must choose what we will do. And our choice determines what follows; it also determines our own natures, for by choosing, we create or discover ourselves. In a fantasy story that is very popular around the world, a wizard guru tells a young boy who is in the process of discovering who and what he is, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p. 245). That statement is neither fiction nor fantasy but plain and sober truth. It is what Fragment II is about.

A. Verses [101-111].

One of the great teachers said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7.7). So the candidates ask the teacher for instruction about how to proceed, just as Arjuna asks Krishna in the Gita, and the teacher tells them about the two paths:


[101] And now, O Teacher of Compassion, point thou the way to other men. Behold, all those who, knocking for admission, await in ignorance and darkness to see the gate of the Sweet Law flung open!

The voice of the candidates:

[102] Shalt not thou, Master of thine own mercy, reveal the Doctrine of the Heart? Shalt thou refuse to lead thy servants unto the Path of Liberation?

Quoth the Teacher:

[103] The Paths are two; the great Perfections three; six are the Virtues that transform the body into the Tree of Knowledge.

[104] Who shall approach them?

[105] Who shall first enter them?

[106] Who shall first hear the doctrine of two Paths in one, the truth unveiled about the Secret Heart? The Law which, shunning learning, teaches Wisdom, reveals a tale of woe.

[107] Alas, alas, that all men should possess Ālaya, be one with the great Soul, and that possessing it, Ālaya should so little avail them!

[108] Behold how, like the moon, reflected in the tranquil waves, Ālaya is reflected by the small and by the great, is mirrored in the tiniest atoms, yet fails to reach the heart of all. Alas, that so few men should profit by the gift, the priceless boon of learning truth, the right perception of existing things, the knowledge of the non-existent!

Saith the pupil:

[109] O Teacher, what shall I do to reach to Wisdom?

[110] O Wise One, what, to gain perfection?

[111] Search for the Paths. But, O lanoo, be of clean heart before thou startest on thy journey. Before thou takest thy first step learn to discern the real from the false, the ever-fleeting from the everlasting. Learn above all to separate head-learning from Soul-Wisdom, the “Eye” from the “Heart” doctrine.


B. Comment.

Fragment I ended with the lanoo, the learner, seated beneath the Bodhi tree, “which is the perfection of all knowledge,” having become “the Master of Samādhi — the state of faultless vision.” The image is clearly that of the Buddha at his enlightenment. But enlightenment, like everything in this world, is a cyclical phenomenon. Having become enlightened in one cycle, the lanoo who has become Master assumes his new role in another cycle of enlightenment, in which he instructs other candidates to approach the same goal, but in different terms.

Thus, verse 101 addresses the figure beneath the Bodhi tree as a “Teacher of Compassion” and asks him to point out the way to all the others who are still on the outer side of the door, trying to enter, waiting in the darkness of ignorance for him to open that gate. The allusion to the enlightenment of the Buddha is still being carried on. For after the Buddha attained enlightenment, he considered keeping what he had learned to himself and retiring from the world. But instead he arose from under the tree and went forth to teach the “Sweet Law,” that is, the dharma, to others.

The voice of the Candidates in verse 102 is that of those in ignorance and darkness, awaiting the light of knowledge. They ask the Teacher of Compassion to reveal the Doctrine of the Heart. A gloss on that term introduces the dichotomy that is the principal theme of this Fragment:

Gloss 1. The two schools of Buddha’s doctrine, the esoteric and the exoteric, are respectively called the “Heart” and the “Eye” Doctrine. Bodhidharma called them in China — from whence the names reached Tibet — the tsungmen (esoteric) and kiaumen (exoteric) school. The former is so named because it is the teaching which emanated from Gautama Buddha’s heart, whereas the “Eye” doctrine was the work of his head or brain. The Heart Doctrine is also called the “seal of truth” or the “true seal,” a symbol found on the heading of almost all esoteric works.

The Teacher replies in verse 103 by beginning the exposition of the esoteric Doctrine of the Heart. He mentions two Paths, three Perfections, and six Virtues. The two Paths are the subject of this Fragment; their identity is unfolded as we read through it. The Sanskrit term pāramitā is translated as either “perfection” or “virtue,” and there are several lists specifying various numbers of such perfections or virtues. In the third Fragment, one of the three Perfections is said to be “entire obliteration of all earthly concerns” (gloss 34 to verse 306). The six Pāramitā Virtues are treated at length also in the next Fragment (verses 198, 207-13). They are said in verse 103 to “transform the body into the Tree of Knowledge,” explained as follows:

Gloss 2. The “tree of knowledge” is a title given by the followers of the Bodhidharma (Wisdom Religion) to those who have attained the height of mystic knowledge — adepts. Nāgārjuna, the founder of the Mādhyamika school, was called the “Dragon Tree,” dragon standing as a symbol of Wisdom and Knowledge. The tree is honored because it is under the Bodhi (wisdom) tree that Buddha received his birth and enlightenment, preached his first sermon and died.

Verse 106 refers to “the doctrine of two Paths in one.” This alludes to the fact that, however different they seem, the two Paths lead to the same goal. A gloss explains that “Secret Heart” refers to the esoteric Heart Doctrine:

Gloss 3. The “Secret Heart” is the esoteric doctrine.

This verse also implies that, as Wisdom is taught by the esoteric Heart Doctrine, so learning is taught by the exoteric Eye Doctrine. The Wisdom of the Heart Doctrine reveals a tale of woe perhaps for two reasons. First, exoterically, the Buddha’s teaching is that life in this world is woeful. Nothing has a stable core, everything is changing, and all is painful because greed, anger, and ignorance affect our perceptions of this world. It is only by blowing out the fire of our greed, anger, and ignorance that we can escape the world’s woes. Second, esoterically, we are called upon not to abandon our fellow beings in this woeful world, even when we can escape it ourselves — not to forsake them, but instead, even when we can enter Nirvāna (the state of having blown out the fires of passion), to remain in this woeful world to help others.

Ālaya, first mentioned in verse 107, is said in The Secret Doctrine (1:47) to be the same as anima mundi, the “soul of the world,” and The Theosophical Glossary says it is identical with ākāsha and mūlaprakṛti: “it is the basis or root of all things.” The Sanskrit term means literally a “storehouse.” Ālaya is thus the Fullness, the Plenum, the infinite potential of all that is, was, will be, or might be. We are all one with it because we are realizations or expressions of it. And because we come from it, we share its unlimited potential of being and becoming. Ālaya, the whole, is reflected in every part of the universe. When we know that we and all else in the multifarious universe are rooted in Ālaya, we have a right perception of existing things and a knowledge of the source of all.

In verses 109-110, the pupil wants to know what to do. Like all students, indeed like all of us, this pupil wants to be told simply and clearly the answer, to be given unambiguous directions. But the Teacher answers, as all true teachers must, that the pupils must search for themselves, find the Path themselves. All the Teacher can do is to give directions for the preliminary preparation. Those directions are to “be of clean heart” and to “learn to discern the real from the false . . . the ever-fleeting from the everlasting . . . Head-learning from Soul-Wisdom.” Those two directions are echoed by other guides to the Path.

Thus in “The Golden Stairs,” the first and third steps are very similar to “be of clean heart”: “Behold the truth before you: a clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a brotherliness for one’s co-disciple, a readiness to give and receive advice and instruction, a loyal sense of duty to the Teacher, a willing obedience to the behests of Truth, once we have placed our confidence in, and believe that Teacher to be in possession of it; a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defense of those who are unjustly attacked, and a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection which the secret science (Gupta Vidyā) depicts — these are the golden stairs up the steps of which the learner may climb to the Temple of Divine Wisdom.”

And in At the Feet of the Master, the first qualification for entering the Path is discrimination (in Sanskrit, viveka), which is the ability to “discern the real from the false” and in general to distinguish between alternatives. The second qualification is desirelessness or dispassion. The Sanskrit term for this qualification, vairāgya, means to be “without passion or attachment,” that is, “of clean heart.” In effect, then, the Teacher is telling the pupil to practice the first two qualifications for entering the Path. This is all any teacher can do — not teach the pupil knowledge, but only show the pupil how to learn.

C. Meditation.

1. T. S. Eliot wrote: “In my end is my beginning.” Meditate upon that sentence as a koan.

2. Robert Frost wrote a poem about a road that divided into two and about taking “the road less traveled by,” which made all the difference in his life. Visualize a road that branches. Think about the dividing roads you have encountered in your own life, the choices made, and the roads untraveled.

3. Visualize a moon reflected in tranquil waves. What is the visual effect of the reflection in the waves? How many moons appear in them? How does that relate to the concept of Ālaya?

A. Verses [112-122].

The next eleven verses introduce a series of vivid images, all relating to our need to establish contact between our personalities of this lifetime and our timeless Selves: a bird enclosed in a jar, a mirror gathering dust, a fool at the top of a high tower, and bread made from flour ground in a mill. They also continue the theme of head-learning and Soul-Wisdom, the Eye doctrine and the Heart doctrine, which appeared at the end of the last group of verses. The images are appropriate to that theme, for the Eye doctrine of head-learning pertains to the personality, whereas the Heart doctrine of Soul-Wisdom pertains to the timeless self within us.

[112] Yea, ignorance is like unto a closed and airless vessel; the soul a bird shut up within. It warbles not, nor can it stir a feather; but the songster mute and torpid sits, and of exhaustion dies.

[113] But even ignorance is better than head-learning with no Soul-Wisdom to illuminate and guide it.

[114] The seeds of Wisdom cannot sprout and grow in airless space. To live and reap experience the mind needs breadth and depth and points to draw it towards the Diamond Soul. Seek not those points in Māyā’s realm; but soar beyond illusions, search the eternal and the changeless Sat, mistrusting fancy’s false suggestions.

[115] For mind is like a mirror; it gathers dust while it reflects. It needs the gentle breezes of Soul-Wisdom to brush away the dust of our illusions. Seek, O beginner, to blend thy mind and Soul.

[116] Shun ignorance, and likewise shun illusion. Avert thy face from world deceptions; mistrust thy senses; they are false. But within thy body — the shrine of thy sensations — seek in the impersonal for the “Eternal Man”; and having sought him out, look inward: thou art Buddha.

[117] Shun praise, O devotee. Praise leads to self-delusion. Thy body is not Self, thy Self is in itself without a body, and either praise or blame affects it not.

[118] Self-gratulation, O disciple, is like unto a lofty tower, up which a haughty fool has climbed. Thereon he sits in prideful solitude and unperceived by any but himself.

[119] False learning is rejected by the wise, and scattered to the winds by the Good Law. Its wheel revolves for all, the humble and the proud. The “Doctrine of the Eye” is for the crowd; the “Doctrine of the Heart” for the elect. The first repeat in pride, “Behold, I know,” the last, they who in humbleness have garnered, low confess, “Thus have I heard.”

[120] “Great Sifter” is the name of the “Heart Doctrine,” O disciple.

[121] The wheel of the Good Law moves swiftly on. It grinds by night and day. The worthless husks it drives from out the golden grain, the refuse from the flour. The hand of Karma guides the wheel; the revolutions mark the beatings of the Karmic heart.

[122] True knowledge is the flour, false learning is the husk. If thou wouldst eat the bread of Wisdom, thy flour thou hast to knead with amṛta’s [immortality’s] clear waters. But if thou kneadest husks with Māyā’s dew, thou canst create but food for the black doves of death, the birds of birth, decay and sorrow.

B. Comment.

Verses 112-116 have as their theme a three-way contrast between ignorance, illusory information or “head-learning,” and true knowledge or “soul-wisdom.”

Soul-Wisdom is the gnosis, true knowledge, knowing which, as the Upanishad says, one need not know anything else. It is Self-knowledge, knowledge that we are the one Self, which is in fact everything that is. Only the truly wise have this gnosis; they are the Masters of the Wisdom.

Ignorance is lack of the gnosis (literally: in- “not” + gnoscere “to know”).

Head-learning or illusory information is having a store of facts without knowing what they mean. Today we live in what has been called an information explosion, but the explosion is of facts, not wise knowledge. Oscar Wilde said that a cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. That is head-learning. It is mistaking illusion or fancy’s false suggestions for real knowledge.

Of the three, Soul-Wisdom is obviously favored by The Voice. But ignorance is preferable to mere head-learning, because those who have the latter are likely to suppose they know something important and therefore to be unware of their own lack of Soul-Wisdom. On the other hand, the truly ignorant will be aware of their lack of knowledge and thus have the potential to acquire Soul-Wisdom. The genuinely ignorant will be looking for the truth. Those who are learned only in the head will suppose they know and hence will be closed-minded.

This three-way contrast is like that of the three gunas (or qualities of matter), which are sattva (or harmony), rajas (or hectic activity), and tamas (or inertia). The gunas traditionally are evaluated, with tamas being the least desirable because it is hard to get a static body to move. Rajas may be disorganized movement, but it is at least movement that can be converted into harmony. Head-learning is tamasic. Ignorance is rajasic. Soul-Wisdom is sattvic.

A related fourfold classification says that there are four kinds of people: (1) those who know and know that they know — whom we should follow because they are in possession of sattvic Soul-Wisdom; (2) those who know but do not know that they know — whom we should awaken because they have a type of ignorance; (3) those who do not know and know that they do not know, whom we should teach because they have another type of ignorance; (4) those who do not know and do not know that they do not know, from whom we should flee because they have head-learning only and thus are a source of mischief.

The bird in the closed vessel of verse 112 is reminiscent of a Zen koan: There is a bird in a jar with only a pin-sized opening at the top. How do you get the bird out of the jar without harming the bird or breaking the jar? Zen koans have no logical answers because they are not logical puzzles. One answer to this koan is, “The bird is out of the jar.” That is, the bird got out of the jar the same way it got into it — by words. Many of our problems are artificial ones, created by the words we use. It is natural for the soul to come to wisdom, just as it is natural for a bird to fly free in the air.

Verse 114 mentions the “Diamond Soul,” that is, one who has soul-wisdom. A gloss explains:

Gloss 4. “Diamond Soul,” Vajrasattva, a title of the supreme Buddha, the Lord of all Mysteries, called Vajradhara and Ādi-Buddha.

Vajra means “diamond” or “thunderbolt” and, when used alone, refers to “enlightenment,” which is as sudden as lightning and as indestructible as the diamond. It is a term particularly associated with Tibetan Buddhism, one form of which is known as Vajrayāna, “the diamond vehicle.” Vajrasattva is literally “diamond harmonious nature” (sattva being the guna referred to above), which is the nature of the Buddha. Vajradhara is “He who holds the vajra.” Ādi-Buddha is the first, original, or primordial Buddha, a term for the Absolute.

The same verse mentions sat, glossed as follows:

Gloss 5. Sat, the one eternal and absolute Reality and Truth, all the rest being illusion.

Sat is the present participle of the Sanskrit verb for “to be,” hence “being.” It is used, however, as a term for the Absolute, the nature of which is, as HPB calls it in The Secret Doctrine, “be-ness,” the ultimate essence of what is. It is what Soul-Wisdom is about.

Verse 115 contains the famous metaphor: “mind is like a mirror; it gathers dust while it reflects.” HPB did not invent the metaphor, but identifies her source for it in a gloss:

Gloss 6. From Shin-Sieu’s doctrine, who teaches that the human mind is like a mirror which attracts and reflects every atom of dust, and has to be, like that mirror, watched over and dusted every day. Shin-Sieu was the sixth Patriarch of North China who taught the esoteric doctrine of Bodhidharma.

The metaphor is universal, being used also, for example, by St. Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians (13.11): “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The “glass” in that passage is a looking-glass, that is, a mirror. The idea, which is basically the same as that in The Voice, is that what we know is only a reflection of reality, subject to the distortions of an ancient mirror or the dust that gathers upon it. The dust is our accumulated experience of illusory head-learning, which obscures our vision of reality.

The reference in verse 115 to mind and Soul suggests another triplicity that matches the one treated centrally in these passages: namely, body, mind, and soul. The body is ignorance; the mind is head-learning, and the soul is Soul-Wisdom. We have all three within ourselves, and to be whole (holy or enlightened), we must blend them.

Verse 116 advises us to shun the ignorance (of the body) and the illusion (of head-learning) but, being in the body, to seek in the impersonal aspect of ourselves the eternal Buddha nature, that is, the persisting reincarnating self, which becomes enlightened through a conscious union with the highest reality. Two glosses comment on these matters:

Gloss 7. The reincarnating Ego is called by the Northern Buddhists the “true man,” who becomes, in union with his Higher Self, a Buddha.

Gloss 8. “Buddha” means “Enlightened.”

Verses 117-119 are cautions against pride, the special vice of head-learning. The image in verse 118 of a tower to whose top a fool has climbed may suggest the picture on the Tarot card of the Tower, which shows it collapsing and a figure, a fool perhaps, falling from its top.

The reference in verse 119 to the “Doctrine of the Eye” and the “Doctrine of the Heart” relates those to, respectively, head-learning and Heart-Wisdom, and gloss 9 on the former refers back to the distinction between exoteric and esoteric teachings:

Gloss 9. [See gloss 1 on verse 102, p. 2] The exoteric Buddhism of the masses.

The following gloss on the confession of those who follow the esoteric Doctrine of the Heart, “thus have I heard,” emphasizes the caution against pride and self-aggrandizement:

Gloss 10. The usual formula that precedes the Buddhist scriptures, meaning that that which follows is what has been recorded by direct and oral tradition from Buddha and the Arhats.

This confessional formula is not an appeal to arbitrary authority, but a disclaimer of personal authority. It says, as HPB did herself repeatedly in her writing, “I have not made this up, but rather it is what I have learned from those who know more than I do.”

Verses 120-122 introduce a new metaphor, that of the mill which grinds the flour from which bread is made. The mill is the “good Law” or the “Heart Doctrine,” that is, the esoteric teachings. It is operated by the hand of karma, that is, by the results of our own past actions. The grain which it grinds is human experience. The husks or refuse it separates out is that part of our life’s experience that is not eternally useful — all that is shadowy, petty, narrow, and limited in our lives, and especially false learning or head-learning. The flour that the mill produces is true knowledge, gnosis, self-discovery. If we try to combine that flour of true knowledge with Māyā’s dew (the illusions of this world, head-learning), the result will not endure, being fit only as food for the doves of death. But if we mix it with the waters of amṛta (which HPB notes means “immortality,” or what survives an incarnation), the bread that rises is Wisdom, which feeds the soul.

These three verses are saying that we come to the esoteric teachings by our own self-created karma. If we submit ourselves to those teachings, they will separate what is transitory and worthless in us from what is of enduring value, which can be absorbed into our permanent reincarnating Self, and that is indeed the Bread of Life.

C. Meditation.

These verses contain a number of striking and dramatic images. Take one of these images and visualize it clearly. See every detail of the picture and of the action involved with the picture. Hold it firmly in mind. Let it speak to you.

· A bird shut into an airless vessel, from which it must escape.

· A mirror gathering dust, which is then brushed away by gentle breezes.

· A high tower to the top of which a haughty fool has climbed, where he sits alone.

· A mill grinding grain into flour, which is mixed with sweet water to make bread.


To be continued