Voice of the Silence 12 (verses 161-181)

John Algeo – USA

Theosophy The Voice 2

The preceding group of verses, 150-160, dealt with the Path as a communal experience, a band of servers who, life after life, unselfishly devote themselves to the welfare of others. The next dozen verses focus on the individual’s inner self. They treat the theme of Wisdom and humbleness, and in the process play with the concept of opposites, which are not always what they seem.

A. Verses [161-172].

[161] Be humble, if thou wouldst attain to Wisdom.

[162] Be humbler still, when Wisdom thou hast mastered.

[163] Be like the ocean which receives all streams and rivers. The ocean’s mighty calm remains unmoved; it feels them not.

[164] Restrain by thy Divine thy lower Self.

[165] Restrain by the Eternal the Divine.

[166] Aye, great is he, who is the slayer of desire.

[167] Still greater he, in whom the Self Divine has slain the very knowledge of desire.

[168] Guard thou the lower lest it soil the Higher.

[169] The way to final freedom is within thy Self.

[170] That way begins and ends outside of self.

[171] Unpraised by men and humble is the mother of all rivers, in Tirthika’s proud sight; empty the human form though filled with Amṛta’s sweet waters, in the sight of fools. Withal, the birthplace of the sacred rivers is the sacred land, and he who Wisdom hath, is honored by all men.

[172] Arhans and Sages of the boundless Vision are rare as is the blossom of the Udumbara tree. Arhans are born at midnight hour, together with the sacred plant of nine and seven stalks, the holy flower that opens and blooms in darkness, out of the pure dew and on the frozen bed of snow-capped heights, heights that are trodden by no sinful foot.

B. Comment. Verses 161-163 deal with the association of true Wisdom and humility, which is very old, widespread, and important. In an ancient ritual catechism, the question is asked of one called “Most Wise”: “Why Most Wise?” And the answer given is “Because most humble.” True Wisdom is knowing the limits of one’s knowledge, so the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote: “Knowledge is proud that he has learn’d so much; / Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.”

The word wise is related to the Latin verb videre, “to see,” and thus to English words like vision, as well as to the Sanskrit word veda, “sacred knowledge.” The word humble derives from the Latin word humus, meaning “earth, ground, soil.” The sacred knowledge of Wisdom comes from seeing clearly into the ground of things. Wisdom is not something airy; it is anchored in the earth.

The person who is truly wise has the calm of the deep ocean, as opposed to the turbulence of the stream or river. Streams and rivers are symbols of life in its changing nature, ever flowing on. The ocean is a symbol of eternity in its vastness and peace. Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita is caught in a battle, which is really the stream of life; he learns from Krishna to find the ocean of eternity within himself.

The image of ocean and river brings us to another subject: The question of our identity, of who or what we really are. This is, in one sense, the subject of both the Bhagavad Gita and of The Voice of the Silence. Verses 164-170 explore three levels of self-identification: the Eternal, the Divine, and the lower. The lower self is the self of desire and of desire-knowledge, which in Theosophy is called the personality or kama-manasic self. H.P.B. identifies it in a gloss: Gloss 28. Meaning the personal lower self.

The Divine is the higher self — Theosophically, the individuality or buddhi-manasic self. That Divine higher self cannot actually be “soiled” by the lower self. But the experience of the lower self allows the higher self to grow, and if the experience of the lower self is not of such a nature as to promote the growth and development of the higher self, metaphorically it can be said to “soil” it, that is, fail to promote its evolution, which is the reason for the lower self’s existence.

The Eternal is the ultimate and ultimately free Self in us and in all things — the atma. It is the ocean of final freedom. What does it mean to say that the way to that final freedom or Eternal Self “begins and ends outside of [the lower personal] self”? One meaning of verse 170 may be that the higher cannot come out of the lower. Although the experiences of the lower self contribute to the evolution of the higher self, the latter is not created out of the former. Our Divine nature emanates from the Eternal; it does not evolve from the lower self.

The Theosophical view of evolution diverges critically from Darwinian or Neo-Darwinian concepts in just this way. Our lower self is the product of animal evolution, though even so it is modeled on the fruit of past evolutionary eras and is not solely the result of adaptation to the current environment. But our basic human nature does not result from animal evolution in this world-period. Rather it is the consequence of a projection of the Divine Self, an emanation from the Eternal One Self, into the animal, lower personal self. As H.P.B. says in The Secret Doctrine (2:81): “Between man and the animal — whose Monads (or Jivas) are fundamentally identical — there is the impassable abyss of Mentality and Self-consciousness. What is human mind in its higher aspect, whence comes it, if it is not a portion of the essence — and, in some rare cases of incarnation, the very essence — of a higher Being: one from a higher and divine plane?”

As, in general evolution, human nature does not begin in the lower self, and does not end with it, so too in our personal development, our human identity does not begin or end within the limits of the personal self. If we wish to come to final freedom, we must do so by identifying ourselves, not with the personality, but instead with the higher Self or individuality. That Self is the way to our freedom from personal limitations.

Verse 171 may seem to be a change of subject, but in fact it is only a different way of looking at the same thing. A tirthika, as H.P.B. indicates in a somewhat ironic way, is anyone who belongs to a religion other than yours — in Western terms, a “heathen” or “infidel”: Gloss 29. Tirthikas are the Brahmanical sectarians beyond the Himalayas called “infidels” by the Buddhists in the sacred land, Tibet, and vice versa.

Bigots don’t recognize values other than their own. And so another religion’s sacred river is regarded as just muddy water, even though it may flow from the “sacred land.” So too the human form or nature may seem “empty” (of spiritual value) to the unwise, although it is filled with the waters of immortality (Amrita) or Eternity. Amrita is literally “non-death” (from a-, as also in English atonal, amoral,” plus the root √mr, “die,” found also in English mortal). The fool thinks human nature is empty, merely the result of random mutation and natural selection. But it is filled with the “sweet waters” of immortality, “Amrita,” which is also used as a term for the elixir of immortality, like that from the philosophers’ stone of the Alchemists. That is, our humble human personality contains the Divine self or immortal individuality, which only the wise perceive.

Arhans or arhats (mentioned in verse 172) are enlightened beings. H.P.B. explains “boundless vision” in a gloss: Gloss 30. Boundless vision or psychic superhuman sight. An Arhan is credited with seeing and knowing all at a distance as well as on the spot.

Remember, however, that the word wisdom is related to the word vision, so “Sages of the boundless Vision” may also be thought of as those who have acquired the Wisdom. Their vision is not so much of outward things, as into themselves. Rare, indeed, are those sages who know themselves. The udumbara is a sacred fig tree in Hindu mythology, an ally of the gods in their struggle against the demons.

The midnight hour, when arhans are born, is the darkest time of the night. It is traditional for holy beings to be born at the darkest hour, as Christ’s birthday was located at the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. They are born in darkness because they renew the light of Wisdom. So also H.P.B. comments on “the sacred plant of nine and seven stalks”: Gloss 31 . . . Shangna plant.

It is a plant from whose fibers is woven a cloth from which is made an initiation robe symbolic of Wisdom. This plant too blooms in darkness because it represents the coming of Light. Darkness, cold, the winter, midnight — all these are humble, yin qualities. But out of them comes the Light of Wisdom, which is also warmth, summer, and noontide — yang qualities. Darkness and light, yin and yang, and all other pairs of opposites are necessary in the world. Opposites need not be antagonists. They may be complements.

C. Meditation.

1. Visualize either of the following: (a) A river, winding through the countryside, in some places broad and slow-moving, in other places swift and turbulent with whitewater, but ultimately flowing into the ocean, whose calm depths are undisturbed by the river’s course. (b) A solitary sacred fig tree growing in the snow at the top of a mountain and marvelously blooming at the hour of midnight, shedding its fragrance into the crisp night air.

2. Consider ways in which things that are opposites are complementary rather than oppositional, such as the diamond and the lotus flower (as in the mantra Om mani padme hum, “Oh the jewel in the lotus, ah!”). Also consider ways in which things are not always what they seem to be.


The next group of nine verses concerns the nature of our quest, both as a struggle between parts of ourselves and as a path that divides into two branches.

A. Verses [173-181].

[173] No Arhan, O lanoo, becomes one in that birth when for the first time the soul begins to long for final liberation. Yet, O thou anxious one, no warrior volunteering fight in the fierce strife between the living and the dead, not one recruit can ever be refused the right to enter on the Path that leads toward the field of battle.

[174] For, either he shall win, or he shall fall.

[175] Yea, if he conquers, Nirvāna shall be his. Before he casts his shadow off his mortal coil, that pregnant cause of anguish and illimitable pain — in him will men a great and holy Buddha honor.

[176] And if he falls, e’en then he does not fall in vain; the enemies he slew in the last battle will not return to life in the next birth that will be his.

[177] But if thou wouldst Nirvāna reach, or cast the prize away, let not the fruit of action and inaction be thy motive, thou of dauntless heart.

[178] Know that the Bodhisattva who liberation changes for renunciation to don the miseries of Secret Life, is called “thrice honored,” O thou candidate for woe throughout the cycles.

[179] The Path is one, disciple, yet in the end, twofold. Marked are its stages by four and seven Portals. At one end — bliss immediate, and at the other — bliss deferred. Both are of merit the reward: the choice is thine.

[180] The one becomes the two, the Open and the Secret. The first one leadeth to the goal, the second, to Self-immolation.

[181] When to the Permanent is sacrificed the mutable, the prize is thine: the drop returneth whence it came. The Open Path leads to the changeless change — Nirvana, the glorious state of Absoluteness, the Bliss past human thought.

B. Comment.

Verse 173 tells us that treading the Path is a long and arduous journey, not an easy shortcut. Just wanting to reach the end of our quest does not bring us to it. Yet, as the Tao Te Ching says, the longest journey begins with the first step. So we must begin if we are ever to arrive. This verse also, however, promises that no one who wants to undertake the quest is ever refused.

Verses 174-176 tell us that no effort made on this journey is ever in vain. Every effort to advance on that Path will produce its effect. Verse 174 points out the obvious fact that we will either win or fall in this task. If we win, we will have our due reward; if we fall, the experience has not been a failure, for whatever we have achieved, however little or great it may be, will carry over to our next life and become the foundation for a renewed effort then. These verses are reminiscent of the ending of H.P.B.’s memorable statement “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.”

These verses also use and explain the metaphor of a battle, which is a very frequent alternative to the metaphor of a journey. The battle is, of course, an interior one, a conflict between aspects of ourselves. So gloss 32 explains that the “living” and the “dead,” between whom the battle is fought, are both ourselves: Gloss 32. The “living” is the immortal higher Ego, and the “dead” — the lower personal ego.

Verse 177 begins a focused discussion of the two Paths, which is the major symbolic theme of this second fragment. The Path of discipleship, which is the process of coming into knowledge of oneself and of wholeness — both within ourselves and with all life around and above us — reaches a dividing point. The one Path becomes two. One of the branches leads to liberation from limitations and pain, that is, it takes us out of this world and brings us to Nirvana. The other branch, however, returns to this world, giving those who take it the opportunity to become Servers of humanity, or Bodhisattvas of Compassion.

The phrase “cast the prize away” has a gloss (33) referring the reader to a later gloss (34) to verse 306 in Fragment 3. That later gloss is a long discussion of the doctrine of the trikaya or “three bodies (of the Buddha).” That doctrine will be treated in detail in the third fragment of The Voice. It includes the dharmakaya, which is the Buddha body of those who take the Path of Liberation to Nirvana, and the nirmanakaya, which is the Buddha body of those who take the Path of Renunciation of Nirvana in order to remain in the world and serve it.

As gloss 34 says, those who take the Path of Renunciation of a Nirmanakaya lead a “Secret Life” because they are in, but not of, the world. Consequently they work in quietness and mystery for the welfare of all beings and especially of humanity: Gloss 34. The “Secret Life” is life as a Nirmanakaya.

The two Paths are also called “open” and “secret,” as verse 180 states and gloss 35 explains: Gloss 35. The “Open” and the “Secret Path” — or the one taught to the layman, the exoteric and the generally accepted, and the other the Secret Path — the nature of which is explained at initiation.

The Open Path is exoteric because all religions speak of salvation or illumination or enlightenment or liberation as the goal of life. But the other Path is esoteric or Secret because the ideal of remaining in the world as a behind-the-scenes helper of humanity is not a common theme in exoteric religions, being taught chiefly in the esoteric tradition.

The four portals referred to in verse 179 are perhaps the four states of verse 22, and the “seven portals” are dealt with in fragment three, entitled “The Seven Portals.”

C. Meditation.

Think about choices in life that must be made. Think of the choice between personal benefit and selfless service of others. Can we benefit ourselves while ignoring others? Can we serve others without benefiting ourselves? Imagine a road that divides, at whose fork you stand.

To be continued

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