The Transmission of Theosophy

Ianthe Hoskins – England

[Condensed from a Convention Lecture]

Theosophy Ianthe Hoskins 4 bGEN SECS 96 copy
From left to the right: Hugh Grey, Ianthe Hoskins, Geoffrey Farthing, Lilian Storey and John Algeo in 1996

One of the recurring themes of occult literature is the obligation of those who receive light to share that light with others. We who today enjoy the light that Theosophy has brought to our lives have therefore the duty both of presenting Theosophy in the contemporary world and of ensuring its transmission to the future.

To our main question “What shall we transmit?” the answer seems simple enough, “Why, Theosophy, of course!” But is it really so simple? Let us examine question and answer from various angles.

First, do we know what Theosophy is? It is one of the occupational hazards of being a Theosophist that sooner or later we may be asked the question: “What is Theosophy?” and anyone who has taken part in the exercise will know how many and varied the answers can be. As a starting point, shall we agree that, whatever else it is, Theosophy is the limitless Truth? If we do, then our question: “Do we know what Theosophy is?” becomes: “Do we know the limitless Truth?” Many of us, perhaps most of us, are likely to say: “No”. But if we do not know what Theosophy is, how shall we be able to transmit it?

There is an alternative approach. To many of us Theosophy is both limitless Truth and also the limited truth, that is, a body of knowledge or of teachings as presented in our Theosophical literature. Shall we transmit this as Theosophy?

But then, do we ourselves know even this limited aspect of Theosophy? Some of us, if we have studied, know varying amounts about it, but few of us know it for ourselves, from first-hand observation and experience. It is for us a received Theosophy, for which we are largely dependent on our teachers, whether these be H. P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, C. W. Leadbeater or any others. This is the Theosophy contained in the books we choose to call Theosophical, because they have been written by members of the Theosophical Society and have been deemed worthy of publication by one of our Publishing Houses.

Shall we understand our duty to be the transmission of this literature? Of all of it? If not, we are faced with the problem of selecting some of the books as “transmission-worthy,” while rejecting others. As no one is likely to insist that we should continually republish every so-called Theosophical book, selection is inevitable. It is already the policy of some other Theosophical organizations to make such a selection on a clearly defined if somewhat narrow basis. And selection is legitimate, provided we are fully aware of its implications and take our responsibility seriously. For selection means that we are appointing ourselves as a board of censors, deciding what books shall be made available to future generations of students. Without adequate precautions to offset the dangers of subjective criteria, we shall be limiting the choice of study material to that sanctioned by our choices and our opinions.

The third aspect of the question relates to the dilemma inherent in the use of words. Yet inevitably word – written, spoken, live or recorded – must be our chief medium of trans­mission. Every statement we make is liable to appear as literal and definitive, and consequently a limitation or a distortion of the very truth we are trying to present. If we say, for example “Theosophy teaches,we makeit appear dogmatic; if we substitute “Theosophy suggests, the implication is that there is no certain knowledge to be had. If we speak of higher arid lower planes, we risk making states of consciousness appear as geographical locations. Every word we utter becomes a death-trap for Truth. Can the danger be avoided? Or would it be wiser to keep silence?

These then are three of the issues arising from consideration of the question of the transmission of Theosophy: Truth and the knowledge of Truth; reliance on authority and consequent selection of transmission-worthy literature and ideas; the verbal presentation of Truth.

Let us look first at knowledge of Truth. All those who seem to have travelled much further than ourselves along the road towards Truth – the great seers, saints, rishis and mystics of every religion – are agreed that Truth cannot be .known by the mind or as an object of knowledge. “The Tao that can be known is not the true Tao.” Ideas, concepts, intellectual understanding can never be proximate means to the apprehension of Truth. “No idea represents or signifies itself. It always points to something else, of which it is the symbol. And since man has no ideas except those abstracted from external things through the senses, he cannot be blessed (illumined, liberated) by an idea.” (Eckhart)

Yet many of us, the rank and file of the members, Lodge officers, local lecturers and even writers of articles for The Theosophist, are very largely confined within the limitations of our mental processes. Leave the activities of the intellect, say the mystics; lay your understanding to rest and plunge into the darkness of unknowing. Yet our approach to the truths of Theosophy is largely an intellectual approach. We are advised that we cannot know the Truth by this means.

No amount of study, no accumulation of Theosophical knowledge, can of themselves advance us one step nearer to it. And so we must admit not only that most of us, at present, do not know the Truth, but also that we are not likely to know it in the near future. But it is on us, the ignorant ones, blinded by Avidya, that the task of transmission largely falls. Do we then desist from teaching? To teach what we do not know, or not to teach at all, that is the question for many of us.

Next, we consider reliance on authority. There is the possibility of solving the problem of our ignorance by relying on certain “authorities,” people whom we believe knew more than we do. But reliance on authority raises a whole hornet’s nest of questions. Let us look at some of them.

Everyone who relies on an authority is in fact relying on his own judgment to tell him which authority he will rely on. In making our selection of Theosophical authorities, is our judgment sound? What are our criteria? Is our choice of a criterion itself valid?

Again, by relying on a limited range of authorities, are we not implying that Theosophy is a fixed quantity, given once and for all? Do we sufficiently recognize that H.P.B. spoke of herself as a transmitter, not an originator, and that therefore what is commonly called the primary source of modern Theosophy is itself derivative? H.P.B. received most of what she taught from somewhere or from someone. Should we then go back to her sources? And then to the sources of those sources ? In this way we might arrive back at the Vedas, only to learn that the origins of the Wisdom tradition ante-date the Vedas. And then what?

There is another course open to us, that is, to dispense with all references to authorities and to transmit only our own present understanding of life, the synthesis we have made for ourselves from experience and teaching from many sources. But can we be sure that our personal Theosophy is “transmission-worthy”? And would not such a policy imply that we rated our own Theosophy more highly than that of the teachers from whom we have derived it?

Now we take another look at the medium of words. In the present context, we recognize that a verbal instrument is a distorting instrument. The moment a truth is spoken, it ceases to be true. H.P.B. is said by Commander Bowen to have called him “ a silly dumskull to imagine anything can be put into words aright”. She was simply stating what other great teachers had said before her, as is shown by the passages given by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy. “Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue.” (Elkhart)

The Truth indeed has never been preached by the Buddha, seeing that one has to realize it within oneself.” (Sutralankara)

What is known as the teaching of the Buddha is not the teaching of the Buddha.” (Diamond Sutra)

Are we then, in the interests of honesty, to preface nil our lectures and books with a warning: “What you are about to hear (or to read) is not true?” This is hardly likely to enlarge our area of influence or to promote the sales of our publications.

There is a further snare attaching to the use of words. All too easily we who use them and those who read or listen to them may become bemused into accepting the words as substitutes for the things they represent. To be familiar with verbalized truths, says Huxley, is not salvation but merely the study of a special branch of philosophy. We may go further and say that a great deal of verbal knowledge about Theosophy may be a most effective iron curtain, barring access to Truth. Again we are faced with the dilemma: if we transmit, we distort; but if we do not transmit, we fail in our primary duty.

But enough of questions. Let us begin to look in the direction of possible answers to some of them. These answers cannot be conclusive; but, viewed in the context of the collective understanding, experience and traditions of mankind – which must include the transcendental experiences and the occult traditions also, for they are part of the total framework – certain answers seem reasonable.

In the first place, if Theosophy means anything at all, it surely means the recognition of the possibility of an order of Reality beyond the merely sensory and the merely rational. It means the possibility of a Truth behind and beyond the phenomenal world, and it means also the possibility for us, men and women, in some way to apprehend or come into touch with that order of Reality. Our dilemma was stated in the question: to transmit in ignorance of the Truth, or not to transmit? But we see that the solution is offered in a third alternative: to trans mi t in knowledge. There is a Wisdom, and there is a Way to that Wisdom.

Next, so long as we have to rely on the authority of others in our approach to Theosophy, so long we must inevitably exercise our personal judgment in the selection of authorities both for ourselves and for purposes of transmission. But our duty seems clear: recognizing that our selection is largely subjective and therefore fallible, we must surely leave other students free to make their own selection from as wide a range of material as is reasonable, instead of limiting them to the range approved by our personal judgment. But how shall we interpret “as wide a range as is 'reasonable”? We must invoke some of the criteria recognized as valid in the transmission of other kinds of literature – philosophical, religious, historical, or the “pure” literature of poetry, drama and so on. The range then will include three classes of writing: the classics, those great books which established the foundations of modern Theosophy; secondly, works which have some quality of uniqueness or durability, both by literary canons and because they transcend the merely personal and contemporary context; and thirdly, some contemporary presen­tations also, from which the next generation will have to make its own selection.

And how shall we deal with the problem created by words? If we would equip ourselves to be transmitters, we must study to understand the function of the verbal presentation of Theosophy and to avoid so far as is possible the inherent dangers. For it has been well said that words are both indispensable and fatal.

Our task here is twofold. First we must try to resolve the dilemma with which we have seen ourselves faced: to teach, and so to mislead, or not to teach, and so not to lead at all. The matter has been put in this way: a map showing the position of a place we want to reach is not a substitute for the journey; but it may serve both to entice us to set out on the journey and also to provide useful information about the terrain and the conditions of travelling.

In the last analysis,” writes Huxley “the use and purpose of reason is to create the internal and external conditions favorable to its own transformation by and into spirit. It is the lamp by which it finds the way to go beyond itself.” So we use words, the tools of reason, not in an attempt to capture the Truth in them, but rather to indicate the far horizon of Truth towards which each must travel for himself.

Secondly, and more important, we must make ourselves independent of verbal expression by setting ourselves on the journey of direct experience. The best teachers are those who, over and above the techniques of their art or science, are able to communicate the spirit of their art or science: “the poet communicates through the white spaces between the lines .”

We, the lesser transmitters, tend to show too much concern about Truth while having too little experience of it. So we conceal our ignorance of the true secrets under a more or less glamorous display of substituted secrets. We shall be less likely to mislead if we have begun to take steps on the way towards the horizon of Truth. “Only those who manifest their possession, in however small a measure, of the fruits of the Spirit, can persuade others that the life of the Spirit is worth living.”

Each aspect of the problem of transmission finds its solution in the extent to which Theosophy becomes a living reality in our lives. Effective transmission results from transformation; so we, if we would become transmitters of Theosophy, must continuously be becoming true Theosophists, learning the subject-matter from experience rather than from words. By entering into Theosophy as experience we shall be less likely to mislead and more likely to inspire others to make their own discovery of Truth. “With the lamp of word and discrimination one must go beyond word and discrimination and enter upon the path of reali­zation.” (Lankaratara Sutra)

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