The Teacher

Tim Boyd – India, USA

Theosophy TB 2

Tim Boyd, International President, TS-Adyar

I would like to give some consideration to a central idea which is, for many, also a central experience in the theosophical life. In the process of our spiritual unfoldment the Teacher plays an unparalleled role. He/she is that person we encounter during the course of our spiritual growth, who seems to have the ability to spur our understanding and hasten our development.

Everyone has had a relationship with someone who has served in the role of a Teacher. It is a common experience in the university, at school, in our home, or in our spiritual life, to encounter someone in whose presence we find difficult things becoming clear, and who, when they speak we find ourselves elevated. In those moments when we are in their presence we feel as though we understand.

On a number of occasions I have had the opportunity to be around His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When he speaks, whether it is a small group or an audience of ten or twenty thousand people, there is a presence that he generates in which the sense of the possibility of compassion, which is his universal message, seems to be something very real. I have known people who have attended a talk by His Holiness, then left their job and gone out to attempt great works of compassion, only to find that away from his presence, the profound understanding that they thought was theirs somehow slips away.

From time to time I used to be in the presence of quantum physicist and theosophist Amit Goswami. Quantum physics is a difficult field to grasp, even for quantum physicists themselves. But somehow I would find that when I was sitting around him, listening to him talk, his ideas all seemed so clear, only to walk away and wonder what it was I thought I had grasped at that moment. The process is very much like placing a bar of iron, a cold piece of metal, in front of a fire. Iron has the capacity to respond to heat, so the metal heats up when it is in that presence. When it is removed, it cools once again.

If we examine ourselves, we find that there are aspects of our makeup that are composed in various ways. So there are some aspects that respond very easily to high thought, to profound and pure emotion. In the presence of elevated thought and emotion they become quickened, just like the metal becomes quickened in the presence of fire. Because of the uneven nature of our development, we find that there are elements of our being that respond more readily and others that do not. It is much like standing in front of a fire and the metal on our belt and buttons becomes hot, but our clothing, hair, and skin do not.

So the advice we are given by the Great Teachers is that we need to repeatedly expose ourselves to elevated thought and emotion, so that we can become accustomed to vibrating at a higher frequency or responding regularly to an elevated energy. Later we can translate this into a presence to which we can then connect ourselves. They say things like, “Think on these things — What is it that is good? What is it that is true? What is the nature of beauty?”

How are these things expressed in a life? Think on these things: Bring our mental capacity into this higher level of vibration — force it to vibrate in that manner. Because it is out of our reach, initially it is a matter of effort. The poet says that our “reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” That toward which we reach, toward which we aspire, necessarily exceeds what we are capable of immediately grasping. That is the description of the practice. Repeatedly we call upon the mind to respond, the heart to be quiet, and to be acted upon. In that process, it becomes a custom.

For those of us who have been involved in athletics we are familiar with the process of training for building muscle. When the muscles are used strenuously, when they are pushed to their limits, some damage is done resulting in microtears to the muscle fibres. The body responds to this damage by repairing, renewing, and adding to that muscle tissue. Because a demand is made upon it to perform at its highest levels, it responds by growing in size and strength.


The same advice is given with our mental and emotional natures. The process calls for utilizing them at the highest levels to which we are presently capable. Initially the process may be demanding and uncomfortable, but they respond by drawing in more matter of a similar type that can vibrate at this heightened level, and by expelling the matter that is unable to vibrate in that way. So we become more and more pure, awake, aware.

In the theosophical teachings we are very much aware of a hierarchy of Teachers. Most of us have some idea about the Mahatmas, or Masters of the Wisdom, and the hierarchy that exists among them. But They do not really function in this world. They are not the people that we walk, chat, and interact with in our normal way. What they tend to do, it seems, is that They work through their own close students, their “chelas”, through whom the Mahatma’s influence can be radiated. Sometimes we are in contact with those chelas, mostly unknowingly.

So we engage in a process of trying to become sensitive to the Mahatmas’ influence in the world and around us. We have become accustomed to some very dull sensations. The noises which surround us are the things that we hear most clearly. The sounds of the birds, the wind, the honking horns of cars and two-wheelers are what attract our attention. Yet always there are subtler sounds, but it takes a certain attunement for us to become aware of these. So we are encouraged to point our attention in certain directions, particularly during times of meditation. Various forms of advice and hints are given as to how we can hear and see at increasingly subtle levels.

The beautiful poem that closes J. Krishnamurti’s little book, At the Feet of the Master, talks about hearing and seeing in this way: “Waiting the Word of the Master,/ Watching the Hidden Light;/ Listening to catch his orders/ In the very midst of the fight.” Waiting is the process of suspending our outer and internal activities in order to wait on the word of the Master. Although we call it the “word”, it is not assured that it will be “heard” as a verbal expression; we do not know when it will come or how it will come. “Watching the Hidden Light”: How do we watch a light that is hidden? Just the process of trying to consider this requires that we move beyond our normal sense of seeing and hearing.

Listening to catch his orders in the very midst of the fight: in the midst of the round of daily activity, which in this poem the author equates to a fight, like warring kingdoms doing battle. Few of us have been in the battles of war. So for most it requires some imagination to envisage the surging movement, the constant need to judge, act, strike, move, and the continual din of warring adversaries in combat. But in the midst of it all, a quiet space in consciousness is retained, attuned to hear orders from on high. It is a difficult process for us, who have trained ourselves so differently. Not just in this lifetime, but in many lifetimes, we habitually turn our attention outward, focusing on the fight, and not on the inner directions.

There is a Sufi story about a garbage collector who found himself in the middle of the perfume bazaar in Istanbul. Engulfed in an atmosphere of pure fragrances he suddenly collapsed, and no one could bring him back to consciousness. A wise man who was passing by found something that was rotting and filthy, and put it underneath the collapsed man’s nose. When the man smelled it, he immediately awakened and the wise man was able to escort him out of the perfume bazaar. The story, of course, is about us and our attraction to lower levels of vibration. The tendency is so engrained that in the absence of the coarseness to which we have accustomed ourselves we become insensitive — in the story the man swoons into unconsciousness.

So we wait, watch, listen. The second part of that short poem says: “Seeing his slightest signal/ Across the heads of the throng;/ Hearing his faintest whisper/ Above Earth’s loudest song.” This is a training in which we engage that we generally think of as a meditative practice, but it has to carry across into the moment-to-moment, day-to-day life at our desk or home.

In meditation we often focus on the breath, and the breath leads us to an awareness of pulsations within the body. We start to become aware of subtle sounds that surround us: the sound of the breath coming in and out of the body, the sounds of the pulsing heart, internal electrical sounds. These are always present, yet we seldom hear them. These are the kinds of advice given on connecting and engaging with the Teacher.

There is a story about one of the great North-Indian Buddhist Masters, Asanga, who lived in the 4th century CE. He went into a meditation retreat in a cave for twelve years, with a formula he thought would not fail, to establish some sort of connection with the Buddha Maitreya. He meditated for three years and nothing happened. At that point he was ready to give up. He left his cave and as he was walking he saw a crow coming out of its nesting place in the side of a mountain. He noticed that where the crow was flying in and out, the stone around the nest had been worn away slightly by its feathers. So he thought to himself: If this bird can wear away a stone with just the repeated touch of his feathers, I can return to my meditation with confidence.  

So he meditated for three more years and still had no experience of any connection with the Lord Maitreya, so he left the cave again. This time he sees water dripping, and where the water drips he notices the stone has been worn away by the softest of all elements in Nature, and he determines he would go back to meditate. A similar experience happened after nine years. So now twelve years had passed since the start of the retreat, but still no vision of the Master. At this point Asanga determines that his practice is fruitless and hopeless and walks away for good.

On the side of the road he encounters a dog so badly injured that his flesh was starting to be eaten away by maggots. When Asanga sees the dog he wants to heal it, but also does not want to hurt the maggots feeding on the dog, seeing them as other living beings who also value their lives, so he tries to take them away one by one. He finds that trying to do it with a stick harms them. Then he tries to do it with his fingers and that also harms them.

Ultimately, one by one he lifts the maggots away with his tongue. But in that moment, what he had thought to be an injured dog suddenly appears as the Buddha Maitreya, and the response given to Asanga was: “All this time you sat and meditated, but there were still things blocking your vision. Your personal karmic obstructions prevented this connection. It was only in this moment of extreme compassion, when you were not thinking about your personal agenda of meeting Maitreya Buddha, in your extreme compassion to this animal, you are finally able to see and experience what had eluded you for twelve years.”

Each one of us is at a different stage of unfoldment and is continuously in the presence of the highest consciousness, yet mostly unaware; but we try! There are certain efforts we engage in, not with the goal in mind of meeting and seeing these Masters, but with the goal in mind of doing a work that draws us closer to them. Determining that work and committing to it is how we spend a lifetime. If we approach it properly, there are break-through moments, just as occurred with Asanga.

Geoffrey Hodson wrote a beautiful small book, Thus Have I Heard. In it he includes a prayer, or really a meditation, quoted from another source. He calls it an unfailing method to connect ourselves with the Master in the heart. He does not focus our attention on meeting a physical individual, but to connect ourselves with the Master in the center of our being. The prayer begins: “Oh, gracious Lord, I enter your radiance and approach your presence bearing with me the service done in your name and for you.”

It is customary that when we go to visit someone special we bring a gift — we offer something. When we go to visit the Highest, we have to determine what is the highest gift that we can bring. In this meditation our gift is “the service that I have done in your name and for you”. And it goes on: “I seek to become a more efficient server.”

The point of our meeting, the point of the offering is that I may become a more efficient server — more efficient in magnifying what we have to give to the Highest. Then: “And I open my heart and mind to the power of your love, of your joy, and of your peace.”

In the opening of the prayer a direction is given for three specific internal actions that set the stage for our meeting the Master: that we identify and present a precious offering; that we clarify and state our intention to become more efficient in service to the Master; and we lay open the depths of our being to the presence and influence of the Teacher. We remove the barriers that block us from what this Teacher has to give.

In Buddhism there is a teaching related to these opening lines of Hodson’s prayer. It addresses the question of: “How do we behave when we are in the presence of the Teacher? What are the qualities of our being that we bring to this special moment?” They present this teaching using the example of a vessel, a pot. And they say that there are three things that can be impediments to our connection with the Teacher.

The first example is a pot turned up-side down. Even in the presence of one who has pure nectar to share, this pot cannot be filled. Pour and pour as they might, our hearts and minds are closed and no wisdom is retained. J. Krishnamurti, in At the Feet of the Master, says: “Unless there is perfect trust, there cannot be the perfect flow of love and power.”

The second example is the leaky pot. It receives water, but it retains nothing. Our habits of inattention and distraction regularly cultivated in our daily mundane activities, do not suddenly leave us when we are in the presence of something sublime.

The third example is a pot that is dirty inside. One may pour the purest nectar into such a vessel, but it gets mixed with the dirt. What is pure becomes impure in a consciousness steeped in wrong ideas, negative emotions, incorrect avenues of thought, the harmfulness that we direct toward others, the gossip that we carry with us. And, of course, we are the ones who suffer, because the teaching is wasted.

In this teaching the idea is not to be closed, to plug the leaks by being attentive. In Krishnamurti’s example of “waiting” and “watching”, we are attentive; we attend to that which is before us. In that state we have the capacity to actually receive and respond.

So: “Oh, gracious Lord, I enter thy radiance and approach thy presence, bearing with me the service done in your name and for you./ I seek to become a more efficient server.” And I open myself, the vessel is open, intact, purified, and turned toward you, that you may fill it with “the power of your love, your joy, and your peace”.

The meditation goes on to focus individually on joy, peace, and particularly love. “In thy presence thy love enfolds me.” And then the prayer speaks about the quality of the love, and that, having received, I must necessarily be a presence of love in the world. It ends:

“Lead me, oh gracious Lord, through thy inimitable love, to union with you and the heart of eternity.” And the final words of the meditation are: “In your love I rest forevermore.”

Whenever we have some level of experience of the nature of the “Love, embracing all in Oneness” (as expressed in Annie Besant’s Universal Prayer), the response is necessarily “to rest”; it brings rest; it stops the world. So we rest in that love. This is the focus of the meditation, that in the experience of this sublime rest, we come to realize a measure of the nature of the fragrance within the cave of the heart. And we repeat it, then we approach it again, but always when the experience dawns upon us, we rest.

This is just some advice shared by those whose experience gives it value. The work, as always, is ours, but the guidance, clues, and hints along the way are full of power.

[This article was also published in The Theosophist, VOL. 141 NO. 10 July 2020]

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