Notable Books

Notable books 10

Edited by Bib Leo Phyle - Planet Earth

Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together. By the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso). New York: Doubleday Religion, Random House, c. 2010.

This work is of considerable relevance to Theosophists, at whose American Section’s annual 2011 summer meeting in Wheaton, the Dalai Lama spoke as well as gave a public lecture in Chicago.

The Dalai Lama greets Tim Boyd, the National President of the American Section (Adyar) earlier this year in Chicago

The book is partly autobiography and partly a survey of the world’s major religions in relation to each other. It is mainly a plea to foster compassion, as the conclusion (pp. 181-2) makes clear: “Of my fellow religious believers, I ask this. Obey the injunctions of your own faith: travel to the essence of your religious teaching, the fundamental goodness of the human heart. . . . Make the vow today that you may become an instrument of peace, living according to the ethical teachings of compassion in your own religion.” That echoes the well-known statement of Annie Besant that Theosophy does not ask you to leave your religion, but to live it. The last line of the book is a moral exhortation: “May peace and happiness prevail everywhere!”

The autobiographical part of the book early on (p. 6) mentions Theosophy: “Looking back to this trip [to India] in 1956, I realize that my visit to the Theosophical Society in Chennai (then Madras) left a powerful impression. There I was first directly exposed to people and to a movement that attempted to bring together the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions as well as science. I felt among the members a sense of tremendous openness to the world’s great religions and a genuine embracing of pluralism. When I returned to Tibet in 1957, after more than three months in what was a most amazing country for a young Tibetan monk, I was a changed man. I could no longer live in the comfort of an exclusivist standpoint that takes Buddhism to be the only true religion.”

As the Gita says, “Om Tat Sat,” which a friend has translated as “Well, that’s the way it is!”

Stratford, Jordan. A Dictionary of Western Alchemy. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 2011. Pp. xxvi + 105. $17.95.

Modern Western culture has resulted from the combination of a number of intellectual and spiritual streams. At its foundational basis was the Classical culture of Greece and Rome, which Alexander the Great had spread through the Near East and eastern North Africa and which the Roman Empire had reinforced in those locations and also spread over much of Europe. Classical culture had a continuing influence through the Renaissance [literally “rebirth”] of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, as well as sparked the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and inspired the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century (which formed the basis for the American and French Revolutions). Despite the opinion of some contemporary Fundamentalist politicians in the United States, the Founding Fathers of the republic were not conventional Christians, but deists immersed in the ethos of the Enlightenment. The modern West clearly evolved from Classicism.

Other cultural streams played important roles in the development of the West, to be sure. Especially important is Near Eastern religiosity in the form of Abrahamic Christianity, though it also was filtered through the lens of Classicism as it first reached and spread in the West. That mode of thought was, however, increasingly challenged and superseded by the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. Another, lesser known, stream of culture was the esoteric or gnostic one, associated especially with Alexandria in Egypt. It too had Classical connections, as Alexandria was a Greek foundation in Egypt and the esoteric stream reached the West principally as a byproduct of the Renaissance.

One major component of the esoteric cultural stream was alchemy. It was the alembic for modern chemistry, but in itself it was a speculative philosophy about the transformation of matter and spirit, including the soul of the alchemist. The Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung has drawn attention to such philosophical implications in his book Alchemical Studies (Princeton University press, 1967). The book under review here is not an introduction to alchemy, but it is an extremely useful compilation of alchemic terms and symbols, explained with admirable clarity. Anyone interested in alchemy for its own sake or as an important cultural stream in Western thought will benefit from having this work to consult. As our friend Stephan Hoeller (Theosophist and Gnostic) is quoted on the back cover of the back cover of the book: “Jordan Stratford’s fine work is precisely what has been missing on the shelf of every student of the ‘Great Art.’ Accurate, insightful, and accessible!”

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