Our approach to Theosophy
Radha Burnier – India
Radha Burnier during the World Congress in Rome, 2010
[Recognizing regeneration as the kernel of all Theosophical work, the International Theosophical Centre at Naarden, the Netherlands, jointly with the Federation of Theosophical Societies in Europe, organized two seminars in July 1990, with a number of office-bearers, workers and members of the Society from different countries as participants. Proceedings of the seminar were published as a book under the title Human Regeneration: Lectures and Discussion (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij der Theosofische Vereniging in Nederland, 1990). This chapter is here slightly revised.]
We have been considering two important things: first, universal brotherhood without distinctions, which is a state of consciousness with very profound implications, and second, the crucial importance of perceiving truth, for awareness of truth makes the whole of one’s life, every relationship, different. If we become aware, not only of the form and appearance of things, but of their real, inner nature, then there is love; we care for and look after everything. If you see the meaning and beauty of a flower, you are tender with it. When one does not see, or sees only an object that varies according to momentary desires and conditioning, then one is capable of being destructive, creating chaos. So the quest for truth is not remote and abstract. It is the most practical of endeavors.
Those two important things are of course related: brotherhood without distinctions, universal in its nature, and awareness of the inner nature, the beauty and significance of life. Brotherhood is a reflection in action of right perception. All this is relevant to our study of Theosophy. Let us not say: we know all about this, we know about brotherhood — because we do not know. We know in sort of a way. We have a mental concept about brotherhood, which may be inadequate and incomplete, even as a concept. But even if it is a beautiful concept, the concept is not the same thing as a state of consciousness in which universal brotherhood is a reality. There is a world of difference between the two. These are matters that we must examine, ponder over, meditate upon in the depth of our hearts many times. If we do so, then our approach to Theosophy will be fruitful, because Theosophy is divine wisdom. Our work is to come to that wisdom.
The Theosophical life is based on wisdom, not merely on conceptual knowledge. If we want evidence of the sterility of knowledge in the ordinary sense of that term, we have only to look at our twentieth-century world, where knowledge is increasing every day, every minute. Yet it is a world of extraordinary cruelty, and ignorance from the spiritual point of view. Perhaps no century has seen as much cruelty as the twentieth. Think of the huge populations that have been forcibly displaced from their homes. That alone would make it a cruel age. But there are many other happenings which we need not go into.
Knowledge has not helped human beings to be more happy, peaceful, or loving. Therefore there is no point in our seeking another form of knowledge, which we call Theosophical. Theosophy must not be made into a theory, a set of concepts. It must be the truth that transforms, makes us loving, caring, tender in our relationships, as we are when we look at the hidden beauty of the flower. A flower is not a good illustration because it is too easy to feel the beauty of a flower, at least on a superficial level. It is much more difficult to see the beauty that is everywhere else — in the maimed, in the deprived, in all kinds of people, and in all the things we treat with callousness or indifference. Our concern is with the truth that transforms, frees the mind of its self-centredness, and not with sterile knowledge.
So how do we come to the truth that is Theosophy? We should first of all understand that our thoughts and opinions are not truth. When we study a book, if all that we acquire are opinions and conclusions, what does it amount to? There are two kinds of literature. One which offers knowledge that has little or nothing to do with the way to wisdom, such as knowledge about how an aeroplane functions, or what mountains look like on the astral plane. How does that make one wiser? It does not. People who have that kind of knowledge, or claim to have it, are generally just like everybody else. There is an anecdote in the Upanishads about someone who goes to a sage and says: “I have studied everything, not only science, art and grammar, but also the scriptures, religion and philosophy, yet I lack wisdom.” Theosophy may also be added to that list if we wish! We can study all the Theosophical books; we can know what is quoted where, such as HPB said this but Annie Besant said something else; we can indulge in vain arguments and disputes; and after all that, what happens to us? Nothing! We are exactly what we were. That kind of approach does not really help.
Truly Theosophical literature, if approached correctly, can, however, aid the aspirant in a search for wisdom and in living. Such an approach does not take what is said as material to be learned by rote and repeated. A statement like “The mind is the slayer of the real” is familiar to all of us. We know intellectually that it is an important statement, and we can have discussions about it. But it is not truth for us unless we actually begin to see the limitation of the mind, its proneness to deception, its insensitivity. We must understand the mind as it works within us, and pass from appearances to perceiving the essential nature of things; until then we have not really discovered the truth of the statement. It is futile to be satisfied with mere statements, with fine essays or talks. Our approach must be one that leads us to realize the truth.
To achieve such a realization, we must first see that words and concepts are not the truth, however fine they may be. Printed books are not the truth. If they are the right kind of words or books, they can be one of the means to help us to come to the truth. One of the functions that the right type of books can perform is to help to free the mind from preoccupation with unimportant, personal concerns. It is important to learn to raise the mind from the personal to the broader human level.
Books we study can help us to rise above the personal and petty to larger concerns, if they are the right books and if we use them rightly. Books can spark the mind to examine in depth what we would normally gloss over. When we say a book or talk is inspiring, what do we mean? The comment means that book or talk has touched something deep within ourselves. But often after that little moment of inspiration, we drop the matter. When we are concerned with wisdom, we should not drop the matter, but let it stay within; we should dwell upon it from time to time, look at it from different angles, view different aspects, see whether there is greater depth than we had perceived earlier. Then perhaps, little by little, we will begin to know the real content of what was said.
There may be a whole teaching in a single word. Every spiritual teacher has spoken about love. A lifetime of contemplation may be needed to find the meaning of the word love. For this, our approach must be exploratory and serious, and not an approach which says: yes I know all about it. The question must remain pending, asking for an answer. We should look at it, try to find the answer. But no answer must be final, a conclusion, if the subject has spiritual importance. We know what love is only when it has become a reality within us, when it is universal, totally unselfish, without choice. We know that the mind is the slayer of the real only when the mind does not erect any more barriers and allows direct contact between our inner being and the inner being of all else. Only then is there real knowing, without the thought “I know.” So we have to approach Theosophical knowledge as learners, in a serious investigatory spirit.
Often people believe that respect for a spiritual teacher means accepting the authority of that person, or putting him or her on a pedestal. Whenever there is a discussion, if the authority is quoted, that person must have the final word. That is a wrong approach. The greatest respect we can pay to words of wisdom is to take them to heart, dwell upon them, investigate, experiment with them, try to translate them into action and test their validity until we know for ourselves. The Buddha said: Do not accept anything because it is scripture or tradition, because other people believe it, not even because I say it; find out for yourself. “Be a lamp unto yourself.” We may even use those very words as an authoritative quotation, instead of applying them. But that should not be the spirit of Theosophical studies. Real understanding or knowing has to do with regeneration, because the more we perceive and realize the great depth of any statement that reflects truth, the more our lives are transformed. When there is no impact on the quality of our actions and relationships, the truth has not been touched.
The Theosophical Society is not meant to consist of a group of believers in a new theology, a new philosophy called Theosophy. If it is, it will do great damage. HPB says in The Key to Theosophy,in reply to a question about the future of the Theosophical Society, that if it becomes another sect it will die. It may continue as a shell, but it cannot be a useful living body. She declared that the future of the Society depends on the earnestness, devotion, and selflessness of its members, and also on Theosophy being a living wisdom. The Theosophical Society does not ask people to believe in anything, in karma, reincarnation, or anything else. Karma and reincarnation may be facts in the nature of things. However, we have to study, to try to understand, to see in what way they are logical and offer reasonable explanations, until a time comes when we directly know them as real, which we do not at present.
It is important to know what is true for ourselves and what is not. There are many possibilities of self-deception. The neurotic thinks that what he sees is reality; the dreamer too has his own reality. Our visions could be expressions of hidden ambitions and desires, and become our reality. Devout Christians have visions of the Virgin Mary, while Buddhists see Kwan Yin in a particular form, and devout Hindus see none other than Krishna with flute in hand. Why does not the Hindu see Kwan Yin, the Chinese the Virgin Mary, and so on? Simply because the vision corresponds to what is already in the mind. Faith and deep devotion may evoke certain forces — we need not go into that. Pure devotion is a force and it must evoke something. But the form it takes is according to the conditioning of a person. That would also explain how somebody may be genuinely clairvoyant and yet make mistakes. So one must not take one’s knowledge or perceptions for granted. There is need for continual questioning and alertness.
An official resolution of the General Council of the Theosophical Society declares that there is no authority in the Society, not even HPB, none whose statements or writings are to be accepted as final by members of the Theosophical Society. In the name of cooperation, friendship, or unity, we must not set up an authority, because that is against the character of the Theosophical Society. We may revere HPB and be grateful to her, but neither HPB nor the Buddha nor Jesus can be made into an authority in the Theosophical Society. There are no dogmas to be accepted without question, without using one’s intelligence. Neither is there a scripture to follow. I personally do not even accept that there are “classic books,” because when we label some works as “classic,” others are put in a different category. There are books with a rich content, especially valued for the insights they provide or the stimulation they give. However, one must grant that, if some people are inspired by certain things at a particular time, other people are inspired by other things at that moment. There cannot be one source of inspiration for all people at all times. The Theosophical Society does not say to anybody, “These are the books that you must study.”
When we have understood Theosophical concepts, we know that evolution is not merely biological. Through the growing complexity and perfection of the physical organism, the brain, an instrument is created for the blossoming of consciousness in all its glory. All the possibilities within it, the faculties embedded in it, open up. As consciousness unfolds, what Krishnaji called the awakening of intelligence takes place. So the progress of evolution is not essentially biological; it has to do with the inner being, whose nature is intelligence, love, and bliss. It is not helpful for the development of intelligence to conform, to say “I believe this because so and so has said it.” That would be an abdication of intelligence. It would be tantamount to declaring: I do not want to think, the other person has thought everything out, he is wiser than I, so I will accept his ideas and be lazy! That is not what the Theosophical Society seeks. Intelligence requires that one should use such faculties as observation, intellect, and intuition. If a person does not use the muscles of his physical body, they atrophy. Similarly, if he does not try to use his discrimination and discover the truth, he sinks into a form of dullness that is not desirable from the point of view of spiritual advancement.
The true teacher is one who tries to evoke, as the Buddha did, the spiritual intelligence of the student. He says: “You should find out things for yourself. I will give suggestions, point out the direction. But you must tread the way.” Such teachers, whether they are members of the Theosophical Society or not, belong to the Theosophical “community.” From a Theosophical point of view, only pseudo gurus say: “You do not have to change yourself, all that you have to do is to believe me,” or even worse, “I will touch your forehead and you will be transported to a transcendental sphere.”
If we do not understand this, we might have the wrong kind of programs in our Lodges. We may not know what type of lecturers should be invited, and what sort of books should be brought to the attention of people. We do not tell people that they must read or accept them. But there is such a thing as encouraging or discouraging certain types of literature. And that should be on the basis of helping people to understand for themselves and unfold their spiritual discrimination and intelligence. The development of wisdom is what we should encourage, not blind belief.
As said earlier there are two kinds of literature: that which is irrelevant to the quest for wisdom, and the literature we may call Theosophical (not necessarily published by Theosophical Publishing Houses), which contains knowledge that is useful for finding wisdom, provided that the means are not taken to be the end. This kind of knowledge must be used like a map to learn about the country. The map is not the country, of course. HPB said The Secret Doctrine can lead to the truth; but it is not the truth, for words are not truth.
We should also discriminate within the Theosophical literature itself between what is essential and what is not. In the Mahatma Letters we find many passages about contemporary events in the Theosophical Society. If we master such details, we may become proficient in Theosophical Society history, but not necessarily wiser. Since time is limited, we must learn how to pick out the essentials. That is true not only of every book, but of every chapter or passage that we study. There are important principles, guidelines, and hints about the real nature of life, and ethical instructions that are important. We must make use of them and dwell on them. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna, who represents the universal divine spirit, both manifest and unmanifest, says there is no end to details in Nature. That is true. There really is no end! Those who wish to learn all the details will never succeed, for the creative energy is so great that there will be more forms, more changes. So through study we should attempt to come to what is important. Although it is interesting to study the phenomena and processes of Nature and to have knowledge of facts, doing so is not the same as perception of the underlying truth, which is wisdom. What is important is the significance of the phenomena and the processes. There is the phenomenon of suffering, millennia old, ubiquitous suffering. What is its import? We cannot grasp the meaning of suffering by becoming familiar with the details of suffering by people all over the world. Even though we may keep in touch with news about the manifold sufferings of man and beast, it is far more important to go deeply into what suffering is and whether there is a way out of it. We must plumb the fundamentals, I think, in our study of Theosophy. If study does not open our minds to essentials — and have a transforming effect — it may bring about a little change, but not a radical and lasting one.
There is much to consider on this subject, and you will no doubt do it. Let us now think over one more point: relating studies to the actuality of our daily existence. Subjects studied by us must not become abstractions with no bearing on human problems or our own individual problems. If we study karma and reincarnation, what is the message that study brings to daily relationships, thoughts, and conduct? The test of our understanding is in daily life. Are we growing steadily, without ambition, and if so, how? We can all observe ourselves and find out if something is wrong in the nature of our study or in our approach. If it is right, we should be growing in affection, in the understanding even of people who are “difficult.” All spiritually great persons have given an example of how understanding can embrace the so-called sinner. Nobody sins unless he is spiritually ignorant, and the more ignorant a person is, the more he needs the understanding of others. This does not mean that we should do whatever he wants, or say he is right, for one can grow simultaneously in discrimination and in understanding. If we do not know what another person’s inner difficulties are, how can we help him? We must therefore not pretend that the difficulties do not exist.
The proof of Theosophical learning is thus in the growth of understanding, affection, serenity, sensitivity, and openness, not only towards other human beings, but towards all life — the little blade of grass, the bird on the wing, creatures of every kind. There is goodness everywhere. The precious quality of life exists wherever life is. Are we growing into a sense of the beauty and truth of it all? This is the process of coming to maturity. Let us honestly look at what is happening, whether we are really becoming more Theosophical or not, whether our way of studying and learning Theosophy is right, the test being in daily conduct and relationship.
To be contnued