John Algeo – USA
Verses 6 to 12 of The Voice of the Silence concern the experience we have when we begin to control our minds: “ For: When to himself his form appears unreal, as do on waking all the forms he sees in dreams;  When he has ceased to hear the many, he may discern the ONE―the inner sound which kills the outer.  Then only, not till then, shall he forsake the region of asat, the false, to come unto the realm of Sat, the true.  Before the soul can see, the harmony within must be attained, and fleshly eyes be rendered blind to all illusion.  Before the soul can hear, the image (man) has to become as deaf to roarings as to whispers, to cries of bellowing elephants as to the silvery buzzing of the golden firefly.  Before the soul can comprehend and may remember, she must unto the Silent Speaker be united, just as the form to which the clay is modeled is first united with the potter’s mind.  For then the soul will hear, and will remember.”
One of the first experiences we have is distinguishing between the real and the unreal (in Sanskrit sat and asat). This is what At the Feet of the Master calls the first qualification: discrimination—distinguishing between, as that book says, the real and the unreal, the right and the wrong, the important and the unimportant, the useful and the useless, the true and the false, and the selfish and the unselfish. Sat, usually translated as “real” or “true,” is actually the present participle of the Sanskrit verb for “to be.” It thus means literally “being.” The real is what is, what has actual being. Asat, the “unreal,” is that same word with the negative or privative prefix a- meaning “not” or “without.” (We have that prefix in its Greek form in words like atypical “not typical” or asexual “without sexual characteristics.”) So the real is what has being; and the unreal is what has no being.
The question then is, “What is real?” Chuang-tzu, one of the great Taoist Masters, tells about a vivid and realistic dream he had one night, in which he was a butterfly. The next morning, on recalling how real that dream seemed in his sleep, he remarked, “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.” What is waking, what is dreaming? That is a question that people have often pondered. In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice dreams that she sees a chess piece King who is asleep, and she is told that she is only a part of his dream. When she wakes up, she sees such a chess piece on the table next to her, and she wonders whether she had been dreaming about the King, or the King was even then dreaming about her. Such playfulness has a very serious implication.
We think we are awake, but perhaps our “waking” is really a sort of sleep of the spirit, and we only truly become awake when we wake up from the dream of life. Thus the Buddha is enlightened because he is awake—aware of what is. Perhaps, as verses 6-8 say, coming into the realm of Sat, the true, involves recognizing that our forms (which we generally take to be “us”) do not actually have being. Throughout these verses, a series of opposites are contrasted (some implicitly): real/unreal, waking/dreams, one/many, inner/outer, true/false, see/blind, harmony/discord, reality/illusion, soul/image, roarings/whispers, bellowing/buzzing, remember/forget, united/divided, form/mind, hear/deaf, Voice/Silence. What is the purpose of all those contrasts? And how are they related to the concept of Sat, being? Do we move from one to the other? Or do we transcend the distinction?
In addition to the pairs of opposites, these verses (especially verse 11) also introduce a triad: bodily form, soul, and Silent Speaker, which are likened to clay, form of the pot, and potter’s mind. That metaphorical likeness is worth thinking about. How do the clay, the form of the pot, and the potter’s mind relate to our bodily form, soul, and the “Silent Speaker”? They are also referred to as outer ear, inner ear, and Voice of the Silence. What do these sets of three things represent? After the soul hears the Voice of the Silence, it is said that it “will remember.” Remember what? What have we forgotten? Plato also talked about forgetting and remembering. He said that we all suffer from amnesia (privative a- plus mnesia or “memory,” as in mnemonic—something that helps the memory). Plato said that learning was really remembering what we have forgotten, a process of anamnesia or “not” (an-) “not” (a-) “remembering” (mnesia). Two negatives make a positive. Finally, what does the Voice of the Silence say? What is the message it delivers?
The question just posed about what the Voice of the Silence says is answered in verses 13-21: “ And then to the inner ear will speak THE VOICE OF THE SILENCE  And say: If thy soul smiles while bathing in the sunlight of thy life; if thy soul sings within her chrysalis of flesh and matter; if thy soul weeps inside her castle of illusion; if thy soul struggles to break the silver thread that binds her to the Master;4 know, O disciple, thy soul is of the earth.  When to the world’s turmoil thy budding soul5 lends ear; when to the roaring voice of the great illusion6 thy soul responds; when frightened at the sight of the hot tears of pain, when deafened by the cries of distress, thy soul withdraws like the shy turtle within the carapace of selfhood, learn, O disciple, of her silent ‘God,’ thy soul is an unworthy shrine.  When waxing stronger, thy soul glides forth from her secure retreat and, breaking loose from the protecting shrine, extends her silver thread and rushes onward; when beholding her image on the waves of Space she whispers, ‘This is I’—declare, O disciple, that thy soul is caught in the webs of delusion.7  This earth, disciple, is the Hall of Sorrow, wherein are set along the path of dire probations, traps to ensnare thy Ego by the delusion called ‘great heresy.’8  This earth, O ignorant disciple, is but the dismal entrance leading to the twilight that precedes the valley of true light—that light which no wind can extinguish, that light which burns without a wick or fuel.  Saith the Great Law: ‘In order to become the KNOWER of ALL-SELF9 thou hast first of Self to be the knower.’ To reach the knowledge of that Self, thou has to give up self to non-self, being to non-being, and then thou canst repose between the wings of the Great Bird. Aye, sweet is rest between the wings of that which is not born, nor dies, but is the AUM10 throughout eternal ages.11  Bestride the Bird of Life, if thou wouldst know.12  Give up thy life, if thou wouldst live.13”
Note 4: “The ‘great Master’ is the term used by lanoos or chelas to indicate one’s ‘Higher Self.’ It is the equivalent of Avalokiteshvara, and the same as Adi-Buddha with the Buddhist Occultists, Atman the ‘Self’ (the Higher Self) with the Brahmanas, and Christos with the ancient Gnostics.” That note itself has some terms that need glossing: Chela is Hindi for a “servant, pupil, or student.” It is often translated into English as “disciple.” Lanoo is a similar term in the Buddhist tradition. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the embodiment of mercy and concern for the welfare of all living beings. Adi-Buddha is the primordial Buddha from whom all others emanate; adi means “first” or “primordial.” Atman is the essence of everything, which pervades all existence, but is prior to any existing thing; it is ultimate reality. Christos is what Saint Paul calls the Christ in us, not the historical Jesus, but the divine spirit within each of us. Perhaps the most important point in this note is that in The Voice, the “Master” is an interior reality, not an exterior being. The Master is our own inmost nature, not another person.
Note 5: “Soul is used here for the human Ego or Manas, that which is referred to in our occult septenary division as the human soul in contradistinction to the spiritual and animal souls.” The term soul is used in many different ways. Our “animal soul” is that form of consciousness we share with our animal brothers. Our “spiritual soul” is a form of consciousness only very imperfectly developed in most human beings at the present time, if developed at all. It is a form of awareness sometimes called “cosmic consciousness.” The “human soul” is distinctive to our kingdom. It is the faculty by which we seek to understand the universe around us and especially ourselves. It is the faculty by which we seek to discover who we are—the principal subject of these verses.
Note 6: “Maha Maya, ‘Great Illusion,’ the objective universe.” This note gives the Sanskrit term, mahamaya, of which “great illusion” is a translation. Maha (related to the Latin word magna) means “great” (as in mahatma “great soul” and Mahabharata “Great Matters Concerning the Descendants of Bharata”). Maya is from the root ma, meaning “measure, build.” “Illusion” is a misleading translation, for it does not have the proper associations. Maya is the magical power of creating appearances. It is the power to make things seem other than they are, particularly the power of making the One appear to be many. Radhakrishnan called it “the principle which accounts for the apparent conditioning of the unconditioned Absolute.” The objective universe appears to be full of a great many different things, which the Chinese call the “ten thousand things.” But actually, the whole universe is an expression of one Reality. It is only the great magical power of making things seem other than what they really are that produces the universe we know.
Note 7: “Sakkayaditthi, ‘delusion’ of personality.” Personality is, to be sure, real enough. Or at least it is as real as anything else in the world of the Great Illusion. The delusion is our thinking that we are identical with or limited to the personality. This series of verses is pointing out to us who we are and what we are not. We are not the personality, which is a blend of the “animal soul” and “human soul.”
Note 8: “Attavada, the heresy of the belief in soul or rather in the separateness of soul or self from the one universal, infinite Self.” The “great heresy” of verse 17 is the delusion mentioned in verse 16. Here it is made yet more specific. Attavada is a Pali term for “theory of self,” that is, the belief in the abiding reality of a separate “self.” Atta is the equivalent of Sanskrit atma. Throughout The Voice, the meaning of “self” or “atma(n)” is played with, not as a matter of trivial play, but of deep, insightful, metaphysical play. The question is “Who am I?” or “What is the ‘self’?” We give various answers to that question, which are the subject of much of this book. In addition, the “Hall of Sorrow” mentioned in verse 17 is perhaps to be identified with the first of the three halls described below: the Hall of Ignorance. Ignorance (in Sanskrit, avidya) is the cause of all our sorrows. But what is it that we are ignorant of? It is our unity with all life; that ignorance is the attavada heresy, the belief that we are separate from our source and thus also from all others.
Note 9: “The tattvajnanin is the knower or discriminator of the principles in nature and in man; and atmajnanin is the knower of Atman or the universal One Self.” The word atma or “self” has at least three different senses: (1) the cosmic self (or “All Self,” the “One Self”), (2) the “higher” or core self which is our abiding identity, and (3) the ego or personal self. Jnanin is “one who knows”; tattva is a basic category or elementary principle, one of the essentials of the universe (equivalent to the Theosophical term “principle”). Hence the tattvajnanin is the consciousness that knows the world around and within us. But the atmajnanin is the consciousness that knows the One Self behind the world, including us, ourselves.
Note 10: “Kala Hamsa, the Bird or Swan [see note 12]. Says the Nada-bindu Upanishad (Rig Veda) translated by the Kumbakonam Theos. Society: ‘The syllable A is considered to be its [the bird Hamsa’s] right wing; the U, the left; M, its tail, and the ardha-matra (half syllable [or meter, which is silence]) is said to be its head’.” The sacred syllable aum is said to be the word from which all other words are derived. Its three letters correspond to the three states of consciousness that are taken up in the next group of verses, and the meter or rhythm of the word corresponds to the fourth state of consciousness. The bird, kala hamsa “the bird of time,” is symbolic of the manifested cosmos. Hamsa (which means a wild goose or swan) symbolizes the life force, the cosmic breath. The first syllable, ham, is the exhaled breath of manifestation, and the second syllable, sa, is the inhaled breath of reabsorption into the Absolute. “Nadabindu,” the name of the Upanishad, or philosophical discourse, cited in the note, means “original point of vibration” and refers to the primal expression in the universe.
Note 11: “Eternity with the Orientals has quite another signification than it has with us. It stands generally for the 100 years or ‘age’ of Brahma, the duration of a kalpa or a period of 4,320,000,000 years.” Although the term is used in various ways, technically, a kalpa is twice 4,320,000,000 years, that being the duration of a daytime or nighttime of Brahma. And a kalpa is only a full day of Brahma, not an age, which consists of 100 times 360 such days. Hindu chronology delights in dealing with immense periods of time. The exact lengths of these periods are less important than the general concept that the universe has been around a very long while and is going to continue for just as long a while.
Note 12: “Says the same Nada-bindu: ‘A Yogi who bestrides the Hamsa (thus contemplates on Aum) is not affected by Karmic influences or crores of sins’.” A crore is strictly ten million, but is used for any very large number.
Note 13: “Give up the life of physical personality if you would live in Spirit.”
With verse 22, we move into one of the major symbols of the first fragment, namely, the Three Halls: “ Three Halls, O weary pilgrim, lead to the end of toils. Three Halls, O conqueror of Mara, will bring thee through three states14 into the fourth15 and thence into the seven worlds,16 the worlds of Rest Eternal.”
Note 14: “The three states of consciousness, which are jagrat, the waking; swapna, the dreaming; and sushupti, the deep sleeping state. These three Yogi conditions, lead to the fourth, or—”
Note 15: “The turiya, that beyond the dreamless state, the one above all, a state of high spiritual consciousness.”
The three states symbolized by the Three Halls can be understood in a variety of ways: First Hall = waking, outer consciousness, public awareness, physical plane. Second Hall = dreaming, inner subconsciousness, private awareness, kama-manas plane. Third Hall = deep sleep, higher superconsciousness, transcendent awareness, buddhi-manas plane. The fourth state (turiya means just “fourth”) represents the reality of Brahman, the Ground of Being, which is the substratum of the other three. The fourth state, unlike the other three, has no name but only a number because it is ineffable; as the transcendent reality, it underlies the three states of manifestation. Four and seven are numbers that compete as the basis of analyzing the world’s structure. Blavatsky generally insisted on sevenfoldness; her colleague Subba Row promoted fourfoldness. Verse 22 features both numbers. HPB comments on the sevenfold analysis in Note 16: “Some oriental mystics locate seven planes of being, the seven spiritual lokas or worlds within the body of Kala Hamsa, the swan out of time and space, convertible into the swan in time, when it becomes Brahma [masculine], instead of Brahman [neuter].” A loka (cf. “locus, location”) is a “place, world, or plane.” It corresponds to Theosophical “plane.” Although our consciousness functions through four modalities (the Three Halls and the Vale of Bliss that lies beyond them), the cosmos has seven planes of being in both its potential, unmanifested state (Brahman) and its actual, manifested one (Brahma). Brahman is the neuter, and Brahma (with a final long “a”) is the masculine form of the same word, derived from the root brh “grow, develop.” Brahman is said to be “nirguna” (without characteristics), and Brahma “saguna” (with characteristics), but nevertheless they are the same reality. The concept here is similar to that in Kabbalah, which speaks of the Ultimate as “Ayin” (nothing) or “Ayn Soph” (everything, literally “infinite”).
The next three verses identify the three halls by name: “ If thou wouldst learn their names, then hearken, and remember.  The name of the first Hall is Ignorance—Avidya.  It is the Hall in which thou saw’st the light, in which thou livest and shalt die.17”
In verse 24, the First Hall is named “Ignorance,” in Sanskrit, “Avidya.” Vidya is “knowledge” (cognate with English wit and wisdom), especially the knowledge of particular subjects. Five types of vidya are recognized as (1) of the Vedas, (2) of logic and metaphysics, (3) of government, (4) of agriculture, commerce, medicine, and other such skills, and (5) of the Self: Atmavidya (atma meaning “self”). The prefix a- in avidya (another “alpha privative”) is a negating particle (which we have in English words like atypical), so avidya is “un-knowledge” or “ignorance.” The Hall of Ignorance appears to be the same as the Hall of Sorrows of verse 17. That is appropriate since the cause of all sorrow is ignorance. It is also, as verse 17 told us, “this earth,” the world in which we are living. That identification is made clear in verse 25 and Note 17: “The phenomenal world of senses and of terrestrial consciousness only.” The Hall of Ignorance is the “phenomenal world of senses” because the senses mislead us by limiting our consciousness to the terrestrial only. It was in this Hall that we saw the light of day (that is, were born), in which we live and will die. To “see the light” may, however, be a play on words. Not only are we born into this world and thus see the light of day here, buy it is also within this world of ignorance that we can come to true knowledge. There can be no dawn without a night; there can be no enlightenment without ignorance. All things have their place in the divine economy of the cosmos, even ignorance and sorrow.
“ The name of Hall the second is the Hall of Learning [“The Hall of Probationary Learning”]. In it thy soul will find the blossoms of life, but under every flower a serpent coiled.18”
Verse 26 passes on to the second Hall, that of Learning. Learning is generally thought of as a good thing, that which removes ignorance, the cause of sorrow. But the learning of the second Hall is not reliable; it is instead tentative and deceptive. To indicate that, HPB immediately notes that it is the Hall of Probationary Learning. The Hall of Learning is clearly a mixed place. In it we find the blossoms of life, “but under every flower a serpent coiled.” Note 18 explains: “The astral region, the psychic world of supersensuous perceptions and of deceptive sights—the world of mediums. It is the great ‘astral serpent’ of Eliphas Levi. No blossom plucked in those regions has ever yet been brought down on earth without its serpent coiled around the stem. It is the world of the Great Illusion.” It is not without relevance that when we enter the path of discipleship (that is, the path of being a learner, the Hall of Learning) the first qualification to be developed is discrimination. Flowers and serpents are very different things, but in the world of the Great Illusion, one can be mistaken for the other.
“ The name of the third Hall is Wisdom, beyond which stretch the shoreless waters of Akshara, the indestructible fount of omniscience.19”
In verse 27 we come to the Third Hall, that of Wisdom, and to what is beyond all the Halls, here symbolized as a great body of water, an ocean or unending fountain, called “Akshara.” Akshara is the “imperishable, immutable,” that is, transcendent Reality, or as HPB puts it in Note 19: “The region of the full spiritual consciousness beyond which there is no longer danger for him who has reached it.”
“ If thou wouldst cross the first Hall safely, let not thy mind mistake the fires of lust that burn therein for the Sunlight of life.  If thou wouldst cross the second safely, stop not the fragrance of its stupefying blossoms to inhale. If freed thou wouldst be from the Karmic chains, seek not for thy Guru in those Mayavic regions.  The Wise Ones tarry not in pleasure-grounds of senses.  The Wise Ones heed not the sweet-tongued voices of illusion.  Seek for him who is to give thee birth20 in the Hall of Wisdom, the Hall which lies beyond, wherein all shadows are unknown, and where the light of truth shines with unfading glory.”
The Hall of Ignorance is, in verses 28 and 30, where the fires of lust burn in the pleasure-grounds of senses. It is the physical world. The Hall of Learning is, in verses 29 and 31, the mayavic or illusory region with stupefying, opiate blossoms and sweet-tongued voices that mislead, like those of Ulysses’s sirens. These are, however, not evil places in the Western sense of evil. They are unreal but necessary. It is through ignorance and probationary learning that we reach wisdom. Ursula LeGuin, in her fantasy novel The Wizard of Earthsea, cites an ancient gnomic saying: “Only in darkness, Light. Only in silence, the Word. Only in dying, Life.” That is a profound bit of wisdom. Like the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol, in which the dark and light halves are necessary to each other, these opposites are also complementary. If part of the world were unnecessary or evil, then the Intelligence behind its manifestation would itself be ignorance and there could be no Hall of Wisdom, nor any Vale of Bliss. Light and darkness have meaning for us only in juxtaposition, and so also silence and speech, dying and living. The Wise Ones of verses 30 and 31 acquired their wisdom by passing through the Halls of Ignorance and Learning. Those Halls are not places of permanent residence, but of transitory passage. Only by passing through the first two Halls, however, can we come to the place where “all shadows are unknown” because there “the light of truth shines with unfading glory.” From whom do we learn the Wisdom of the Third Hall? That person is called one who gives us birth—a second birth. The symbol of being spiritually reborn is a familiar one. It is the basis of the Christian sacrament of baptism. Certain Protestant sects focus upon being “reborn in Christ.” But in Hinduism also, the fully matured Brahmin member of the Hindu community is called “twice-born.” Socrates was called a midwife, one who assisted in the intellectual and spiritual birth of those who followed him. And being reborn is a theme in Freemasonry, as it is also in the rituals of native peoples like those of Australia. A second birth or rebirth is a universal human symbol of coming into a new spiritual state. Of this spiritual father, HPB says in Note 20: “The Initiate who leads the disciple through the Knowledge given to him to his spiritual or second birth is called the Father, Guru, or Master.” Concerning this initiatory Master, more will be said later.
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer advises the faithful to read, mark (that is, pay attention), learn, and inwardly digest the words of scripture. That is a good sequence to follow in studying anything. First we read; then we pay attention to what we have read by trying to understand it; next we learn it by making it part of our intellectual competence so that we can say we really know it; and finally we inwardly digest the sense so that it becomes a part of our inmost nature. The last step is the most important; without it all the rest are merely unfulfilled preliminaries.
In a sense, those four steps of the Book of Common Prayer are the Three Halls and the shoreless waters beyond. In the First Hall we read or experience; in the Second Hall we mark or discriminate; in the Third Hall we come to true learning or wisdom; and in the shoreless waters, we enter “the full spiritual consciousness” by inwardly digesting, by absorbing the truth as we would sacramental bread. So far, we have been traveling through the Three Halls of The Voice of the Silence. This is therefore a good time to take a dip in the waters beyond, to practice the inward digestion. The technique for doing that is meditation. Have a regular meditation period every day. Construct in your imagination a sequence of three Halls with the shoreless waters beyond. Furnish these halls as they are described in these verses. Pass through them, observing what each holds. And pass out of them. Be aware that in the Third Hall you are to come to a new birth in the clear white light, which is that of which the Tibetan Book of the Dead speaks and that which is experienced by those who have had a near-death experience. And above all remember that the purpose of meditation and visualization is to hear the Voice of the Silence. So always end in inner silence.