Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1929
From stenographic notes of a lecture by Charles Johnston, on April 28, 1929,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
The subject of this lecture is Theosophy. One sometimes fancies that members of the audience who have come to these lectures two or three years in succession, may perhaps ask themselves why the subject is always the same, always Theosophy. One answer to this possible question is that Theosophy, fully understood, includes everything; therefore, if one were to talk to the end of the cycle, much would still be left unsaid, of the great total of Theosophy.
Something is generally said, at these yearly lectures, regarding the relation of The Theosophical Society to Theosophy. That relation is simple, yet something about it may profitably be repeated. The Theosophical Society has three declared objects, three avowed purposes to fulfill. The first is to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, caste, colour or sex. The second is to study religions, philosophies, sciences and ethics. The third is to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the spiritual powers latent in man.
It has often been said on theosophical platforms that The Theosophical Society has no doctrines; that, except for these three very general, almost abstract objects, The Theosophical Society has no definite teaching to put forward. This is true, yet it falls short of being the whole truth, for The Theosophical Society, besides having its three declared objects, also possesses a seal and a motto, and the seal and motto contain a profound philosophy of life and of the universe. While the seal appears without any explanation of its meaning in the Constitution of the Society, and while the original of the motto is in Sanskrit, and is therefore not very revealing, nevertheless the two taken together suggest a marvellous solution of the problems of cosmic life, spiritual life and human life.
It is true that, since the symbols of the seal are universal, they may be interpreted in many ways; it is further true that The Theosophical Society does not require a definite interpretation of these universal symbols, nor demand explicit adherence to them, so that one may become a member in good standing, if one affirm one’s sympathy with the first object, regardless of any other principles or teachings. Yet the seal and the motto are there. In English, the motto reads: There is no religion higher than Truth. The Sanskrit original has a deeper and more universal meaning: namely, that there is no law, no obligation, no character which transcends what is based upon the Real. And in Sanskrit the Real has a definite meaning: a consciousness which is infinite, eternal and omniscient. Therefore the motto of The Theosophical Society affirms that there is no obligation, no law, no character which transcends that which is based upon this universal, eternal consciousness. So that we already have in the motto a complete philosophy, a deeply spiritual Oversoul for our Society. If we try to work out in detail the meaning of that infinite spiritual consciousness, we shall come to see how rich in significance our motto is.
The seal is equally full of meaning. Many who have visited the Studio in Washington Mews may remember that the seal and motto are displayed upon a shield, above a bust of W. Q. Judge. The seal consists, first, of a serpent forming a circle, with the tail of the serpent entering its mouth: the circle of eternity, not an unbroken eternity, but an eternity of revolving cycles. Some of us who are students of modern mathematics have been greatly interested to find that mathematicians have discovered the theosophical serpent. Einstein’s space re-enters itself, just as the serpent in the seal of The Theosophical Society re-enters itself: if you go infinitely far, according to his view, you come back to the starting point. In his very intuitive book on Einstein, Steinmetz says that, if we were endowed with infinite vision, we should see in every direction an image of the backs of our own heads. This is exactly the same principle as is conveyed in the serpent of our seal. Mathematicians have discovered that the re-entrant cycle is a fundamental law of the Universe, a law which was well known ages ago in the countries of the Orient, and is fully discussed, for example, in the Puranas and in the Buddhist Suttas.
The great cycle implies many lesser cycles. It is again both interesting and significant that some of these lesser cycles are being noted and described. To take one, that is frequently mentioned in the newspapers: the cycle of sun spots, the recurring periods of the dark spots which one can sometimes see even with the naked eye, if the sun be near the horizon and sufficiently veiled by mist. These spots on the sun pass through cycles of greatest and least extent in a period of eleven years and a month or two; and they so change the aura, the electrical field of the solar system, that our terrestrial weather is strongly influenced by them. And it is suggested that many events of organic life also follow the cycle of the sun spots. Again, Petrie has written much that is valuable regarding cycles in art and science, with special reference to ancient Egypt.
Thus the law of cycles is appearing in contemporary thought. All these cycles are interesting, but for us the most insistent and important is the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and, while The Theosophical Society does not proclaim the doctrine of reincarnation, nor require from its members adherence to that doctrine, yet the seal of the Society announces it. For the great recurring cycle implies and contains all lesser recurring cycles; the alternation of birth, death and rebirth is implied, not only for the individual man and woman, but for the races of men, and for planets and solar systems.
Within the circle of the seal there are two triangles, one of fire colour, with its apex pointing upward. The upward pointing triangle is a symbol, a confession of faith, for it represents the threefold spirit, the triune holy fire, which has its expression in the western world in the doctrine of the Trinity. The threefold symbol has many meanings: the beginning of manifestation, the middle and end of manifestation, followed by a new beginning; the conscious thinker, thinking, and what is thought; or the divine light, the divine mind and the divine idea; or the creator, the preserver and the destroyer, who is also the transformer, destroying only to make anew. This doctrine of the Trinity, of one Being with three Persons or Aspects, is far more ancient than Christianity; it is set forth in the Mahabharata almost in the same terms as in the Athanasian creed.
Interlocked in the seal with this triangle of fire colour is another triangle, pointing downward and coloured blue, the water colour, representing threefold manifested space. Again, the three sides are symbolic, representing substance, force, and the dark space in which substance is manifested through force. Perhaps it would be a true criticism of much of our western science to say that it has grasped the principle of the inverted triangle, and has in large measure lost sight of the triangle with the apex upward; that is, it has discovered matter, force and space, and has lost sight of spirit. One of the messages of Theosophy to modern science is that without the two triangles you cannot have a universe. The manifested worlds are impossible without the spirit which is manifested in them. Objects of consciousness are inconceivable without a consciousness to which they are objective. Modern science, if it is to be true science, to have a true philosophical life, will have to rediscover the upward-pointing triangle of spirit.
There are other symbols in the seal: in the centre is the crux ansata, the key of Isis, the golden key of immortal life; and, where the head and tail of the serpent come together, there is the swastika, the symbol of perpetually revolving force. This force is present in the circling of planetary systems and in the revolving electrons of the atom. So we have here yet another point common to the concepts of modern science and the implicit philosophy of the seal, which one may call the Oversoul of The Theosophical Society.
These large concepts of recurring cycles and revolving forces are abstract; but students of Theosophy are not limited to abstractions. They are also devoted to thoughts, actions and principles which are altogether concrete. And, if we interpret these great symbols in concrete terms, we shall see that they imply not only the re-entrant cycle of human life, but the gradual rising of human life toward divine life, out of the realm of the water forces into the realm of spiritual fire, out of the shadow into the shine. This spiritual ascent is not an abstraction, for it is made concrete in the development of immortal men, just men made perfect, having, as a part of their perfection, power and holiness and immortality. Their habitation is that house not made with hands, to which the key of Isis gives admittance. The eternal toil of these immortals for mankind is once more symbolized by the perpetual circling of the swastika. For this is a universe of perpetual motion, of perpetual effort, and the only rest which is lawful and wise is rest in motion.
The first object of The Theosophical Society is to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity. What will that nucleus be? It can consist only of the assemblage of the immortals among mankind. It cannot be a true nucleus unless it be an eternal nucleus. It cannot be a nucleus of humanity unless it be divine humanity, which is the life that sustains humanity. Therefore, our first object, to which all members of the Society give their adherence, while it does not of necessity imply that all members believe in Masters of Wisdom, nevertheless does imply, when it is philosophically understood, the existence of Masters of Wisdom, of just men made perfect, of humanity spiritualized, fully evolved, immortal.
The second object carries a similar implication. If we study the wise records of the Orient, which are included in the second object, we find that, through many variations of place and time, one principle is always present, namely, the teaching of divine humanity, of humanity with the potentiality of divinity. Every religion which is worthy of the name is a practical manual or guide, revealing the way to immortality. If it be not this, then it is not genuinely a religion. If the adherents of any religion have lost sight of the truth that their religion is a practical guide to immortality, then they are no longer true to their founders and their spiritual principles. Thus we have an accurate measure for the professors of religion today: If they realize that their religion is a practical teaching of immortality, and if they carry out this teaching in practice, then they are true adherents of that religion. If not, they have yet to learn, through Theosophy, what their religion really is.
The third object, which is concerned with unexplained laws of nature and the spiritual powers latent in man, has the same significance. For the one essential spiritual power latent in man, of which all other spiritual powers are manifestations, is the power of immortality. Effective study of that power can be pursued in one way only, namely, by stepping firmly on the path of immortal life and going courageously forward. If we do this, we shall no longer theorize; we shall know through our own experience the quality of immortal consciousness; and we shall see that all the greatest men in history, the sages, the philosophers, the founders of religions, were great and are great because they discerned that essential truth, and, having discerned it, carried it into action and conquered immortality.
Let us take a few of the great names of western history and see if this be true. Let us begin with Pythagoras, who is recognized as the first milestone of occidental philosophical thinking. So essentially was Pythagoras the initiator of occidental thought, that it was he who formulated the name of philosophy. Philosophia does not mean, as we may think, the love of wisdom; it means something richer and deeper: the wisdom of love. The two are united in a single word, because they must be united. For love without wisdom is tragedy; wisdom without love, if such a thing could be, would be sterility. Therefore the wisdom of love is a profounder thought than the love of wisdom. Pythagoras, who framed the word philosophy, distinctly taught immortal life as a goal to be realized. He laid down, for the attainment of that life, a system of ethics, containing much that is ascetic in the true sense. “Ascetic” primarily means training, discipline, rather than abstinence; though any true discipline will involve much abstinence: abstinence not only from those things which are in themselves hurtful, but from all things that waste spiritual energy. If we are to set forth on the quest of immortality, we should realize from the beginning that this task will call on all the powers that we possess, wisely trained and husbanded, and much more, that we do not yet possess, but have still to gain. Therefore every wise system of discipline is ascetic in this double sense. It teaches us to develop and exercise our powers, to do certain right things in the right way; and also to abstain from other things. John Stuart Mill defined capital as the fruit of two things: effort and abstinence. He who would lay up treasure upon earth must make efforts and must abstain. He who would lay up treasure in heaven must make efforts even more heroic, and must be unceasing in abstinence from all things that waste divine energy. He will need all the resources he possesses, and more, before he reaches the goal of his journey.
Pythagoras taught wisdom, with immortality as the goal. Plato, who owes so much to Pythagoras, and to the sources from which Pythagoras drew his knowledge, teaches the same wisdom with the same goal; Plato, who has for centuries inspired the more spiritual thought of the western world. Emerson said that there are only ten men living at any time who really understand Plato, and that for them the works of Plato are reprinted. Really to sound the depths of Plato, requires a lifetime of devotion. Both Plato and Pythagoras looked backward as well as forward. Like Solon, like Pythagoras, like Thales and other wise men of Greece, Plato owed his wisdom to the Lodge of Masters, which was the secret splendour of Egypt. All of these wise men avowed it and even boasted of it. In modem Europe and America it has been found convenient to forget this, so that our histories of philosophy and science begin with Greece, with Pythagoras and Plato. Once more we forget the saying of the wise priest of Isis to Solon: “You Greeks are children; you have forgotten the past!”
Let us consider the great personality of Christ, standing for so much in the West. His adherents and those who bear his name often genuinely love and revere him, with a true echo of his charity in their hearts; how many of them realize that his teaching and purpose is practical instruction in immortality? Yet this is exactly the significance of his saying: “Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leadeth unto life and few there be that find it.” He came to bring life, and life more abounding. That more abundant life is the beginning of everlasting life. It is part of the profound tragedy of the world that that great Master is so persistently thwarted and misunderstood. One finds popular books today which speak of him as a well-meaning but deluded reformer, or even as a spiritual adventurer who broke down because of ambition, or, among the more hopeful and better works, as a great poet. Yes, he is a great poet. Every one of his parables is a poem. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is a perfect piece of drama, expressing character in speech. Two types of humanity are depicted, each of them through a speech of a few words.
This is consummate art, to take two contrasted types which are enduring and universal, and to crystallize each of them dramatically, in a single sentence. There is no more perfect poem than the parable of the Prodigal Son. Christ constantly uses even the forms of Hebrew poetry, as when he says: “Consider the lilies how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”: even in translation, a perfect poem. The truer translation is, “they spin not, neither do they weave”, the natural order of the two textile processes,—Jesus observing more accurately than his translators represent. And again following what is probably the more accurate translation: “Give not jewels unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” This has the balance of clauses, which is one of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry, as in the great prophetic sentence which is somewhat obscured in our versions, “A voice crying: In the wilderness prepare ye a way for the Lord, in the desert make straight a highway for our God.” No one has yet written, and no one except a student of Theosophy can write, the book that should be written: Christ, the Master of spiritual science, the profound teacher of applied wisdom. Let us illustrate this by a comparison. If you study a picture by Leonardo da Vinci, you can tell at once that he was a master of anatomical knowledge; or consider a statue like the Apollo Belvedere: clearly the man who shaped it was a superb anatomist, besides being a great sculptor. The same thing is manifest in the poems, the parables of Christ. Everyone who has studied spiritual science, even in a humble and limited way, will say that every one of the parables is true to the anatomy of spiritual science. Just as in the Apollo Belvedere, the form is art, the structure is science. Yet we still lack, and our modern age greatly needs, a book on the spiritual science of Christ, a searching study of Christ as a Master of spiritual science, the science of immortality;—not of immortality in the abstract, but of immortal, divine life, concrete and real beyond our present concept of reality. For our present realities are shadows; the realities of Masters are eternal, and they themselves are eternal realities.
To speak of Masters of Wisdom, as their existence is taught in the Oriental scriptures, would not be difficult. But let us take for granted that most of us already know something of the records of the Eastern teaching, and are, therefore, able to recognize that the Buddha, or Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, or Shankaracharya, are teaching a certain definite thing: the path of immortality, and the conditions of that path; the laws, the rules, the discipline of immortal life, and once more not an abstract immortality, but immortal life as concrete, and as realized by divine, immortal men.
Let us approach the subject from another side. Many of us, who are students of Theosophy, are convinced that those great men, such as Pythagoras, Christ, the Buddha, who have taught the way of immortality, were able to teach it because they had trodden that way themselves, and had attained to immortality. And this must mean, not only that they were, but that they are immortal,—at this moment, in the world, presently immortal.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. Consider what it would mean if, instead of bewildered peoples, sheep gone astray without a shepherd, the sheep would seek and find their shepherds, and would allow the shepherds to lead them once more: and this is as true of the world of religion as of the world of politics. If we seriously survey the life of our times, we shall come to recognize that in many ways it is tragic, and perhaps most tragic, because we are losing the sense of our tragedy. Human life tends to be thin, monotonous, sinking to a dead level of vulgarity which does not recognize itself as vulgar, yet which is essentially vulgar, because it does not take into account or make provision for any high spiritual consciousness in any department of its activities. The penalty cannot be escaped; if we turn away from the summits of spiritual life, we enter the dead desert of vulgarity. There are tragedies in life—sorrow and death are tragedies—but, in our modern self-assurance and materialism, we are losing the sense of their tragedy, losing the realization of the dignity of sorrow, our sense of the dignity of suffering courageously borne. We should do well to ask ourselves whether we may not be in danger of forfeiting altogether the dignity of human life. Whether as individuals or as nations, we no longer know whither we are going, in this world or in the next, and we no longer greatly care. We are drifting we know not whither, and we are hardly concerned to know. It is a form of spiritual and mental anarchy, that should evoke the intervention of the divine powers. Perhaps it has in fact evoked that intervention.
Holding in view the cheap and shallow lives of nations and of individuals, let us then consider what it would mean for these unshepherded sheep if they would seek, and, earnestly seeking, find the immortal men who are ever within reach; if nations and men could make up for centuries of blindness and folly by an hour of golden wisdom, and, by a supreme act of faith, could compel the Masters of Wisdom once more to lead them. What would it not mean for nations, and for us, as individuals?
Once more let us approach the matter from another side. We are told that modern science and art add to the beauty of life. Perhaps in a certain sense they do this. But must it not be said that our science too often leads to practical materialism; that much of our art is ignoble, because it no longer seeks to reveal spiritual and immortal consciousness? Take the great art of the Middle Ages, with its cathedrals, its pictures which record a divine sacrifice, and the glory of resurrection. They are noble in essence, as they are splendid in execution. Too many modern pictures are ignoble, because there is in them no revelation of a high spiritual consciousness. This is true also of our modern sciences. They no longer see life as a whole, with spiritual vision. Therefore they see falsely. There are in our modern sciences minor joys of discovery, but there is no steady light of inspiration. Therefore, as has been said, they lead to practical materialism.
Consider what it would mean if a Master of Wisdom were to take in hand one’s personal life, and were to transmute it into pure gold; not in part but in all things; making it radiant with beauty, luminous with wisdom, inspired by a true and wise love. This is what a Master of Wisdom is able to do for those who will entrust their lives to him without reserve. Yet, like the God of tradition, a Master of life is jealous; he must have all or none. As Christ so clearly said, we must leave houses and lands and father and mother, if we would be his disciples. “Whosoever forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” Masters of wisdom demand this complete self-giving because they see that the path of life has its dangers; unless we accept their guidance without reserve, putting ourselves wholeheartedly under this wise guidance, the Masters cannot guide us effectively and safely.
Let us well consider this possibility, for it is a possibility for each one of us, and, if we have courage and purity of heart, we may make it a reality. Let us search for the tracks of the Masters of Wisdom, determined that we shall find and follow them. Let us take our lives in both hands, and put them in the hands of the Masters. When drawing near to a Master, the pupils of old in ancient India brought an offering of firewood in both hands. The meaning of this symbol was: “I bring the fuel. Kindle it with divine fire!” And the acceptance of the sincere disciple was certain. Today, as in the days of old, the Masters of Wisdom are ready and willing, with an eagerness that we cannot realize, to take in hand our lives, to fill them with the holiness of the highest religious aspiration, the wisdom of the deepest spiritual science, and the beauty of the noblest art.
Every convinced and experienced student of Theosophy will confidently affirm that this ideal can be realized, that it is no rainbow on the horizon which vanishes as we approach, though the ideal recedes in the sense that it becomes ever greater and more inspiring. If, then, we accept this ideal of discipleship, of service of the Masters of Wisdom, if we are willing to be adopted by them, and to conform to the conditions of our adoption, this may bring to us, and in due time to all mankind, a splendour that is beyond our dreams.
It would further appear to be certain that, if in any nation a sufficient number of individuals thus wholeheartedly entrusted the guidance of their lives to the Masters, the Masters on their part would be able, gradually and almost imperceptibly, to take that nation in hand, guiding its feet into the ways of light and life.
Beginning with the seal and motto of The Theosophical Society, we can go far, for in their universal symbols they contain great spiritual truths, each one of which carries a magnificent promise. And it is the essence of theosophical science that it is an experimental science; it has nothing to do with vague generalizations or empty theories. Theosophical science rest upon the principle of trying and testing, and that only is theosophical science, which has been tried and tested and tried again. Or, to put the matter more directly: he alone is a true theosophist (a name which any of us would seriously hesitate to claim for ourselves)—he alone is a true theosophist, who has been tried and tested in the furnace of the Masters of Wisdom.
The purpose of this trial and testing is to make us fit for immortality.
Immortality is not a light gift, lightly to be won. The battle for immortal life is not a skirmish, to be fought and carried to victory in a day,—yet we have been told that to concentrate the whole war into a single day is possible, though supremely difficult. The path of immortality is war, a war against death and all the children of death; those who enlist in that warfare must have the qualities of soldiers. But this should be a challenge to every gallant heart. Surely, if we have high hopes and aspirations for the future of mankind, the gallantry of the warrior is something we would in no wise omit. For the immortal warfare, then, we must have the purity of heart of the little child, the warrior’s valour, and finally undying persistence, which counts every defeat a step to victory; a determination that is invincible, arid must be invincible if we are to gain the victory. The battle of immortality is not lightly won.
The worth of what has been said must be known by its fruit. The time has been profitably spent if any heart has been touched to high endeavour, if a spark has been kindled, or has come into being of itself, as a beginning of that immortal life. The Theosophical Society does not yet go out into the highways and hedges, and compel men to come in. Still, there is an open door. There is an urgent, though not a vocal invitation. If there be any wisdom or power in what has been said, the test will be this: whether any of those who have generously listened will be moved, not to emotion, but to action, valorously taking the first step on the path of immortal life; taking their lives steadily in hand, determined to learn all that can be learned, to seek those who know a little more, to seek their counsel and their help, so that the path of life may be entered with wisdom as well as with valour.
For this is the invitation of The Theosophical Society: an invitation to seek the path of immortality, so that, going forward upon that path, we may find the Masters of Wisdom and persuade them (if they need to be persuaded) to take our lives in hand and guide us in the way of life.
In the background of our hearts there may be the hope that we may later persuade them, by the persuasion of their love, to take in hand one after another of the nations of mankind, and finally the whole human race. If this hope should be fulfilled, then we foresee for mankind a splendour that mankind has never dared to dream. It is in the power of each of us to work for that great reward. The decision is in our own hands.