Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1927
From stenographic notes of a lecture by Charles Johnston, on May 1st, 1927,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
The purpose of The Theosophical Society is to keep alive the spiritual intuitions of mankind. Since we are here this afternoon as guests of the New York Branch of The Theosophical Society, it is proper that we should know what our purpose is, a purpose which each one of us, in the measure of his willingness, may share. What are the spiritual intuitions of mankind? On what do they rest? What do they seek as their ideal and goal? We reply that the goal is supremely simple; the goal is Eternal Being, one and undivided. Eternal Being is the foundation of all true religions, all true philosophies. The great founders of religions, the greatest prophets, the greatest seers have been great precisely because they perceived Eternal Being, and their essential identity with Eternal Being. This essential identity is the key to all that is splendid in human life, for truly to perceive Eternal Being is to become Eternal Being. The truth of Eternal Being is so simple that it needs no declaration. It stands of itself. Eternal Being is, and, because Eternal Being is, we are. The prophets and seers, all the great among the sons of men, gained their glimpse of Eternal Being, a glimpse which meant a beginning of assimilation, or, to speak more truly, a recognition of identity with Eternal Being, one and undivided. We are Eternal Being, for there is nothing else for us to be. As the seers and prophets gained this glimpse, they were so won by the wonder and splendour of the vision, that of necessity they dedicated their lives to the worship, the recognition of Eternal Being; obedience to it, assimilation with it. They began to be at one with eternal life. And, since that Being contains, among its many powers, its many facets, the power of manifestation—the expression of its hidden treasures, a power of which we see, at this time of year, a beautiful symbol, in the new leaves and blossoms of the trees and the plants of the earth, so delicately and irresistibly manifested year by year—in virtue of this inherent power, this beautiful necessity of manifestation, the seers and sages, when they had recognized their oneness with Everlasting Being, inevitably expressed that oneness and made it manifest, first, in a life completely conformed with the Divine Being; secondly, in teaching, in the enunciation of the truth regarding Eternal Being; and also in teaching of a more direct kind, through the contagion of their insight and their action, because Eternal Being is as much action as insight. It is power, energy, as much as consciousness and wisdom. Therefore, since those great Masters of wisdom were all in essence one, because all are facets of the one Eternal Life, all expressing that Life, for that reason, their teaching, however separated in time, to whatever nation it may have been given, is fundamentally the same.
If it be our purpose, the purpose of The Theosophical Society, to awaken and keep alive the spiritual intuitions of mankind, we shall be working for the fulfillment of that purpose if we can show this one fundamental spiritual reality underlying, inspiring, all religions and all religious philosophies. The realization of the unity of all religious truth should rejoice the heart of every man of good will. If they be not hopelessly narrow, penned in within the limits of sectarian prejudice, all who aspire and believe should rejoice beyond measure to find that their truth is an aspect of an infinite, universal Truth. We can hardly conceive a smaller and more contemptible trait in human nature than the desire to magnify one’s own creed by attacking and denying the truth of others. But, if there be magnanimity, love of truth for the sake of truth, then one can conceive that great joy may come to the heart of every seeker, should he realize the superb fact that the truth before which he bows in reverence, is also the fundamental Truth in all the religions of mankind. This is one of the joys by which we, as lovers of the Truth, are rewarded. In every form of genuine religion, and even in many limitations of religion, something of that everlasting radiance shines.
The motto of our Society, and its declared objects, are aspects of that one Truth. In our motto, “There is no Religion higher than Truth,” we affirm the oneness of Truth in all religions. Our motto is profound in its significance. Some light may be shed, perhaps, on the difference between the Oriental and the Western mind, if we translate into Sanskrit the famous sentence, “What is truth?” We shall discover that the Oriental tongue has developed in harmony with universal being. For, if the question, “What is truth?” be asked in Sanskrit, it is already answered: Truth is that which depends on, or belongs to, Eternal Being. So also the word “religion” in our motto has its deep significance, more fully revealed in the original Sanskrit of the motto. The word comes from a root meaning “hold.” So there is no “hold” better than reality. There is no obligation stronger than that which rests upon Eternal Being. There is no religion higher than the recognition of Eternal Being. So our motto expresses the fundamental truth: Being upholds itself; Being stands.
Then the first object of our Society, to form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, caste, colour or sex. If it be true, as the great Masters of wisdom have shown by their experience, that Eternal Being is the one reality in the universe, and that we are facets of the diamond, each one “an inlet to the same, and to all of the same,” then it is most certain that, in their essential nature, all human beings are one; not merely similar, not simply like each other, but, in the heart of Being, one. The diamond is not divided by the facets; it remains one; and, without the diamond, the facets have absolutely no existence. On the diamond, the facets have a relative reality. They are there, and we are those facets; each one of us, if we will, an entry not into a part, not into one side of Being, but, as Emerson says, into all of the same. But there is a truth that must be borne in mind when we speak of Universal Brotherhood; it has already been suggested in speaking of the great Masters of religious and spiritual history, and in saying that they conform to Eternal Being: conforming to reality, to truth, to beauty, to that quality which we can best describe as the beauty of holiness. Without this conformity, this response of complete obedience and assimilation, we do not really exist. We are then facets detached from the diamond. Therefore it follows that mankind begins to be real, begins really to be, only through recognition of that splendid spiritual Being, and through the effort, following recognition, to make it real; not an abstraction or a theory, but a daily, hourly reality, entering a man to the tips of his fingers. Through realization we become real, through realization of spiritual Being. So that we may divide mankind into three great groups: first, those who have realized Eternal Being, the great Masters of wisdom; second, those who are seeking to realize Eternal Being; and, lastly, those who, so far as Eternal Being is concerned, are blind, deaf, dumb; those who at some later time may come into existence, but cannot yet be said really to exist. Therefore we have this formulation of our principle: to form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of humanity; a nucleus to begin with, because we recognize that real humanity comes slowly into existence through perception of spiritual Being, through the effort to become one with that Being; or, to speak more truly, to realize our oneness with Being, since it is a oneness which, potentially, has been from everlasting.
We have already considered the second object of The Theosophical Society, which is the comparative study of religions, philosophies, science and ethics; the purpose of our search being to recognize in them partial revelations of this same spiritual Life, whose properties are truth, beauty, holiness. Even though much of modern science be one-sided, a narrowly limited view, a flattened-out truth, truth without Being, eternity without immortality, so that some scientists may be said to dwell in a two-dimensional universe,—nevertheless they are genuinely devoted to truth, honest and sincere in their search for truth; in that degree, they are votaries of Eternal Being, whose breath is truth. We study ethics also, the search for right conduct. What, according to our fundamental principle, will be right conduct? Surely it will be that conduct which is in conformity with spiritual Being. How are we to discover what it is? We must seek to learn it from the Masters of wisdom who are conformed to spiritual Being. While the records of Masters and their teachings may belong to a distant past, five or ten thousand years ago, we cannot think of a Master as being in the past. From the standpoint of students of Theosophy, there can be no dead Masters. They can hardly even be said to have risen from the dead, because they are eternally alive, since they have become one with eternal spiritual Being. They are as much here, now, as they were, let us say, in the valley of the Ganges thirty-five centuries ago. The Masters of wisdom must be here, since they are one with Being, and Being is here. So we may seek their teachings first in the historical records, the great Scriptures. Then, if we be faithful, persistent, we may one day be able to seek more directly, and to find; and, when we shall have found, we shall have a true system of ethics, of conduct, because we shall have found the system which is in conformity with eternal spiritual reality. So much, concerning our second object.
We have considered Eternal Being as reality, beauty, truth, holiness. Let us turn now to another aspect of Being, another facet, another way of looking at Eternal Being: namely, Eternal Being as harmony, harmony making for perfection. To begin with simple illustrations: the principle of harmony, in physics, is equilibrium, the restoration of balance; that, in virtue of which the great billows of the ocean, after they have risen mountain high, sink down again to a level mirror; that which dictates that the planets, though they may sway from the normal of their orbits, nevertheless sway back again, in the eternal self-adjustment of the solar system. Going deeper, we may say that harmony means justice, but justice which is also mercy; for we can conceive of a justice literally rigid, which would therefore be unjust: a justice which would fall short of perfect justice. But the harmony of Eternal Being is at once perfect justice and perfect mercy. So we find this aspect of Eternal Being: namely, harmony, making for perfection, the principle of equilibrium, of balance restored, and therefore the principle of alternation. It is illustrated perpetually before our eyes, in the change from spring to summer, to autumn, to winter, each with its pageantry of beauty and delight; or the change from morning to noon, from noon to evening and night, each perfect in beauty; and likewise in our human destiny, the progression from birth to maturity, to death, to the paradise between death and rebirth, and so back again to birth; a restoration of balance, equilibrium, harmony.
If we go back again to our starting point: mankind as facets of the diamond, but as yet unconscious facets; mankind still asleep, which is the condition of the vast majority—mankind not yet even beginning to be conscious of fundamental spiritual unity with Eternal Being—we must quite clearly see that, if the goal be omniscience, omnipotence, perfection of beauty and holiness, then there is a long, long journey yet to travel, a distance that will not be covered in a day, or the day of a single life. Therefore we say that our principle of harmony, a justice that shall be also mercy, demands for each individual, for each still unburnished facet of the diamond, the time to make that journey, a sufficient opportunity, a continuity of life. The great work takes time, much time. Perhaps, if the ultimate truth be told, the soul spins time as it goes along, just as the spider spins his web; and what we call time is simply the expression of the slowness of the soul, in the process of growth, of realization, of awakening. But the point is, that there is this long development, this immense journey, demanding continuity of being. Yet not an unbroken journey; since these souls of men are little, and easily wearied, one can see that the quality of mercy cannot require that the great journey be made in a single day. There must be, and there are, periods of rest. Rest, and something more. When the man, overtaken by the night, has laid his weary head on the bosom of mother earth, when his outward vesture has returned to its source, he needs rest, rest for the weary; but he needs something more. What provision has the great principle of harmony made for his restoration while he sleeps?
But let us go back for a moment to consider the source of this doctrine of continuity of life, of a long succession of lives, each one with a new gift of hope, of power, of opportunity. It would be quite possible for a logical mind to formulate the doctrine of many births. It is, indeed, the fact that, when an intuitional and logical mind once receives this thought, and sees how many enigmas of life it resolves, how many locked doors it opens, such a mind may support the doctrine by pure logical reasoning. The doctrine is eminently reasonable; yet one is inclined to believe that it was not arrived at by reasoning. That is not the light in which the great Scriptures of the world present it to us. Take one of the old Scriptures of India, which tells of the Master Krishna, who appeals to many of us because he is a warrior, teaching on the battle field as the armies are ready to clash, appealing to us because human life is the field of battle and we are of the army. Krishna does not put forward the teaching of reincarnation or rebirth, the succession of births, as a speculation, or the result of close logic. In the beginning of the fourth book of the Bhagavad Gita, he says, “I taught this doctrine to the lord of the Solar race, and to Ikshvaku.” Arjuna, whom he addresses, is naturally astonished, saying: “Later was thy birth, O noble one, earlier the birth of the Solar lord. How then may I understand this, that thou hast declared it in the beginning?” Then Krishna gives the answer that is the fundamental revelation of how this knowledge comes into the world: “Many are my past births and thine also, Arjuna; I know them all, but thou knowest them not.” Krishna did not, therefore, present the admirably logical teaching of successive births as the result of logic. He did not say, “Because there are tendencies in us at our birth, definite directions of character which must have had antecedent causes, therefore they must have been generated in an antecedent life.” Nor did he say, “Look at these poor people, swept into the widespread net of death; far from being perfect and complete, they have not even begun; of necessity they must have new lives, new opportunities.” This is sound logic, but it is not what Krishna said. What Krishna said was, “My past births I remember.” Whoever is familiar with the Gospel according to Saint John must be struck with the similarity of this passage with a text that may cause a good deal of bewilderment to some of those who read it,—where the Master Christ says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” Exactly as Arjuna replied to Krishna, those who heard the Master Christ inquired of him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?”. And again, in complete harmony with Krishna’s answer, Christ says, “Before Abraham was I am.” These words, “I am,” are immensely striking. He does not say, “I was,” he says, “I am.” Having become one with the eternal Life, being himself that eternal Life, or, as John says, the Logos made flesh, and so living in the eternal present, he cannot say, “I was.” For eternal life, there is no past. “Before Abraham was, I am,” whether in ancient Egypt, or wherever it may be. Again, the same Master uses the same striking word when he is commissioning his disciples, “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the age.” So in this, as in all else, we find that a Master of wisdom speaks in conformity with Eternal Being, whether those who heard and recorded his words, understood or fell short of understanding. There is the record, the hallmark of the Master of wisdom.
To go back to the seventh century before Christ, we find two eminent witnesses to the same teaching: Gautama Buddha, or, as he is personally named, Prince Siddhartha, “he who has attained his goal.” Again and again he affirms his memory, his knowledge, of his previous lives. There is, among these, a stirring record of the steps up which he climbed to that supreme eminence of divine-human life which he represents,—for we do not say “represented.” As Emerson said, “Jesus and Paul are very well alive,” so we may say that Prince Siddhartha is very well alive. He relates stories of his earlier lives; and one of the striking forms of his teaching is this: when he finds a bitter problem, sore and hard to solve, he seeks to show the sufferers how their painful situation was generated by their own actions in some earlier life; a life which, though to them it is past, is present and plainly visible to him.
A great Master contemporary with him, Pythagoras, also said, “I remember.” He is the fountain head of the teaching of reincarnation in the Western world, or, rather the Græco-Roman civilization. For, as Julius Cæsar tells us, it existed among the Gauls in Northern Europe, in all likelihood for centuries. Pythagoras is the source of the teaching in that late afternoon of the Græco-Roman world, which is all that we yet know of it, the last few centuries before our era, as he is also the beginning of Western philosophy, and the creator of that superb word, philosophy. There is an impressive rendering of the word in our Theosophical tradition. We hold that philosophy means more than the love of wisdom; it means the wisdom of love; the wisdom which comes from love of Divine Being, and of all that is in harmony with Divine Being: the wisdom of love. So Pythagoras is the head and source of our Western philosophy and our Western mathematics, both of which, it is practically certain, he received from the initiates of ancient Egypt, because it is recorded that he had been initiated in Egypt, and also, very probably, in India. But he did not say, “In India I heard of reincarnation, and I think it may be true,” or, “In Egypt they taught me about successive lives.” What Pythagoras said was, “I remember.”
So four witnesses have been cited. It is worth considering where, if we take all the records of mankind, we could find four witnesses of equal eminence to testify to anything; and all four make the same statement, “I remember.” Therefore our understanding of this law of reincarnation, of a series of lives, is not derived from logic, even though it be eminently defensible by logic. It is not the result of speculation, even though it be a very sane speculation, for nothing saner has ever been proposed, nor any better solution of the problems, entanglements and obscurities of human life. No, it is knowledge, the knowledge of those who remember, the immediate memory of the great men who have borne testimony, the sanest men in all human history, men recognized by tens of thousands, by tens of millions, as masters of sanity, masters of right thinking, masters of right action, masters of justice, masters of mercy. These are the witnesses, or they are among the witnesses.
Further, they tell us something of the paradise of rest, between death and rebirth, which we were considering a little while ago, holding that it is a paradise of rest for the weary, rest and something more. There is, in each one of us, a higher nature, which already mirrors and exemplifies Spiritual Being, the point at which the facet and the diamond are one; that in us which looks into the heart of the infinite jewel. There are also the middle nature, and the lower nature; the latter in two senses. First, there is the lower nature which belongs to the biological world, the animal body, with its functions and its members. Perhaps it might better be called, not lower—because there is nothing essentially low about it—but the outer nature. But there is a lower nature to which that word ought to be attached, as a moral stigma: the nature of selfishness, brutality, cruelty, sensuality. I doubt if there be a human being who will not, in the abstract at least, brand these things as evil, and admit that they play a considerable part in human life. Then, to go back, there is the middle nature, in which, according as it is limpid or turbid, there are reflected the influences from above or from below, or much of both. Our ordinary states of mind, if we watch them for an hour or two, entertain this from above, that from below, mingled good and evil. The middle nature is the corridor, the place of meeting.
Take any ordinary human life, and you will see that there have been in it many gleams of light, or of longing for the light, touches of beauty, aspirations after truth, breathings of the spirit of holiness, hopes for high attainment, or shadows of hope. But it is also true that there has been, in such a life, very little fulfillment. The measure of fulfillment, compared with the measure of hope or of desire, has been very small, and we are considering the higher desires, the true desires of the spiritual heart. Therefore, the fundamental law of harmony making for perfection, which is an expression of Being itself, provides that, after the wayfarer lays his weary body on mother earth, there shall be compensation for him; compensation for all the frost-bitten hopes, the longings nipped in the bud, the aspirations that were chilled and never unfolded. This compensation is the essence of paradise, the expression of that justice which is also mercy.
During centuries, perhaps, this harmony of fulfilled hope and aspiration delights the weary spirit. But there is something more besides refreshment and delight. These better desires were all a reaching after something in Divine Being. A longing for beauty is a longing for real Being, since beauty is of the essence of real Being. A longing for the true is a longing for real Being, since truth is of the essence of real Being. So with all the true desires of the heart. Each of them calls on Being; each receives a response, because of that principle of harmony which is at once justice and mercy. Therefore the higher nature of the man, in paradise, is not only rested, rewarded, refreshed, rejoiced, but also fed, nourished, strengthened, given seeds for growth in the next life, or many lives; so the soul comes back to birth, as Wordsworth says, “not in entire forgetfulness, not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory,” glory received from that central heart of Being.
In an ancient Mexican Scripture there is the phrase, “Heart of the heavens, heart of the earth!” We oscillate between the heart of the heavens and the heart of the earth. A prayer, again from the Popol Vuh, “May the seeds germinate! May the dawn come!”—seeds of a greater future, dawn of a brighter day, of deeper truth and higher holiness. So the wayfarer comes back, trailing clouds of glory. He has gleaned new riches in the harvest fields of eternity. But at this point there is a question which may arise, which should arise. So far as we have considered the matter, the man is in a solitary paradise. As concerns his loved ones, what is the teaching of theosophical wisdom? Is he in truth alone and isolated? Or, to put it in the traditional phrase, Do we know our friends in heaven? The answer would seem to be, “Yes, if we have known them on earth!” Exactly in the measure in which our love is unselfish, exactly in the measure in which our love for another finds and serves that other, instead of merely gratifying itself, in the measure that love is real,—in that measure it is true recognition, and in that measure it can and must endure. Therefore, as we know each other now, if we really know, we shall know our friends in heaven.
These, then, are a few fundamental aspects of the one truth that Being is one and undivided; expressions of the motto of The Theosophical Society, “There is no Religion higher than Truth,” because there is but one universal religion, which depends upon everlasting Being. Our first aim and purpose is, to form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of humanity. The true Brotherhood is made up of those who have realized the Real, who are one with Eternal Being. The nucleus consists of those who are seeking Eternal Being. Our purpose, our effort is, to increase the number of those who seek, and, so far as we can, to strengthen our own light that we may lighten the way for them. Here, we touch on the third object of The Theosophical Society, a part of which is, to investigate the psychical and spiritual powers latent in man; “psychical and spiritual,” is the wording of The Key to Theosophy. What are these powers? Whence do they come? Are they strange outgrowths of the human mind, as alien as an orchid on a palm tree or a spray of mistletoe on an oak, something abnormal, parasitic? No; they are expressions of the stages by which we realize ourselves in Eternal Being. All that you have heard of the miraculous powers of Masters—let us say, the miracles in the New Testament—is but an incomplete expression of what a Master inherits in becoming one with infinite Being, with omnipotence. Of the Master Christ it is recorded that he could do no great works in certain cities because of their unbelief. The same limitation lay upon him through all his mission. It is quite impossible to reveal to mankind, such as they are, such as we are, anything like the plenitude of the powers of a Master. We should be blinded; or, perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that these powers are quite beyond our range of vision. But the vital matter is, that these powers are the natural, inevitable efflorescence of oneness with Being; they are in perfect conformity with the harmony of Being.
As members of The Theosophical Society, as students of Theosophy, we have set ourselves this task; or, shall we say, the great law of harmony and justice has set it for us; or, better still, has conferred on us the immense privilege of endeavouring to keep alive the spiritual intuitions of mankind. What are the conditions of the task? What is the goal? We can only keep alive spiritual intuitions in others if spiritual intuition burns and glows in our own hearts and minds. Only a live coal can kindle a coal. Only a living heart can kindle a heart. Only living intuition can kindle intuition. Therefore it will follow that, so far as we are, in our degree, faithful stewards in this service, by that fact we shall enter into the superb reality of Being; not seeking a reward, not desiring a reward. How can we? Being, itself, is infinitely greater than any conceivable reward; but, if you wish, rewarded by Divine Being; rewarded, not primarily in or for ourselves, though that will also be true, but rewarded, little by little, by seeing the light in human hearts begin to glow and gleam; the aspiration in human hearts begin to burn a little brighter, as the stars come out in the twilight; the miracle of everlasting Being, as it is already known to the Masters of wisdom, beginning at length to reveal itself for the redemption, the salvation, the supreme joy of mankind.