Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1928
From stenographic notes of a lecture by Charles Johnston, on April 28, 1928,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
Perhaps it would be an auspicious beginning, if we were to try to make clear what The Theosophical Society is, whose guests we are tonight, and at the same time to say what it is not. The Theosophical Society, which has invited you to this lecture, is the representative, the continuation, of The Theosophical Society founded here in New York by Madame H. P. Blavatsky, W. Q. Judge and others, in November, 1875. It has maintained a continuous life for more than half a century, working for the same ideals, advancing toward the same goal. It is in no way connected with other societies calling themselves Theosophical, which are under the guidance of Mrs. Annie Besant, Mrs. Katherine Tingley, or whoever it may be.
When the subject of this lecture was being considered, the conviction was reached that the most useful and timely theme would be the relation of the Masters of Wisdom to humanity; the relation of those divine powers—divine in wisdom and love—to the life and destiny of the human race; a relation active throughout the ages, active at this moment, active, as we hope and are convinced, throughout the centuries to come; carrying on the same work of beneficence and illumination until its consummation, when all of humanity that is willing has reached the height of spiritual development which the Masters of Wisdom already exemplify and embody.
If we speak of the relation of the Masters of Wisdom to humanity, we suggest a picture of light and shadow strongly contrasted: the light of the Masters, and the heavy shadows of our human life; and, if we look back through centuries of history and consider the cumulative tragedy of the life of mankind, race after race gaining a certain attainment,—intellectual, artistic, spiritual, material,—coming like a wave to its crest, and then, like a wave breaking and disappearing, we may realize how great, how long continued, how complete that tragedy has been. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians have so completely vanished as nations, that we have to dig their memorials out of the earth. Still older peoples have not even left a name, while it would seem that the most ancient of surviving civilizations, that of the Chinese, is obstinately determined to hack itself to pieces and disappear.
It is already seriously debated whether this Western civilization of ours may not be on the same path; whether we have not reached, or will not soon reach the culmination of our attainment, moral, intellectual, artistic—and it seems to be in the main mental and material; it is questioned whether, having thus reached our culmination, we shall not also disappear, to be covered over by the merciful earth like the Babylonians and Assyrians. This is one of the problems we may consider: must we inevitably share the fate of these dead nations, or is there something that may be done to ward off destruction, something, perhaps, that we ourselves may help to do?
We have that long panorama of shadows, of vanished and ruined races, going back, not for millenniums only, but for millions of years, each race having its birth, its maturity, its death, and then, for most of them, complete oblivion; and, in contrast with these endless shadows, ceaseless effort by the Masters of Wisdom to enlighten, to redeem, to enkindle this stumbling humanity, for whom every step forward is a fall; the Masters of Wisdom, working, toiling, labouring endlessly, with infinite beneficence and resource, infinite patience, infinite sacrifice. If we thoughtfully study one of the main themes of The Theosophical Society—the great religions of the world—we may interpret them in this sense: namely, the divine expedients used by the Masters of Wisdom, by the Lodge of Masters, in the heavy task of saving humanity which so often seems determined on self-destruction.
We may begin such a survey with ancient Egypt, and the Mystery teaching of the divine Osiris, who is, perhaps, the earliest of the Masters of Wisdom within the period we call historical, to undertake a mission to mankind, endeavouring to impart such wisdom and knowledge and virtue as mankind was ready to receive. His great task culminated in a sacrificial death, and his body was dismembered and scattered through the land of Egypt. This is the history of a great Master; it is at the same time a symbol of the primordial sacrifice of the Logos; of that synthesis of the spiritual consciousness of mankind, which again and again makes the sacrifice of supreme self-giving, in the effort to redeem the human race.
If we come next to those wise scriptures of ancient India, the great Upanishads, we shall find one theme running through them all: namely, the wisdom of the Masters, their eager desire to impart this wisdom, and the path toward them which they would have us seek and follow, so that we too may share their eternal treasure.
In a certain sense, we may say that the message of the Masters of Wisdom is that of a conditional immortality. They do not teach an inevitable immortality, an immortality inherent in; or even to be thrust on, every human being. The Masters of Wisdom teach no such inevitable immortality.
We may easily illustrate this. Take first a sentence from the Upanishads: “Foolish children seek after outward desires, and come to the wide-spread net of Death; but the wise, beholding immortality, seek not for the enduring among unenduring things”; and compare with it a like pronouncement of Jesus: “Enter ye in by the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life, and few be they that find it.”
There is no inevitable immortality for those who do not earn it. In truth, mortality is a fate which would overtake us all, were it not for the divine interposition of the Masters of Wisdom, who stretch out to us immortal hands of help and succour. So the Upanishads are full of the teaching of wisdom which reveals the path whereby we may ascend to their immortal world, passing through the Gates of Gold to the Masters’ heritage of immortal life.
The Upanishads teach the wisdom of Atma, the Supreme Self of all beings; the same divine Life which Philo of Alexandria later called the Logos, the Divine Mind, the collective spiritual consciousness of our universe. They tell us that, while each of us may seem to be a wanderer and exile, lonely, desolate in our world of shadow and of sorrow, we are in reality neither alone nor desolate, but undivided, unseparated rays of the Universal Self, the Logos. What is needed to secure our immortality—an immortality which is still conditional, until this victory is won—is the realization of our oneness with the Supreme Self. The Upanishads show how, step by step, we may mount the golden stairs; they tell us what we must leave behind; what we must gain, as we tread the small, old path; what we must achieve; with the promise that we shall in the fulness of time be initiated into the fulness of that eternal, universal Supreme Self of all beings.
In their essence, the Upanishads may date from the same period as the great Osiris,—let us say, twelve or thirteen thousand years ago. In the course of ages, their sublime teaching began to be obscured in the hearts and minds of lesser men, men of smaller spiritual stature, diminished valour, contracted wisdom. About the time of the Buddha, twenty-five centuries since, this ancient teaching was altogether obscured in the general understanding, and its place was taken by a false view concerning the Self. Therefore, we find that superb sage, Siddhartha the Compassionate, known as the Buddha, the Awakened, attacking this false view of the Self. The Awakened One began by awakening in his own splendid soul and spirit the ancient Wisdom, the ancient Power, the ancient Love of the Masters and of the Logos. Then, when he had reached full enlightenment, tradition tells of a dramatic scene. The Buddha, after gaining the Light, had fallen almost into despair over the hopelessness of communicating that Light to mankind, so callous, so full of delusions and false desires. As he sat thus despondent, there appeared to him great Brahma, who may represent the Head of the Lodge of Masters. By strong and eloquent pleading, the great Brahma at last persuaded the Buddha at least to make the attempt; perhaps a few might listen, perhaps a few might understand.
We may fancy that they held a conference as to ways and means. So many expedients had been tried, for the most part with little fruit. The disease of the time was philosophical egotism, which falsely transferred to the temporal, personal self the absolute being of the divine and universal Supreme Self; and we may suppose that the Buddha, counselling with great Brahma, worked out this plan: It would be possible, perhaps, to win recruits for immortality, for the Lodge of Masters, if he could first knock out of them every trace of egotism. If this process led to their extinction, that would be unfortunate for them; but, should they happily survive, awaking again, as it were, on the further side of egotism, it would then be possible to teach them wisdom. So the Buddha set himself, in any and every way, to attack the idea of egotism in the human heart; to cut at the false self, built upon a mental image of the body, which comes to believe itself the central reality of life, the one significant thing in the universe, to which all other persons must bow down, which all the wealth of the world must serve; the supreme egotism which is self-seeking even in death. The Buddha set himself to kill this out first of all. From this point of view, this negative part of his teaching, this part which negates and demolishes the false self, may seem less full of positive splendour than are the Upanishads; but the splendour is there. The false self is attacked and destroyed, only that the true spiritual consciousness which it masks may be revealed.
The Buddha’s aim was the same as that of the great Upanishads: to teach the same superb Wisdom, the same path of Life, the same immortality; but, finding the small, old path choked by egotism, he determined by all the power of his mighty arm to clear away that egotism first. So we find him flatly denying that there is any reality whatsoever in the ego, the false, usurping self that men worship. It is a delusion that must be finally conquered before salvation becomes even a possibility. Those who, hearing his teaching, accepted it, thereupon, in the traditional words of the Buddhists, left the household life for the homeless life; that is, they finally surrendered all personal ambition, personal self-seeking of every kind. Having done this, they came to him, saying: “To the Buddha for refuge I go; to his Law of Righteousness for refuge I go; to his Order for refuge I go.” Pronouncing this sacramental formula, they did in reality sacrifice the false self, the egotism which is not Self at all, but rather the wraith, the counterfeit of the true and universal Self. Then, pressing forward on the other side of egotism, they attained in the fulness of time to the splendour of immortal life, and entered into a share of the high privilege and tremendous responsibility of the Lodge of Masters: responsibility for the spiritual life of all mankind.
If we come down five centuries nearer to our own time, we find the next great effort of the Masters of Wisdom, which is known to our Western world as the Incarnation of Jesus. If we be somewhat familiar with the ancient Eastern teaching, the teaching of the Upanishads, the teaching of the Buddha, we shall at once realize the identity of his teaching and purpose with these older efforts of Masters. Once more, the Lodge of Masters mobilized its forces, entrusting to one of its honoured members a tremendous and tragical mission to mankind,—which seems bent on self-destruction at every period of history, through determined egotism and the forfeiture of immortal life. We shall find an identity, and, at the same time, a difference of method and of plan. The great Upanishads set themselves to destroy the egotism of the false self by revealing the splendour of the true Supreme Self. When this teaching was materialized and misinterpreted, and the idol of the false self was once more enthroned, the Buddha set himself to smash that idol; and, perhaps we may say, trusted that those who survived and came through on the further side of self, would then be fit to receive the deeper Wisdom which shines through his teachings like a golden light.
We find the Master who is known as the Christ—the Anointed—pursuing a method at once the same as to its goal, and somewhat different in means. He seems to have determined to do two things. The Buddha, in teaching the unreality of the false self, tried in every possible way to bring his followers to deny and abjure the false self; among other means, he showed with crystalline clarity that all the evils of life are the offspring of egotism, and of egotism alone. Because of egotism, mankind is beset with misery, miserable in birth, miserable throughout life, miserable in death; and, he said, if mankind would escape from misery, there is only one way of escape, and that is the destruction of egotism which is the root of all misery. So he used the lever of sorrow, as he used the lever of abnegation, to persuade us to abandon our idolatry of self.
Christ had the same goal: the conquest of se1f as the way to immortality. Time after time, he used the same words: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal”: the teaching of the Upanishads and of the Buddha,—yet with a difference. While the Buddha used the lever of sorrow, which men so greatly dread, and before which so many men are arrant cowards, Christ met sorrow in another way. “Do not flee from sorrow,” he said in effect, “but accept it, and learn its mighty lesson.” Conquer self, conquer egotism, by accepting sorrow.
As a Master of Wisdom, he invariably carried out his own teaching with completeness, as did the Buddha. Therefore, his life, from its inception, rests on this acceptance of sorrow, which was his peculiar contribution, we may hold, to the spiritual mission of mankind; as the words of the ancient prophet so eloquently expressed it, “Despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” This acceptance of sorrow has a purpose in no wise different from the purpose of the Buddha. It is a part of the path which we must tread, and tread courageously with valiant heart, if we are really to conquer egotism and win immortality. To use a homely expression: there is no stick with only one end;—if we have pleasure at the one end, we shall inevitably have pain at the other. The only way is to take the whole stick. In this sense, the acceptance of sorrow is an inevitable part of the lesson of life; and the Buddha accepted suffering and sorrow with a fulness which has never been exceeded, as did also Christ; but the Buddha used the lever of sorrow differently.
We shall, perhaps, be right in thinking that Christ sought to break the idol of egotism in yet another way; a way which is infinitely appealing, because of the depth of sacrifice which it involved: namely, to break down egotism through the strong force of pity, of compassion. Here is a group of persons, each enclosed and imprisoned in his own egotism as in a coat of steel. If pity could soften their hearts, this egotism would melt away as snow banks melt before the sun. Therefore, Christ taught compassion. The parable of the good Samaritan, as perfect as any piece of narrative in literature, also carries the deepest lesson, the lesson of compassion. “Love one another—a new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another as I have loved you,”—compassion, to melt the hardness of our human hearts.
But it was not only by teaching, by parable, by injunction that Christ sought to drive home this tremendous lesson. He made a greater sacrifice than that, a sacrifice which sounds the very depths of humiliation: he made himself the object of our compassion, made himself pitiful, hoping thereby against hope that, through compassion with his sorrow, through pity for his suffering, we might soften our hard hearts and so escape from our prison house, break our idols and enter into real life.
So we behold the Masters of Wisdom watching over our human destiny and intervening, time after time, always bringing the gift of immortality. As Krishna, speaking for the Masters of the Great Lodge, says, in the Bhagavad Gita; “Whenever there is a withering of the Law and an uprising of lawlessness, then I manifest myself, for the salvation of the righteous, and the destruction of such as do evil”; there is no pacifist ring in Krishna’s declaration, “for the destruction of such as do evil.” It is an impressive expression of the law of Karma; and, since it is the law, we shall be wise to recognize it. The principal matter is that, whenever the need arises, the Masters of Wisdom intervene in our human life.
To return to the point from which we started: You are the guests of The Theosophical Society;—but not through any virtue or extraordinary beneficence on the part of members of The Theosophical Society. Fortunately for all of us, the river rose higher than our heads. The Theosophical Society, as many of us believe (you will not find this written in our Constitution, nor is it in any sense an obligation of members to believe it, but it is the deep conviction of many of us)—The Theosophical Society itself is such an effort, such an incarnation of wisdom and power and love, such a new teaching of that conditional immortality as is represented by the teachings and the lives of the great historical Avatars, the successive Incarnations of Divinity. If we believe and realize this, then we may truthfully say: “Prophets and kings have desired to see those things which we see, and have not seen them.” We have here and now the greatest opportunity that it is possible for mankind to have. We shall come back to this, and consider how we may grasp our opportunity; but, first to go back to a question that may be in many minds, you may be inclined to ask: Whence come these Masters of Wisdom? Do they, following the view of that biology which is now in fashion, represent a special upgrowth from the animal world,—supermen in the sense that we are superanimals?
We are immensely indebted to the great teaching of evolution, which Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace put forward tentatively in 1859. We could hardly have hoped for the success of the Theosophical Movement had not the teaching of evolution preceded by sixteen years the founding of The Theosophical Society in 1875, because we teach,—or, to put the matter in its true order, because we first learned, and then tried to convey, the teaching of spiritual evolution, with a far greater scope and larger potency than anything of which Darwin ever dreamed. We further hold that each and every one of the great Masters who have been named, and many more whom we hold in reverence, are evolutionists in a sense that makes Darwin seem like a child, speaking in words of one syllable. The Masters of Wisdom have a concept of evolution that sweeps through infinite ages and pervades innumerable worlds. The evolutionists of Darwin’s school perceive only half the problem. There is one part of the great picture of evolution, of which they have not even gained a glimpse. We hold that other part to be of vital import. The Darwinists see an ascent from below, and they do not carry it very far upward. We hope to see humanity go far higher than the best of them has been able to imagine. But we hold also that not less important is the descent from above.
Some astronomers and physicists are feeling vaguely after this supplemental truth. For these astronomers, our substantial and middle-aged sun stands halfway between the immensity of an orb, tenuous as a spider web, dispersed through boundless reaches of space, and a sun grown old, shrunk and shriveled verging toward extinction. We find physicists like Frederick Soddy who think of an incandescent world, once more, finer than gossamer, gradually developing, or condensing, into a geological world like our familiar Earth.
So there are gleams and glimpses of a descent from above, anteceding the evolutionary ascent from below; but, as yet, no real insight into the truth that there is a descent of Spirit into Matter, in part to consolidate into Matter, and in part, infusing itself progressively through Matter, to raise Matter again toward its source, to transform Matter into self-conscious, omniscient Spirit. Soddy holds that the process he depicts, the alternation between incandescent and geological worlds, may take place again and again, and has probably taken place times without number in the beginningless past of the universe. This is altogether consonant with our teaching; it is clearly set forth in the Buddhist scriptures and in the ancient Puranas.
And we hold that each one of these great terrestrial or planetary days bore its harvest of spiritual perfection; that, from the spiritual harvest of an earlier age, an older epoch of universal life, the Masters of Wisdom are carried over, remaining with this our world in order to guard and guide this humanity of ours through its infancy and nonage,—our humanity which, from day to day, shows itself so sorely in need of the teaching of wisdom, and so desperately unwilling to accept that teaching, headstrong and determined on the fullest satisfaction of egotism, even though it mean destruction and extinction.
This, then, is the source from which have come the Masters of Wisdom. They are the golden grain, garnered from earlier harvests. They are the spiritual guardians of mankind, of our mankind, just as they in their time had their ministering guardians, who may have gone farther forward on the infinite path of Life.
This, then, is the goal toward which we press: to bring mankind to seek and find the hidden treasure, as it is called in the Upanishads, as it is called by Christ; the hidden treasure of our immortality, and to show how that treasure may be won. This is our message, as very humble and (I speak for myself) very unworthy and inadequate servants of those Masters of Wisdom whom we fain would loyally and effectively serve. But, for all our shortcomings, we have the right, in the name of their attainment, in the name of their power and wisdom and love, to bid you seek and find this treasure, which may be yours, if you will accept it and fulfill the conditions necessary for its attainment.
Consider for a moment the general consciousness of men at the present day, the present hour. There are vague presentiments of immortality,—the churches echo the word immortality, but they echo it with flagging force and waning courage. Taking it all in all, the purposes of the world today are purely material: comfort and amusement; that is, comfort of the material body, and amusement of the personal self. About these things the heart-strings of the majority of people are wrapped, let us say, like wild convolvulus in a deserted garden, wrapping itself about a wretched rosebush that is being strangled to death. The truth is that, if the hearts of mankind are set on the comfort of the physical body, on the delectation of the personal self, then the logical thing to do is, to dig their own graves forthwith, for the reason that there is no conceivable immortality for them. They have deliberately bound themselves to what is mortal. This body is mortal,—and some of us are reasonably grateful that it is. No one imagines for a moment that it is immortal. They have staked their lives on what is certain to lose. Both the egotism and the body are doomed to death.
Think what it would be, if mankind, or any considerable portion of mankind, were to hold instead the splendid ideal which the Masters of Wisdom, by every form of sacrifice, of self-abasement, of self-immolation, have been holding forth to mankind through long centuries, long millenniums, and even millions of years. If we were to accept the promise of immortality through the destruction of egotism, through purification of heart, through a clean life, through compassion and indomitable heroism, through the search for wisdom and spiritual consciousness, what a transformation that would work in the world, a transformation promising a golden age far finer and more splendid than the fabled Golden Age of the past.
This, then, is our opportunity. This is the promise held out to us. Here is the great career, if you wish, open to all who are willing to offer themselves as recruits, in their own hearts, to their own ideals. We might say much as to practical steps, but I had rather end on the note of promise: the splendid treasure which the Masters of Wisdom have offered through the ages, the pearl of great price, of which Christ spoke, as the kingdom of heaven, namely, that very realm of the Masters, the hidden treasure of the Upanishads, which may be ours if we will fulfill the conditions.
One word more. You may ask, Where are these traditions of Masters? I might turn the question, and ask where they are not. The Oriental scriptures are saturated with them. The life of the Buddha is not so much the record of a great Master, it is the Master himself. The history of Christ is so eloquent with his compassion and his sincerity that his personality has been able to overcome and conquer all the blindness of bigots, all the evil that has been done in his name. Even those who would not call themselves Christians, speak with reverence, with love, with admiration of him whom they consider a marvelous figure in the past; whom we hold to be a living Master in the present and in the future, with the Buddha and the Great Companions.
The scriptures with which we are most familiar have the same teaching of the Lodge of Masters. Throughout the Old Testament you will find the record of Messengers (translated “angels” and thereby somewhat obscured), like those who came to Abraham, foretelling “the destruction of such as do evil.” There are like Messengers in the book of Daniel; and there is that great passage in the second book of Esdras, where on the holy hill, Esdras saw the Sons of Wisdom, and he said, “What are these? He answered and said unto me, These be they that have put off the mortal clothing, and put on the immortal”: the Masters of Wisdom, as we believe them to be. In the New Testament, supplementing the central figure of the Master Christ, in the fourth chapter of the Apocalypse, there is again a picture of the Lodge of Masters, just as in the Bhagavad Gita and in the scriptures of Buddhism.
But it will not profit us if we leave the Masters of Wisdom in the Suttas and the Apocalypse. Our problem is, to find them here and now, through the sacrifice of our egotism, the purification of our hearts, through loyal service, flaming aspiration, fiery devotion. These are the means. These are the golden steps of the everlasting pathway to the House of Eternity.
This is our opportunity; the opportunity which, however inadequately, and imperfectly, I have tried to bring before every one who is here tonight as a hope, and, perhaps, to some, as a radiant splendour.
This is our opportunity. This is the Path. Let us take our courage in both hands and determine that, whatever be the cost, we shall seek the aid of the Great Companions and set forth on that immortal pathway, with the same goal toward which they press: to bring humanity out of darkness into light, out of death into immortality.