Theosophical Study and Work
Branch Paper No. 8, November, 1890
The birth and life of a Branch of the Theosophical Society are very like to those of an individual. As with persons so with a body of theosophists engaged in theosophical endeavor and study, the parentage and the subsequent environment have much to do with the continuance of life and with the power of the influence exerted over the units which compose the association, as well as that which radiates from the Branch to others outside. And in a Theosophical Society its authorship is divided among all those who come together in order to start and carry it on. If the authors of its being are unintelligent, or confused, or uncertain, or self-seeking in the formation of the Society, its life and work will be the same. Growth will be stopped, influence hindered, and results—nothing. The work and influence of a Branch hinge upon the knowledge of theosophical doctrine, upon the motives, ideas, and ideals of the members, and so we have to consider what is the knowledge required and what should be the aims, ideas, and ideals of those who form and are to work in a Branch T.S. An inquiry should also be made into the methods which ought to be adopted as well as those that are to be avoided.
The work of a Branch has two objective points where it is intended, in the theosophical order of things, that its help and influence are to be felt. The first is in and among its members, and the other upon that portion of the world which lies within its purview. If, as I firmly believe, the theory of universal brotherhood is based upon a law—a fact in nature that all men are spiritual beings who are indissolubly linked and united together in one vast whole, then no Branch, no individual theosophist, can be regarded as without significance and influence, nor is any member justified in supposing that he or she is too obscure, too unprogressed, to be of any benefit to the movement and thus to mankind at large.
The fact that a branch T.S. is a body of individuals makes stronger the certainty that by means of the subtile link which, under the law of unity, connects together all the men who are on this planet, a wider and more potent influence for good or evil may be exerted through a Branch than through any single individual. For just as man is composed of atoms descended to him in various lines from many forefathers, all of which have a part in the influence he exerts, so a Branch is a being composed of the atoms—its members—included within its borders. And it is no fancy, no fantastic dream, to say that this being may be intelligent, or forceful, or weak, or wicked as a whole, just as it is made the one or the other by its component parts. And the declarations made by the adepts respecting individual theosophists should have weight with such a body. Those Beings have said that each member can aid the movement by explaining its fundamental doctrines or at least by doing away with misconceptions, and that no single unit in the whole should be so ignorant as to suppose that he or she has a special karma of his own unconnected with the rest. Not a single good example in theosophic life is lost, They say, but every one of us affects not only the immediate associates but also projects into the great universal current an influence that has its weight in the destiny of the race. Some of these golden words are as follows:
“Let not the fruit of good karma be your motive; for your karma, good or bad, being one and the common property of all mankind, nothing good or bad can happen to you that is not shared by many others.” Hence, if the motive be for yourself it is selfish and can only generate a double effect—good and bad—and will either nullify your good actions or turn them to some other man’s profit. “There is no happiness for one who is ever thinking of self and forgetting other selves.”
This is all applicable to a Branch in its totality, for it is an intelligent being quite as much under the government of karma as any individual. It will feel the karma of its actions, and the responsibility will rest upon the members who have neglected or obeyed the dicates of theosophic duty. And the karma of the entire international body will react upon it for benefit or the reverse, according to the good, bad, or indifferent karma which the Branch may have acquired by its course of action. It is a part of the whole, and no portion can be exempt from the influences belonging to the total mass of workers. Thus a Branch which has been indifferent, or selfish, or full of doubt or disloyalty regarding the ideals it promised to follow, will attract out of the international theosophic karma just enough to accentuate its weakness and doubt, and on the other hand a Branch which has worked hard, unselfishly, and earnestly will attract the good from the whole sum of karma, and that, added to its own, will enable it to resist bad effects and will further strengthen the vital elements in its own corporate body.
The good or bad karma of the whole Theosophic Society may be figured as surrounding it from one end of the world to the other in the shape of layers or spheres of light or darkness. The light is good karma and the darkness is bad. Those units—Branches—which contain the elements of light within them will attract from the sphere of light as much of that as they are capable of holding, and the darkness will be drawn in by those which have darkness already. Thus we are all, theosophically speaking, keepers and helpers of each other, not only in the United States but in England, in Bombay, in Calcutta, in Madras. If we do not do our duty it may happen that some struggling Branch in some far off place will by reason of its newness or weakness be the recipient, not of help but of damage from us. Each Branch is separately responsible for its own actions, and yet every one is helped or injured by every other. These reciprocating influences work on the real though unseen plane where every man is dynamically united to every fellow man. And I am not uncharitable in saying that if the Indian Branches had worked more for the far-distant United States when it was unable to stand alone, we should now be the possessors of more in the way of elucidation and statistics and other aids from that far-distand land than we can show. But even if the early-formed United States’ Branches had worked with more zeal and energy toward the real ends of the Society, we should have been able earlier to materially aid and comfort our sincere brother and sacrificing worker, Col. H. S. Olcott. And now the newer Branches of the Society in this country have a better opportunity than others in the past, for all the fighting has been done and much work is ready to their hand.
So the most obscure has a place in the scheme as important as the one that is large and well known, while those that are lazy or doubting or selfish must compensate some time or another for their acts of commission, as well as for any failure to add to the general sum of good.
With this in view we may conclude that a single Branch has the power to efficiently aid and benefit not only its members but also the whole theosophic body corporate. This may be made clearer by remembering how often in the history of the world a family or even a man has sometimes been for the nation or race a power for the greatest good or evil.
Under this doctrine of unity and selflessness the work of a Branch ought to be entered into by all the members with an unselfish spirit which will lead them to have patience with the weaker brethren, for a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and therefore endeavor should be made to bring to the minds of the weakest the truths that the others see with less difficulty. And next, every individual, by eliminating the desire to get knowledge for himself, will thereby make the Branch as a whole open and porous to the unseen but real and powerful influences managed from behind the scenes by the great personages who have as a part of their work in the world the theosophic movement, and who are constantly at work among us for the purpose of aiding those who are sincere and unselfish. If the testimony of those who have been long in the Society is to be believed, then, as they assert, there are among us every day many disciples (who are known in our literature by the name of “Chelas”) who are engaged in fanning the flame of spiritual illumination wherever they find it among the members. Their influence in not exerted because of wealth or personal prominence, but upon any one of any class who has tried to understand theosophy for the sake of others and in order that he may communicate to others in his turn. Not only has this been asserted by the leaders in the movement, but in the experience of many of us we have seen help extended to those who are in earnest for their fellow-man.
And this is peculiarly and more strongly applicable to those members who have as one of their aims the acquisition of psychic and abnormal powers. These powers cannot be safely found and used by the man who desires them for himself, and his mere statement in his heart or in words that he desires them for others goes for naught unless the deeper and inner motive and object coincide with the high one which is expressed. Our members, new and old, might as well become acquainted with the bald and naked truth on this subject now, as to wait for years of bitter experience to burn it into them. There are such powers and man may acquire them, but each age and each race has its limitations that it is not possible for the average man to overcome. Hardly any member who has desires for these would admit that he would be willing to become a black magician in order to acquire them, that is, would sacrifice his chances for emancipation for their sake. Yet without altruism one cannot get them except as a black magician. One has to deliberately make up his mind that he will sacrifice everything and everybody else to his design if it is his intention to obtain them without following the rules laid down by the White Adepts inculcating truth, purity, charity, and all the virtues—in fact, altruism. There is no secret about the fact that two ways and no more lie open to the one who wishes for the powers of an adept, and those are on the right hand, that of virtue and altruism, and on the left—the black side—that of intense and unrelenting selfishness. No compromise, no mere dabbling, is allowed or possible, and more so in the selfish path, for there every one’s hand is against every other one; none will help at any crisis, and, when the hour arrives that the student in that school is in peril from the unseen and terrible forces of nature, his companions on the road will but sneer at his weakness and rejoice at his downfall. And indeed, the line of demarcation between these two ways, for students of the grade of most of the members of our Society, is very thin. It is like the hair line which the Mohammedan mystic says divides the false from the true. One has to be very careful so as to know if his motive is really so unselfish as he pretends it to himself to be. But it can always be tested by the reality of the feeling of brotherhood that he has in him. A mere intellectual longing to know and to discover further in this field is selfish and of the black variety, for unless every desire to know the truth is in order that one may give it to others, it is full of taint. Moreover, it will lead to no powers and to no real knowledge, for success on either side depends upon the burning of desire in the heart. With the white school this is for the sake of fellow-man, and on the dark hand the same fierce desire is for self alone.
Many persons, however, think that they can belong to the Society, and while negatively selfish, that is, ready and willing to sit down and hear others expound theosophical doctrine and never work for the body themselves, they may receive benefit in the way of comprehension of the doctrines of man and nature which are promulgated among us. But they forget a law in these matters of great importance, one, indeed, that they may not be willing to admit, and which is much opposed to our modern ideas of the powers and functions of the human mind. It is that such an attitude by reason of its selfishness builds up a hard wall between their minds and the very truths they wish to know. I speak of an actual dynamic effect which is as plain to the eye of the trained seer as is any object to the healthy eye.
We have been so accustomed for many years to vague ideas about the human mind, what it is, and what its powers really are, that people in general have no definite notion whether there be or not any material effect in the human economy from thoughts, or whether they are like what is usually called “imagination,” a something very unreal and wholly without objectivity. But it is a fact that the mind of the selfish person is always making about itself a hard reflecting surface which throws off and away from its grasp the very knowledge the man himself would take if he but knew the reason why he fails.
This brings us naturally to the proposition that the aims of the members in a Branch should be to eradicate selfishness and to promulgate and illustrate the doctrine of universal brotherhood, basing the explanation upon the actual unity of all beings. This of itself will lead to the explanation of many other doctrines, as it underlies them all, great and small. And in order to do this the members ought to study the system as a whole, so that its parts may be comprehended. It is for the want of such study that we so often hear members, when asked to explain their theosophy, saying, “Well, to tell the truth, I know how it all is, but am not able to make it clear to you.” They are not clear because they have not taken the time and trouble to learn the few fundamental propositions and how to apply them to any and every question.
A very common error is the supposition that new men, new enquirers, can be converted to theosophy and brought into its ranks by taking up and enforcing phenomena. In the term “phenomena” I include all such as spiritualism, clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychometry, hypnotism, mesmerism, thought-reading, and the like. These convert but few if any, because there is not much known about them and so many proofs are required before belief is induced. And even a belief in these things gives no sound basis of a theosophical character. A perfect illustration of this is seen in the history of H. P. Blavatsky, who for many years has permitted phenomena to occur with herself for the benefit of certain specific persons. These have been talked about by the whole world, and the Psychical Society saw fit to send a man to look into them after they had taken place, but although the very persons who saw them happen testified to their genuineness, they were denied by him and all laid to fraud and confederation. Everyone who was inclined from the first to believe in them continued to so believe, and those who never believed remained in the same state as before.
The best attested phenomena are ever subject to doubt so long as the philosophy on which they depend is not understood.
Furthermore, the mass of men and women in the world are not troubled about phenomena. These they think can be left alone for the present because more pressing things engage their attention and call for solution. The great problems of life: why we are here, why we suffer, and where may justice be found that will show the reason for the sufferings of the good man, or, indeed, for the sufferings of any one, press upon us. For each man thinks he is unjustly borne hard upon by fate when his cherished plans go for nothing, or his family is carried off by death, or his name is disgraced by a wayward child, or when, as is very often the case, he is unjustly accused and injured by his fellow-men. There are many who find themselves born poor when others less worthy are rich, and they ask why it is all thus and get no reply from the common religious systems of the day. It is the life and its sorrows that destroy our peace, and every human heart wants to know the reason for it.
We must therefore offer theories that will give the answer, and these theories are the great doctrines of karma and reincarnation. These show justice triumphant in the world, meting out reward or punishment as it is deserved in any state of life. After an experience of fifteen years in the Society’s work I have seen that more good and useful men and women have been attracted to our movement by these docrines than have ever come to it by reason of phenomena, and that a great many have left our ranks who began on the phenomenal side. The members in general may not be aware of the fact that when the Society was formed the greater number of its New York members were spiritualists and that they nearly all left us long ago.
There is a mysterious power in these doctrines of karma and reincarnation which at last forces them upon the belief of those who take them up for study. It is due to the fact that the ego is itself the experiencer of rebirth and karma and has within a clear recollection of both, and rejoices, as it were, when it finds the lower mind taking them up for study. Each person is the concentration and result of karma, and is compelled from within to believe. The ethics of theosophy as enforced and illuminated by these twin doctrines should therfore be the object of our search and promulgation.
Furthermore, this course is authorized, for those who believe in the Adepts, by their words written about us. I quote:
“It is the insatiable craving for phenomena made so often degrading that has caused you so much trouble. Let the Society henceforth flourish upon its moral worth and the study of philosophy and ethics put into practice.”
The next question is how to carry all this out in practice.
First, by having the Branch open to the public and never private.
Second, by regular attendance and meetings.
Third, by establishing a library, at first with the few important books, which few can be added to by the members from time to time through donations of books which they have read.
Fourth, by always having an article, original or otherwise, for reading and discussion. If literary talent is not available, its want can be supplied from the great quantity of articles which have come out in the Society’s magazines during the last fifteen years. In those nearly every subject of theosophical interest has been written upon and explained. They can be looked up with very little labor, and used at each meeting. And they can be carried on upon settled lines so as to go over each subject fully. It will be found that nearly all the questions that now puzzle new members have been at one time or another illustrated and explained in these articles.
Fifth, by a careful elementary study of our doctrines from one or two books until the main outline of all is grasped. Take, for instance, Esoteric Buddhism. This gives the system in the main, and many persons have read it, but a great many of these have done this but once. For them there often arise questions they might easily solve if they had made the system as a whole a part of their mental furniture. This book can be corrected by the Secret Doctrine, in which Mme. Blavatsky has said that Esoteric Buddhism is in the main correct, and she gives the means for supplying its deficiencies. Then there is that most useful book, Five Years of Theosophy, containing some of the most valuable articles that appeared in the Theosophist.
Sixth, by a method of discussion which does not permit any one person in the Branch to assert that his or her views are the correct ones. We cannot get at truth by assertion, but only by calm consideration of views advanced, and the self-asserting person is very nearly always close to error. I know this view is contrary to that of American independence, which leads us on forever to assert ourselves. The true philosophy annuls this and teaches that it is only from the concurrence of investigation that the truth can be arrived at. And the deeper occultism says that the self-asserter debars himself from truth forever. No one mind has all the knowledge possible, and each one is naturally capable of seeing but the one side that is easy for him by reason of his race inheritance and the engrafted tendencies of his education.
Seventh, by remembering that we cannot at once alter the constitutional tendencies of the atoms of our brains, nor in a flash change ourselves. We are insensibly affected by our education, by the ideas of our youth, by the thought, whatever it was, that preceded our entrance upon theosophy. We require to have patience, not with the system of theosophy, but with ourselves, and be willing to wait for the gradual effect of the new ideas upon us.
The taking up of these ideas is, in effect, a new mental incarnation, and we, just as is the case of a new manvantara, have to evolve from the old estate and with care gradually eradicate the former bias. It is taught in the Secret Doctrine that the moon is the parent of the earth and has given to us all that we are now working over in our world. It is the same in the case under consideration. Our former mental state is our mental moon, and has given us certain material which we must work over, for otherwise we attempt to go contrary to a law of nature and will be defeated.
Some may ask if there is not any sort of study that will enable us to shave off these old erroneous modes of thought. To them I can only give the experience of many of my friends in the same direction. They say, and they are supported by the very highest authority, that the one process is to enquire into and attempt to understand the law of spiritual unity and the fact that no one is separate but that all are one in the plane of spirit, and that no single person has a particular spirit of his own, but that atman, called the “seventh Principle,” is, in fact, the synthesis of the whole and is the common property of every being high and low, human, animal, animate, inanimate, or divine. This is the teaching of the Mundaka Upanishad of the Hindus, and the meaning of the title “Mundaka” is “Shaving,” because it shaves off the errors which stand in the way of truth, permitting then the brilliant lamp of spiritual knowledge to illuminate our inner nature.
And for those who desire to find the highest ethics and philosophy condensed in one book, I would recommend the Bhagavad Gîtâ, studied with the aid of such lectures as those of our Hindu brother—now deceased—Subba Row of Madras. They have been reprinted from the Theosophist and can be procured by any one. In the Secret Doctrine Mme. Blavatsky says: “The best metaphysical definition of primeval theogony in the spirit of the Vedantins may be found” in these lectures.
In the conclusion of The Key to Theosophy H. P. Blavatsky, speaking of the future of the Theosophical Society, writes:
“Its future will depend almost entirely upon the degree of selflessness, earnestness, devotion, and last but not least, upon the amount of knowledge and wisdom possessed by those members on whom it will fall to carry on the work and to direct the Society after the death of the Founders. If they cannot be free from the bias of theological education, the result can only be that the Society will drift off on to some sandbank of thought or another, and there remain a stranded carcass to moulder and die. But if that danger be averted the Society will live on into and through the twentieth century. It will burst asunder the iron fetters of creed and caste. The West will learn to understand and appreciate the East at its full value. The development of psychic powers will proceed healthily and normally, and mankind will be saved from terrible bodily and mental dangers which are inevitable where those powers develop in a hotbed of selfishness and passion as they now threaten to do.
“At the last quarter of every century one or more persons appear in the world as the agents of the masters, and a greater or less amount of occult knowledge is given out.”
She concludes by stating that the present T. S. is one of those attempts to help the world, and the duty of every member is made plain that they should preserve this body with its literature and original plans so as to hand it on to our successors who shall have it ready at the last quarter of the next century for the messenger of the Masters who will then, as now, reappear. Failure or success in this duty presents no obscure outcome. If we succeed, then in the twentieth century that messenger will find the materials in books, in thought and in popular terms, to permit him or her to carry forward the great work to another stage without the fierce opposition and the tremendous obstacles which have frowned upon us during the last fifteen years just closed. If we fail, then the messenger will waste again many precious years in repreparing the ground, and ours will be the responsibility.