Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1925
A lecture by Charles Johnston, on April 26, 1925,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
At the Convention of The Theosophical Society yesterday, much was said regarding the significance of the fact that the Society is completing the fiftieth year since its foundation in 1875. We looked back over the years that are gone. We looked forward to the years that are to come. It may be of genuine interest this afternoon to consider the past more in detail, that we may understand the present, and wisely and courageously face the future.
The history of The Theosophical Society might be summed up in three sentences:
Founded by the Masters of Wisdom;
Sustained by the Masters of Wisdom;
Leading to the Masters of Wisdom.
There is our history, past, present and future. At this point, it would be natural to ask, What do you mean by Masters? What is the meaning of Masters of Wisdom? That is the first question that I shall try, so far as quite limited capacity allows, to answer. I shall make use of two stepping stones, both of which originated on this continent: namely, Emerson’s phrase “the Oversoul,” and the phrase of a Canadian, “Cosmic consciousness.” Those who are lovers of Emerson, as so many of us are, will remember that fine essay on the Oversoul, the collective soul of humanity, the great treasury of wisdom and beauty and truth and power, to which each one of us has access as “an inlet to the same and to all of the same;” with the result that, if we enter into the Oversoul, we shall thereby enter into Cosmic consciousness, into consciousness of the Cosmos as the Oversoul. To use a phrase of the Buddha, we shall see and know the universe face to face.
While “Oversoul” is Emerson’s coinage, it exactly translates the Sanskrit term, Adhi-Atma, “Over-soul”; and the Eastern teaching is that there are, as it were, degrees, steps of the stair, graduated stages in our ascent to the Oversoul, perhaps thrice seven degrees, each of which has its proper powers, its insight, its wisdom, its knowledge, its view of the universe. At each stage, there is the manifestation of a fitting vesture for that stage. As Saint Paul says, there are natural bodies and spiritual bodies, there are terrestrial bodies and bodies celestial. As we ascend, each of these vestures has a larger measure of the Oversoul, a fuller degree of divine wisdom, divine love, divine beneficence, divine power, until we come to the degrees of the Masters who have attained, who have become as one with the Oversoul, while remaining individuals in the fullest sense, perfect god and perfect man.
Therefore we hold that the Masters are the decisive factor in all human history; in all history they stand out as mountain peaks above the plain of our common humanity. Take such a figure as Osiris in ancient Egypt, ten or twelve thousand years ago. Take a great figure like Krishna in India; or Siddhartha the Compassionate, Gotama Buddha; or Jesus of Nazareth; of so great stature that they have been first persecuted, then deified. There are degrees even in the stature of the Masters, because there is ever the possibility of added wisdom, added power, added love. The infinite is never attained. Every Master strives ceaselessly toward what he knows to be the unattainable infinite; we must do the same.
In our western intellectual world we find figures of the same type. At the very beginning of our detailed history, there stands the great personality of Pythagoras, to whom all our philosophical thinking goes back, with the word Philosophy itself, the love of wisdom.
We have spoken of Osiris. It would be well worth while to consider how far the famous wise men of Greece, men like Pythagoras, Thales, Solon, owed their wisdom to ancient Egypt, and to the Masters of ancient Egypt. The same principle, the tradition of a Master who brings illumination, is universal among the races and tribes of the world. One has heard this tradition from the lips of our own Cheyenne Indians, who speak of a mighty hero who went to dwell with the gods for a long period of years, and, coming back, taught them all that was suited to a primitive people, with the ideals of a true and sane family life, and of tribal order and discipline. So universal, indeed, is the tradition, that we have in anthropology the phrase, “culture hero”, to express it. Some of our wise anthropologists speak of the culture hero as a myth. But we are convinced that the culture hero is more genuinely historical than much of the writings of our historians; he is the essential factor in the life of mankind, the Master teaching the arts of true human life to us who are only half human.
The Theosophical Society was founded by the Masters, and is sustained by the Masters. How came it to be founded? At the foundation of our Society, two great personalities stand out: Mme. Blavatsky and William Q. Judge. A good deal has been written, and perhaps most abundantly in the recent past, which purports to be the history of Mme. Blavatsky. Those who really knew her, and knew her for years, think that it is, perhaps, most charitable to say as little as possible about these modern histories, but to get back to the facts. Some forty years ago, Mme. Blavatsky was well described by W. Q. Judge, as the greatest woman living, and greater than any man living among men; a memorable characterization, profoundly true.
To touch for a moment on the personal side, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, of whom we often speak, using her initials, as H. P. B., came of the older noble families of Russia, on one side going back to the Princes Dolgoruki, the founders of Moscow. There was also old noble blood of France in her veins, an aristocrat of aristocrats in the truest sense, entitled in her own land to the prefix, “Her Excellency.” Going back to my memory of Mme. Blavatsky, let me imagine for a moment that she were to hear me describe her in those terms. I can picture the splendid, lion-like head, the big, blue, humourous eyes, the winning smile, and her comment, “My dear, that is all flapdoodle!”
She had indeed given up all, putting aside everything except her undying devotion to the Masters.
It has been the custom of some who never compared with her in true delicacy of heart, to speak of Mme. Blavatsky as a rough and rugged personality. In one sense she was, if a volcano may be described as rugged. In a room with her, one felt the room very small, and oneself very small, while the volcano was very big and tremendously active. One has met in many lands people of dominance and force, but for sheer dynamic splendour, not one of them could compare with Mme. Blavatsky.
Among her many gifts, she was an accomplished writer in three of the great literary languages of Europe, and a student of many of the tongues of the Orient. Of her Russian writings, I have several volumes, admirably written impressions of India, vivid, full of humour, excellent Russian prose; so that, before Russia sank into the depths, her books were widely known for their virtues of style and of substance. And, though contributed in the first instance to the literary papers and reviews as general correspondence, they are intensely theosophical. Single-hearted, she had but one interest in life, Theosophy, The Theosophical Society, the Masters of Theosophy. These appear again and again in her Russian writings. A section of one of her books deals with what students of Theosophy call the seven principles: the division of man into spirit, soul and body, with the further division of these three into seven; it is an interesting and somewhat surprising experience to find our theosophical terms in Russian letters. A wonderful book, a clear and powerful presentation of theosophical teachings, set amid vivid, magnificently coloured pictures of India, written for the Russian papers and magazines. An accomplished writer in three languages, French, Russian, English; and in all literature there are very few who have written with real distinction in more than one tongue.
But not for these gifts, valuable and exceptional though they be, do we hold in our hearts eternal gratitude for Mme. Blavatsky. For possessions other than these, we revere and admire her beyond measure: for her loyalty, sovereign, kingly loyalty; for her courage, invincible, indomitable valour; for her immense generosity, personal, intellectual, spiritual. In her relations with those who surrounded her, there were two factors: one was an insight penetrating into the very marrow of the inner nature; the other was an abounding generosity toward their personalities, with whatever gifts they might possess. In the finest sense, all her geese were swans: a royal generosity in dealing with her friends, with a devotion beyond measure for the Sacred Science to which she had given her whole life, for what we may briefly describe as Theosophy.
One gift more, which crowns and surmounts all else: she had the power, which she had earned by sacrifice, toil, discipline, aspiration, to reach her Master, her Masters, wherever she might be. Dwelling in Italy, France, England, America, she dwelt at the same time on the Himalayan peaks. Not for an hour, not for a moment, did she lose the vivid, open-eyed knowledge of the Masters.
There was at one time an idea, among some of those who were interested in the Theosophical Society in a dilettante way, that the Masters for whom Mme. Blavatsky worked were spirits, and that she was a medium in the Spiritualist sense. Certain evidence strongly militates against this: she dwelt in the house of a Master, with whom his sister and her child were living, and Mme. Blavatsky spoke of this Master as walking about the room in riding dress, and then going on a journey. So far as one has heard, this is not like the experience of a medium with spirits! Her Masters were solid reality. She knew them personally as men, but as men divine and glorified. Gaining, in that period of learning and discipline, the profound experience of initiation, and, with it, the power to remain continuously in the presence of the Masters; coming to Europe from Tibet, coming to America to found The Theosophical Society, she kept that full, unbroken touch with the Masters, and, in virtue of that power, directed by that power, founded, with others, The Theosophical Society,—W. Q. Judge towering above the rest of those who co-operated with her.
Thus Mme. Blavatsky brought to the western world, fifty years ago, a living knowledge of living Masters. In a certain sense, to speak of a living Master is to use a word too many. Since Masters are such because they are blended with the very essence of Eternal Life, there can be no such thing as a Master who is not living: a Master once, a Master for ever, an endless, eternal life. Therefore, when we, as students of Theosophy, see or hear discussions regarding the Master Christ, where he was born, in what year, some nineteen centuries ago, and whether or not certain events related of him are historical, we ardently desire to impart to those who are his genuine followers our conviction that the Master lives, and lives for ever. For a student of Theosophy, the resurrection is not something that is possible or even probable; it is something that is inevitable owing to the very nature of a Master. If he be a Master, he is alive, in the real and eternal sense. And to dwell for a moment on the teaching of the Master Christ: the essence of his teaching deals with this very thing, the birth of the spiritual man, and the growth of the spiritual man to the stature of a Master. What did he mean, one wonders what his devout but not always enlightened followers think he meant, when he said to the ruler of the Jews, “Except a man be born from above, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”? The thought was so strange to the earlier translators, that they have missed the meaning. The primary sense of the Greek word, anothen, is, “from above,” while the secondary meaning is “again”; the earlier translators, not fully understanding, gave the secondary meaning; the revisers give the primary meaning, but in the margin. The Master himself made perfectly clear what he meant, when he expanded the phrase, and spoke of “that which is born of the Spirit.” In the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the disciples at Corinth, Paul tells the whole story of the birth from above: what is born, into what it grows, is set forth clearly, in scientific language. Except a man be born from above, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,—the kingdom of heaven being the spiritual realm which we have already spoken of as the Oversoul. Except a man be born from above, he cannot enter the life of the Oversoul. Surely, as clear as possible.
In parable after parable, the Master Christ speaks of the kingdom of heaven. I think that only the Sacred Science, only Theosophy, makes intelligible what he means. The flood of light which it sheds on the entire teaching of the Master Christ, and on every sentence of his teaching, especially the most enigmatic, is one of the vital facts to which the world has not yet awakened; we think the safety of Christendom depends on that awakening, which should not be long delayed. Seek through Theosophy what that Master really meant; seek rather what he means, for we know nothing of a dead Master. We know of a living Master, of living Masters, in their degrees of grandeur and of splendour.
To the Church, therefore, the Theosophical Movement has this to offer: a real understanding of the Church’s mission, of the whole teaching of the Master Christ; a living understanding that is a part of our record, attained and maintained through these fifty years.
While the years have been passing, the world has not been standing still. Certain elements have been growing deeper, purer, more luminous. Other elements, more conspicuous, have been going from bad to worse. The keynote of this age of ours is anarchy based on egotism, self-worship,—an ugly thing, a deadly thing. Much is said in these latter days regarding liberty; much of it is an illusion. Many people mean, by liberty, untrammelled opportunity to worship themselves, to do what they please; the pursuit of their appetites, inclinations,—indulgence without limit. It is time that someone should say: This is not the path of liberty, it is the path of bondage. No man, or woman, or child, who is obedient to egotism, to self-indulgence, who thinks that life is given for the expression and expansion of these things, is anything but a bond-slave, manacled and fettered. Such a one, steeped in self-indulgence, has never breathed a breath of liberty. Not in that way is liberty found.
Quite other things are to be found there. When little men, or little women, worship their little selves, since egotism is a very weak thing, a very small thing, the results are, not unnaturally, small and weak and offensive, pitiably cheap and vulgar. So much in this age of ours is cheap and vulgar. It is an age of disintegration. There is nothing in these contending egotisms to bind them together. They must disintegrate: and they do disintegrate, in offensive ways. It is not necessary to cite illustrations,—that would be superfluous. We all have eyes. We need not read more than a few paragraphs of our newspapers, to become aware of this cheapness and vulgarity. In almost everything there recorded, we find uncleanness and corruption, the pervading activity of self-seeking and self-indulgence. These things, in a civilization, as we are pleased to call it, lead one way and one way only. They lead to destruction. Perhaps some day, ten thousand years hence, the sages and historians will be debating, whether many of our modern lands were not mere myths, as some of our historians say of the lost Atlantis, which, because of its corruption, was engulfed in the ocean. Some of them think of Atlantis as a solar myth. We are more likely to be classed as a lunar myth. Our spotted satellite, “the moon that maketh mad,” is the fit patron for us.
Just because the need of our age is so great, the work of The Theosophical Society is vitally important. Desperate maladies call for desperate remedies. In that sense, we are a desperate remedy. This task is something more than the duty of each one of us. It is a spiritual necessity—imposed upon us, not as separate selves, but as a part of spiritual humanity—to foresee this disintegration of our society, our civilization so-called, and to do what we can to save at least a remnant. There are splendid possibilities. We remember, some eight years ago, when this country was entering the World War and during the months that immediately followed,—we remember the superb ideal, the aspiration, the thrill of anger for outraged righteousness; the willingness to give up little things, the little self-denials which nevertheless loom large in the moral world; we remember the greater sacrifices, men willingly, gladly, triumphantly offering life itself, meeting with a smile the likelihood of being blown by high explosives into the blue ether, and knowing that that would be altogether well. These splendid possibilities live still, though they have been so thickly overlaid.
Sir Philip Gibbs has written a book in which he speaks of a spiritual collapse following the war. The phrase is painfully near the truth. We need a spiritual regeneration, a regeneration of those spiritual elements and powers in life which Masters teach and exemplify. This is the real purpose, the duty, the mission of the Theosophical Movement. Is this purpose alien to the interest of anyone here? Are there any here who can say, and honestly say, that the future spiritual life of humanity is not their concern? Are there any who cannot respond both to the dire necessity, the call for service, and to the thrilling summons of the Masters, to work, not for ourselves, but with complete self-forgetting? A Master has said, a living Master, that there is not one of them but is willing to be crucified daily, if he can thereby do any real good to another. That is the spirit in which Masters work and serve. Nothing but the guidance of the Masters, and the spiritual powers revealed in them, can save our age from deep damnation. The elements of corruption are active, far and wide, disintegrating forces of anarchy, which of necessity do not bind together, but tear apart. Only the healing, illumining power of spiritual life can bring the remedy.
One of the laws of spiritual life is this, that abstract spirit cannot act in human life. It must be embodied in a human being, the splendid truth of the Incarnation, which is so little understood. The Word must become flesh before it can dwell among us. Therefore it is not enough to say that there are abstract spiritual powers which are present, ready to work for man’s redemption. They must be made concrete. They must be embodied in us, as they are in our Masters. We must ourselves respond. We must ourselves learn, first the alphabet, and then the following chapters of the great spiritual science. We must learn what our powers are; in what conditions they can develop; how they should be rightly used. These are the problems with which The Theosophical Society is constantly concerned, with the purpose, for most of us a defined, clearly realized purpose, of co-operating with the Masters in the work of human salvation.
So we have our vision, we have our opportunity, we have our superb exemplars, beginning with Mme. Blavatsky and W. Q. Judge. What response are we going to make? If we do respond, with the aspiration of an ardent heart, what can we do? What concrete action can we take? Perhaps we can find a good illustration in the French students of art, in an older Paris, when it was the tradition, as it may be still, that a student should try to do his best work in order to be admitted to the studio of a master. There is much that we may learn from the lives of those true devotees of art. They did not give with the tips of their fingers. They gave their whole lives. They devoted to their task every thought, every power, with imagination illumined by what they sought to do. They began by seeking a worthy master, and, putting themselves under his guidance, in his studio, to learn from him all they could. There is the same devotion among true students of science. The student does not give himself by halves. He gives his life, and then proceeds to learn the alphabet of his science from the masters of that science, to study their methods, to saturate himself with their spirit, to catch, so far as he can, their vision; to see, if it be astronomy, their vistas of limitless space; if it be geology, their vision of unmeasured time, inspiring himself with their enthusiasm for that science. We must do the same. We must give, not part of our time, some share of our attention, what we can readily spare from other concerns. Nothing less than all will avail: the whole life, the whole nature, the whole being, aspiration, will, love, every power. That is the only real service, and it can be rendered no matter what the outer circumstances of a man’s life may be.
Mme. Blavatsky died in 1891. A few years before she died, she wrote The Key to Theosophy. A day or two ago, I was looking over this book, a gift from her, and reading the last pages: “What of the future of the Theosophical Society?” She was looking forward through the years to the time when The Theosophical Society should have completed a century of its life, and considering what the situation might be, in 1975, if success were attained and the Movement continued uninterrupted. She spoke of the age-old law that, in the last quarter of each century, the Lodge of Masters of Wisdom moves in a definite way to bring wisdom to mankind; to bring spiritual knowledge, spiritual life, spiritual power. Speaking of the Messenger whose coming in 1975 she foretold, she said that, if the Movement succeeded, he would find certain things ready to his hand, which would immensely lighten his task. Among these an organized body of students of Theosophy, a rich literature of theosophical studies, and, as she hoped, something more of the light of Theosophy in the world at large, more of theosophical wisdom, more of the theosophical spirit.
If anyone here, who may never have heard of The Theosophical Society before, should ask, catching something of the light from beyond the hills: “What can I do?”—one might reply that a part at least of what Mme. Blavatsky hoped for has been accomplished, and that this is one of the reasons why we are celebrating our fiftieth birthday. There is an organized body of students of Theosophy who have given their lives to its service; who have followed it through dark days, through brighter days; who have made it their life work. I think that these students would say that, while in the nineteenth century there were many great and noteworthy persons, so far as they can see, of all those who were known among men, Mme. Blavatsky will stand as far the greatest. That can only be decided centuries hence, but it is the firm conviction of some of us that she, who brought to the western world the knowledge of living Masters, is the greatest. She has built the bridge; it is for us to keep it in repair. Hardly less great was W. Q. Judge; taking the torch from her hand, he bore it valorously forward; a man strong and wise as he was humble, full of the kindest, humane spirit, wiser than the wisest, gentler than the gentlest, with the starry wisdom on his brow.
We have, therefore, a living tradition, a literature of theosophical books, an organized Society of students of Theosophy: so much of what Mme. Blavatsky forecast for 1975, exists, firmly established in 1925. Those who seek may find.
I think that students of Theosophy would say to the seeker: Do not let the goal of your search be anything less than the wisdom of the Masters, and the Masters themselves. Let your motive be what the motive of the Masters is, what it has ever been, what it will be until the day of the great peace: the redemption of spiritual humanity. That is our task. That is our goal. That is the undertaking which, so far as human frailty allows, we are determined to accomplish. We are determined that The Theosophical Society shall be, in 1975, what Mme. Blavatsky declared that it ought to be. So that, while we celebrate a fiftieth anniversary, we do not count ourselves to have attained. We have reached a point where we can really begin. We may perhaps borrow a watchword from the Dean of Seville, who said, in the year 1401, of the beginning of the magnificent cathedral:
“Let us build a thing so great that those who come after us may think us mad to have attempted it.”