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A Beginner's Concept of Theosophy

TheosophyAn essay taken from The Theosophical Path by Talbot Mundy.

I remember the occasion when I first began to learn to swim. There was a deep end and a shallow end. The deeper looked more satisfying, so I jumped in while the teacher was not looking. The indignity of having to be fished out was humiliating, but the worst part was the distaste that it gave me for the whole business of swimming, with the result that younger boys, who had approached the problem reasonably, left me far behind and it was several years before I began to acquire much confidence in the water or any genuine liking for it.

Then there was school. We studied Shakespeare in the English class; but not once, during four years of instruction, were we encouraged to enjoy the poet's plays or to appreciate their beauty. We were set to parsing and analysis, to definition of the obsolete and rare words, and to memorizing drily written footnotes -- with the consequence that poetry, particularly Shakespeare's poetry, became a synonym for drudgery. I believe I was thirty years old before it ever really occurred to me that poetry was something that a man might blend into his life and breathe into his efforts, thus ennobling any task he touched.

The simplest means opponents of Theosophy could use in order to delay and to obscure its message to humanity, would be to encourage all beginners to plunge into it heads foremost at the deeper end and swamp their intellects with Sanskrit definitions. If they could be kept thereafter struggling to possess Theosophy in a bewilderment of words, Theosophy would die out from beneath as certainly as poetry has vanished from the schools, since there would be no natural responsiveness in which the love of it could flourish.

Love is the life of the Ancient Wisdom, and unless we love it ardently -- unless it comforts and convinces by the flow of confidence outwelling from within -- we may be sure we are but grasping at, or arguing against, the printed word; its spirit has escaped us. We cannot absorb Theosophy like patent medicine, and the attempt to masticate it all and crowd it into one gray brain is madness. It is infinite, with no beginning and no end. It would be easier to swallow all earth's air and drink up all the rivers than to possess Theosophy, in the sense that we possess degrees from universities or stock certificates.

A hundred years before the birth of Christianity Shu Kuang wrote: "The genius of men who possess is stunted by possession. Wealth only aggravates the imbecility of fools." (From Gems of Chinese Literature, translated by H. A. Giles.) No wiser summary of the futility of all possession ever dripped from a satiric pen, and if the epigram were printed on the front page of all text-books and engraved on every dollar-bill in circulation there might be some hope of civilizing earth within a hundred years. It is an axiom for all beginners in Theosophy.

Meanwhile, we struggle to possess, beginners just as keenly as the older hands who have accumulated what are euphemistically termed resources. Public education is designed to cultivate a memory for facts, as if a crowded brain were an essential to living. And a number of us, having been so educated, try to 'cram' Theosophy as if we had to pass examinations in it and be judged according to an arbitrary scale of marks.

It is true indeed that we must pass examinations in it, but their incidence is hourly. We receive marks, and are judged. But the impersonal Judge, Karma, utterly ignores the feats of memory and all unproved claims, examining the progress of the heart's integrity as demonstrated by experience. Examination questions are the incidents of daily life. We act and react, do and leave undone, think and refuse to think, stand firm or are seduced, while Karma -- incorruptible and inescapable -- inscribes our spiritual progress on the rolls of destiny. "The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on."

I write as one who has but recently become a member of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society: that is, as a beginner, who had never seen a copy of The Secret Doctrine until about three years ago, nor ever read a copy of The Theosophical Path or any of the Theosophical Manuals until the magic of Blavatsky's pen stirred in me something deeper and more challenging than I had known was there and capable of being stirred. And I remember the bewilderment of all the knowledge crowded into her immortal book; and what thoughts first occurred to me when I had laughed a while (for there is humor in all logic, and the logic of the Law of Karma is complete).

For days on end I wrestled with the Sanskrit technicalities and tried to memorize them, caught in the enthusiasm of the universal theme but blinded by the habit of attributing all knowledge to the brain-mind. I would master this magnificent philosophy and make it mine! Then, failing to remember more than half-a-dozen Sanskrit words or to recall, for more than half-a-day, to which Root-race and Sub-race I belong, I scrambled out of that deep water and proposed to myself to try the shallow end. It looked, and was, much easier, but there was mystery enough.

I studied the significance of Karma, as applied to me, and found it not so easy or amusing as the thought of its retributive effect on others. There was too much justice in it. I began to be aware that there were incidents which, had I known of Karma at the time, might not have happened; and it irked me to discover that a more or less meticulous observance of convention during forty years or so, a reasonably decent reputation, and a habit of avoiding what is known as lawlessness, were not masks that could affect the final outcome. Theoretically, having had parents who hired somebody to teach me morals, I had never quite forgotten the necessity to play safe with a watchful Providence; but there was something in the Catechism I remembered about the forgiveness of sins, and it came as something of a shock to realize that all that I had done, for good or evil, must produce inevitable consequences, for me or against me, as the case might be.

I daresay all beginners, when they think a while, face that predicament.

It seemed, to state it mildly, not quite just that a man should have to face the consequences of an act he did in ignorance of the Law of Retribution. Nevertheless, exactly like a landlord pocketing his rents, I felt the justice of receiving compensation for investments on the side of virtue, whether made in this life and in ignorance of Karma, or in past lives utterly forgotten. We enjoy our income. It is outgo that obliges us to think.

Reincarnation, logical though it might be, began to lose that roseate, romantic lure that first appealed to my inquiring mind. I started there and then to reconsider it, and much more critically.

But that was where a little understanding entered in. I had been looking forward to possess Theosophy -- to make of it a tool with which to tickle self-esteem and cut a nice wide swath along contenting aeons of eternity. The first glimpse makes the brain reel! It was the humor of my own imagination that upset that view of things. Some spark of Theosophical illumination made me wonder just how long the universe would last if each of us might manage his own destiny unguided by experience and by Intelligences higher than our own?

That thought began to lead me somewhere. Who, or what, is this that shall be guided by experience? Our bodies? Possibly, to some extent; but the experience of past lives hardly could be said to educate a body that developed from an embryo in this one; neither could a body destined to be burned to ashes be supposed to have much influence on future lives. Though atoms, or the subdivisions of which atoms are composed, are indestructible; and though our bodies are an aggregate of atoms, purposely assembled in accordance with a law beyond our comprehension; though the atoms so assembled undergo a change and are dispersed for other uses -- so that you, or I, or anyone may have the dust of Alexander in our veins and Caesar's clay may stop a bung-hole; nevertheless, the education of those atoms comes a long way short of answering the riddle of the universe.

The brain? Another congeries of atoms, grouped within a section of a skull and destined to disperse at death. The brain of Socrates, of Plato, and of Shakespeare was returned into the common storehouse of disintegrated matter when the change took place that we call death. And unimaginable though it may be that the particles of matter they employed to clothe their bones were not affected by the thinking that they did, and not enriched by the association, none the less those scattered particles are not, and never can have been, the man.

Who is the man? What is he? We all identify ourselves with blood and bones, and we undoubtedly provide our blood and bones with mixed experience. The most conservative of scientists admit that evolution seems to be a fact in nature, and that all things are in process of becoming something else. The brain-chambers of skulls discovered in the prehistoric drifts are differently shaped from those we humans use today, which would suggest, at any rate, that men knew other limitations than our own when those skulls had employment. Yet, the owners of the skulls could think -- if not exactly as we think, still thoughtfully and to a purpose.

Has all the thinking that they did died with them? Were the atoms of their vanished flesh the only beneficiaries of the lives they lived? Who were they? Is this all of them, or even the important part of them, that lies in a museum-case or in the gravel of a prehistoric river-bed?

Theosophy does not withhold the answer, though the brain-mind may reject it and keep on rejecting it, until it has exhausted all the arguments of habit, all its prejudices, and the stored-up miscellany of remembered speciocity acquired at second-hand.

The brain-mind clings to what it thinks it knows, and dreads enlightenment. I know mine did, and does, and I believe myself not different, except in relatively unimportant details, from the rank and file of ordinary men. As we identify ourselves with flesh and blood, that flesh and blood in turn identifies itself with us and it grows very difficult, in consequence, at times to differentiate. But surely it is evident, that if we are that flesh and blood and bone and brain that, at our death, is buried and decays, then there is not much hope for us as individuals and such experiences as we suffer or enjoy can be, at best, a school for atoms.

And we know, though we are clothed in atoms , that ourselves are something vastly more. The very atheist, who says he disbelieves in anything but what his senses indicate, himself is proof upstanding of Intelligence so subtil and pervading that the atoms he assures us are himself took shape and grew into the thing he thinks he is.

Theosophy unfolds to us two natures, spiritual and material, the one immortal and the other governed by the alternating law of life and death. That stuff that we discard, and that they burn or bury (brain and all), when we have "shuffled off this mortal coil," has been subjected to the alchemy of use and we have changed its nature -- possibly not much, but we have changed it for the better or the worse. Who then are we?

It dawns after a while; and all the words in all the bibles and the dictionaries ever written lack ability to tell the wonder of it when it wakes into the consciousness. That knowledge comes to us in silence, though the world may yell with passion, and there rises in us from within a dignity beyond all measure -- hope that is whole and deathless -- an illimitable patience -- and, like gentle rain on dry earth, the assurance of our own essential divinity.

Then, actually for the first time, we begin to understand the teachings of Blavatsky and appreciate why, with the alternative of wealth at her disposal, she preferred a life of hardship and the task of bringing the Masters' message of the Ancient Wisdom to humanity.

To understand that message is impossible, unless we do as she did: that is, let the lures of selfish ambition go. The love of reputation and of easy short cuts to a brain-mind Utopia, just as surely as resentment of injustice, and as subtilly as contempt for others' seemingly less spiritual efforts, lead astray.

There must be thousands who have read The Secret Doctrine and have leaped to the conclusion that the simplest, surest way to follow in its author's footsteps is to make the desperately toilsome journey into Tibet and there learn the doctrines from the Great Teachers, just as she did. There are some who have rejected the whole teaching of Theosophy because, to them, that journey is impossible. And there are others who, for other reasons, have assailed the mountain-passes and by dint of almost superhuman energy have reached what maps declare to be the heart of the forbidden land and then, returning, have announced in lectures and on printed page that Tibet is the home of superstition, so engrossed in ritual and devil-worship as to harbor no conceivable philosophy worth study.

Notwithstanding which, there is no doubt even in the minds of her most prejudiced accusers, who, for the sake of organized opinions that are tottering, and for their own emoluments that must cease when the world wakes up and thinks, would leap at another chance to vilify her -- there is no doubt, even in the minds of those men, who have done their utmost to destroy her and her work, that H. P. Blavatsky did receive her teaching in the land, so inaccessible, that lies beyond the Himalayan range.

There lies exposed the inconsistence of human argument. The man who fights his way against the wind and snow across the passes into Tibet may be -- we may say undoubtedly he is -- a marvel of endurance. He may be a good geographer, a linguist, an intelligent observer of barometers, and an exact recorder of the things he sees. But he is no more likely to unearth Tibetan secrets, or to recognise a Master if he met one face to face, than is a memorizer of The Secret Doctrine likely to become a true Theosophist without, in every deed of daily life, expressing -- living -- what he learns.

It will be time enough to meet the Great Teachers when we know enough to make it possible to understand them; and there is no way of attaining to that state except by putting into practice daily, hourly, and with vigilance, such rudiments of wisdom as we now know, taught to us in elementary Theosophy. It is not book-learning only, it is deed-doing, that establishes Theosophy in human hearts. And no deed may be measured by the clamor that it makes, or by the number of the men who see it done, or by the market-price of its immediate result. Dimensions, weight, and price all vanish in the scales of Karma, leaving nothing to be judged but quality.

The consciousness of our essential divinity includes a sense of the indignity of work not nobly done, no matter what the work is. There are no ranks in Theosophy, and no soft sinecures; who works well finds more work to do; our Leader is the busiest of us all.

Now, as I said before, I write as a beginner, with the first impressions of Theosophy still easily remembered. I am sure of this: that we are all beginners, always. If we vigilantly guard ourselves against the idiotic thought that we are separate from others, favored more than others, capable of being or becoming greater than others; if we keep in mind that any virtue, any knowledge that we have, however individual it may seem to ourselves, is something we receive in trust for others' use and cannot be of benefit to us until we use it in behalf of others; and if, above all, we refuse to be deluded by the dream of occult powers that shall make us privileged magicians with authority to govern others by expedients unknown to them: then I am confident that each advancing step of spiritual evolution will reveal to us horizons that expand precisely in proportion to our merit, and the more we know from having done, not talked, the more there will appear for us to learn. And there is only one school actual experience.

Thus the apparent paradox resolves itself into a plain fact: personality -- the flesh and bones and intellect in which we temporarily appear on life's stage is, of itself, the least important part of us, being hardly more than mask and buskins; yet, that personality is all important in the sense that we must govern it, and that by our use or misuse of it we are judged.

New dignity is thrust on us the moment we begin to let Theosophy emerge into our minds. As we identify ourselves with what is spiritual in us -- with the incarnating ego, rather than with that in which it clothes itself for one appearance on the stage of evolution -- we assume responsibility and are ennobled. No more whining at the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"! No more crawling on our knees to an imagined God to beg for favors or implore forgiveness! The remission of our sins becomes our own affair! We wipe them out, henceforth, by standing up and facing consequences, proving, by the way we meet those consequences, that a portion of life's lesson has been learned.

So, less and ever less resentment; less unwillingness to bear our own blame for our own shortcomings. More sympathy for others (since we know the sting of criticism); greater, and forever greater tolerance. No more regret than is enough to help us recognise our own remissness; courage then, and faith, and hope, with now and then a little laughter at our own mistakes (since humor is the music of enlightenment).

The means of the pursuit of happiness is changed. Wealth, fame, amusement, appetite, by gradual, unnoticed stages lose their charm, and boredom ceases because minutes become laden with new interest, new views of life. Reviving energy attacks life's problems in a new direction. Poetry and music -- all the arts -- assume new values; and the knowledge that the quality of work done is the measure of its value elevates into an art the very sweeping of a work-room floor.

The grandeur that Theosophy reveals is like the sunrise. Shadows fade, and change, and cease, until a golden light gleams on a world worth working in. And at our feet -- exactly at our feet -- the Path lies, leading straight ahead. There is no need to look too far ahead. Each step rich with opportunity to think thoughts and to do deeds that shall lessen the sum total of earth's agony and add to the increasing harmony of nature.

Silence is the best way to learn courage of conviction. It is easy to bewilder the beginner with confusing argument. Debate is best avoided. But I know this: once Theosophy has dawned into the consciousness, although a man's own weakness may betray him into lapses from the Path, and though he wreck himself beyond recovery in one earth-life; though cowardice should cause him to deny his faith, and death should find him neither brave nor ready, nothing -- "neither death nor life nor angels, nor principalities nor powers" can deprive him of the knowledge that he has another chance awaiting him, and that the sins of this life may be faced again, and overcome, and used as stepping-stones to progress in the lives that follow.

There is nothing purposeless, nor any set of circumstances that cannot be turned into enlightening experience. And death, that most religions have regarded as an enemy to be endured with dread, to the Theosophist becomes the friend that draws the curtain after one act of life's royal drama, while we rest a while in preparation for the next.



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An introduction to The Secret Doctrine
Theosophical Basics
H.P. Blavatsky
The Book of Dzyan
The Meaning of Death
What is Theosophy?
What are the Theosophists?
Theosophy Defined
A Beginner's Concept of Theosophy
Olcott on Blavatsky
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O Lanoo! reveals the essence of Blavatsky's seminal work The Secret Doctrine, finally making this vast and complex work fully accessible to all spiritual seekers.

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