Book Reviews 2005

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. By Robert Louis Wilken. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. Hardcover, 368 pages.

Contemporary scholars have broadened our awareness of the immense diversity of the early Christian movement. In Theosophical circles, there is an understandable tendency to emphasize those elements that were eventually sidelined, such as the various gnostic traditions. There is very important work to be done in recovering such lost aspects of the Christian tradition. Nonetheless, one is often left with an impression of the church fathers as a rather stodgy and oppressive lot, who kept busy condemning any interesting heresies and are presumably the distant ancestors of the moribund, socially established churches of today.

Anyone inclined to such an unfortunate view would do well to take Robert Wilken's latest book as a strong antidote, Wilken is a fanner Lutheran minister and convert to Roman Catholicism. He has taught at the University of Virginia for many years, earning an undisputed reputation as one of the greatest living church historians. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is the fruit of mature scholarship and deep faith. It will appeal equally to academics and spiritual seekers.

Wilken has a gift for rendering the church fathers as people of flesh and blood, members of living communities, embedded in rich historical and cultural context. His chapters chronicle the development of early Christian thinking on matters as diverse as the trinity and poetry, politics and icons, happiness and the Bible. With great care, he displays both the Christians' continuity with, and transformation of the classical Greek and Roman thought, inherited by the church.

The manner in which Wilken tells the story of the early church is in accord with his conviction that "the way to truth passes through the concrete and the personal." We might add that such truth is mediated by a community, which in turn is formed by a distinctive set of rituals, disciplines, and practices. After all, he writes, "Christianity's unique claim is that spiritual knowledge begins with things that can be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands: 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard. which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ... that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you' (l John 1:3)

." All, Christian or not, who seek the transformative knowledge that comes from participation in the life of God, a knowledge found only through the love that unifies knower and known, will find much to contemplate here.


January/February 2005

Dancing with Chaos. By Patricia Monaghan. Clare, Ireland: Salmon Publishing, 2004. Paperback, 84 pages.

Patricia Monaghan has an unusual academic background bridging science and literature. She teaches literature and environmental studies at DePaul University in Chicago and has been called a “lay physicist" by professional physicists who appreciate her award-winning work as a poet and writer.

Patricia was a presenter at the Theosophical Society's Summer School at Olcott, whose theme was "Chaos, Order, and the Divine Plan." Reading from "In the Beginning," the opening poem in Dancing with Chaos, she elegantly conveyed the movement out from the formless sea of chaos that we recognize from Hesiod, Ovid, and The Stanzas of Dzyan.

Now let me tell you how things change,
new rising endlessly out of old,
everything altering, form unto form,
let me be the voice of mutability,
the only constant: in this world.

The poems from her "Voice of Mutability" draw on an understanding of chaos theory. The book contains a short: glossary that includes brief explanations of Mandelbrot's fractal geometry and other concepts alluded to in the verse for those who are not familiar with the language of chaos in contemporary physics.

But the poems draw on an even deeper understanding of the physics and poetry of grief that emerged when she experienced a sense of loss of control as she witnessed her husband dying of cancer. This poetic voice of mutability takes us on a tour in which we can sense how patterns are established, distorted, and transcended in the world around and within us.

In "The Butterfly Tattoo Effect," she shows how Charlene's desire "to be a little dangerous" at fifty by having the tattoo of a butterfly placed on her right shoulder in turn affects her friend Maggie and then Flo and then Paula until

the world awoke to news of
seismic convulsions
on every continent brought on by
the simultaneous shifting into high gear
of millions of women in sleek red cars.

In "The Poised Edge of Chaos," our guide tells us how

one grain at a time, a pattern is formed,
one grain at a time, a pattern is destroyed,
and there is no way to know which grain
will build the tiny mountain higher, which
grain will tilt the mountain into avalanche,
whether the avalanche will be small or
catastrophic, enormous or inconsequential.

Dancing with Chaos leaves one aware that there are really no insignificant beings or places in the mysterious wonder of our world. Even the smallest choice requires a humble mindfulness that one cannot foresee all the effects that will flow from it. In "Falling Bodies," we read:

Each time we move
we fall into time.
Dancing is simply
falling with grace.

These poems are moving and graceful, worthy of more than one reading, more than one dance.

January/February 2005

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF ZEN: The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the Tang Dynasty. By John C. H. Wu. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004.Soltcover, 280 pages.

This reprint of The Golden Age of Zen, a modern classic of Zen studies originally published in 1967, will be welcomed by many on the spiritual path. John C. H. Wu (1899-1986) was one of the most extraordinary Chinese of his generation. Statesman, academic, translator, interpreter of Chinese culture, and above all a pilgrim on the path, he experienced both inner and outer worlds. both past and present, to a remarkable degree. In China he served as judge and law school dean and was principal writer of the Nationalist Chinese constitution, all during China's terrible years of war and revolution. Later, dividing his time between Taiwan and the United States, he taught at Seton Hall University and wrote extensively on Chinese culture. He became a Roman Catholic shortly before the age of forty and served as Chinese minister to the Vatican in 1947-48.

His Christianity, however, was not mere dogmatism. Rather, it served as a vehicle for the generous and mutually enriching exchange between Eastern and Western spirituality that was his most influential vocation of all. He translated the Psalms and New Testament into Chinese (using Tao for Logos, or Word, in John's gospel) and the Tao Te Ching into English. He was a great friend of the no less ecumenical Trappist Thomas Merton, and of that supreme apostle of Zen to the West, D. T. Suzuki. The present volume is enhanced with a preface by Merton and the correspondence between Wu and Suzuki.

The Golden Age of Zen concerns the Zen masters of the Tang period (618-906 C.E.). Then Zen, or Chan, was fresh, exciting, and innovative. It was both countercultural and cultural, the former in its spiritually iconoclastic mood and in the willingness of its monks to work with their hands and endure relative poverty, unlike others content to live very well from endowments; and it was culturally assimilative because of its radical commingling of Taoism and Buddhism to create a remarkably new, but very Chinese, kind of Buddhism.

Wu's golden age was the era of the celebrated stories of students suddenly enlightened when told to wash their dishes after eating or upon a teacher's unexpected shout or blow. At the same time, Zen thinkers like Huineng and Huang-po developed subtle philosophical positions based on the One Mind or original unstained nature, the Buddha-nature, in all beings-though always with the caveat that it is not through words and concepts that it is known, but when it is seen as, say, the cypress tree in the front yard, or in the pain of one's nose after a master has twisted it.

This world is wonderfully captured in John Wu’s book, which is at the same time a tribute to a splendid modern master who entered, among other gates, the gateless gate of Zen. Highly recommended.


January/February 2005

Limitless Mind, By Russell Targ, Novato, CA: New World Library. 2004, Paperback, xxix +209pages.

Retrocausality. Prestimulus response. Retrocognitive dreams. These are some of the exciting new psychic abilities currently explored in the field of remote viewing, discussed in Russell Targ's book, Limitless Mind.

Targ begins by presenting the history of remote viewing, which dates back to 1972; experiments were funded by the CIA and other government organizations but conducted by the Stanford Research Institute. In the classic remote viewing experiment, a remote viewer and an interviewer remain in one location while a second interviewer goes to a location unknown to the other two. After fifteen minutes, the remote viewer attempts to describe or sketch prominent features of the second interviewer's location. The second interviewer then returns to the laboratory, and the remote viewer's responses are analyzed for accuracy.

How does remote viewing work? Does the viewer have an out-of-body experience (OBE) and follow the second interviewer to the secret location? Does the viewer read the second interviewer's mind using telepathy? Or does the viewer have the ability to skip ahead in time, clairvoyantly, and discover the true location? No one knows.

The second part of Limitless Mind describes various forms of precognition that are presently in the forefront of remote, viewing study. Retrocausality, for example, is the ability to change the past or present after perceiving a possible future event. An example of this would be dreaming of being in an automobile accident as a result of a faulty component in your car, then the next day bringing your car to a mechanic and discovering a problem with the car that, if not fixed, could have led to an accident. Some, thing you became aware of in your future has led you to change the present. Targ also explains prestimulus response, an effect that occurs when a subject is given mild electrical shocks at random and develops the reflexive ability to anticipate the shock three seconds before it is administered. In precognitive dreams, a person dreams that a future event can or will take place, and retrocognitive dreams occur when a person dreams about something that happened to someone else a few days prior, but with, out knowing that it happened.

In the final part of the book, Targ deals with psychic healing. One of the more astounding discoveries currently under study is that a psychic healer can often go back in time to ward off or ameliorate a patient's malady. Limitless Mind is a fascinating book and definitely worth reading if you are interested in the powers and capacities of the mind.


March/April 2005

The Song of Songs: A Spiritual Commentary, By M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2004, Hardcover, 136 pages.

The Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, is a unique book in the biblical canon. More than one reader has wondered how a powerfully erotic poem made its way into the Bible. In conventional religious circles, it is often left aside, lest some Sunday school teacher have to confront verses like: "Oh, give me the kisses of your mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine," (1:2) or, "Your breasts are like twin fawns, the young of a gazelle, among the lilies.'.' (4:6)

Despite the embarrassment it causes to those of a puritanical nature, the Song of Songs has given rise to something approaching a Jewish/Christian Tantra, an erotic mysticism of the union of the soul (and/or the spiritual community) with the Divine Lover. This path was nowhere more powerfully explicated than in the commentary on the Song of Songs begun in 1135 by Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, continued by Gilbert of Hoyland, and finally completed in 1214 by John of Ford.

Basil Pennington is a contemporary Cistercian monk and a present-day heir to the mysticism of the Song of Songs. He is best known as one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement, which has carried contemplative practice out of the monastery and into the world. In this latest book, we join Father Basil as he muses and meditates on the potent, earthy images of the Song, often drawing on the works of his Cistercian forebears. It is a book meant for slow pondering. As Father Basil points out in his introduction, it is not an academic commentary but a "sharing of some of what this celebration of love has evoked in the soul of an artist and a contemplative, a layman and a monk, a Jew and a Christian."

As this prior quote indicates, Father Basil has a collaborator in this project-the acclaimed Jewish artist Phillip Ratner, whose evocative illustrations lend additional depth to the text. Ratner also contributed a short afterword, in which he draws connections between the Song and "the sacred, spiritual, and sensual awareness of human love in a covenant relationship," through his own marriage. This is a vital dimension that we could not expect Father Basil, as a celibate monk, to address as fully.

Gilbert of Hoyland instructed his readers: "Write wisdom on the breadth of your heart. For the heart is broad that is not shriveled by cares." Father Basil invites us to share this breadth of heart, filled with a blazing passion in which our petty cares are consumed, that we may know the ecstasy of union.


March/April 2005

Cycles of Faith: The Development of the World's Religions, By Robert Ellwood, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003, Paperback, viii + 215 pages.

In Cycles of Faith: The Development of the World's Religions, Robert Ellwood, a retired professor of world religions, proposes a common developmental framework of five stages, lasting roughly five hundred years each, for the world's major extant religions-Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and the Chinese religions Confucianism and Taoism.

In this detailed and wide-ranging book Ellwood is careful to distinguish his framework from the historical meta-narratives and predictive schematizations of many social philosophers who, he declares, often reveal "more about the hopes and fears of their own age than about the veiled future." Rather than depending on a "grand mystical idea of meaning in history or the evolution of Absolute Spirit," Ellwood declares that his outline is based simply on "rational, empirical observations of how religions work and by extrapolation will work in historical time."

Ellwood notes that the great traditions emerged in response to the sea change of consciousness and culture that marked the Axial Age, a period beginning around the fifth century B.C.E. and characterized by the advent of urban culture and empire; heightened emphasis on individual salvation and the consequences of free will; the invention of writing; and, through its correlate, recordkeeping, the "discovery” of history that shifted humanity's religious focus from an emphasis on cosmic realms and connections during prehistory to a much greater concern with temporal events.

The first period Ellwood describes is characterized by the appearance of a charismatic founder (Hinduism lacks this aspect) and the development of sacred scripture and organizational structure. The second phase witnesses the co-opting of religion by empire (e.g., Christianity and Rome), and the expansion of religion's political and geographical base, and its doctrinal exaltation into the sphere of the timeless. This period is followed by one of "statues, temples and pageantry" in which religious expression experiences a burgeoning of forms. The fourth, or reformative, stage finds religion asserting its waning power by attempting to "rediscover what its essentials were and press them to the exclusion of all else." During the final stage, Axial religions, as entities in time, die  “in historical time and under exposure to historical awareness," and the cosmic impulse finds primary expression in the quasi-tribal realm of family and community where faith is informed by myth, mysticism, and personal experience. Ellwood writes that this last stage may very well last indefinitely, but he makes no conjectures about a possible sixth stage.

Ellwood contends that Buddhism and the Chinese religions are just now finishing the cycle, Hinduism and Christianity are at the beginning of the final period, and Islam is in the reformative stage.

Writing that during its period of reform a religion experiences deep anxieties about its place in the world and is often inclined "to let right prevail by might," Ellwood asserts that Islam's "bloody borders" may be more convincingly explained by its stage of development than by the charge that it is an inherently violent religion. It should be stressed that Ellwood does not intend his framework to apply to religions in general, but only to those that came of age under a particular set of historical circumstances (Zoroastrianism was on course to join their ranks until it was overcome by the Islamic conquest of Persia; also, Ellwood writes, that "Judaism always seems to be the exception to every rule."). He notes that the modern world is so radically different from the preceding age that any new world religion would likely be unrecognizable according to our present definitions.


March/April 2005

Prayers to an Evolutionary God. By William Cleary. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004. Hardback,178 pages.

William Cleary's Prayers to an Evolutionary God contains eighty prayers and some mighty big ideas, The latter are not just profound concepts to satisfy one's intellectual appetite; they are ideas the author expects the reader to engage with. Engaging with them, in fact, is the point. In his introduction he defines prayer as "a substantial thought turned into 'something to do." Cleary has produced his book to give people something to do "about the astonishing revelations of mystery found in evolutionary physics: say a prayer." For Cleary, prayer creates a path through mystery. These are evolutionary prayers for a universe seen from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the perspective of whose God, Cleary says, "was unapologetically an evolutionary God ... An evolutionary God is the one whose fingerprints and embraces and music we find in the evolutionary patterns in the unfinished world around us, the elusive mother and inventor of this ever-changing milieu," Cleary argues for a cosmic perspective: "Seeing earth from outer space redefines our global self-identity forever."

Teilhard de Chardin is one of two muses for the author. The second is Diarmuid O' Murchu, upon whose book Evolutionary Faith Cleary based the prayers and who wrote the afterword in Cleary's book remarking that it is the secular sciences-not religion and rituals-that are awakening us to mystery in the universe. Prayer needs to reflect the new paradigm. Formerly our prayers focused on a God who was "out there." Now science highlights not the absence but the presence of God-"in here" (in each of us).

Each prayer fits on one page; the facing page contains a prose explanation or expansion on the idea of that prayer. Each prayer is titled and has a subtitle as well. "Toward the Future-in Hopeful Times," for example, or "God of Closeness--Doubting Everything," (The titles, by the way, are alphabetized for a handy index.) Four sections of the book consist of prayers of listening, of questioning, of ambiguity, and of intimacy. They are addressed variously to Holy Mystery, Evolutionary Mystery, Holy Life Force, Mysterious God, and so on.

At first the language seems to jar. It definitely takes getting used to; it isn't poetic. For example: "Holy Mystery, our relational spirit-creator allow us to feel nonplussed/ by your evolutionary strategies'; so far beyond our present comprehension." Probably that is the point, though-to jar a bit. There is no comparison to the language of the King James Bible or to the prayers in the old Anglican prayer book, whose cadences and images Christians are comfortably familiar with. Cleary suggests we need new metaphors—“musical, aromatic, colorful, pleasure some." He demonstrates the aromatic when he says that "verbal prayers make sense if you know in advance that talking to God is like talking to your dog. You use words with your dog but it's likely he responds to your smell. God hears your words but probably ignores them in favor of the aroma of your heart, i.e., your kindness and compassion."

Contrasting the music of an older worldview that is exemplified by Gregorian chant, he notes that modern jazz reflects "a world concept full of improvisations and purposeful dissonance: an evolutionary world." Later, noting that we are surrounded by many kinds of musical energy, he says, "The least we can do is hum along."

Happily, a sense of humor crops up more than once. We humans long for "cosmic companions." If they do not exist, Cleary prays, "Please God, create them." And in the future, we will not sing of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, but of Brother Chance and Sister Chaos, Cousin Surprise and Uncle Randomness. In one essay he wryly notes, "If there is a God, God does not consider clear self-disclosure very important." In fact, he is not beyond importuning God with the qualifier "if you can." He prays we be recipients of God's own loving attitude-if He can provide it.

Again, praying for serenity, in a prayer titled "In Pain When Life Skills Fail," he says, "You are God: can you make it happen?"

He doubts. He questions. He ponders. He exults. He grins and his eyes twinkle. But underlying all, he worships. A humble awareness of the majesty of the Divine is reflected in these lines: "We give thanks, inadequate and almost preposterous as that seems."

Some of his penetrating insights are offered in the essays accompanying each prayer. The implications of evolution are that the world is creative, ever-changing, becoming. String theory implies uncertainty behind any order. The nonexistence of space, the nature of reality, the part dissonance and randomness play in the creative process, the bedrock of faith-the themes are varied and provocative.

This is a book probably not to be read through in one sitting (unless one is reviewing it! ) but: rather rifled through at different: times, choosing a prayer to suit one's mood and as a starting point for one's own meditation. But regardless of the use to which it is put, this volume by a former Jesuit priest is sure to intrigue thoughtful readers.


May/June 2005

The Process of Self-Transformation: Mastery of the Self and Awakening Our Higher Potentials, By Vincente Hao Chin, Jr. Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 2003, Paperback, ,260 pages.

Theosophist and author Vincente Hao Chin has dedicated his knowledge and insights to the field of education, bringing the attention of parents, educators, and now the general public, to the quality of our actions and relationships to rid them of personal dislikes, fear, guilt, and the stress of coping with the outer world. He feels that our current education system prepares children to make a living, but does not teach them how to live to their full potential. Peace, Hao Chin maintains, begins in the minds of children at the nursery-school age, but that natural born-harmony is disrupted as we grow older by the act of balancing self-satisfying personal needs and external constraints.

In The Process of Self-Transformation, which is based on seminars that he has led around the world, Han Chin states that we as individuals and as a collective humanity have a responsibility to lift the consciousness of the world in some small measure. We need to begin by taking full responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and actions; to honor our families and teachers; and to care for the animal world and the environment. In order to live consciously, we need to live the sacred life in our everyday living.

This plea is nothing new. Various teachers from Patanjali to Krishnamurti have said the same thing, but what makes this book unique is the author's case studies and step-by-step instructions, which allow readers to examine their own self-conditioning, enabling them to expand their own awareness, which in turn leads to a new direction in their physical, emotional, and psychological health and wel1-being. Hao Chin shows that self-transformation can happen through repetitive practice.

This book combines the scientific study of modern psychology with the ageless wisdom we know as theosophy and is essential for anyone willing to tread that steep and thorny road.


May/June 2005

In Search of P. D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff. By Gary Lachman Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2004, Hardcover, 329 pages.

Gary Lachman has written a fascinating account of the life of P. D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) the Russian author of In Search of the Miraculous and coworker of G. I. Gurdjieff (1866?-1949). Gurdjieff was the more colorful personality and attracted more attention during his life and after, yet Ouspensky as a writer and teacher deserves to be known in his own right. Lachman's book will help readers to look at some of Ouspensky's writings and at writers such as Rodney Collin, Kenneth Walker, J. C. Bennett, and Maurice Nicoll, who followed Ouspensky's lectures and classes in London.

The three decades before the 1917 Russian Revolution were years of intellectual upheaval and spiritual searching. As the Russian government consolidated its hold over the people of the Caucasus and the Far East, Russians came into contact with Sufi teachings and techniques, with the Tibetan schools of Buddhism among the Buryat, and with shamanistic practices among the tribes of Siberia, as well as reading western European esoteric and symbolist teachings. These multiple currents created circles of reflection and experimentation, often in the halls of power, as the influence of Grigory Rasputin shows.

Peter Demian Ouspensky was a journalist interested in these currents both for his own personal development and to inform the wider public. He read English well and so served to introduce significant works to Russians, in particular Richard Maurice Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (l923), a classic analysis of higher forms of consciousness and Edward Carpenter's Asia from Adam's Peak to Elephanta (1892), which highlighted Indian approaches. Carpenter and especially Bucke were "evolutionists" who believed that higher consciousness was the next step in human evolution and that more and more people were attaining enlightenment often at an early age. Bucke wrote at the end of his study, “So will Cosmic Consciousness become more and more universal and appear earlier in the individual life until the race at large will possess this faculty." Ouspensky, however, had a streak of pessimism—“'Nothing comes without work and cost”--an attitude that would be reinforced later by Gurdjieff with his emphasis on working on oneself. Ouspensky believed that higher consciousness was possible but could come only through effort or with the help of an enlightened teacher.

Many of Ouspensky's investigations were brought together in his 1911 book Tertium Organum. As Lachman notes, "A precis of the book is nearly impossible, as the ground covered includes Kantian epistemology, Hinton's cubes, animal perception, sex, Theosophy, cosmic consciousness, the superman, and Ouspensky's own experiences of mystical states. . Yet such a bare-bones summation of the book doesn't do justice to the wealth of detail, fine argument, striking analogies and metaphors that illuminate Ouspensky's vigorous prose."

As Lachman writes, Tertium Organum made Ouspensky's reputation, and from 1911, when it was published, until 1917, when the revolution clamped down on mystical literature and societies, Ouspensky was one of the most widely read popularizers of occult and esoteric thought, a self-image very different from the one he would present years later to his students in London. After Tertium Organum, he published several short books on a wide range of occult or mystical topics--yoga. the Tarot, the superman, the Inner Circle (esotericism)-most of which found their way years later into A New Model of the Universe (New York: Random House, 1971). His articles appeared in several Theosophical journals and magazines, his lectures attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, and his opinion on a variety of mystical matters was widely sought.

It was in this world of intellectual questioning and experimentation in the elite circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg that on the eve of World War I that G. I. Gurdjieff appeared after living in central Asia for a number of years--exactly where and when is not clear. Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men (1969) makes for interesting reading and served as a base for Peter Brook's remarkable film, but it is more an account of men searching than of teachers found, Gurdjieff gives no references or footnotes for his ideas. Thus one assumes that much is drawn from Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism with his own efforts at synthesis. Gurdjieff knew both his strengths and his weaknesses and sought out persons to compensate for his lacks. He needed someone to put his ideas into writing and attracted Ouspensky as a writer. He had seen how the Sufis used music as an avenue of spiritual advancement, and he attracted the Theosophical composer Thomas de Hartmann (1886-1956)to render the tunes he recalled into playable music. He needed someone trained in dance and movements to develop Sufi motions into exercises that could be taught. He found Jeanne de Salzmann, who taught the music and movements of the Swiss Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, who had worked out a system of dance and music with a spiritual intent.

Gurdjieff worked better with women than men, even strong-willed women. His relations with Ouspensky and de Hartmann were stormy. Once Ouspensky and de Hartmann got into "the Work," their personal creative efforts ended. Ouspensky no longer- wrote, and his detailed account of Gurdjieff's ideas was published after Ouspensky's death. Likewise de Hartmann worked creatively with Gurdjieff between 1925 and 1927, creating some three hundred pieces for piano, but he published no new music for the thirty remaining years of his life, De Hartmann's papers are at the Yale University library; there may be unpublished efforts I do not know of. Only Jeanne de Salzmann stayed with Gurdjieff and after his death continued teaching both the ideas and music in small circles in France and Geneva.

The Russian Revolution scattered, destroyed, or drove underground the Russian esoteric groups and thinkers. Gurdjieff lived out most of his life in Paris, with occasional trips to the United States, where groups were formed. Ouspensky lived most of his life in England but spent World War II in the United States near New York, where he continued lecturing and working in small groups.

Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky refused to allow their students to take notes during their talks, attention being a key virtue. Thus it is not fully clear what and how they taught in Paris and London. What we have are notes written from memory, such as Gurdjieff's Views from the Real World (1975) or Secret Talks with Mr. G (1978), and the books by the circle of students around Ouspensky: J. C. Bennett, Rodney Collin, and Kenneth Walker. However, it is not possible to say what is Ouspensky's teaching and what are reflections of the author's own ideas, Kenneth Walker's The Physiology of Sex (1940) is no doubt the most widely read of the books from Ouspensky's circle, but Walker was also a surgeon and much of the book is probably linked to his experience rather than to esoteric teaching-"tantrism'' is not in the index!

Like many teachers, both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky taught less a doctrine than a method (though Ouspensky constantly used the word "system"). These were techniques to be awake to life, to see things more vividly, to see the one behind the many. Thus, the emphasis on learning in small groups rather than on the publication of books.

Lachman traces Ouspensky's personal life, which may not be directly related to the teaching but shows how one person with spiritual insights confronts the world and human relationships. Ouspensky tended to submit to stronger personalities than his own, though he often expected submission from his own students. He remained dependent on Gurdjieff, although the two men had little regular contact after 1924. Ouspensky was also dependent on-if not dominated by--his strong-willed wife Sophie Grigorievna, who was also part of the Gurdjieff circle.

Ouspensky's last years recall an aphorism from the Agni Yoga teachings: "The growth of consciousness is accompanied by spasms of anguish, and this is verily unavoidable. Be assured that the greater the consciousness, the greater the anguish. One must fight consciously these spasms, understanding their inevitability." He stressed more and more "work on oneself” and less emphasis on "the System." In fact, in his last lectures on his return from the United States to London in 1947, to Kenneth Walker's question "Do you mean, Mr. Ouspensky, that you have abandoned the System?" he replied "There is no System.” As Lachman writes, "Shortly before his death, Ouspensky assembled his group and reiterated the message of his last meetings: they must, he told them, reconstruct everything for themselves."

 Krishnamurti had fifty-seven years between 1929-the dissolution of the Order of the Star in the East that had been the structure and system within which he worked-and 1986, when he died. Fifty-seven years is enough time to develop another style and technique of teaching. Ouspensky dissolved "the System" within a few months of the end of his life; was the task of reconstruction for his next incarnation, for his students, or both?

Gary Lachman has written a lively book on esoteric relationships--some of which seem to have been less than good human relations. Ouspensky may not have been a genius, but Lachman has brought him out of the shadow of Gurdjieff.


May/June 2005

Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas. By John Shirley New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004, Paperback, 301 pages.

Time magazine once called G. I. Gurdjieff a "remarkable blend of P. T. Barnum, Rasputin, Freud, Groucho Marx, and everybody's grandfather," and, if I might add to the list, a take-no-prisoners twelve-step sponsor. Whether a huckster, a hierophant, or a redoubtable hybrid of both, Gurdjieff was certainly a genius whose demanding teachings continue to resonate.

Indeed, in Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas, John Shirley notes the recent spate of films- The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club, Vanilla Sky, and others--that seem to reflect Gurdjieffian themes (intentionally or not), especially his central contention that human beings are essentially sleepwalking through life, out of touch with reality and themselves.

Shirley acknowledges that a book generally can convey only a faint impression of spiritual teachings. However he writes that it was his intention, "in this harried, media-saturated age," to create an accurate and accessible account of Gurdjieff's life and work "that might open a door, for some readers, to a deeper study, and even real hope."

Readers with little or no knowledge of the man and his ideas will finish this book with a solid introduction to both. Drawing on the accounts of biographers and students as well as Gurdjieff's own largely parabolic version of his early life, Shirley outlines Gurdjieff's childhood influences, (including his grandmother's profound and prophetic deathbed advice (“In life never do as others do. Either do nothing- -just go to school- -or do something nobody else does"), his spiritual expeditions with the "Seekers of Truth," his itinerant teaching career, and his often intense and troubled relationships with his students.

Gurdjieff the man is certainly a fascinating character, primarily due to his charisma and the mystery surrounding him, but it is of course his teachings and some of his methods (ego-strafing "verbal guerilla warfare" that may have alienated more people that it awakened) that make him such a towering-and outrageous-figure.

Noting that many people may be repelled by Gurdjieff's brutal view of humanity, Shirley asks how else we might explain our chronic inability to deal effectively with the problems of war, global hunger, environmental destruction, and rampant addiction, if we aren't a little more than directionless machines, trapped by our conditioning.

Moreover, regarding Gurdjieff's often searing techniques. Shirley declares that when we consider that life is a rigorous and unrelenting endeavor, "it makes sense that the real truth of spiritual evolution would be equally stark, equally demanding". Gurdjieff's austerity, his indifference to the comforting trappings of New Age spirituality or lace-edged religion, is reassuring: it means his teaching has the ring of truth."


May/June 2005

What the Bleep Do We Know!? DVD. Fox Home Entertainment, March 2005.

What the Bleep Do We Know!? Offers us a good time while explaining the illusion of our reality, the relationship between the observer and the observed, and the tug of war between the body and consciousness. All the questions, ideas, and theories are the positive qualities of the film. We normally assume reality to be solid matter separated by space. That the movie shows it to be all energy must give materialists a moment's pause. Where is the observer? This entity has not been found anywhere in the body, but it does have the ability to rewire the brain. Our habits and addictions suggest that although we identify with our bodies, we do not always control them.. The question of the nature of thought and its power to affect our lives and others brings responsibility, as well as freedom, back to the individual. We are the scientists studying our own lives.

A good portion of the discussion dwells on the energy and chemistry of our bodies and seems to reduce us to biological machines. This Cartesian attitude looks at all the parts and adds them lip to something less than what we are, which is greater than the sum of our biological parts. Some people have had the experience that emotions are more than just peptides and chemical reactions. The special effects illustrating the aspects of simple. cases are entertaining, but a bit over done, especially overemphasizing the baser aspects of human nature.

If only the commentaries of the scientists acknowledged that what has long been said in the perennial wisdom comes to light anew with their efforts. Instead, some offered opinions on what God is, based on some unanswered questions like where do the particles come from or go, or why we seem to be the observer.

All in all I highly recommend this film for its research, insights, wit, humor, and accompanying illustrative story.


July/August 2005

Helena Blavatsky, Ed. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2004. Paperback, xii + 220 pages.

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's anthology Helena Blavatsky is one of a Western Esoteric Masters Series, which includes such other figures as Jacob Boehme, John Dee, Robert Fludd, Paracelsus, and Emanuel Swedenborg. The aim of the series is to present “concise biographies of key figures in the tradition [of Western esotericism] with anthologies of their writings." The book consists of extracts from H. P. Blavatsky's writings on a range of subjects, with introductory essays of a biographical and explanatory nature. Some ninety-five excerpts are arranged under eleven topics: From Spiritualism to Occultism, Ancient Wisdom Rediscovered, Secret Brotherhoods, Oriental Kabbalah, Mesmerism and Magic, Hermetic Philosophers and Rosicrucians, Buddhism and Brahmanism, Cosmogony, Macrocosm and Microcosm, Evolution, and Personal Growth and Devotion. A number of the extracts are illustrated by helpful diagrams taken from the original sources.

The selections gathered under the various topics were not randomly chosen but, especially in the first part of the book, illustrate a thesis implied by the series title. HPB and Theosophy are often thought of as based on Indic thought. This volume argues, both explicitly and by many of its selections, that HPB and her Theosophy were solidly in the Western esoteric tradition of Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Rosicrucianism, and so on. The selections, which range in length from a few lines to several pages each, are drawn from Isis Unveiled (39 selections), The Secret Doctrine (35), the ES Instructions (6), Spiritualist periodicals (5), Lucifer (3), The Key to Theosophy (3), The Voice of the Silence, HPB's scrapbook, The Canadian Theosophist, and a newspaper (l each). The book includes the usual sorts of minor errors, typographical and factual, but they will not distract most readers.

The selections, which are bookended and separated by the editor's essays on the topics they illustrate, vary considerably in their accessibility to a general reader. This is no "Blavatsky for Dummies" book; reading it will challenge the newcomer. But it gives a fair variety of HPB's thoughts on the topics listed above, and the editor's comments are frequently on the mark. Examples are the following:

Individual human destiny and moral problems of individual development are the ultimate focus of the work [The Secret Doctrine].

If Blavatsky had neither founded the Theosophical Society nor gone on to receive the Mahatmas' revelation in India and her only major work had been Isis Unveiled, her reputation would have been assured as the reviver and compiler of a prodigious number of sources bearing on religions, mythology and magic.

Although presented in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Buddhist terminology, Blavatsky's cosmology had deep roots in the Hermetic-kabbalistic world-view of "as above, so below," so fundamental to Western esotericism. Blavatsky's universal wisdom-tradition of Theosophy involving both Western and Eastern sources gave an important impetus to a new global esotericism.

Blavatsky restated the Western esoteric tradition in contemporary scientific terms by incorporating the concept of evolution into the celestial and spiritual hierarchies of being from the macrocosm of the whole universe down to the microcosm of man. Boehme, and later Oetinger, regarded human incarnation as the goal of God in becoming self-conscious. Their idea was also expressed in terms of each human being seeking to become the Christ in the course of their earthly life. This esoteric idea of spiritual growth mirrored in eternity was transformed by modern Theosophy's doctrine of reincarnation and the migration of the Monads over enormous cycles of time. But Theosophical evolution takes place in time and its notion of salvation is a historicist and Romantic modification to the ideas of Boehme and later Christian theosophers.

Such observations, especially the last, are exactly the sort: of Theosophical history that needs to be written. What passes as Theosophical history is all too often simply a Theosophical version of People magazine, with its focus on personalities, peccadilloes, and petty details. It is to be hoped that Goodrick-Clarke's emphasis on the history of ideas will inspire others-perhaps even him-to pursue the more intellectually respectable course he has shown in studying the history of modern Theosophy.


July/August 2005

THE ESSENTIAL EDGAR CAYCE. Edited and introduced by Mark Thurston. New York; Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004. Paperback, 287 pages.

More than twenty years ago, a member of my family who was otherwise quite a conventional Baptist became interested in Edgar Cayce's recommendations for holistic healing and nutrition. Through this relative, Cayce (1877-1945) became my introduction to the world of alternative spirituality, and my respect for this homespun occultist has only deepened since then. Cayce is probably the best-known esotericist in my hometown of Nashville and is often regarded with indulgence, even among church folk, as a local boy having grown up just to the northwest, near Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

I have often wondered what books are best to recommend to folks who are new to Cayce. The psychic readings themselves are notoriously difficult in light of their strange diction and biblical language and Cayce's focus on the individual at hand. Some of the secondary material has been overly focused on the more sensational aspects of Cayce's work-earth changes, psychic powers, and so on. A number of fine books which address only one or two aspects of the readings (Unto the Churches by Richard Henry Drummond; The Edgar Cayce Handbook for Health through Drugless Therapy by Harold Reilly and Ruth Hagy Bond). A Search for God (prepared from Cayce's readings for a study group) is a wonderful text, but often difficult for those who are uncomfortable with a Christian perspective. K. Paul Johnson's Edgar Cayce in Context is absolutely invaluable, but it is a scholarly book and not directed to a popular audience.

The need for a solid, balanced introduction to Cayce, aimed at the spiritual seeker, has been ably answered by Mark Thurston's new anthology. The Essential Edgar Cayce is a splendid book that will doubtless serve to introduce Cayce to a broader audience. Thurston's profound knowledge of the readings, conveyed through clear prose infused with the patient, gentle understanding that comes with long spiritual practice, will be of help to newcomer and longtime student alike.

Thurston addresses all of the major themes in the Cayce readings, from cosmic metaphysics to social vision. His commentary is accompanied by a careful selection of the original texts-many of them in their entirety-to give the reader a taste of the source material. I was pleased to see that acknowledges that some of Cayce's prophecies have not been fulfilled and that some readings appear confusing or irrelevant. How can a seeker after truth do otherwise?

Cayce (and his superconscious mind, which he claimed as the source of the readings) was practical in nature. The most important things are not the development of psychic powers or esoteric knowledge, but rather patience, tolerance, consciousness of our responsibility to others, and selfless dedication to our highest ideals. Many years ago, I was struck by Cayce pointing to the importance of such simple gestures as giving a smile to the people we encounter in our day, as a reminder that someone cares. One of the most transfigured persons I have ever met, who was dying of AIDS at the time I knew him, credited his state of inner acceptance and attunement with the Divine to his work with Cayce's suggestions about attitudes and emotions. Thurston does a fine job of presenting the power of Cayce's practical spirituality.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in Cayce and in the spiritual wisdom that can be found in his readings.


July/August 2005

Keeping the Link Unbroken: Theosophical Studies Presented to Ted, G, Davy on His Seventy-fifth Birthday, Ed. Michael Gomes, N.P: TRM [Theosophical Research Monographs], 2004, [vi]+xxxii + 197 pages.

Ted Davy is one of the central figures of Theosophy in Canada, perhaps most widely known for his thirty years of editing the Canadian Theosophist, which was one of the foremost Theosophical journals in the world under his editorship. The present volume is a Festschrift (a "festival writing") by some of his friends to mark three quarters of a century in his life.

The front matter includes a personal reminiscence by his wife, Doris, and a bibliography of his writings, two charming and useful introductions to the twelve pieces that follow. The body of the volume is eleven essays, which consist of five essays on Theosophical subject matter, six biographical essays, and a jeu d'esprit acrostic consisting of lines from the index to The Secret Doctrine, whose first letters spell out "Doris & Ted Davy."

In the first of the initial five essays, John Patrick Deveney asks why Theosophical historians do Theosophical history. His answer, apart from the inevitable Mt. Everest one, is an esoteric intuition that the isolated fragments of historical detail "will allow us to strip away the mask and allow us to see the truth beyond the history." Robert Hütwohl examines accounts of previous Buddhas, Henk J. Spierenburg looks at the secret doctrine of the Rabbis, and Leslie Price reconsiders Esoteric Christianity. David Reigle considers in patient detail "The First Fundamental Proposition of the Secret Doctrine" in a clear, well organized, and perceptive reading of what is arguably the most basic Theosophical statement ever written. His essay is a model of close reading and lucid explication, which should be studied by every serious Theosophical student.

The biographical essays, all of great historical interest, are treatments of Albert Smyth and Henry Newlin Stokes by James Santucci, of B. P. Wadia by Dallas TenBroeck, of Victor Endersby by Jerry Hejka-Ekins, of Henry Erie Russell and the trust he established in his mother's name by Ernest Pelletier, and of a number of early Theosophists by Joan Sutcliffe. Michael Gomes's essay on "Anagarika Dharmapala at the World's Parliament of Religions" is actually far broader than its title would suggest. It treats much in the life of this early Theosophist who became a champion of the Buddhist revival, in which Henry Steel Olcott also played a seminal role. The scope and detailed documentation in this concise treatment of an internationally and historically significant figure makes this essay an especially significant contribution.

This volume is a worthy tribute to an honored Theosophical scholar and gentleman. That final compound epithet is a cliché, but in this case its use is apposite and literal. One can only add one's best wishes ad multos annos!


September/October 2005

The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice, By Ron Miller. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004, 130 pages.

Those in search of the historical side of Jesus have come to see him in many different ways. Indeed, President George W. Bush is not the only person to consider Jesus Christ a philosopher. Some seekers compare Jesus to the Cynics, contemporaries of Socrates and Plato, who also lived simple lives and used wise sayings and questions to challenge their listeners to look at things more deeply.

The Gospel of Thomas is one of thirteen books discovered in northern Egypt in 1945 that make up the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library. Followers of these texts were called Gnostics-from the Check gnosis for "knowledge"- by their critics because they claimed to have a higher knowledge than other philosophical schools or religious groups.

The Gospe1 of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice, and the statements attributed to Jesus, resonate with the growing number of people who are exploring the difference between their strict religious programming as youngsters and their personal spiritual experiences as adults.

For Ron Miller, the Gospel of Thomas is a powerful book "that could actually change our way of thinking." His goal of the translation of these sayings put into daily practice is "to become Jesus' twin ... by manifesting in our lives the same Christ consciousness revealed in the person we know as Jesus of Nazareth." This path to open to everyone and does not lead not to membership in any group, but to the kingdom that is within and without.

These 114 gnomic statements beg for patient, reflective tending in order to bear their nourishing fruit. Consider saying 5, Jesus said, "Know what is in front of your face, what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed." Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to recognize that the entire spiritual realm is hidden in the physical realm in front of us, waiting to be revealed when we are ready to receive its revelation. Furthermore, even our most concealed thoughts and beliefs will manifest in some form in our daily lives.

Or saying 105, "Whoever knows the Father and the Mother will be called the child of a whore," Like a Zen slap, this saying startles us in order to take us closer to the truth hidden at the heart of the Gospel of Thomas. The first step is to realize that, like Jesus, our twin, we are not an offspring of our human parents. These sayings help us know our true identity, while meditation enables us to become who we truly are.

Miller gathers the sayings topically and thematically into chapters and connects them with sinews of pleasing narrative. The teachings and techniques of several traditions are included in his suggestions for meditation. He ends each chapter with a short list of questions to encourage reflection and facilitate insight into our personal life. The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice is a helpful source to begin meditation on the Gospel of Thomas.


September/October 2005

Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, By Steve Hagen, New York: HarperCollins, 2003, Hardback, 252 pages.

Buddhism is not what you think. It is about being awake to reality. And you cannot be awake to reality if you insist on thinking about it. Reality cannot be described or explained, for that would be to conceptualize. "Reality," Steve Hagen tells us in Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, "is what is immediately experienced."

In this deceptively simple book, Hagen offers simple but profound statements about many things: good and evil, mind, dualism, consciousness, space/time, freedom, and rebirth, to name a few. The first and longest of the three sections that make up the book is titled "Muddy Waters," and it takes up the many stumbling blocks we mistakenly erect in our search for truth or enlightenment. Zen teaches "no dualism," for example. If we conceptualize, we have dualism-you and me, good and bad, subject and object. The mistake we make is in calling that reality. So how do we apprehend reality? Hagen repeatedly offers the simple advice, "just see."

Another stumbling block has to do with rebirth, and this is one of the more challenging points he makes. He says that what Buddha taught was rebirth, not reincarnation, for nothing endures. Reincarnation cannot occur because there is nothing to reincarnate. Nagarjuna in the second century pointed out that nothing persists from moment to moment. "Nothing endures ... to be impermanent. He [Nagarjuna] calls this Emptiness. This is the true meaning of impermanence." This moment is born again and again. Seeing this, and not the "recycling of souls," is "the liberation the Buddha pointed to." The point is reinforced when Hagen speaks of enlightenment: "A teacher who is awake realizes that there's no particular person who's awake."

Buddha taught that everything is made of mind. A pure mind is one that sees but does not grasp, we learn in section two, which is titled "Pure Mind." In it and in the third section, titled "Purely Mind," Hagen repeats the same refrain running through the book: You are right here and right now, and there is no separateness; all you have to do is just see.

It is in the latter short section that he considers the subject of consciousness, which, he acknowledges, we don't know a great deal about although we are all intimately familiar with it. Matter, he contends, is abstract. When we get down to the subatomic level, for example, we can find either an electron's location or its momentum, but not both. "In other words, an electron doesn't seem to have properties that are separate from our awareness of those properties." This points to the conclusion that “physical reality cannot be fully accounted for apart from consciousness. "

It is difficult to write about this book without extensive quoting, for Hagen's felicitous style is spare, direct, and lucid. That is one of the book's pleasures, in fact, for the subject matter, profound as it is, could have been weighed down by verbosity in the hands of someone with less wisdom and understanding. Although the reader may want to explore further the rebirth/reincarnation conundrum, Hagen has presented here a clear view of Buddhism as he sees it. This book could be extremely useful, for not only does he demonstrate pitfalls the beginner encounters, he illuminates what it is to be awake.


September/October 2005

The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West. Edited and Introduced by Jay Kinney. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004. Paperback, x + 324 pages.

Many readers of Quest are sure to remember Gnosis magazine, the journal of arcane Western spirituality that was published from 1985 to 1999. Gnosis was a leader in its field; its demise was a great loss for both scholars and the general public. Happily, The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West edited by the magazine's founder and editor in chief, Jay Kinney, reprises a wide-ranging and richly detailed array of articles from its pages.

Kinney begins with discussions on Hermeticism and alchemy, NeoPlatonism and Gnosticism, major currents in Western occult teachings that run