Book Reviews 2007

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, By Malcolm Gladwell. New
York: Little Brown, 2005. Hardcover, 277 pages.

When I attended a concert by the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra last week, I was able to appreciate the performance and the female concertmaster even more, because I had read Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Here, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the recent revolution in the classical music world which, until thirty years ago, was a world of white men because auditions supported the "fact" that women lacked the strength, lips, lung capacity, and hands to play like men. Conductors and concertmasters even believed that, with their eyes closed, they could tell the difference between a male or female at an audition. Changes introduced by unionized musicians included the use of screens between the committee and the person auditioning. Thereafter, the number of women musicians hired increased dramatically.

Judging music, like other taste tests, is not that simple. "We don't know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don't always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious," Gladwell observes. For example, if you "looked" at a short female horn player before you really "listened" to her, what you saw would contradict any power you would hear in her playing.

A second lesson is that "if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, we can control rapid cognition." In other words, by learning to pay attention to the first two seconds of a situation or activity, we can avoid making mistakes and actually arrive at a more authentic outcome. In this instance, "by fixing the first impression at the heart of the audition-by judging purely on the basis of ability-orchestras now hire better musicians, and better musicians mean better music ... arrived at by paying attention to the first two seconds of the audition."

Applying this suggestion is what the author calls "thin-slicing." This is the artful skill of looking at the smallest amount of information possible, valuable because "decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately."

Blink is filled with other intriguing stories and analyses. Gladwell tells about the ER physician who "thin-sliced" past the information overload of many tests and focused on a few selected factors to determine, correctly, if patients had had a heart attack. He recounts mistakes made by people who kept their best intuitive decisions at bay, either by too much thinking or ingrained prejudices, or strict adherence to doing something "by the book." Gladwell studies the shadow side of cognition where "less" enables style to win over real content, as in the election of Warren G. Harding because he was "a great-looking President."

I agree with the lady reading Blink across from me on the plane. "I'm enjoying it. It is causing me to think about things in a very different way."


January/February 2007

Invoking Mary Magdalene: Accessing the Wisdom of the Divine Feminine. By Siobhan Houston. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2006. Hardcover (plus CD), 100 pages.

The popularity of The Da Vinci Code and contemporary interest in the recovery of a feminine dimension to Christianity, have drawn considerable attention to the figure of Mary Magdalene. Books by a number of popular authors such as Margaret Starbird and Tau Malachi have explored alternative perspectives on the relationship of the Magdalene to Jesus, and her place in the Christian Mysteries.

Siobhan Houston, who is both a scholar and a priestess, writes in this same revisionist stream, and yet she brings a new dimension to the discussion. Taking us beyond the historical and theological discussion, Houston offers a range of spiritual practices designed to draw the aspirant into a living experience of the Magdalene Mysteries. We begin by constructing an altar or shrine dedicated to our work with the Magdalene.

Houston then takes us deeper through prayer, meditation, and ritual. While a good number of the practices arise from her own inspiration, she also draws on some of the best contemporary and ancient sources. Houston engages Mary Magdalene from a number of different angles-Dark Goddess, Jewish woman, Christian saint, archetype of initiation, and so on, thus ensuring that her book will speak to a wide range of readers, from neo-pagans to mystical Christians to occultists. The practices are flexible enough that the reader can easily adjust them in accord with his or her own experience of the Magdalene. As a good teacher, Houston does not give pat answers, but rather provides multiple perspectives and the keys needed to guide us into our own understanding.

The one image of the Magdalene which Houston rejects is that of the repentant prostitute. She rightly points out that this is a later legend, not found in the New Testament. Houston interprets Jesus casting our seven demons from Mary Magdalene as the cleansing and empowering of her seven chakras, Without detracting in any way from Houston's perspective, one might note that at least one contemporary feminist theologian has offered a positive reappraisal of the myth of the Magdalene as prostitute-see Teresa Berger, Fragments of Real Presence (Herder & Herder, 2005).

Finally, Houston's book is very attractively produced, with a size and appearance conducive to devotional use. It is also accompanied by a CD, on which the author reads a number of meditations and prayers, as well as a resource guide to books, websites, and groups for further exploration. Transformative spirituality is always rooted in direct experience, and Siobhan Houston opens the way to such for all who are drawn to Mary Magdalene.


January/February 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking. By Joan Didion. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf 2005. Hardback, 227 pages.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a self-analytical look at a year of mourning by the author. In late December 2003, Joan Didion's only daughter, Quintana, fell ill with what was believed to be the flu. The flu turned into pneumonia and eventually her daughter went into septic shock. A week after her daughter is admitted to the hospital, Didion was in the kitchen preparing dinner, when her husband of forty years, John Dunne, quietly died of a heart attack while sitting in the next room.

It would be easy to cast this book aside, believing it to be a morbid look at loss, but Didion's writing gives expression to a detailed look at how the human mind works during the process of grieving a loved one. Her writing style is meditative, repeating events only to look at them more deeply while analyzing her thoughts and reactions. Throughout the book, she writes about avoiding vortexes-trigger points that will remind her of John and the things they did together. She writes about avoiding the restaurants they used to go to, the streets they would drive down, the theaters they would visit, until she realizes that she is no longer living, but running from pillar to post to avoid something that she is in need of facing. While this sounds melancholic, Didion is self-critical about these events, adding light-heartedness to the book. In the end, she realizes there is little she can do to avoid the vortexes because she and John spent very little time apart. They both worked at home critiquing each other's work, discussing events important to one or the other, and enjoying each other's company.

Didion's book is a very human look at grief and loss. Despite having spent more than half her life with her husband, Didion realizes she doesn't want it to end and recollects the previous years with him in order to hold onto his presence. But as we all know, these memories eventually begin to fade and we are left with the here and now. The message held throughout this book is that those who have departed live within us because of the things they have taught us and the gifts, material and otherwise, they have given us. This in turn is passed on to others. While this does not stop the mourning process, the realization of it helps lessen it for some. This book is recommended for those who mourn.


January/February 2007

The Heavens Declare: Astrological Ages and the Evolution of Consciousness. By Alice O. Howell. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2006, 287 pages.

The astrological community has been enriched by the recent publication of several significant books. The Heaven’s Declare by Alice O. Howell is one of them. One of today's most respected astrologers, Howell continues to profoundly educate and nourish readers. Moreover, the depth and breadth of her accumulated wisdom is reflected in the humility and clarity of her carefully crafted prose.

The title of this revised and updated version of her publication of fifteen years ago seems so right. The Heaven's Declare (the glory God), from Psalm 19, is a clear call to recognize astrology's gift of a larger awareness through its uniting of religion and science, and its proof of "an unfolding evolution of consciousness that suggests a sacred purpose of awesome dimensions revealing itself in the immense mystery of the cosmos of creation."

The author has long worked the mixture of astrology, Jungian psychology, mythology, religion, linguistics, symbol systems, history, literature, and systems theory in the cauldron of her own psyche. Here, as in her earlier Jungian Symbolism in Astrology (Quest Books, 1987), she structures her chapters as letters to a friend, which accommodate a conversational style perfect for her enlightening integration of insights from this broad spectrum of subject areas.

Howell presents her material under two broad headings: the Astrological Signs and the Astrological Ages. The first half of the book studies the Astrological Signs and offers a combination of traditional as well as personal understandings of astrology's principle ingredients; specifically, "The Elements: Four Levels of Being." There are chapters about each element- -“Fire: Light, Life, Love"; "Water: Fluctuation, Femininity, Fruition"; "Air: Idea, Intelligence, Intellect"; and "Earth: Stuff, Structure, Stability." These are followed by a chapter on "The Houses'' and several rabies: the Planets, the Astrological Signs, the Natural Zodiac, and Fixed, Cardinal, and Mutable Signs. The explanations are always clear, always encouraging.

The second half of the book studies the Astrological Ages. In these chapters the author discusses the evolution of human consciousness with an analysis of the psychological evolution of our human family through history. Our human ancestors have experienced changing paradigms and shifts in awareness during each of these time segments which generally last approximately 2,200 years allowing for transitional interfaces. These ages and their associated collective consciousness ideas are as follows: the Age of Cancer (c. 8000-6500 BC)- Love and Fear; the Age of Gemini (c. 6500-3750 BC)-Consciousness and Choice; the Ageof Taurus (c. 4000-1800 BC)-Property and Resurrection; the Age of Aries (c. 1800-07 BC)-Ego and Justice; the Age of Pisces (c. 7 BC-1800 AD with interface to 2012 AD)-Faith and Reason; the Age of Aquarius (c. 1800-4000 AD)-Individual and Cosmos.

Alice Howell teaches us how she carefully looks and listens to the heavens and its declarations. These attentions have enabled her to conclude that there is "a cosmically ordered unfolding of meaning," and that, in the emerging age, each human being has an individual contribution to make to the unfolding of that collective meaning.

Simply put, this work is a gem. Now, when I am asked to recommend a book for someone to begin their study of astrology, The Heavens Declare, by Alice O. Howell, is the one I recommend.


May/June 2007

Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Post-Modern World. By Ken Wilber, Boston, MA: Integral Books, 2006. Hardback, 313 pages.

Each new book by Ken Wilber carves out new and insightful views and interpretations of the human situation. In an attempt to give his books a "stand alone" quality, he often summarizes prior publications that provide a context in which a more meaningful reading can occur. This leads to repetition that some find off-putting, but others appreciate since much of his work is so intricate and complex that a reminding often leads to further clarification and understanding.

Wilber acknowledges the help of the hundreds of staff members of the Integral Institute (I-I) in the writing of Integral Spirituality. He founded this Institute in 1997 with the help of others. The significance, value, and popularity of the Institute is indicated by the fact that it already has tens of thousands of members who benefit from, among other things, occasional conferences, publications, and several web sites that disseminate integral views. As used by Wilber and I-I, integral means "more balanced, comprehensive, interconnected and whole." It is an approach to such fields and disciplines as business, medicine, law, politics, education, psychology, spirituality, et al that is without precedence.

Building on AQAL (an anagram meaning “all quadrants, all lines, all levels, all states, all types"), the foundational principle of the integral approach which insists on the irreducibility and mutual interconnectedness of the individual and the communal in both an interior and exterior way, Wilber calls for the necessity of eight different but mutually supportive disciplines in the comprehensive task of understanding the cosmos and human experience. He calls this Integral Methodological Pluralism, which endeavours to see/study/understand the inside and the outside of each quadrant. These disciplines span the full range of human experience and the many ways of investigating it. The sciences and the humanities, including religion, are often thought to be in conflict, but Wilber demonstrates that they can be reconciled and, in fact, are crucial to each other in the on-going attempt to devise a "theory of everything."

The individual/interior quadrant, among other things, represents what a person becomes aware of during times of meditation. These state (of consciousness) realizations range from gross to subtle to causal to non-dual, the last being so extraordinary that it can only be hinted at with language. Wilber shows convincingly that a person can be at a relative low level of overall stage development and still have lofty, deliberative meditative or even spontaneous state experiences. For example, a person can be at a mediocre level of moral development and nonetheless have high inner realizations. Such a person may, for example, operate with circumscribed and low level conventional moral, i.e., moralistic, standards. Wilber insists that no matter how often lofty meditative experiences occur or how genuine and intense they are, they alone will have no or minimal effect on moral development. With this discovery, Wilber is able to throw light on a common and seemingly intractable problem that arises with some spiritual teachers, namely those who misuse their power and influence over students by violating them sexually and/or their basic human rights. In other words, what happens in temporary states of awareness says nothing about one's overall development or, to be more precise, one's maturity in the cognitive, interpersonal, values, or worldviews lines of stage unfoldment.

Problems such as this can be identified by means of AQAL, the Integral Psychograph, which maps the relative advancement or "altitude" of the various lines of development, and especially the “Wilber-Combs Lattice," a scale that coordinates structure-stage development with meditative realization. This kind of empirical research and analysis leads to the conclusion that temporary peak experiences of gross, subtle, causal, or nondual states can occur at any stage of development. Further, these peak experiences will be interpreted according to the stage of development, e.g., someone at the mythic stage will interpret a subtle state experience as proof of the existence of the deities, angels, or spirit beings upheld by the myth, while someone at a more rational- pluralistic-integral stage will see such experiences as the working of their own psychospiritual nature. This kind of discovery leads to several worthy conclusions: (1) it shows the inevitability of the great diversity found in religious belief systems, (2) it reveals the futility of arguing for the truth of one religious stance over another, and (3) it discloses the impossibility of ever arriving at a strictly "rational" solution to and reconciliation of the discrepancies and contradictions found in the world's religious traditions.

Because Wilber is a first-rate theoretician, a great deal of his writing is analytical and intricate. The abstract nature of his writing is amply balanced by the passion with which he writes-one comprehensive study of his corpus carries the subtitle, Thought as Passion-and his emphasis on actual practice. Throughout nearly all his writing career, Wilber has insisted that disciplined practice is crucial to both high meditative realization and to accurate understanding in any discipline. All "good knowledge," he argues, is based on three strands: (1) one must commit to the required conditions and develop the necessary skills, (2) one must gain the intended experience that will lead to the desired understanding, and (3) one must check with others who have fulfilled the first two strands for confirmation or rejection. Whether one hopes to become a physician or to realize non-duality, these three requirements prevail. Without meeting these demands, one is merely spouting opinion. With this understanding, one immediately spots the uselessness of a secular scientist making pronouncements on spiritual realities, or religious authorities without scientific training pontificating on science, specifically, for example, on the issue of evolution or so-called intelligent design. Practice receives its fullest attention in the last chapter of the book which is devoted to Integral Life Practice, a program actively promoted by I-I that calls for disciplined, experiential work in four areas: body, mind, spirit, and shadow, as well as in such auxiliary areas as ethics, sex, work, emotions, and relationships.

A common occurrence today is for those whose consciousness has reached the pluralistic stage and beyond to make a sharp distinction between organized religion and spirituality, favoring the latter and denigrating the former. In a chapter titled "The Conveyor Belt," Wilber specifically addresses the subtitle of the book by contending that "religion alone, of all of humanity's endeavours, can serve as a great conveyor belt for humanity and its stages of growth." This is the case because the world's religions commonly contain in one form or another both magical and mythic dimensions and therefore, "they control the legitimacy conferred on those beliefs," beliefs that parallel the actual stages in the childhood development of every human (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny). Wilber continues: "Because of that, they are the onlysources of authority that can sanction the orange [rational] and higher stages of spiritual intelligence in their own traditions. He concludes: "... while honoring myths, one must move from myth to reason to trans-reason in order to plumb the depths of spiritual realities."

A common theme that informs much of the book concerns the values and limitations of the premodern, modern, and postmodern ages. Wilber is particularly adept at extracting the abiding values of each age and incorporating them into what he calls Integral Post-Metaphysics. In prior writings, Wilber reveals the importance of the transcend-and-include principle, i.e., rising to more inclusive ways of being and thinking by jettisoning the shortcomings of prior stages while incorporating their lasting values in the unfolding new outlook. By working with such postmodern insights and principles as "the myth of the given," "perspective is perception," the constructive function of consciousness, and the crucial role of intersubjectivity, Wilber fashions an interpretation of religion and spirituality that is proving itself attractive to many thinking people today. It is, of course, risky to predict, but if the perspectives of this book and other of Wilber's writings, coupled with the work of I-I, catch on widely in the intellectual, scientific, and religio-spiritual worlds, they will constitute a watershed equal to or greater than any that has so far occurred.

It seems that Wilber outdoes himself with each new book. To adequately convey the content of Integral Spirituality would be to produce a work of nearly comparable size and intensity. It covers many vital topics beyond those indicated here. The book is not so much to be read as to be studied, pondered, and put into practice,


May/June 2007

Darkness Visible: Awakening Spiritual Light through Darkness Meditation. By Ross Heaven and Simon Buxton. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2005. Paperback, 168 pages.

Early in this fine text, Simon Buxton and Ross Heaven recall the myth of Icarus. They remark:

We might sum up the moral of this tale in this way: "Too much light and your wings may be lost." Yet within the religious traditions of many denominations there is often a largely unbalanced emphasis on embracing light and following a sole trajectory of ascension.

Or, in the lyrics of Buddhist punk musician Stuart Davis: "All ascenders end up sinking... Makes love wonder what fear's thinking ..." ("Easter";What 2006). How many of us have embarked on spiritual paths which point us only toward increasing light, and paint darkness as an image of evil , or more politely, the non-integrated parts of ourselves?

Yet, trees cannot reach upward without deep roots to anchor them, and most spiritual traditions know this. Jesus was buried in the silence of the earth before the resurrection. The Masonic initiate is symbolically killed and buried. However, darkness is not only an initiatory death from which one will rise, but a potent point of entry into divine consciousness which can become an enduring aspect of a balanced spiritual life.

The importance of the mysteries of darkness, death, and the underworld came to the fore in the 1970s with important books such as The Dream and the Underworld by James Hillman, and The Underworld Initiation by R. J. Stewart. More recent times have brought further contributions including Peter Kingsley's revolutionary In the Dark Places of Wisdom, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' A Ray of Darkness, and esoteric visionary Josephine Dunne's teachings on the Void beyond being and non-being.

Buxton and Heaven write for a more popular audience, and provide a wealth of helpful practices to initiate the newcomer into forms of darkness meditation and related inner work. The book includes many comments and stories from participants in their "Darkness Visible" workshops. This work is weighted toward the psychological effects of working with darkness (in the case of their workshops, spending several days in total darkness, including a burial in the earth), with a personal and emotional tone which is helpful in an introductory work. But, as the authors make clear, as one journeys deeper into the Void, the dark, pure potential, all personal aspects drop away, and one is left simply in Mystery.


May/June 2007

Yoga Tantra, Paths to Magical Feats. By His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Dzong-ka-ba, and Jeffrey Hopkins. Trans. by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-ed. by Kevin A. Vose and Steven N. Weinberger. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2005. Paperback, 181 pages.

Tantric literature, like alchemical arid Hermetic, is usually arcane, obscure, and almost impossible for the uninitiated to read. This is because it is not meant for the average reader, but is a cryptic guide to be understood only when there is a guru, one in the know, to initiate and lead you through it. Hence, I approached this book on yoga tantra with some hesitation. My fears were immediately magnified when I discovered that this volume is the third in a series published by Snow Lion Publications that presents The Stages of the Path to a Conqueror and Pervasive Master, a Great Vajradhara: Revealing All Secret Topics, a major work by Dzong-ka-ba, the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century founder of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. This particular book contains a translation of Dzong-ka-ba's Great Exposition of Secret Mantra: Yoga Tantra. In other words, this work is not really self-contained. It would be, I thought, like trying to read the last section of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason without the benefit of what went before.

Moreover, according to the author Jeffrey Hopkins, this work constantly refers to and subtly reinterprets a number of earlier Indian Tantricists such as Varabodhi, Buddhaguhya, and Anandagarbha as well as the Tibetan Budon; none of whose writings I have easy access to. How could one possibly offermuch insight or evaluation with obstacles such as these?

It was with some pleasure, then, that I discovered that most of my fears were misguided and that the work is not really a whirlwind of obscurity after all. In large part, this is due to both Jeffrey Hopkins, a well-known Tibetan Buddhist expert, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama who offers very clear and readable interpretations of the text. If the main text is read first, though somewhat awkwardly translated at times, it seems reasonably clear and comprehensible.

In effect, Dzong-ka-bas work is a meditation guide. In typical tantric fashion the emphasis is upon the visualization of "deities" or rather Buddhas such as Vairocana who is to be seen as first sitting before you and then eventually as you. Along with the visualization go mudras i.e., hand gestures, that are not only described but also pictured in the text. With the deity visualization goes the equally important visualization of emptiness. All of the steps in this very complicated process are summarized very clearly by Jeffrey Hopkins at the very end of the book.

There is, of course, a great chasm between reading about the process and actually doing what is described. No matter how clear Hopkins and the Dalai Lama are in their descriptions, one must certainly have a guru to adopt the yogic discipline. Whether it is even possible for a twenty-first century American to undertake this process successfully is an open question. Our own world view may preclude the possibility of developing the faith such a yoga demands.

Certainly those of us standing outside will have special difficulty with the magical feats-finding buried treasure, walking on water, flying through the air, etc-which the author promises that the successful tantricist will accomplish. Are these "symbolic" achievements that intimate inner transformations or did Dzong-ka-ba believe that such miracles could actually be performed? To what extent has inner visualization simply replaced good, old-fashioned reality?

No matter what one's attitude toward these feats, most readers will find this an interesting, even compelling book. At the very least it offers a glimpse into a worldview and a spirituality so foreign to modern America that it can jolt and awaken one. For those intent to follow the Path, it may provide a much needed intimation of a way to the highest and deepest levels of enlightenment.


July/August 2007

The Secret Gateway: Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition, By Edward Abdill, The Theosophical Publishing House, 2006. Paperback, 241 pages.

This book is not only excellent for beginning Theosophists, but long time truth seekers as well. As one who has read many Theosophical books over the years, I was amazed at how clearly Ed Abdill was able to bring out new approaches in this study of the ancient wisdom. Even if you have numerous Theosophical books in your collection, you need to add Ed's book to make it complete; it is that good.

The book begins with an excellent short story about a compassionate monkey. Essentially, a monkey that almost drowns saves a fish from the same fate. Only the fish in this case dies because it has been removed from the water. The moral of the story is: To do the good, we must know what the good is. The innuendo is that this book will help us know what the good is. It should be noted that Ed credits Nelda Samarel, director of the Krotona School of Theosophy and a director on the Theosophical Society's Board, for this story. He freely gives credit where credit is due.

I feel that the book has two major parts. Chapters 1-8 give us the basic teachings of Theosophy in a contemporary setting. The second part, Chapters 9-19, is a brief history of the Theosophical movement and how one can live and interact in this world as a Theosophist.

Abdill begins with the Theosophical view that we must discover truth within ourselves. It must result from our experience rather than from our belief. To help with this discovery process, we are introduced in the beginning to many Theosophical concepts, such as consciousness, motion, and matter. He suggests that there is a reality beyond space and time. Another view is that our life is not separated from the divine life, but at one with it, and the whole universe comes into being by the creative power of motion.

These could be strange concepts to some, but are handled skillfully and clearly in these early chapters. This is done because this background is needed to understand the Theosophical approach such as karma. Since one of the founders of the Theosophical Society (TS), Madame Blavatsky, says, "… karma is the fundamental law of the universe" it seems imperative that we grasp its meaning. Before we simply assume we understand this profound statement, Abdill gives us this clear warning: "If we claim to understand how karma works, we are being either too naive or too sure of ourselves." In reading this, I was struck by how much he sounded like some of the Theosophical giants that have come before us. In the chapter titled "What Survives Death?" Ed discusses, among other things, the previously mentioned concept of karma, and also dharma. He writes that dharma is: "the inner purpose of life. It is an inner pressure that moves us in the best direction to confront and neutralize the selected karmic charge from the past." I have felt for years that dharma rather than karma is more important in our incarnations and this is what we should he focusing on. Abdill supports this approach with the following:

When we fulfill our dharma, or at least as much of it as we can, it is likely that we die. Life's purpose ended, we assimilate the lessons learned and begin a new adventure when we are reborn.

How much clearer can you be? After we fulfill our dharma, we die!

The current President of the Theosophical Society in America, Betty Bland, has written that Ed's book shows a recognizable influence of Emily Sellon and Fritz and Dora Kunz. These are indeed three of the Theosophical giants that came before us. I did not know Fritz, but knew and worked with Dora for over a decade on a number of projects. Emily quite often was involved in many of those projects. From Emily, I learned that one could write and say things very clearly using only a small number of words. I saw Emily's influence not only in the above example of explaining dharma, but also the statement of being naïve in understanding karma.

Continuing with contemporary language, Ed explains basic Theosophy as presented in Madame Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine (SD). Using the three fundamental propositions as given in the SD, we tackle certain conundrums as "Be-ness." We take the Theosophical view that we are the eternal self; a point in unconditioned consciousness. We have a very clear discussion of the spiritual soul and animal soul using more Theosophical words such as buddhi-manas and kama-manas, These concepts are never easy to grasp, especially in reading the SD. However, Ed's book continues to be as concise and clear as any I have read recently.

If you have ever wondered how our body is formed and what holds it together in this life, Ed gives Blavatsky's claim of a surrounding dynamic force field that a clairvoyant can sense and probably see. Again, using her Sanskrit words such as linga sharira, he updates them into the more familiar etheric double, etc. This continues until he has told us what constitutes the "human aura." Then he explains in a Theosophical way what happens to all of this when we die.

In the second half of the book, Ed is now able to discuss the values and virtues of living a Theosophical life. After a brief history of Blavatsky, the TS, and the Mahatmas Letters, we have a number of chapters with familiar themes that a Theosophist would recognize. These include a world view, the path, study, meditation, and service. In the closing chapters further studies are suggested along with some excellent advice in the form of embedded pithy statements. It is worth your time to dig these out and meditate on them every day. Some of my favorites are:

The true Theosophist will develop a deep appreciation of the changing world, but a calm indifference to the changes.

Compassion is not pity.

The fruits of a Theosophical life are ever-increasing inner peace and outer joy.

There are some minor errors that could be expected in any first printing. For example, the famous chemist (incorrectly identified as a theoretical physicist) and Theosophist, Sir William Crookes, is identified in the Index as on page 120. In reality, he is on page 121. There is nothing serious here except that a number of other famous Theosophists are also off by a page in the same paragraph. Perhaps something that could be considered more serious is the omission of William Quan Judge as one of the founding members of the modern day Theosophical Society. This could have been easily noted on page 2 or 121.

In a short piece, Madame Blavatsky wrote about a "Steep and Thorny Road." In it, she says,

[This road] leads to the very heart of the Universe. I can tell you how to find those who will show you the secret gateway that opens inwardly only…

Ed's book is an excellent start to finding this "secret gateway." Or, for those already on the path, it could prove to be a very clear up-to-date road map.


November/December 2007

Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend. Translated by the Padamakara Translation Group with commentary by Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2005. Paperback, 208 pages.

This is an English translation of the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit text called Suhrllekha, literally "Letter to a friend". The original letter was written in 123 four-line stanzas. Its translation and appended commentary are by the Rinpoche. For those able to read Tibetan, the original text, alternating with a running translation, is included as well as a lined index of the Tibetan text. The Sanskrit original has apparently been lost as is, unfortunately, the case with a number of other important Buddhist philosophical works. The book contains ninety-three footnotes to help the reader better understand some of the ideas. A photograph of the Tibetan translator, who died in 1975, is also included.

The friend in question was King Surabhibhadra (also known by several other names), one of several early rulers in the Andhra area of central India. And, of course, Nagarjuna was one of the most important Indian Buddhist philosophers, associated with the philosophic system known as Madhyamika ("The Middle Way"). He is credited with being the author of several other important philosophic works and a very good outline of his ideas may be found in T. R. V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (1955). He is said to have lived in South India in either the first or the second centuries of the common era. He is also supposed to have later incarnated as the Mahatma known in theosophical literature as K. H. or Kuthumi (anglicized as Koot Hoomi), one of the principal inner founders of The Theosophical Society and author of most of the letters published as The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. As such, this book ought to be of interest to serious students of theosophy. But it is not for the casual reader.

I have read some of Nagarjuna's works both in translation and in Sanskrit-as well as his letters to Sinnett and find it difficult to believe he would have written this particular poetic work, especially the rather gruesome descriptions of various hells, which read more like some Christian descriptions rather than Buddhist or theosophical ones. Perhaps the author's purpose was to make the descriptions of hell overly dramatic in order to motivate the king to adopt a benevolent policy. Since that particular king is not generally mentioned by most writers on ancient India (e.g. A. L. Basham, The Wonder that Was India, 1954), we have no way of knowing whether Nagarjuna's advice was taken.

The book is very well done and has a handsome dust jacket. The translation and commentary are lovely and easy to follow. But the book is for the serious student, not for the occasional theosophical reader.


November/December 2007

Sophia Sutras: Introducing Mother Wisdom. By Carol E. Parrish-Harra. Tahlequah, OK: Sparrow Hawk Press, 2006. Paperback, 290 pages.

In April, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Carol Parrish, when she was lecturing in Asheville, North Carolina. Carol is a graceful and generous spiritual teacher, best known as Dean of the Sancta Sophia Seminary for the past thirty years. Her spiritual journey began with a near-death experience in 1958, the story of which she recounted in her autobiography, Messengers of Hope. She told me:

Carol Parrish-Harra: I knew from my near-death experience, which was fifty years ago next year, that I was related to the Divine Feminine and that was powerful in me, even though I had no feminist theology or thoughts. I didn't even know what that meant at the time.

JP: Over the years since, Carol has often written about the feminine side of God, perhaps most notably in The Aquarian Rosary, but she has turned sustained attention to the topic in the current volume.

CP: What I wanted to do with my book was to introduce people to Sophia the way I know her. I feel that she is with us always at the edge of our mind, that she moves with us and through us and moves us in all these ways that we never rationalize and we never understand. She just touches and prompts and pats and whispers, and then we say, "Oh! Yes, I have had that thought." I wanted to write with her own style. Each of us has our style. Knowing Sophia has a style…She slips into our lives and disappears. It is like a window opens for just a minute. It is an essence. The book took me three years-I collected little thoughts, ideas, bits and pieces. When I had time, I would connect them, allowing the prompting of that presence in my life put the book together.

JP: The book feels verymuch like a conversation between friends, with short chapters reflecting on topics from Creation to Darkness to Grace. The text is punctuated with illuminating quotes, carefully chosen illustrations, and instructions for meditation. It is not a systematic work, and is best encountered in short bits in connection with inner work. It can also be read as time allows, choosing a chapter at random.

CP: It isn't a rational book. So much of our life is not rational. If we were totally rational beings, we would never fall in love, certainly never have children, never start a business. These things cost too much. They take too much out of us. They are too risky, too demanding. They impede us in so many ways that we say we're not going to be bothered. And yet we fall in love, we start things, we do all this strange stuff that makes life wonderful and exciting. But most of it is not rational-it is the flavoring, the spice, all these other things. And I think that is the role Sophia brings to us.

JP: Carol has drawn from an enormous variety of sources:

CP: I think the overriding factor about myself is that I am very curious. I feel like we should use wisdom from anywhere.

JP: Nonetheless, any Theosophist will quickly recognize many connections to the traditions flowing from Blavatsky and the TS. Carol told me about a significant spiritual experience, early on her journey. In recounting this epiphany to a friend, he suggested she get in touch with the Theosophical Society:

CP: I asked, "What is the Theosophical Society?" He gave me the address of a library in St. Petersburg. I went to the library, very eager with questions I had been holding for five years, but the elderly librarians did not want to talk to me. One man told me I was too young, and that I should come back in twenty years. It was not a good start with Theosophy, but then I found Leadbeater’s book, TheMasters and the Path. I thought to myself, "Wow! Here it is!"

JP: I was pleased to hear that Carol continues writing, along with her work with the Light of Christ Community Church, Sparrow Hawk Village, and Sancta Sophia Seminary, sharing her wisdom and experience in many forms.

CP: Our world has had too many priests and teachers and leaders who have never had an experience, and that is part of what is wrong. We want to help them find that experience.

November/December 2007