Reflections on Light on the Path

Originally printed in the July - August 2004 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Ellwood, Robert. "Reflections on Light on the Path." Quest  92.4 (JULY - AUGUST 2004):134-138.

By Robert Ellwood

Theosophical Society - Robert Ellwood is emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California and a former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America. He currently resides at the Krotona School of Theosophy.Light on the Path, together with At the Feet of the Master and The Voice of the Silence, is generally considered one of the three great short Theosophical classics of the spiritual path. Admittedly this book, transmitted through Mabel Collins, is not an easy read. I imagine I am not the only person to open this work and be put off by the famous, or infamous, opening lines about making the eyes incapable of tears, and the uncompromising list of usually admired qualities to "kill out": ambition, desire of life, desire of comfort, sense of separateness, sensation, hunger for growth. At best these might seem like admonitions suitable only for the most renunciatory of yogins, like those who hang themselves from hooks or live on only a handful of rice a day.

Yet as I have studied the book over and over, aided by such great teachers of its wisdom as Radha Burnier, who taught the book at Olcott some three years ago, and N. Sri Ram in The Way of Wisdom, I have come to see more and more power in, behind, and beneath its words, and more and more richness in its spare but forceful images, until I now would classify Light on the Path among the great spiritual treasures of the world. Indeed, I would assert that very, very few such books pack as much into as few pages as does the basic text of Light on the Path — only the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali come to mind. Not only that, but I would now say that, far from being grimly negative, Light on the Path offers a supremely, gloriously hopeful inner education, one that does not shrink from what needs to be done but proclaims the wonderful news that there is a way, that it is open to all, that the Path is well lit for those with eyes to see its light, and that at the end "its light will suddenly become the infinite light." How much more buoyant, how much more splendid, could the prospects for our oft-discouraging human journey be?

To be sure, as Sri Ram reminds us, this volume is for those who set foot on the Path in an inwardly serious and uncompromising way. It is not for beginners, or those who want one foot in each camp, worldly and spiritual, or for those whom the spiritual life is only a hobby or a subtle version of egotism. It is for those willing to do whatever it takes — but, I would add, whose enthusiasm for this great adventure is so compelling and so joyous as to make the sacrifices small in comparison. So it is that, amid the strict admonitions, Light on the Path intersperses sufficient invocations of the infinite light at the end to sustain our spirits. It like hiking down a, seemingly interminable trail in deep woods, going on and on through a green corridor of trees with little visibility on either side, becoming weary and perhaps discouraged of getting anywhere — until suddenly we break out onto a high pass that brings into sight imposing vistas: range after range of snowy peaks, deep valleys, and lush meadows under an infinite blue sky lit by a brilliant sun. This panorama thrills us with the awesome dimensions of whence we have come and the splendor of where we are going. We pause, and the weariness is gone amid the wonder and the renewed vitality.

Let us now look at Light on the Path and review what it actually says before continuing with Sri Ram's and our own exposition of it. It begins by telling us that "these rules are written for all disciples" and that we must attend to them. Then we are told that "before the eyes can see they must be incapable of tears"; the ear must have lost its sensitivity and the voice its power to wound; and the soul must have been washed in the blood of the heart. Next, as though to warn us about what it takes to reach those awesome ideals, we are instructed what to kill out: again, ambition, desire of life, desire of comfort, sense of separateness, desire for sensation, hunger for growth. What we should desire instead is "only that which is within you," "only that which is beyond you," "only that which unattainable." Moreover, we are instructed to "desire power ardently," "desire peace fervently," "desire possessions above all," and, as though to deal with such seemingly contradictory, crazy-making commands, "seek out the way by retreating within," and "by advancing boldly without."

The answer is to "seek it not by any one road" but rather to "seek it by plunging into the mysterious and glorious depths of your own inmost being." (7—8) Many ladders and byways attend such a path as this. The virtues, even the vices as they are surmounted, are means, and one can make progress only as one "grasps his whole individuality firmly" and "is to himself absolutely the way." In time, the light will grow stronger, and "you may know that you have found the beginning of the way." Finally, that light "will suddenly become the infinite light." Changing the metaphor, we can then "look for the flower to bloom in the silence that follows the storm," and a great calm will come, "such as comes in a tropical country after the heavy rain." (8—9)

This is the end of the first part of Light on the Path. There is a second part, which begins ominously: "Out of the silence that is peace a resonant voice shall arise. And this voice will say, It is not well; thou hast reaped, now thou must sow." (11) There is a coming battle, and in this battle the disciple is not to be the warrior but is to look for the warrior and let him or her fight within the aspirant, only obeying his orders. We are to be unconcerned about this battle, save to do the bidding of the warrior within, knowing that the warrior cannot lose. As the fight continues, the sounds of a song become more and more audible to your ears. At first they are only fragments, but gradually this song becomes vibrant and full. This is the music of life itself, the greatest teacher of all. In what are perhaps the finest lines of all in Light on the Path, we are told: "Life itself has speech and is never silent. And its utterance is not, as you that are deaf may suppose, a cry: it is a song. Learn from it that you are a part of the harmony; learn from it to obey the laws of the harmony." (13)

It is with this magnificent theme that the book essentially ends, as it tells us it is from the song of life, from one's own heart and those of others, as well as from "the earth, the air, and the water," that we learn the deepest secrets out of which inner development will arise. Of such human, and perhaps other, teachers, the notes to Light on the Path tell us, in another famous line, "Intelligence is impartial: no man is your enemy: no man is your friend. All alike are your teachers. Your enemy becomes a mystery that must be solved, even though it takes ages." (27) No wonder we are told that this is a path made up of many paths, not to be sought on any one road.

Furthermore, some of those teachers may teach without speech. The mysterious last words of the book are, "Listen only to the voice which is soundless. Look only on that which is invisible alike to the inner and the outer sense. Peace be with you." (17)

What are we to make of this strange treatise, which often seems superficially contradictory and yet is splendidly coherent on some deep, almost inexpressible level? How does one approach a book that, the comments say, if read in the normal way "may appear to have some little philosophy in it, but very little sense," and must be read not only between the lines "but within the words," that is, read as if "deciphering a profound cipher"? (29)

Sri Ram's approach, in a brilliant insight, is that, for all its seeming rigor, what Light on the Path is really saying is that following the Path is simply living a truly natural life. (Sri Ram 89) The text says, "Grow as the flower grows, unconsciously, but eagerly anxious to open its soul to the air. So must you press forward to open your soul to the eternal. But it must be the eternal that draws forth your strength and beauty, not desire of growth." (5)

Our part is to clear away the obstacles so that life and spirituality may unfold spontaneously, for the seed is already within, teeming with incipient life and beauty. But we must have the courage to let this priceless flower bloom of its own, without hindrance or forcing, and—in the book's other metaphor—to let the melodies of our own anthem resound in response to, and in harmony with, the song of life.

Our songs, like our lives, are affairs of many notes and counterpoints, sometimes dissonances which must be resolved, and it is this reality which lies behind the seeming contradictions of the book. Mabel Collins, in her comments on its teaching, says as much: ""Light on the Path' has been called a book of paradoxes, and very justly; what else could it be, when it deals with actual personal experience of the disciple?" (60)

But naturalness is easier said than done. Deeply embedded are the habits, the socially ingrained conventions and defensive personality quirks, the fears and lusts emanating from the world and the astral plane, that want to stifle that growth or twist it into unnatural shapes, like a plant growing in an overcrowded field or trying to follow shifting light. To be truly natural, easily and freely and yet lovingly spontaneous, is no simple task for those of us so deeply conditioned by our darkened world and, we in Theosophy would add, so readily ensnared by images and attachments coming to us from the desire realm or astral plane.

How do we know the difference between the natural and unnatural desires? First, let us recall that what is truly bodily delight is what is natural to the body in its simple, straightforward, nonverbal character; what is added on by fevered imagination and fantasy is from the brain, not the flesh, and so is of a lower spiritual—actually, lower astral—origin. The body itself wants only plain, wholesome, natural food and drink; excessive and exquisite substances catering to pampered tastes, or which supposedly affirm one's prosperity or lifestyle, or which answer to craving for intoxication or drug dreams, honor not the body but fantasies concocted on the low level from which ordinary dreams and fantasies come, and they distort our honest body/spirit nature as truly as does excessive and unhealthy asceticism. We may recall the wise and mysterious lines of the Isha Upanishad:

To darkness are they doomed who devote themselves only to life in the world, and to a greater darkness they who devote themselves only to meditation. . . .To darkness are they doomed who worship only the body, and to greater darkness they who worship only the spirit. . . .They who worship both the body and spirit, by the body overcome death, and by the spirit achieve immortality. (Prabhavananda and Manchester 27—28)

This is the task that is set before us. Personal transformation is the pathway of Theosophy and all quests for Truth. With sustained effort we can regulate our attitudes and actions, and little by little we can change our keynote to one of compassion and concern for all. Then the vibration of our being will be able to permeate the atmosphere, not with the distress of a siren, but with the call to responsible living and the music of altruism.

Hast thou attuned thy heart and mind to the great mind and heart of all mankind? For as the sacred River's roaring voice whereby all Nature-sounds are echoed back, so must the heart of him "who in the stream would enter," thrill in response to every sigh and thought of all that lives and breathes.

—Voice of the Silence

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