The Theosophical Society in America

Theosophy's Most Holy and Important Mission

By John Algeo

Originally printed in the MAY JUNE 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Algeo, John. "Theosophy's Most Holy and Important Mission." Quest  95.3 (MAY-JUNE 2007):
93-99.

John Algeo

Toward the end of her life, H. P. Blavatsky became a veritable fountain of wisdom. To be sure, she was a wise woman and a productive one. But she became quite phenomenal in her literary output between May 1, 1887, when she moved to London, and May 8, 1891, when she died. During those four years, she produced more than half of the material contained in the fourteen volumes of her Collected Writings. 

In addition, during those four years, she was clearly thinking about her own coming departure from this world and feeling concern about the fate of Theosophy in the hands of the Theosophists she would leave behind. Because of that thinking and feeling, she made five bequests to her Theosophical children. First, she published The Secret Doctrine, a book of teaching for students who want to know about the cosmos and the place of human beings in it; this massive work supplemented and corrected the partial information contained in earlier books, like Esoteric Buddhism, by A. P. Sinnett. Second, she founded the Esoteric School of Theosophy to provide a discipline of life for those who wish to follow it. Third, she wrote The Key to Theosophy, an introductory catechism for inquirers. Fourth, she transcribed The Voice of the Silence, a guidebook to walking the mystical path. Those were four of the five remarkable bequests HPB produced during those four anni mirabiles, four marvelous years.

As an aside, those four marvelous years might never have occurred except for a personal disaster in HPB's life. She had to leave Adyar because of her health and a series of unfortunate events involving the Society for Psychical Research. She and others regarded her departure from the international center of the Society as a very great misfortune. But while she was at Adyar, her attention was required for various administrative matters and the pressure of many demands on her time. In Europe, and especially in England, she had the help of others, such as the Countess Wachtmeister, the Keightley uncle and nephew pair, and later G. R. S. Mead and Annie Besant. Without their help, HPB would not have been able to do the remarkable amount of work she did during those last years of her life.

There is a phenomenon that we might call the Mystery of History, by which apparent disasters have a positive and marvelous result. In 1453, the Turks conquered Constantinople and ended the Eastern Roman Empire; but a consequence of that disaster was that the scholars of Constantinople fled westward, bringing with them ancient Greek manuscripts of philosophy and literature, which became the basis for the Western European Renaissance. Similarly, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isobel of Castile unified Spain, drove out the Moors, and exiled all the Jews who would not convert to Christianity; those exiled Jews included Masters of the Kabbalah who fled to Italy and Palestine, where the Kabbalah was expanded, communicated to others, and entered the stream of the Renaissance. Much later, in 1950, the Chinese conquered Tibet, and Tibetan monks, including the Dalai Lama, fled southward into India; the Tibetan exile introduced much wisdom that had been hidden in the vastness of the Himalayas to the rest of the world. So, apparent disasters sometimes result in great benefits. So it was with HPB's departure from Adyar, which made possible the four marvelous years.

However, during those marvelous years—that really amazing final period that culminated her life—HPB also produced a fifth bequest. She wrote three messages to American conventions, which were then meeting in Chicago and Boston. Those three messages may seem minor, compared with the other four major bequests of The Secret Doctrine, the Esoteric School, The Key to Theosophy, and The Voice of the Silence. Yet collectively, those three messages amount to a charter or a set of directions for Theosophists and the Theosophical Society. They were directed to the American Section in particular, but most of their content is applicable to all Theosophists in the world and to all Sections of the Society because, just as all human beings are basically the same, so are all Theosophical groups. We have our individual characters and our personal peculiarities; but under the skin, beneath the surface, people and groups of people are all very much alike.

My remarks will touch on only a few of the many important points addressed by Madame Blavatsky in those letters she wrote to the American conventions of 1888, 1889, and 1891. In 1890, she was too sick to write at all, so Bertram Keightley spoke instead on her behalf. The 1891 message is especially notable as being one of the last things HPB penned before her death. It was written sometime before April 1, when Annie Besant sailed from Liverpool to the U.S., bringing that message with her. The only article in the Collected Writings whose composition can be documented as later than the 1891 message to America is one entitled "My Books," published in the May 1891 issue of Lucifer, the month HPB died, where its signature line is dated April 27. However, by that date HPB was already suffering from the influenza that was to prove fatal just eleven days later, so much of the article was probably written earlier. The 1891 message is one of the last things HPB wrote and, as such, has a special importance among her bequests to us.

The picture of Theosophy and of the Theosophical Society that emerges from HPB's three messages to America is rather different in focus and emphasis from the view of Theosophy held by many persons, both inside and outside our Society. Those messages say very little directly about Theosophical ideas or concepts, but they say much about Theosophical living.

In her very first letter to America, HPB speaks of Theosophy's "most holy and most important mission," which is "to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work, not on a labor with selfish motives."

It is perhaps noteworthy that the mission of uniting people of all nations in love and work for others is one she attributes, not to the Theosophical Society, but instead to Theosophy, the Divine Wisdom. This is the first thing I want to point out in these Messages to America, namely, the primacy of Theosophy over the Theosophical Society. To be sure, our Society is in fact "The Theosophical Society," and its first Object is to form a nucleus of universal Brotherhood. So the Society is certainly connected with this "most holy and most important mission." However, all human organizations are imperfect and incomplete and will therefore inevitably falter in their organized pursuit of that "most holy and most important mission." The fact that human organizations are flawed is, however, not a reason for scorning or neglecting them, because they are a way of improving ourselves collectively. Human organizations are useful, even though severely limited as a means of achieving our holy and important mission.

The most important thing in life is to realize wholeness or holiness, which are the same thing. I have pointed this out before in other contexts, but a great truth is worth repeating. The English words whole and holy are the same in origin and in meaning. They are also identical in origin with the words health and hale (that's h-a-l-e, meaning "healthy"). All those words come from the same Old English word, hal. To be "hale" or "healthy," we must be "whole," not divided or fragmented. And to be "whole" is to be "holy." Remember that the process of becoming "whole" is called in Sanskrit "yoga," a word related to English "yoke" and signifying literally "to join, connect, or unify," that is, "to make whole or holy."

Holiness is not a matter of wearing a saintly halo. It is a matter of being completely and fully human. Most of us are not yet fully human. We are only on the way to becoming so. Those who are fully human are the ones we call the Mahatmas, the Great Souls, or Masters. They are called Masters because they have mastered themselves by getting themselves fully together, making themselves holy, that is, whole.

Human organizations, including the Theosophical Society, are not capable themselves of producing holiness or anything else of ultimate importance. Human organizations are tools we can use to find our way to what is really important, but they do not produce it. The source of holiness and of importance is the Divine Wisdom, Theosophy. And it is not to be found in the Theosophical Society, although it may be found through the Society. Theosophy is to be found in our own hearts and minds.

Our hearts and our minds are, however, not two things, but one. Theosophists sometimes talk about "heart people" and "head people." "Heart people" are supposed to be those who feel and so are soft and cuddly, and "head people" are supposed to be those who think and so are hard and prickly. That dichotomy, like all dichotomies, is false. The first English poet whose name we know, namely the seventh-century lay brother Caedmon, wrote a "Hymn of Creation," which is a little gem that ranks in quality with the best of its kind, including the "Stanzas of Dzyan." It begins like this:

 

Nu sculon herigean     heofonrices weard
Metodes meahte        and his modgethanc.

 

That fourteen-hundred-year-old verse means "Now we shall praise the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven, the might of the Maker and his heart-thought." The last word in those two lines is what merits your attention: modgethanc, which means "heart-thought." Heart and head, mood and mind, feeling and thinking—they are not two things, but one, as Caedmon recognized. Our heart and our head go together, as do our mood and our mind, our feeling and thinking.

To designate the indivisible union of what we do with our hearts and heads, our modgethanc, as the Old English put it, we can adopt a term used by Gina Cerminara and Joy Mills: "flinking." We could, of course, use modgethanc, that ancient word of our linguistic ancestors, who knew better about some things than we do. But we can also use the neologism "flinking." That word, which blends its two sources, feeling and thinking, into one, would doubtless have been cheerfully embraced by the great mathematician, word-blender, and esotericist, Lewis Carroll.

Carroll was a mathematics don at Oxford, but he also invented some blended words that have entered the language and are now recorded in English dictionaries, such as chortle (from chuckle and snort). He was even the source of a term for such words, namely, "portmanteaus." A portmanteau is an old-fashioned suitcase with two sides, each of which can be packed separately but that fold up into a single piece of luggage. In his glorious fantasy Through the Looking Glass, Carroll explained that words like chortle or flinking are "like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word."

Now, what I have been telling you may seem like a digression. If so, remember that digressions are the prerogative of old men and of superannuated professors. But actually all this apparent digression is relevant to the point at hand. Carroll was not only a professional mathematician and an author of children's books who loved to play with words and make up portmanteaus. He was also an esotericist.

In addition to his well-known Alice books, Carroll wrote a series of short stories and eventually two novels about a pair of characters called Sylvie and Bruno. These works are about the connection and interaction of our ordinary world with another world of quite a different sort, a world of nature spirits, fairies, or elementals—an astral world. In the preface to his second novel, Carroll writes that the theory behind these stories is that of the existence of a "Fairy-world" (that is, the astral plane), of which human beings can become conscious and which they can actually visit. He cites A. P. Sinnett's book Esoteric Buddhism as an exposition of such ideas. Carroll also posits three levels of human consciousness, which are what we would call ordinary sensory perception, clairvoyance, and astral travel during sleep or trance.

Carroll's actual words from the preface to his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) are as follows:

It may interest some of my Readers to know the theory on which this story is constructed. It is an attempt to show what might possibly happen, supposing that Fairies really existed; and that they were sometimes visible to us, and we to them; and that they were sometimes able to assume human form: and supposing, also, that human beings might sometimes become conscious of what goes on in the Fairy-world—by actual transference of their immaterial essence, such as we meet with in 'Esoteric Buddhism'.

 

I have supposed a Human being to be capable of various psychical states, with varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:
(a) the ordinary state, with no consciousness of the presence of Fairies;(b) the 'eerie' state, in which, while conscious of actual surroundings, he is also conscious of the presence of Fairies;
(c) a form of trance, in which, while unconscious of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep, he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies.

 

An essential element of Theosophy is its assertion of the unity, the wholeness or holiness, of life, of matter, and of consciousness. That unity is set forth most notably in the first Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine, but it echoes throughout all Theosophy. That unity is affirmed in Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, where the ordinary world and the fairy or astral world intersect and can be experienced by the inhabitants of both worlds. It is articulated by the portmanteau word, in which "there are two meanings packed up into one." It is realized in the process of "flinking" or by modgethanc, feeling and thinking combined as a single action of heart-thought.

Our hearts and our minds are one thing. We are one thing. We do not have to achieve unity, wholeness, or holiness, because we are essentially unified, whole, and holy. We do not need any human organization, even the Theosophical Society, to have a mission of bringing us to holy wholeness. We are already there. We need only to realize that existing reality. Unity, wholeness, and holiness do not spring from any organization. They are our own inmost essence. Our essence includes the Divine Wisdom, Theosophy. The Wisdom of Theosophy is inside every one of us. It is inside every being in the cosmos. Unity, wholeness, or holiness pervades the universe. It is all there is. As the great mantra of the Gita puts it: Om tat sat, which might be translated (somewhat freely) as, "Ah, that's the way it is!" We need only to wake up to that reality.

And so, as HPB says, Theosophy's "most holy and most important mission" is "to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work, not on a labor with selfish motives." She goes on to say that "every association has hitherto failed to accomplish" this mission. No association can accomplish it. It can be accomplished only when the heart-thought, the "flinking," the modgethanc of every one of us is awake to the reality of unity.

Associations like the Theosophical Society do have a role to play. They can point to the Path. Yet, as The Voice of the Silence says, "Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself." Becoming the Path is becoming aware of the Divine Wisdom, the Theosophy, within ourselves. And that is the resolution of the great apparent dichotomy between HPB's words "There is a Path" and Krishnamurti's words "Truth is a pathless land." Which is it? Is there a Path? Or is there no path in the land through which we travel? The answer is that both statements are true. The land outside of us is pathless. The Path exists only within. Or, as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it:

 

caminante no hay camino
se hace camino al andar.

 

That is, "Traveler, there is no trail; you make the trail by walking it."

And what is the end of the trail that we make by walking? What is the end of the Path that we ourselves have become? Madam Blavatsky's powerfully moving statement "There is a Path" answers that question.

There is a road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a road, and it 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 inward only, and closes fast behind the neophyte for evermore. There is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer; there is no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through; there is no difficulty that strong intellect cannot surmount. For those who win onwards there is reward past all telling—the power to bless and save humanity; for those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come.

The end of the Path is "the power to bless and save humanity." It is the mission identified by HPB in her first Message to America: "to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work, not on a labor with selfish motives." It is, as she also says in that same message, "the common cause—that of helping mankind."

In her second (1889) message, HPB continues to emphasize altruism. She writes:

"ALTRUISM" . . . is the keynote of Theosophy and the cure for all ills; this it is which the real Founders of the Theosophical Society promote as its first object— UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD.

She also quotes what she calls "golden words" from a letter of one of the Masters:

There is no happiness for one who is ever thinking of Self and forgetting all other Selves. . . . would you be partakers of Divine Wisdom or true Theosophists? Then do as the gods when incarnated do. Feel yourselves the vehicles of the whole humanity, mankind as part of yourselves, and act accordingly.

Those "golden words" are intensely practical, as I discovered early during my term as national president of the American Section. When I came into the office here at Olcott, I was surprised to discover that in addition to the administrative duties I had anticipated, there was another I had not foreseen, namely serving as father-confessor to prescribe spiritual remedies for those in need of such assistance. I used to receive telephone calls from members with problems of various kinds, asking me what to do about those problems. My first impulse was to say that I did not have the faintest idea what anyone else should do about their problems; I was just an ex-English-teacher, not a guru. But I realized immediately that such a response was inappropriate. Being president entails presiding over problems of many kinds. It entails performing as a father- (or mother-) confessor when called upon to respond in that role. So I drew upon these "gold words" of the Master, that "There is no happiness for one who is ever thinking of Self and forgetting all other Selves." The best way to deal with personal problems is to stop being concerned about oneself and start being concerned about others. The prescription for most personal woes is to concentrate on helping others who are in yet greater woe.

All of this is emphasizing one central theme: Theosophy, the Divine Wisdom, is planted in the heart of every person and is therefore available to everyone who "flinks" or uses the modgethanc, the heart-mind. That inner Theosophy calls us to a state of mind and heart in which we live, not for ourselves alone, but for humanity as a whole. For as we are individually wholes, so is humanity another whole. And the part cannot be healthy or holy unless the whole of which it is a part is also healthy and holy.

Theosophy tells us that ultimately we are not our personalities. We are not even our individualities. We are the Monad. The word monad is from Greek, meaning "One." The Monad is the Unity; there is only one of it. And all of us are expressions of that Monad, or Adam Kadmon, as the Kabbalah calls it. But what does that bit of Theosophical theory imply in practice? Every theoretical idea has practical consequences. The practical consequence of the theory of the ultimate unity of matter, consciousness, and life is precisely what we have been talking about: Theosophy's "most holy and most important mission—namely, to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work, not on a labor with selfish motives."

Theosophy calls us to rise above the things that divide us: religion, nationalism, race, and so on. Theosophy calls us to cease thinking of ourselves primarily as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, or Sikhs. Theosophy calls us to cease thinking of ourselves primarily as Americans, Britons, Canadians, Mexicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, or Chinese. Theosophy calls us to cease thinking of ourselves primarily as white, black, brown, red, or yellow. Indeed, Theosophy calls us to stop thinking of ourselves primarily at all. Theosophy calls us, as the Master wrote, to think and feel, to "flink" of ourselves with out heart-minds as "the vehicles of the whole humanity" and of humanity as part of ourselves . . . and to act accordingly.

This is not what Christian theologians call a "counsel of perfection," that is, something so difficult that it is not required of ordinary persons, but only of those who aspire to supernatural perfection. This is not that at all. Thinking, feeling, and acting Unity—this is what the Divine Wisdom inside each one of us is calling us to do. Nothing could be more natural than what Theosophy calls us to do. The great religious teachers have always taught it. And even contemporary secular scholars are now pointing the same way. Science now tells us that all human beings share essentially the same genetic code. Indeed, all living beings share the same fundamental genetic patterns. All biological life is literally one. Analytical psychologists in the tradition of Carl Jung tell us that all human beings share a common unconscious mind, filled with archetypes that manifest in diverse ways but are recognizably the same all over the world. We have the same bodies, the same dreams, and the same visions.

But note two things: First, Unity does not mean uniformity. And second, altruism (a concern for others) does not mean self-neglect. Let us begin with the second: that a concern for others and a concern for oneself are not incompatible. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: concern for others and concern for ourselves are indissolubly intertwined. It is not a question of either-or, but of where we place our focus. The great first-century Rabbi Hillel dealt masterfully with the balance of concern for self and concern for others in an epigram that is a good subject for daily meditation. He said:

 

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself only, what am I?
If not now, when?

 

Hillel's questions have the same point and the same urging to immediacy as Christ's second greatest commandment: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." We cannot love another if we do not also love ourselves. HPB makes the same point when she talks about doing "perfect justice to others as to oneself" (1888). But remember, to love is to do "perfect justice"; it is not to feel emotion about someone or something; to love is to "flink" the Unity of humanity, to recognize with one's heart-mind that we are all interconnected, so none of us can be whole until all of us are whole. To love is the fourth of the qualifications for entering the Path, about which the Master told the young Krishnamurti, "Of all the qualifications, love is the most important, for if it is strong enough in us, it forces us to acquire all the rest, and all the rest without it would never be sufficient." To love is the point of The Voice of the Silence's "Two Paths," namely that the bodhisattva vow to work for the liberation of all beings is the only way we can become truly liberated ourselves.

So concern for others, or altruism, and concern for oneself do not conflict. Indeed, they are mutually implicative. Each supposes the other.

Now, the second thing: Unity does not mean uniformity. A garden that contains many flowers, but all of the same kind—all, let us say, the same variety of rose—is not a garden that will delight. Delight in a garden come from variety, not uniformity. The Victorian English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem about the importance of variety. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, so his poem is an outpouring of praise to a theistic God, whom he regards as the creative source of the glorious variety in the world. The poem is called "Pied Beauty," in which "pied" means "parti-colored" or "combining many colors." There are some other unusual words in the poem, but just let its music and images flow over you. Hopkins wrote, ecstatically:

 

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

 

Now, let us move from Hopkin's expansive exaltation to a humbler and more domestic illustration. A soup with only one ingredient will not delight the taste buds. There is a Confucian story about that, which I cited in an article (entitled "Discord Is the Harmony of the Universe") published last year in both the Theosophist and the Quest. But as the story is relevant to this point, I will retell it here, in different and updated words.

A Confucian scholar once visited the ruler of one of the many Chinese states of ancient times. The ruler of that state got into a conversation with the scholar, in which the ruler complained about the difficulty he had in finding good ministers to help him with the government of the state. The ruler lamented that, of all his ministers of state, only one of them, named Chu, was harmonious with him.

The Confucian scholar surprised the ruler when he responded, "All Chu does is to agree with whatever you say. There is no harmony in that."

The ruler raised his eyebrows and said, "What do you mean? Surely to agree is to be in harmony!"

And the scholar replied, "Not at all, not at all. Harmony is like making soup. You start with a pot of water to which you add carrots, potatoes, parsley, turnips, onions, oregano and all sorts of other vegetables and seasonings. Then you cook it for a while, and then you taste it. If it's too bland, you add more spices to season it. If it's too thick or too savory, you add water to dilute it. And so eventually you have a pot of delicious soup.

"The relationship between a ruler and his minister is like that. When the ruler wants to do something that might be a problem, the minister points out what problems may arise and suggests ways to avoid them, or cautions the ruler to do something else instead. When the ruler wants to do something that is useful, but doesn't have a good plan for accomplishing it, the minister suggests effective ways of doing it well. And thus the state is well governed, and the people are happy.

"But that is not what your minister Chu does. Whatever you say to him, he agrees with. If you want to do something, he says it's a slam-dunk. If you don't want something done, he says not to do it.

"You can't make soup just by adding water to water. Agreement is not harmony. Harmony comes from balancing differences."

That is the Confucian fourth-ray wisdom of producing harmony.

Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, we praise the one source of pied beauty, the Whole, from which glorious variety emanates. Like the Confucian scholar, we do not confuse unity with uniformity, but instead recognize that coordinated diversity is strength. So we can value and rejoice in our many varied religious traditions, without letting them divide us. We can take pride and inspiration from our national origins and traditions, without becoming chauvinistic about them. We can recognize that different races are differently adapted to the environment and so have differing talents, without being prejudiced about them.

So unity does not mean uniformity, and altruism does not mean self-neglect. Glorying in pied beauty, making a decent pot of soup, following the wise words of Rabbi Hillel, and walking the Path with Love in our heart-mind are the only way we can fulfill Theosophy's "most holy and most important mission—namely, to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work, not on a labor with selfish motives." That is the central message of all HPB's Messages to America, and to the world.

To be sure, following that way does involve doing some particular things, which HPB also addressed in her Messages to America, and which we will consider in another article, "Lift High the Torch."