Book Reviews 2017

Out of Darkness: From Chaos to Clarity via Meditation
Cecil Messer
Asheville, N.C.: TwoCrows , 2016; vi + 194 pp., paper, $9. 

Out of Darkness is a warm, engaging approach to the practice of meditation. The author draws from a lifetime of meditative exploration, presenting the reader with a rich panorama of contemplative practices from Eastern and Western traditions. As you read the pages of the book, you get the feeling that the author is speaking directly to you as a fellow traveler on a sacred journey, and without any trace of pedantry or dogma. Since meditation involves art as much as science, the author’s personal touch adds to the overall effectiveness of his presentation.

Cecil Messer, a longtime member of the TS, explains the book’s title as referring to “a movement away from our present status as alienated beings residing in a confused world of our own making.” In the modern world, millions of people live lives that are devoid of real happiness, which leads them to pursue one temporary pleasure after another. Who can argue with the author’s observation that “few people sustain real happiness or experience enduring contentment throughout their lifetime”? For those who chase one micropleasure after another, life is a “perpetual carousel” that leaves them feeling unsettled, confused, and dissatisfied. Hence the book’s subtitle, From Chaos to Clarity via Meditation.

Out of Darkness consists of four sections: an introduction, the Western approach, the Eastern approach, and the integration of both. Each of the fifteen chapters ends with a short meditative practice called a “sitting session.” These fifteen exercises are varied and simple, and progress in nuanced stages. Before attempting any of them, however, the reader is advised to review the “sitting fundamentals,” consisting of ten basic points regarding body position, posture, and so forth. Experienced meditators will be familiar with these preliminaries, but their inclusion is helpful for the novice.

The section on the Western approach includes passing references to Rumi, Thomas Merton, The Secret Doctrine, HPB’s diagram of meditation, The Voice of the Silence, and the Old and New Testaments. In taking such an eclectic approach, it is not the author’s intent to linger or dwell on any one particular point, but to highlight “those religious practices that emphasize and follow the wisdom of the teachings of their religion and lead to a profound renewal of mind and heart.” When this renewal is experienced, the phrase “born again” truly applies, regardless of whether one identifies with the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or any other religious tradition.

Turning to the East, Messer puts the spotlight on the wisdom found in Buddhism, with its emphasis on the Paramitas, and the Yoga Sutras, with Patanjali’s “eight-limbed” system of yoga. He does a skillful job of distilling key points from different philosophical systems, weaving them into one flowing argument that advocates the daily practice of meditation. Since the author describes himself as a practitioner of nonsectarian Buddhism, it is not surprising that he emphasizes Buddhist doctrines. And while technical explanations of terms and systems appear throughout the book, these are interspersed with short stories and anecdotes, all of which serve to keep the reader interested and moving to the next page.

In the opinion of this reviewer, Out of Darkness is an outstanding manual on meditation, but one that will be most beneficial for those just beginning their meditative journey. Throughout the book, the inquisitive reader will find many ideas for further study and inquiry. To maximize the utility of this book, the practitioner is advised to become intimately familiar with each of the fifteen sessions, doing them one at a time, patiently, and without rushing on to the next one. In the words of the author, they are “designed to encourage the practitioner to effortlessly relax into a profoundly subtle and interiorly oriented state.” This is a fine book, and one that I can recommend. My only criticism would be a relatively minor point, namely that the book would benefit from having an index. Perhaps this could be added if a second edition were to be published someday.

David Bruce



The Bhagavad Gita: A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life; A New Translation and Commentary
Ravi Ravindra
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2017. 302 pp., paper, $19.95

When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of external tragedies and if they have not left any visible or invisible effect on me, I owe it to the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita.

—Mahatma Gandhi

 It is rare that an Indian child grows up without the influence of the sacred text known as the Bhagavad Gita. As a young child, I was trained to chant the Gita fluently and entered into chanting competitions. Did we understand the true meaning of what the Gita taught? I am afraid to answer.

At the beginning of this new translation, Ravi Ravindra tells a touching story about how his father used to read Gita in Sanskrit to him. He said to his son at the age of eleven, “I can tell you what these words say, but I don’t know what it really means and I wish for you that you will find a teacher or a teaching that will assist you to understand its real meaning.” I could relate, as it brought back memories of my conversations with my own father on the same journey.

Yes, we understood the story. The Gita is set as a dialogue between the Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer, Lord Krishna. We knew that Arjuna did not want to fight in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, as he saw ones who were dear to him across the battlefield. We heard the teachings Krishna gave (we chanted them so often!), and we heard the terms yoga and swadharma (“doing what is right”—which may vary from individual to individual).

We may not have understood much then, but the seed was planted. So I was not surprised to read about Ravi Ravindra’s drive to understand the deeper meaning of these teachings. Study of the Gita is a lifelong process. Every time one reads it, a new understanding is revealed, another layer of spiritual maturation is discovered. Ravindra’s new commentary and translation of the Gita is the result of this lifelong journey (and probably not a finished one either!).

The list of commentaries on the Gita is endless. Great minds such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, S. Radhakrishnan, Shankaracharya, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Nikhilananda, Chinmayananda, Vinoba Bhave, and Dnyaneshwar have written profound commentaries, both scholarly ones and ones that give us practical advice for our daily life struggles.

The identity of the battlefield depicted in the Gita has produced different views. The one I find most enlightening is the one that says that the dilemma faced by Arjuna and the dilemmas we face in our daily life are not different. Our life too is a battlefield.

Ravindra looks at the Gita as a yoga that is multidimensional. Each chapter in his translation of the Gita is titled “The Yoga of . . . ” It conveys a global view of the Gita as a scripture. The basic guidance from Lord Krishna is “Be firm in yoga and arise.” Arise here also means awakening with knowledge and translating that knowledge into action with wisdom.

Ravindra has spent his life exploring the mystical traditions of the world including Zen, Christianity, yoga, and the teachings of J. Krishnamurthi and G.I. Gurdjieff. This book reflects the depth of Ravindra’s understanding. In an enlightening introduction he first gives us the background of Arjuna’s conflict and says: “The Bhagavad Gita is not about stopping war nor about promoting it. Also it is not about avoiding conflict or renouncing the use of force . . . It is rather about a radical transformation of the warrior in order to be able to engage in the battle consciously and not compulsively or in reaction, to use force without violence, and to fight impartially—without vanity in victory and without regret in defeat.” Isn’t this exactly how we are to face our real-life dilemmas and struggles?

Ravindra quotes the Epistle to the Ephesians: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ravindra’s commentary on the Gita blends in similar teachings from other world traditions throughout. The notes section at the end of the book is a great resource for this, and also provides a brief introduction to the Mahabharata war and some of its characters. I particularly like the way this version has grouped together verses with common threads, which conveys the teachings in a unique and clear way.

Ravindra says at the end of the eighteenth chapter, “In a human being, a part belongs to the domain of time and materiality and engages in action, reincarnating again and again, subject to the law of karma. There is another part, the Eternal Witness, not affected by force of time. Arjuna participates in the battle . . . Krishna remains above the battle, watchful and aware . . . Life is struggle; and none of us has a choice about participating in this battle. The real question is how to be a good warrior engaged in the battle and at the same time to discover and connect with the Krishna deep within ourselves.” This is certainly one of the central messages of this great text.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.

A Guided Tour of Hell: A Graphic Memoir
Samuel Bercholz
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2016;  147 + xi pp., hardcover, $24.95.

There has always been a place in my library—and in my heart—for books that are surpassingly strange. They have often proved rewarding: I have bought more than one book as a curiosity and had it change my life.

Reading Samuel Bercholz’s Guided Tour of Hell did not change my life, though its surpassing strangeness cannot be denied. On the one hand, it is yet another of the growing pile of books devoted to near-death experiences (NDEs). On the other hand, unlike many of them, it recounts not a journey into the light but a Dantesque vision of hell, Buddhist-style.

Bercholz, founder of Shambhala Publications, is a longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and its influence shows on every page of this weird and disturbing book. The journey begins when, at age sixty, Bercholz has a heart attack and is scheduled for immediate sextuple coronary bypass surgery. Wheeled into the operating room, he is given general anesthesia, loses consciousness, and in effect dies.

“Here,” he writes, “was an alternative world, thoroughly different from the earthly world I had left behind. My senses were overwhelmed by the unbearable odor of burning flesh and extremes of heat and cold beyond imagination . . . A wordless message was somehow conveyed to me: This is the domain of hell. You have been brought here as a guest, to witness and understand the suffering of beings of all kinds—particularly the suffering of human beings” (emphasis Bercholz’s).

And witness it he does. Accompanied by his guide, whom he calls “the Buddha of Hell,” he experiences “the landscape of hell . . . a vast expanse with countless inhabitants, veritable oceans of suffering beings. The sufferings of each and every one of these beings are due to their own mental conceptions. In fact, their suffering in hell is an unbroken continuation of their own states of mind during life, which persisted even after the death of the physical body . . . It would soon become clear that an inescapable characteristic of hell is the sheer redundancy of self-created sufferings, which pound consciousness in seemingly perpetual cycles.”

In this journey he encounters beings like Momo Drollo, a grotesque giant. In her life she had lived a nomadic life in Tibet, married to two brothers, whose deaths, combined with other misfortunes, suffused her with bitterness. “She lived from her bile, always read to blurt hateful words. She perceived everyone as her enemy, including her children, who could do nothing right.” Although she wanted to be reborn into the family of a wealthy merchant, she ended up in hell.

An even starker case is Afanas Popov, a Russian intellectual who came up with a doomsday machine, “not something that would damage one place or injure one group of people, but a machine that, if Russia were threatened, would destroy the entire world, turning it to dust.” At one point a crisis ensues, and Popov was just about to press the switch when he was shot by his own soldiers. In the hell realm, “his body was like a hologram filled with all the bodies of hell, all the individuals of hell. There was absolutely no separation between himself and these individuals, yet he had contempt and disgust for every part of the body that was made up of other hell-beings. Even though they were no different from his own hell-being, he was claustrophobized by his own fingers, his own feet, his own organs.”

Eventually, of course, the vision ends, and Bercholz regains consciousness to face a long and difficult recovery.

The book has a graphic format, and is luridly illustrated by artist Pema Namdol Thaye, who has been trained in Tibetan traditional art methods. Unfortunately his mastery of American graphics style is little better than adequate, and many of his illustrations, like most mediocre treatments of horrific themes, are less terrifying than they are unpleasant. Indeed the illustrations are the weakest part of Bercholz’s graphic memoir.

This tour through hell raises many questions, of course. The most obvious one is this: Many of those who have reported on their NDEs, including Eben Alexander (see Quest, winter 2015) and Natalie Sudman (see Quest, summer 2017), describe experiences that are unique or at any rate difficult to categorize through theology. But Bercholz’s is quite different: it is practically a textbook description of the hell realms as portrayed in Buddhist literature. To what extent has his spiritual practice conditioned him to see the afterlife in this way? This has long been an issue in the philosophical enquiry into mystical experience: is the visionary seeing only what his religion has conditioned him to see? For Alexander and Sudman, this does not seem to be the case, but it certainly is for Bercholz. Then of course we must ask, does this tend to validate his experience or throw doubt upon it?

No one can say that Bercholz did not have these visions. Do we then have to say that his Tibetan Buddhist practice conditioned his mind so deeply that he saw through its lens even in a coma? Or are we to conclude that he happened to visit the Buddhist hell, which of course would imply Christian and Jewish and Muslim hells? Perhaps a Buddhist would argue that these others are all inferior versions of his own—but then every religion tends to say that sort of thing. In the end, I will have to put this Buddhist Inferno on the shelf of my library dedicated to works of strangeness, and leave it at that.

Richard Smoley


Taormina’s Historic Past and Continuing Story: A Unique Spiritual Community in Ojai
Helene Vachet
Minneapolis: MCP Books, 2016, xxii + 148 pages, paper, $17.95.

Nestled in a sea of trees next to Krotona Institute of Theosophy in Ojai, California, is the neighborhood of Taormina, originally envisioned as a retirement community for Theosophists. Since its founding, Taormina has experienced many ups and downs. The changes and developments it has experienced are the subject of Helene Vachet’s delightful account.

The book begins by explaining that Ruth Wilson was a Theosophist from St. Louis who had a dream for a Theosophical retirement community. She obtained small sum of money as the result of a car accident, and used these funds to develop such a community in the 1960s. She experienced difficulties obtaining land in Ojai, but she persisted, eventually purchasing property adjacent to Krotona and naming the community after the Sicilian town connected to both Pythagoras and J. Krishnamurti. Wilson was partial to a modified French Norman style of architecture. As a result, the vast majority of the homes in Taormina display this style to varying degrees.

Taormina is no longer exclusive to Theosophists. In 1983 a California appellate court ruled that Theosophical affiliation could not be required for home ownership in the community. Since then, numerous non-Theosophists have called Taormina home. Vachet profiles many of the residents in three large chapters divided into early, current, and recent residents respectively. Consisting of over sixty pages, these brief biographies include figures such as James Perkins, former president of the Theosophical Society in America, Gina Cerminara, a prominent author whose titles include a biography of Edgar Cayce, and many artists and writers who have found inspiration there. The book is divided into eighteen chapters, and includes a foreword by Joy Mills and an introduction by R.E. Mark Lee, trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation. The back matter addendum includes a historical timeline, a timeline of when houses were built, endnotes, architectural details, and credits for over 120 illustrations and pictures in the chapters.

Overall, this volume summarizes the history of Taormina, not focusing on the details of the community’s contentious past, but instead aiming to give a general survey of its challenges over the last few decades, and an illustration of who has lived within it. At times, this history read more like a Taormina who’s who, or a 150-page neighborhood tour brochure for someone who just relocated into the community. Nevertheless, this volume not only recaps the major events that molded the community, but also brings Taormina to life by highlighting those who call or have called it home. This book is a welcome contribution, introducing a Theosophical community of which few are aware. I recommend it to all with an interest in the history of Theosophy in America or intentional religious communities.

John L. Crow

John L. Crow is a faculty member at Florida State University studying American religious history and online learning.

The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic
Éliphas  Lévi, translated by John Michael Greer and Mark Anthony Mikituk

New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017. 512 pp., paper, $22.

Éliphas Lévi (the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant, 1810–75) was one of the most influential occultists of the nineteenth century. Born in Paris, he began by studying for the priesthood but stopped when he realized that he was not likely to overcome his love for women. In the 1830s and ’40s, he worked with revolutionary movements in monarchist France, but later became disillusioned with them and turned to occultism.

In 1855–56 Lévi published his masterwork, Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (“Dogma and Ritual of High Magic”), which would, along with his other great work, Histoire de la magie (“History of Magic,” 1860), become the key text of the French occult revival of the late nineteenth century. His impact continues to this day.

Lévi’s reputation extended to Britain in his lifetime; for example, he met and corresponded with Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a best-selling author of works including the classic occult novel Zanoni. (It was said that Bulwer-Lytton initiated Lévi into Rosicrucianism.) But it was really the translations of these two works by the occultist A.E. Waite—Dogme et rituel as Transcendental Magic, published in 1896, and Histoire de la magie as History of Magic, published in 1913—that established Lévi’s name in the English-speaking world.

Lévi was equivocally admired, even by those who learned from him. In The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky called him “the most learned, if not the greatest of the modern Kabalists” and relied on his work, particularly in her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877). But she also wrote that “no other Kabalist has ever had the talent of heaping one contradiction on the other, of making one paradox chase another in the same sentence and in the same flowing language.” Waite often spoke scornfully of Lévi. In one note to his translation he describes him as “a person who believed in prophecy as much and as little as he believed in Latin [Catholic] dogma”—alluding to Lévi’s cagey but rather slippery claims that Roman Catholic doctrine was completely true, except that it was not really true at all.

Waite’s jabs can be irritating, and his prose style was the opposite of graceful. If only for these reasons, this new translation of Lévi’s Dogme et rituel is welcome. Although I have not compared it exhaustively with the original, the few passages I have compared are both accurate and more fluid than Waite’s. Occasionally I sense that a word could have been better rendered. On page 383, this version has “the author of Smarra has remarked in a spiritual manner,” whereas the original says, “comme le remarque spirituellement l’auteur de Smarra.” “Spirituellement” is probably better translated as “wittily”—“witty” is a common meaning for the French spirituel—rather than “spiritually.” (Waite does a little better by rendering it “ingeniously.”) But these glitches are minor and rare. The annotations are helpful in clarifying arcane terms as well as topical references to events in Lévi’s time.

Lévi’s influence was manifold, but here it would be useful to focus on two of his most important contributions. One was the idea of the astral light. This was not new—Blavatsky harrumphed that it was “simply the older ‘sidereal light’”of the sixteenth-century magus Paracelsus—but Lévi gave it new prominence.

Astral light must not be confused with physical starlight. It is a subtle matter, imperceptible to the five senses and to the implements of science. “It is the common mirror of all thoughts and forms,” says Lévi, “the images of all that has been are preserved therein and sketches of things to come, for which reason it is the instrument of thaumaturgy and divination.” In short, the astral light is to thoughts and images what matter is to physical substance—and, like physical matter, is never found in a pure form. But the astral light underlies physical manifestation. Nothing can come into existence unless it first exists as an image in the astral light.

This is the key to magic. If you wish to work magic, you form a mental image as clearly and precisely as you can (that is, you shape a form in the astral light) and then charge it with life force, or prana. The image will then (at least theoretically) be materialized in palpable reality. Similarly, if you wish to know the future, you can use divination to take impressions of the forms in the astral light that are about to manifest. Hence, as Lévi stresses, the astral light, “the great magical agent,” is the key to divination and thaumaturgy. Furthermore, the astral light, like a photographic film, records and retains the images of all that has gone before. These Akashic Records, as they are called, can serve the adept as an archive for exploring past events.
So it is in theory, but of course in practice it is not quite so simple, for reasons that are impossible to explain in this space.

Another of Lévi’s most influential contributions had to do with the Tarot. In his time the Tarot deck was already believed to embody the Ancient Wisdom, particularly of the Egyptians. This had been stated by the French polymath Antoine Court de Gébelin in the eighteenth century. But it was Lévi’s contribution to connect the twenty-two cards of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, which he said served as the key to all wisdom, to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which the Kabbalists had long said embodied universal knowledge as well. Again, there are certain problems with this claim, but it would change the course of occult history in the West—in the English-speaking world, chiefly through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a short-lived Victorian order of which Waite was a member.

In short, Lévi’s contribution was a powerful one, and his ideas deserve to be grasped by those who are exploring the Ancient Wisdom as it has manifested in the modern West. To this end, this new translation is admirably suited.

Richard Smoley

Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson
Gary Lachman
New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016. xvi + 399 pp., paper, $26.

I saw Colin Wilson just once, in the 1980s, as the invited guest speaker at an annual astrology gathering. I was puzzled by the choice: wasn’t this man a writer of lurid occult novels? But as I quickly learnt, he was also a serious investigator of the mysteries of consciousness and esoteric spiritual teachings. Yet I still left the meeting feeling that he was an enigma—not exactly a teacher, a scientist, or a mystic. So what was he?

Reading Gary Lachman’s biography, I am now more able to place Wilson and his contribution. He wrote over 100 books, including both nonfiction and fiction. His early success came with his first book, The Outsider, in 1956, a study of “a character . . . peculiar to our age, a person with a pressing hunger for meaning and spiritual purpose in a world seemingly bent on denying him these,” as Lachman puts it. This branded Wilson, rather unfairly in Lachman’s view, as one of Britain’s Angry Young Men of 1950s, and early celebrity came crashing down when Wilson fell victim to the wiles of the press, digging dirt wherever they could.

But Wilson went on to redeem his reputation, and to cover topics of philosophical and spiritual interest ranging through the nature of consciousness, the power of the brain, the use of willpower, and the ability of human beings to go “beyond the robot.” He saw the robot as the mechanical part of our natures that can tie up a shoelace and plan for tomorrow, but generally ignores the glory of the present moment.

I was keen to read this book partly because Wilson started off in London’s 1950s Soho coffee-bar scene, a time Lachman describes as the “duffle-coated years, laced with excitement and romanticism.” As I’ve discovered through my own researches, it was a melting pot that generated not only art, literature, and music, but esoteric movements. The Kabbalistic training groups that I became involved with in the 1970s arose directly from these Soho coffee shop meetings. The late Robin Amis was a member of one of these early groups. In his book Views from Mount Athos, he describes a generation whose education had been curtailed by the Second World War: “They began not by questioning a ruined society but by questioning themselves . . . They formed plans for their seedling lives, for which no seed beds had been prepared.” Amis describes them as “non-specialists,” who were willing to investigate, to look and learn wherever the moment took them. The mix included intellectuals, runaways, musicians, astrologers, and artists. Casual work and living from hand to mouth were the norm, and being poor and even homeless was where it was at. Wilson himself lived on Hampstead Heath for one summer, first in a tent, then just in a sleeping bag. He must have fitted well into this milieu, and reminiscences from some members of our own early group affirm that he did appear at some of our Kabbalistic meetings. His novel Adrift in Soho is a charming, whimsical, and wry look at the scene of the time.

Lachman has written a masterly account of the whole spectrum of Wilson’s output, integrating this with the unfolding of his life, beginning as a working-class boy from Leicester. Wilson was an autodidact, completing his education through voracious, obsessive reading. After the drifting of the early years, he ended up, rather touchingly, as a faithful family man based in Cornwall, when he wasn’t pursuing many invitations to lecture all around the world. Beyond the Robot is a remarkable achievement, and is surely the definitive study of Colin Wilson’s life and work.

However, by its very nature, the book makes for dense reading, and to read it cover to cover, one must not only be extremely interested in the whole gamut of Wilson’s writing from early days to final years (he died in 2013 at the age of eighty-two), but also in expositions of existentialism and other sometimes ephemeral philosophical, biological, and psychological theories. The task is ultimately to present Wilson’s own views on and contributions to this panoply of theories. Lachman has tackled this with admirable insight and clarity, but for the less dedicated reader, this may prove more valuable as a reference book.

Which brings me back to this question: was Colin Wilson a man of knowledge, or just a man who knew a lot? He had an encyclopedic mind, and seems to have been very sincere in his approach to esoteric traditions. But as far as I can tell, he did not engage fully with any lineage or tradition. As a meditation teacher once said: “If you go around digging here and there, you won’t have a well. You need to dig deep in once place to find water.” Lachman quotes Wilson himself: “His mind was too rational and purposive, he said, to relax enough to be able to contact the deeper levels associated with the paranormal. His temperament was ‘basically scientific’.” Wilson’s role, I have come to see through Lachman’s study, was that of a trigger for those searching for something beyond the conventional and the mundane. He was able to present ideas as signposts. But they would not provide the way itself.

Cherry Gilchrist

Cherry Gilchrist is a writer based in the U.K. Her latest book is Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration (Weiser, 2016).


How Soon Is Now? From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation
Daniel Pinchbeck
London: Watkins, 2017. 232 pp., hardcover, $24.95.

In September 2005, Daniel Pinchbeck had a revelation. In order to save planet earth, he would have to start a global revolution. Such thoughts were not foreign to him, or to many others at the scene of his visitation, the Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert.

Many were on his wavelength and shared his ideals. But a strange urgency had come over him, and he went through a kind of personal enantiodromia, when one’s values suddenly turn about face and become their opposite. In a flash, the whole Burning Man scene, full of New Age highflyers, corporate shamans, and psychedelic entrepreneurs (and of which Pinchbeck was a significant part), seemed phony and unreal, an empty shadow world cast by well-heeled seekers of enlightenment, himself included.

He now spread a new gospel, or at least tried to. Rather than culminate the festival with its traditional Wicker Man–like finale, he argued, all the various tribes and clans should work together to create a spontaneous model of what a “regenerative society” would be like as an example for the rest of the world. Rather than return to their lives, they should remain with him and create the kind of new social experience that, as Pinchbeck’s vision had shown him, was absolutely necessary if the planet was going to be saved from ecological meltdown. It would require sacrifice and a total change of being. They would have to work hard and give up a lot. The stakes were high—nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it—and could not be ignored. But it could be done if only they all pulled together.

Two things emerged from Pinchbeck’s vision. One was that he was cast out from Burning Man as an apostate, a fairly common status for visionaries, having failed to get his message across to his people. The other is this book, in which he labors to do just that. If the title suggests a certain impatience, we should remember that a decade passed between the vision and its realization, at least in theory, and that like all visionaries, Pinchbeck is raring to get things going, and has little time for those who might want to drag their heels.

An apocalyptic sense—itself a kind of impatience—informs Pinchbeck’s other work, most recognizably in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006), which concerned certain possibilities for that year according to prophecies associated with the Mayan calendar. In 2016 Pinchbeck is understandably keen to distance himself from his earlier millennial work, yet the unavoidable planetary catastrophe that awaits us if we fail to fulfill the demands of the moment, of now!, casts as disheartening a shadow as any Mesoamerican deity. The end times are upon us again, it seems, only the time lag between prophecy and fulfillment is considerably shorter.

This is a book of three parts. One is a kind of confessional, in which the author repents for his previous life as a kind of celebrity shaman, a mea culpa aimed perhaps at anchoring his message in some personal soul-searching. Here readers may find out more than they need or want to know about his sex life, drug use, and famous friends.

Another part is a disturbing, at times numbing, report on the multiple ecological and environmental crises that face us and which, according to Pinchbeck, the powers that be are doing practically nothing to prevent. If I do not list these here, it is not out of any desire to minimize them. Their number is simply too great, and the stats and studies Pinchbeck musters are equally numerous and, unfortunately, convincing.

We can get an idea of the situation from what Pinchbeck calls Nine Planetary Boundaries, limits of excess that once breached are irreparable. According to Pinchbeck, most of these are stretched to breaking and will soon snap; the result will be a global catastrophe that will bring on the next mass extinction, humans included. I would think anyone aware of our environmental realities will have some idea of the seriousness of the situation, global warming and climate change being only two of the many disasters looming from a many-headed ecological Hydra. Wars over natural resources are another. Social breakdown too. And famine. Mass migrations. The list, I think, is all too familiar, and Pinchbeck adds to it, softening us up, as it were, for the punchline of the book.

Which is this: Pinchbeck sees a hidden evolutionary plan behind our time of troubles. What we are experiencing now is a self-inflicted shock that will, according to him, compel us to make the next step in our evolution. Borrowing from the French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and, in my opinion, misinterpreting him, Pinchbeck sees this as humanity’s “transition” to a kind of world-mind.

And this brings us to the book’s third and most important part, from the perspective of Pinchbeck’s vision: his blueprint for the new, regenerative society that must take the place of our current degenerative one, if we are not to go to hell in a handbasket.

I emphasize must. It, and other urgent words like force and impel, are voiced throughout the book by an insistent we, using Pinchbeck as their spokesperson. “Whatever it takes,” Pinchbeck tells us, “we” must “force” and “impel” civilization to, well, adopt his plan for planetary salvation. Things are so bad that nothing short of a wise, spiritually-minded authoritarian elite can effect the kinds of global changes necessary to avert catastrophe in time. The crises we face will force us to give up our personal interests and pursuits in order to find our proper place within the new planetary superorganism that humanity, if it doesn’t blow it, is destined to become.

This means that if today you might be interested in art, literature, philosophy, or some other nonutilitarian (from the point of view of saving the planet) pursuit, forget it. Get with the program and learn how to mulch or to design self-sustaining geodesic domes. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those useful skills, but not everyone is interested in them, even if, according to Pinchbeck, they should be, for the good of the planet. Pinchbeck’s belief that in the future—if we have one—we will have to abandon the idea of a “private sector” because there is “no private interest within an organism” sounds chillingly fascistic, while his calls to forgo our own pursuits for those of the “collective” sound dangerously like similar directives of the Soviet era.

The changes necessary in order to save the world will come about, Pinchbeck envisions, through a cadre of social media gurus spreading the regenerative message through tweets and postings that will make the new world order “ a seductive, hip, glamorous adventure.” Like a benevolent dictator, Pinchbeck sees no wrong in using the mesmerism of advertising—now enrolled in perpetuating the evil system— to covertly persuade people to “transition” to the new state.

One would think, though, that the aim of a truly free and enlightened society would be to reject such measures wholly, rather than use them for our “own good.” And if sages and saints from Buddha to Mother Teresa have had a hard task prodding us to evolve, I doubt if a team of shamanic Mad Men can get the job done in the time remaining. But then Pinchbeck believes that consciousness—yours and mine—is “mass produced by the corporate industrial mega-machine” anyway, so if enough enlightened IT heads are put together, they just might shape “new patterns of behavior and new values for the multitudes,” a “new subjectivity,” just in time. To me this is reminiscent of B.F. Skinner’s dictum that we need to get “beyond freedom and dignity” and submit ourselves to benign social conditioning in order to save the world, and it is just as unappetizing.

Much of Pinchbeck’s master plan smacks of microwaved utopias of the 1960s, like Skinner’s, including chestnuts like free love, or at least guilt-free casual sex, as a panacea for our existential ills, plucked from the countercultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse. How it could pass the author by that love has been free and sex casual for some time now, without the mass “liberation” these developments were supposed to bring about? Freud and Reich were clearly wrong, and Marcuse’s calls for a “polymorphous perversity” adolescent.

Darkly there is also the sense that, as was said in the ’60s, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—a very dangerous slogan, which can only feed a divisive sense of “us and them.” But Pinchbeck has a vision, and it can be summed up in two phrases, which murmur in the background of this book like a mantra: if only; we must. No one is saying that the times do not require vision. They do. But let us not embrace one that calls for measures as frightening as the dangers that inspired it.

Gary Lachman

Gary Lachman’s latest book is Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, published by Tarcher Perigee.

Letters to the Sage: Selected Correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson, Volume One: The Esotericists
Forest Grove, Ore.: Typhon Press, 2016. viii + 505 pp., paper, $19.99.

One might think that at this late date the history of both the Theosophical Society and the wider milieu of the esoterically inclined during the late nineteenth century have been pretty well picked over. But new evidence keeps emerging that this is hardly the case. The book in hand, Letters to the Sage, offers remarkable evidence that there is still plenty to be dug up about this significant era.

I would be surprised if one in a thousand—or even one in a million—people have heard of Thomas Moore Johnson, the so-called “Sage of the Osage” (1851–1919). Yet this small-town Missouri lawyer (who lived near the Osage River) had an outsized impact on the early survival of the TS, on the spread of its most important rival, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (HBL), and even on the study of Platonism, Islam, and Sufism in the U.S.

Through an unusual bit of good fortune, Johnson’s descendants managed to preserve the Sage’s papers and correspondence, granting researchers Bowen and Paul Johnson access to review and transcribe the trove.

Letters to the Sage is the initial result, a volume devoted to the letters that Johnson received in his correspondence with many of the heavy hitters of early TS and HBL history and with other esotericists. These include Henry Steel Olcott, William Q. Judge, General Abner Doubleday, Anna Kingsford, Edward Maitland, Damodar Mavalankar, G.R.S. Mead, John Yarker, Thomas H. Burgoyne, and various lesser lights. (Unfortunately, Johnson did not make copies of his own handwritten letters to these folks, so these are mostly letters to—not from—the Sage.)

Patrick Bowen’s seventy-five-page introduction ably establishes Johnson’s significance: he edited and published The Platonist, a groundbreaking philosophical journal for a general, not academic, readership; he was a member of the Board of Control of the American TS in the wake of HPB’s and Olcott’s departure for India, establishing the first TS branch beyond New York at a time when the American survival of the TS was up in the air. In the pursuit of “practical occultism” he joined the HBL, became for a time its leader in the U.S., and assisted in the spread of interest in Tarot and astrology.

The letters collected here are presented in alphabetical order by the correspondents’ names, e.g., W.W. Allen, R.C. Bary, A.N. Breneman, J.D. Buck, Josephine Cables, and so on. This provides a more coherent grasp of Johnson’s sequential interactions with each individual. A short biography is provided for each correspondent, indicating their significance and role in fostering occultism and esotericism as the nineteenth century came to a close.

Admittedly, a certain portion of the letters is of the “I am enclosing $2.00 for a subscription to The Platonist” or the “I have not yet received the HBL manuscripts that were promised” variety. These are not exactly riveting, but they capture the travails of esoteric entrepreneurs and seekers trying to politely accommodate one another while nudging them to fulfill their roles as gurus and students.

More valuable for those interested in the history of esotericism are the letters that provide insight into the claims to wisdom and personal revelation. Thus James M. Pryse, a confidant of HPB in her final two years, writes to Johnson in 1887:

Placing the finger-tip in the ear, one can hear the blood coursing through the arteries, also one can, of course, easily hear the “beating” of the heart. Similarly, astral senses hear the astral light singing along the nerves and in the brain, and the musical tones of the heart.

The soul, being a magnetic force, that has created the body, possesses complete knowledge of magnetism, though obscured by its contact with “matter,” as the occultist progresses, the soul regains its knowledge, and the developed will can free the fluidic (or astral) body from the gross body.

Editors Bowen and Johnson show admirable restraint in judging whether Pryse is exhibiting profundity or shooting the esoteric breeze. The material collected here invites the reader to make his or her own judgment, which is a valuable exercise in its own right.

Letters to the Sage is an important contribution to our understanding of the early years of the TS and the HBL. Many of the correspondents collected here were members of both, hedging their bets on which group might deliver the most insightful goods. (The HBL soon faded from the scene, reincarnating later as C.C. Zain’s Church of Light, which survives to this day.)

The next volume of Letters to the Sage promises to provide Johnson’s extensive correspondence with Alexander Wilder, his closest esoteric friend, who incidentally served as editor for Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.

Books such as Letters to the Sage are clearly the beneficiaries of the recent revolution in print on demand publishing, which allows small publishers such as Typhon Press to issue books for highly specialized audiences without having to commit to the expense of initial print runs in the thousands. This work may be of primary interest to students of Theosophical and occult history, but the fact that this material is now able to see the light of day is a gift to everyone who has even the slightest interest in the roots of modern esotericism.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.

Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration
Newburyport, Mass.: Weiser, 2016. 295 pp., paper, $18.95

Searching recently for Tarot books, I counted more than seventy titles, not including those with their own sets of cards. In a market so crowded, any new book on Tarot needs to earn its place, and to present the Tarot as more than just a system for crude fortune-telling.

To have spiritual value, any type of divination must offer a deep mirror to the enquirer, telling us what might be called the “unknown knowns”—those things we knew, but didn’t know that we knew. Cherry Gilchrist is well aware of this, and brings to her task several essential assets. With a lifetime’s experience of reading the cards, a clear and readable style, and a balanced sense of that indefinable thing, the esoteric, she combines a realistic sense of the Tarot’s history and an unusual willingness to share her own personal history and experience.

The result is a thoroughly engaging book. Tarot Triumphs opens by immediately evoking our creativity, inviting us to visualize the twenty-two Trumps or Triumphs of the Tarot deck as moving tableaux rolling through the streets during a medieval Italian civic carnival. Well-based historically and delightful to read, the exercise sets the Trumps free: they step off the cards and into three living dimensions.

Equally valuable is Gilchrist’s openness about her own Tarot experiences, sketching her encounters with three “Tarot masters”: people who used Tarot in a way that showed her something profound that stayed with her, even (especially?) if it couldn’t quite be put into words. The nervy young 1960s American under threat of being drafted for Vietnam; the enigmatic, slightly sinister man in Cambridge, England; and the plump, bearded Welshman, an esoteric teacher in London: each shook her a little, showing her a new angle on the cards.

The stories are fascinating, and their message is that Tarot requires personal involvement and that it can become part of one’s life. And, showing that Tarot is anything but a male-dominated tradition, the author records watching an old lady reading Tarot—all seventy-eight cards!—for a young couple in an Italian marketplace in 1972. Indeed, Tarot Triumphs is permeated with a sense of Tarot as a living tradition rather than a New Age fad.

Naturally Tarot Triumphs includes discussion of the individual cards—first, brief “keynote interpretations,” and, later, in-depth, reflective discussions, which always avoid dogmatism. Each card is seen as an emblem for reflection and contemplation. There’s advice on the practicalities and ethics of giving readings, exercises with different spreads, and suggestions about the overall structure of the Trumps, which Gilchrist suggests can be seen as three subsets of seven: cards of being, of interaction, and of higher energy—with the Fool as a wild card. There are fruitful suggestions for practice, including study, visualization and creativity.

Methods are offered for three-, four-, and seven-card readings , including the well-known Celtic Cross layout. And—the book’s most valuable gift—there are instructions for the Fool’s Mirror, a layout of unknown origin taught by Gilchrist’s last Tarot master, Glyn the Welshman.

Having experimented with it several times since first seeing this book, I can testify that the Fool’s Mirror is a particularly rich and rewarding layout. In fact, having tried it, I’m not sure I shall ever want to use any other. Its virtues are many. First, there are safeguards: the Fool in certain positions indicates that a reading should be abandoned; also, since the layout uses all twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, cards like Death or the Hanged Man are expected, and so are less alarming. Secondly, it has drama: the layout is rhythmic and satisfying, and three cards are laid face downward until the main reading is complete: the reading has a touch of suspense, and feels open-ended. And it has completeness. Different areas of the layout, indicating past, present, and future, and outer and inner worlds, intersect. It is particularly effective in inducing an intuitive feel for the situation before detailed reading even starts.

I have only two small quibbles. I would have liked an index: in this richly structured book certain topics can be hard to locate. And I hope the subtitle won’t deter readers who don’t happen to possess the Marseilles Tarot. Users of any authentic Tarot deck would benefit from this book. Indeed, if there’s any Justice (and the lady on that particular card does have her eyes wide open!), Tarot Triumphs is destined to become a classic.

Grevel Lindop

Grevel Lindop is a poet, travel writer, and biographer. His recent books include Luna Park (Carcanet Press) and Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press). You can read his blog at

Book Reviews 2016

Insights from the Masters: A Compilation
Winchester, U.K.: Axis Mundi, 2016. 274 pp., paper, $25.95.

The Masters behind H.P. Blavatsky—Morya and Koot Hoomi—are the most enigmatic figures in Theosophical history. Much has been written about them; still more has been imagined. But after more than a century, they remain unapproachable.

To gain some understanding of them, it is necessary to examine the collection of writings known as the Mahatma Letters, allegedly written, mostly, by Morya and K.H., and addressed, again mostly, to the British Theosophists A.P. Sinnett and A.O Hume. It is hard to imagine that these letters were ever intended for publication. But in the 1920s, Maud Hoffman, who had been left the letters by Sinnett after his death, worked with A.T. Barker to produce an edited version, first published in 1924. The letters were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which made sense up to a point, since they were almost entirely undated. In 1993, Vicente Hao Chin, using a chronology of the letters written by Margaret Cosgrove, published the letters in chronological order. Chin’s edition at this point is the one most widely used by Theosophists.

The letters remain hard to approach. They contain a great deal of fascinating information, but it is presented in a rather ad hoc fashion, interlaced with remarks about individuals and ephemeral details that most readers will probably not want to bother to sort out.

Thus this anthology is a welcome addition to the literature. It culls quotes from the Mahatma Letters (using the second edition of Barker’s version) and groups them under fifty subject headings, such as “Adepts and Masters,” “Discipline and the Spiritual Path,” “The Occult Brotherhood and Their Mission,” and “Tibet.” The selections are concise, readable, and intelligent, and will make a much more accessible introduction to this material than either of the complete editions. At this point Insights from the Masters is no doubt the best entrance point to the letters. I believe that it will be useful for students at all levels.

The book could be improved. It includes a number of photos and images of individuals mentioned in the letters, but without captions, so one is often left guessing about these people’s identities. And while citations are given to Barker’s second edition of The Mahatma Letters, they do not indicate which Master is speaking. Furthermore, the glossary, based on HPB’s Theosophical Glossary and Gottfried de Purucker’s Occult Glossary, is sometimes unreliable. Contrary to what it says here, for example, “Poseidon” was not the name of the chief city in Atlantis. Plato, the original source of the Atlantis myth, leaves it unnamed, and the Masters themselves, as quoted in this volume, speak of it as “Poseidonis.” The magus Éliphas Lévi was not “unfrocked” as a priest “due to his kabalistic interests,” but dropped out of seminary before ordination because he had fallen in love. The eighteenth-century British astronomer was not “John Flamsted,” but John Flamsteed. The Hebrew word Adonai, literally meaning “my Lord” and applied to God, is not “the same as Adonis,” a mythical figure whose death was lamented annually by the ancient Semites, although the two names come from the same root.

Although this collection is useful and engaging, it still remains to provide some kind of adequate and balanced portrait of the Masters. Conventional scholars take it as a given that the Masters were a hoax cooked up by Blavatsky, while Theosophical writers often speak of them as quasi-divine (a danger the Masters themselves warned against). Thus there has been no really deep inquiry into who they actually may have been and what they were saying. Were they Buddhists? They say they are. Morya speaks of the Buddhist text Khudikka Patha as “my family Bible.” On the other hand, K.H. speaks of “‘the divine Self perceived or seen by Self,’ the Atman,” when every Buddhist I have ever known or read denies the existence of any such Atman. (All emphasis in quotations is from the original.) Indeed anatman, or anatta, the doctrine of “no-self,” is one of the main points on which Buddhism diverges from Hinduism. While K.H. insists, “We are not Adwaitees [sic],” the Mahatmas sound more like adherents of the Advanta Vedanta.

In addition, rather than the quasi-divine beings imagined by many Theosophists, the Masters come across as all too human. They are not above making snide comments to Hume about Sinnett, and vice versa. At one point K.H. tells Hume, “You have now more chances [for the attainment of paranormal powers] before you than my zoophagous friend Mr. Sinnett.” At another point K.H. writes to Sinnett saying, “There’s one thing, at any rate, we can never be accused of inventing: and that is Mr. Hume himself. To invent his like transcends the highest Siddhi powers we know of.” Often the Masters sound irritable and contemptuous of their correspondents. Admittedly, they were writing to Victorian Englishmen, who were often pompous and self-congratulatory in their own right. All the same, the Mahatma Letters do not read like sacred or quasi-infallible texts. Rather they are a glimpse into the ideas and characters of fascinating but quite fallible figures whose identities we are likely never to know.

The proceeds from the sales of this book will be donated to projects supported by the Theosophical Order of Service of Canada.

Richard Smoley

Faith beyond Belief: Spirituality for Our Times; A Conversation.
Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2016. 192 pp., paper; $17.95.

As scientific findings have weakened the strength of the Genesis story, and as our horizons expand beyond the limits of our own provincial tribes, the literal teachings of most forms of organized religion hold less and less water. Thus it becomes ever more important to develop forms of spiritual faith that take us past Sunday School teachings.

As the author of a book by the same title, I was particularly interested to read David Steindl-Rast and Anselm Grün’s Faith beyond Belief. While my 2012 title had addressed postcritical faith among people who had largely left traditional religion behind, I knew these authors, both Benedictine monks, would be sharing a form of postliteral faith that allows them to remain within the religious walls. Faith beyond Belief: Spirituality for Our Times was published originally in German in 2015, and oddly, the German title (Das glauben wir: “This We Believe”) makes no reference to the distinction between faith and belief. However, in both languages the subtitle, Spirituality for Our Times, discloses the authors’ appreciation that an update to stagnant dogmatic belief systems is in order. The second subtitle, A Conversation, suggests that we can no longer demand spiritual certainties from our religious authorities, but rather are called to engage actively in discussions that help broaden the spiritual landscape for everyone.

Though his name appears nowhere on the cover, this book owes much of its genius to its editor, Johannes Kaup, a radio journalist in Austria who organized the interviews with Steindl-Rast and Grün on which the book is based. The interview format works well, and when the two monks occasionally veer off into what sounds like standard religious jargon, it is Kaup’s clarifications, and continual efforts to circle the discussion back to his original questions, that keep the book focused on what faith beyond belief really means.

The early chapters seek to distinguish that in our experience which comes from the ego, or fear-based selfishness, from that which comes from the I (as discovered in the process of individuation) and which itself serves as a prerequisite to the experience of “the center where I am one and am joined with others . . . the divine Self.”

A later chapter urges us to bid good-bye to “Infantile Images of God” by considering what images of God would be life-affirming. This is followed by an invitation to join “In Dialog with the Mystery” and “Live Ultimately” by “Being Entirely My Self.”

Reading Faith Beyond Belief is no lightweight experience. It is obvious that Steindl-Rast, Grün, and Kaup are all masters of complex reasoning, and their perspectives serve to expand our thought patterns well beyond the obvious. I particularly liked Steindl-Rast’s description of redemption: “a liberation from encapsulation in sin . . . ‘a dirty spot on my vest’ . . . and into community, not only with other people but also with the animals, the plants, and the whole universe.” All three contributors are well versed in depth psychology, and also seem to live and embody the most advanced faith development stages as described by James Fowler and others, where humility, universality and oneness prevail over the divisive certainties of most of organized religion. Steindl-Rast provides further richness by frequently pointing out connections between Christianity and Buddhism.

This book serves as an excellent resource for anyone inclined toward ongoing allegiance to one of our richest longstanding religious traditions but who has found its dogmatic literalisms too limiting. It is a conversation that may help readers find a way toward a nonliteral faith once their critical minds no longer allow literal acceptance of explicit religious beliefs. Though remaining deeply involved in Christianity, the authors generously share their own form of faith, a “universal human primeval faith [which is] is expressed in the various traditions in quite different ways and is formulated in very different terms. But common to all us humans is trust in life, in the Mystery we point to with the word God . . . trusting in one another [and in] . . . what can join us all together in our innermost being.”

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, 2012).

Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End-of-Life Care
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom, 2016. 347 pp., paper, $19.95.

Empty handed I entered
The world,
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going—
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
                               —Kozan Ichikyo

Recently a study was conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital on newly diagnosed lung cancer patients. The control group was given excellent medical care. The intervention group got medical care as well as palliative care, which is intended to provide relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

It turned out that those who got both types of care had a better quality of life and fewer bouts of depression, were less likely to be hospitalized, and also lived on average 2.7 months longer. There is a belief among physicians that with palliative care, one may die better but one also may die sooner. This study suggests that this belief is incorrect.

The question is, then: what kind of care can not only prolong life, but can also provide one with the strength to understand, accept, and see what has gotten entangled in one’s life journey? The answer is, living with an enlightened perception. The care that provides such a perspective is called contemplative care, or spiritual care. But contemplative care does not have to be given only at the end of life. It is a lifetime lesson.

The essence of spiritual care is contemplating what is real and developing awareness of the present. The Theravada Buddhist teachings encourage people to prepare for the end-of-life journey. Why is meditation of any form such an important part of this journey? It is because people who meditate regularly will generally have less fear of death. The have developed an inner sense of balance and equanimity. Mindfulness brings a deep appreciation of moment to moment impermanence.

The editors of Awake at the Bedside have put together a profound collection of readings. These essays and poems introduce us to a deeply spiritual aspect of care. On a personal note, Awake at the Bedside came as a great gift for me. Inspired by Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live, I am living this year as if it is the last year of my life. This book has become a new companion on my own journey.

Stephen and Ondrea Levine have a chapter in this book titled “Don’t Wait for Tomorrow,” which gives six meditations on death and dying. This is contemplative care for oneself and others, as the end-of-life journey will inevitably commence for everyone sooner or later. We listen to the one who is dying. A hand held sometimes brings better relief than strong medicines. We live with forgiveness in heart and resolved regrets. We mirror lovingkindness and compassion. We don’t wait for tomorrow but learn to live in the present.

In another article, Anyen Rinpoche talks about creating a “Dharma Vision.” We take great efforts in our everyday lives, and we should make similar efforts in our preparation for the end of life. Living with Dharma Vision means that there is no difference between our everyday spiritual practice and one that we engage in at the time of our approaching death. We create a Dharma Will, store it in a Dharma Box, and share it with our trusted Dharma Friends. This is the spiritual directive that we share with our core group. It provides a skillful means for navigating through the dying process. Anyen Rinpoche also provides guided meditations on contemplating impermanence as an integral element of our lives.

Larry Rosenberg offers three aspects of death awareness practices: awareness of the inevitability of death, awareness of the time of death, and awareness that only insight into Dharma can help us at the time of death. These reflections can be practiced daily. The caregiver can practice these with the dying person. It is not morbid; it brings peace in the face of pain and suffering.

No collection of readings on contemplative care could be complete without teachings by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “Dying patients are the best teachers in the whole world and they teach you not only about the process of dying, which is very easy to understand, but also about the process of living,” she says here. “To live fully means not being afraid of living and not being afraid of dying.” The caregiver should take care of the person’s physical needs first and then take care of the emotional needs—the unfinished business. This is the crux of contemplative care. It means letting what is natural take place, as well as allowing grief and anger to exist as natural phases and not to be suppressed. Dying is not the nightmare, she says; it is what we make for one another right here that is the nightmare.

This is not a book that is to be read once and put aside. It is a companion to be taken along wherever we go. Ultimately it is not about dying. It is about caring, both for ourselves and others. The pioneers of contemplative care offer us words of wisdom, stories that inspire, and poems that make us cry. Keep this book at your bedside. It is a presence that can inspire awakening.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.


Inside Knowledge: How to Activate the Radical New Vision of Reality of Tibetan Lama Tarthang Tulku
Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Publishing, 2015. xxi + 225 pp., paper, $18.95

We often experience time and space as a cruel iron prison. They may be navigated, but they cannot be conquered. Knowledge can at best help us live more comfortably within them.

Or maybe not. Tarthang Tulku—one of very few Tibetan lamas in the West to try to go past the boundaries of Buddhist thought—has developed a vision, called Time, Space, and Knowledge (usually abbreviated as TSK), that enables us to see these primordial forces in fresh and revolutionary ways. His first book on the subject, Time, Space, and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality appeared in 1977, and in the years since, he has added to his body of work with titles such as Love of Knowledge (1987) and Knowledge of Time and Space (1990). The latest offering, edited by Jack Petranker, a longtime student and teacher of TSK, is Inside Knowledge.

It’s hard to characterize the TSK vision, because, as Tarthang Tulku stresses, it is not a theory but a method of approach. In his preface to this book, Petranker writes, “the TSK Vision is not about ‘getting’ any specific result or ‘having’ any particular experience. In TSK it is the questions that matter.” It is perhaps best seen through adjectives rather than through axioms: the words “open,” “light,” “playful,” and “spontaneous” appear frequently.

“There is no solid self,” says Tarthang Tulku in an interview reprinted in this volume. “You are an open-ended expression of time, space and knowledge . . . By comparison, ordinary ‘human being,’ in which our Being is obscured, is a very mechanical process. Our reactions are practically of the ‘knee jerk’ variety, and we’re motivated by a small set of needs, predicated on insecurity and lack of fulfillment.”

The TSK vision frequently contrasts an ordinary experience of time, space, and knowledge—frozen, mechanical, and repetitive—with a fresher vision that can be explored experientially. “A zeroless dimensionality is available to us: grounded in uninterruptible openness,” Tarthang Tulku writes elsewhere in this volume.

Rather than pushing any further into the realm of concepts and definitions, it might be better to give a flavor of TSK through its exercises, a number of which appear at the back of this book. Here is one, “Space between Thoughts”: “As you observe your thoughts passing, watch very sensitively for the moment when one thought ends and another arises. This transition is very quick and subtle, but involves the momentary availability of a space which you can contact and even expand. This space has a quality of openness, free from the usual discursive and discriminative thinking.”

From my own experience, I would say that this exercise can shift and has shifted my awareness of time. Normally one thinks of time as a continuous flow: hence the common metaphors of a “stream” or “film” of consciousness. The exercise above suggests a new way of looking at time. One might call it atomistic: thoughts appear separately between the “space” that the exercise mentions, so that they are more like momentary flashes in a field of knowing than a never-ending and unstoppable stream.

I am in no way claiming that this experience, or any other, is the goal of the exercise: rather it is my observation of how things appear from a single given stance. The point is that there is an infinite number of such stances.

Here is part of another exercise: “Bring to mind the future, allowing it to be completely indeterminate. Instead of thinking about this or that coming event, let the unknown-ness of the future come to the foreground. As a gateway into this indeterminacy, reflect on the ongoing transformations through which living being evolves. Within the steady flow of linear time, there are movements we would consider favorable and others that are unfavorable. Yet if you welcome the future, you may become aware of a dynamic that unfolds naturally toward improvement.”

Again to speak from my own experience: doing this exercise, I am less aware of myself as attempting to shift an immovable future away from certain outcomes and toward others. Instead I am aware of the future as a large, dark, fluid, but dynamic presence that is to be absorbed and assimilated and transformed.

This, too, is only one response out of countless possible responses.

The TSK vision is subtle and elusive, and not easy to formulate in a language like English. But it is approachable, and of the several books in the TSK series, this is (as it is meant to be) perhaps the best and most accessible introduction to this “knowingness” of a very different kind. Someone who reads this book is likely to go away from it viewing time, space, and knowledge less as forbidding and impenetrable walls and more like an energy that is always present and available for dynamic creativity.

Richard Smoley


Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015, viii + 375 pages, paper, $29.95.

I have long been fascinated with the eruption of religious enthusiasms, new religions, and reformist movements that took place in the nineteenth century in upstate New York, in an area that has been dubbed “the burned-over district” — so called not for physical fires, but for the fiery evangelical revivals and messianic utopian schemes that burnt their way through the region. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Oneida utopians, the women’s movement, and spiritualism all arose on New York soil, and that hardly exhausts the list.

Who better to provide an overview of these sects than Joscelyn Godwin, whose earlier book The Theosophical Enlightenment masterfully surveyed the origins and influences of the esoteric and occult currents in the nineteenth century English-speaking world? Despite its much tighter geographical focus, Upstate Cauldron can fairly be considered a companion volume to the earlier book, as Godwin’s thorough approach and wry bemusement are evident in both surveys.

While some figures treated here are likely familiar, such as H.P. Blavatsky, Joseph Smith, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and possibly the self-proclaimed Rosicrucian Paschal Beverly Randolph, many others have been waiting to be rescued from obscurity by Godwin. These would include Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend; Handsome Lake, the prophet of a Native American religion; Thomas Lake Harris, founder of the Brotherhood of the New Life; Robert Ingersoll, crusading freethinker and atheist; and Cyrus Reed Teed, founder of Koreshanity and exponent of the view that we are living within a hollow earth, all scientific evidence to the contrary. Some of these worthies were famous in their day, but most have fallen from present awareness.

Another in this vein is Elbert Hubbard, a pop philosopher of uplift whose prolific works were read by hundreds of thousands of readers a century ago, but who passed from view after he and his wife went down with the Lusitania when it was sunk by the Germans in 1915.

Theosophists appear several times in this history, not just HPB and Henry Steel Olcott, but others less known, notably Matilda Joslyn Gage, who coauthored the History of Woman Suffrage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Mrs. Gage was to become the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, passing along her interest in Theosophy to him. Baum would go on to author the Oz series of children’s books, which Godwin notes have both Theosophical and Gnostic elements.

Godwin also reminds us that it was Josephine Cables, a Theosophist in Rochester, New York, who helped rouse the Theosophical Society in America out of the dormancy it had fallen into after the departure of HPB and Olcott for India in 1878. In 1882 she applied to the Adyar headquarters for a charter for a Rochester branch. It was the first American branch to be chartered since the TS’s founding in 1875.

As might be expected, spiritualism — perhaps the most prominent new religious movement to catch fire from the 1840s on — is a constant presence in Upstate Cauldron. Its participants overlap with nearly every reform movement of the era: abolitionism, free thought, women’s suffrage, utopian socialism, communalism, free love, and temperance. As spiritualism became more formalized, with some wings becoming quasi-Christian denominations, it also split into competing camps with ever-shifting alliances. Godwin covers some of this in passing here, but I’d love to see him devote a whole book to the spiritualist saga.

An unexpected chapter towards the end treats the Arts and Crafts movement’s manifestations in New York. This initially struck me as an incongruous addition to the book, but through his examination of participants such as Gustav Stickley, who published The Craftsman magazine, championed “simplicity” as a spiritual and aesthetic ideal, and founded a quasi-utopian company town for his furniture factory, I came to see the connection.

Upstate Cauldron’s final chapter delves into more recent manifestations of eccentric spirituality in upstate New York. These include “Father Francis” (Archbishop William Henry Francis Brothers), a latter-day “wandering bishop” who shepherded an eclectic congregation in Woodstock; Peter Lamborn Wilson, esoteric anarcho-scalliwag whose series of “poetic actions” in the region are seemingly performed with a tongue-in-cheek attitude wholly absent from the book’s other figures; Anthony Damiani, proprietor of the American Brahman bookstore in Ithaca and a disciple of author Paul Brunton who attracted his own circle of devoted followers; and Jane Roberts, channeler of Seth and author of Seth Speaks and The Seth Material.

In parting, Godwin provides maps and a gazetteer of some 150 sites in upstate New York that the reader can visit. Given that Godwin’s photos of such sites are peppered throughout the book, he clearly devoted years to visiting them himself and wishes to encourage others to do so as well. As he notes, these are a historical legacy waiting to be recognized.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.


Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life through Transcendental Meditation
New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016. 320 pp., hardcover, $ 27.

The famous Sufi master Mullah Nasruddin was once found searching for something outside his house. People asked him, “What are you looking for?” He said, “I am looking for my key.” Again they asked, “Where did you lose it?” and he said, “In my house.” Incredulously they asked, “Why are you looking here?” and he replied,” There is more light here!” When this story was told to a Zen master, his interpretation was, “Looking is the key!”

This is the age where everyone is looking — looking for something that will help one navigate one’s way through a world of conflict, dissatisfaction, and an overall feeling of wanting and unhappiness. Technology and other advances (dare we say smartphones!) bring us more anxiety than peace, gobbling up our internal space and quiet. The search has led more and more people towards meditation.

The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi learned the ancient Vedic technique of meditation in the Himalayas and brought it to the public as Transcendental Meditation (TM). He knew it had great potential to help people. His message was, “Meditate, dive within, and expand your consciousness.” You change, and the world around you follows.

Norman E. Rosenthal’s Super Mind provides a roadmap towards that goal. Indeed, TM is goal-oriented. This simple technique, practiced twenty minutes twice a day, is easy to learn and enjoyable to practice. Research studies abound on TM’s effectiveness for stress and stress-related conditions. The benefits in daily life are often documented almost like a checklist: inner calm, reduced cortisol, normalized blood pressure, improved brain function and memory, reduced insomnia. A recent study documented the positive impact of TM on stressed-out college students.

The Maharishi talked about several states of consciousness. The three basic ones are sleeping, waking, and dreaming. Four more are transcendence (experience of self in silence of meditation), cosmic consciousness (experience of the transcendent in activity), refined cosmic consciousness (maximum development of senses and emotions), and unity consciousness (experiencing the transcendental reality within yourself and within everyone and everything). Rosenthal refers to the last three collectively as the Super Mind. He chooses this term because it is a state of heightened aptitude, problem-solving ability, and also a state of emotional empathy and sensitivity, even enhancing diplomatic skills in dealing with day-to-day situations. It is a state of consistent living in peak condition.

Rosenthal’s 2012 book, Transcendence: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life through Transcendental Meditation, dealt specifically with how TM could help people with problems. Super Mind is broader in its reach, asking how everyone can lead a richer and more creative life. The book is organized into a description of the new science of consciousness, with measurable data; techniques for expanding consciousness; subjective experiences; the physiological basis of Super Mind; and finally the mysterious process of how “repeated settling” in meditation can lead to “a continuum of calmness.” Reading through Rosenthal’s book is a fascinating journey.

I found one discussion particularly interesting. It addressed the difference between TM and mindfulness. We know mindfulness means moment-to-moment clarity of observation. A wandering mind is just a state to note and let go of. Researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University developed an application for the iPhone recording subjects’ activity at random moments and whether their thoughts were pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. They found that mind wandering was common. They also found that people were happy when their minds were on a task, less happy when minds were wandering to neutral topics, and least happy when minds were wandering to unpleasant topics. Using time sequence analysis, they found that mind wandering preceded unhappiness. The Harvard researchers describe mind wandering as the brain’s default mode of operation and the frontal portions of brain as the default mode network (DMN).

Here is the greatest difference between mindfulness and TM: mindfulness focuses on the task at hand. If the mind that does not wander is a happy one, then mindfulness will make people happier. TM, by contrast, does not involve focusing on the present. The mantra used in TM allows the mind to transcend the present. Is transcendence a state of wandering, then? If so, does it make people less happy? But TM has been shown to enhance happiness. Scientifically speaking, mindfulness is reduced DMN activity (focus and attention), while TM increases DMN activity. The great question is: can one practice both? Rosenthal says there is no reason not to. It is a compelling discussion.

Rosenthal discusses many personal experiences, his own and others’, throughout the book, and these are very helpful. The appendices include a detailed “Consciousness Integration Questionnaire”; end notes for each chapter, with sources; and a question and answer session with Bob Roth, who has been teaching TM for forty-five years. A first-time reader would find it enlightening.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.

Under a Sacred Sky: Essays on the Practice and Philosophy of Astrology
Bournemouth, England: Wessex Astrologer, 2015. 200 pp., paper, $21.

Although nearly all of Ray Grasse’s essays in this book have previously appeared in fairly recondite publications like Dell Horoscope, The Mountain Astrologer, or this magazine, Grasse’s enough of a versatile correspondent of symbolism and star lore to have something for everyone — from professional astrologers to a person on the street. Covering everything from chakras to cinema to counseling, Grasse, a former assistant editor of Quest, seeks to uncover the power of the stars to ignite modern life with more sacredness and meaning.

Grasse does best with his longer essays, especially as they open windows into novel takes and techniques that he’s picked up over the years. In his “Astrology and the Chakras” essay, Grasse explains the system of chakric-planetary correspondences he learned from Paramahansa Yogananda’s disciples. With five case studies, Grasse shows how to put this simple system into practice. It’s fascinating fodder for better aligning yourself with your planets and your chakras. In “Tectonic Triggers: The Hidden Power of Station Points,” the author also probes how stationing planets — planets that appear to stand still between retrograding or moving direct — can have surprising, powerful resonances in someone’s life. Grasse examines the implications for each possible stationing planet with examples from the charts of celebrities and major world events. There’s also plenty of meat both for beginners and for advanced students of astrology in Grasse’s evaluations of stern Saturn’s lessons in his essay, “Saturn, the Late Bloomer: Understanding the Long-Range Dynamics of Saturn in the Horoscope.”

Fortunately, Grasse doesn’t stop with providing grounded, sage insights into technique. In “The Seven Most Common Mistakes Made by Astrologers,” he dispenses practical wisdom to practicing astrologers (and indirectly to those who visit them). He speaks frankly as a professional who’s earned his stars from the scars of well-intentioned bad practices with clients. Many should heed his wisdom here, as is true for the shorter essay, “What Goes Around Comes Around: Learning from Past Transits to Better Understand Future Trends,” that follows it.

Grasse, who is a photographer as well as an astrologer, is no less adroit when he broadens his telescopic lens to focus on culture and cinema. In two different essays, Grasse shows how cinema, cosmos, and constellations converge to reflect accurately what’s going on in the psyche of the world. Grasse scores at connecting planetary line-ups with movie premieres, like the epic traffic jam of planets in acquisitive Taurus when Citizen Kane opened in 1941.

In another two essays, he delves into the symphony of symbolic synchrony in pop music and culture as they meet in the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. In “Tuning into the Zeitgeist: Riding the Waves of Planetary Change,” Grasse uses personal anecdotes and stories of famous artists to illustrate how periods of history might impress themselves more on us than we would like to recognize. Astrology, according to Grasse, shows these lasting imprints, even as they reverberate into the distant past. Grasse broadens his excavation of how periods of time come alive in “Monsters, Mystics, and the Collective Unconscious: Planetary Cycles and the Outer Limits of the Zeitgeist.” It’s uncanny how particular planets combine to illuminate the mythical and real monsters that plague our dreams and social aspirations.

Less successful are Grasse’s essays on the coming age of Aquarius. Although the esoteric notion of the Great Ages has entered pop consciousness, Grasse glosses over the controversy, at least among astrologers, about what truly constitutes an age and the trappings associated with it, like “revolutionary” Uranus as the ruler of the sign of Aquarius. Grasse never questions the significance of Great Ages, treating them as faits accomplis rather than as a twentieth-century exposition of the classical idea of the precession of the equinoxes. These Great Ages could be a posteriori readings of history, or they could indeed provide a clearer reading into the future. Unfortunately, Grasse never bothers to determine which.

That could be because Grasse is more than just a correspondent; he’s a believer. Nevertheless, he’s much too broad-minded to be evangelical or zealous about his symbolic vision of the world. He would rather have a conversation about it, as he does in two separate interviews with critically acclaimed author-astrologers Richard Tarnas and Laurence Hillman, the son of archetypal psychologist James Hillman. We may have to wait for another book for Grasse to draw his acute critical eye to our suppositions about the philosophical underpinnings of astrology and its most hallowed beliefs. Meanwhile, in Under a Sacred Sky, we have a gem of a book that shows how astrology’s symbols streak across and illuminate our minds wherever we look.

Samuel F. Reynolds

Samuel F. Reynolds, a former skeptic, had a life-changing visit to an astrologer and has since spent twenty-five years doing charts and studying astrology. Now he consults, writes, and teaches astrology full-time.

How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible.
New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2016. 286 pp., paper, $19.

The typical American churchgoer has limited engagement with contemporary scholarship regarding the Jewish and Christian scriptures. There is a tendency to take them at face value, even in communities where modern scholarship is welcome. Others on the liberal end of the spectrum, whether religious or not, may simply dismiss the texts without engaging with scholarship, perhaps believing it to be too technical to be of interest.
Richard Smoley has rendered a fine service for those who want to understand these texts and the origins of Christianity. The book is primarily occupied with a broad and highly readable summary of current historical, archeological, and literary research on the Bible. Of course, scholarship is always changing, and the field is huge. Smoley does not attempt to be comprehensive — an impossible task. Rather he provides a good summary of the mainstream consensus, with caveats that there are differing views and continuous new developments. He also provides notes and a Further Reading section that will help the interested reader proceed into more specialized works.

Smoley is to be praised for the care and honesty he brings to his task. He provides information on his background and theological views, enabling the reader to understand his context and bias. As he notes, “I have never read anything by any scholar that was not, to some degree, conditioned by his or her own ideology.” Especially with the quest for the historical Jesus, the offerings generally reveal more about the questors than about Jesus. Smoley steers cautiously through these waters, and argues for positions that make maximum use of the available evidence, instead of discarding large parts of the texts for shaky reasons, or ruling out miracles or healings on principle.

Of particular interest to Theosophical readers, Smoley points out the usefulness of the esoteric traditions for understanding the Bible in truly helpful ways, which are not dependent on a literal reading or destroyed by the questions raised by scholarship. In this pursuit, he draws on a deep working familiarity with traditions ancient (Kabbalah) and modern (A Course in Miracles). He is not afraid to question esoteric truisms (for example, the claim that John the Baptist was Elijah reincarnated), but looks at biblical passages on these subjects with fresh eyes. This aspect of the book is not an end note, but is integrated throughout, bringing esotericism into a living conversation with some of the most fascinating corners of modern biblical scholarship, such as Margaret Barker’s work on the Great Angel.

As Smoley points out, the Bible is important for all of us. Whether we are Christian or not, religious or not, the Bible is part of the “thrownness” of our culture. We may run from it, but we cannot hide. With a guide like Smoley, we can engage it skillfully, and to our benefit.

John Plummer

John Plummer is an independent theologian and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2015. 226 pp., paper, $16.95.

Euclidean geometry is the geometry of plain surfaces and three-dimensional space, but non-Euclidean geometry is the geometry of curved surfaces, hence it is indeed an appropriate term for this kind of ping-pong.
—Rupert Sheldrake, in a note to Guido Mina di Sospiro

We live in a world of spin, above us the spinning, ever watchful orbits of satellites, our minds filled with the twists and turns of media spin doctors, and our lives lived in the spinning maze of global commerce. There is no escaping it. Yet the question, really, is not one of escape, but how to enjoy the playing in itself.

Guido Mina di Sospiro’s wonderful new book The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong brings the reader on a journey through a playful, personal, and deep relationship with the everyday, under the auspices of Mina di Sospiro’s quest to discover the intimate secrets contained in the fine art of ping-pong, and in the process the fine art of spin. Along the way is woven an intricate image of how subtle influences attend even the most mundane acts. If we pay attention, we’re given clues into how the profundity we often seek in more exotic pursuits can be found in the most basic elements of the everyday.

The book’s opening chapter includes a ping-pong faceoff between Mina di Sospiro and biologist Rupert Sheldrake, which provides the philosophical motivation for a new understanding of table tennis and its ability to capture some of the stranger nuances of our current culture. It is these odd angles and unexpected encounters that provide a rare opportunity to access an unspoken influence behind everyday façades. In Mina di Sospiro’s game against Sheldrake, we also find a hint at the wide-ranging dialogue of ideas that develops throughout the book. As the author writes in his prelude:

Down the centuries Taoism, Zen, and Sufism have created a large repertoire of short and seemingly mundane stories whose goal is that of violating logics and challenging our assumptions. Twentieth-century traditionalists have done much of the same, by turning received notions upside down. Ping-pong, as I will show, has so many baffling and refreshingly illogical qualities about it that, whenever I happened to play an occasional game, somehow it echoed inside me in a new and increasingly more resonant way. And as a result of that I marveled all the more at how magical it was to spin that little ball and make it fly, bounce on the table and off the opponent’s racket in mysterious ways. (Emphasis Mina di Sospiro’s)

Mina di Sospiro also explores the often mercurial nature of our global society through the vehicle of a popular pastime. In the descriptions of the players and personas from many nations that the author encounters, the reader is invited to feel the essential elements that define each nation’s identity. Anyone who has traveled or explored other cultures will laugh and be touched by the quirky personal tics, accurately portrayed here, that each country instills in its residents.

As with The Forbidden Book, Mina di Sospiro’s recent collaboration with the noted scholar of esoteric history Joscelyn Godwin (reviewed in Quest, summer 2014), there’s a resonance in this work that goes beyond the surface. Mina di Sospiro’s writing is known for its subtle craftsmanship, and it is surprising to read a book that manages to work in international relations, cultural differences, and personal anecdotes while focusing on philosophy, physics, and initiation, all seen through the lens of ping-pong. The closest comparison I can think of is Roland Barthes’s chapter in Mythologies on professional wrestling, but that doesn’t have the same heart.

Compared in some reviews to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong is actually much more direct in its reflections of the interstices of daily living and deeper thinking, and doesn’t have the cultural baggage associated with Robert M. Pirsig’s well-known work. Mina di Sospiro’s prose reminds me a bit of J.-K. Huysman’s creative reworking of observational realism, where the frame of anecdotal experience holds together an insightful exploration of human, and humane, existence. One doesn’t get the sense of an attempt to explain more than the work, or author, can hold. Mina di Sospiro is too enraptured with the subtle mysteries of life to invite the reader to ruin the play of existential light and shadow with artificial theories.

Long-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award and praised by Publisher’s Weekly editor Seth Satterlee, the book has already received a number of positive reviews, which, we can hope, will open the door for readers expecting standard sports journalism to a more nuanced relationship with their experiences. Erudite, experimental, and engaging, Mina di Sospiro has given us a work that breaks new ground in sports writing. Whether or not you ever pick up a paddle, The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong provides an initiation into a visionary life, igniting the fires of inspiration through an intriguing intimacy with the mysteries of daily experience.
David Metcalfe

David Metcalfe is the acting director for the Liminal Analytics: Applied Research Collaborative and a contributing editor for Limitless Mind on the Reality Sandwich website. This review originally appeared on The Daily Grail site.

The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary
San Francisco: Harper One, 2015. lix +1988 pp., hardcover, $59.99.

The Qur’an (or Koran, or, in this edition, Quran), as is well known, is the holy book of Islam. As the Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr says in his introduction to this new translation, although the Prophet Muhammad was the instrument through which this text was revealed, “its Author is God.” In Muslim belief, the very sound of the words of the text — in the original Arabic and only in the original Arabic — is a divine transmission.

Several years ago the publisher of Harper One approached Nasr and asked him to compile a new study edition of the Qur’an. He agreed on the condition that “this would be a Muslim effort and that . . . it would not be determined or guided by assertions presented by non-Muslim Western scholars and orientalists who . . . do not accept it as the Word of God” (emphasis Nasr’s). It would also exclude “modernistic or fundamentalist interpretations that have appeared in parts of the Islamic world during the past two centuries.”

The result is a compendious new version. In addition to Nasr’s introduction, there is a full set of verse-by-verse annotations on the text, along with essays on such subjects as the Qur’an’s influence on art, science, and Islamic law, as well as its views on other religions, ethics and human rights, war, and death and the afterlife.

As a reviewer, I am limited in being neither a scholar of Islam nor an Arabic speaker. So I will restrict my comments to the extent that this edition succeeds in presenting the Qur’an to a general reader in the English-speaking world.

To turn to the translation: for the most part it is clear, though the English is far from impressive. The translators try to give the work an archaic flavor that tries to do justice to the grandeur of the original but does not succeed. It is dangerous to use an archaizing style unless you are a master of prose in a way that these translators are not. Thus we get “And naught prevents men from believing when guidance comes unto them, and from seeking forgiveness of their Lord, save that [they await] the wont of those of old to come upon them, or the punishment to come upon them face-to-face” (18:55; the bracketed insertion is the translators’). Sometimes the translation is simply ungrammatical: “Whosoever Thou shieldest from evil deeds on that Day, upon him hast Thou had mercy” (40:9). If you are going to use the archaizing “whosoever,” it would behoove you to stay the course and get the case right with “whomsoever.”

The annotations seem more successful, and the editors have highlighted the deeper and more esoteric contents of the text. I would expect that a reader who wanted to look into the mystical and esoteric elements of the Qur’an would prefer this edition over most others.

The essays in the third section are a mixed lot. Probably the most successful is Hamza Yusuf’s “Death, Dying, and the Afterlife in the Quran,” which gives a clear and succinct view of Islamic eschatology. William C. Chittick’s essay “The Quran and Sufism” is also helpful, although it avoids the awkward question of forms of Sufism that ignore or bypass Qur’anic norms. Others, notably Toby Mayer’s “Traditions of Esoteric and Sapiential Quranic Commentary,” are couched in an academic terminology that will be unappetizing to all but the specialist.

This edition is marred by some notable omissions. In the first place, although it is laced with Arabic words, it lacks a glossary of basic terms. At the same time, the index is a forest of citations, with “four kinds of locator numbers” printed in two colors, that make it unusable for many purposes.

An even more glaring omission is the lack of an essay that provides a historical context. It is not possible to grasp the context of the Qur’an without at least some understanding of what was going on in the Arabia of Muhammad’s time. The editors acknowledge this point to the extent of including a number of maps that illustrate this context, but without any broader narrative that enable one to make full sense or use of them.

Similarly, Hamza Yusuf’s essay points out that “the Arabs of the day . . . did not believe in an Afterlife.” This is extremely useful to know: it explains the Qur’an’s heavy emphasis on the resurrection and judgment on the Last Day. But what else did the Arabs of Muhammad’s time believe? Who were the people he was preaching to? To leave us with little more than the idea that they were “idolaters” tells us virtually nothing.

The background to this edition is best understood by grasping that S.H. Nasr is the leading living exponent of the religio-philosophical school known as Traditionalism. (For more on Traditionalism, see “Islam and Prince Charles” on page TK.) The paucity of historical material, for example, is, I suspect, the result of the Traditionalists’ relative indifference to historical fact. For them, historical fact, even when true, is merely contingent; its chief, or sole, value is to illustrate primordial metaphysical truths.

Although, to my mind, Traditionalism has serious limitations, it is not always mistaken. Although I imagine that many readers will be chagrined to see that this edition pays little attention to the status of women, Maria Massai Dakake’s essay “Quranic Ethics, Human Rights, and Society” avoids the pitfall of trying to justify Qur’anic ethics (including those regarding women) in terms of those of the modern West. In her discussion of 4:34, which reads in part, “The righteous women are devoutly obedient” to their husbands, she warns against present-day attempts “to reinterpret this verse in ways more acceptable to modern conceptions of women’s rights,” adding that “the fact remains that this verse is clearly at odds with contemporary Western views of appropriate spousal relations in marriage.” That is the plain sense of this verse, and one may as well face it.

The point is that the Qur’an and the civilization that is based on it cannot be crammed into a box of Western preconceptions.
In the end, there is much that is useful in this edition, and I would expect to turn to it first when delving into the Qur’an in the future. But I think a revised edition is necessary. The translation should be reworked by someone with a firmer command of English grammar and (one might hope) literary style. And the edition should include a glossary, an essay on the historical and sociological context of the Qur’an, and a less impenetrable index. Only then, I believe, will it take the place in contemporary culture to which it aspires.

Richard Smoley

For a longer version of this review, visit Richard Smoley’s blog,

Esoteric Instructions
Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 2015. 356 + xxvi pp., paper, $17.

Renowned Theosophical scholar Michael Gomes has prepared a new edition of the Esoteric Instructions — a series of teachings originally written by H.P. Blavatsky for the use of the members of the Esoteric Section (ES) of the Theosophical Society.

The ES was formed by HPB in October 1888 “to promote the esoteric interests of the Theosophical Society by the deeper study of esoteric philosophy.” Soon after its formation, she began to write some “Instructions” that were privately circulated among the members of that Section. Instructions 1 and 2 were printed early in 1889, while Instruction 3 was issued in 1889–90.

In these works, HPB discusses a variety of esoteric and occult topics. Instruction 1 explores the power present in sounds, colors, and numbers, illustrating their correlation with planets, days, metals, and human principles. She also discusses the correspondence between macro- and microcosmic processes. Instruction 2 elucidates some obscure concepts from the previous discussion. It also examines the true nature of magic and its connection with the hierarchies of celestial beings. Instruction 3 elaborates on the human constitution from a more esoteric perspective. It examines the methods of development in the schools of hatha and raja yoga, along with the principles (tattvas) they activate. It also discusses the destiny of the different aspects of human consciousness after death.

In August 1890, Blavatsky formed an “Inner Group” of the ES, which consisted of twelve members — six men and six women. This group held weekly private meetings, where a more advanced teaching was orally given. These meetings dealt with a wide variety of esoteric teachings, in what can be regarded as a deepening of the exploration started in the Instructions. Topics included the different planes and states of consciousness, meditative exercises, the correspondence between the organs of the body and the principles of consciousness, and many other related subjects. What transpired in these meetings was carefully written down by the students and preserved in the form of minutes for each session.

The information in the three Instructions and the teachings of the Inner Group remained private until 1897, when they were made available to the general public in the “third volume” of The Secret Doctrine edited by Annie Besant. They appeared at the end of that volume under the heading “Some Papers on the Bearing of Occult Philosophy on Life.” The three Instructions were published as Papers 1, 2, and 3, and roughly 95 percent of the text of the minutes of the Inner Group was published under the subheading “Notes on Some Oral Teachings.”

In Esoteric Instructions: H.P. Blavatsky, Michael Gomes compiles the three sets of Instructions and the Notes, presenting them as a separate publication. It is important to mention that in this book, the Notes, originally published with no order or system, have been rearranged alphabetically under a series of headings so that the reader can use them as supplementary material in the study of the Instructions.

There are also four appendices with articles and documents written by HPB on matters related to the Instructions. “Practical Occultism” and “Occultism versus the Occult Arts” discuss the character of occultism and the qualifications necessary for its practice. Two “Preliminary Memoranda” explain the nature and work of the ES. The final document presents an editorial note by HPB on the article “Stray Thoughts on Death and Satan” by the French occultist Éliphas Lévi, where she discusses personal immortality. Along with Blavatsky’s remarks, there are some footnotes from one of her adept teachers, Mahatma Koot Hoomi.

In addition, Gomes provides an introduction exploring the historical context in which the ES was formed, how the Instructions were produced, and the origin of the Notes from the Inner Group. Throughout this work there are footnotes added by the editor providing general references to people and publications mentioned in the Instructions. When presenting the Notes, the editor also provides alternative readings derived from other records of the Inner Group teachings.

Esoteric Instructions: H.P. Blavatsky is a welcome publication of these lesser-known but important teachings in a compact and handy edition that the earnest student of Theosophy or esoteric subjects in general will find of great value.

Pablo Sender

Pablo Sender gives Theosophical lectures and classes throughout North and South America. His writings can be found on his website:

The Presence of the Infinite: The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2015. xi + 285 pp., paper, $18.95.

Just when I thought I had a grasp on the meaning of the word postmodernity, I came across The Presence of the Infinite. This book not only put a whole new perspective on that word, it described in great detail the cutting edge of the next cultural movement that some expect will surpass postmodernity in scope and sophistication: post-postmodernity. And just when a significant part of our population might be about to come to terms with what McIntosh calls progressive spirituality, he challenges us to move toward the next, more comprehensive level — evolutionary spirituality.

The Presence of the Infinite is a highly intellectualized exploration of a new kind of unifying spiritual agreement that the author feels is on the horizon in America. If only evolutionary spirituality could gain traction in our fragmented culture, McIntosh claims, it would improve the overall quality of our collective spiritual experience, resulting in a greater sense of social solidarity and cooperation and supplying spiritual leadership for our civilization.

McIntosh contrasts evolutionary spirituality — still in its infancy — with the three main forms of spirituality that came before it: traditional religious spirituality, which “comprises America’s organized and historically established religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam”; secular spirituality, which includes atheism, secular humanism, and scientism; and progressive spirituality, encompassing movements such as Theosophy, New Thought, and other forms of New Age spirituality.

In McIntosh’s view, progressive spirituality, which serves as the antithesis of traditional religion and of secular modernity, is sort of on the right track but has failed to gain traction in mainstream society. One reason, he believes, is that progressive spirituality tends to discredit the valid contributions and achievements made by both secular modernity and the religious traditionalism that came before it.

Evolutionary spirituality, by contrast, will acknowledge “the spiritual quality of evolution’s ceaseless process of becoming.” It will offer a new synthesis based on an enlarged understanding of ultimate reality. Unlike progressive spirituality, it will respect the contributions and truths of all the earlier forms of spirituality, and will offer an improved and expanded set of values that allow us to experience greater beauty, truth, and goodness in our lives.

Furthermore, evolutionary spirituality acknowledges the differences between a nondual sense of the ultimate and a theistic one without feeling a need to resolve the gap between these two polarities. Rather they are given a chance to test and verify each other — synthesizing their strengths without erasing their differences.

Central to McIntosh’s premise is the stunning understanding that the pursuit and attainment of direct personal spiritual experience is the key driver for spiritual growth, and the primary means of evolving consciousness. Fostering this direct experience — as opposed to having spiritual truth dispensed by outer authorities of clergy and scripture, as in religious traditionalism, or dismissing it entirely, as in secular modernity — is the key factor that will bring evolutionary spirituality into fruition. McIntosh feels it is incumbent upon those who already enjoy such experiences to share their gifts — whether through the creation of liberating forms of art and music or through the writing of influential books — and to live up to their potential to bear spiritual fruit in their own lives.

I can readily buy McIntosh’s premise that enabling people to move toward direct experience of spirit (or connection or transcendence), by whatever name, will lead to individual transformation and to transformation of the overall culture as well. But despite great effort, I stumble on the way McIntosh derives proof of the existence of an intelligent Creator. He bases it on the sense that some kind of creative will or intelligence must have created the Big Bang in the first place and that this creative will or intelligence is continually still creating through the evolutionary process as humans continue to imagine and strive toward a better existence. He bases it also on the common human experience of connection, which, as he points out, most religions call the love of God. For me, this leans a bit too far into the theistic camp and detracts somewhat from my appreciation of the title: The Presence of the Infinite.

Overall, I am glad I read this book. Though I write on a related topic myself, I feel I have gained an enhanced appreciation of the type of faith that can evolve outside the walls of traditional religion — a perspective toward which increasing numbers are now being called, and of which it behooves us all to seek greater understanding.

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books).

A Jewel on a Silver Platter: Remembering Jiddu Krishnamurti
N.p: Peepal Leaves, 2015. 417 + xiii pp., $30 hardcover; $20 paper; $10 digital PDF.

A Jewel on a Silver Platter: Remembering Jiddu Krishnamurti is a collection of personal accounts about this modern spiritual teacher by those who knew him well. Its author, Padmanabhan Krishna, a longstanding member of the Theosophical Society, is a trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation in India and was rector of the Rajgat Besant School in Varanasi, India. He also knew Krishnamurti for many years and has a deep grasp of his teachings. All this puts him in an ideal position to write this book.

The author first seeks to provide a sense of who Krishnamurti was, not just as a teacher on a platform, but as a person in real life. A record of personal interactions, especially those during the last months of Krishnamurti’s life, illustrates his responses in different situations, which always revolved around his primary motive — a deep concern for the welfare of human beings. Interviews with senior associates such as Achyut Patwardhan, Vimala Thakar, Radha Burnier, and Mark Lee convey their experiences and their struggles to understand this extraordinary individual. (A version of an interview with Burnier, late international president of the TS, was published in Quest, spring 2015.) These reports, along with a collection of anecdotes, gives the reader access to intimate aspects of his personality that are not widely known.

The book also presents a fine collection of short essays written by Prof. Krishna that serve as a good introduction to Krishnamurti’s work. They either examine the fundamental aspects of his teachings or enquire into important matters of life in the manner furthered by Krishnamurti himself. There is a glossary of terms provided that the novice will find useful.

The author does not shy away from some interesting aspects of Krishnamurti’s personality and life, which constitute what is sometimes referred to as “the mystery of K.” Prof. Krishna enquires into his role as the “World Teacher,” something Krishnamurti typically refused to discuss in public. Several passages also show that Krishnamurti did not deny the existence of the Masters of Wisdom. For example, in one dialogue with Radha Burnier, Krishnamurti asked her, “Do you know what the Masters meant to amma [Annie Besant]? She would give her life for it! Knowing that, now tell me, do you believe in the Masters?” “Yes,” said Radhaji emphatically. Krishnaji held her hands and said, “Good!” Rather it was the misunderstandings of what the Masters really are, and the dependence that results, that Krishnamurti criticized.

The book also explores Krishnamurti’s remarkable sensitivity, which gave him perceptions and abilities most would regard as miraculous. There are accounts of instances in which he sensed invisible disturbances in places, perceived people’s thoughts, healed illnesses, and performed similar phenomena. Although he had these occult abilities, he was not attracted to them because, as he stated, this is “another form of power, it has nothing to do with goodness.” As the author remarks, “To him freedom from the ego was more essential than the cultivation of any power because the ego can misuse any power, including occult power.”

Krishnamurti’s life is a concrete embodiment of many Theosophical principles. His attitude and his at times cryptic statements suggest how a person who knows “the hidden side of things” firsthand acts in everyday life. For example, after finding out that a person they both knew had been arrested, Prof. Krishna tried to talk about it with Krishnamurti. However, says the author, “Before I could repeat the words I had heard on TV, he stopped me saying, ‘Don’t utter those words Sir! They attract evil. Just say poor fellow and move on.’ That was his level of purity.” Students of Theosophy familiar with the effect of negative thought-forms and their association with elementals and skandhas will recognize in Krishnamurti’s attitude the same advice repeatedly given by H.P. Blavatsky, Besant, and C.W. Leadbeater.

There are a few statements regarding the TS that its members may find inaccurate. As the author states, this is a truthful record of actual conversations, and they simply reflect the views of the speakers at that time. In fact, the book is written in a fair-minded spirit, true to Prof. Krishna’s personality, and certainly does not contain the kind of disparaging statements about Theosophical matters that one often finds in some books about the life of Krishnamurti.

A Jewel on a Silver Platter is a valuable addition to the literature about this influential world teacher. All those interested in his life, teachings, and approach to education would do well to add this significant resource to their bookshelves.

Pablo Sender

Pablo Sender lectures frequently for the TS worldwide. His writings are available on his website,

The Process of Self-Transformation: Exploring Our Higher Potential for Effective Living
Wheaton: Quest, 2015. 343 + xvi pp., paper, $24.95.

At the very beginning of The Process of Self-Transformation, Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., raises a critically important point. He asks, “How many schools teach children how to handle fear?” He then observes that not only do our schools ignore the question, they use fear to get students to follow the rules. Schools also ignore problems with anger and worry, yet we all suffer from these conditions from time to time and only by trial and error — if indeed we ever try — do we overcome those problems. Chin acknowledges that various groups talk about the need to overcome such negative feelings, but few if any ever suggest how we might do that.

In this book and in the Self-Transformation Seminars that he facilitates, Chin, former president of the Theosophical Society in the Philippines, gives people a step-by-step method to help them actualize their higher potential and overcome their psychological and spiritual problems. Early on in his book he encourages readers to notice that they have a dual nature: a higher nature, with an inner will motivated by principles and higher values; and a conditioned and self-centered nature, driven by desires and fears. He lists the characteristics of each and suggests ways to actualize the higher nature so that it can rid the lower nature of negative qualities.

Rather than simply telling the reader to trust that his methods work, the author provides a summary of success stories. One cannot help but be impressed by the testimonies of those who have benefited greatly from his approach.

Chin also discusses how a facilitator may help someone go through the process. While people can achieve success on their own, it would seem of enormous benefit to have a facilitator. On our own it is easy to give up when we discover that the path to success requires focus, effort, and determination. With an experienced person to encourage us, we are more likely to achieve our goal.

Ed Abdill

The reviewer is former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America. His book The Secret Gateway: The Mahatmas, Their Letters, and the Path was reviewed in Quest, summer 2015.

Art, Science, Religion, Spirituality: Seeking Wisdom and Harmony for a Fulfilling Life
Knoxville, Tenn.: Meaningful Life Books, 2015. 347 pp., paper, $16.95.

Skeptico: What about people like me, who feel they have no artistic talent, for singing or anything else?

Wisdom Seeker: Everyone can sing!

Coming back from a divine music concert where I felt almost one with the music, I was thinking about David White’s book and the Venn diagram of art, science, religion, and spirituality. Where do these four aspects of life intersect? We tend to live separately in each of them, White says, and the people who live harmonious, fulfilling lives live in a place where they all meet. That is the central idea of this book. White wants us not only to see the possibility of a fulfilling life but to experience the reality ourselves.

White retired at the age of thirty-five (may all beings receive that blessing!) to reflect on what is important. He worked for many years in business, politics, and education but then spent several years studying spiritual practices. The insights in the book arose out of White’s extensive dedication to exploring the inner self. He saw how we compartmentalize our lives, and he also discovered the living edge where life happens and the separate currents mingle and merge.

The core motivation for a human being hasn’t changed throughout the centuries. It has always been to find happiness, joy, and harmony. The wise have pointed the way, whether through art, science, religion, or spiritual living. Listening to music, one forgets oneself. The way of science teaches one to dedicate one’s whole being to discovery. Religions point the way to practices that enrich our inner being and our relationships with others. The spiritual way embraces exploration of the deeper recesses of our minds through meditation. The challenge is how to practice these things in such a way that they all come together with a moment-to-moment clarity in our lives.

White presents his ideas in a unique way. He introduces us to a friend named Skeptico, who has dialogues with a “Wisdom Seeker.” These dialogues are inspired by what White calls “thought experiments.” The Wisdom Seeker is meticulous and thorough in his answers to the Skeptico. When the Skeptico asks, how do I decide what is meaningful?, the Wisdom Seeker mentions three ways: follow the meanings given to you when you were growing up; join a group and follow its guidance; or set off in a search of a personal experience of what is meaningful. The Wisdom Seeker follows this answer with a profound discussion of the advantages to each approach and how one should choose.

The discussion on science versus religion leads to a thought experiment: think of a time you felt like you just knew the answer to a problem or something you should do — or should not do. Kind of like a time you “just knew” something. Here is that intersection among the times when the scientist “just knows” the solution, a physician has quick insight into what is wrong with a patient, an artist creates a work of art from a vision, and a mystic has a profound spiritual awakening.

The Wisdom Seeker is patient with Skeptico in answering his unending questions, but he is also firm and direct. When Skeptico asks about a claim that consciousness could be completely explained by brain activity, the Wisdom Seeker is quick to say that the claim is not only mistaken but is devoid of evidence and based on only assumptions and assertions. The frankness is refreshing.

The chapter titled “Summing Up” begins with this quote from Vaclav Havel: “I have always thought that feeling empty and losing touch with the meaning of life are in essence only a challenge to seek new things to fill one’s life, a new meaning for one’s existence. Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in one’s life without first experiencing its absurdity.” It is a thought for awakening. Finding fulfillment is not easy. It requires many acts of faith and many mistakes as well. It requires difficult honesty with oneself and sincere dedication. Giving up is never an option.

White’s book makes us think. These discussions between Skeptico and the Wisdom Seeker make compelling reading. I had an insight while reading them: Skeptico and Wisdom Seeker are not two but one. We ask questions, and our wisdom answers them. We move from one to another within ourselves. White’s book highlights that inner travel towards a fulfilling destiny.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.

Prophet for Our Times: The Life and Teachings of Peter Deunov
Foreword by Wayne Dyer
Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House, 2015. 272 pp., paper, $18.99.

This is a welcome new edition of the book published more than twenty-five years ago about the great spiritual teacher Peter Deunov. Master Deunov (1864–1944), a great luminary emerging from the Western tradition, deserves to be much more known than he is. His life and teachings have been little-known, perhaps because of the communist rule which was imposed on his native country, Bulgaria, for decades. In the West, he is best-known through the teachings of his disciple Omraam Mikhaël Aïvhanov.

The editor, David Lorimer, presents the teachings of Deunov succinctly and with clarity and insight. Lorimer came in contact with the teachings of the Bulgarian Master more than thirty years ago and has been actively involved in his work ever since. Lorimer, who is familiar with the world’s spiritual heritage, recognizes the quality of the teaching brought by Master Deunov.

Peter Deunov — his spiritual name was Beinsa Douno — was a great and inspiring teacher of eternal wisdom, embodying tremendous profundity and great simplicity. His teachings provide practical aids for living in harmony with the earth, with our fellow human beings, and with God. He looked at life through what he called Divine Love, the love that never changes and never varies. He also emphasized the mystical meaning of esoteric Christianity, not simply believing this or that, but actually living the teachings of Christ through a subtle gnosis, emphasizing loving God, loving fellow human beings and one’s enemies.

It is a historical fact that the official keepers of a religious tradition are often at odds with those who wish to fulfill the tradition. The more organized a religion is, the greater is this tension. Christ himself was accused of destroying the tradition, whereas, as he said, he came to fulfill it. Deunov too was persecuted by the Bulgarian clergy and was treated as a traitor to the church. He said, “They stir the people against me and say that I am defiling the name of God, that I am undermining the authority of the Holy Church. My question is: Where is your God? Where is the Son? The Son of God is the son of love. Where is your love? I can see no trace of love anywhere.”

To underscore the profundity of Deunov’s teaching, let me quote two of his remarks:

If anyone asks me, “Why do you love and serve God?’ I shall say, “Because God loves me.” Service and work are always the way to respond to love. Love works.

We preach the Christ of Love, which supports and fills every heart; we preach the Christ of Wisdom, which illuminates every mind; we preach the Christ of Truth, which liberates and elevates the world.

David Lorimer deserves our gratitude for bringing the teaching of Master Peter Deunov to a wider public. The world would be a better place if more of us could follow his teachings.

Ravi Ravindra

The reviewer is the author of many books, including The Pilgrim Soul: A Path to the Sacred Transcending World Religions (Quest Books).


Book Reviews 2008 July - December

Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change
Lawrence A. Weinstein
Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2008. Hardcover, $16.95, 361 pages.

With his recently published book Grammar for the Soul, Lawrence Weinstein has perhaps created a new sub-category of self-help books: language as a means of personal transformation. When we visit the "self-help" section of our local bookstore, we generally find an assortment of books on yoga, meditation, positive thinking, visualization, and stress management techniques. Now we can add grammar to the list.

"I have come to view the realm of grammar," says Weinstein, "as a kind of rarefied gymnasium, where—instead of weights, a treadmill, mats, and a balance beam—one finds active verbs, passive verbs, periods, apostrophes, dashes, and a thousand other pieces of linguistic equipment, each of which, properly deployed, can provide exercise for the spirit like that which gym apparatus provides the body."

This reviewer found the title of the book intriguing, if for no other reason than that the subject of grammar is often associated with the caricature of punctilious professors of English inflicting their inscrutable "rules" of writing on a class of confused and slightly bored students. In the minds of many people, contemplating the rules of grammar has to rank right up there with thinking about going to the dentist or preparing one's taxes for the IRS.

The good news is that Grammar for the Soul is a delightful and creative approach to self-development. For anyone who spends any amount of time writing—whether letters, casual notes, e-mail to friends, or even writing done on a professional basis—this is a book well worth reading. Although Weinstein has taught at Harvard University (he now teaches at Bentley College), do not let his academic credentials scare you. His is not a book filled with esoteric canons for professional wordsmiths, but one that will be easily read by the layperson, although some of the subtleties may escape the reader the first time through. Weinstein's prose is both lucid and pointed; his style is suggestive but non-dogmatic. Far from being the arcane subject that has been reluctantly endured by generations of school children, Weinstein's approach to grammar is filled with humor, personal anecdotes, and colorful illustrations. It is reminisvent of the following passage from The Story of My Life, in which Helen Keller jubilantly acclaims, "The mystery of language was revealed to me . . . That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, joy, set it free!" I believe it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that reading Weinstein's book possibly will generate a similar excitement and renewal of interest in the process of writing, especially as it relates to the development of our soul, or, shall we say, character?

Language not only allows us to express ourselves and communicate with others, but it "helps determine what one thinks and feels in the first place." We are molded and conditioned, perhaps in quite imperceptible ways, by our choice of words and syntax. To paraphrase the biblical passage in Matthew 15:11, "It is that which comes out of the mouth that shapes the person."

A couple of examples based on the techniques found in Grammar for the Soul will give the reader a clearer idea of the way grammar can impact our psychological state. In the compound sentence, "I've applied for several jobs, but no one has hired me," the key word is the conjunction "but" which acts as a fulcrum between the two clauses. Now, witness the effect of reversing the position of the two clauses: "No one has hired me, but I continue to apply for jobs." The first example sets a decidedly pessimistic tone, while the second is upbeat and optimistic. Weinstein explains, "By filling in the 'but' clause, we exercise our right to declare which one is the more important, more salient, or useful of the truths."

Another interesting part of the book is the section on creative passivity. In Strunk and White's classic book The Elements of Style, first published in 1959, the authors strongly recommend the use of the active voice when writing, because "the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." This has since become such an accepted dogma that when writing today in Word documents, the spell-check feature automatically highlights any passive construction with a recommendation to use the active voice instead. Weinstein, however, gives an excellent illustration of where it would be more appropriate and edifying for the writer (or speaker) to use the passive mode. Rather than reveal his specific illustration, I would offer a similar example based on the following fact: the recipient for the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize was the 14th Dalai Lama. If the Dalai Lama were to say, "I won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize" he would be using the active mode. But if his Holiness were to say, "I was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize" he would be using the passive voice. Both statements are true, but when considered from a spiritual vantage point, one suggests humility while the other suggests preoccupation with the personal self. Had the Dalai Lama actually made such a statement, is there any doubt as to which mode of expression His Holiness would have used? Also, anyone who receives a major award is often assisted and helped by numerous supporters and collaborators working behind the scenes. To use the active voice, as in the above example, may be correct from a legalistic point of view, but articulating it that way ignores the valuable contributions and dedication of others who worked beneath the radar screen of public scrutiny to help make such an achievement possible. In other words—using the above example—the active voice is all about "me," whereas the passive voice implies an element of humility and selflessness.

There are many other nuggets of wisdom in Grammar for the Soul, but rather than reveal too much, this reviewer feels that they are best left for interested readers to joyfully discover on their own.

David P. Bruce

This reviewer is a long-time member of the Theosophical Society, and after a twenty-five year career in the industrial electronics distribution field, joined the staff at Olcott where he works full time as the Director of Education.

Buddhist Goddesses of India
Miranda Shaw
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Hardcover, $35.00, 571 pages.

Goddesses have always fascinated the Eastern mind, including Buddhists and Hindus, and there is good reason for this fascination. In these cultures, goddesses have presided over childbirth; helped farmers in agriculture; brought prosperity to households; offered the populace protection from disease, epidemics, and dangers; encouraged the arts, education, and learning; and, above all, provided the opportunity for spiritual awakening.

The use of the term "goddess," referring to female deities and divinities, is widespread in Eastern religious scholarship and is used extensively in South and Southeast Asian literature. Sharing the cosmology of the South Asian usage, Buddhism envisioned a universe inhabited by gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings. Although Buddhists recognize the existence of a panoply of divine beings, they do not accord them moral or spiritual superiority, but simply count them among the array of sentient beings in the universe.

Beautifully written and illustrated, Buddhist Goddesses of India is a treat to read. It fills a growing need for information about Indian goddesses by chronicling the history, legends, rituals, and artistic images of these female deities. It also explains the complex role of goddesses in the cultures of India and the Himalayan plateau.

The reader will immediately notice how comprehensively Miranda Shaw has researched and explained the important attributes, character, powers, and traditions of nineteen goddesses, devoting a chapter to each. She has carefully divided these chapters into three sections, documenting the female pantheon as it evolved through (1) the ascent of the sacred female in early Buddhism, followed by (2) the Mahayana Mothers of Liberation, and ending with (3) the Tantric female Buddhas. She has also included two important human figures—Mayadevi, the mother of Shakyamuni Buddha, and Gotami, his foster mother and founder of the female monastic order. Even Hindu goddesses, such as the earth goddess Prthivi and Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune, find a place in this book. The method of treatment allows every chapter to be read independently.

In her epilogue, Shaw emphasizes how Buddhism, as a product of the Indian soil, evinced a rich and vital tradition of goddess veneration. The pantheon of goddesses reflects the religious sentiments and ideals of the Buddhist populace over the centuries, including the forms of divine assistance they have sought, and the types of beings in whom they have vested their hopes for blessings, protection, and guidance. The goddesses embody wisdom, knowledge, artistic aspiration, and spiritual realizations. We also find them associated with such natural phenomena as the earth, trees, plant life, the planetary system, mountains, and rivers.

But there is much more to fascinate the reader. Shaw offers sixteen beautiful color plates and scores of black and white pictures. Collected from museums and archeological sites across the world, they are among the best available anywhere in the field. These illustrations are the essence of the book, helping us to understand the subtle meaning behind these divine figures—why they exist, why they appear as they do, and what they teach us about Buddhist thought, practice, history, ritual practices, and other Hindu and folk traditions. Moving among these various representations, Shaw creates compelling accounts of each deity's religious significance.

This comprehensive book is for anyone directly or indirectly interested in topics connected with Buddhism, India, goddesses, Southeast Asia, Indian art and architecture, comparative religions, or religious art. Its stories and pictures engage and delight. The scholarship is impeccable, and Shaw's expertise is evident in her insightful interpretations. It is both a masterpiece and a very significant contribution to Buddhist literature. There is no question that this work will remain an important resource for some time to come. I recommend it very highly.

C. Jotin Khisty

The reviewer is professor emeritus of urban planning at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.


Het Web der Schepping: Theosofie en Kunst in Nederland van Lauweriks tot Mondrian [The Web of Creation: Theosophy and Art in the Netherlands from Lauweriks to Mondrian]
Marty Bax
Amsterdam: SUN, 2006. € 42.90 607, pages.

A genuine work of art encompasses an artist's whole being in the inspiration, ideas, and feelings that it expresses. What prevails of the greatest value in art is the spiritual dimension. Paul Klee said it succinctly: "Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible."

The major exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986-87 titled The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890–1985, proved that, even in modern times, the spiritual is very much a part of art. Both the exhibition and its catalogue showed that while much of modern art has become so abstract that it appears to be lost in pure form rather than (as we commonly expect) representing our ideas of the physical world, this abstraction reveals a search for the spiritual. The exhibition pointed to Theosophy (and other strains of esoteric wisdom) as a leading impulse for this search, particularly for artists such as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, who are considered the fathers of abstract art. The essential idea was that if the search in art was to express the spiritual, which is formless, only abstract forms could serve that purpose by avoiding the distractions and limitations of concrete objects. This kind of art tried to make visible what cannot be seen, although it can be experienced. Since the time of Mondrian and Kandinsky in the early twentieth century, the Theosophical influence has become more dispersed in a variety of currents from New Age to Zen.

With notable exceptions such as the Los Angeles exhibition, the absence of spiritual study is the norm in milieus where art is usually taught and practiced. (I can testify to this, having taught in such environments for over forty years and found that the subject is virtually taboo.) A sense of the spiritual is absent from the social establishment of collectors, critics, and museums that is responsible for formulating the public perception of "good art." The establishment's valuation mostly reflects a materialistic view of artists and artifacts, focused on their market value. Academic art history, on the other hand, generally examines its subject through visual analysis of form and style rather than through the ideas that lie behind them. Since they tend to overlook the spiritual interests of artists, scholars and historians who have discussed this relationship generally prove to have only a superficial knowledge of Theosophy and similar currents. Therefore they can offer no insight into the phenomenon, nor can they understand the values and controversies that surround this material.

At last we have a book that looks into the fusion of Theosophy and art from an author who has substantial knowledge of both. Marty Bax's work is presently available only in Dutch [redundant, as already included at the beginning]. This scholarly 600-page work examines the complex web of factors in the relationship between art and spirituality. Bax saw a real need to study the ideas that generated this interest, the social context in which it took place, and the various effects it had on individuals and groups in Theosophy, art, and culture. Her methodology underscores the need for other art historians to use a similar approach if they are to offer any genuine understanding of the subject.

Rather than limiting her discussion to "fine art" (painting and sculpture), Bax also includes architecture and design on the premise that these disciplines not only have equal value but influence one another, especially from an esoteric perspective. The unfortunate intellectual tendency to separate design from fine art represents a gross misunderstanding that ignores the intention behind the artifact. Instead it imposes value based on function in society, implying that "fine art" is the "highest" way to practice art, while architecture or "applied" or "decorative" art (metal and ceramic work, furniture and product design, book and graphic design, etc.) is "lower" because of its commercial or functional intent. But spirituality does not limit its perspective to a single mode of expression. From a Theosophical perspective, both the creative artifact and the artist himself are vahanas ("vehicle" for the spiritual in Sanskrit)—an idea that comes to light in this book and which was a major theme for some of the figures discussed here.

Although this book focuses on Dutch artists and their culture in the first half of the twentieth century, one can draw further inferences from it about how esotericism has affected art in general. Because I am of Dutch origin, I felt that I could relate more easily than the non-Dutch to the social, geographic, and historical issues described here, and was at first somewhat critical of portions in the study that appeared too detailed for a non-Dutch audience. However, the more I read, the more I valued such details, which enable even non-Dutch readers to understand the larger context of the ideas and insights discussed. In any event, the picture goes far past Dutch art as such, if only because Dutch artists played such a preeminent international role in this period, especially in design.

The author has tried not only to understand Theosophy but to grasp how Theosophists think and live, as well as how this has influenced the practice of art and its social environment. The book presents the underpinnings of ideas that led up to the interest in Theosophy: the social and ideological context; connections to freethinkers such as Baruch Spinoza; the Freemasons; and parallel trends in art in other countries (especially French Symbolism).

Bax goes on to show how artists shared Theosophical ideas among themselves and how these ideas manifested through individuals and groups. A main example of the latter is the Vahana Lodge of the Dutch TS, created specifically (though not exclusively) for those interested in art, design, and architecture. Mathieu Lauweriks, a principal advocate of both Theosophy and Theosophical theory in art, taught ideas ranging from cell and geometric systems (especially sacred geometry) to asymmetry and organics as vitalizing principles (Fohat, kundalini) for creation and unity. These esoteric elements influenced design styles, including the famous Amsterdam School of architecture and its creator, H. P. Berlage, who is generally considered the father of Dutch modern architecture, but whose Theosophical influence is usually overlooked.

Bax goes into some detail about three painters and their Theosophical interests: Herman Heijenbroek saw the blue-collar worker as a Promethean transformer of raw matter and sought to inspire this social group through his paintings; Janus de Winter saw his work as a visionary vehicle derived from the astral perspective; and Piet Mondrian, utilizing the underlying principles of cosmo/anthropogenisis, offered a glimpse of this ultimately invisible cosmic web. Bax does not, however, limit her study to those recognized by the art establishment but includes lesser-known artists, whose influences were nonetheless considerable, and describes how their work was accepted or rejected socially. She does the same for architecture and design, and how these affected each other.

Ultimately, this study reveals how a Theosophical orientation, based on freethinking and diversity, produced many different forms of expression, making it difficult to speak of "Theosophical art," since no iconography, form, or style entirely fits such categorization. Frequently artists were active in multiple disciplines (one reason Bax was compelled to cover the full panorama of art). This diversity becomes apparent through her case studies—an approach that also makes it easier to understand the influence of Theosophy on specific artists.

I found this to be an absorbing and insightful book that should be of value to all who want to understand the interface between Theosophy and art, and how this phenomenon helped shape the social environment and affected the future of modern art. The book's clarity, thoroughness, and cohesion are exemplary. They make me hope that this work, which deserves the attention of Theosophists, artists, and art experts alike, will become available in English soon.

Thomas Ockerse

This reviewer is professor of graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design, a third generation Theosophist, and Life Member of the Theosophical Society. He served as Eastern Regional Director and on the Pumpkin Hollow board, and lectured at various centers here and abroad on the relationship of Theosophy and art.


Transforming Fate into Destiny: A New Dialogue with Your Soul
Robert Ohotto
Foreword by Caroline Myss. Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House, 2008. $14.95. 207 pages.

Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? How can I fulfill my destiny? In Transforming Fate into Destiny, his first book, Robert Ohotto treats these questions clearly and succinctly using his own years of personal experience as well as his work as an intuitive and astrologer.

The terms "fate" and "destiny" are often thought of as the same kind of mysterious force. Ohotto contends that fate and destiny are very different, though collaborative, agencies. Fate is the mysterious preincarnate design of our life that is written in the stars. Destiny, by contrast, is what you make of this design. Ohotto calls the negotiation between fate and destiny your "Cosmic Contract." By means of this contract, we can choose what to do within our mortal limits in order to be more successful as well as less anxious and resistant to life. He writes, "We must embrace consciously that a choice was made when our soul met with our body incarnate, and we made a soul 'decision' to be bound to a contract with Fate....The ego often finds this baffling. How many of us have looked at our lives and wondered why didn't I pick the lot of Bill Gates?" Nevertheless, he adds, "if you are in touch with your true passion, a creative obstacle is meant to help you bring it out more effectively in the world." At this point your free will, in contact with Fate, becomes what the Chinese call wu chi – both crisis and opportunity for personal evolution.

Fate can take the form of a loss, an accident, a rejection. It can confront us as a shock, but it can be an opportunity as well. What our consciousness and ego do with these shocks is the point of the book. Ohotto calls this life-enhancing struggle "a dialogue with the soul": Our Cosmic Contract stipulates that we must come to terms with the fate point, the juncture at which we encounter our mortal limits and must realize our personal potential within those limits.

In this book, Ohotto goes chapter by chapter to explain the process of working with these obstacles, employing lessons and practices that establish new ways of attracting "a way to destiny" in order to clarify and in some cases remove psychological burdens and issues. In the latter half of the book, Ohotto moves into some deeply intuitive areas, illuminating new ways to cope with the shadow, the personal unconscious, and synchronicity. In the end, the book helps us genuinely find ways of doing what we must do anyway, and it helps us to do so with consciousness and intention.

Erin Sullivan

Erin Sullivan is a consultant astrologer, author, and lecturer. Her works include Saturn in Transit: Boundaries of Mind, Body and Soul; Astrology of Family Dynamics; and The Astrology of Midlife and Aging.

The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual and Social Harmony
Will Tuttle
New York: Lantern Books, 2005. Paperback, $20, 318 pages.

Will Tuttle's The World Peace Diet is a challenging wake-up call. Many spiritual traditions, including Theosophy, have advocated ethical vegetarianism and care for animals. However, the compelling reasons for such a position have rarely been articulated with as much detail and force as in Tuttle's fine new book. His tone is urgent and uncompromising, yet filled with compassionate understanding. Even if one may not agree with him in every point, he forces the reader to consider matters which too often remain unconscious.
Tuttle writes that his book is:

An exploration of the profound cultural and spiritual ramifications of our food chain and the mentality underlying them. By placing humans at the top of the planet's food chain, our culture has historically perpetuated a particular worldview that requires from its members a reduction of essential feeling and awareness–and it is this process of desensitization that we must understand if we would comprehend the underlying causes of oppression, exploitation, and spiritual disconnectedness.

Graphically reviewing the horrors of factory farming and slaughterhouses, Tuttle reminds us that we reinforce our blindness to these realities with every meal that includes animal products. Some of us may feel more comfortable with dairy and eggs, since animals are not directly killed to produce these foods. However, Tuttle displays the deeply disturbing conditions under which chickens and cows typically live, as well as the character of theft which underlies milk and egg production. He then relates this theft to "our culture's basic repression, confinement, and exploitation of the female and feminine principle".

Tuttle reminds us of the essential solidarity and interconnectedness of all life. We cannot pretend that we can mistreat other sentient beings with impunity, regarding them as commodities instead of fellow creatures. "Dominating others requires us to disconnect from them, and from aspects of ourselves as well" (130). From a theosophical perspective, we can welcome Tuttle's examination of what we might call the karmic consequences of our treatment of animals raised for food, as well as the invisible, energetic realities which we consume in animal food.

Metaphysical toxins–i.e., the concentrated vibration of terror, grief, frustration, and desperation permeating these foods, are invisible and completely unrecognized by conventional science, yet they may be even more disturbing to us than physical toxins, because they work on the level of feelings and consciousness, which are more essential dimensions of ourselves than our physical vehicle.

"In the old herding cultures, animals were gradually transformed from mysterious and fascinating cohabitants of a shared world to mere property objects to be used, sold, traded, confined, and killed" (25). Insofar as we can see through this distortion, and make more conscious and compassionate choices, we will be better able to disentangle ourselves from other ways in which violence, destruction, and the treatment of others as objects have found their way into our lives. After all, "our actions reinforce attitudes, in us and in others, that amplify the ripples of those actions until they become the devastating waves of insensitivity, conflict, injustice, brutality, disease, and exploitation that rock our world today"

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society, a freelance theologian, author of several books and articles on esoteric Christianity, and co-author with John Marby of Who Are the Independent Catholics? (Apocryphile, 2006).

Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity
Richard Smoley
San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2008. 212 pages.

Conscious Love is an important book, coming at a critical time in human development when old values are dying and new values have not yet been fleshed out. In this book, Richard Smoley takes us through a number of different types of love — romance, marriage, family life, friendship — each of which he characterizes as somehow "transactional," involving a certain exchange or quid pro quo, whether that is acknowledged or not. He contrasts these to agape or conscious love, which, he contends, is beyond transactions.

Smoley begins by telling an anecdote about the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He had fallen in love with a young woman when she was fourteen and he twenty-four. Several years later, still in love, he asked her to marry him and she happily agreed. But then he turned cold. Provoked by his attitude, she broke off their engagement and married another man. Kierkegaard remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. But when he died, he left his entire estate to the woman he never married.

Why did Kierkegaard behave in such a strange manner? He had decided that feeling erotic love for the woman was simply selfishness on his part and had nothing to do with true love, which ultimately should be reserved only for God. With respect to this attitude, Smoley has a lovely quote from Russian philosopher of love Vladimir Solovyov saying that "this unfortunate spiritual love reminds one of the little angels in old paintings, which have only a head, then wings and no more."

Though this denial of the flesh runs deep in Christianity, Smoley argues that "conscious love" does not have to be "freedom from drives or passions or self-interest but rather freedom within them." The rest of his book carefully develops and expands on this theme.

If the body cannot be ignored in love, is it all there is? Are we simply following an inborn, embodied need to perpetuate the species, as sociobiologists today argue? So it would seem at first, Smoley argues: "Each of us seeks the fittest possible mate, and satisfied or not, we settle for the best we can find. This is the law of nature, and the law is inexorable." From a biological point of view, each of us is born isolated into a hostile world. We have to find some way to protect ourselves. Ironically, after we have managed to do so, we feel a contrary urge to go past our own barriers of protection. "For humans," he writes, "the means of bridging this gap is often romantic love."

Smoley points to a certain tension here. While romantic love begins out of a need to perpetuate the species, at its best it goes past this urge: "Whenever I read of a truly great love, I am struck by all its uniqueness. Such loves don't fit easily into conventional schemes. Chaste or carnal, blissful or ill-starred, they are in every case the deepest expressions of the individuals themselves."

Why is this so? To answer this question, Smoley presents a position that he develops carefully throughout the book: inside each of us is (1) "something that experiences;" and (2) "that which is experienced" [emphasis in the original]. The first can be called the "I," the second the "world." The "world" is not only what we usually call the outside world; it includes the inner world as well, since that is also part of our experience.

All this takes us into deep water. "If all of what passes for my experience is in itself a sort of other . . . who or what is this mind that is doing the looking? And where is the dividing line between my mind and someone else's?" He goes on to say that the true "I" is more than the ego we normally associate with it; it is potentially our gateway to all that is. The entire path of enlightenment can be summarized simply as the inner need to know yourself. If we go through this process, Smoley claims, we will discover that there is "no real border between this 'I' and the collective 'I' in which we all participate." To realize this truth is to step past transactional love and to touch conscious, unconditional love.

Smoley asks where we can find God in this picture. In order to answer that question, he claims that there is a deeper meaning for "God" than conventional theology often assumes: God is "what theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the 'terrifying and attractive mystery.'" Put in one word, which Otto also coined: God is the numinous! What Smoley calls the true "I" — which is ultimately a collective "I" — is the gateway for access to the divine. "This is the mystical meaning of Christ's saying "I am the door' (John 10:9): The 'I' is the door."Smoley's ultimate point is that this joining with another can take us beyond our personal boundaries, and that joining is ultimately a progressive path toward the joining with the Godhead.

How can this true "I," the witness that can observe everything, still be embodied? In answering this question, Smoley makes one of the most significant points of the book: "This consciousness is not limited to human or even to living beings but subsists in everything, no matter how apparently inanimate." This is God in his most immanent aspect. As we begin to recognize this truth experientially, Smoley argues, the individual mind begins to pass into all that is.

While we are on the way to this high place, somewhere along the line we must each discover our vocation, our "special function," as the author terms it. When one first does discover one's vocation, rather that feeling a union with everyone and everything in cosmic love, instead we tend to initially feel isolated from all those around us. In such an uncomfortable position, we first fall either into arrogance or despondent. Some escape this because their path allows them to find companions; others continue alone. But following that special path, honoring our "special function," leads onward toward the cosmic union.

Smoley has taken us on a long path that led from Kierkegaard, who valued his head over his heart, through recognition of the wisdom of the body and heart, through all the varieties of love. At this point, he says simply that "there is something in us that stands apart from the ceaseless flow of the head's thoughts and the equally ceaseless flow of the heart's feelings and can see them." In the words from an ancient Chinese text: "Consciousness dissolves in vision."

This is an important book, the first I've seen that looks at love from a position rooted not only in esoteric Christianity, but in the deepest spiritual traditions of all times and places. Though the scholarship underlying the book is immense, the author wears it lightly, using both historical quotes and personal anecdotes to get his message across. The book is particularly significant in arguing for an embodied love that can bridge the old and the new. As the author writes, "we, in our physical bodies, are the instruments not only for God's work in this world but for his experience as well. If our own consciousness is elevated..., our pleasure becomes God's pleasure as well."

Robin Robertson

Robin Robertson, Ph.D. is a Jungian-oriented clinical psychologist and the author of sixteen books, including Beginner's Guide to Jungian Psychology. His latest work, Alchemy and Chaos Theory, will be published by Quest Books in 2009.

American Shamans: Journeys with Traditional Healers
Jack Montgomery
Ithaca, NY: Busca, 2008. Paperback, $19.95, 265 pages.

In 1974, Jack Montgomery was an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, in search of an interesting topic for a religious studies paper. He decided to interview local practitioners of folk magic and traditional healing, representing traditions such as hoodoo and powwow. This project "became a quest for knowledge, heritage, and personal meaning" (xi) which has continued to the present. Today, Montgomery is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University, and American Shamans is the fruit of over thirty years of study of these home-grown spiritual traditions.

Montgomery focuses his attention on traditions native to his home state of South Carolina, from both the lowland and Piedmont regions. Unlike Louisianan voodoo, these South Carolina traditions do not cultivate an alternative practice of religious worship/ritual, but are most often practiced by people who see themselves as pious Christians, and understand their magical work as a gift from God. For example, here is an excerpt from Montgomery's interview with "Sarah Ramsey," an Appalachian granny-woman:

JM: Mrs. Ramsey, how do you feel about the life you've had?
SR: I'm happy. I don't have any regrets, I'm at peace with the Lord.
JM: What has all of your healing experience done for you?
SR: I don't know what you're asking.
JM: I'm sorry; it's just that you have healed people, delivered babies, even fought with evil. What does all that mean to you?
SR: That my Jesus is everywhere. No matter what happens, he is with me. He's loved me and blessed me through all my troubles. Now I look forward to going home to be with him one day soon. (241-2)

These sentiments come from a woman who had just recounted to Montgomery her way of dealing with a "witch ball" sent as a curse to her, and her conversations with spirits who instructed her that "what you think makes everything" (241).

A large part of the book is Montgomery's account of his time with Lee Raus Gandee, who began as a contact for his USC paper, but became Montgomery's spiritual mentor and teacher of powwow for several years. Gandee is a complex character, whose personality comes through clearly in the dialogues:

"How does one become a Hexenmeister?" I asked him at our first meeting.
"By being a Hex until you can manage it!" replied the elderly gentleman in the rocking chair, calmly smoking his pipe (72).

American Shamans is somewhere between an academic anthropological account and a personal memoir. Montgomery admits to some trepidation in discussing his own spiritual experiences, his views on magic and spirituality, and how his work as a powwow has impacted his life. Gandee tells the young Montgomery: "Either magic works or it doesn't. I don't worry too much about the theory" (109). While Montgomery gives us a bit of theory, he focuses on the work, especially as it takes form in his life. It is his courage in bringing himself into the story which lends this book its warmth and its spirit of humble authenticity.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a freelance theologian, and the author of several books and articles on independent sacramental churches and esoteric Christianity.


Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall
Amy Chua
New York: Doubleday, 2007. xxxiv + 396 pages.

This book is about what makes a great society great and what causes a great society to self-destruct. It is clearly intended by its author, a chaired professor of law at Yale, to be a cautionary tale for the United States. However the book's message can be applied to any organized society, not just to nations, and its message resonates strikingly with Theosophy.

In Chua's use, the term "hyperpower" refers to a nation of vast economic and military might whose influence extends widely over its world and affects multitudes of people. Chua's thesis is that historically every such nation has been marked by extraordinary tolerance and pluralism during its rise, and by intolerance, xenophobia, and racial, religious, or ethnic "purity" during its fall. That thesis is what resonates with Theosophy.

The Theosophical Society from its foundation—in both its formal statement of objects and in its actual practice—has espoused an openness to the unexplained, an encouragement of comparativeness, and a dedication to practical fraternity without distinctions of any kind. Theosophy's attitude to "tolerance" is not just forbearance, but respect, sympathy, and adaptation.

Chua's examples of hyperpowers are the Persian empire founded by Cyrus the Great; Rome during its golden age of Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius; China's Tang dynasty; the Mongol empire founded by Genghis Khan; the Dutch commercial empire of the seventeenth century; the British empire after the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and American hegemony after World War II. Her examples of potential hyperpowers that fell before they had properly risen include Spain after the Inquisition, Nazi Germany, and twentieth-century imperial Japan.

"Tolerance," Chua emphasizes, is a relative matter. All of the hyperpowers have been intolerant in certain ways and often, especially the Mongols, calculatedly cruel. But all have practiced "strategic tolerance." That is, they have embraced such diversity as was seen to be helpful in achieving their aims, and that generally included religious and racial inclusiveness. There is another kind of tolerance, however, which Theosophy promotes, namely a tolerance advocated by the eighteenth-century European Age of Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment urged reason rather than prejudice as the basis for action and affirmed that all of us have a natural right to live according to our own lights so long as we do not interfere with the same natural right of others. The founders of the United States were advocates of Enlightenment, as testified by the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration stated the doctrine of natural rights in traditional religious, but nonsectarian, terms. However, it is not clear exactly where or how the "Creator" stated that endowment. The founders simply took it as a given. What modern Theosophy has done is to make it possible to link Enlightenment tolerance as a natural right with the Indic concept of monism. The latter, found in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., is that only one ultimate reality exists in the universe and that we and all else are expressions of it. If all of us share the same life, then none of us has a right to force others to conform to our expectations. All of us have a natural right to tolerance as respect, sympathy, and adaptation.

The Theosophical Society has been called both a bridge between East and West and (by the Mahachohan) "the corner-stone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity." It is a bridge because it joins the Eastern concept of the unity of all life with, and as the basis for, the Western Enlightenment concept of natural rights. It is the foundation for the future of humanity because the "Day of Empire" is over. An empire is a political unit dominating and controlling many peoples. Such a political unit is incompatible with either the unity of life or natural rights.

A religion or dharma is that which "ties us again" or "holds us firmly together" (the etymological meanings of those two words). The ideals of the unity of life and of natural rights must be the basis of a future global political unit on this planet. Because those two ideals are at the core of the Theosophical Society, that Society—not as an organization, but as an inspiration—is the foundation of humanity's future. Theosophists need to live up to that ideal.

John Algeo

The reviewer is past president of the Theosophical Society in America.

Saving Angel
Charlotte Fielden
Toronto, ON: CFM Books, 2007. Softcover, $14.95 (Can), 116 pages.

Saving Angel is a two-act play featuring H. P. Blavatsky, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, and scholar Denis Saurat. The reason for bringing these three historical figures together is to help determine the fate of a young pupil of HPB's, Angel Shiner, whose psychic nature and subsequent unconventional behavior have landed her in a mental asylum. Saurat as impartial judge, and Blavatsky and Yeats as witnesses on Angel's behalf, are to convene with a board of psychiatrists in order to determine young Angel's future—whether she is well enough to be released or whether she should remain at the asylum.

If the above is the straightforward prosaic account of this two-act play, metaphorically we are witness to another drama. In this drama, we have the three psychiatrists of the board representing various developmental stages of the lower mind: a Roman Catholic perceiving the world ultimately through the Church dogma; a Protestant concerned about his scientific standing among his peers; and a secular Jew who seems to be looking for a way forward in his life. Angel then becomes the light of the higher self in all its unpredictable nature and HPB is that power of the heart capable of allowing quick glimpses of that light to come through. However, this play is taking place on the last day of HPB's life, a warning that in every soul's life there comes a time when it must open up to this inner life or have that door close on it for the rest of this incarnation. Yeats becomes the example of what can be accomplished when the full power of the intuition is allowed to flow through as he extemporaneously spouts poetry and thus adds a rich lyrical tapestry to the rhythm of the play. Finally, Saurat is that part of the human mind that must make sense out of our inner experience and provide us with the story that will help us put our experiences into context so that we can move forward, sometimes referred to as the power of discrimination.

From a more theosophical standpoint, the play endows Blavatsky with god-like powers that enable her to grab the mayavi-rupas [mental astral bodies] of people out of time, to separate that body from the not fully developed soul, to clear away the elementals that blind most souls from truly seeing, and all this while life slowly ebbs from her mortal body. Theosophy is always fighting against the idea that grows in people's minds that gods or saviors are going to come and endow on us miraculous powers, or to save us from the messes that we have made. The endowment of these godlike powers to Blavatsky or the Masters has always been the Achilles heel to the Movement as many students have used such fanciful speculations to drift away from reality. That being said, poetic license being a right and proper tool of the playwright, taking such fancy as real is a criticism of the audience member and not of the play itself.

Overall the second act of the play runs more smoothly than the first. The Blavatsky-god was much more powerful in the first act and the terminology, especially with respect to seers and mediums a bit distracting. In the second act, as we begin to see what Ms. Fielden was up to, we are able to sit back and enjoy the ride. At times Angel's seemingly airy flights of fancy threaten to carry the play into a different world, but this tension is offset nicely with the addition of Yeats' poetry which provides an anchor to the emotional undertone of the play. In addition, Saurat's power of discrimination effectively pushes the narrative forward, not allowing us to get bogged down with naming that which cannot be named.

Saving Angel is a wonderful insight into the turbulent workings of the human mind. The play buffets us from one experience to another challenging the reader to find the calm at the center around which all these experiences whirl. It is only at the center that we can lift ourselves above the storm and see reality for what it truly is. It is only from the center that we can save our own higher angel.

Robert Bruce MacDonald

The reviewer is editor of Fohat, a quarterly publication of the Edmonton Theosophical Society. This review first appeared in the Spring 2008 edition (Volume XXII, No. 1).

Book Reviews 2008 January - June

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
Stephen M. Barr
University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. Paperback, $18.00, 312 pages.

Taking liberty with the Three Objects of the Theosophical Society, we could say that this book covers the Second Object completely. Anyone that is scientifically, theologically, and philosophically oriented will find this book to be one of the most rigorous in recent years. Even though it is from the Notre Dame press, a liberal reading allows it to be of any faith, including Theosophy. To establish academic credibility we are told that Dr. Barr is a professor of theoretical particle physics at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware.

Just as Copernican revolution upset popular thought during the 1500s, the introduction of non-materialistic quantum mechanics in the 1920s transformed the static world of materialistic Newtonian mechanics. Today we are on the verge of finding out if unified field theory and our scientific model are complete, or if there is more to come.

The Standard Model of physics has allowed us to unify three of the four fundamental forces of the universe: electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. The fourth force, gravity, is currently the "missing link" in the Standard Model. To bring gravity into the fold will require the newest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is located in Switzerland and is scheduled to go on-line in September 2008. Scientists are hoping for constructive data by the end of the year. The LHC will be trying to create the predicted and hoped for Higgs boson. If observed, the Standard Model would be verified and would help to explain gravity's role in unified field theory.

If the elusive Higgs boson is produced, Barr's book will help in understanding the excitement. If no Higgs boson is found and the theory remains incomplete, this book will still provide a more fundamental understanding of what is at stake in future models.

The science, as presented by Barr, is quite complete with the more difficult parts found in the well-written Appendices. Dr. Barr probably comes from the Roman Catholic tradition and his sophisticated understanding of Christian theology is very apparent. I imagine that a few philosophers will take issue with some of his arguments, but they are well-presented and well-defended.
The book is arranged into five parts: "The Conflict between Religion and Materialism"; "In the Beginning"; "Is the Universe Designed?"; "Man's Place in the Cosmos"; and "What is Man?" As you can see, by replacing the word religion with Theosophy, these divisions could also appear in any Theosophical book.

However, I have come up with my own arrangement of the material. I feel that organizing the sections as: "The Big Bang--A Discussion of First Cause"; "How Nature Fine Tuned Its Constants"; "The Failure of Materialism"; "How Gödel Showed That the Mind is Not a Computer"; and "Quantum Physics Requires a Non-physical Observer" more accurately reflect the contents of the book.

In summary, presently, religion (Theosophy) offers a more credible and coherent understanding of the universe than the scientific materialists. As experimental data is reported and analyzed, there may a convergence of the non-materialistic quantum school of thought and the Theosophical. Only time will tell.

Ralph Hannon

The reviewer is a retired Professor of Chemistry at Kishwaukee College, a long time T. S. member, and past co-editor, with the late Dora Kunz, of the Theosophical Research Journal.


Reflections Along the Path
Robert Bonnell
New York: Vantage Press, 2006. Paperback, $10.95, 89 pages.

Spiritual reading is a centuries old component of a seeker's daily practice. Such reading materials are derived from many sources, including sacred scripture, the lives of the saints, commentaries on scripture and the life of Jesus, the journals, essays, the lives of holy men and women, and books devoted to specific spiritual topics.

For many who cannot attend a daily liturgy or prayer group, this is a significant source of spiritual sustenance. For all, it is a highly valued way of supplementing one's personal prayer to help maintain an open heart and expanded consciousness in the face of the difficulties and pains of any given day.

Theosophist Robert Bonnell's, Reflections Along the Path, provides, as its subtitle states: Brief Commentaries on Various Aspects of the Wisdom Tradition. These reflections offer a form of spiritual companionship enabling an experience not unlike that of the disciples, who, while on the road to Emmaus in the presence of Jesus, were in dialog with him and were so touched that their hearts burned within. Indeed, making an inner connection with spiritual truth and wisdom can affect us physically, rationally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Each chapter of this little book begins with a quotation. And what a wonderful selection of quotations Bonnell has made. Some are classic, familiar gold pieces from the treasury of the wisdom tradition, for example, "Study the past if you would divine the future" from Confucius; or "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?" by Babcock. Others are gems from the Theosophical tradition, including H. P. Blavatsky's "One cannot travel the path until one becomes the path itself." Many quotations, however, are less well, or even unknown, and introduce a fresh idea or perspective "The goal of philosophy is to find that secret and to lose the seeker in the secret found" from Carlyle; or Zoroaster's "The number three reigns everywhere in the universe."

Bonnell writes with a simple clarity that leads the reader to a deeper level of trust and meditation. Consider his reflection on Leigh Hunt's idea that "There are two worlds: one we measure with line and rule; the other we feel with our hearts and imagination." Bonnell comments: "Spiritual aspirants are able to enjoy the best of both worlds. They can participate in the varied accommodations of the material world with a minimal degree of trepidation, for they have the realization that this world is, at best, a fleeting image of eternity. They may not conquer it, but they participate in its purpose."

Will and Ariel Durant's quote "The only real revolution is the enlightenment of the mind and improvement of the character; the only real emancipation is individual," echoes the theme of this book. Namely, emancipation comes from the personal encounter with the light within. For anyone on the journey to authentic self-awareness, Bonnell offers a sage's simple guidance about connecting with the light that illuminates life's most profound truths.

David Bishop

This reviewer teaches Philosophy and Religion at Pima College and the University of Phoenix, both in Tucson, Arizona.

Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg
Gary Lachman
London: The Swedenborg Society, 2006. Paperback, £7.95, 138 pages.

I have tried to read the works of the eighteenth-century scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg several times, without great success. Most of the help I located was either far too complex for introductory purposes, or uncritically adoring. Thus, I was delighted to discover Gary Lachman's new book on Swedenborg. As he has done with Rudolf Steiner and P.D. Ouspensky, Lachman has given us an accessible introduction to Swedenborg from the viewpoint of an outsider who is nonetheless sympathetic.

Lachman achieves his goal admirably well. He provides us with an engaging picture of Swedenborg as a person, and enough of an introduction to his spiritual work to send the reader looking for more. Illuminating footnotes and an annotated bibliography of Swedenborg's works provide the needed guide-rails for further exploration.

Swedenborg's scientific training and his phenomenological approach to the spiritual worlds—going into other states of consciousness and describing his experience through vivid pictures—will doubtless appeal to many in our own time. I was intrigued to discover his teachings regarding the body and sex, with a balance unusual for a "religious" teacher of his time. As Lachman says:

The soul had not created the body in order to torment it. . . . Swedenborg himself was a sensually aware man living in a sensual age. . . . Swedenborg was also a very practical man, with an eye for the use of something, and desire and the less carnal appetites has their uses too. A mind enlightened as to the proper means of gratifying the lower appetites could, with discipline and discrimination, harmonize the yearnings of the animus so that it no longer sounded a raucous call for immediate satisfaction, but instead lent its voice to a well-rounded experience of life.

In the spiritual worlds, there is no longer any hiding from ourselves or others. "There, you really are what you are. Appearance and being are identical." Heaven, hell, and all other spiritual states reflect "our 'true affections,' our real loves and affinities." If we are wise in this life, we will work to know what our true affections are, and to achieve at least a measure of the sincerity which will be thrust upon us in the inner worlds.

Lachman does not engage in any extended discussion of Swedenborg's theological views, and notes that he will not be addressing this aspect of his work. However, he acknowledges the importance of such work to Swedenborg: "Swedenborg himself saw his esoteric reading of Scripture as his true task—so important that it announced the revelation of the true meaning of Christianity. . . ." Having worshipped with Swedenborgians at the New York New Church in Manhattan, and at the stunningly beautiful Bryn Athyn Cathedral outside Philadelphia, I am perhaps more confident than Lachman of the continuing importance and vitality of Swedenborg's theological vision. Perhaps Lachman will eventually provide us with an equally accessible guide to this aspect of his subject. In the meanwhile, I will be eagerly recommending Into the Interior to all who are interested in the history of western esotericism.

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a freelance theologian, and the author of several books and articles on independent sacramental churches and esoteric Christianity.


The Taliesin Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship
Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman
NY: HarperCollins, 2006.Hardcover, $34.95, 704 pages.

Roger Friedland, a cultural sociologist, and Howard Zellman, an architect, have written a very good book about a strange and little known subject, the Taliesin Fellowship of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, himself, is certainly well-known through his buildings, his writings on architecture, his autobiography, and a number of other biographies. Oddly enough, however, until Friedland and Zellman published The Fellowship, little was known of the school that Wright set up in the depths of the Great Depression, ostensibly to train the cream of American youth to be "organic" architects.

Building had come to an abrupt stop across the country as America sank into the great economic depression of the1930s. There was no architectural work to be had anywhere by anyone, and to Wright, with his extravagant ways and adverse publicity and notoriety of his personal life, the Depression was an unmitigated disaster. But Wright had an answer, an answer perhaps born of desperation and unlikely coincidence, but a brilliant solution for all of that. Wright had toyed for several years with the idea of opening an architectural school at Taliesin, his estate in Wisconsin. After all, his spinster aunts had made a living from the old Hillside Home School on the Taliesin property. As it turned out, however, the "Fellowship," would not be an ordinary school, not even an architectural apprenticeship under his direction, as Wright had at first thought. It was to be indirectly, but inextricably, linked to the ideas of that other extraordinary man, G. I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff seems to have been an incomprehensible mixture of self-appointed messiah, visionary genius and mystical seer. Acquainted from an early age with the magical beliefs and powers of the peasants among whom he was raised, he was absorbed in all aspects of the occult. There is little doubt that he possessed remarkable magical powers, which were carefully cultivated throughout his life. He was, in fact, a magus, or magician in the old sense of the word and he had a messianic message, simple in essence. We are all asleep, he taught, lost in the mechanical repetition of response patterns of behavior. Freedom is to be found in awakening, in becoming aware of who we are, and what we are. This may be achieved through "the Work," a system of constant mental and physical challenges whereby a student may be shaken into a state of higher awareness. An essential part of the Work was the performance of sacred dances that were designed to align the dancer with the mathematical laws of the cosmos. One of the students and dancers that had followed him on his long journey from Tiflis to Paris was Olgivanna Hinzenberg, who eventually became the third wife of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The authors point out that Wright and Gurdjieff had much in common, and there were "uncanny correspondences in their thinking." Both, for instance, used the term "organic": Gurdjieff to refer to a harmony with cosmic forces and Wright to his architecture. Both were also inspired by forms found in nature, and both were devoted to the beauty of Gothic art. Moreover, Wright was already aware of Gurdjieff and his ideas through Zona Gale, a Gurdjieff follower.

Wright was desperate for money to pay his debts, hold on to Taliesin, and continue to enjoy his lavish life-style. He capitalized on the beauty of his estate and his fame and reputation as an architect, by offering "apprenticeships" to those who would pay for the privilege of living at Taliesin and working under his direction. The students came and paid, and the scheme proved highly profitable. However, the school now called the Fellowship was not what many of them had been led to expect. For one thing, an apprenticeship implies the presence of a master with whom one works and learns, but Wright, at that time, had no work. Olgivanna, however, was eager to incorporate the ideas of Gurdjieff into the structure of the school. What resulted was a curious amalgam whereby the total reeducation of the students along lines established at the Priory somehow became the primary goal.

The great strength of the book lies in the way Friedland and Zellman build up a picture of life as it was lived in the ivory tower that the Fellowship became for both the Wrights and the apprentices. Through the stories of the apprentices as they reacted to Taliesin and interacted with the Wrights and through a careful description of the succession of events, both within the Fellowship, and in the outside world, that shaped and influenced life within the walls, we begin to sense what a strange place the Fellowship must have been. Most of the apprentices were young men and it seems that the women applicants were largely discouraged. Wright was similarly an outspoken anti-Semite, but depended upon Jewish clients and Jewish apprentices who deny ever experiencing discrimination at Taliesin. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wright urged the apprentices to resist the draft. Most of them did out of loyalty to Wright while an unquestioning acceptance of whatever he said or was even believed to think, became an absolute requirement for those who wished to remain at Taliesin.

Gurdjieff died in October, 1949, but nevertheless continued to be a force in the Fellowship through Olgivanna and her daughter Iovanna. As Wright's health declined in his last few years, Olgivana moved to take more and more control of the Fellowship. Immediately after her husband's death, she seized control of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, under which the Fellowship was organized. The Foundation, under Olgivanna, continued the architectural practice, but her chief interest was forwarding the ideas of her master, G. I. Gurdjieff. The death of her husband gave her the free hand that she always wanted to teach Gurdjieff's principles as she understood them, and the authority to shape the lives of those within the Fellowship as one who had received the light directly from the master.

The authors point out that the Fellowship—with all its faults and problems—and Wright—with the enormous ego that the Fellowship fed—were justified by the buildings designed and constructed in the last decades of his astonishing career. Friedman and Zellman cite Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax Administration Building, and the Guggenheim Museum as great architectural icons that could not have come into being without the emotional and financial support of the Fellowship and the Gurdjieffian philosophy that influenced Wright through his wife Olgivanna.

Herbert Bangs

This reviewer is a retired architect and author of The Return of Sacred Architecture (Inner Traditions 2006). He also met Frank Lloyd Wright while visiting Taliesin during the heyday of the Fellowship.

Nicholas and Helena Roerich: The Spiritual Journey of Two Great Artists and Peacemakers
Ruth A. Drayer
Quest Books, 367 pages, Softcover, $23.95, 367 pages.

The great Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) is today more known in America for his art than his other many accomplishments. A great philosopher, explorer, archeologist, adventurer, Theosophist, and man of peace, he was the first Russian to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Even less is known in most American households of his wife Helena (1879-1955), who matched him in intellectual and spiritual intensity. Ruth Drayer's book on the travels, writings, lectures, and teachings of this extraordinary couple provides a great service in bringing them into the spotlight.

Although Russian by birth, Nicholas and Helena were also relatively unknown in their homeland because of the ban placed on them by the KGB in the 1930s, a ban that lasted until the fall of Communism in 1989. Almost immediately thereafter, all things Roerich became the rage in Moscow. With Russia's newly rich entering the international art market, the price of a Roerich painting soon increased from five or ten thousand dollars to well over a million. During his lifetime, he is thought to have created almost seven thousand paintings, making him one of the most prolific artists in human history, and the collective value of his work valued in the hundreds of millions.

Fleeing from the Communists, the Roerichs traveled widely through Asia, Europe and the Americas. In 1923 they established the Master School of United Artists in New York and in their early years in America took the country by storm. Nicholas's lectures around the country met with universal acclaim. His Roerich Peace Pact, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt and two dozen world leaders, became a cornerstone of the American peace movement, and won him the public praise of Albert Einstein.

It might seem that this early success in America would have placed him high in the American consciousness. However, like so many foreigners of his generation, the fear of Socialism–of which he himself was in fact a victim–saw him banned from re-entering the United States. He settled down in the Kulu Valley of Himalayan India, and spent the reminder of his life writing and painting in his mountain hermitage at Nagar. Americans, with the short attention spans of the forties and fifties, soon forgot his name.

In 1907 amongst their many other activities, Nicholas and Helena also met and studied with the great Buriatia lama Agvan Dorzhiev. Known in British literature as Tsenzhab Dorjiev, this great master was a guru to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and also became a spiritual advisor to Tsar Nicholas II. When the Tsar was unable to conceive a male heir, Lama Agvan Dorzhiev suggested that His Majesty send an offering to the Great Thirteenth and request a healing and fertility rite. This indeed came to pass. The Great Thirteenth performed the ritual from Lhasa, and soon thereafter the Tsarina gave birth to a prince. The Tsar instructed Lama Agvan Dorzhiev to build a Kalachakra temple in St. Petersburg, and the young Nicholas Roerich was commissioned to create the stained glass windows on the second flow.

Lama Agvan Dorzhiev was an adherent of the Kalachakra School of Tantric Buddhism, with its emphasis on the mystical land of Shambhala, and it is from this time that Roerich became fascinated with the Shambhala legends. The theme appears repeatedly in his art and writings. Dorzhiev believed that if the young prince who was born from the blessings of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama would survive to maturity, he would become a great world leader and usher in a thousand years of a golden age. This, alas, was not to be; World War I saw the depletion of great stores of the good karma on the planet. In 1917 the barbaric Communists overran Russia, and the entire royal family was murdered. Russia was plunged into the depths of darkness under Lenin and then Stalin and the rest of the world entered a century of mass warfare, economic chaos, and social unrest. This in turn produced a culture of fear and greed, from which we still have not emerged.

Nicholas and Roerich were strong believers in the powers of beauty and vision, in the ideal that these two forces can unite mankind, end conflict, and usher in a golden age. They probably were right.

This being so, their message is as relevant today as it was three generations ago. In fact, it is perhaps even more desperately needed today, when mankind seems poised for another world conflict, when greed has surpassed even the instinct of basic survival in its obsessive rape and pillage of the earth, threatening the very life of the very planet on which we live, and when humans have become even more polarized and insulated from one another than ever before.

Ruth Drayer's book is a timely infusion of enlightened thinking into a world desperately in need of simple solutions to complex world problems.

Glenn Mullin

This reviewer is author and translator of over a dozen books on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. He lectures internationally and in May 2007, he led the Theosophical Society's pilgrimage to Blavatsky's Tibet and Mongolia.

Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space
Gordon Strachan
Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K.: Floris Books, 2003. Paperback, $30.00, 111 pages.

Among the many great religious buildings in the world, Chartres Cathedral ranks among the most analyzed and most interpreted. Gordon Strachan joins a host of other professional and amateur writers who try to make sense out of the many mysteries contained in this great Gothic edifice in his book Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space.

Unlike Adolf Katzenellenbogen, (The Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral, 1959) Strachan does not attempt to describe or interpret the symbolism surrounding the portals of Chartres. He also says little about the famous stained glass windows or about the history of the construction of the church. One is never told, for instance, that while most of the building was built between 1194 and 1220, the north tower was not completed until the sixteenth century. He does not describe what Hans Jonas (High Gothic, 1957) thought was essential for the invention of the Gothic style: the heightened columns of the nave so that there is no gallery above the arcade.

Instead, what Strachen does emphasize is the probable borrowing of the pointed arch from the Muslims. His theory is that the Templars were influenced directly by Sufis in Jerusalem and brought back to Europe aspects of both Islamic mysticism and architecture. Along with the pointed arch, they also imported an emphasis upon geometric proportion to replace the arithmetical proportions of the Romanesque as a way of emphasizing symbolically the mystery of God's transcendence.

In the last chapters, the author turns to the influence of the Christian mystical tradition, as embodied in Dionysius the Areopagite (in his first, third, and fifth century forms) upon the aura and message of Gothic architecture.

This work is relatively brief and clearly written for the general reader and what the author says may be largely true. It is difficult, however, to demonstrate with any degree of assurance that the Templars were ever influenced by Sufis (can we, for instance, name one Sufi who lived in Jerusalem while the Templars were there?) or that the French architects could not have invented the pointed arch on their own. The borrowing of "geometrical proportions" seems perhaps more convincing, though there are, as the authors acknowledges, reputable scholars who cast doubts upon the whole matter. Louis Charpentier, (The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, 1975) who also explores the same structure, shows how a wholly different reading of proportions can be developed.

So, like most other books about Chartres, this one is very speculative and by no means definitive. Still it is an interesting, even absorbing, study that, for those interested in Gothic churches, sacred mathematics, or Christian mysticism, deserves a place on the bookshelf. Although I remain unconvinced about many details, I find it a very provocative book.

Jay G. Williams
Hamilton College

Kindness, Clarity and Insight, the 25th Anniversary Edition
By the Dalai Lama
Snow Lion, Hardback, $19.95, 261 pages.

Although today books on Buddhism by the Dalai Lama can be found in most bookstores throughout the Western world, and several of his titles have even hit the New York Times Bestseller List, his success as a literary figure came slowly. His first title, The Opening of the Third Eye, was published by Quest Books in the early 1960s. Nothing more was to appear from him for almost two decades, when in 1981 Snow Lion in Ithaca, NY, published Kindness, Clarity and Insight, a collection of essays drawn up from his public lectures during his first two tours of North America.
The essays themselves are brilliant, and that 1981 edition went a long way in making the Dalai Lama a household name in America. It introduced the Dalai Lama as the humble Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher that he is, taking the gentle flow of his spoken words to a living audience and molding them into a captivating and inspiring work. For those who thought that the art of essay writing is dead, here is proof that it is alive and well.

The individual essays deal with the fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism, and each has a title reflecting its focus: "The Luminous Nature of Mind," "The Four Noble Truths," "The Medicine of Wisdom and Compassion," "Altruism and the Six Perfections," and so forth. The Dalai Lama treats each subject in depth, and with the basic simplicity that has become the hallmark of his teaching style.

Prof. Jeffrey Hopkins, who was the translator of the oral discourses, along with the editors at Snow Lion who wove the tread of oral teachings into a coherent literary volume, did a wonderful job twenty-five years ago in bringing the Dalai Lama to a modern reading audience. This new edition, however, is not merely a reprint of the old book, which has been out of print for some years. Editorial and printing improvements lift it far above what it had been. Kindness, Clarity and Insight was one of Snow Lion's first titles, and that small but dedicated publishing house has come a long way since that time.

Jeffrey Hopkins' Preface to the new edition does make one claim that strikes me as a bit off. The Dalai Lama first visited the United States in 1979. The rumor for this tardy entrance was that he could not get a visa. Hopkins tells the story of a meeting that he and the Dalai Lama's representative in New York had with Joel McCleary, an advisor to President Jimmy Carter and an old friend and student of Prof. Robert Thurman. Jeffrey suggests that this meeting was the reason the Dalai Lama finally was issued his first American visa.

In 1977, the Dalai Lama returned to Dharamsala from a visit to Europe. I was asked to edit some of his lectures from the tour for a pamphlet to be published by the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala. During the course of the work, I asked someone in his Private Office why he made so many visits to Europe, but none to America.

"He can't get an American visa," was the reply, which struck me as rather odd, in that all kinds of world leaders visit America regularly. Although there is no doubt that Joel did meet with Hopkins and the Dalai Lama's representative in New York, that meeting was not especially relevant to the visa problem. The solution of the Dalai Lama's visa quandary came from another direction altogether, and required no such high level interference. And that would be a story for another book.

Esoteric Christianity
Annie Besant
Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2006. Paperback, $16.95, 245 pages.

More than a century after its original publication in 1901, Annie Besant's classic text on the Christian mysteries has been reissued in an attractive new edition with an introduction and notes by Richard Smoley, author of Inner Christianity. Contemporary interest in such approaches to Christianity should guarantee renewed attention for this book. Besant writes:

We begin to understand the full truth of the apostolic teaching that Christ was not a unique personality, but "the first fruits of them that slept" (I Cor. 15:20), and that every man was to become a Christ. Not then was the Christ regarded as an external Saviour, by whose imputed righteousness men were to be saved from divine wrath. There was current in the Church the glorious and inspiring teaching that He was but the first fruits of humanity, the model that every man should reproduce in himself, the life that all should share.... Not to be saved by an external Christ, but to be glorified into an inner Christ, was the teaching of esoteric Christianity.... (132-33)

Besant, who was once married to a conservative clergyman and came to new understandings of Christianity through Theosophy, offers a guide to this path in her engaging and inspiring style. She can only give us a certain amount in a small volume—and much of any true mystery is only revealed in living experience. Nonetheless, like Clement of Alexandria (whom she quotes in the epigraphs), she may not have fully unfolded the mystery, but she has indicated what is sufficient.

Toward the end of the book, Besant states: "For the visible and the invisible worlds are interrelated, interwoven, each with each, and those can best serve the visible by whom the energies of the invisible can be wielded." The dynamics of such service are explored in her chapters on the sacraments, which I found to be the most enduringly insightful part of the book. Besant sees a sacrament as "a method by which the energies of the invisible world are transmuted into action in the physical.... a kind of crucible in which spiritual alchemy takes place." She makes many interesting points regarding the importance of the spiritual knowledge of the priest on the "operative power" of the sacraments. She also anticipates later theological developments in seeing a sacramental aspect to scripture: "These Books, indeed, have something of a sacramental character about them, an outer form and an inner life, an outer symbol and an inner truth." One might well follow this book with the later works of Besant's colleagues, Charles Leadbeater (e.g., The Science of the Sacraments, available through Quest Books) and James Wedgwood (e.g., The Collected Works of James I. Wedgwood, San Diego: St Alban Press, 2004), to see further development of her perspective.

Besant's book inevitably reflects her time and culture. Scholarship and sensibilities have moved and changed since her day. Richard Smoley's notes and introduction provide extremely valuable context in this regard. Despite the passage of time, Esoteric Christianity is not simply an interesting relic from a past century, but a vibrant and inspiring vision for renewal of the mysteries hidden in Christianity. May this new edition bring Besant's vision to a wider audience.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a freelance theologian, and the author of several books and articles on independent sacramental churches and esoteric Christianity.

Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives
Dr. Jim B. Tucker
NY: St. Martin's Press, 2005. Hardcover, $23.95, 256 pages.

Dr. Tucker is a child psychiatrist connected with the University of Virginia Medical Center who, in addition to his professional duties, has taken over, from his colleague Dr. Ian Stevenson, the investigation of children who claim to remember their immediate past lives. Like Stevenson, Dr. Tucker has traveled to various countries to interview the children who tell of their previous life. In his book, he occasionally makes reference to some of the cases Stevenson published in his several books, but more importantly discusses details of his own investigation of new cases. Despite his caution in identifying these cases as merely suggestive of reincarnation, there is no doubt whatever that the children he interviewed remember their previous incarnation and are able to give details which only the previous personality could have known. There are also birthmarks and other physical marks on the "present personality" which relate to something that happened to the "previous personality" (to use Stevenson's cautious terminology). This furthers Stevenson's publication of such evidence in his two volume book Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, a copy of which is in the Olcott Library.

As Stevenson writes in his introduction to the book, Dr. Tucker "asks, almost requires" readers of this book "to reason along with him as he describes and discusses each objection to the idea of reincarnation." Stevenson did the same in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, pointing out the difficulties of each alternative hypothesis to account for the cases. In fact, for members of the TS, who already are predisposed to accept the idea of reincarnation, this caution seems quite unnecessary in light of the quantity of evidence.

Since I have read all of Stevenson's books—and have corresponded with him and have met and talked with him personally—I found Tucker's caution curious. The evidence for reincarnation is overwhelming, not only from Stevenson's and Tucker's careful investigations, but from several other books as well, some of which have been published by the Theosophical Publishing House. I suppose Tucker felt his caution necessary, since the opposition to the idea of reincarnation is so strong from materialist scientists and philosophers as well as fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. But those people are unlikely to read this book anyway. So it seems to me the caution is quite unnecessary.

TS members may want to read this book, but may also, as I did, find its caution curious—perhaps even irritating—in light of the evidence he presents. The book is well written, even if somewhat "clinical." And it is but one more support for the theosophical teaching about reincarnation.

Dr. Richard W. Brooks


Book Reviews 2009

Into Great Silence
DVD. Zeitgeist Films, October 2007. 162 minutes.

Symbols play an important part in human life. In their concreteness, they have the ability to touch the whole person with all his feelings and senses. As a result, they can have a greater impact than can an abstract discussion directed to the intellect alone.

Into Great Silence can be regarded as a symbol in this sense. It is a three-hour film, mostly silent, that takes the viewer into the realm of monastic life. The director, Philip Gröning, stayed at a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps for six months and let his camera follow the monks in their daily and weekly life—all in silence.

The camera observes the hermits in their individual cells, eating their meals, chanting in the chapel, doing manual labor, and participating in the liturgical celebrations of the yearly feasts. It also depicts the lovely alpine scenery surrounding the monastery and its changes during the seasons of the year. The deep forest, the blue sky with sun and clouds, the birds flying in the air, the rushing streams, and the agricultural plots participate in the silence of the hermits and surround it with nature's beauty.

As one sits through the film for three hours and experiences the rhythm of this silent life, one realizes that this is a story of love. Supplied with the bare necessities of daily living, the monks have the freedom and time to focus on this meeting with God. The divine speaks in silence, and the audience experiences this truth in the rhythm of the film. Briefly at the very end, the film shows a monologue of a blind hermit who talks about the centrality of God in human life. His few words sum up what the audience has experienced for three hours. More words are not needed.

Robert Trabold

This reviewer has a Ph.D. in sociology with specialties in urban issues and the religious expressions of people in transition. His reflective poetry and articles on contemplative prayer have been published in Quest and other journals.

Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen
Gary Lachman
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2008. Paperback, $19.95, xxiv + 276 pages.

Most books presuming to deal with politics and the occult have been marred by a conspiratorial premise ("the Illuminati are secretly running the world!") and a cavalier attitude toward fact checking. Indeed, conspiracy peddler Texe Marrs once filled a thirty-five-dollar, six hundred-page book with photos of politicians giving "V for victory" signs, "OK" signs, and just about every other hand gesture under the sun and interpreting these as secret Illuminatist and Satanic signals.

Luckily, Gary Lachman's latest book takes a saner and more even-handed approach to the considerable overlap between matters political and occult. This is not surprising, as Lachman has emerged over the past twenty years as one of our most readable and reliable writers on spiritual and esoteric systems and personalities.

The task that Lachman sets for himself in Politics and the Occult is straightforward enough: Beginning with the Rosicrucian uproar at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Lachman provides a historical survey of the political impact in the West of occult and esoteric ideas over the last four hundred years. He nimbly leads the reader through controversies surrounding British and European secret societies, the French Revolution, curious erotic mystical sects like the Moravian Brotherhood, and more recent occult figures such as Nicholas Roerich, Papus, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, and Julius Evola. The book ends with a meditation on the parallels between the present Christian Right in the United States and manifestations of a spiritually tinged fascism that Lachman discusses in earlier chapters.

For the bulk of Politics and the Occult, Lachman is content to provide an anecdotal chronology of colorful characters in a generally nonjudgmental manner, simply letting the facts speak for themselves. It is only in the final chapters, as the people under consideration begin to brush up against twentieth-century "isms," particularly fascism, that Lachman seems obliged to render judgments, albeit judgments circumscribed by considerable ambivalence.

For instance, what are we to make of the sympathy of Mircea Eliade, the distinguished scholar of comparative religion, for the mystical-fascist-nationalist Legion of the Holy Archangel Michael during his young adulthood in Romania? Or Eliade's ongoing correspondence with Julius Evola, the brilliant Italian Traditionalist who synthesized a kind of esoteric fascism that inspired youthful extreme rightists to engage in a nihilistic terror spree during the 1970s in Italy? Do these instances of Eliade's hidden past totally undercut the value of his considerable later scholarship in shamanism, cross-cultural studies, and religious myth? Lachman considers such questions at some length and provides enough thoughtful analysis for the reader to grasp the difficulty of a single clear-cut answer.

In considering the contemporary Christian Right, Lachman steps most fully off the fence and voices his concerns that their theocratic yearnings, if put into practice, would usher in an era of totalitarianism reminiscent of earlier fascist regimes. Given a choice between the modern world with all its flaws (materialism, consumerism, celebrity worship, and all the rest) and the flight from modernity (whether quasi-fascist Traditionalist or Christian Rightist), Lachman ultimately sides with a modern world that allows at least enough freedom to voice one's opposition to its faults.

For the reader who has only a vague sense of the history of the Western occult traditions' interaction with the political arena, Politics and the Occult should serve as a salutary overview. In a genre loaded down with garbage, Lachman's book is a breath of fresh air.

However, I feel compelled to note that if your reading of esoteric history has already encompassed books by James Webb (The Occult Underground, The Occult Establishment, and The Harmonious Circle) and Joscelyn Godwin (Arktos and The Theosophical Enlightenment), as well as Mark Sedgwick's thorough study of the Traditionalists (Against the Modern World), you may find little new in Politics and the Occult. Lachman draws heavily on these sources, and while he serves up a highly readable distillation, no new ground is broken (to wildly mix metaphors).

Moreover, more than once Lachman cites, as sources, books that can most charitably be described as "speculative." The works of Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince purveying "alternative history"—such as The Templar Revelation, The Stargate Conspiracy, and The Sion Revelation, the last of which Lachman cites several times—may be both engaging and exciting (as well as best-sellers), but their presence as footnoted sources does not breed confidence in the thoroughness of Lachman's research. Similarly, the citation of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's Temple and the Lodge for anything having to do with the Knights Templar and Scotland is problematic. (See Robert L. D. Cooper's The Rosslyn Hoax? for a valuable debunking of most such claims about Scottish Templars.)

Luckily, such speculative sources are few in Lachman's book, and for the most part, their use is confined to minor matters. Pop histories such as Politics and the Occult fulfill an important role in disseminating information to intelligent readers who don't have the time or resources to thoroughly read across a given field. Lachman has a gift for taking on complex subjects and personalities (Rudolf Steiner and Emanuel Swedenborg, for example) and making them accessible. I just hope that the pressure of making a living in the literary marketplace doesn't cause him to surrender to what the Traditionalist René Guénon called the "reign of quantity."

Politics and the Occult is a good book. Here's hoping that Lachman's next one is even better.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis magazine (1985-99) and is coauthor (with Richard Smoley) of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (Quest, 2006). His forthcoming book, The Masonic Enigma, will be published by HarperOne.


Letters from a Sufi Teacher
Shaikh Sharfuddin Maneri
Translated by Baijnath Singh. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 2006. Paper, $7.75, x + 130 pages.

This is a very welcome reprint of Baijnath Singh's 1908 translation of excerpts from the letters of Sheikh Sharfuddin Maneri, a fourteenth-century Indian Sufi. It is a very readable book, divided into short sections on a great variety of topics. The original author, from north India, reveals the influence not only of Islam and the Sufi heritage but also of yoga, the Upanishads, and Buddhism. He points toward a path that transcends the ordinary sort of religious belief and leads one toward the direct inner revelation of God.

It is not enough, according to Maneri, just to read this book and absorb its theories. He insists that one must find a master who can lead beyond all theories, all words, all thoughts to the inner illumination of God's presence. The path is difficult, for it involves learning to control one's "desire-nature" and "self-ness." Indeed having a grand "spiritual experience" may lead one astray, for it usually promotes one's sense of ego.

Baijnath Singh's translation is quite accessible, though he occasionally lapses into "thee-thou" language that has been archaic for centuries. Moreover, he sometimes inserts Theosophical language that was certainly not used by the original author. Nevertheless, this is a fine, even moving, exposition of Indian Sufism that is highly recommended.

Jay G. Williams

This reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. Formerly a Presbyterian minister, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he is author of the Quest Books publications, Judaism and Yeshua Buddha.

A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
Catherine L. Albanese
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Cloth $40.00, Paper $22.50, 628 pages.

Written by the chair of the religious studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the work will doubtless remain a standard in the field of American religious history for many years to come. In the past, American religious history has often been seen as either the history of the various denominations or as a series of evangelical waves beginning with the first Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century. Albanese joins several other recent scholars (I think particularly of Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls and Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney's Hidden Wisdom) in looking at the American scene with very different eyes, charting the importance of what she calls "metaphysical religion" for the history of America.

Although Albanese offers a four-point definition of what she means by metaphysical religion, it turns out that the term includes virtually everything that is neither denominational nor evangelical. Thus, beginning with European religious roots and proceeding historically through American history, she deals with (among many other topics) Hermetic philosophy and alchemical traditions, the "cunning" people of seventeenth-century England and America, Native American religion, African obeah cults, the Shakers and other communal sects, Transcendentalism, mesmerism, spiritualism, faith healers, Christian Science, New Thought, the influence of Asian religions, and of course Theosophy.

Throughout, A Republic of Mind and Spirit exhibits an amazingly close reading of letters, diaries, and other texts. The work is a monument to prodigious scholarship, often bringing to light the importance of long-forgotten writers and movements. At the same time, the book is eminently readable and captivating in style. This reader had no temptation to skim or to skip a section. The history of so-called metaphysical religion in America is fascinating.

Nevertheless, some problems emerge as one proceeds. First of all, the term "metaphysical religion" is so broad that one sometimes wonders whether there is much connection at all among the various persons and movements examined. Do Norman Vincent Peale and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky really belong to the same general movement? If so, why not include Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian who was certainly interested in metaphysical ideas?

Secondly, it is far more difficult than this work implies to separate American religion from what was happening in Europe. For instance, Hegel's philosophy certainly influenced many American thinkers, including Mary Baker Eddy, but his name appears only once in the text. Carl Jung's psychology is also barely mentioned, even though he strongly influenced a variety of American thinkers as well. European occult figures such as Éliphas Lévi, A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, P. D. Ouspensky, and G. I. Gurdjieff were far more important for the development of American "metaphysics" than the author suggests. In other words, Europe influenced America not just at the beginning but continually.

Third, there are some strange omissions from the discussion. For instance, although the philosopher Paul Carus rates a short discussion, the author says almost nothing about D. T. Suzuki, who worked for Carus and who, almost single-handedly, popularized Zen in America. Perhaps Albanese does not regard Zen as "metaphysical," but given her very broad definition of that term, that seems difficult to imagine. Moreover, although she mentions Jiddu Krishnamurti, she never explores his very interesting philosophical position. Sufis are, by and large, overlooked, while American Taoists are treated rather cavalierly.

Fourth, Albanese discusses the New Age movement without explaining the precession of the equinoxes and why this time is believed to be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. She also believes that New Age movement is dying. Perhaps it is, but if one surfs the Web or consults, for instance, the offerings of the Open Center in New York, it hardly seems moribund at all.

Finally, many Theosophists may be upset by Albanese's treatment of their movement. She devotes all of her attention to William Q. Judge and Katherine Tingley and their Theosophical Society (now headquartered in Pasadena, California) and says virtually nothing about the Theosophical Society in America, the society founded by Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott.

Overall, however, the author treats most traditions with an even hand, offering description without critique. Her aim is to right the balance of emphasis in the study of American religious history, and that she does with both erudition and grace. I recommend the book enthusiastically.

Jay G. Williams

This reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. Formerly a Presbyterian minister, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he is author of the Quest Books publications Judaism and Yeshua Buddha.


The Light of the Russian Soul: A Personal Memoir of Early Russian Theosophy
Elena Fedorovna Pisareva
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2008. 119 pages, paper, $19.95.

This small, charming memoir opens the door to a little-known chapter in Theosophical history–its early days in H.P. Blavatsky's homeland of Russia. The author, Elena Pisareva (1855-1944), first encountered Theosophy in 1901 at a spa in what is now Slovenia. When she returned home to Russia, members of the Theosophical Society contacted her, and she quickly became involved.

While H. P. Blavatsky was a native of Russia, most of her spiritual exploration and teaching took place abroad. Moreover, at that time the Orthodox Church had close links with the tsarist regime, and alternative spiritual viewpoint often suffered under prohibitions. Thus the Theosophical Society took longer than might have been expected to establish itself in Russia. Nevertheless, by the turn of the twentieth century, pioneers such as Nina Gernet and Anna Kamensky were making efforts to promote it.

Pisareva's memoir is particularly focused on the personality and work of Anna Kamensky and her tireless work in the face of opposition, first from the tsarist government and then from the early Soviet state. Kamensky shines as an exemplar of calm, confident, fearless, and truthful spiritual endeavor, regardless of outer circumstances. Together with her coworkers, she achieved legal recognition for the TS in Russia in 1908. Her labors continued until the postrevolutionary state halted the Society's activities in 1920. In 1921, Kamensky and a colleague, carrying only necessary items and copies of the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels, fled across the Finnish border. In 1925, Kamensky reestablished a Russian section of the TS in exile.

In this memoir, Pisareva, who was well acquainted with the Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner and his second wife, Marie von Sivers, discusses the departure of the majority of the German Section of the TS under Steiner's leadership to form the Anthroposophical Society in 1912. She also describes the contacts of the early Russian Theosophists with Leo Tolstoy and his family and followers. Anyone interested in Theosophical history will enjoy Pisareva's account.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement.


What is Hinduism? Modern Adventures into a Profound Global Faith
by the editors of Hinduism Today
Kapaa, Hawaii: Himalayan Academy, 2007. 392 pages, paper, $39.95.

Many introductory books about Hinduism are available in English. Most of those for sale in the United States are written from a Western point of view and at least pretend to be objective. This volume is very different. Compiled from articles published in the newsmagazine Hinduism Today, the work offers a view of Hinduism as it is known to Hindus themselves. It is positive, enthusiastic, and even mildly “evangelical.” At the same time, the authors can be quite critical of customs, such as untouchability, that have doomed many people to a life beyond the fringe of Indian society. Overall, however, the text is warmly pro-Hindu and provides an interesting and informative view about how one-sixth of the world’s population thinks and lives.

Each chapter originally appeared separately and therefore can be read independently. At the same time, these various chapters are organized topically, which provides the book with a modicum of order. The basic topics are: “The Nature of Hinduism,” “Hindu Metaphysics,” “How Hindus Worship,” “Spiritual Practice,” “Family Life and Culture,” and “Hindu Ethics.” the book may be read from cover to cover, or one can read a later chapter without having read everything that preceded it.

One very positive feature of this book is its many photographs and illustrations. Scarcely a page goes by without some reproduction of a piece of artwork, a temple photograph, or some other illustrative material. There are many pictures of Hindus practicing their faith. The reader is surrounded throughout by visions of Indians and India. In fact one is tempted just to leaf through the book just to look at the pictures.

Sometimes the Western reader may want to take exception to what is said. Is it really a fact, for instance, that Hinduism is twice as old as Judaism? Even that seeming mistake, however, reveals a great deal about the Hindu vision of reality. What one learns in these pages is not purely objective (Is there really such a thing anyway?) but shows how Hindus themselves understand and interpret life.

My own response to this book, then, is very positive. It is informative, readable, and beautifully put together. It would certainly make good reading for an undergraduate course in religion or simply for anyone interested in that age-old spiritual tradition we have come to call Hinduism.

Jay G. Williams

The reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. He is the author of Judaism and Yeshua Buddha, both published by Quest Books.


The Death of Religion and the Rebirth of the Spirit: A Return to the Intelligence of the Heart
Joseph Chilton Pearce
Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2007. 257 pages, hardcover, $22.95.

Joseph Chilton Pearce, the well-known author of The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, The Biology of Transcendence, and several other works, has written another provocative book, this time about the evolution of the brain, personal development, and what has corrupted our society. Sources for his thought range from the poet William Blake and Baba Muktananda (Pearce’s own guru) to Rudolf Steiner, Elaine Pagels, and Jean Piaget. His aim is to free the power of the heart―which for him is both a physical and a spiritual reality―from the confines of religion, culture, and, perhaps most importantly, bad mothering.

Pearce is an opponent of birth in hospitals, bottle feeding, religion as it has developed, and, it would appear, culture in general. Much of what he says is based upon various psychological studies that are mentioned but not examined in depth. This raises a major problem, for this reviewer has a strong suspicion that mainline psychologists would not be happy with the studies Pearce cites or with the conclusions he draws from them. In fact, mainline psychology is part of the scientism Pearce severely criticizes. So the reader is really asked to accept his findings largely because they “sound good” and not because they are proven in any conventional sense.

Pearce believes that one of the major problems with our culture is that children are often not breast-fed and do not receive the careful, face-to-face attention that mothers need to provide. Sending children off to daycare will not do. At the same time, he seems to favor “free love” for teenagers so that they can find their “soul mates.” But if a young girl becomes pregnant, it is difficult to see how she would be able to provide the nurturing care and love that mothers, according to his teaching, are supposed to offer. In fact, free love may very well end in child neglect, the very problem he seeks to solve.

Pearce is very critical of what he calls culture, but he never clearly defines what he means by the term. Indeed the very center of culture is language, which embodies that culture’s attitudes and prejudices. Nevertheless, he uses language to write this book. Publishing, then, is a very cultural act. What he really seems to be against is a culture (and religion) that judges some people as evil. Even here, however, his view of mothering condemns women who do not breast-feed and do not, perhaps cannot, provide the nurturing he thinks so important. So, in fact, his attempt to improve society proves to be really no better than other “cultural” attempts to do the same.

This does not mean, however, that this book is of no value. It is a challenge to our established culture and may provide many moments of insight. It is doubtful, however, that Pearce’s philosophy will change things. Culture has a way of accepting the “Eureka!” moment he so savors and turning it into another form of cultural control. If his views of nurturing were turned into law, they would become repressive indeed.

Jay G. Williams

The reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. He is the author of Judaism and Yeshua Buddha, both published by Quest Books.


My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary
John Blofeld
Translated by Daniel Reid. Forewords by Huang Li-Sung and Chungliang Al Huang. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2008. xxxv + 247 pages, hardcover, $24.95.

A good travel memoir gives the reader a vivid and entertaining sense of the places visited and the people seen. A great travel memoir does more. It evokes in the reader the spirit of the civilization it describes.

John Blofeld's posthumous book My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu's Travel Diary falls into the second category. Readers may remember Blofeld (1913¬-87) as the author of many authoritative works on the East, including The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, The Chinese Art of Tea, and a translation of the I Ching. This book is not Blofeld's first memoir—others include City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures and Wheel of Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist—but it does have the distinction of being the only book he wrote in Chinese. Originally published in 1990, it is appearing in English for the first time in this edition.

Blofeld, a Cambridge-educated Englishman, grew up with a mysterious and unshakable fascination with China. In 1932, he dropped out of university and went to that remote country, remaining until 1948, when the imminent victory of the communists impelled him to leave. My Travels in Mystic China chronicles that period in his life. The title is somewhat misleading in that the book does not place any particular focus on the mystical aspects of the China Blofeld visits. Its original Chinese title, Old Pu's Travel Diary: The Memoirs of an Englishman in China, is more accurate. (Pu is Blofeld's Chinese surname.)

Nevertheless, this book is a fascinating description not only of Blofeld's life in China (including his experience with "black rice," i.e., opium; the alluring "flower girls" or courtesans; and even an abortive engagement with a Chinese woman) but of the elaborate and beautiful civilization whose demise he chronicles. If there is a central theme to this book, it is Blofeld's encounter with traditional China and his acute awareness of its passing. Blofeld's years there coincide with some of the worst in the nation's history—the civil war between the nationalists and the communists as well as the Japanese invasion, with its countless atrocities—so in the memoir he ceaselessly laments that many of its glories are soon to perish. At the end of the book he writes, "Prior to the Tang, Sung, and Ming dynasties, although China was influenced for more than a hundred years by various foreign cultures, in the end it always restored the glory of its own indigenous heritage. But within my own lifetime, these ancient winds stopped blowing and would never again fan my face, and it seemed certain that the former glory of Chinese civilization could never be revived."

Although this memoir places more emphasis on China's people and traditions than on its mystical dimensions, we are provided with glimpses of the latter as well. In his travels Blofeld is often hosted by Buddhist and Taoist hermitages, with their quaint and serene atmosphere. One section describes Blofeld's sighting of the mysterious "bodhisattva lights" one night during a visit to Mount Wutai, on the border of Mongolia. "These extraordinary globe-shaped entities approached from faraway and disappeared again into the distance, continuously radiating golden beams of light." Fifty years later, he adds, "I still find it very difficult to explain that phenomenon!" Another striking anecdote is a mystical experience while visiting with "Old Taoist Dzeng," a master in Peking (as Blofeld and his translator still spell the city's name). "All of a sudden, he, I, and everything in the space between us, while still retaining their external appearance, seemed to condense into an inseparable singularity, as though we had suddenly dissolved into one amorphous singularity....When Old Dzeng fixed his penetrating gaze on me, I definitely and very clearly perceived the inseparable and boundless nature of all phenomena."

For such memorable anecdotes as these and for Blofeld's insight into Chinese culture and customs, this book is definitely worth reading. But its greatest value lies in the fact that its pages evoke a sense of the wisdom and calm serenity that characterized Chinese civilization at its greatest.

Richard Smoley


A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
Catherine L. Albanese
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Cloth $40.00, Paper $22.50, 628 pages.

Written by the chair of the religious studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the work will doubtless remain a standard in the field of American religious history for many years to come. In the past, American religious history has often been seen as either the history of the various denominations or as a series of evangelical waves beginning with the first Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century. Albanese joins several other recent scholars (I think particularly of Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls and Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney's Hidden Wisdom) in looking at the American scene with very different eyes, charting the importance of what she calls "metaphysical religion" for the history of America.

Although Albanese offers a four-point definition of what she means by metaphysical religion, it turns out that the term includes virtually everything that is neither denominational nor evangelical. Thus, beginning with European religious roots and proceeding historically through American history, she deals with (among many other topics) Hermetic philosophy and alchemical traditions, the "cunning" people of seventeenth-century England and America, Native American religion, African obeah cults, the Shakers and other communal sects, Transcendentalism, mesmerism, spiritualism, faith healers, Christian Science, New Thought, the influence of Asian religions, and of course Theosophy.

Throughout, A Republic of Mind and Spirit exhibits an amazingly close reading of letters, diaries, and other texts. The work is a monument to prodigious scholarship, often bringing to light the importance of long-forgotten writers and movements. At the same time, the book is eminently readable and captivating in style. This reader had no temptation to skim or to skip a section. The history of so-called metaphysical religion in America is fascinating.

Nevertheless, some problems emerge as one proceeds. First of all, the term "metaphysical religion" is so broad that one sometimes wonders whether there is much connection at all among the various persons and movements examined. Do Norman Vincent Peale and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky really belong to the same general movement? If so, why not include Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian who was certainly interested in metaphysical ideas?

Secondly, it is far more difficult than this work implies to separate American religion from what was happening in Europe. For instance, Hegel's philosophy certainly influenced many American thinkers, including Mary Baker Eddy, but his name appears only once in the text. Carl Jung's psychology is also barely mentioned, even though he strongly influenced a variety of American thinkers as well. European occult figures such as Éliphas Lévi, A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, P. D. Ouspensky, and G. I. Gurdjieff were far more important for the development of American "metaphysics" than the author suggests. In other words, Europe influenced America not just at the beginning but continually.

Third, there are some strange omissions from the discussion. For instance, although the philosopher Paul Carus rates a short discussion, the author says almost nothing about D. T. Suzuki, who worked for Carus and who, almost single-handedly, popularized Zen in America. Perhaps Albanese does not regard Zen as "metaphysical," but given her very broad definition of that term, that seems difficult to imagine. Moreover, although she mentions Jiddu Krishnamurti, she never explores his very interesting philosophical position. Sufis are, by and large, overlooked, while American Taoists are treated rather cavalierly.

Fourth, Albanese discusses the New Age movement without explaining the precession of the equinoxes and why this time is believed to be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. She also believes that New Age movement is dying. Perhaps it is, but if one surfs the Web or consults, for instance, the offerings of the Open Center in New York, it hardly seems moribund at all.

Finally, many Theosophists may be upset by Albanese's treatment of their movement. She devotes all of her attention to William Q. Judge and Katherine Tingley and their Theosophical Society (now headquartered in Pasadena, California) and says virtually nothing about the Theosophical Society in America, the society founded by Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott.
Overall, however, the author treats most traditions with an even hand, offering description without critique. Her aim is to right the balance of emphasis in the study of American religious history, and that she does with both erudition and grace. I recommend the book enthusiastically.

Jay G. Williams

This reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. Formerly a Presbyterian minister, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he is author of the Quest Books publications Judaism and Yeshua Buddha.


The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life
Parker J. Palmer
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. xxxvii + 145 pages, hardcover, $18.95.

Parker Palmer, the well-known Quaker author and educator, maintains that most of us are not well equipped to understand our lives through the lens of paradox. We tend to see life in terms of dualities: the spiritual and the secular, success and failure, freedom versus order, the self versus the group. This either/or approach often leads to a feeling of being torn between irreconcilable pairs of opposites. To be human is to experience contradictions. “Our highest insights and aspirations fail because we are encumbered by flesh that is too week—or too strong,” Palmer writes in a revised edition of his book The Promise of Paradox. “When we rise to soar on wings of spirit, we discover weights of need and greed tied to our feet.” What Theosophist has not experienced this feeling at one time or another?

For some seekers the contradictions are so great that they abandon their efforts to live a spiritual life. Others react to this tension by turning a blind eye to the inherent contradictions in human nature and pray not for a resolution but for an “extreme makeover.” The author suggests a third way, which is to “live the contradictions, fully and painfully aware of the poles between which our lives are stretched” (emphasis Palmer’s). By doing this, we may begin to experience the contradictions as a paradox “at whose heart we will find transcendence and new life.”

A paradox is a statement that seems to be self-contradictory but which actually contains a truth. The author quotes Nobel Prize winner Neils Bohr, who defined paradox this way: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” As a caveat to Bohr’s statement, Palmer correctly notes that not all contradictions house a paradox. Sometimes a contradiction is just what it appears to be—a contradiction. This means discernment is required. Understanding paradox is not just a parlor game involving mental acuity; it requires the ability to stand calmly amidst the pairs of opposites with a profound sense of humility.

The author looks at a number of paradoxical statements found in the Christian Bible, one of which is usually glossed over by contemporary Christians: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe” (Isaiah 45:7). He also notes that the injunction of Jesus that one must lose one’s life before he finds it is an insight found in the wisdom traditions of the world. Palmer explores the cross as symbolizing the oppositions of life. He sees the crossbar as representing the horizontal pull of life’s conflicting demands and obligations, while the vertical member suggests the way we are pulled between heaven and earth.

One recurrent theme in this book is the contrast between individualism and the need for community. Palmer relates his experience of living in Pendle Hill, a Quaker community near Philadelphia, some thirty years ago. “We came to community with certain expectations, seeking certain qualities of life. . . . It sometimes seems that for each thing we sought, we have found not only that thing but also its opposite!” As interesting as that may be, it seems to this reviewer that this speaks not so much of paradox but of irony.

Less effective is the essay devoted to scarcity and abundance in the spiritual quest. Palmer tries to draw an analogy between scarcity and abundance as found in the world and in the spiritual life. In his view, the world consists of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” He makes some good points about exploitation of the weak by the strong but falls into the trap of seeing the world economy as a zero-sum game, in which the gain of one nation is accomplished at the expense of another. This is a simplistic and unrealistic view that ignores a host of other factors that contribute to a nation’s standard of material living. Take Russia, for example, which has a plethora of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and timber, but whose people chronically endure a low standard of living. Contrast Russia with much smaller nations with limited natural resources such as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, whose people enjoy considerably higher levels of prosperity. Palmer fails to take into account the significant effects that rule of law, property rights, a transparent banking system, government policy, and other crucial factors have in creating a flourishing environment for economic growth.

The Promise of Paradox was first published in 1980. Having compared both editions, I can say without reservation that the new version is the better of the two. The main ideas within the book have not changed, but the author has edited the language for style to give it a nice contemporary feel. For example, the substitution of the words “spiritual” for “religious,” “life” for “God,” and “renew” for “convert” allows the author to reach out to a wider audience. The 2008 edition also has an extended introduction by the author that adds considerably to its value. Promise is a book well worth reading, both by Christians and open-minded seekers of other faiths.

David P. Bruce

The reviewer is a long-time member of the Theosophical Society, for which he currently serves full-time as director of education.


The Voice, The Word, The Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims
F. E. Peters
Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. 320 pages, hardcover, $29.95.

This new book by F. E. Peters, a professor at New York University, provides an extremely readable and entertaining introduction to contemporary scholarship on the origins of the Jewish scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur'an. Peters writes from a secular (and at times seemingly skeptical) viewpoint, which can be a change for those accustomed to approaching these texts from the perspective of religious faith or esotericism.

Peters traces the development of the Abrahamic scriptures from oral prophetic experience through the development of recited and then written texts, which are finally fixed in the forms in which we know them today.

According to Peters's schema, first there is a book in heaven. It is authoritative because it is written by God himself. At some point, God speaks the contents of the heavenly book to his prophet (for Israel, God gives a written copy to Moses as well) to be recited to his chosen people. This occurs in the preliterate or oral stage of the society, when communication and memory are solely or primarily through the spoken word. But as writing becomes more common, the revelation is committed to writing out of a fear (common to oral societies in transition) that the original oral version will be lost or become "inaccurate." Thus the recited scripture becomes the written scripture. The book is copied and finally printed, and both the Bible and the Qu'ran now circulate widely in societies where both the oral and the literary cultures still exist side by side. Yet the oral quality of the revelation never quite disappears; the book continues to be recited even though written copies are available.

The main thrust of Peters' work extends through the translation of the various scriptures into the classical tongues and into the (relative) fixing of the text through the development of printing. He also includes extended discussions of the performance of the text through pictorial art and recitation, chanting, and singing.

The Voice, The Word, The Books will hold great interest for a wide range of readers, including those personally formed by one of the Abrahamic traditions as well as interested observers of these religions as a result of their cultural and political importance. Moreover, Peters' careful investigation of the translation of revelation or spiritual experience into oral transmission and then into text is likely to engage any Theosophist, as we see a similar process in all spiritual traditions, ancient and modern.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement.


On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine
Rabbi Léah Novick
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest, 2008. 210 pages, paper, $17.95.

After spending decades as a powerful presence in Washington politics and then as a professor of public policy, Léah Novick found herself on the California coast over twenty-five years ago being summoned by the Divine Feminine. She recounts her epiphany in her recent book, On the Wings of Shekhinah: "A gigantic goddess was calling me. At first she spoke through sand and rocks, flowers and animals; later she spoke through visions and memories of earlier lives. Still later she spoke through the spirits of the ancestors and Judaism's forgotten women saints and miracle workers." Gradually she returned to the religion of her youth, but with a new understanding, which she refers to as "respiritualized Judaism." Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, ordained her as a rabbi in 1987.

Reb Léah's work focuses on the restoration of the Divine Feminine in Judaism, often known as the Shekhinah. To that end, she has expressed her vision in various media, including the written word, music, movement, and drama. At one point, she held meditation circles on the birthdays and death anniversaries (yahrzeits) of the many women Jewish scholars and mystics who have gone unrecognized for generations; she calls these women "the Messengers of the Shekhinah." I was fortunate to be able to study with Reb Léah a few years ago when I attended her workshop on Kabbalah. She impressed me not only as a scholar of the Jewish mystical tradition but also as a touchstone of knowledge and wisdom gleaned through hard-won realization and life experience. Moreover, coming as I do from an interfaith family and possessing a spirituality that defies easy categorization, I appreciated her understanding of and esteem for a wide range of religious traditions while maintaining her profound commitment to Judaism.

On the Wings of Shekhinah, her first book, highlights Reb Léah's scholarship and accessible writing style as she elucidates the complex story of the Shekhinah in Jewish thought and culture. Beginning with Genesis and through the Jewish people's history in Canaan, the Temple period, the Babylonian Exile, medieval times, and the beginnings of Kabbalah, she explores diverse and sometimes contradictory conceptions of the Divine Feminine. Of course, Judaism has never been a monolithic institution; it has always been composed of numerous factions that disagree, usually in a most vociferous manner. Jewish culture does not shy away from debate, but encourages it, whether at the dinner table or in the study hall. The larger tradition tolerates and even revels in a multiplicity of viewpoints.

The term "Shekhinah" does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, although versions of its root, shakhan, the Hebrew verb "to dwell," show up in the text. Over the centuries, the Shekhinah has most often been perceived as the "indwelling presence of the Holy One." Jewish mystics have also seen her as mourning at the wall of the destroyed Temple, as the cosmic soul of the world who connects all living things, as the faithful mother sustaining the Jews in the Diaspora, as the fierce protective mother who punishes the wicked, and as the glorious Sabbath Queen. Some biblical commentators have envisaged the Mishkan or Tabernacle, the portable residence of the Divine carried by the early Israelites as they wandered the desert, as the meeting place where the Shekhinah and her consort Yahweh reunite each evening in sacred marriage to renew and perpetuate the life force that animates the earth.

One of the book's great strengths is Reb Léah's retelling of well-known biblical stories from a perspective that encourages her readers to question and expand their view of these ancient tales. For example, in the chapter entitled "Encountering the Pagan Past," she reminds us that all four Jewish matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel—were originally from pagan cultures. She details episodes in Jewish history when goddesses such as Asherah were widely worshipped and notes that "thousands of Asherah figurines have been found in archeological digs all over Israel, covering an extended span of Israelite history." Reb Léah also draws attention to research in this generally obscure area, highlighting the contemporary feminist scholarship of Savina Teubal among others. Teubal argued convincingly that as a priestess of the Goddess, Sarah was sought out by neighboring kings to participate with them in the hieros gamos, a sexual fertility rite enacted in order to increase the land's fruitfulness.

While the Shekhinah as a goddess figure enlivens the spirituality of many contemporary women, not all Jewish women, even feminists, embrace this concept. A leading Jewish feminist theologian (and a former professor of mine) adamantly proclaimed to her students that the word "Goddess" should not be a part of the Judaic tradition, although the word "God" was acceptable. I found this to be an odd theological position, especially if the Holy One is seen to be beyond gender, which many Jews would agree is the case. This particular theologian didn't have a logical explanation for her stance; it seemed more of a visceral reaction than anything else. Does this position reflect a residual fear of the Goddess's power even today? Perhaps. As Reb Léah notes, "Judaism continues to resist its pagan roots. . . . Perhaps there will be a future time in which memory is no longer a threat."

I found Reb Léah's writing on Kabbalistic thought especially fascinating. One mystical community, the famous circle of Kabbalists in sixteenth-century Zefat, Israel, focused many of its spiritual endeavors on reconnecting with the Shekhinah. Headed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, this close-knit group would venture outside on the eve of the Sabbath, summoning the Shekhinah as Sabbath Queen and Bride to bless their celebration. One evocative song, still sung today on Friday nights, was penned by one of the Zefat mystics; L'Cha Dodi ("Come, My Beloved"), a heartfelt plea to the Shekhinah to grace the congregation with her presence. Those familiar with the classical Gnostic myths will recognize the remarkable similarities between the stories of Sophia in exile and the tales of the Shekhinah's separation and reunification with her people through their prayers and good deeds.

To round out the historical narrative, each chapter concludes with a simple yet powerful meditation that encourages the reader to actually experience the Divine Feminine. Reb Léah notes others ways, including dream and healing work, seasonal celebrations, love and sexuality, and life passage rituals, in which the Shekhinah may be accessible to us. Reb Léah's wise and intuitive guidance pervades The Wings of Shekhinah, offering its readers a palpable sense of personally studying with this extraordinary Jewish teacher.

Reb Léah relates that as a young girl she never heard of the Divine Feminine, even though she grew up in an observant household and had many years of Jewish education. This called to mind a conversation I had not long ago with my mother, a Jewish woman of Reb Léah's generation, in which we were discussing Jewish veneration of the Goddess during different historical periods. My mother exclaimed, "We were never taught that in Hebrew school!" She didn't sound incredulous but rather as if she had been cheated of essential knowledge that might have changed her life. Thanks to the life work of Reb Léah and many others, the Shekhinah has made her presence known in our time. May it be that the Shekhinah is never again exiled; may she be acknowledged as an essential part of Jewish spirituality and tradition far into the future.

Siobhán Houston

Siobhán Houston, Ed.D., is a scholar, writer, and editor living in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of Invoking Mary Magdalene: Accessing the Wisdom of the Divine Feminine (Sounds True, 2006) and Priests, Gnostics, Magicians (forthcoming from Apocryphile Press).


The Majesty of Your Loving: A Couple's Journey through Alzheimer's
Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Cambridge, Mass.: Green Mountain, 2008. 314 pages, paper, $16.95.

This beautiful yet practical book provides a spiritual dimension to a caregiver's problems in handling the ever-increasing challenge of Alzheimer's disease and other terminal situations.

Olivia and Harrison Hoblitzelle were both in midlife, active in teaching as well as faithful students and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. "Hob" held a Ph.D. in English literature and was a distinguished professor but (ironically, as it turned out) served in hospices as well. Olivia had been a teacher in the field of behavioral medicine and was (and is) a gifted writer and therapist. They had two grown children and several grandchildren and were world travelers at the onset of Hob's case of Alzheimer's.

Slowly and inexorably, Olivia is forced to watch her husband's mind deteriorate, but she decides to record not only his mental conditions but her own reactions of compassion, resentment, guilt, despair, and unfailing love. She finds comfort in turning to her family and friends, but in the end the most powerful source of strength comes from her years of spiritual training and the perspective and insights this yields.

In the meantime, Hob in his rare lucid moments attempts to describe objectively what it feels like to be transitioning from normal consciousness to another level of reality. It is almost as if he is taking psychiatric notes on the nature of Alzheimer's! The result is a deeply moving record of two heroic souls attempting to make a healing gift of love and compassion to all those many others who will come after them. This is Tibetan Buddhism put into practice: to offer up one's suffering for the benefit of others.

Each chapter is followed by practical solutions and "Seed Thoughts." A series of appendices include "Clear Light Meditation," "Caring for Loved Ones in Death," and "Topics for Discussion." There is also a helpful bibliography and Website source.

If you know anyone caring for someone facing certain death, this book could be the best gift ever. It glows with inner light and practical wisdom and surely will become a contemporary classic.

Alice O. Howell

The reviewer is an author and astrologer based in western Massachusetts. Her works include The Web in the Sea; The Dove in the Stone; and The Heavens Declare: Astrological Ages and the Evolution of Consciousness, all published by Quest Books.

 Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ
 Richard Dooling
New York: Harmony, 2008. 272 pages, hardcover, $22.

Having an avid interest in technology and its "spiritual" implications, I tend to follow anything that sounds a cautionary note regarding technological advances. For those with a similar taste, the field is currently dominated by the writings of Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy, who have highlighted to great effect both the promise and peril of our technological future(s).

The central point of Richard Dooling's Rapture for the Geeks is its concept of the Technological Singularity. This is an event which (unless you have read The Secret Doctrine) appears to have no precedent. The general view is that somewhere around 2045, technological progress will go off the scale exponentially. The Wikipedia Web site defines this "Singularity" as "a theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves using artificial intelligence." Essentially this means that we will evolve ourselves out of existence—largely by producing computers that are smarter than we are. Like Kurzweil, Joy, and others, Dooling seems nearly certain that this Singularity will take place.

When approaching Dooling's book, I expected it to be a timely update of earlier writings principally by Kurzweil. Unfortunately, although Dooling's book is written for a much more general audience (and is sprinkled with humor and bits of JavaScript, xml, and other bits of programming that serve to illustrate his points), for the most part he rehashes material from Kurzweil and others without adding much that is new in the way of current research.

Probably the most valuable part of the book is Dooling's advice for those who have no desire to become obsolete. He suggests a number of actions readers can take to become better equipped to handle the ever-quickening pace of technology. First and foremost is to learn some programming languages. For some (especially those who have mangled Sanskrit terms when reading Theosophical literature), the task may seem daunting, but Dooling makes programming seem doable by just about anyone.

From a Theosophical perspective, the most worrisome aspect about this discussion is that its assumptions proceed in the classic pattern for Western science: from the bottom up. We create conscious machines and we upload the contents of our brains into them, or we augment capabilities already present using technological means. Eastern philosophy, by contrast, holds that our existence is possible because of consciousness, and that evolution is a process which takes place in the realm of the spiritual, with effects manifesting in the physical realm. Current views of the Singularity seem to be urging us to make yet another attempt at forcing "evolution" from the bottom up. But what if Eastern modes of thought are correct about the nature of consciousness? What are the likely outcomes? What needs to take place in order to guide technological "progress" in a healthier direction?

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who wants to quickly understand the issues we are facing and doesn't mind having a good laugh along the way. (Beware of a little off-color humor.) For a more thoughtful exploration of the subject, however, I would strongly recommend three classics from Ray Kurzweil: The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity Is Near.

Joe Fulton

The reviewer is a Life Member of the Theosophical Society and past president of the Akron lodge. He is employed by a major software manufacturer, where he performs duties related to quality assurance, support, and innovation.


The Kingdom of Agarttha: A Journey into the Hollow Earth
Marquis Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre
translated by Jon E. Graham. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2008. 172 pages, paper, $14.95.

The Archeometer: Key to All the Religions and Sciences of Antiquity; Synthetic Reformation of All Contemporary Arts by the Marquis Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, translated by Ariel Godwin. Idyllwild, Calif.: Sacred Sciences Institute, 2008. xxxvi + 422 pages, hardcover, $300.

The Marquis (Joseph) Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre (1842–1909) was not the most peculiar figure to emerge out of the French occult revival of the late nineteenth century, but he was among the most influential, largely because he remains one of the first sources for the tantalizing myth of a mystical kingdom hidden away in Central Asia.

The early part of Saint-Yves' life was unremarkable. The son of a doctor, in the course of his education he saw a future role for himself as the Pythagoras of Christendom. If he didn't entirely live up to this grandiose ambition, he went some way toward it, as we shall see. As an adult, he was befriended by a number of prominent occultists, including a friend of Antoine Fabre d'Olivet, author of the occult classic The Hebraic Tongue Restored (from which Saint-Yves was later accused of plagiarizing), and the son of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist and mystical adept. After a marriage to a wealthy noblewoman, Saint-Yves lived in high style in Paris and Versailles, although his desire to be accepted by the gruelingly snobbish French nobility was never fulfilled: his title, purchased from the papacy, did not in their eyes make him a genuine marquis.

In the 1880s, Saint-Yves published a number of works addressed both to occultists and to the world at large, propounding an esoteric view of what was wrong with the world and what was needed to set it right. The most ambitious of these, La mission des juifs ("The Mission of the Jews"), a 900-page secret history of the world published in 1884, has never been translated into English.

The next year, Saint-Yves took up the study of Sanskrit with one Hardji Scharipf, an individual of unknown (probably Afghan) origins who also styled himself "the Teacher and Professor H. S. Bagwandass of the Great Agartthian School." Saint-Yves pressed his teacher for more information about this school and was given to understand that Agarttha (the name is supposedly Sanskrit for "inaccessible to violence") was a secret, subterranean kingdom that was still flourishing somewhere in Central Asia.

In 1886, Saint-Yves published a book, Mission de l'Inde ("Mission of India"), which revealed his findings about this hidden kingdom: "In Asia alone there are a half a billion people who are more or less aware of its existence and its greatness—not to mention America, whose subterranean regions belonged to Agarttha in very remote antiquity." Saint-Yves foresaw that "certain powers, in their competition with each other across the whole of Asia" (i.e., Britain and Russia) would stumble upon this kingdom, but if they attempted to invade it, "every conquering army, even if it consisted of a million men, would see a repetition of the thundering response of the Temple of Delphi to the countless hordes sent by the Persian satraps."

As even these short quotes suggest, Saint-Yves' language is thunderous and bombastic and is likely to ring hollow to the reader of today. In any case, Saint-Yves had a mission to proclaim. The message of Agarttha was embodied in its system of government and, indeed, in the philosophy upon which the whole nation was supposedly based: a doctrine that Saint-Yves called "Synarchy" and which he claimed was Europe's only hope in order to avoid annihilation. By Synarchy he meant a unified government, both sacred and secular, that would include a "Sovereign Pontiff" who would "respect all that exists, give it his blessing, unite it in the same spirit of tolerance, and gather together all the teaching bodies at last reunited, in one bundle of Light, Wisdom, and Authority." The idea of Synarchy would later influence Rudolf Steiner, who would call for a "threefold social order" encompassing economy, politics, and culture, as well as some quasi-fascistic movements in twentieth-century Europe that were far from Saint-Yves' original vision.

After publishing Mission de l'Inde, Saint-Yves thought better of the matter and immediately withdrew the book from publication. As Joscelyn Godwin points out in his extremely valuable introduction, this was largely due to humiliation at being unfavorably depicted in a roman à clef written by his former lover, an opera singer, that appeared at the same time. As a result, Mission de l'Inde reached the public only after Saint-Yves' death in 1909. The Kingdom of Agarttha is the first version to appear in English.

But the idea of Agarttha did not die with Saint-Yves. It resurfaced in the 1920s, when Ferdinand Ossendowski, a Pole who had served in the White army during the Russian Civil War, published a highly successful memoir entitled Beasts, Men, and Gods that recounted his escape through Central Asia after the Whites' defeat. Ossendowski said that during his travels he heard legends of a figure called "the Lord of the World," the secret head of humanity, who was headquartered in a mystical kingdom called Agartthi. Scoffers claimed that Ossendowski had stolen the idea from Saint-Yves, but others, including the celebrated esotericist René Guénon, took Ossendowski at his word. Guénon wrote a monograph called The Lord of the World which upheld the claims of both Saint-Yves and Ossendowski. (To download a complete text of Beasts, Men, and Gods, visit <>).

Of course Agarttha is not the only hidden kingdom said to exist in Central Asia. There are Russian tales of a mystical country called Byelovodye ("Land of the White Waters") in the Altai Mountains. But the most famous legend of this kind is the Tibetan Shambhala, which the Dalai Lama has described as "a pure land which, except for those whose karma and merit have ripened, cannot be immediately seen or visited." It's hard to avoid seeing some connection between the Agarttha of Saint-Yves and the Tibetan Shambhala. As Godwin notes, some, probably most, esotericists have identified the two.

There's more to this rich and haunting saga than I can describe in a review, but Godwin's deft introduction to The Kingdom of Agarttha gives a clear picture. Nevertheless, if you haven't read much about the subject, this book is not the best place to start. A better introduction is Godwin's own Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival, which is the most fascinating and far-reaching work to cover this topic, dealing not only with Saint-Yves and Agarttha but with various hollow earth theories and the weird Welteislehre ("world ice doctrine"), favored by the Nazis, which taught that originally the earth had been encased in ice.

Another teaching that Hardji Scharipf passed on to Saint-Yves was that of Vattan or Vattanian (sometimes spelled "Watan"; Saint-Yves also calls it "Adamic"), an otherwise unknown primordial tongue that shows some affinities with Senzar, a similarly mysterious language mentioned by H.P. Blavatsky. Saint-Yves recorded the Vattanian alphabet and claimed that it was the ancestor of both the Hebrew and the Sanskrit devanagari alphabets.

Saint-Yves deals with Vattan and similar subjects in another posthumous work, The Archeometer, which has also recently been translated into English for the first time. "Archeometer" sounds like the name for a device, and that is what it is. Dubbed by Saint-Yves as a "synthetic protractor of the higher studies," it is a colored wheel inscribed with a twelve-pointed star, inside of which are several other circles centering around a nine-pointed star. Supposedly integrating the symbols of the colors, planets, musical notes, and the letters of various alphabets (including Vattan), the Archeometer is "all at once the key to musician's sonometric scale, the painter's range of colors, and the architect's forms," according to Saint-Yves.

As a book, The Archeometer is vast, sprawling, and often incomprehensible, left unfinished by Saint-Yves at his death and imperfectly edited by a number of his pupils, including the French occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse). It not only describes the Archeometer as a tool but claims to trace the history of religion back to its roots. Unfortunately, as a synthesis of sacred science or indeed of anything, the Archeometer is disappointingly opaque. Godwin, whose son Ariel translated this text, sums up the situation thus: "I doubt that there is anyone today—even that there ever was anyone‑who shares the opinion of Saint-Yves: that the Archeometer is the result of the true, primordial wisdom of mankind...familiar to Moses and Jesus, but since preserved solely in the universities of the Brahmins, their very existence unsuspected to this day."

Despite these flaws, it's interesting at last to see The Archeometer, which, like many corners of the rich world of French occultism, has been hidden from the English-speaking world for so long. Nonetheless, this work is likely to be of interest chiefly to specialists and aficionados of the arcane (and, at $300 per copy, rich ones at that).

Finally, what of Saint-Yves' relations with Blavatsky? Despite the obvious resemblances, the two don't seem to have any real connection. In The Secret Doctrine (I, 471), Blavatsky labels Saint-Yves as a "French pseudo-Occultist," deriding his idea, expressed in La mission des juifs, that the Kali Yuga was a Golden Age and not, as most would have it, an age of darkness. Moreoever, in an early issue of the Theosophical journal Lucifer, an anonymous review (attributed to HPB) of a work by Papus contends that Saint-Yves is wrong in the degree of importance he attributes to the Jews in esoteric history (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, IX, 46). There is also the occasional contemptuous reference to Theosophy in The Archeometer. The upshot would seem to be that neither Blavatsky nor Saint-Yves owed much to the other and that neither one held the other in particularly high regard. But then the history of esotericism is rarely one of concord.

Richard Smoley

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