Book Reviews 2013

Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality 
Gary Lachman
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2012.
352 pages, paper, $16.95.

Is another biography of one of the most fascinating and storied individuals of the nineteenth century, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, really needed? Gary Lachman, the well-known writer on occult and esoteric topics, and the author of some dozen works including biographical studies of P.D. Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, and Carl Jung, suggests that there are two Madame Blavatskys that have already been subjected to close scrutiny. There is, of course, the Madame  Blavatsky of what Lachman terms the “encyclopedia” version: the Blavatsky derided and disparaged, accused of fraud and labeled a charlatan. According to Lachman, the evidence for all the derogatory accusations is “pretty questionable.” Then there is the pro-Blavatsky version, which at times borders on the uncritical and hagiographical. The third persona, whom Lachman says he discovered as he investigated her life and times, is a more exciting, surprising, and “real” character. It is the one that he believes deserves to be better known and hopes to reveal in the course of retelling her story.

In pursuit of this third persona, Lachman emphasizes the Russian traits that Blavatsky inevitably inherited—what the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev described as mystical and prophetic qualities or “devotion to spiritual truth,” combined with a “profoundly contradictory character.” To these, Lachman adds another: the acceptance of humiliation or what is known in the Sufi tradition as the “way of blame” (for an excellent description of this characteristic, see the recently  published Quest book, Yannis Toussulis’s Sufism and the Way of Blame).

Drawing on a number of already published biographies, Lachman opens his first chapter, titled “From Russia with Love,” with the indisputable facts of HPB’s parentage and early years, continuing the narrative in the second chapter, “Around the World in Eighty Ways.” As Lachman narrates the story, by the time of her marriage at the age of seventeen, HPB’s life begins to take on the quality of a large question mark: many small questions are interspersed with verifiable facts. Lachman, for the most part, refrains from answering any of the questions, many of which still haunt the serious investigator, but rather presents a fairly balanced account of the numerous answers that have been proposed. A relevant example concerns her relationship with the Italian-Hungarian opera singer Agardi Metrovitch, whom she first met in Constantinople on the first of her several journeys around the world. Metrovitch gave his name to HPB’s “ward,” the child Yuri or Youri, whose actual father may well have been the Estonian Baron Meyendorff, with the mother named as HPB’s sister-in-law, Nathalie Blavatsky. The story is a complicated one, and Lachman attempts to give equal credit to both the pro- and the anti- Blavatsky accounts.

In a similar manner, Lachman reviews the several versions of her first encounter—at least “in the flesh”—with her guru, the Master or Mahatma Morya, when she was in London. That meeting Lachman identifies as “perhaps the most important moment of her life.” Morya, along with other Masters (members of what is often referred to as the  Brotherhood of Adepts or Occult Fraternity), appears throughout Lachman’s account of all subsequent events in HPB’s life. In the final chapter of the book, entitled “The Masters Revealed?”, Lachman deals with the concept of “hidden masters.” He also analyzes in some detail the work of K. Paul Johnson, including his book, Initiates of Theosophical Masters and his article “Blavatsky and Her Teachers,” reprinted in Jay Kinney’s anthology, The Inner West. While also dealing with post-Blavatskian ideas concerning the Masters, Lachman accepts that for Blavatsky herself, these are “actual people . . . remarkable men, possessed of remarkable powers, with high aims and a noble mission, but men nonetheless,” and that she was in communication with them. 

Allied to the question of Blavatsky’s Masters is the vexed issue concerning the time she spent in Tibet, and Lachman
devotes chapter three (“Seven Years in Tibet?”) to an examination of possible answers. He is particularly  helpful in pulling together a record of those known to have attempted entry to the mysterious land. Some we know were successful in their effort (such as the French Abbé Huc and much later, the French Buddhist Alexandra David-Neel, whose life—according to Lachman—closely paralleled that of Blavatsky’s), while many were either turned back at the borders or perished in the attempt. More relevant, suggests Lachman, is what she did during whatever time she may have been in Tibet. Here Lachman proposes that HPB was instructed by the Masters in the “mysterious” language she termed “Senzar,” as well as engaging in the “even more difficult study: the development and control of her psychic powers.” However, Lachman’s conclusion regarding her claim of having been in Tibet is simply, â€œIn all honesty, I do not know.” So the reader is left to determine the truth or falsity of HPB’s own statements.

By chapter four (“A Haunting in Chittenden”), we are generally on verifiable ground. Lachman again cites a wide range of previously published biographies for his abbreviated survey of HPB’s life during the years following her arrival in the United States, her meeting with Henry Steel Olcott, and the establishment of the Theosophical Society (events covered in chapters four, five, and six).

As he is usually quite careful in identifying his sources for the various significant events, it would have been helpful if Lachman had clearly identified the source of what he calls the Society’s “‘mission’ statement,” generally called the Three Objects of the organization. In chapter six, “Unveiling Isis,” he gives one of the very early versions of the Objects, adding that the â€œstatement” still guides the branches of the Society today. Actually today, at least for the Adyar Society, the Objects that serve as guideposts have some important differences from the original versions. A minor point, perhaps, but worth noting to aid the reader unfamiliar with the Society.

It is in chapter six, however, that Lachman, discussing and summarizing the two volumes of Isis Unveiled, writes
at his very best, with an enthusiasm and  vitality that excites the reader. Here too he justifies calling HPB the “mother
of modern spirituality.” Emphasizing that “many of the themes and ideas that occupy a great deal of contemporary
‘alternative’ literature were first announced by Blavatsky,” Lachman proceeds to illustrate the claim that so much that has been called “new age” is really “rooted” in HPB’s first major work.

Lachman deals quite competently with all the subsequent events: the move to India; meeting the journalist A.P.
Sinnett; the production of numerous phenomena; the establishment of the headquarters of the Society at Adyar;
what is often referred to as the “Coulomb Affair,” followed by the famous (or infamous) Hodgson Report on behalf of
the Society for Psychical Research; and the departure of HPB from India, first to Europe and then eventually to settle
in London, where she would complete her second major work, The Secret Doctrine. Lachman, while admitting that as
with Isis UnveiledThe Secret Doctrine is not easily summarized, proceeds to give the reader an adequate and very
helpful précis of the two volumes, quoting in full what are known as the “three fundamental propositions.”

By the final chapter, one feels that Lachman has quite fallen in love with HPB, or at least has found her lovable, her life made up of “equal parts of history and mystery.” Her most creative periods, he contends, were the times when she produced her four major works, Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silence, and The Key to Theosophy, works that have never been out of print since they were first penned. They are still studied by individuals and groups today, providing instruction, inspiration, and, often, bewilderment, giving rise to ever deeper probing into the truths she sought to convey.

If one faults Lachman for anything, it may be for his all too frequent digressions, which sometimes confuse and tend to lead away from his central thesis. On the whole, however, Lachman has produced an excellent brief survey of the life and work of one of the most remarkable women of all time. For those unfamiliar with HPB, the book provides a quick introduction, while those already acquainted with her may find in the work a new perspective on her legacy to the contemporary arena of spiritual search.

Joy Mills

Joy Mills was president of the Theosophical Society in America from 1965 to 1974. Her most recent contribution to Quest was â€œEntangled Karma” in the Fall 2012 issue.

Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind
Margaret Placentra Johnston
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2012. x + 300 pages, paper, $17.95.


According to the author of Faith beyond Belief, much of traditional religion puts forth a message that is spiritually immature and lacking in nuance and sophistication. She supports this thesis by recounting her own struggle with traditional religious views, as well as by narrating the real life stories of ten people from diverse backgrounds who had similar struggles and ultimately decided to leave their places of worship.

The stories are both engaging and revealing. They include those of a young mother who was raised as a Mormon; a man who from Kenya who was raised Roman Catholic; a Midwestern woman who began questioning her Presbyterian church at the age of eight; an elderly man who began to question his Muslim faith after the events of 9/11; and a baby boomer who was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church. Although they left their religions behind, all these individuals felt that they continued to have a deep spiritual life in which truth and ethics play a pivotal part.

In most of these cases, the decision to leave one’s religion involved a prolonged and intense psychological battle—an inner tug of war between wanting the continued security of a community with shared beliefs and the ever-increasing doubts raised by the rational mind regarding rigid church doctrine. Those whose stories are told here found that their search for spiritual integrity was stifled and repressed by the narrow parameters of orthodox religious thinking. But it was not uncommon for these inner struggles to endure for years. One can appreciate the great courage and integrity that were required to make those decisions, especially in the face of impassioned pleas from family and members of the congregation to stay within the fold. In some cases, the price paid was complete rejection by family and former friends.

As compelling as these stories are, they serve to make the author’s larger point, which is that spirituality evolves through four stages of growth. The first stage includes those who are spiritually undeveloped. These are people who live their lives without any guiding principles and are motivated primarily by selfish and egocentric concerns. Some of them may even attend church, but only for superficial and ulterior motives. The second stage consists of those who are looking for definite answers and tend to read scripture in a literal fashion. They view their religion as the only “correct” one and place great value on the security and comfort that such attitudes bring them. They are not comfortable with ambiguity and prefer cut-and-dried moral directives. Third is the rational stage, in which science and reason play a great role. Individuals at this stage value truth and integrity and therefore cannot accept religious ideas that fly in the face of science. They are often skeptical and ask lots of questions. “Critical reflection,” the author notes, “is a necessary step in moving toward spiritual maturity.” She observes that for individuals to arrive at the rational level, their sense of self has to be stronger than their identity with a certain group, although this does not necessarily mean they are selfish.

The author characterizes the fourth stage of spiritual growth as the mystical stage. Here scripture is interpreted as metaphor and allegory. There is a comfort with ambiguity and mystery and “an ability to live in the questions.” Individuals at this level accept and value paradoxical statements as pointers to truth, while those at an earlier stage of spiritual development are made uneasy and insecure by such apparent contradictions. Mystics value unity over divisiveness, seeing not one group or another, but all as part of one.

While the author presents much evidence to support this theory of spiritual development, she takes pains to emphasize that we should not use this type of knowledge to judge people or categorize them. Also, the stages are not always cut-and-dried, and people often exhibit traits from more than one category. But the overall evidence is persuasive, and the theory is compatible with the Theosophical view of spiritual evolution. Research from a number of sources, as well as the author’s own ideas, are presented in a clear and nondogmatic fashion.

Just as the message put out by traditional religion is often immature, according to the author, so are the relentless attacks on organized religion by the new crop of atheists—people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Although they make some valid criticisms against religion, often in brilliant fashion, they are guilty of making an idol out of the rational mind, failing to understand that there may be other ways of perceiving the ultimate Reality.

Finally, it should be noted that this is not a book about bashing religion. The author stresses, “As a society, we do not want to leave our churches behind. Nor should we; they provide us with a rich cultural heritage and a particular sense of community not available elsewhere. They also serve as an integrating force for good and remind us to focus on issues beyond the material world.”

David Bruce

The reviewer is a longtime member of the Theosophical Society, for which he serves as national secretary.

Return to Redemption Ridge
George Eugene Belcher
West Palm Beach, Florida: National Transcom, 2012.
187 pages, paper, $18.99; Kindle e-book, $3.99.

We Theosophists are interested in helping humanity awaken to the universal truths The Secret Doctrine espouses. In this regard we should not underestimate the influence of movies and books of fiction. It is rare to find a novel that is accurate in presenting these principles of the ageless wisdom, but George Belcher’s new novel Return to Redemption Ridge fits this category well. The author gives us a good mystery and love story set on a two century-old farm. The main character is a skeptical journalist who comes to this (some say) haunted farm to interview an aging, reclusive but famous and wealthy businessman. There are apparitions, unusual happenings, and revelatory information on reincarnation, life after death, and the soul. This is an inspirational, intelligent novel in which one also learns about the import business, caring for horses, and how to visually identify the age of good wine. Belcher’s book is an imaginative and lovely addition to the genre of Theosophical education.

Judith Snow-Clewell

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

Medieval Literacy: A Compendium of Medieval Knowledge with the Guidance of C.S. Lewis
James Grote
Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 2011. 384 pages, paper, $34.95.

I didn’t think I would read this book, but I did. Citing Umberto Eco’s aphorism, â€œThere is nothing more wonderful
than a list,” it is basically a collection of lists of concepts and themes from the medieval West, which, whatever backwardness it may have suffered in other respects, came second to no other civilization in its capacity to categorize.

The book is inspired by, and draws heavily from, C.S. Lewis’s work The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. As James Grote points out in his introduction, Lewis regarded himself as a medieval thinker, and in an address at the University of Cambridge said, “I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours [the modern order] . . . Ladies and gentlemen, I read as a native texts that you must read as foreigners.” Grote, whose sympathies clearly lie in the same direction, uses Lewis’s work among others to give us an overview of medieval thought, ranging from mythology, cosmology, and psychology to logic, philosophy, and theology. While the work is overwhelmingly dedicated to Western Europe, it does contain some material on Eastern traditions as well, including Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

The format is well-suited to the subject. As Grote points out, “Medieval thought favored the condensed form of scholastic manuals. In this regard, Medieval Literacy provides an introduction to things medieval within a format that is definitely medieval.”

As Grote indicates, the medieval mind was above all else dedicated to harmony and orderliness in a way that we today find difficult to understand. To take one example, medieval cosmology was clear, orderly, and precise. Unlike the current scientific worldview, which depicts the universe as a sprawling, virtually limitless place in which humanity is only an insignificant speck, the Middle Ages portrayed the cosmos with the earth at the center (as Grote emphasizes, contrary to common belief the medievals knew perfectly well that the earth was spherical), surrounded by the spheres of the planets then known: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, surrounded in turn by the “fixed” celestial sphere, the primum mobile or the “crystalline” sphere, and beyond it the “empyrean” realm in which God and the heavenly hierarchies dwelt. This vision of the universe was most memorably portrayed in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

But the purpose of this work is more than to provide lists of such things as the nine celestial spheres, the seven liberal arts, Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs of the existence of God, or the four causes as delineated by the Middle Ages’ favorite philosopher, Aristotle. It is to remind us of what Grote describes as a view of nature in which “nature is neither divine nor eternal, but a product of divine activity. Like a sacrament, creation reveals and conceals God.” He contends—as Lewis did—that this worldview can serve as a counteragent to the lifeless, mechanical conception of the universe that we now have.

Medieval Literacy has its faults, as its author readily admits. It for the most part omits discussion of Anglo- Saxon and Norse epics as well as such late medieval authors as Boccaccio and Chaucer. It also fails to discuss medieval Jewish thought except in passing. “Hopefully,” the author writes, “a second edition of Medieval Literacy will be able to fill in all of these gaps.” It would also be good to have some information about the author himself, since the book bizarrely lacks any biographical note. Despite these omissions, Grote’s work remains a fascinating and accessible guide to an age whose literature, thought, and mentality are worth revisiting and perhaps reawakening.

Richard Smoley

Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science
Paul Eli Ivey
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
328 pp., paper, $25.

From its beginnings, Theosophy has always been associated with the scientific investigation of the cosmos. The Mahatma Letters specifically state that “modern science is [Theosophists’] best ally.” Paul Eli Ivey’s historical examination of the Temple of the People in Halcyon, California, in the first part of the twentieth century focuses on the relationship between spirituality and science. It also examines h ow a group of Theosophists chose to live in an intentional community based on Theosophical principles. Under the guidance of the Master Hilarion, as interpreted through Blue Star (Francia A. LaDue) and Red Star (William H. Dower), the Temple of the People developed a utopian community that embraced Theosophy as a way of life and was based on occult principles.

The first half of the book is organized chronologically, detailing the formation of the Temple movement. In 1895, a conflict between the TS leadership in America (under William Q. Judge) and the headquarters in Adyar (led by Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant) resulted in most of the American lodges breaking from Adyar and operating independently under the leadership of Judge and then Katherine Tingley. (The current American Section of the Adyar TS is descended from the lodges that remained loyal to Adyar or chose to reaffiliate later on.)

Initially the members of the Syracuse, New York, Lodge joined with the newly independent American lodges. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the members were moving away from this group (by then known as the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, today called the Theosophical Society in America [Pasadena]) and more towards an independent organization, the Temple movement. As part of this process, the members relocated from Syracuse to California, establishing the Temple of the People and the city of Halcyon.

The latter half of the book is more thematic. Focusing on the intersection of art, architecture, and music, these chapters document the way the community members applied Theosophical principles to their artistic endeavors. Yet throughout the whole book there is one reoccurring theme, and that is the way science, particularly medical science, was viewed as connected to spiritual science. Both were employed by the community at its central hospital, the Halcyon Hotel and Sanatorium, overseen by Dower, a licensed medical doctor. The residents of the Temple were convinced that science would demonstrate the Theosophical principles they understood to permeate the universe. As Ivey notes, “To Temple members, scientific investigations would prove the veracity of The Secret Doctrine.” As a result, radiation, X-rays, electricity, magnetism, and other “invisible” rays were seen as evidence of the powers of the universe beyond the senses.

This point was stressed when the sanatorium opened and Dower demonstrated his X-ray machines, which allowed attendees to look at the bones in their hands and arms. It was also the basis of a large number of therapies Dower instituted at the sanatorium. By the early 1920s, he was experimenting with a variety of “radiant rays,” from standard radiology to the electricitybased therapies developed by Dr. Albert Abrams. In each case Dower’s medical practice became the place where people combined rest, nature cures, scientific therapies, and occult principles in order to restore their health.

In terms of the history of Theosophical teachings and the emergence of a larger metaphysical spirituality in America, Ivey pays particular attention to how ideas from other traditions, particularly New Thought and, to a much lesser degree, Christian Science, also become integrated into the teachings of the Temple members. Ivey writes, “New Thought ideas of healing did have a place in Temple theology, and one pamphlet claimed that the Masters, through Helena Blavatsky, inaugurated both Theosophical and New Thought organizations.”

Of course all intentional communities have their troubles and conflicts. The Temple of the People was no different. Ivey documents the various challenges and internal struggles among members. Initially the community was organized along socialistic lines, but this plan did not work, and eventually opportunities for private ownership of land and proceeds were devised to keep the community functioning. Similarly, there were conflicts about leadership, messages from the Masters, and the overall direction of the community. In each case compromises were made, directions were changed, or, in some cases, individual members left the community.

The last chapter traces how a few of the children living in the community grew to become world-renowned scientists and engineers. George Russell Harrison taught at various schools, including Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won prestigious awards, and had numerous patents. Russell and Sigurd Varian developed early radar systems that were essential parts of the Allied defense in World War II. For all these figures, the Theosophical principles learned at the Temple were applied practically and became the basis of their successful engineering careers.

Radiance from Halcyon is an excellent historical account of one utopian community that applied practically the principles of Theosophy as they understood them. It gives rich details of both highs and lows in the utopian experiment, all without losing the human dimension that made the community so attractive and enduring. Anyone interested in the history of intentional communities, the history of Theosophy in America, or how one group of people interpreted and implemented Theosophical principles will find Ivey’s narrative both thought-provoking and instructive.

John L. Crow

John L. Crow is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Florida State University. Currently he is writing his dissertation, which focuses on how Theosophists lived Theosophy and understood the cosmos and its relationship to their bodies during the early twentieth century.


Handbook of the Theosophical Current
Edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein
Leiden: Brill, 2013. xii + 494 pages, hardcover, $234.

Many Theosophists may not know that they are part of a current. For that matter, they may not know what exactly a current is in this context. According to the scholars who focus on esotericism, the Theosophical current is not only the TS and its splinter groups, but the vast array of movements and figures that have been influenced by Theosophy. These include Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy; Alice Bailey and her school; the “I Am” movement of Guy and Edna Ballard and its offspring, Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant; the Agni Yoga of Nicholas and Helena Roerich; Edgar Cayce; and even some UFO cults.

Handbook of the Theosophical Current is a wide-ranging and impressive collection of articles on these topics. In their introduction, editors Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein contend, “The formation of the Theosophical Society . . . and the main events linked to the fate of this organization, its key figure Helena Blavatsky . . . and her immediate successors . . . belong to the short list of pivotal chapters in the religious history of the West.” They go on to describe Theosophy and its offshoots as “one of the modern world’s most important religious traditions.” Its concepts of spiritual evolution, subtle bodies, lost continents such as Atlantis and Lemuria, and karma and reincarnation have permeated “just about every nook and cranny of contemporary ‘folk’ religious culture.”

The book is divided into three sections. The first includes four articles that set out the history of Theosophical organizations, focusing on the TS (Adyar), from Blavatsky’s time to the present; one piece, by Tim Rudbøg, also discusses Katherine Tingley and the Point Loma school. The second section explores currents and people that have been influenced by Theosophy, including Anthroposophy, Agni Yoga, Cayce, and the New Age. The final section describes the impact of Theosophy on culture and society, including the women’s movement, abstract art, and popular fiction.

By and large the articles are of extremely high quality and compress a tremendous amount of information into a fairly short space. Two of the most impressive are in the third section. “Western Esoteric Traditions and Theosophy,” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, the late British scholar of esotericism, goes into some depth about the role of Hermetic and Kabbalistic influences in Blavatsky’s Theosophy, particularly before her departure for India in 1878. It also explores esoteric Christian themes in the Theosophy of the early twentieth century. “Mythological and Real Race Issues in Theosophy,” by Isaac Lubetsky, covers the vexed issue of racism in Blavatsky’s works. Lubetsky concludes that HPB’s thought certainly reflected some of the racism of her day: she characterized “Redskins, Eskimos, Papuans, Australians [i.e., aborigines], Polynesians, etc.” as remnants of a previous Root Race that were doomed to die out. But Lubetsky is also careful to say that even so, Theosophy was “if at all, only indirectly a source for the more virulent racial ideologies of the first half of the twentieth century.”

As is inevitable, essays in a collection are bound to be uneven. Probably the weakest article here is “The Theosophical Christology of Alice Bailey,” which, in my view, overstates the similarity between Bailey’s conception of the Christ and that of mainstream Christianity. But the level of scholarship is very high overall. It is a pity that the book’s gargantuan price ($234) puts it beyond the reach of all but the richest and most avid students.

W. Michael Ashcraft’s piece, “The Third Generation of Theosophy and Beyond,” is hard to fault, but for many Theosophists it will make somewhat dismal reading. For Ashcraft, the third generation of Theosophy consists of those figures who succeeded Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater after their deaths in the early 1930s. Pointing to a decades-long decline in membership in all the Theosophical organizations, Ashcraft writes, “If the organizational forms of the movement are to play important roles in the spiritual developments of the twenty-first century, then at present those roles are not clear, and many observers will remain skeptical that the movement can have the deep and profound impact on Western thinking about spiritual matters that it had from the late nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.” It is up to the current generation of Theosophists to prove otherwise.

Richard Smoley


The Origins of the World’s Mythologies
E.J. Michael Witzel
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 665 + xx pages, paper, $45.

Why do so many creation myths sound so much alike? Why can myths about a flood that nearly destroyed all of humanity be found worldwide? And why do we find motifs of an end of the world in equally farflung places?

There are two basic theories that try to account for these similarities. One is the archetypal, which argues that these universal myths point to a common structure within the human mind. The other is the diffusionist view, which claims that these resemblances point to a common source of myth in the historical past.

E.J. Michael Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, argues on behalf of the diffusionist view in this enormously learned and important volume. Comparing and contrasting the lore of cultures worldwide, he paints a picture of the history of myth that reaches back as far as 100,000 years.

Witzel claims that certain universal mythic elements may actually go back to the earliest stages of humanity, when the whole species still lived in Africa. He calls this strain the “Pan-Gaean” mythos (he uses the geological names of prehistoric continents to characterize these different strata). The next oldest is that of “Gondwana,” a mythos that can be found today chiefly in sub- Saharan Africa and Australia. The myths of the rest of the world—not only Europe and Asia but the Americas and even Polynesia—are “Laurasian.” They share one central feature: unlike the earlier strains, they all present a continuous and more or less similar narrative, beginning with the origins of the cosmos and the gods, extending to the birth of humanity and its different ages and finally to the end of time, whether this is portrayed as the Nordic Götterdämerung (“twilight of the gods”) or as the Last Judgment of Christianity. Indeed, for Witzel, the creation narratives and eschatology of the Bible are only comparatively recent manifestations of the Laurasian mythos (which, he suggests, arose, probably in southwestern Asia, between 40,000 and 20,000 bc).

Why have these myths lasted for so long? According to Witzel, one reason is that, quite simply, they are good stories. Another is that the Laurasian mythos in particular recapitulates the human lifespan on a universal scale: like us, it is saying, the cosmos is born, grows to maturity, and eventually withers and dies.

Even taken as a whole (and the reasons I have just cited do not give the complete picture), Witzel’s explanations for the persistence of myth are not entirely satisfying. The flood story— weirdly—goes back to the Pan-Gaean mythos, which, he says, is over 65,000 years old. Why should it—along with other myths that are almost as durable— have retained its fascination for so long? Whatever facts it may point to are in the remote and unattainable past. Witzel replies in part that, as others have argued, the human brain may be “hardwired” for myth and religion. This may well be the case, but it cuts against his criticisms of the archetypal view, which, after all, is also saying that myth is hardwired into the brain.

Witzel hits a wall in another way as well. He has no trouble fitting the Judeo-Christian mythos into his Laurasian scheme—but then what about the current scientific worldview, complete with its Big Bang, its gestation of the stars, and its picture of a universe that eventually collapses in upon itself? Isn’t this just the Laurasian mythos recast yet again, this time by the scientific temperament?

Witzel does not go this far, and one suspects that he simply cannot. But if this is true of the scientific mythos, then we have to grant that any picture that we form of the cosmos may be simply a picture of ourselves writ large. The human being, the esoteric traditions say, is the microcosm of the universe. Is this really so, or are we simply foredoomed by the structures of our minds to see it that way?

Richard Smoley

Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History
Richard Smoley
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2013. 230 pp., paper, $12.95.

In the opening chapter of Supernatural, a collection of essays written by Quest editor Richard Smoley over the fifteen years between 1997 and 2012, he recalls a sensation he experienced as a child when listening to his parents and party guests occasionally discuss topics related to the paranormal—such as “Atlantis, UFOs, Edgar Cayce, and other matters that were of great interest to my father.”

That sensation was a vast expansion of his sense of scale, in which he was no longer in a living room but rather “surrounded by a vast and limitless space that was both awe-inspiring and somewhat terrifying.”

Smoley’s late father would no doubt be proud of the erudition and critical acumen his son brings to writing on the “unknown history” of Western esoteric spiritual teachings.

In sixteen pithy chapters, written in a popular, accessible style, Smoley’s Supernatural succeeds in not only creating but vitally informing the reader’s own sense of “limitless space” that inevitably accompanies the act of questioning received doctrines and ideologies.

In this book, he touches principally on topics concerning the efficacy of prophecy and changes in the ages (e.g., Nostradamus, the Kali Yuga, 2012), the influence of esoteric traditions on civilization (the myth of Atlantis, the significance of Freemasonry, the influence of “hidden masters”), and the relationship between consciousness and its creations, including questions regarding the reality of demons and the effects of what best-selling author Larry Dossey called “toxic prayer.”

Smoley likes to lay out what is known or can be known about his topics, put that knowledge in historical, personal, and cultural perspective, separate the grain from the chaff in a process of critical deconstruction of claims and attributions, and then see what remains that may be of value, what lessons we may learn, what morals may be drawn.

In general, Smoley does an excellent job of sketching the outline of his topic or profiling the personalities he describes.

His essay “Masonic Civilization,” for example, is probably one of the best short overviews of the origins and development of the Masonic tradition anyone has written in recent years, both linking it to the development of liberal democracies and describing it as a system of spiritual development.

Likewise, his profile of the French Traditionalist René Guénon and his critique of the “reign of quantity” in modern civilization is a wonderful introduction to a philosopher who refused to accept that one’s value equates to one’s economic worth, and is a highly appropriate contribution in the wake of the economic apocalypse the U.S. and the world experienced in 2008.

There are times, though, when Smoley seems to miss a larger world of discourse that is relevant to his topic, and neglects to mention its implications and significance.

In “Secrets of The Da Vinci Code,” for example, Smoley eloquently skewers some of author Dan Brown’s assertions to the effect that the Bible was collated by the “pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” and that Mary Magdalene was descended from the “House of Benjamin.”

He also reminds readers who did not see the news years ago in the now-defunct magazine Gnosis (which Smoley edited) that the contemporary “Priory of Sion,” which features prominently in Brown’s novel, was a post–World War II French right-wing political organization cloaking itself in the longstanding myths concerning a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and persons who claimed to be their descendants.

Smoley’s culminating discussion of the significance of the theme of Mary Magdalene as a harbinger of a resurgent Divine Feminine ends on the bittersweet note that an appreciation of the Divine Feminine may in time “bear fruit in an age of healing, beauty, and wisdom” despite all evidence to the contrary.

It was remarkable, though, that Smoley did not describe or reflect the extraordinarily rich diversity of discussion the Magdalene has inspired in recent years among feminist theologians who aim to use her to reform Christianity itself, and other writers (notably Riane Eisler) who point to the popularity of the idea of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as a harbinger of a new model of partnership in sexual relationships, rather than the dominance of one gender over another.

Surely those examples of the esoteric moving into the mainstream deserved more attention and reflection.

Throughout Supernatural, Smoley applies generous doses of common sense to topics and teachings that have long been made confusing by unprofessional popular writers, or distorted by cult leaders for personal gain. Given that we are now on the very uncertain “other side” of 2012, such an approach to the esoteric tradition is a welcome guide to navigating the deep and rising waters in which we all find ourselves on this beautiful blue planet.

Ed Conroy

Ed Conroy is the author of Report on “Communion” (Morrow, 1989; Avon, 1990), an investigation of the UFO -related narrative Communion: A True Story by Whitley Strieber. He serves as director of development for the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas


Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
Bart D. Ehrman

San Francisco: Harper One, 2012. 361 pp., hardcover, $26.99. 

We live in an age of suspicion. Verities that were once universally accepted are now seen as dubious. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than with the issue of the historical Jesus. Gospel truth is no longer seen as true; more and more things about the founder of Christianity seem to come into question all the time. It’s not surprising that, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out in his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?, many now believe that Jesus was a mythical creation.

As Ehrman shows, the impulse to question Jesus’s historical existence arose during the late eighteenth century, when certain scholars argued that he was yet another manifestation of the type of a dying and resurrecting god also personified in pagan deities such as Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris. More recently, similar views have gained currency in the film Zeitgeist, popular on the Internet, and in Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s 1999 book The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God?

As a result, Ehrman says he has been asked over and over again whether Jesus actually lived as a human being. These initially came as a surprise to him: after thirty years as a New Testament scholar, he had come to doubt many things about Jesus, but not his existence. Nevertheless, he discovered a wealth of literature making this argument. He quotes Earl Doherty, one of today’s leading proponents of this “mythicist” position, who defines it as follows: “the theory that no historical Jesus worthy of the name existed, that Christianity began with a belief in a spiritual, mythical figure, that the Gospels are essentially allegory and fiction, and that no single identifiable person lay at the root of the Galilean preaching tradition.”

Ehrman replies that this view is held by practically no reputable scholars in this field. In fact they almost universally agree that “Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.” He spends the rest of his book showing why.

Ehrman rapidly dismisses some of the most popular mythicist accounts, such as Freke and Gandy’s Jesus Mysteries, on the grounds that their “factual errors abound at an embarrassing rate.” He gives a partial list of errors in The Jesus Mysteries on pages 28–30; one of the most familiar is the claim that the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. “No, he did not,” Ehrman replies. “He made it a legal religion. It was not made the state religion until the end of the fourth century under Theodosius.”

Ehrman devotes most of his book to demolishing claims by better-informed authors, including Earl Doherty, Robert Price, and George A. Wells, who generally manage to avoid elementary mistakes. He devotes individual chapters to examining non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus, to the Gospels as historical sources, and to evidence for Jesus’s existence outside the Gospels.

One of the most interesting parts of the book has to do with the claims about dying and rising gods in antiquity, which mythicists argue were the prototypes for the Jesus story. Citing work by scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith of the University of Chicago, Ehrman points out that evidence for these dying and resurrected gods in antiquity is skimpy or nonexistent: none of these gods both died and was resurrected. To take the most familiar example, the Egyptian god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, and reassembled by his sister and wife Isis. “The key point to stress, however,” Ehrman writes, “is that Osiris does not—decidedly does not—return to life. Instead he becomes the powerful ruler of the dead in the underworld.”

Ehrman also shows that there are several independent sources for Jesus’s existence in the New Testament itself. While the four Gospels do not always agree, this very fact indicates that there are multiple accounts of Jesus’s life: they are not a single fictional creation. The earliest writings in the New Testament, the epistles of Paul, also attest to Jesus’s physical existence. In many passages (e.g., Gal. 4:4), Paul emphasizes that Jesus lived as a human being and had a human mother. Moreover, Paul says that he personally knows the disciples as well as Jesus’s brother James.

Overall Ehrman’s attempt to prove that there was such a figure as the historical Jesus is successful. And yet in a sense his book is dissatisfying and disingenuous. Among the core data about Jesus is the assertion that he rose from the dead and was seen by many people afterward. This was a central claim of the “Jesus movement” from the outset; it is as well attested as the less controversial facts that he lived and was crucified. Ehrman admits as much, but he does not quite know what to do with it. If this is a myth (and he suggests that it is not), then all the other supposedly historical details about Jesus may well be myths also. If it is not a myth, what did the disciples see and what did it mean? Was it all just a mass hallucination? Ehrman does not say.

At the beginning of Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman says that his next book will be about “how Jesus became God.” In that work he will have to deal with the evidence for the resurrection and its implications. It’s unfortunate that we will have to wait for the next installment to find out what he thinks.

Richard Smoley

Transformational Lessons from Oz
Jean Houston
New York: Atria, 2012. xx + 204 pp., hardcover, $24.

If you are like most people, the first time you watched the film version of The Wizard of Oz, you probably just enjoyed it for its entertainment value. You most likely never noticed the rich universal archetypes or benefitted from the movie’s profound lessons about personal growth.

In The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons from Oz, American scholar, author, and philosopher Jean Houston exposes the deeper story hidden within L. Frank Baum’s classic Oz fairy tale. Readers gain appreciation of Dorothy’s experiences as Houston relates them to steps in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This is a universal pattern found in hundreds of key stories from around the world, in which a protagonist grows toward psychological wholeness by way of a series of events that follow a common theme.

In Houston’s interpretation, Dorothy’s old life back in Kansas is not working for her very well; she needs to move on. The tornado that sends her to Oz serves as her call to adventure and places her into the world of the unknown, where she is faced with numerous challenges on her road of trials. One by one, she surmounts each ordeal, many of them imposed by her shadow figure—the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy is helped by another archetypal figure, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North—a benign protector and Dorothy’s entelechy, or her own essence realized to the fullest extent.

Houston claims that we in our culture are living in “twister times.” The old ways of doing things are no longer working. To correct this we must each embark on our own Hero’s Journey. By challenging ourselves to grow into our fullest potential, we can form the building blocks of a transformed society. (At risk of offending real-life Kansans, Houston calls this the need to move beyond the Kansas of our lives, which she describes as a gray, bleak, dreary, outmoded wasteland.) She weaves back and forth between comparing the Oz story with the Hero’s Journey and offering exercises to help readers recognize their own “Kansas” and inspire them along their own journey. The overall theme of The Wizard of Us is progress beyond outmoded forms of existence toward the fulfillment found in a deeper story, in new ways of thinking, and in efforts to cocreate a better world.

Dorothy’s three traveling companions serve as examples of growth. Each feels he is missing some crucial human element, only to learn he had it all the time—revealing that the very quality we may think we lack may actually be what Houston calls our “most potent potential.”

The Scarecrow joins the trek in search of a brain. But along the way he exercises what brain he has to solve various problems, all the while building new mental circuitry and getting smarter all the time. Houston weaves this in with discussions about neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, and contemplative neuroscience. She provides exercises to help readers increase fluidity of mind and deepen access to intuitive wisdom, which she considers important for working toward a more sustainable society.

The Tin Man is invited along in search of a heart. Along with exercises to help readers find balance between heart and mind, Houston includes several touching stories of “Social Artistry”— people accessing their highest potential by opening their hearts to the needs of others.

The Cowardly Lion—in search of courage—displays his mettle in several particularly audacious acts while trying to save Dorothy from the Wicked Witch. Houston compares this to our present day challenge to find the courage to be who we really are and to do what we came here to do.

In the end, Dorothy’s ultimate boon—the purpose of her quest—is realized. All she wanted was to go home to Kansas. But no longer will her Kansas be as gray and bleak, for she returns as a master of the two worlds, bringing with her the greening power of the depth realm she learned about in Oz.

Whether the Oz analogy works perfectly for everyone or not, this book is a wonderful tool for propelling ourselves beyond the Kansas of our lives, through a Hero’s Journey along our own yellow brick roads, and toward an expanded life where our personal gifts play a crucial role in creating a transformed society— the Emerald City for which we all yearn.

Unless you have perfect visual recall, try to see the movie again just before reading this book. As Houston’s exercises rely heavily on visualization skills, ready mental access to imagery from the movie will come in handy.

Margaret Placentra Johnston

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


The Power of the New Spirituality: How to Live a Life of Compassion and Personal Fulfillment
William Bloom
Wheaton: Quest, 2012. 258 pp., paper, $16.95.

While some of us may not have noticed, over recent decades a new model of spirituality has been creeping steadily into our culture. From amid the vast array of over-easy, and highly suspect, New Age concepts, something real and authentic has emerged. Easily surpassing the teachings of organized religions in scope and depth, the new spirituality is the New Age all grown up. In The Power of the New Spirituality: How to Live a Life of Compassion and Personal Fulfillment, William Bloom, one of Britain’s leading mind-body-spirit teachers, distills what this new spirituality consists of, lists its implications for society, and teaches us how to participate.

Written in the form of a self-help manual, complete with exercises, the book describes how this new spirituality is arising out of spectacularly different circumstances from the cultural milieus in which our traditional religions were formed. With most of us in the Western world adequately fed and housed, we should be ready to move beyond mere security needs—the comfort, protection, and rules that earlier religions sought to supply—toward a spirituality based on “higher”-level issues such as universal love and the role personal fulfillment plays in meeting that end. With the perspective gleaned from spiritual teachings all over the world, we can now see what the various forms of spirituality have in common, regardless of cultural circumstance. But lest we fall subject to what Bloom calls spiritual materialism—self-help concepts promising simply to make people feel better—or be accused of promoting a spirituality with no values, we must see how the new spirituality not only includes the core values of all the world religions, but goes beyond them in several important ways. Examples include the green movement, the findings of developmental psychology, and a sense of personal responsibility for the vibrations we radiate into the universe.

Bloom describes three golden keys to the new spirituality.

1. Connection assumes the existence of a benevolent cosmos with which we might wish to connect. The new spirituality involves appreciating that each person will have his own best means of connection, his own style, and intensity of connection at which he is most comfortable.

2. Reflection is an honest attempt to get acquainted with ourselves as we really are. It helps us move from fear to love and enables us to step away from our monkey minds—which tend to make up stories to fill in knowledge gaps—toward a tolerance of ambiguity. It also helps us overcome resistance to growth and detach from desires and expectations.

3. Service involves working to release into freedom that which is trapped, becoming humble, truthful, and transparent about our psychological and spiritual challenges, and caring for the natural world. A very important aspect is the idea of vibrational service. If we recognize that we live in a vast field of energy, we must accept the ethical imperative to radiate a positive presence in the world wherever possible.

I was 100 percent in agreement with Bloom all the way up until the final chapter, where two concepts bothered me. In the first place, Bloom suggests breathing negative energy into ourselves: “Inhale some of this suffering and negativity . . . [It] is breathed into your heart and stomach regions, and held there . . . [until you] imagine this negative energy transforming into something benevolent.” While I can appreciate the generosity in the idea of “absorbing” negative vibrations from others in distress, as a long-time Reiki practitioner I don’t believe it is necessary to direct the energy we wish to get rid of to any particular place. Breathing it into ourselves sounds like a good way to invite cancer or some other illness. As long as we are choosing our own visualization exercises, why not just visualize the negativity dissipating into nothing?

In the second place, despite my best efforts to understand it, I still stumble over the spiritual practice of assuming personal responsibility for evils one did not directly cause. Bloom uses the example of a Dr. I.H. Len, an educational psychologist who is often called in to help solve a problem at a school. Before starting out, Dr. Len will consider ways in which he is somehow both connected to and responsible for the problem, and will start with “The Ho’oponopono Prayer of Apology,” taken from the Polynesian shamanic tradition:

This is my responsibility.
I am sorry.
Forgive me.
Everything is love.
Thank you.

Though I am a huge fan of personal responsibility, and generally like the idea of unconditional responsibility, I just don’t appreciate the value in apologizing and asking forgiveness for a problem one did not cause in a literal sense.

Despite these two minor points, I enthusiastically applaud Bloom’s efforts to help us realize that all our traditional religions contain common wisdom and recognize the need for, and the presence of, a new spirituality that takes us beyond the limitations of these religions. Moreover, as he stresses, we must learn to distinguish this more vigorous new spirituality from overly easy and largely counterfeit New Age promises. The Power of the New Spirituality admirably meets all these ends.

Margaret Placentra Johnston

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


The Hidden Geometry of Flowers: Living Rhythms, Form, and Number
Keith Crichlow
Edinburgh: Floris, 2011. 446 pp., paper, $50.

Keith Critchlow is one of the world’s foremost experts on sacred geometry. His name has been familiar to me since the early ’70s, when my former husband discovered his book Order in Space, propelling him into an enduring fascination with the mystical side of geometry. I, however, am geometryshy, despite having a maths teacher as a father, who despaired at my lack of ability. But in the spiritual traditions I was drawn to, particularly the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and astrology, I discovered that you can’t go far with without confronting your inner geometrical demons. The structures involved and their significance demand at least a basic engagement with the concepts of spheres, solids, and divisions of space. Moreover, using the part of the brain that deals with pure geometrical shapes can propel one into a state of lucidity. To get there, one has to move beyond both the normal “thinking mind” and the film screen of imagination.

So the title of this book instantly intrigued me. For Critchlow, “what is evident in the geometry of the face of a flower can remind us of the geometry that underlies all existence. Studying the geometry of flowers is therefore a powerful way to reconnect us with the idea that we are all one.”

At over 400 pages, this is a long work, but it is full of superb illustrations, providing instant appeal. Most are in color, but a wonderful exception is a sequence of grainy black-and-white photos, showing how a moon daisy progresses from bud to fully formed flower. Critchlow ties it into his theme by encouraging us to see the emerging geometrical forms in the flower: spiral, cone, and hemisphere.

Although the volume is lavishly illustrated, it is also a book of substance as far as the writing is concerned. The author gives us a veritable compendium of flower studies, including fruit and leaves, structuring it around the philosophical and geometrical concepts he wishes to convey. Flowers, he says, can be understood at four different levels: the material, the social and psychological, the cultural and mythological, and at the highest level, the inspirational. This theme is developed through the book, along with the geometrical idea of a flower expanding during growth from point to line, to plane, and to solid. Critchlow manages to convey the implicit geometry of natural forms as ideas that we can grasp without special knowledge or training, and which may continue to influence us as we observe and experience the world of nature.

This is an achievement of the highest order. The book is an important  resource, and will remain on my bookshelf as something to read and dip into over the years to come. My only concern is that Critchlow throws in so many citations from philosophy and mythology to explain the basis for his explorations. In the mix are Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Vedas, chakras, Buddhism, Christian symbolism, Goethe’s theories, and Anthroposophical and Kabbalistic schemas. It is a kind of glorious compost heap for growing the flowers, but it’s the plants themselves that are most important here! I think that the reader will either know the basis of the perennial philosophy and have his or her own references to underpin the text, or, if new to these ideas, will struggle to digest them. However, I also consider this to be a book which will “grow” on the reader— to extend the flower analogy—and it is full of memorable quotes, which the mathematically challenged reader (like me), or the newcomer to the perennial philosophy, can hold on to while waiting for full understanding to emerge. Try this one, for instance: “Life takes time to possess space in spiral form.”

Critchlow cuts to the chase in part three, “The Geometry of Flowers,” explaining the principles of geometry as they relate to flowers and to life itself. He highlights the fundamental importance of symmetry, the principle of right- and left-handedness, both in terms of balance in the human body and of the growth of flowers, which frequently develop into a fivefold arrangement, echoing the Golden Proportion. The range of five-based flowers is vast, from the humble herb Robert or Robert’s geranium (Critchlow’s personal favorite) to fruit blossoms, poppies, and of course the rose. He systematically goes through all the different arrangements of flower geometry, from the rare single flower, such as the arum lily, to the prolific twenty-oneness of the daisy. Clues to their significance are given, for instance, that four is “the number of worldly order” and six embodies the idea of “perfection,” but quite rightly, I think, readers are encouraged to come at interpretation by studying the forms and flowers themselves. For those who delight in the analysis of the mathematical constructs, there is plenty more material included in his explanations to chew over in the following section, “The Flowers of Geometry.”

Above all, Critchlow encourages us to marvel at flowers: “These delicate, mysterious, vulnerable, beautiful life forms (even the most modest of then) can be used as a metaphor for our overall need to satiate our wonderment.” This is the joy of the experience he invites us to cultivate, and which he conveys so well in this remarkable book.

Cherry Gilchrist












Book Reviews 1988

Living The Therapeutic Touch: Healing as a Lifestyle, by Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N.; Dodd, Mead, and Corn puny, New York, 1987; hardcover, 201 pages.

Book Reviews 2006

Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, By Frank Visser. Foreward by Ken Wilber. Albany, Press, 2003, Paperback, 330 pages.

Among the numerous epithets applied to Ken Wilber are: "spiritual and philosophical genius," "the most comprehensive and passionate philosopher of our times," "the pundit of transpersonal psychology," "the Einstein of consciousness research." In Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, Frank Visser offers the first full-length study of the profound and wide-ranging work of this highly lauded scholar/practitioner of the wisdom traditions, which in printed form alone consists at present of nineteen books and many articles. Visser characterizes Wilber as an author who works in seven disciplines: as a theorist, synthesist, critic, polemicist, pundit (spiritual intellectual), guide, and mystic. Wilber's expertise bridges East and West as he investigates and integrates, among others, such domains as philosophy, religion/spirituality, psychology, sociology, science, culture, and art.

Visser rightly sees the great chain of being-evolution proceeding from and through matter, body, mind, soul, spirit (with refinements and elaborations of this basic pattern)-as central to Wilber's analysis of the human unfolding, both collective and individual. And although he does treat Wilber's contributions in term of integrating the various strands of human experience and knowledge, he fails to sufficiently highlight the uniqueness and vital significance of Wilber's broad and thoroughly integral model, as well as Wilber’s insistence that only integral studies is adequate to the richness and complexity of human experience. Wilber works with the principle (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that no one is bright enough to be wrong all the time, and therefore he attempts to find that which is authentic and of value even in views that may seem outlandish. It is this approach that enables him to establish harmony between religion and science in his The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion.

Foundational to Wilber's integral approach is the quad, rant labeled AQAL, which stands for "all quadrant, all levels, all lines, all states, all types." The four blocks in the quadrant are: Upper Left (Individual Interior, Mind, Intentional, etc.), Upper Right (Individual Exterior, Brain, Behavior, etc.), Lower Left (Collective Interior, Culture, Art, etc.), and Lower Right (Collective Exterior, Social, Government, etc.). Wilber argues that any integral and therefore adequate account of the human situation must honor each of the quadrants, ignoring or minimizing none. The "levels, lines, states, and types" represent developments within the Upper Left quadrant, Wilber's area of special interest and expertise (see, for example, his Integral Psychology, Therapy).Wilber believes that psychospiritual maturation (Upper Left) has positive manifestations in the other quadrants even as it is open to their influence.

A single example of Wilber's many clarifying and synthesizing principles is what he calls the pre/trans fallacy, mistaking that which is prepersonal for that which is transpersonal, and vice versa. According to Wilber, Freud fell victim to this fallacy by equating mystical experience {transpersonal ) with regressive oceanic feelings (prepersonal). Similarly, “Jung occasionally end[s] up glorifying certain infantile mythic forms of thought[;] he also frequently gives a repressive treatment of Spirit." A trenchant criticism of the New Age movement can also be leveled using the pre/trans fallacy, Wilber contends that many New Agers equate "spirituality with magical thinking, mythological fables, and [exhibit} a narcissistic concern with … [their] own spiritual well-being."

Wilber's scholarly output, undeniably vast and profound, has been crucially informed by his many years as a regular meditator. Wilber claims, rightly, that the insights and levels of realization of which he writes are available only to those who undertake the arduous discipline of neutralizing and transcending those inevitable factors in the mind that keep one bound to suffering and discord, namely and briefly, greed, hatred, and delusion (to use a Buddhist summary). He writes: "The whole thrust of my work is to make spiritual practice legitimate, to give it an academic grounding so people will think twice before they dismiss meditation as some sort of narcissistic withdrawal or oceanic regression,"

Visser has rendered invaluable service to anyone wanting a careful and comprehensive overview and analysis of Ken Wilber's massive output, His is itself a scholarly presentation, represented not only by the quality of the text but also by the many charts and diagrams, by the complete bibliography of Wilber's publications, and by the extensive notes and index.


January/February 2006

What Is Self? A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness, By Bernadette Roberts. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2005, Paperback, 208 pages.

What Is Self? A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness by the Catholic contemplative Bernadette Roberts is profound and helpful, although not the easiest introduction to her work. Those who are not familiar with Roberts might turn first to her earlier books, The Experience of No-Self, and The Path to No-Self. What Is Self? includes less immediately personal narrative and more of the philosophical underpinnings of Roberts's understanding of the spiritual journey.

Roberts endeavors to express interior movements at the outer limits of what we know as human experience, The subject matter inevitably results in a difficult text, one that demands slow reading and much pondering. Many readers might want to begin in part: 3, where Roberts summarizes her own journey, This narrative provides a handhold as the reader wrestles with the more abstract earlier chapters,

The author is known for her teaching that the dissolution of the personal ego, and the following discovery of unity with the divine center, is not the end of journey, Rather, the unitive state leads us into the marketplace" where the true self in union with the divine is fully exercised until there is no more to do, no more to give. Then the self (identified as consciousness itself) falls away, and with it all self-experience, including the experience of the divine. She points again and again to the fact that our experiences of the divine are our experiences, which may be caused by but are not themselves the divine, "Thus the deepest unconscious true self IS the experience of the divine, or the divine in experience. This experience, however, is NOT the divine. What falls away, then, in the no-self experience, is not the divine, but the unconscious true self that all along we thought was the divine!"

What lies beyond the no-self event is expressed in koanlike language, which threatens to stop the brain in its tracks. Roberts hints at many deep mysteries, including a profound understanding of the true nature of matter, form, and the physical body, which will probably be of interest to theosophically inclined readers.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with Roberts's Catholic theological commitments and may quibble with her interpretations of Hinduism, Buddhism) and Jung. (These issues are carefully addressed in the forewords by Jeff Shore and Ric Williams,) Nonetheless, her writing is infused with a powerful honesty, and one has the sense that she is trying not to fit into any preconceived mold but to express the insights she has gleaned from her journey as clearly as she can. Even if our journey has been different from Roberts's, we can only bow before such an offering.


January/February 2006

The Yoga of Time Travel: How the Mind Can Defeat Time, By Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2004, Paperback, 258 pages.

The term "time travel" conjures up all kinds of tantalizing images: elaborate contraptions that can whisk intrepid adventurers from era to era before you can say "H. G. Wells”; direct encounters with historical figures; and the handy ability to correct past mistakes, avert future disasters, and ascertain the numbers of next week's lotto drawing. These scenarios appear often in science fiction and Wishful thinking, but time travel also plays a role in mystical traditions such as yoga (knowledge of past and future events, certainly a type of time travel, is among the powers that a yogic master may develop, according to Patanjali). Also, in the wake of twentieth-century advances in theoretical physics, it figures in some scientific thinking as well.

In The Yoga of Time Travel: How the Mind Can Defeat Time, National Book Award recipient Fred Alan Wolf examines time travel from both a scientific and a spiritual perspective, demonstrating that while we probably shouldn't expect front-row seats for the Gettysburg address any time soon) certain forms of time travel may well be within our reach.

As you might suspect, this is mind-boggling stuff, Wolf, who appears in the recent film What the Bleep Do We Know!?, kindly prepares the way for readers like me whose knowledge of physics would barely fill a thimble, He explores the strangely malleable quality of time and its integral connection to space, matter, and mind, He also points to striking parallels between physics and some of the world's spiritual traditions, including the Australian aborigines' concept of dreamtime and Krishna's teachings in the Bhagavad Gita.

Wolf writes that there are two types of time travel: the ordinary and the extraordinary. Ordinary time travel falls within the domain of theoretical physics and involves such intriguing phenomena as black holes, wormholes (like a cosmic subway tunnel, a wormhole is a type of black hole that could theoretically enable travelers to traverse vast spans of space and time almost instantaneously), quantum computers (computers that function as if they exist in an infinite number of parallel worlds), and the "sphere of many radii," a giant, probably impossible-to-build device of incredible mass that, when hooked up to a quantum computer, could perhaps propel the minds of time voyagers forward or backward through time. Of course, the knowledge and technology to achieve this kind of time travel, if it's possible at all, is many years and a plethora of paradoxes away. However, Wolf tells us that extraordinary time travel, where science and mysticism converge, not only is possible but happens all the time.

From the standpoint of physics, Wolf writes, this form of time touring involves the "squaring" or modulation of possibility waves (for some scientists, these are imaginary constructs; for others, including Wolf, real waves, capable of moving forward or backwards in time, that arise out of the "infinitely dimensional" subspace realm, from which consciousness and matter also emerge); the complementary principle (the idea that we gain and lose knowledge of something as our observations of it change); parallel universes (which Wolf contends may resolve many of the paradoxes besetting "ordinary" time travel); and the discombobulating notion of a fundamentally timeless universe in which the past is being created in the present, and the present and future are somehow creating each other.

From a mystical perspective, however, things may be a bit less complicated. According to Wolf, this form of time travel (subjective, internal time, rather than objective, clock/calendar time) can be seen as bringing to light and overcoming habits of thought through relinquishing the ego.

Wolf writes that mind yoga helps practitioners to shift possibility waves-essentially, to change their ego-based ideas about themselves and the world. According to Wolf, when we focus on an object, a person, or an aspect of ourselves (much the same, he says, as entering into a pose in yoga), our impressions of it gradually become habits of thought and its range of possibilities diminishes. However, when we let go of our habitual viewpoints and expectations, such as during the act of forgiveness, its possibilities increase concomitantly, and in a sense we "reverse time" by returning to an earlier, more receptive mind-set. Wolf believes that this process of focusing and defocusing is also what gives us our objective sense of time. Additionally, Wolf writes that, following Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, we may, at times, actually change the past by changing our present perceptions, and that the act of letting go may even enable us to enter parallel universes, though he admits that we probably wouldn't know it if we did.

This book is teeming with ideas. I've read it twice and feel as if I've just scratched the surface. It's a great introduction to theoretical physics, it points the way, at every turn, to new ways of thinking, and it resonates with a deeply spiritual impulse.

"Give up your ego," Wolf suggests, "enter the sacred timeless realm, and forgive. Such is the path to true freedom."


January/February 2006

Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2005. Hardcover, 2 volumes, xxix + 1,228 pages.

Wouter J. Hanegraaff, the editor of the provocative two volume Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Has compiled "a great range of historical currents and personalities that have flourished in Western culture and society over a period of roughly two millennia, from Late Antiquity to the present." His aim was not simply to produce a comprehensive reference work of superior quality-no small feat in itself-but to challenge "certain ingrained assumptions about the history of Western religion and culture," which have long been held by members of academia. Due to these "ingrained ideological biases," the field of Gnosis and Western esotericism has been largely ignored by scholars until quite recently.

The dictionary contains 344 entries by 149 contributors from seventeen countries on four continents. Most entries run for more than a page in length, allowing for in-depth coverage. An alphabetical listing collectively identifies all the contributors. Each entry is followed by a bibliography and its contributor's name. The writing is of consistently high quality throughout. Volume 2 includes one comprehensive index for persons and another for organizations. The editors supply numerous cross-references embedded within the articles. By following these cues, the reader gains a greater appreciation for the many crosscurrents of esoteric thought in Western culture. "Rather than a repetitive series of variations on the same essential 'truths,' the reader will find here a dazzling variety of ideas and practices, reflective of ever-changing historical contexts and testifying to the remarkable creativity of the religious imagination."

The panorama of historical personages spans the spectrum from martyrs (Giordano Bruno) to poets (William Blake), from occultists (Eliphas Levi) to alchemists (Paracelsus), from psychics (Edgar Cayce) to scientists (Isaac Newton). A number of Theosophical luminaries are given generous coverage (Besant, three pages: Blavatsky, eight pages; Olcott, two pages; Leadbeater, two pages). The fair and balanced portrayals accorded them should satisfy Theosophists of all stripes. The Theosophical Society itself receives a well-crafted eight-page entry by James Santucci of California State University. Santucci docs not gloss over the various crises in the Society's history, but presents them even-handedly. "Strong personalities and disagreements over teachings invariably lead to schisms and splits within organizations, large and small, The TS is no exception ... of Charles Leadbeater, Brenda French (University of Sydney) says, "Leadbeater's influence on 201h century occultism has been immense." Michael Gomes (Emily Sellon Memorial Library, N.Y.) describes Henry Olcott's Old Diary Leaves as "his greatest contribution to the field of esoteric literature" and points out Olcott's role as "an Important witness for the existence of the Mahatmas."

The ten-page entry for imagination contains several noteworthy passages such as this:

In a mystical and esoteric context the imagination has been believed to give access to levels of reality deeper than those that can be experienced by the senses, and thus to function as a do, main of mediation between different ontological planes. As such it enables man to transcend the material world and gain access to the divine. In other words, the imagination could become a bridge between microcosm and macrocosm.

And this interesting excerpt from the seven-page entry for mnemonics:

In the Middle Ages techniques of memory were closely linked to the techniques of meditation that were used to develop a particular "force of thought." This force was used to build structures in the mind-temples, tabernacles, palaces, gardens, trees, stairways- which could then be used to design a spiritual itinerary. Each stopping place along this itinerary represented an advance in knowledge and a step forward in a gradual moral transforma tion which would culminate in the mystical experience of a union with God.

In summary, the Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism should prove to be of great value to both lay students and professional researchers with a mutual interest in Western culture's contributions to the philosophia occulta. According to the editor, "This Dictionary hopes to contribute to the current academic emancipation of Gnosis and Western Esotericism as a comprehensive domain of research." This reviewer concurs. Let the emancipation begin!


January/February 2006

The Way of Story: The Craft and Soul of Writing. By Cathrine Ann Jones. Ojai, CA: Prasana Press, 2004. Paperback, 195 pages.

The Way of Story: The Craft and Soul of Writing By Cathrine Ann Jones will appeal to anyone interested in an intuitive approach to effective writing by drawing from personal experience. The book also teaches writers how to share one's inner journey with others through the medium of story. Jones, a successful New York playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, inspires the reader to write what one feels passionately about and also gives guidance to develop the solid skills necessary for successful story writing. This balanced approach to the writing process can have a healing influence on the writer, as well as on a fractured society in need of spiritual connection.

To reveal the essential elements of what creates a memorable story, the author delves into the inner workings of the art of storytelling. At its best, writing, and the writer as shaman, act as a bridge between spirit and earth. From this perspective, it is seen that the work must begin within, in knowing one's self, and being able to feel at the heart level. In order to serve the soul, feeling and emotion, rather than knowledge, must be the raw material to work With. One must begin with a passion for what one writes, then, use the craft to contain it in a story to be shared with others, People read stories or go to movies in order to feel something. Having an emotional identification with what one writes can only help the reader make an emotional connection with the story and its characters, and through that, to their own humanity.

Practical advice and techniques on the craft of writing are organized in chapters on topics of re-writing, character development, dialogue, and scenes, Examples are given from the author's own work to illustrate the points made and writing exercises at the end of each chapter reinforce the material presented.

Jones also leads "The Way of Story" experiential workshops, one of which I was fortunate to attend. I was impressed by her ability to individually work with participants, bringing them to their next stage of development, regardless of whether they were interested novices or seasoned professionals. This was accomplished through guiding the participants to arrive at their own insights through exercises and reflective work, rather than feeding them information. The Way of Story: The Craft and Soul of Writing is a valuable presentation of the author's understanding that truly transformational work begins from within, through experience absorbed through the heart and not the head.


January/February 2006

Signs of the Times: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of World Events. By Ray Grasse. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2002. Paperback, 297pages.

As Dane Rudhyar writes in his Occult Preparation for a New Age, "When doors are open between two deeply different realms of existence and consciousness, attempts to explain what comes in and what goes out of the door are nearly always confused, for the explanation has to be formulated in terms of the culture which has developed on our side of the door." As Ray Grasse adds in Signs of the Times: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of World Events, "If one hopes to uncover the 'signs of the times' one must sometimes look in seemingly unlikely places."

Thus each major writer who analyzes the transition from the Piscean period to the Age of Aquarius does so by looking at what he feels are the key signs of transition but also in terms of the ideas and discipline with which he is most at home. C. G. Jung's important analysis Aion stresses psychological archetypes and the role of symbols. Sri Aurobindo, although he had withdrawn from active anti-colonial politics, saw in political events such as the rise of Hitler and the independence of India the signs of the passing of one age and the start of the next. Marilyn Ferguson, active in mind/brain studies, stresses shifts in consciousness in her well-known book The Aquarian Conspiracy. While drawing to an extent on all these earlier writers, Ray Grasse, trained in film making and analysis, highlights popular culture, especially films, as a reflection of the fading of Piscean values and the progressive flowing of the Aquarian age.

Grasse quotes the poet Ezra Pound, who once remarked that artists are the antennae of a society. Thus, by studying the recurring themes already surfacing throughout popular culture, we can discern the broad trends that are forming deep in the collective unconscious and will continue to take shape in the millennia to come.

Among those who analyze history within the framework of Great Ages, there is widespread agreement, as Grasse notes, that humanity is "leaving the Piscean Age and about to enter the Aquarian Age. Like vast tectonic plates shifting deep within the collective unconscious, this epochal transition has already begun manifesting as a series of historic changes in our world, as the symbols of an older order make way for those of a radically new one, and our attention is transfixed by a different set of issues and values." The Piscean period, which we can date from plus or minus year one of the common era to the year 2000, is the only Great Age for which we have real, worldwide historical records. For the two earlier ages-Aries (2000 BCE to 1 CE) and Taurus (4000 BCE to 2000 BCE) ---we have archeological evidence and some art from a few regions. On the basis of this very limited evidence, all sorts of theories such as those on the role of the Egyptian pyramids or the Sphinx-not to mention visitors from space-have been made, yet there is no common agreement on them. Thus, to be on solid ground, we must base Great Age analysis on the study of the most recent two thousand years. We see the start of the Piscean period in the Mediterranean area - to be expected from a sign represented by two fish-·a nearly closed sea around which flowered major societies: classic and Hellenistic Greece and Rome, followed by Spain, Portugal, France, and England-all became politically great powers with worldwide cultural influences. The Piscean period is marked by two religious cultural systems: Christianity-the birth of Jesus is often used as the major symbolic start of the Piscean period and the second Piscean faith, Islam.

Thus, to advance the hypothesis of a Piscean-to-Aquarian progression, we should look for a shift away from the Mediterranean-influenced civilization and for signs of a fading of both Christianity and Islam. The shift in symbols for the age would also indicate a geographic shift in power and influence from the Piscean fish (the sea) to Aquarius -a person pouring water, indicating land in need of irrigation or water conservation. We can look for signs of a shift toward states or combinations of states with large plains in need of water management for prosperity. Such a hypothesis would indicate at least four states with large plains that would take the lead in the transition to a new era: the United States, Russia, China, India, and perhaps Brazil. There is less agreement by the general consensus on the fading of Christianity and Islam given the emotional attachment that some have toward the religions and the energy with which some spread the faiths. Yet as Ray Grasse notes, "The Aquarian Age will probably sweep away many of the emotional and religious trappings that characterized Piscean-Age consciousness and replace them with a more sober and clear-eyed approach to reality." He goes on to describe the shift from the Piscean climate that has been largely pleasure-denying in character even to the extent of fostering guilt over experiences of pleasure toward self-realization, happiness, and freedom. The Aquarian Age ushers in a more self-affirming philosophy and a greater emphasis on personal empowerment.

Yet as we analyze the ending of the Age of Aries at the time of the birth of Jesus, we see that there was suffering. Every transition between two Great Ages results in suffering, and the suffering is greatest when fear, a clinging to the past, or an exuberant eagerness to race ahead introduces tensions, inner conflicts, and false expectations. For a new age to emerge, there must be courageous servants of the cyclic purpose. All deep and radical transformations require an illumined mind and an all-encompassing heart.

Ray Grasse's book and his useful bibliography make an important contribution to the study of this period of transition. If the dawning of the Age of Aquarius is to mean more to us than a line from a popular song, it will require more efforts along the lines of Ray Grasse's serious and even approach.


March/April 2006

The End of Karma: 40 Days to Perfect Peace, Tranquility, and Joy. By Dharma Singh Khalsa. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2005, Paperback, 248pages.

In The End of Karma: 40 Days to Perfect Peace, Tranquility, and Joy, Tucson anesthesiologist: Dharma Singh Khalsa writes that karma is not what many people think it is. Khalsa tells us that karma is a very real cosmic mechanism and the root of most human difficulties, but, contrary to popular opinion, it's not really about paying off debts from past lifetimes. Instead, he says, it's more about our actions and their consequences in this life.

Khalsa, a Sikh, says he has gone from putting people to sleep to trying to wake them up and "heal their body, mind, and soul." He declares that it doesn't take countless lifetimes to eradicate karma. It will dissolve, he contends, almost instantly when we get in touch with a reservoir of divine energy that exists inside everyone. Khalsa, who is also the president/medical director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation International and an expert in the treatment and prevention of memory loss, affirms that simply meditating on this book will open the floodgates to extraordinary power.

The book revolves around a collection of forty poems written by Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, (Sikhism appeared in India in the sixteenth century and is a mixture of devotional Hinduism and Sufism, teaching that God is the only reality.) Each poem is accompanied by Khalsa's brief but penetrating reflections. The book also contains many simple affirmations, visualizations, and meditative exercises.

Nanak's pithy hymns embody the same rhapsodic, devotional tone manifested by Rumi and other mystic poets, They expound on the power and vastness of the Creator and the benefits of awakening to divine presence. Khalsa contends that Nanak's verses alone have the ability to transform our lives.

"These words," he writes, "have magical power, and reading and contemplating them will deliver you to your soul and the God within yourself."

Nanak's songs of praise certainly help center attention on transcendental ideas, but it is Khalsa's lucid, insight-inducing commentary that will likely forge the strongest link to the heart.

This book could easily be read in an afternoon, but Khalsa suggests a much slower pace, taking as many as forty days per chapter. He recommends the best time to read and meditate is at dawn.

"The world is still and quiet early in the morning," he writes, "and the static of life has yet to interfere with your ability to touch your soul."

Khalsa notes that the ego, the human tendency to feel isolated from the wholeness of life, is a significant stumbling block to self-realization.

"The limitless soul is restricted by ego," he says, "and its outlook becomes narrow. You then can't see reality clearly because a barrier is created between you and God."

Khalsa explains that the product of this limited vision is karma, the revolving door of self-serving and often self-defeating behavior we frequently get stuck in that also creates a form of reincarnation in this life. He writes, "You wander from one error or misdeed to another. The result is that you have to be reborn and perhaps reborn again-not necessarily in another life, but in this one until you get on the right track."

Opening up to our deeper nature-a process that Khalsa refers to as dharma---produces an intuitive knowledge that will help guide us out of dysfunctional ruts.

"Dharma eats up karma," he states, "simply because dharma is a higher plane of existence. It's spiritual living in action,"

This book is a journey to the spiritual heart of Sikhism (there's little mention of some of the more legalistic elements of the faith involving matters of attire, grooming, and personal accoutrements), and its universal tone and non-dogmatic approach will likely resonate with a wide range of spiritual searchers.

Khalsa is the ideal spiritual mentor. He is earnest, optimistic, and supportive, but never preachy. He encourages us to let go of our underlying assumptions about reality, especially the concept of sin, telling us that enlightenment is open to all.

“It doesn't matter if you're successful, or if you're a criminal, a drug addict, or the lowest of the low in your mind. You're ready to become exalted."

Interestingly, Khalsa asserts that good actions alone don't hasten spiritual growth. In fact, he states, too much emphasis on behavior can actually hinder development.

"The consideration of actions, whether thought to be good or bad, fails to bring you much closer to your depth, because it keeps you attached or focused on the outer-centered world rather than on your inner-most soul."

The End of Karma: 40 Days to Perfect Peace, Tranquility, and Joy is full of fresh perspectives and beautiful thoughts. It urges us to be in the world but not of it, taking us deep inside ourselves where Khalsa says we have everything we need to be happy.

"It's your true mission in life," he counsels, "to let your spirit shine and your soul glow."


March/April 2006

A Rebirth of Christianity, By Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 2005, Paperback, xiii + 267 pages.

Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who died in 1970-seven years before the initial publication of A Rebirth of Christianity would be pleased to note the prescient nature of his book's title. Since then there has been a dramatic increase in biblical scholarship delving into the allegorical and mystical aspects of Christian scriptures with such texts as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene.

"The modern world is only now beginning to recognize a fact that is bound to have profound effects upon Christianity: the fact that the ancient and revered scriptures of antiquity are not history, but rather spiritual truth dramatized and illustrated by some history," Kuhn writes. The early church fathers -Clement, Origen, Augustine-were well acquainted with the allegorical mode of writing, but that Christianity soon took a crucial "misdirection" when biblical exegesis became burdened by "the shackles of a literal and historical dogmatism."

This loss of the ability to "interpret the divine allegories committed the succeeding ages to a mental darkness" that has had profound consequences. Kuhn suggests that Christianity may now be on the verge of a reawakening, pointing to the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Second Vatican Council's legitimizing of allegorical interpretation. "The task now confronting modern intelligence is to throw off the blinders of a shallow realism that have obscured mystical vision and to awaken the long-stifled faculties of insight into noumenal verities."

An accomplished student of Egyptian hieroglyphics, Kuhn identifies themes from the Gospels, which can be traced back to the literature of Palestine, Persia, or Egypt. Many of the rites and symbols of the Christianity can be found in earlier religions. Under modern scholarship, of which Kuhn cites numerous examples, "the edifice of historical interpretation is fast crumbling." But if the Christian can no longer read the Bible as pure history, what is left? "What is lost as history will come back with immeasurable gain as spiritual allegory," he assures us.

Whether the esoteric approach to Christianity will ultimately gain wider acceptance within the Christian world or remain the province of a few Gnostic scholars remains to be seen. Many are wedded to the literal approach. Lest we become overly optimistic, the words of the Roman Emperor Julian bear repeating: "There is no wild beast like an angry theologian."


March/April 2006

Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe, By Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004, Hardcover, 363 pages.

When a Nobel laureate and a well-known theoretical physicist write a book together, you expect something a little above average. Lederman and Hill's Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe is well above average with insights that I have not seen before. For Theosophists who are encouraged to "study religion, philosophy, and science," this book covers all three in various degrees.

With an introduction to symmetry, we learn about how music introduces this art form. The authors begin with Johann Sebastian Bach and then move to Pachelbel's Canon in D. While pondering this unique approach, we are introduced to the Greek scholar, Eratosthenes. This leads to Kepler to Galilee to Newton to Einstein. This panoramic sweep covers just the first twenty pages! (For Theosophists-Giordano Bruno is presented in the chapter on Inertia with a historical explanation of how pieces of nature's puzzle were being explored and put together.)

This book also has one of the best discussions of Emmy Noether I have ever read. She is regarded as one of the greatest female mathematicians of all times. Some mathematicians have her at the top of their list. However outside of such a circle, chances are most people have never heard of her. The discussion of her contributions makes this book worthy of being purchased.

Even though the underlying theme of the book is symmetry, there are study chapters and homework exercises on relativity, reflections, and broken symmetry. I was quite impressed with the ability of the authors to explain the difficult topic of quantum mechanics at the level they did. It was done in a very coherent fashion, but quite accurate and left little to be documented. The short chapter on the hidden symmetry of light was also well done. Here we meet the famous Feynman diagrams.

There are numerous short pithy and sometimes funny comments in this book that make a careful reading worthwhile. Even better are some of the illustrations. One of my favorites is the hand of an alien species with two thumbs. This hand is neither a right nor a left hand. It is also a great illustration of symmetry and can be found on page 169.

While I highly recommend this book, there are problems with readability. As a student, I never cared for text that included the math steps simply as part of the lines of the text. This book does, and as a close reading is necessary to comprehend the material, it complicates the understanding in my opinion.

Finally, the chapter on quarks and leptons brings the reader up to date and suggests a major revolution in the future. The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator, is scheduled to go online in 2007. This will help answer a number of questions raised in the book.


March/April 2006

Meditation: A Complete Audio Guide, By Eknath Easwaran, Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2004, 2 CDs + 16 page booklet.

Eknath Easwaran's Meditation: A Complete Audio Guide, a course given some years ago at Easwaran's Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, reveals the late teacher's personal warmth and good humor. He was a charming storyteller who knew how to slip in profound teaching with a bit of laughter.

Easwaran's basic method of meditation involves careful, repeated concentration on a memorized passage from the scriptures of the world's religions or other inspirational literature. In this course, he uses a prayer from St. Francis of Assisi as an example. The method combines one-pointed concentration with a use of sacred texts similar to lectio divina in the Christian monastic tradition.

In addition to this meditative practice, Easwaran also discusses the other seven points of his famous eight-point program: repetition of a mantram (chosen according to one's religion or personal inclination), slowing down, one-pointed attention (not just in meditation, but in all of life), training the senses (learning to let go of our likes and dislikes in order to respond more helpfully to the world around us), putting others first, regular reading in the literature of world mysticism, and finding spiritual companionship with like-minded others. As Easwaran points out, these are very simple disciplines (although perhaps difficult to implement!) that can prove transformative to persons of any--or no--spiritual tradition. One of the strengths of this presentation is Easwaran's focus on very practical considerations (e.g., the need to get up early in order to have time to do one's meditation) rather than metaphysical speculation.

Today, we live in an increasingly hectic world. We multitask our way through the day, continually assaulted by different forms of media offering us a bewildering array of consumer choices. We know the value of slowing down, doing one thing at a time, and caring for others, but most of us need reminders from time to time. Even if one uses another method of meditation, there is much in Easwaran's presentation that will apply to any spiritual practitioner. I hope that: Nilgiri Press will offer more CDs of talks by this wonderful teacher, who truly provided "education for living."


March/April 2006

The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. By David Leeming. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Hardback, 469 pages.

If you are looking for the one best reference book on mythology for a personal, lodge, school, or public library, The Oxford Companion is it. Informed by good scholarship and a judicious approach, this volume is not merely a dictionary of mythic names, but also a thumbnail introduction to the entire discipline of mythology. Within it , you will find accounts of individual figures from out of myth (e.g., Wotan, Persephone, Kali ), as well as articles on the mythology of geographical areas and spiritual traditions (e.g., Africa n mythology, Islamic mythology), major mythological themes (e.g., Afterlife, Creation), and eminent mythologists (e.g., C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and others).

Narratives from the Judeo-Christian tradition , (e.g., Adam and Eve, the Ascension of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles ) are called "myths" and presented in the same way, and with the same fullness, as those of other religions. Leeming patiently explains that this is not to disparage them or any other myth, for what may be history to a person of one faith may be myth to those of another creed, and in a work like this all must be on an equal footing. For many users, the copious inclusion of western religious material will only enhance the value of the work.

As a good encyclopedia should, this volume simply gives basic information- a lot of it-in an authoritative voice without getting into academic arguments. Some scholars may quibble about a few particular points, but for the average reader this book will be state of the art, and should be so received. The volume includes an appendix containing family trees and cross-cultural equivalences for selected pantheons, as well as a bibliography and an index.


May/June 2006

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. By Rebecca Goldstein. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Hardcover, 296 pages.

Kurt Godel is generally considered to be the pre-eminent mathematician/logician of the past century, a man whose intellectual prowess and influence is often compared to Einstein's. Godel's major theorems produced or transformed several branches of modern mathematical logic: model theory, recursion theory, set theory, proof theory, and intuitionist logic. His work has exerted a marked effect on computer science and the philosophy of consciousness, by suggesting that there are limits to what computers are capable of, and that the human mind is quite a bit more than just a computer. His incompleteness theorems were a serious blow to attempts to prove the fundamental soundness of formalized mathematical systems (systems that are entirely self-validating, depending on nothing outside of their internal rules to prove the inconsistency).

Godel's groundbreaking work resulted in the disquieting notion that within mathematical systems that are consistent, there will be propositions that can not be proven true or false. Godel further showed that proof of a mathematical system's consistency can never be ascertained by appealing to the rules of the system alone, and that, consequently, mathematical systems are not simply man-made constructs, but contain truths that are "independent of any human activities."

Godel was also a very strange man. Always intensely private, Godel, by the time of his 1978 death in Princeton, New Jersey, had disintegrated into a paranoid, anorexic recluse (his death was essentially caused by self-starvation stemming from his fears of being poisoned ), who had alienated himself from just about everyone , including Princeton's intellectual elite.

A new book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, by novelist and philosophy professor Rebecca Goldstein, is a compelling discussion of the man and his ideas. Goldstein's technical analysis of Godel's incompleteness theorems takes up about a third of the book; it is both thorough and illustrative, but it is not light reading. However, the book's biographical dimension, and Goldstein's musings on the ramifications of Godel's ideas are eminently accessible and fascinating.

Goldstein briefly touches on Godel's precocious childhood, but her focus is primarily on his adult life: Godel's connection to Wittgenstein's famous Vienna Circle (Godel, the ardent but covert Platonist, regularly attended their meetings, never revealing the metaphysical inclinations that clashed so profoundly with their radically empirical positivism); his relationship with Einstein, perhaps the deepest friendship of his life (Einstein said that, in his later years, he went to his Princeton office only "for the privilege of walking home with Godel; his global treks in search of an intellectual haven; and his gradual descent into madness.

Goldstein was a graduate student at Princeton during Godel's final years, and she sprinkles her text with memorable anecdotes: her wonder-struck pilgrimage to Godel's house (to her astonishment, a plastic pink flamingo adorned the icon's front lawn); a Godel "sighting" in a grocery store that touched off an excited discussion amongst academics about the contents of his cart; and a party, during which a daring graduate student called Godel's house, hanging up in a panic when Godel's wife called "Kurtsy" to the phone.

Goldstein tells us that, like many of Einstein's ideas, Godel's theories have been frequently misconstrued, and she postulates that both men were drawn together primarily by their shared sense of frustration.

Goldstein writes that Einstein's work has been generally seen as opening the door to a purely subjective universe that changes as often as our viewpoints. However, she declares, Einstein saw ultimate reality as unquestionably objective, though quite different from what our perceptions would lead us to believe. On the other hand, she says, Godel, because of his association with the Vienna Circle, is often thought of as a harbinger of anti-metaphysical positivism, part of the movement to squash "the old absolutist ways of thinking," when actually his work, heavily influenced by Plato's metaphysics, points to a supra-human realm of mathematical laws requiring both intuition and deduction for access (astutely, Goldstein notes that Wittgenstein was actually not a positivist, as well, believing that metaphysical concerns were essentially ineffable, but of supreme importance).

Goldstein writes that Godel's achievements range far beyond the sphere of mathematical logic, "addressing such vast and messy issues as the nature of truth and knowledge and certainty." Indeed, Goldstein declares that Godel's interpretation of his work "shows us that our minds, in knowing mathematics, are escaping the limitations of man-made systems, grasping the independent truths of abstract reality."


May/June 2006

A Place at the Table. By William J. Elliott. New York: Doubleday, 2003. 420 pages.

It began, as recorded in the Christian scriptures, with the question put to Peter: “Who do you say I am?" Since Jesus first asked, seekers have offered a variety of answers, and asked questions of their own, about the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith.

On pilgrimage by motor home around the country, William J. Elliott undertook his own search to rediscover the real Jesus. A Place at the Table is a wonderful sharing of his learning through dialogues with a wide spectrum of scholars and religious figures about their personal beliefs and historical understandings of Jesus.

Those who have read any of the Jesus material will find this work a special addition. Most of the important topics are discussed by several contemporary scholars (Borg, Crossan, Douglas-Klotz, Fox, Harvey, Johnson, Sanders, Spong, Wright) as well as noteworthy others (Chopra, Falwell, Graham, Keating, Kushner, Williamson, Woodman).

Elliott's narrative is a delight to read. Begin anywhere, with a favorite or an unknown person, and be inspired, challenged, and soul-nourished. Each exchange has its own before-and-after story, including the author's anticipations and reflections. Elliott's questions are heartfelt and clear. All responses are bountifully insightful and passionate with personal conviction. In fact, you may find yourself wishing that he had shared even more.

The book provides many awareness-expanding perspectives. For example, because of the significance of the family in Judaism, Jesus was probably married and scripture does not state the obvious; or he may have been a widower; or, since Jewish males were married by age eighteen if they could afford it, Jesus could have been celibate because of his poverty; or, because celibacy was a known ascetic practice for some in Judaism, he may have been celibate. Simply put, scholars and seekers do not have certain knowledge about Jesus' marital status.

Penetrating questions abound to explore fuller divine perspectives. For example, do we love God enough to let go of our beliefs about God and thus drop eternally into the God we don't know? And how do you understand the words "The Kingdom of God is within you"? Does it mean that spark of divinity within you makes you identical with the divine? Or that the rule of Christ is in your heart?

These dialogues attest to the truth of the scriptural assertion that "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst." Elliott engages his interlocutors such that they gift him with inspiring personal perspectives that help explain their experience of Jesus beyond the concepts of history and faith. These perspectives deepen his receptivity to his own experience of the Cosmic Christ. You may be similarly affected.


July/August 2006

Strength in the Storm: Creating Calm in Difficult Times. By Eknath Easwaran. Tomales, California: Nilgiri Press, 2005. Paperback, 184 pages.

In the complexities of understanding and practice which often accompany an esoteric spiritual path, it can be very easy to lose sight of the "common sense" so often emphasized by Madame Blavatsky. From time to time, we need reminders of practices which seem all too basic, but actually offer transformation in our daily lives in the world. What good is some profound realization, or arcane knowledge, if it does not lead to a greater expression of love and wisdom throughout each day?

Over the holidays--a time when stress often increases -I have benefited from a number of such reminders, thanks to gifts and review assignments. For example, I was given a copy of Lawrence Lovasik's book, The Hidden Power of Kindness: A Practical Handbook for Souls Who Dare to Transform the World, One Deed at a Time (Sophia Institute Press, 1999). While I sitlightly with Lovasik's rather traditional Catholic theological views, his book is a goldmine for personal reflection, and contains a wide variety of practical suggestions for implementation.

By happy synchronicity, I was simultaneously assigned to review a new book compiled from lectures by the late spiritual teacher and founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, Eknath Easwaran. Easwaran writes from a more universal perspective than Lovasik, and provides suggestions drawn from many religious traditions, so that each reader can choose an approach which resonates with their own background and beliefs. The lectures are also enhanced with introductions to each chapter by Easwaran's widow, inspirational quotes from great world teachers, a summary of the core points from each section, and lists of suggestions for practices. The result is a highly practical manual for anyone who wants to increase their level of spiritual peace, and their ability to respond to all of life from a place of calm wisdom.

As Christine Easwaran writes in her preface to the book, for her husband, "the world's spiritual traditions were not topics for philosophy or religion. They were living waters, practical resources for everyday living." Easwaran's talks, given to his students over a period of years, give substantive guidance for using a mantram, maintaining one-pointed attention, slowing down the pace of life, nourishing our minds, and cultivating kindness, among other topics. He liberally illustrates his points with entertaining stories from his life and the lives of his students. While there is little here that will be new to most Theosophists, Strength in the Storm is a well-done, accessible re-presentation of traditional wisdom for living.


July/August 2006

D. M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker. By Roderick Bradford. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006. Hardcover, 410 pages.

If secular sainthood were possible, then surely DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818-1882) deserves to be canonized. Bennett was arguably the most active, productive, and effective promoter of free thought in the last quarter of the nineteenth century-the quarter that also saw the formation of the Theosophical Society.

Free thought is the principle that all of us have the right to have views, especially about religion, that vary from the conventional opinions of the society in which we live. Free thought rejects the right of authority to limit our conscience, whether that authority is of the state or the church, or some miscegenation of the two. Free thought holds that dogma must give way to rational inquiry. D. M. Bennett is the saint of free thought, though he himself would doubtless have been nonplussed at the idea.

At the age of 14, DeRobigne, then fatherless and on his own, fell in with some friendly Shakers and joined their community in New Lebanon, New York. The Shakers (officially, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) were an eighteenth-century offshoot of the Quakers who lived spartanly in self-sufficient communities. Because they were celibate, the communities grew by converts, and welcomed orphans and homeless youths. Their worship included group dancing, shaking (hence their popular name), whirling, and singing in tongues. For a time they practiced a sort of proto-spiritualism, by which they received spiritual messages as guidance.

DeRobigne Bennett spent thirteen years in the New Lebanon Shaker community, but in his mid-twenties, he eloped with a Shaker girl, Mary Wicks, whom he married. Although officially apostates, DeRobigne and Mary never lost their fondness for their Shaker friends and in later years often visited the community, which in turn supported Bennett during some of his most difficult trials. In the outside world, Bennett discovered the writings of Thomas Payne and by them was converted to a life of reason and free thought. He eventually founded a periodical whose name, The Truth Seeker, was suggested by his wife.

Through the pages of The Truth Seeker, Bennett launched campaign after campaign to challenge orthodoxy and promote an open examination of life. His antithesis and nemesis was a dry-goods salesman of little talent or intelligence but of great ambition named Anthony Comstock. Comstock formed an alliance with the Young Men's Christian Association in New York and founded a Society for the Suppression of Vice. His aim was to rid the nation of obscenity and blasphemy, and to that end, he lobbied Congress to pass censorship laws and got himself appointed as a legal authority for the Post Office. He was so effective in that role that his name has entered the English language in the form "Comstockery" as a term for censorious opposition to alleged immorality in literature or life.

Comstock's real argument with Bennett was that Bennett promoted the free expression of opinion, whereas Comstock wanted to censor all views incompatible with his own. Bennett was, in Comstock's view, a literally damned blasphemer against Christianity and the social order. The First Amendment, however, made it difficult to prosecute Bennett for such "crimes." So Comstock took another tack. Bennett's periodical was selling mail-order copies of a book titled Cupid’s Yokes, which argued that the institution of marriage should be abandoned. Its thesis was not one with which Bennett agreed, but he sold the book in accordance with the Voltairean motto “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The same book was being sold in many bookshops, but because Bennett distributed copies by mail, Comstock was able to have him arrested, tried, and convicted on a charge of disseminating obscene matter.

Bennett spent thirteen months in the Albany Penitentiary under conditions that seriously affected his health. Although President Rutherford B. Hayes pardoned the author of Cupid's Yokes, earlier convicted of writing obscenities in that book, he refused to pardon Bennett. Yet Bennett had only distributed the book, and Hayes was presented with a petition for pardon containing 230,000 names, including those of Shakers, who stood loyally by their former fellow. Bennett's imprisonment quite reasonably earned him the reputation of being a martyr for the free thought cause. And when he had completed his sentence and was released, Bennett was greeted by the free-thought community as a hero.

Throughout his imprisonment, Bennett had produced a steady stream of writings. After his release, he began a tour around the world, sending home letters that were compiled into four volumes of travelogue, critique of censorship, and promotion of free thought. The highlight of that trip was his visit to the Founders of the Theosophical Society in Bombay, where Bennett joined the Society. The longest chapter in this book is one describing the background to the events that led to Bennett's trial and imprisonment. The second longest chapter is that describing his contact with the Theosophists (and it is based on material the author earlier published in The Quest).

Bennett was a heartfelt friend of both Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. But even more noteworthy is the fact that the Masters also valued and respected him. One of the latter said that Bennett was "one of our agents (unknown to himself) to carry out the scheme for the enfranchisement of Western thoughts from superstitious creeds" (Mahatma Letters, no. 37). And another wrote of him: "Few men have suffered--and unjustly suffered--as he has; and as few have a more kind, unselfish and truthful a heart. ... [He] is an honest man and of a sincere heart, besides being one of tremendous moral courage and a martyr to boot" (Mahatma Letters, no. 43).

Bennett was not the sort of free thinker who rejects conventional religion only to be converted to an equally blind devotion to materialism. Bennett was a true free thinker, that is, one who was open to possibilities beyond those recognized by the establishments of either church or science. He was true to the creed of Thomas Paine, who said, "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good," and to the motto of the Theosophical Society: "There is no religion higher than truth." He was a man whom Theosophists everywhere can be proud to hail as a brother and Fellow.

Rod Bradford's highly readable and engaging book reveals a man who is strikingly relevant to our times-politically, socially, and intellectually--for today we face the same sort of intolerance that Bennett did in his day. Comstockery, McCarthyism, and demagoguery are not dead; they still stalk our society and government at all levels. More than ever, we need the spirit of D. M. Bennett to defend the liberty on which this country was founded and is based.

Book Reviews 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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


January/February 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January/February 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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


January/February 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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


March/April 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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


March/April 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March/April 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May/June 2005

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

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

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

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

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


May/June 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May/June 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May/June 2005

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

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

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

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

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


July/August 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July/August 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July/August 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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


September/October 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September/October 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September/October 2005

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

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

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

Book Reviews 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January/February 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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


January/February 2007

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

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

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

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


January/February 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May/June 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May/June 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May/June 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July/August 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compassion is not pity.

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

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

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

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

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


November/December 2007

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

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

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

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

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


November/December 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November/December 2007

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