Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology
Wheaton: Quest, 2011. Paper, xxii + 282 pages, $18.95
Over the last twenty years, many excellent translations of Sufi texts have appeared in English, but few original studies have appeared that could truly be called groundbreaking. Most publications have tended to be extremely academic, or extremely popular and generalized, or specifically written for members of various Sufi schools, or tariqas.
Sufism and the Way of Blame is a unique and engaging original study that transcends all these categories, and is a work that will be valuable both to serious scholars and to general readers. Based on years of painstaking research and scholarship, the book is clearly written, and while presenting a wealth of detail and information, it remains easily accessible to the serious, interested reader. Sufism and the Way of Blame offers much in the way of new material to English-speaking readers, and is a discerning, reliable work, which will remain a serious and thought-provoking resource for many years to come.
What makes this work so unique is that it carefully documents the teachings of the Malamiyya, one of the most important but little-known schools within the Sufi tradition. Originating in Persian Sufism, the term Malamati refers to the “blameworthy ones” who shun the religious idolatry of sanctimonious egoism, in order to draw closer to the divine, even if that draws reproach or blame from others. The Malamatis thus practiced “perfect sincerity” (ikhlas) and “the nothingness of man before God.” In this way, Malamatis emphasize a characteristic of the great Sufis as a whole: an unwillingness to embrace the idolatry of religion at the expense of genuine spirituality.
One irony of the Islamic tradition over the centuries is the unreflective tendency of exoteric followers to make a “god” out of their religion so that religion at times becomes even more important than the experience of divine presence. And once religion becomes a god, so too does the personal ego. As the French novelist Anatole France once wrote, “It is the certainty that they possess the truth that makes men cruel.” However, this exaltation of religion and the self, common enough in all Western religious systems, violates the absolute monotheism and spiritual humility that characterizes both the Qur’an and the original message of the prophet Muhammad.
In this book, Yannis Toussulis provides a short history of the transmission of Sufism to the West, including a critical assessment of figures like G. I. Gurdjieff and Idries Shah and the myths they propagated, which is especially valuable given the author’s access to background information about these figures. In the case of Idries Shah, this information he shares is otherwise unavailable. Toussulis also critically discusses different approaches to Sufism, including those of the Perennialist and Traditionalist schools.
The author then provides a history of the Malamati tradition in Sufism, spanning several chapters, with a particular emphasis on the Turkish tradition of Pir Nur al-Arabi (1813–88). Living at a time when the Ottoman Empire was in decline, Nur al-Arabi worked to adapt Sufism to the contemporary world, an approach that has been a characteristic of the school since his time. While little-known to outsiders and even to academic specialists, in Turkey the Malamiyya has functioned as a kind of Sufi “supra-order”; many members are shaykhs (teachers) of different tariqas, and it has functioned as a kind of Sufi graduate school, if you will pardon the expression. (Nur al-Arabi himself was a shaykh of the Naqshbandi order.) In a chapter on its twentieth-century representatives, several illuminating interviews are offered with Mehmet Selim, a current, English-speaking representative of the Nuriyya-Malamiyya based in Istanbul.
In the last and perhaps most valuable section of the book, Toussulis carefully outlines “The Seven Stations of Wisdom” as taught by the Nuriyya- Malamiyya, which provides a map of human psychospiritual development. Another extremely valuable section is the appendix, which contains the translation of a short work by Pir Nur al-Arabi entitled “The Testament of the Righteous,” which outlines the highest stages of mystical realization. Ultimately, within the Sufi tradition, God’s creation of the world is a continuous, unfolding event; and the realized human being, through purification and training, is able to attain a state in which he or she is able to witness this creative unfolding of the world, not from a human perspective, but from the perspective of the divine.
Sufism and the Way of Blame benefits not only from the author’s meticulous research and critical discernment, but also from his many years of contact with important teachers within the contemporary world of Turkish Sufism, especially Mehmet Selim Öziç, an inheritor of the Malamati Sufi lineage tracing itself back to Pir Nur al-Arabi.
Writing as both a scholar and as someone who knows the field of Sufism as a well-informed insider, Yannis Tossulis provides the reader with a fasci nating, insightful exploration of one of the most important but least understood lineages of Sufism, and one that is still active in the contemporary world. He discusses the contributions that Sufism can make to contemporary spirituality and to interfaith understanding, and he presents with real clarity the classical aims of Sufi training—a clarity that is often lacking in other volumes.
David Fideler is cotranslator of Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition. He is currently researching a book about the history of religious pluralism in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
Sharing the Light: The Collected Articles of Geoffrey Hodson
edited by John and Elizabeth Sell and Roselmo Z. Doval Santos
Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 2008. Two volumes. Hardcover, xxxvii + 1889 pages, $59.
Geoffrey Hodson (1886–1983) ranks among the Theosophical Society’s most respected teachers, lecturers, and writers. In addition to serving as director of studies at the School of the Wisdom at the TS headquarters in Adyar, he taught at the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and was a featured speaker at many Theosophical conventions around the world. The lecture series he presented at Krotona in 1972 attracted students from throughout southern California, and were praised for their clarity, inspiration, and common-sense approach to human problems.
A highly gifted clairvoyant, Hodson worked with physicians and scientists to investigate the mysteries of the physical world. This research culminated in perhaps his most famous book, The Kingdom of the Gods, a groundbreaking investigation of the angelic kingdom, complete with dazzling color drawings of his clairvoyant observations. A devoted Gnostic and priest in the Liberal Catholic Church, Hodson was extremely knowledgeable about the Christian faith, and wrote numerous books on esoteric Christianity, including his landmark four-volume series The Hidden Wisdom in the Holy Bible.
In addition to having authored at least forty-six books and thirty-seven booklets, Hodson wrote hundreds of articles, making him the most prolific Theosophical writer of the twentieth century. Like his books, which have been praised for their clear and accessible style, most of his articles were based on original research. They appeared in Theosophical journals in Australia, India, the United States, New Zealand, and South Africa between 1927 and the late 1980s.
In keeping with Hodson’s broad and eclectic range of personal and professional interests, his articles covered a vast array of subjects, ranging from Theosophical teachings and their practical application to poetry, Maori esotericism, mystical Christianity, yoga, reincarnation, war and peace, health and healing, the angelic kingdom, Theosophical solutions to world problems, clairvoyant research with physicians and scientists, animal rights, and ways to promote and teach Theosophy. A number of articles included personal observations about the TS itself and some of its leaders, as well as insights into world figures including Jiddu Krishnamurti, John F. Kennedy, and the Dalai Lama.
Aware that many of Hodson’s writings for periodicals could become lost to both present and future generations, John and Elizabeth Sell, two prominent members of the New Zealand Section, devoted nearly four years of six-day workweeks tracking down, collecting, and editing nearly all of his published articles. Many have never been read by the vast majority of Theosophical students. The Theosophical Publishing House in the Philippines has published this extraordinary collection in two beautifully bound volumes containing nearly 2000 pages of text and illustrations.
Organizing the collected material was obviously a major challenge for the compilers, who divided more than 400 individual articles into thirteen sections, including “Spirituality and the Path of Discipleship,” “Theosophical Teachings,” “Clairvoyant Investigations,” “Ceremonial and Symbolism,” “The Keys to Health and Healing,” and “Presenting and Promoting the Wisdom Teachings.” A detailed glossary of terms has been constructed along with a comprehensive index (which alone totals forty pages), making what could have been an unwieldy assemblage of highly diverse material easily accessible to readers.
This astounding collection is a banquet of material for both individual and group study. Titles include “Ten Ways to Attract the Attention of the Masters,” “Meditation: the Elixir of Life,” “Clairvoyant Diagnosis of Disease,” “Earthquake in California,” “The Practice of World Brotherhood,” “The Monadic Purpose: Finding One’s Life Work,” “Art Modes of the Future,” “Theosophy for the Lawyer,” “Theosophy and the World’s Economists,” “Mind Radio: Thought Projection,” “Radiation of Power,” and “Before Himalayan Snows.”
One of my personal favorites was “Impressions of the Giant Sequoias,” in which the author describes these magnificent trees through a clairvoyant’s unique perspective. Another was “Our Work,” an article published in Theosophy in Australia, which discusses the lodge library as a center of occult power and the special role entrusted to the librarian to help individual readers select the most appropriate reading materials for their spiritual development.
The teachings found in the vast majority of articles are just as applicable today as when they were first written. In “What Are We Going to Build?” (published in The American Theosophist towards the end of the Second World War) Hodson calls upon us to become more aware of our personal responsibilities as students of Theosophy and “builders of the New Age”:
All our daily activities from rising to retiring . . . are of profound spiritual importance both to ourselves and to our fellow men. Every human activity, collective and individual, is Divine activity, an expression of Divine life, ruled by Divine Law. This is the great truth which humanity as a whole must one day acknowledge.
In addition to his articles, Sharing the Light includes a number of inspiring invocations that Hodson often used in his personal meditations and healing work. Readers will also delight at rare photographs of Hodson taken with family, friends, and colleagues at the TS. Many of these photos have never been published before.
Given the tremendous range of subjects presented in these volumes, many readers will be primarily attracted to specific themes for personal study and reflection. At the same time, much of the material presented in Sharing the Light can be utilized for group study in lodges and study centers.
While not a small investment, Sharing the Light presents a wealth of original, eclectic, and valuable teachings that will both challenge and inspire. In addition to becoming a valuable part of every lodge and study center library, it can be a timeless resource for every serious student of Theosophy.
The reviewer has been a member of the Theosophical Society in America since 1970. He was a student of Geoffrey Hodson at the Krotona School of Theosophy in 1972.
The Audible Life Stream: Ancient Secret of Dying While Living
Brooklyn, N.Y.: O Books, 2010. Paper, 259 pages, $24.95
Alistair Conwell’s scholarly and poetic work explores the phenomenon of the audible life stream, or the primordial sound current of the universe. Sound is presented as a messenger offering guidance from otherworldly realities. Testimonials from those who have had out of body and near-death experiences, quotations from classical religious texts, and references to quantum physics are presented to explain the potential for the expansion of consciousness by attunement to the sounds that reverberate around us always. Readers who are facing the grieving process, as well as those who seek understanding and a peaceful acceptance of the inevitability of death, will be especially uplifted by this highly original volume.
The reviewer is a Florida-based astrologer and spiritual counseler.
Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and Germanic Tribes
Hans-Peter Hasenfratz Translated by Michael Moynihan
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2011. Paper, xi + 164 pages, $16.95
For reasons both good and bad, the religion of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes exercise a fascination on the modern mind. Unfortunately, a clear picture of what these tribes practiced and believed has been hard to come by.
One reason is a shortage of sources. During the period in question, from roughly 200 bc to ad 1000, most of these tribes were preliterate. Since literacy generally coincided with conversion to Christianity, the vast majority of written sources come from a time after Christianization, and it is sometimes hard to tell what kinds of alterations this produced in the myths and sagas. Was the famous sacrifice of the god Odin on the World-Tree Yggdrasil, for example, a genuine Germanic myth, or was it somehow an echo of the sacrifice of Christ?
Admittedly, there are a few texts from pre-Christian times. One of the most important is the Germania (“Germany”) by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, written around ad 100, a short work that can be reckoned as one of the first anthropological treatises ever written. Other sources include the Old English poem Beowulf and archaeological artifacts, some of which bear a few scraps of writing in runes, the quasi-magical Germanic alphabet, but most of which are mute.
But there is another reason that the Germanic tribes have been hard to approach. They have been mythologized in ways both benign and sinister. As Hans-Peter Hasenfratz points out in this learned but readable study, part of Tacitus’s agenda was to portray the Germanic tribes of his day (whom the Romans were never able to subdue) as epitomes of the ancient martial virtues that he believed Rome had lost. A far more familiar, and more malign, use was that of the Nazis, who claimed to be reviving the spirit of the Germans’ ancient forebears.
Thus Hasenfratz’s book is particularly welcome. The author is a professor emeritus of the history of religion at Germany’s Ruhr University, so he comes well-equipped to sift through the evidence in a balanced and impartial way. Barbarian Rites gives a brief, general survey of the religion of the ancient Germanic tribes, including the populations of present-day Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries. He devotes considerable attention to the Age of the Vikings (ad 800-1100), not only because of the intrinsic interest of the period but because so many of our sources come from that time. But he is remarkably judicious in evaluating the evidence. He points out, for example, that the bloodthirsty aspects of Viking religion may have been partly a reflection of the warlike times and that our picture of Germanic religion may have looked somewhat different if we had more evidence from more peaceable periods in the tribes’ history.
Another strength of this work is that Hasenfratz does not sentimentalize his subjects. He portrays them as he sees them, and the portrait is a stark one. A “straw death”—dying peacefully in bed—was considered contemptible; it was far more glorious to die in battle. Old people were frequently abandoned or dispatched as unnecessary mouths to feed, and human sacrifice was common. The grimmest version was the “blood eagle” ritual of the Vikings, in which a living victim’s back was cut open, the ribs separated from the spine, and the lungs pulled out in such a way that they formed a pair of “wings”—presumably speeding his journey to the gods.
There are enough such details in this book to suggest that any attempt to revive the Germanic religion is misguided. Hasenfratz does not dwell at length at the largest and most ambitious of such attempts—the Nazi quasireligion of the Third Reich—but he does suggest how Nazi ideology was in some cases drawn from German antiquity. He notes, for example, that Hitler and Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg envisioned the Third Reich as an Ordenstaat—an “order-based state,” with a Führer (“leader”) chosen out of this order. (“Order” in this sense means an elite brotherhood of Nazis that was inspired by the ancient German institution of the Männerbund, a kind of male sodality with its own, often secret cultic rites and functions.) Below this elite order would be the classes of ordinary Nazi party members and, at the bottom, the sheeplike masses.
Hasenfratz avoids moralizing about these facts, but for the reader, the lesson is clear. While we may enjoy the Germanic myths as expressed in the Icelandic sagas or the operas of Richard Wagner, a real restoration of these religions is neither possible (we know too little about them) nor desirable (what we know is too appalling). While the author may not have intended to sound a warning against Neopagan revivals of the ancient German cults, this is in the end one objective the book achieves.
Atlantis and the Cycles of Time: Prophecies, Traditions, and Occult Revelations
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2010, xii + 436 pages, $19.95
A new book from Joscelyn Godwin is always a cause for celebration. There are few scholars in the field of esotericism who are both as readable and as reliable as Godwin. His 1994 book, The Theosophical Enlightenment, was a particularly masterful overview of the occult subculture in the English-speaking world of the nineteenth century.
Atlantis and the Cycles of Time takes a much more tightly focused look at one recurring meme within the occult universe: Atlantis, the legendary lost continent that supposedly sank in prehistoric times, some say because of the inhabitants’ misuse of occult power. The book’s final two chapters also provide a brief overview of various schematic cycles of time that have seized the imaginations of occultists, theologians, and New Agers.
There is a paradoxical quality to this book of which potential readers should be aware. If one particular interpretation of the Atlantis myth looms large in your personal belief system, Godwin’s book may cause a mild crisis of faith, as he methodically summarizes the numerous Atlantis myth variations, most of them based on either clairvoyant revelations or bold assertions of authority on the part of authors. It is difficult to come out the other end of these variations without feeling that all are equally valid or, perhaps more likely, equally suspect.
On the other hand, unless you find Atlantis intrinsically fascinating, this book may be too much of a good thing, as it delivers plenty of well-organized detail on the Atlantis story, but almost no justification for why one should care.
One has the sense, more so than in any other Godwin book, that the author felt obliged to write it—perhaps to share years’ worth of research—but didn’t experience much pleasure in doing so. Godwin’s usual relish for the odd detail and his dry wit in relating the obviously ludicrous with a straight face are still present, but are mostly drowned out by the deluge of data comparing British, German, French, Theosophical, channeled, and New Age versions of Atlantis.
As a reference work, this book performs a useful public service: should you wish to compare, say, H. P. Blavatsky’s Atlantis with that of Fabre d’Olivet or Dion Fortune, Godwin summarizes each, and the book’s index facilitates further cross-comparisons. But as a cover-to-cover read, Atlantis and the Cycles of Time feels a bit like a long march through a stack of file cards.
The final chapters on various systems of cyclic time—the Hindu yugas, the Four Ages (Golden to Iron), astrological ages, and so on—are useful for their attempt to make sense out of further contradictory esoteric schemes.
Yet when all is said and done, does it really matter whether Atlantis existed as a historical location once upon a time or whether there really was a Golden Age tens of thousands of years ago? Godwin doesn’t directly answer these questions, but the cumulative implication is that it matters not.
If the essence of a spiritual orientation is simply to practice compassion for others and to minimize the grandstanding of one’s own ego, these can be practiced regardless of religious beliefs, esoteric revelations, or grand abstract systems of time and cosmology.
Yes, the Atlantis myth can serve as a warning against the hubris of humankind and as a reminder of the impermanence of life. But like all great myths, it conveys its lessons whether strictly factual or not. Godwin, I suspect, would agree.
Jay Kinney was publisher and editor in chief of Gnosis magazine during its fifteen-year span. His recent book, The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins), has been translated into five languages.
Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia
Wheaton: Quest, 2011, xix + 257 pp., paper, $16.95.
Thanks in large measure to H.P. Blavatsky, James Hilton, author of Lost Horizon, and any number of more recent New Age authors, a prevalent image of Shambhala in the West today is of a legendary kingdom, pure and harmonious, located in an ideal mountain valley somewhere psychogeographically to the north of India, where spiritually advanced people enjoy long, blissful lives, and from whence benevolent god-men periodically emerge to guide the rest of the world’s spiritual development.
In Red Shambhala, Andrei Znamenski discovers a less familiar side to this Buddhist legend, in which cruelty, depravity, and murderous political machinations form potholes on the eightfold path to enlightenment.
With a strong scholarly background, both Russian and American, in Siberian and Central Asian shamanism, Znamenski provides a valuable historical analysis of the concept of Shambhala from its Tibetan Buddhist origins through its analogues with Mongol and Buryat legends to the uses, both spiritual and political, made of it by a bizarre group of twentieth-century Russians and Soviet Central Asians. In presenting this story for the first time in English, Znamenski draws upon a growing body of Russian archival data, scholarship, analysis, and sometimes sensationalistic speculation that has emerged since perestroika.
According to Znamenski, a double nature—otherworldly and thisworldly, blissful and bloodthirsty—has been inherent in the concept of Shambhala from the beginning, but we in the West have long preferred to idealize the one side and ignore the other. While acknowledging the power of the bright Shambhala, for the purpose of this study Znamenski emphasizes the dark aspect and introduces a cast of characters attracted to it.
Three of these characters—the artist Nicholas Roerich, his wife, Helena, and their son George—will already be familiar to many readers, though perhaps not in the conspiratorial roles Znamenski assigns to them. The rest comprise a fascinating coterie of occultists, eccentric schemers, heterodox adventurers, and crazed warlords who usually appear as mere footnotes in standard histories of the period. These include Alexander Barchenko, an obscure esotericist and mystery writer who tried to convince high Soviet officials that Shambhala held the key to future Russian communist world domination. There was also Gleb Bokii, an early Bolshevik, head of a special section of the Soviet secret police practicing encryption and investigating the paranormal. Bokii, an ascetic, was at the same time a torturer, womanizer, and host of orgies for high party officials, as well as an expert in dialectical materialism and oriental occultism who ate dog meat as treatment for tuberculosis. Ja-Lama, a Kalmyk drifter, adventurer, and Asian rabble-rouser, claimed to be the reincarnation of an avenging Buddhist deity and grandson of a heroic Mongol prince. Boris Shumatsky, a Russian-Jewish, Buryat-speaking Bolshevik, headed the campaign to convert Central Asia to communism by exploiting Buddhist legends. Sergei Borisov, an Asian Bolshevik intellectual from the Altai region, active in the same movement to convert Mongolia, posed as a Buddhist pilgrim to Lhasa in an attempt to bolshevize the Dalai Lama. There was also Elbek-Dorji Rinchino, the Petersburg-educated first dictator of Soviet Mongolia, devoted to the pan-Mongol cause of uniting inner Asia by fusing communism and Tibetan Buddhist culture. Agvan Dorzhiev, a Siberian monk, tutor to the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and Tibetan ambassador to Russia, introduced Buddhism to Petersburg intellectuals, then joined the Bolsheviks in hopes of establishing a pan-Mongol Buddhist kingdom. The most contradictory of the lot was Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a crazed, bloodthirsty Baltic Russian aristocrat who launched an anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic crusade with a ragtag army of vicious White guardsmen, Cossacks, and Buryat warriors to free Mongolia from both the Chinese and the Russians in order to establish a pure Buddhist kingdom from the Pacific to the Baltic and replace a rotten Western civilization with Shambhala.
The heyday for these doomed adventurers was the quarter-century from 1905 to 1930—years of revolution, civil war, and nation building, when various heterodox versions of socialism had not yet been hammered into orthodoxy. Occultism, mysticism, weird science, alternative lifestyles—for a short time, just about anything that appeared revolutionary and a repudiation of the past—could be tolerated, even promoted, within the Soviet system. But not for long. Of the characters treated in the book, only the Roerichs, by then American citizens, lived past 1938, the worst year of Stalin’s Great Terror.
By telling this story in readable, sometimes even colorful English, Andrei Znamenski has presented important material to a potentially wide international public. We can, however, still question certain points, particularly some of the more sensational, torture-induced testimony obtained as incriminating trial evidence. In Znamenski’s analysis, based in part on such testimony, the main thing about Shambhala is its role in the twentieth-century continuation of the “Great Game” for political domination over inner Asia.
Znamenski’s approach is in part a worthy attempt to correct a previous overemphasis on the unworldly dimensions of Shambhala. But he may go a bit far toward overcorrection. The visions and ambitions of the characters discussed certainly included Shambhala fever, but perhaps not to the degree claimed by Znamenski. This is especially true, I think, of the Roerichs. Artists, dreamers, mythmakers, utopians, yes, but not the budding Lenins with paintbrushes that Znamenski portrays. He writes: “Nicholas and Helena never thought in terms of emotions and friendship. The world was strictly divided into those who were useful and those who were useless. The people who surrounded them were just pawns in their schemes.” Really? A pervasive theme in Roerich’s work as painter, writer, scholar, and humanitarian is that spiritual culture trumps politics. Znamenski tries, perhaps too strenuously, to prove the opposite.
The Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol once had a character say during an overenthusiastic debate: “Gentlemen, Alexander the Macedonian was indeed a great hero, but why smash the chairs?” Red Shambhala is a valuable book, but in places Gogol’s wisdom might be applicable.
George M. Young
The reviewer, a specialist in Russian literature and thought, is a fellow of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England.
Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together
The Dalai Lama
New York: Harmony, 2010. 208 pages, hardcover, $25.
In these days of controversy and divisiveness it is encouraging to hear the voices of those who speak out for unity and reconciliation. One such voice is that of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, whose recent book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, addresses the issue of religious tolerance. His Holiness urges the followers of all traditions to consider the possibility that their chosen approach to religious truth may not be the best choice for others.
This idea was not always appreciated by His Holiness, as he admits. He recollects that in his early days of isolation beyond the Himalayas, he was taught that Buddhism was the “only true religion.” The traditional curriculum of religious studies presented to young Tibetan monks included a study of the tenets of various philosophical systems, including those of non-Buddhist approaches, but the message was that these approaches were seriously flawed and that only Buddhism represented the pure and unadulterated truth.
This was all to change when His Holiness visited India in 1956. There, he says, he was exposed to an age-old culture of pluralism and to the influence of the Theosophical Society, in which religious inclusiveness has been a dominant theme since its foundation in 1875. Describing this experience, His Holiness writes: “My visit to the Theosophical Society in Chennai (then Madras) left a powerful impression. There I was first directly exposed to people, and to a movement, that attempted to bring together the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions as well as science. I felt among the members a sense of tremendous openness to the world’s great religions and a genuine embracing of pluralism. When I returned to Tibet in 1957, after more than three months in what was a most amazing country for a young Tibetan monk, I was a changed man. I could no longer live in the comfort of an exclusivist standpoint that takes Buddhism to be the only true religion.”
When finally forced to leave Tibet and to live as a refugee in India, His Holiness continued to pursue the idea of tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The present book is the product of his mature thought along these lines. In the first two chapters he explains the necessity for stepping outside the comfort zone of one’s own culture and for accepting a plurality of faiths that offer consolation and meaning to their followers. Chapters 3–6 consist of short commentaries on the traditions of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Chapters 7–10 explain how the common teaching of compassion can provide a remedy for exclusivism and make possible genuine communication between the followers of the world’s religions. His proposal for unity is fourfold: dialogue among scholars; sharing of deep spiritual experiences between practitioners; high-profile meetings of religious leaders; and joint pilgrimage to holy places. All in all, this book is a good read, and its suggestions could offer a solution to one of the most serious problems facing mankind.
The reviewer is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and a longtime member of the Theosophical Society.
The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff
Seymour B. Ginsburg
Wheaton: Quest, 2010. xi + 307 pp., paper, $18.95.
Seymour B. Ginsburg has written a useful book that might have been better titled “Notes on the Path to the Higher Self.” In fact there are no masters here, and they do not speak. What we have is the story of Ginsburg’s progression toward the higher Self. Beginning as a businessman (he was the first president of the Toys “R” Us chain), Ginsburg found himself increasingly dissatisfied with the “ruthless competition in the business world.” Finally, the shock caused by the death of his young wife in 1971 led him to question the foundations of life.
Ginsburg’s search initially led him to the writings of H. P. Blavatsky (he has long been involved in the Theosophical Society in southern Florida). In 1978 he journeyed to India, where he met Sri Madhava Ashish, a Scotsman (born Alexander Phipps; 1920–97) who had become a Hindu monk and was living in a small ashram in the foothills of northern India. Ashish is best known to Theosophists as coauthor (with his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem) of Man, the Measure of All Things, a commentary on the Stanzas of Dzyan in The Secret Doctrine. Writing on his own, Ashish also produced a sequel, Man, Son of Man. Ashish’s letters to Ginsburg over the following nineteen years form the core of The Masters Speak.
Around the time of his meeting with Ashish, Ginsburg was drawn to the ideas of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff (1866?–1949). Gurdjieff was born of a Greek father and an Armenian mother and brought up in Kars, an area on the Turkish-Armenian border then recently incorporated into Russia and inhabited by a mixture of peoples: Greeks, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, each with its traditions, folklore, and faiths. As a young man, he traveled in search of wisdom to the Middle East and especially to Central Asia. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, he went to Moscow and St. Petersburg and started speaking about what he had learned.
Much of Central Asian Sufism—a likely source of Gurdjieff’s teachings— is expressed through sacred dance. Gurdjieff disassociated the dances from their Islamic context, but not from their aim of self-awareness and self-observation. In regard to this approach, Ashish advised Ginsburg: “Your loyalty must be to the goal itself and nothing more or less. The ancient wisdom is nothing if it is not present here, present as a living reality and not merely as a series of texts and mouthed words. It is nothing to you unless you find it in yourself. . . . Dances, postures, movements, and other exercises may provide opportunities for identifying particular states of mind that will help you on your path, but you will not travel further by seeking out new exercises. All that you need is already in you.”
The Gurdjieff “Work” (as it is called) sets out some techniques for moving toward the higher Self. Gurdjieff was once asked what it would be like to have higher consciousness, and he replied, “Everything more vivid.” Since in Gurdjieff’s view the higher Self is a “more vivid” version of the lower self, it is with the components of the latter that the higher must be reached: the body, the chakras, the emotions, intuition, will, and the mind. The physical body is the most concrete of these components, and thus it is used as a starting-point for much of the Gurdjieff work, as the mind is often the starting- point for many Buddhist schools. Despite these differences, there is wide agreement that, as Ashish advised, “The path is inward, inward into the heart of your own being, the center of your own being. . . . When in doubt, go to the source—namely meditate, cultivate awareness, hold back from unnecessary activities, don’t let the mind run on recriminations and self-justifications. . . . Seek for the thing where it is—within.”
The passage to the higher Self is usually gradual. For some, there can be a dramatic breakthough, such as a powerful dream or an experience of wholeness and unity. But for most people, segments of the old Self will fall away more gradually: the emotions are refined; intuition becomes clearer, the will more focused, the mind a better servant. As Ashish writes, “When the condition of the Higher Self is reached, the individuality does not vanish; personality is illuminated in every aspect and can play its true role, which is to bend and adapt to every changing need.”
The Gurdjieff groups with which Ginsburg was associated discouraged members from following more than one path at a time as well as from speaking about their experiences, doubts, or sentiments with those outside the group. Such prohibitions can lead to a sectarian approach, and in such a context one can easily become locked into a system. In response to these issues Ashish wrote to Ginsburg: “You’ve found the path. Travel it. Don’t let yourself be pulled away from it. Once you can get your aim clear, problems about how to live, what to do, how to reconcile the outer life with the inner, etc. begin to get straightened out. This is why I try to get people to clarify their inner aim first. . . . Our work is so difficult that we need every bit of help we can get. It really does not matter where or from whom we take help, provided that we have enough intelligence and a clear enough view of our goal to be able to take help that is consonant with our aim and to reject those components that are contrary to it.”
It is always useful to follow the story of the spiritual development of others. This is no substitute for one’s own steps on the path, but it is always helpful to know that one is not alone.
The reviewer is editor of the online journal Transnational Perspectives (www.transnationalperspectives.org), which focuses on world politics and social policy.
The Secret Doctrine Commentaries: The Unpublished 1889 Instructions [of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky]
Transcribed and annotated by Michael Gomes
The Hague: I.S.I.S. Foundation, 2010. xvi + 687 pp., hardcover, $103.10.
The publisher of this work is not the Egyptian goddess, but the International Study-centre for Independent Search for Truth of the Dutch Point Loma Theosophical Society, which has done a notable work in making this book available.
Shortly after the publication of her major work, The Secret Doctrine, in 1888, H. P. Blavatsky met with a few of her students to explore their many and confused questions about that book. Those meetings were recorded by a stenographer, but until now only a severely edited version of the first twelve sessions had been published. This volume is a full transcription of all twenty-two sessions held during the first six months of 1889. As such, it is an invaluable guide to the study of HPB’s major work and, in repeated spots, a delightful read because of the informal nature of the discussions and the witty interchange between HPB and her disciples.
The editor of the volume, Michael Gomes, is one of our best Theosophical historians, noted for such works as The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement (Quest, 1987) and Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography (Garland, 1994), as well as his excellent abridgments of HPB’s major works: Isis Unveiled (Quest, 1997) and The Secret Doctrine (New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2009). New as it is, this volume is clearly a major Theosophical classic, which every student of Theosophy needs to know and which even the casual reader can find informative and entertaining.
The reviewer is past president of the Theosophical Society in America and past vicepresident of the international Society.
Pavel Florensky, A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci
New York: Continuum, 2010. xxiii + 304 pages, hardcover, $29.95.
One of the most remarkable but least known figures in the Russian spiritual renaissance of the early twentieth century, Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) was a polymath genius. An ordained Russian Orthodox priest, he made wide-ranging and seminal contributions to mathematics, physics, electrodynamics, folkloristics, philology, marine botany, art history, earth science, philosophy, theology, and esotericism that were part of his lifelong quest for a comprehensive worldview that would unite science, religion, and art; reason and faith; Orthodox tradition and futuristic thaumaturgy. Works by and about Florensky, long suppressed, have only in recent years begun to reappear, and Avril Pyman’s fine book is the first extensive study of him in English.
Especially valuable are her chapters on Florensky’s family and early years, disclosing the Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijanian contributions to his breadth of culture and soul. Pyman also describes Florensky’s deep Platonic friendships with a series of brilliant young men; his unromantic but happy marriage to a good woman from a simple peasant background; his devotion to his family; his happiness in daily service as parish priest; and later, after his arrest in Stalin’s terror, his iconic stature among his fellow gulag prisoners. In all this, Pyman helps us see Florensky not only as an extraordinary genius but also as an exceptionally good man.
Although the book generally gives a clearer picture of the man than of his ideas, Pyman does provide valuable guidance to Florensky’s difficult spiritual classic, hThe Pillar and Ground of the Truth, and helps unravel his profound but challenging ideas, such as the connection between discontinuity in non-Euclidian mathematics and the semiheretical Russian spiritual practice of imiaslavie (name worship). Indeed, Florensky’s great theme was the relationship of the latest advances in mathematics and physics to the deepest traditions of mystical Orthodox spirituality. The image that sticks is of Father Pavel in a worn white priest’s cassock lecturing about electrification projects to workers and uniformed communists in a village classroom with a bust of Lenin beside the podium.
Florensky died in Stalin’s gulag in 1937. The publication that led to his last arrest and eventual execution was a paper arguing that the geometry of imaginary numbers predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity for a body moving faster than light is the geometry for the kingdom of God. Even while serving his sentences in Siberia and in the furthest north, Florensky continued to conduct important scientific research on permafrost and on the extraction of iodine from seaweed. Though unable to conduct religious services in the gulag, he did serve as shepherd, friend, and comforter to his fellow inmates.
If, as it should be, this excellent book is eventually reprinted, a few minor errors could be corrected. In the useful glossary of names, and elsewhere in the text, the birth year of the Russian thinker Nikolai Fedorov should be 1829; the name of Fedorov’s friend and follower should be Vladimir Aleksandrovich (not Valentin Alekseevich) Kozhevnikov; and the birth year of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel should be 1770.
George M. Young
The reviewer, a specialist in Russian literature and thought, is adjunct in English and language studies and fellow of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England.
“Freemasonry” and Ritual Work: Collected Works of Rudolf Steiner, vol. 265
Rudol f Steiner, introduction by Christopher Bamford, translated by John Wood.
Great Barrington, Mass.: SteinerBooks, 2007. lxii + 569 pages, paper, $35.
As you may already be aware, Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was a German clairvoyant and esoteric teacher who was originally head of the German branch of the Theosophical Society, but because of differences with the Adyar TS, split off the German branch in 1912 and redubbed it the Anthroposophical Society. Thus his spiritual orientation certainly drew upon and overlapped with that of Theosophy, but his extensive “karmic research” led him to develop a cosmology, theology, and esotericism that were uniquely his own.
The material in this book covers much of Steiner’s correspondence, ritual texts, and his students’ lecture notes pertaining to his development of a “Misraim Service” or “Cognitive Ritual” representing his own take on Freemasonry. This is not without interest, as Steiner’s interpretations of esoteric matters are invariably creative, although staggeringly complex. (For those wondering why “Freemasonry” is in quote marks in the book’s title, I’d hazard the guess that the publisher wanted to underscore Steiner’s unique philosophical approach to Freemasonry. Hence this book doesn’t deal with realworld, everyday Freemasonry, but with Steiner’s “Freemasonry.” Potential readers should keep this in mind.)
The Memphis-Misraim degrees were the product of the merging of two supposedly “Egyptian” Masonic degree systems originally founded c. 1800. (Misraim is Hebrew for “Egypt.”) With as many as ninety-six degrees offered, Memphis-Misraim implied that it delivered the highest and most esoteric Masonic goods. In reality, it was almost entirely a paper organization, whose degree rituals were in most cases probably never actually performed.
Helpfully, Christopher Bamford’s forty-eight-page introduction provides a contextual overview of both Steiner’s thought and the fringe Masonic milieu out of which the Misraim Service evolved. Bamford has a gift for discussing Steiner in a lucid fashion, avoiding the use of too much undefined Anthroposophical jargon. While I don’t agree with every point that Bamford makes—he relies on some books and authors about Freemasonry that I consider flawed, for instance—he clearly sets out a scenario that is accessible to a wider circle of readers than just Anthroposophists.
This book is admirable in many ways, and yet it is bound to be baffling to readers who aren’t thoroughly acquainted with both Steiner’s teachings and the confusing ins and outs of Freemasonic history and lore. By its nature, this collection is not something that most people will avidly read cover-to-cover; it functions as more of an exhaustive reference work and compendium to be dipped into for sparks of inspiration and nuggets of obscure information.
One such nugget is a letter of Steiner’s that clarifies his relationship to Theodor Reuss, best known as head of the Ordo Templi Orientalis (OTO), the magical order made famous by Aleister Crowley. Steiner received an organizational charter in 1906 from Reuss’s fringe Masonic Memphis and Misraim Rite. Details in Bamford’s introduction, cross-referenced with the actual contract between Reuss and Steiner included among the book’s documents, suggest that Steiner’s relationship with Reuss was basically a business arrangement allowing Steiner to align himself with the quasi-Egyptian Masonry of Memphis-Misraim. In return, Steiner would kick back initiation fees to Reuss for the first hundred candidates that Steiner might initiate, after which Steiner would be an independent Masonic entrepreneur.
Steiner, of course, provides an esoteric spin to this arrangement while distancing himself from any association with Reuss other than a “purely . . . business arrangement.” Indeed, Steiner’s “Misraim Service” and degrees are alleged to be solely of his own esoteric inspiration without any relationship to the original Memphis-Misraim degrees (or earlier iterations). In a manner of speaking, he licensed the “Egyptian Masonry” brand, but provided his own secret sauce.
With the publication of this book, researchers now have the opportunity to ascertain Steiner’s relationship to “Egyptian” Masonry and its significance within his own esoteric system. I’ll merely observe that whatever his jumping-off points (such as Theosophy or fringe Masonry), Steiner’s progression in his teachings and “researches” invariably followed his own unique perspective.
Just how much one values that perspective depends on the degree of one’s faith in Steiner as a clairvoyant and sage. Be that as it may, “Freemasonry” and Ritual Work provides a wealth of material and information hitherto unavailable in English translation.
Jay Kinney was publisher and editor in chief of Gnosis Magazine during its fifteen-year span. His recent book, The Masonic Myth (HarperCollins), has been translated into five languages.
Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings
New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2010. 258 pages, hardcover, $24.95.
Anne Tyler wrote, “Things are changed by what comes after,” and nothing could be more apt to say about the life of the great Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung. The first generation of his followers, those who knew him, are all passed away, yet Jung’s ideas live on at a level that that generation’s world could not have understood or accepted. Now comes Gary Lachman’s outstanding new biography, Jung the Mystic, and this is a book whose time has come indeed. Lachman himself (a long-time Quest contributor) is a man of the current generation, since he started out in his youth as a musician with the band Blondie (for which he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) before a serious change of career turned him into an accomplished scholar and biographer of esotericists such as Rudolf Steiner and G.I. Gurdjieff.
Lachman’s past seems to have prepared him well for this present work, and it is indeed an important one, as he discloses how Jung broke the limitations of psychiatry and offered the world a glimpse into other dimensions bordering on spiritual gnosis. As such, Jung earned the informal title of “Prophet for the Age of Aquarius,” the era we are already in the process of entering. Chronicling the life of such a man is no small feat, but one Lachman does with competent objectivity. The result is impressive.
The book is true to the facts of Jung’s life as described in other biographies, but with a twist. Lachman traces the origins of Jung’s mysticism, his tormented rejection of them, and the resulting conflict between the rational “Professor Herr Doktor” and the apparently nonrational mystic. The conflict resulted in a psychotic break, consciously observed and recorded, and the personal suffering endured while continuing his life as a therapist, a husband, a father, and a distinguished worldwide lecturer and world traveler! The two most important women in Jung’s life–his understanding, wise, and patient wife, Emma, and his mistress and soror mystica, Toni Wolff–are both partakers in Lachman’s account. The result is a tour de force and gives us a fresh portrait of one outstanding man of his time.
Lachman also introduces us to many important and creative people who are fortunately still with us. Sonu Shamdasani is just one of them, the editor of the glorious edition of Jung’s personal journal, The Red Book, now attracting worldwide attention, and which dominated the cover of The New York Times Magazine only last year.
I was particularly intrigued by the chapter that described Jung’s role helping the Allies in World War II, in which he collaborated with the American agent Allen W. Dulles (who later became the first head of the Central Intelligence Agency) in preparing psychological profiles of the leaders of the Third Reich. Dulles was later quoted as saying, “Nobody will probably ever know how much Professor Jung contributed to the Allied cause during the war.” As I was a teenager in Switzerland at the time, the chapter has some personal interest, mentioning quite a few people my parents knew and and whom I remember meeting.
Jung became depressed at times, fearing no one would understand what he was trying to give the world. He might have been greatly cheered had he known that one Gary Lachman, fifty years later, would lift the curtain on one of the most important aspects of his remarkable life and offer us such a fair and objective account of his life and work, warts and all. I believe that this book proves, without a doubt, that things are indeed changed by what comes after. Bravo to a superb achievement!
Alice O. Howell
Alice O. Howell is author of The Dove in the Stone, The Web in the Sea, and The Heavens Declare: Astrological Ages and the Evolution of Consciousness, all published by Quest Books.
Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change
Wheaton: Quest, 2010. 253 pages, paper, $16.95.
In this book, Jim Kenney outlines the shift of values and structures as humanity moves into the Age of Aquarius. “We live in a time of transition from mechanistic and reductionist models of experience to models that may be characterized as holistic,” he tells us.
Kenney calls this period of transition a “sea change”—that rare time when old values and beliefs withdraw and a new wave of values and beliefs arise. He uses the image of two waves on the ocean of life. “Imagine an ocean moment: two waves converging in the same time and space. One is powerful but subsiding, the other just gathering momentum and presence but not yet cresting. At the moment of their meeting they are nearly equal in amplitude and influence. As they cross, who can say which is rising, which descending? In that moment only the chaos of wave interference exists. . . . What we are experiencing today is the seemingly chaotic complexity of a genuine sea change.”
As Kenney argues, it is necessary for leaders to discern the differences between the incoming and the outgoing waves. The newer wave has momentum and direction on its side. As Ewert Cousins, an observer of religious trends, writes, “Forces which have been at work for centuries, have in our day reached a crescendo that has the power to draw the human race into a global network and the religions of the world into a global spiritual community.”
The New Age wave has cumulative power, as countless independent variations in thought and action begin to converge. “As activists around the world have learned, the paths that lead to peace, justice and ecological sustainability are intimately intertwined.” The New Age draws much of its energy from its emphasis on synergy—parts working together for the common good. As the anthropologist Gregory Bateson has written, our task is to discover “the pattern that connects,” the wholeness underlying the diversity. This implies thinking in terms of patterns and wholeness, of interconnections and reawakening.
There are four clusters of attitudes and practices that are the marks of the new wave: nonviolent conflict resolution, universal human rights, social and economic justice, and ecological sustainability. As these continue to gain power, Kenney writes, negative aspects of the old wave will lose amplitude; these include the legitimacy of war and imperialism, racism and patriarchy, the exploitation of the majority for the benefit of a powerful minority, and pollution and the exploitation of nature.
The new values and practices thus threaten established structures of power. The opposition to the new wave is centered in the determination of the old holders of power to preserve the structures of wealth and influence that have served them so well. Thus, Kenney observes, “militants are to be found at every point of resistance to real cultural evolutionary advance. Their world view is simplistic but powerfully motivating. It takes shape in antipathy, in the creation of lists of enemies responsible for the cultural disempowerment and disorientation that poison their lives.”
Nonetheless, Kenney says, the defenders of the old age are on “the wrong side of history.” There is an ever-growing network of groups, nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental agencies, and committed individuals who are striving every day to build a better world on the basis of cooperation, fairness, solidarity, and creativity. New forms of society are being assembled.
As Kenney has written, “in the context of human cultural advance, we can predict the emergence of progressive new values in every key sector but not their precise shape. Sufficient indicators are already in place, for example, to argue for the likely emergence of evolved human attitudes toward war and peace, injustice and justice, ecological degradation and stewardship. We cannot predict the precise forms these new values will take. We can, however, persuasively argue that they will involve new levels of creative complexity, awareness of interdependence, and— most important—integration of the principle fields of human inquiry and endeavour.” Jim Kenney has written a clear guide to this coming new wave.
The reviewer is editor of the online journal Transnational Perspectives (www. transnationalperspectives.org), which focuses on world politics and social policy.