Insights from the Masters: A Compilation
FIONA C. ODGREN
Winchester, U.K.: Axis Mundi, 2016. 274 pp., paper, $25.95.
The Masters behind H.P. Blavatsky—Morya and Koot Hoomi—are the most enigmatic figures in Theosophical history. Much has been written about them; still more has been imagined. But after more than a century, they remain unapproachable.
To gain some understanding of them, it is necessary to examine the collection of writings known as the Mahatma Letters, allegedly written, mostly, by Morya and K.H., and addressed, again mostly, to the British Theosophists A.P. Sinnett and A.O Hume. It is hard to imagine that these letters were ever intended for publication. But in the 1920s, Maud Hoffman, who had been left the letters by Sinnett after his death, worked with A.T. Barker to produce an edited version, first published in 1924. The letters were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which made sense up to a point, since they were almost entirely undated. In 1993, Vicente Hao Chin, using a chronology of the letters written by Margaret Cosgrove, published the letters in chronological order. Chin’s edition at this point is the one most widely used by Theosophists.
The letters remain hard to approach. They contain a great deal of fascinating information, but it is presented in a rather ad hoc fashion, interlaced with remarks about individuals and ephemeral details that most readers will probably not want to bother to sort out.
Thus this anthology is a welcome addition to the literature. It culls quotes from the Mahatma Letters (using the second edition of Barker’s version) and groups them under fifty subject headings, such as “Adepts and Masters,” “Discipline and the Spiritual Path,” “The Occult Brotherhood and Their Mission,” and “Tibet.” The selections are concise, readable, and intelligent, and will make a much more accessible introduction to this material than either of the complete editions. At this point Insights from the Masters is no doubt the best entrance point to the letters. I believe that it will be useful for students at all levels.
The book could be improved. It includes a number of photos and images of individuals mentioned in the letters, but without captions, so one is often left guessing about these people’s identities. And while citations are given to Barker’s second edition of The Mahatma Letters, they do not indicate which Master is speaking. Furthermore, the glossary, based on HPB’s Theosophical Glossary and Gottfried de Purucker’s Occult Glossary, is sometimes unreliable. Contrary to what it says here, for example, “Poseidon” was not the name of the chief city in Atlantis. Plato, the original source of the Atlantis myth, leaves it unnamed, and the Masters themselves, as quoted in this volume, speak of it as “Poseidonis.” The magus Éliphas Lévi was not “unfrocked” as a priest “due to his kabalistic interests,” but dropped out of seminary before ordination because he had fallen in love. The eighteenth-century British astronomer was not “John Flamsted,” but John Flamsteed. The Hebrew word Adonai, literally meaning “my Lord” and applied to God, is not “the same as Adonis,” a mythical figure whose death was lamented annually by the ancient Semites, although the two names come from the same root.
Although this collection is useful and engaging, it still remains to provide some kind of adequate and balanced portrait of the Masters. Conventional scholars take it as a given that the Masters were a hoax cooked up by Blavatsky, while Theosophical writers often speak of them as quasi-divine (a danger the Masters themselves warned against). Thus there has been no really deep inquiry into who they actually may have been and what they were saying. Were they Buddhists? They say they are. Morya speaks of the Buddhist text Khudikka Patha as “my family Bible.” On the other hand, K.H. speaks of “‘the divine Self perceived or seen by Self,’ the Atman,” when every Buddhist I have ever known or read denies the existence of any such Atman. (All emphasis in quotations is from the original.) Indeed anatman, or anatta, the doctrine of “no-self,” is one of the main points on which Buddhism diverges from Hinduism. While K.H. insists, “We are not Adwaitees [sic],” the Mahatmas sound more like adherents of the Advanta Vedanta.
In addition, rather than the quasi-divine beings imagined by many Theosophists, the Masters come across as all too human. They are not above making snide comments to Hume about Sinnett, and vice versa. At one point K.H. tells Hume, “You have now more chances [for the attainment of paranormal powers] before you than my zoophagous friend Mr. Sinnett.” At another point K.H. writes to Sinnett saying, “There’s one thing, at any rate, we can never be accused of inventing: and that is Mr. Hume himself. To invent his like transcends the highest Siddhi powers we know of.” Often the Masters sound irritable and contemptuous of their correspondents. Admittedly, they were writing to Victorian Englishmen, who were often pompous and self-congratulatory in their own right. All the same, the Mahatma Letters do not read like sacred or quasi-infallible texts. Rather they are a glimpse into the ideas and characters of fascinating but quite fallible figures whose identities we are likely never to know.
The proceeds from the sales of this book will be donated to projects supported by the Theosophical Order of Service of Canada.
Faith beyond Belief: Spirituality for Our Times; A Conversation.
DAVID STEINDL-RAST and ANSELM GRÜN
Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2016. 192 pp., paper; $17.95.
As scientific findings have weakened the strength of the Genesis story, and as our horizons expand beyond the limits of our own provincial tribes, the literal teachings of most forms of organized religion hold less and less water. Thus it becomes ever more important to develop forms of spiritual faith that take us past Sunday School teachings.
As the author of a book by the same title, I was particularly interested to read David Steindl-Rast and Anselm Grün’s Faith beyond Belief. While my 2012 title had addressed postcritical faith among people who had largely left traditional religion behind, I knew these authors, both Benedictine monks, would be sharing a form of postliteral faith that allows them to remain within the religious walls. Faith beyond Belief: Spirituality for Our Times was published originally in German in 2015, and oddly, the German title (Das glauben wir: “This We Believe”) makes no reference to the distinction between faith and belief. However, in both languages the subtitle, Spirituality for Our Times, discloses the authors’ appreciation that an update to stagnant dogmatic belief systems is in order. The second subtitle, A Conversation, suggests that we can no longer demand spiritual certainties from our religious authorities, but rather are called to engage actively in discussions that help broaden the spiritual landscape for everyone.
Though his name appears nowhere on the cover, this book owes much of its genius to its editor, Johannes Kaup, a radio journalist in Austria who organized the interviews with Steindl-Rast and Grün on which the book is based. The interview format works well, and when the two monks occasionally veer off into what sounds like standard religious jargon, it is Kaup’s clarifications, and continual efforts to circle the discussion back to his original questions, that keep the book focused on what faith beyond belief really means.
The early chapters seek to distinguish that in our experience which comes from the ego, or fear-based selfishness, from that which comes from the I (as discovered in the process of individuation) and which itself serves as a prerequisite to the experience of “the center where I am one and am joined with others . . . the divine Self.”
A later chapter urges us to bid good-bye to “Infantile Images of God” by considering what images of God would be life-affirming. This is followed by an invitation to join “In Dialog with the Mystery” and “Live Ultimately” by “Being Entirely My Self.”
Reading Faith Beyond Belief is no lightweight experience. It is obvious that Steindl-Rast, Grün, and Kaup are all masters of complex reasoning, and their perspectives serve to expand our thought patterns well beyond the obvious. I particularly liked Steindl-Rast’s description of redemption: “a liberation from encapsulation in sin . . . ‘a dirty spot on my vest’ . . . and into community, not only with other people but also with the animals, the plants, and the whole universe.” All three contributors are well versed in depth psychology, and also seem to live and embody the most advanced faith development stages as described by James Fowler and others, where humility, universality and oneness prevail over the divisive certainties of most of organized religion. Steindl-Rast provides further richness by frequently pointing out connections between Christianity and Buddhism.
This book serves as an excellent resource for anyone inclined toward ongoing allegiance to one of our richest longstanding religious traditions but who has found its dogmatic literalisms too limiting. It is a conversation that may help readers find a way toward a nonliteral faith once their critical minds no longer allow literal acceptance of explicit religious beliefs. Though remaining deeply involved in Christianity, the authors generously share their own form of faith, a “universal human primeval faith [which is] is expressed in the various traditions in quite different ways and is formulated in very different terms. But common to all us humans is trust in life, in the Mystery we point to with the word God . . . trusting in one another [and in] . . . what can join us all together in our innermost being.”
Margaret Placentra Johnston
The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, 2012).
Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End-of-Life Care
KOSHIN PALEY ELLISON and MATT WEINGAST, EDITORS
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom, 2016. 347 pp., paper, $19.95.
Empty handed I entered
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going—
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
Recently a study was conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital on newly diagnosed lung cancer patients. The control group was given excellent medical care. The intervention group got medical care as well as palliative care, which is intended to provide relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.
It turned out that those who got both types of care had a better quality of life and fewer bouts of depression, were less likely to be hospitalized, and also lived on average 2.7 months longer. There is a belief among physicians that with palliative care, one may die better but one also may die sooner. This study suggests that this belief is incorrect.
The question is, then: what kind of care can not only prolong life, but can also provide one with the strength to understand, accept, and see what has gotten entangled in one’s life journey? The answer is, living with an enlightened perception. The care that provides such a perspective is called contemplative care, or spiritual care. But contemplative care does not have to be given only at the end of life. It is a lifetime lesson.
The essence of spiritual care is contemplating what is real and developing awareness of the present. The Theravada Buddhist teachings encourage people to prepare for the end-of-life journey. Why is meditation of any form such an important part of this journey? It is because people who meditate regularly will generally have less fear of death. The have developed an inner sense of balance and equanimity. Mindfulness brings a deep appreciation of moment to moment impermanence.
The editors of Awake at the Bedside have put together a profound collection of readings. These essays and poems introduce us to a deeply spiritual aspect of care. On a personal note, Awake at the Bedside came as a great gift for me. Inspired by Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live, I am living this year as if it is the last year of my life. This book has become a new companion on my own journey.
Stephen and Ondrea Levine have a chapter in this book titled “Don’t Wait for Tomorrow,” which gives six meditations on death and dying. This is contemplative care for oneself and others, as the end-of-life journey will inevitably commence for everyone sooner or later. We listen to the one who is dying. A hand held sometimes brings better relief than strong medicines. We live with forgiveness in heart and resolved regrets. We mirror lovingkindness and compassion. We don’t wait for tomorrow but learn to live in the present.
In another article, Anyen Rinpoche talks about creating a “Dharma Vision.” We take great efforts in our everyday lives, and we should make similar efforts in our preparation for the end of life. Living with Dharma Vision means that there is no difference between our everyday spiritual practice and one that we engage in at the time of our approaching death. We create a Dharma Will, store it in a Dharma Box, and share it with our trusted Dharma Friends. This is the spiritual directive that we share with our core group. It provides a skillful means for navigating through the dying process. Anyen Rinpoche also provides guided meditations on contemplating impermanence as an integral element of our lives.
Larry Rosenberg offers three aspects of death awareness practices: awareness of the inevitability of death, awareness of the time of death, and awareness that only insight into Dharma can help us at the time of death. These reflections can be practiced daily. The caregiver can practice these with the dying person. It is not morbid; it brings peace in the face of pain and suffering.
No collection of readings on contemplative care could be complete without teachings by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “Dying patients are the best teachers in the whole world and they teach you not only about the process of dying, which is very easy to understand, but also about the process of living,” she says here. “To live fully means not being afraid of living and not being afraid of dying.” The caregiver should take care of the person’s physical needs first and then take care of the emotional needs—the unfinished business. This is the crux of contemplative care. It means letting what is natural take place, as well as allowing grief and anger to exist as natural phases and not to be suppressed. Dying is not the nightmare, she says; it is what we make for one another right here that is the nightmare.
This is not a book that is to be read once and put aside. It is a companion to be taken along wherever we go. Ultimately it is not about dying. It is about caring, both for ourselves and others. The pioneers of contemplative care offer us words of wisdom, stories that inspire, and poems that make us cry. Keep this book at your bedside. It is a presence that can inspire awakening.
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.
Inside Knowledge: How to Activate the Radical New Vision of Reality of Tibetan Lama Tarthang Tulku
JACK PETRANKER, EDITOR
Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Publishing, 2015. xxi + 225 pp., paper, $18.95
We often experience time and space as a cruel iron prison. They may be navigated, but they cannot be conquered. Knowledge can at best help us live more comfortably within them.
Or maybe not. Tarthang Tulku—one of very few Tibetan lamas in the West to try to go past the boundaries of Buddhist thought—has developed a vision, called Time, Space, and Knowledge (usually abbreviated as TSK), that enables us to see these primordial forces in fresh and revolutionary ways. His first book on the subject, Time, Space, and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality appeared in 1977, and in the years since, he has added to his body of work with titles such as Love of Knowledge (1987) and Knowledge of Time and Space (1990). The latest offering, edited by Jack Petranker, a longtime student and teacher of TSK, is Inside Knowledge.
It’s hard to characterize the TSK vision, because, as Tarthang Tulku stresses, it is not a theory but a method of approach. In his preface to this book, Petranker writes, “the TSK Vision is not about ‘getting’ any specific result or ‘having’ any particular experience. In TSK it is the questions that matter.” It is perhaps best seen through adjectives rather than through axioms: the words “open,” “light,” “playful,” and “spontaneous” appear frequently.
“There is no solid self,” says Tarthang Tulku in an interview reprinted in this volume. “You are an open-ended expression of time, space and knowledge . . . By comparison, ordinary ‘human being,’ in which our Being is obscured, is a very mechanical process. Our reactions are practically of the ‘knee jerk’ variety, and we’re motivated by a small set of needs, predicated on insecurity and lack of fulfillment.”
The TSK vision frequently contrasts an ordinary experience of time, space, and knowledge—frozen, mechanical, and repetitive—with a fresher vision that can be explored experientially. “A zeroless dimensionality is available to us: grounded in uninterruptible openness,” Tarthang Tulku writes elsewhere in this volume.
Rather than pushing any further into the realm of concepts and definitions, it might be better to give a flavor of TSK through its exercises, a number of which appear at the back of this book. Here is one, “Space between Thoughts”: “As you observe your thoughts passing, watch very sensitively for the moment when one thought ends and another arises. This transition is very quick and subtle, but involves the momentary availability of a space which you can contact and even expand. This space has a quality of openness, free from the usual discursive and discriminative thinking.”
From my own experience, I would say that this exercise can shift and has shifted my awareness of time. Normally one thinks of time as a continuous flow: hence the common metaphors of a “stream” or “film” of consciousness. The exercise above suggests a new way of looking at time. One might call it atomistic: thoughts appear separately between the “space” that the exercise mentions, so that they are more like momentary flashes in a field of knowing than a never-ending and unstoppable stream.
I am in no way claiming that this experience, or any other, is the goal of the exercise: rather it is my observation of how things appear from a single given stance. The point is that there is an infinite number of such stances.
Here is part of another exercise: “Bring to mind the future, allowing it to be completely indeterminate. Instead of thinking about this or that coming event, let the unknown-ness of the future come to the foreground. As a gateway into this indeterminacy, reflect on the ongoing transformations through which living being evolves. Within the steady flow of linear time, there are movements we would consider favorable and others that are unfavorable. Yet if you welcome the future, you may become aware of a dynamic that unfolds naturally toward improvement.”
Again to speak from my own experience: doing this exercise, I am less aware of myself as attempting to shift an immovable future away from certain outcomes and toward others. Instead I am aware of the future as a large, dark, fluid, but dynamic presence that is to be absorbed and assimilated and transformed.
This, too, is only one response out of countless possible responses.
The TSK vision is subtle and elusive, and not easy to formulate in a language like English. But it is approachable, and of the several books in the TSK series, this is (as it is meant to be) perhaps the best and most accessible introduction to this “knowingness” of a very different kind. Someone who reads this book is likely to go away from it viewing time, space, and knowledge less as forbidding and impenetrable walls and more like an energy that is always present and available for dynamic creativity.
Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015, viii + 375 pages, paper, $29.95.
I have long been fascinated with the eruption of religious enthusiasms, new religions, and reformist movements that took place in the nineteenth century in upstate New York, in an area that has been dubbed “the burned-over district” — so called not for physical fires, but for the fiery evangelical revivals and messianic utopian schemes that burnt their way through the region. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Oneida utopians, the women’s movement, and spiritualism all arose on New York soil, and that hardly exhausts the list.
Who better to provide an overview of these sects than Joscelyn Godwin, whose earlier book The Theosophical Enlightenment masterfully surveyed the origins and influences of the esoteric and occult currents in the nineteenth century English-speaking world? Despite its much tighter geographical focus, Upstate Cauldron can fairly be considered a companion volume to the earlier book, as Godwin’s thorough approach and wry bemusement are evident in both surveys.
While some figures treated here are likely familiar, such as H.P. Blavatsky, Joseph Smith, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and possibly the self-proclaimed Rosicrucian Paschal Beverly Randolph, many others have been waiting to be rescued from obscurity by Godwin. These would include Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend; Handsome Lake, the prophet of a Native American religion; Thomas Lake Harris, founder of the Brotherhood of the New Life; Robert Ingersoll, crusading freethinker and atheist; and Cyrus Reed Teed, founder of Koreshanity and exponent of the view that we are living within a hollow earth, all scientific evidence to the contrary. Some of these worthies were famous in their day, but most have fallen from present awareness.
Another in this vein is Elbert Hubbard, a pop philosopher of uplift whose prolific works were read by hundreds of thousands of readers a century ago, but who passed from view after he and his wife went down with the Lusitania when it was sunk by the Germans in 1915.
Theosophists appear several times in this history, not just HPB and Henry Steel Olcott, but others less known, notably Matilda Joslyn Gage, who coauthored the History of Woman Suffrage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Mrs. Gage was to become the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, passing along her interest in Theosophy to him. Baum would go on to author the Oz series of children’s books, which Godwin notes have both Theosophical and Gnostic elements.
Godwin also reminds us that it was Josephine Cables, a Theosophist in Rochester, New York, who helped rouse the Theosophical Society in America out of the dormancy it had fallen into after the departure of HPB and Olcott for India in 1878. In 1882 she applied to the Adyar headquarters for a charter for a Rochester branch. It was the first American branch to be chartered since the TS’s founding in 1875.
As might be expected, spiritualism — perhaps the most prominent new religious movement to catch fire from the 1840s on — is a constant presence in Upstate Cauldron. Its participants overlap with nearly every reform movement of the era: abolitionism, free thought, women’s suffrage, utopian socialism, communalism, free love, and temperance. As spiritualism became more formalized, with some wings becoming quasi-Christian denominations, it also split into competing camps with ever-shifting alliances. Godwin covers some of this in passing here, but I’d love to see him devote a whole book to the spiritualist saga.
An unexpected chapter towards the end treats the Arts and Crafts movement’s manifestations in New York. This initially struck me as an incongruous addition to the book, but through his examination of participants such as Gustav Stickley, who published The Craftsman magazine, championed “simplicity” as a spiritual and aesthetic ideal, and founded a quasi-utopian company town for his furniture factory, I came to see the connection.
Upstate Cauldron’s final chapter delves into more recent manifestations of eccentric spirituality in upstate New York. These include “Father Francis” (Archbishop William Henry Francis Brothers), a latter-day “wandering bishop” who shepherded an eclectic congregation in Woodstock; Peter Lamborn Wilson, esoteric anarcho-scalliwag whose series of “poetic actions” in the region are seemingly performed with a tongue-in-cheek attitude wholly absent from the book’s other figures; Anthony Damiani, proprietor of the American Brahman bookstore in Ithaca and a disciple of author Paul Brunton who attracted his own circle of devoted followers; and Jane Roberts, channeler of Seth and author of Seth Speaks and The Seth Material.
In parting, Godwin provides maps and a gazetteer of some 150 sites in upstate New York that the reader can visit. Given that Godwin’s photos of such sites are peppered throughout the book, he clearly devoted years to visiting them himself and wishes to encourage others to do so as well. As he notes, these are a historical legacy waiting to be recognized.
Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.
Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life through Transcendental Meditation
NORMAN E. ROSENTHAL, M.D.
New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016. 320 pp., hardcover, $ 27.
The famous Sufi master Mullah Nasruddin was once found searching for something outside his house. People asked him, “What are you looking for?” He said, “I am looking for my key.” Again they asked, “Where did you lose it?” and he said, “In my house.” Incredulously they asked, “Why are you looking here?” and he replied,” There is more light here!” When this story was told to a Zen master, his interpretation was, “Looking is the key!”
This is the age where everyone is looking — looking for something that will help one navigate one’s way through a world of conflict, dissatisfaction, and an overall feeling of wanting and unhappiness. Technology and other advances (dare we say smartphones!) bring us more anxiety than peace, gobbling up our internal space and quiet. The search has led more and more people towards meditation.
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi learned the ancient Vedic technique of meditation in the Himalayas and brought it to the public as Transcendental Meditation (TM). He knew it had great potential to help people. His message was, “Meditate, dive within, and expand your consciousness.” You change, and the world around you follows.
Norman E. Rosenthal’s Super Mind provides a roadmap towards that goal. Indeed, TM is goal-oriented. This simple technique, practiced twenty minutes twice a day, is easy to learn and enjoyable to practice. Research studies abound on TM’s effectiveness for stress and stress-related conditions. The benefits in daily life are often documented almost like a checklist: inner calm, reduced cortisol, normalized blood pressure, improved brain function and memory, reduced insomnia. A recent study documented the positive impact of TM on stressed-out college students.
The Maharishi talked about several states of consciousness. The three basic ones are sleeping, waking, and dreaming. Four more are transcendence (experience of self in silence of meditation), cosmic consciousness (experience of the transcendent in activity), refined cosmic consciousness (maximum development of senses and emotions), and unity consciousness (experiencing the transcendental reality within yourself and within everyone and everything). Rosenthal refers to the last three collectively as the Super Mind. He chooses this term because it is a state of heightened aptitude, problem-solving ability, and also a state of emotional empathy and sensitivity, even enhancing diplomatic skills in dealing with day-to-day situations. It is a state of consistent living in peak condition.
Rosenthal’s 2012 book, Transcendence: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life through Transcendental Meditation, dealt specifically with how TM could help people with problems. Super Mind is broader in its reach, asking how everyone can lead a richer and more creative life. The book is organized into a description of the new science of consciousness, with measurable data; techniques for expanding consciousness; subjective experiences; the physiological basis of Super Mind; and finally the mysterious process of how “repeated settling” in meditation can lead to “a continuum of calmness.” Reading through Rosenthal’s book is a fascinating journey.
I found one discussion particularly interesting. It addressed the difference between TM and mindfulness. We know mindfulness means moment-to-moment clarity of observation. A wandering mind is just a state to note and let go of. Researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University developed an application for the iPhone recording subjects’ activity at random moments and whether their thoughts were pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. They found that mind wandering was common. They also found that people were happy when their minds were on a task, less happy when minds were wandering to neutral topics, and least happy when minds were wandering to unpleasant topics. Using time sequence analysis, they found that mind wandering preceded unhappiness. The Harvard researchers describe mind wandering as the brain’s default mode of operation and the frontal portions of brain as the default mode network (DMN).
Here is the greatest difference between mindfulness and TM: mindfulness focuses on the task at hand. If the mind that does not wander is a happy one, then mindfulness will make people happier. TM, by contrast, does not involve focusing on the present. The mantra used in TM allows the mind to transcend the present. Is transcendence a state of wandering, then? If so, does it make people less happy? But TM has been shown to enhance happiness. Scientifically speaking, mindfulness is reduced DMN activity (focus and attention), while TM increases DMN activity. The great question is: can one practice both? Rosenthal says there is no reason not to. It is a compelling discussion.
Rosenthal discusses many personal experiences, his own and others’, throughout the book, and these are very helpful. The appendices include a detailed “Consciousness Integration Questionnaire”; end notes for each chapter, with sources; and a question and answer session with Bob Roth, who has been teaching TM for forty-five years. A first-time reader would find it enlightening.
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.
Under a Sacred Sky: Essays on the Practice and Philosophy of Astrology
Bournemouth, England: Wessex Astrologer, 2015. 200 pp., paper, $21.
Although nearly all of Ray Grasse’s essays in this book have previously appeared in fairly recondite publications like Dell Horoscope, The Mountain Astrologer, or this magazine, Grasse’s enough of a versatile correspondent of symbolism and star lore to have something for everyone — from professional astrologers to a person on the street. Covering everything from chakras to cinema to counseling, Grasse, a former assistant editor of Quest, seeks to uncover the power of the stars to ignite modern life with more sacredness and meaning.
Grasse does best with his longer essays, especially as they open windows into novel takes and techniques that he’s picked up over the years. In his “Astrology and the Chakras” essay, Grasse explains the system of chakric-planetary correspondences he learned from Paramahansa Yogananda’s disciples. With five case studies, Grasse shows how to put this simple system into practice. It’s fascinating fodder for better aligning yourself with your planets and your chakras. In “Tectonic Triggers: The Hidden Power of Station Points,” the author also probes how stationing planets — planets that appear to stand still between retrograding or moving direct — can have surprising, powerful resonances in someone’s life. Grasse examines the implications for each possible stationing planet with examples from the charts of celebrities and major world events. There’s also plenty of meat both for beginners and for advanced students of astrology in Grasse’s evaluations of stern Saturn’s lessons in his essay, “Saturn, the Late Bloomer: Understanding the Long-Range Dynamics of Saturn in the Horoscope.”
Fortunately, Grasse doesn’t stop with providing grounded, sage insights into technique. In “The Seven Most Common Mistakes Made by Astrologers,” he dispenses practical wisdom to practicing astrologers (and indirectly to those who visit them). He speaks frankly as a professional who’s earned his stars from the scars of well-intentioned bad practices with clients. Many should heed his wisdom here, as is true for the shorter essay, “What Goes Around Comes Around: Learning from Past Transits to Better Understand Future Trends,” that follows it.
Grasse, who is a photographer as well as an astrologer, is no less adroit when he broadens his telescopic lens to focus on culture and cinema. In two different essays, Grasse shows how cinema, cosmos, and constellations converge to reflect accurately what’s going on in the psyche of the world. Grasse scores at connecting planetary line-ups with movie premieres, like the epic traffic jam of planets in acquisitive Taurus when Citizen Kane opened in 1941.
In another two essays, he delves into the symphony of symbolic synchrony in pop music and culture as they meet in the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. In “Tuning into the Zeitgeist: Riding the Waves of Planetary Change,” Grasse uses personal anecdotes and stories of famous artists to illustrate how periods of history might impress themselves more on us than we would like to recognize. Astrology, according to Grasse, shows these lasting imprints, even as they reverberate into the distant past. Grasse broadens his excavation of how periods of time come alive in “Monsters, Mystics, and the Collective Unconscious: Planetary Cycles and the Outer Limits of the Zeitgeist.” It’s uncanny how particular planets combine to illuminate the mythical and real monsters that plague our dreams and social aspirations.
Less successful are Grasse’s essays on the coming age of Aquarius. Although the esoteric notion of the Great Ages has entered pop consciousness, Grasse glosses over the controversy, at least among astrologers, about what truly constitutes an age and the trappings associated with it, like “revolutionary” Uranus as the ruler of the sign of Aquarius. Grasse never questions the significance of Great Ages, treating them as faits accomplis rather than as a twentieth-century exposition of the classical idea of the precession of the equinoxes. These Great Ages could be a posteriori readings of history, or they could indeed provide a clearer reading into the future. Unfortunately, Grasse never bothers to determine which.
That could be because Grasse is more than just a correspondent; he’s a believer. Nevertheless, he’s much too broad-minded to be evangelical or zealous about his symbolic vision of the world. He would rather have a conversation about it, as he does in two separate interviews with critically acclaimed author-astrologers Richard Tarnas and Laurence Hillman, the son of archetypal psychologist James Hillman. We may have to wait for another book for Grasse to draw his acute critical eye to our suppositions about the philosophical underpinnings of astrology and its most hallowed beliefs. Meanwhile, in Under a Sacred Sky, we have a gem of a book that shows how astrology’s symbols streak across and illuminate our minds wherever we look.
Samuel F. Reynolds
Samuel F. Reynolds, a former skeptic, had a life-changing visit to an astrologer and has since spent twenty-five years doing charts and studying astrology. Now he consults, writes, and teaches astrology full-time.
How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible.
New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2016. 286 pp., paper, $19.
The typical American churchgoer has limited engagement with contemporary scholarship regarding the Jewish and Christian scriptures. There is a tendency to take them at face value, even in communities where modern scholarship is welcome. Others on the liberal end of the spectrum, whether religious or not, may simply dismiss the texts without engaging with scholarship, perhaps believing it to be too technical to be of interest.
Richard Smoley has rendered a fine service for those who want to understand these texts and the origins of Christianity. The book is primarily occupied with a broad and highly readable summary of current historical, archeological, and literary research on the Bible. Of course, scholarship is always changing, and the field is huge. Smoley does not attempt to be comprehensive — an impossible task. Rather he provides a good summary of the mainstream consensus, with caveats that there are differing views and continuous new developments. He also provides notes and a Further Reading section that will help the interested reader proceed into more specialized works.
Smoley is to be praised for the care and honesty he brings to his task. He provides information on his background and theological views, enabling the reader to understand his context and bias. As he notes, “I have never read anything by any scholar that was not, to some degree, conditioned by his or her own ideology.” Especially with the quest for the historical Jesus, the offerings generally reveal more about the questors than about Jesus. Smoley steers cautiously through these waters, and argues for positions that make maximum use of the available evidence, instead of discarding large parts of the texts for shaky reasons, or ruling out miracles or healings on principle.
Of particular interest to Theosophical readers, Smoley points out the usefulness of the esoteric traditions for understanding the Bible in truly helpful ways, which are not dependent on a literal reading or destroyed by the questions raised by scholarship. In this pursuit, he draws on a deep working familiarity with traditions ancient (Kabbalah) and modern (A Course in Miracles). He is not afraid to question esoteric truisms (for example, the claim that John the Baptist was Elijah reincarnated), but looks at biblical passages on these subjects with fresh eyes. This aspect of the book is not an end note, but is integrated throughout, bringing esotericism into a living conversation with some of the most fascinating corners of modern biblical scholarship, such as Margaret Barker’s work on the Great Angel.
As Smoley points out, the Bible is important for all of us. Whether we are Christian or not, religious or not, the Bible is part of the “thrownness” of our culture. We may run from it, but we cannot hide. With a guide like Smoley, we can engage it skillfully, and to our benefit.
John Plummer is an independent theologian and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong
GUIDO MINA DI SOSPIRO
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2015. 226 pp., paper, $16.95.
Euclidean geometry is the geometry of plain surfaces and three-dimensional space, but non-Euclidean geometry is the geometry of curved surfaces, hence it is indeed an appropriate term for this kind of ping-pong.
—Rupert Sheldrake, in a note to Guido Mina di Sospiro
We live in a world of spin, above us the spinning, ever watchful orbits of satellites, our minds filled with the twists and turns of media spin doctors, and our lives lived in the spinning maze of global commerce. There is no escaping it. Yet the question, really, is not one of escape, but how to enjoy the playing in itself.
Guido Mina di Sospiro’s wonderful new book The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong brings the reader on a journey through a playful, personal, and deep relationship with the everyday, under the auspices of Mina di Sospiro’s quest to discover the intimate secrets contained in the fine art of ping-pong, and in the process the fine art of spin. Along the way is woven an intricate image of how subtle influences attend even the most mundane acts. If we pay attention, we’re given clues into how the profundity we often seek in more exotic pursuits can be found in the most basic elements of the everyday.
The book’s opening chapter includes a ping-pong faceoff between Mina di Sospiro and biologist Rupert Sheldrake, which provides the philosophical motivation for a new understanding of table tennis and its ability to capture some of the stranger nuances of our current culture. It is these odd angles and unexpected encounters that provide a rare opportunity to access an unspoken influence behind everyday façades. In Mina di Sospiro’s game against Sheldrake, we also find a hint at the wide-ranging dialogue of ideas that develops throughout the book. As the author writes in his prelude:
Down the centuries Taoism, Zen, and Sufism have created a large repertoire of short and seemingly mundane stories whose goal is that of violating logics and challenging our assumptions. Twentieth-century traditionalists have done much of the same, by turning received notions upside down. Ping-pong, as I will show, has so many baffling and refreshingly illogical qualities about it that, whenever I happened to play an occasional game, somehow it echoed inside me in a new and increasingly more resonant way. And as a result of that I marveled all the more at how magical it was to spin that little ball and make it fly, bounce on the table and off the opponent’s racket in mysterious ways. (Emphasis Mina di Sospiro’s)
Mina di Sospiro also explores the often mercurial nature of our global society through the vehicle of a popular pastime. In the descriptions of the players and personas from many nations that the author encounters, the reader is invited to feel the essential elements that define each nation’s identity. Anyone who has traveled or explored other cultures will laugh and be touched by the quirky personal tics, accurately portrayed here, that each country instills in its residents.
As with The Forbidden Book, Mina di Sospiro’s recent collaboration with the noted scholar of esoteric history Joscelyn Godwin (reviewed in Quest, summer 2014), there’s a resonance in this work that goes beyond the surface. Mina di Sospiro’s writing is known for its subtle craftsmanship, and it is surprising to read a book that manages to work in international relations, cultural differences, and personal anecdotes while focusing on philosophy, physics, and initiation, all seen through the lens of ping-pong. The closest comparison I can think of is Roland Barthes’s chapter in Mythologies on professional wrestling, but that doesn’t have the same heart.
Compared in some reviews to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong is actually much more direct in its reflections of the interstices of daily living and deeper thinking, and doesn’t have the cultural baggage associated with Robert M. Pirsig’s well-known work. Mina di Sospiro’s prose reminds me a bit of J.-K. Huysman’s creative reworking of observational realism, where the frame of anecdotal experience holds together an insightful exploration of human, and humane, existence. One doesn’t get the sense of an attempt to explain more than the work, or author, can hold. Mina di Sospiro is too enraptured with the subtle mysteries of life to invite the reader to ruin the play of existential light and shadow with artificial theories.
Long-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award and praised by Publisher’s Weekly editor Seth Satterlee, the book has already received a number of positive reviews, which, we can hope, will open the door for readers expecting standard sports journalism to a more nuanced relationship with their experiences. Erudite, experimental, and engaging, Mina di Sospiro has given us a work that breaks new ground in sports writing. Whether or not you ever pick up a paddle, The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong provides an initiation into a visionary life, igniting the fires of inspiration through an intriguing intimacy with the mysteries of daily experience.
David Metcalfe is the acting director for the Liminal Analytics: Applied Research Collaborative and a contributing editor for Limitless Mind on the Reality Sandwich website. This review originally appeared on The Daily Grail site.
The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary
EDITED BY SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR ET AL.
San Francisco: Harper One, 2015. lix +1988 pp., hardcover, $59.99.
The Qur’an (or Koran, or, in this edition, Quran), as is well known, is the holy book of Islam. As the Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr says in his introduction to this new translation, although the Prophet Muhammad was the instrument through which this text was revealed, “its Author is God.” In Muslim belief, the very sound of the words of the text — in the original Arabic and only in the original Arabic — is a divine transmission.
Several years ago the publisher of Harper One approached Nasr and asked him to compile a new study edition of the Qur’an. He agreed on the condition that “this would be a Muslim effort and that . . . it would not be determined or guided by assertions presented by non-Muslim Western scholars and orientalists who . . . do not accept it as the Word of God” (emphasis Nasr’s). It would also exclude “modernistic or fundamentalist interpretations that have appeared in parts of the Islamic world during the past two centuries.”
The result is a compendious new version. In addition to Nasr’s introduction, there is a full set of verse-by-verse annotations on the text, along with essays on such subjects as the Qur’an’s influence on art, science, and Islamic law, as well as its views on other religions, ethics and human rights, war, and death and the afterlife.
As a reviewer, I am limited in being neither a scholar of Islam nor an Arabic speaker. So I will restrict my comments to the extent that this edition succeeds in presenting the Qur’an to a general reader in the English-speaking world.
To turn to the translation: for the most part it is clear, though the English is far from impressive. The translators try to give the work an archaic flavor that tries to do justice to the grandeur of the original but does not succeed. It is dangerous to use an archaizing style unless you are a master of prose in a way that these translators are not. Thus we get “And naught prevents men from believing when guidance comes unto them, and from seeking forgiveness of their Lord, save that [they await] the wont of those of old to come upon them, or the punishment to come upon them face-to-face” (18:55; the bracketed insertion is the translators’). Sometimes the translation is simply ungrammatical: “Whosoever Thou shieldest from evil deeds on that Day, upon him hast Thou had mercy” (40:9). If you are going to use the archaizing “whosoever,” it would behoove you to stay the course and get the case right with “whomsoever.”
The annotations seem more successful, and the editors have highlighted the deeper and more esoteric contents of the text. I would expect that a reader who wanted to look into the mystical and esoteric elements of the Qur’an would prefer this edition over most others.
The essays in the third section are a mixed lot. Probably the most successful is Hamza Yusuf’s “Death, Dying, and the Afterlife in the Quran,” which gives a clear and succinct view of Islamic eschatology. William C. Chittick’s essay “The Quran and Sufism” is also helpful, although it avoids the awkward question of forms of Sufism that ignore or bypass Qur’anic norms. Others, notably Toby Mayer’s “Traditions of Esoteric and Sapiential Quranic Commentary,” are couched in an academic terminology that will be unappetizing to all but the specialist.
This edition is marred by some notable omissions. In the first place, although it is laced with Arabic words, it lacks a glossary of basic terms. At the same time, the index is a forest of citations, with “four kinds of locator numbers” printed in two colors, that make it unusable for many purposes.
An even more glaring omission is the lack of an essay that provides a historical context. It is not possible to grasp the context of the Qur’an without at least some understanding of what was going on in the Arabia of Muhammad’s time. The editors acknowledge this point to the extent of including a number of maps that illustrate this context, but without any broader narrative that enable one to make full sense or use of them.
Similarly, Hamza Yusuf’s essay points out that “the Arabs of the day . . . did not believe in an Afterlife.” This is extremely useful to know: it explains the Qur’an’s heavy emphasis on the resurrection and judgment on the Last Day. But what else did the Arabs of Muhammad’s time believe? Who were the people he was preaching to? To leave us with little more than the idea that they were “idolaters” tells us virtually nothing.
The background to this edition is best understood by grasping that S.H. Nasr is the leading living exponent of the religio-philosophical school known as Traditionalism. (For more on Traditionalism, see “Islam and Prince Charles” on page TK.) The paucity of historical material, for example, is, I suspect, the result of the Traditionalists’ relative indifference to historical fact. For them, historical fact, even when true, is merely contingent; its chief, or sole, value is to illustrate primordial metaphysical truths.
Although, to my mind, Traditionalism has serious limitations, it is not always mistaken. Although I imagine that many readers will be chagrined to see that this edition pays little attention to the status of women, Maria Massai Dakake’s essay “Quranic Ethics, Human Rights, and Society” avoids the pitfall of trying to justify Qur’anic ethics (including those regarding women) in terms of those of the modern West. In her discussion of 4:34, which reads in part, “The righteous women are devoutly obedient” to their husbands, she warns against present-day attempts “to reinterpret this verse in ways more acceptable to modern conceptions of women’s rights,” adding that “the fact remains that this verse is clearly at odds with contemporary Western views of appropriate spousal relations in marriage.” That is the plain sense of this verse, and one may as well face it.
The point is that the Qur’an and the civilization that is based on it cannot be crammed into a box of Western preconceptions.
In the end, there is much that is useful in this edition, and I would expect to turn to it first when delving into the Qur’an in the future. But I think a revised edition is necessary. The translation should be reworked by someone with a firmer command of English grammar and (one might hope) literary style. And the edition should include a glossary, an essay on the historical and sociological context of the Qur’an, and a less impenetrable index. Only then, I believe, will it take the place in contemporary culture to which it aspires.
For a longer version of this review, visit Richard Smoley’s blog, http://www.innerchristianity.com/blog.htm.
H.P. BLAVATSKY, EDITED BY MICHAEL GOMES
Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 2015. 356 + xxvi pp., paper, $17.
Renowned Theosophical scholar Michael Gomes has prepared a new edition of the Esoteric Instructions — a series of teachings originally written by H.P. Blavatsky for the use of the members of the Esoteric Section (ES) of the Theosophical Society.
The ES was formed by HPB in October 1888 “to promote the esoteric interests of the Theosophical Society by the deeper study of esoteric philosophy.” Soon after its formation, she began to write some “Instructions” that were privately circulated among the members of that Section. Instructions 1 and 2 were printed early in 1889, while Instruction 3 was issued in 1889–90.
In these works, HPB discusses a variety of esoteric and occult topics. Instruction 1 explores the power present in sounds, colors, and numbers, illustrating their correlation with planets, days, metals, and human principles. She also discusses the correspondence between macro- and microcosmic processes. Instruction 2 elucidates some obscure concepts from the previous discussion. It also examines the true nature of magic and its connection with the hierarchies of celestial beings. Instruction 3 elaborates on the human constitution from a more esoteric perspective. It examines the methods of development in the schools of hatha and raja yoga, along with the principles (tattvas) they activate. It also discusses the destiny of the different aspects of human consciousness after death.
In August 1890, Blavatsky formed an “Inner Group” of the ES, which consisted of twelve members — six men and six women. This group held weekly private meetings, where a more advanced teaching was orally given. These meetings dealt with a wide variety of esoteric teachings, in what can be regarded as a deepening of the exploration started in the Instructions. Topics included the different planes and states of consciousness, meditative exercises, the correspondence between the organs of the body and the principles of consciousness, and many other related subjects. What transpired in these meetings was carefully written down by the students and preserved in the form of minutes for each session.
The information in the three Instructions and the teachings of the Inner Group remained private until 1897, when they were made available to the general public in the “third volume” of The Secret Doctrine edited by Annie Besant. They appeared at the end of that volume under the heading “Some Papers on the Bearing of Occult Philosophy on Life.” The three Instructions were published as Papers 1, 2, and 3, and roughly 95 percent of the text of the minutes of the Inner Group was published under the subheading “Notes on Some Oral Teachings.”
In Esoteric Instructions: H.P. Blavatsky, Michael Gomes compiles the three sets of Instructions and the Notes, presenting them as a separate publication. It is important to mention that in this book, the Notes, originally published with no order or system, have been rearranged alphabetically under a series of headings so that the reader can use them as supplementary material in the study of the Instructions.
There are also four appendices with articles and documents written by HPB on matters related to the Instructions. “Practical Occultism” and “Occultism versus the Occult Arts” discuss the character of occultism and the qualifications necessary for its practice. Two “Preliminary Memoranda” explain the nature and work of the ES. The final document presents an editorial note by HPB on the article “Stray Thoughts on Death and Satan” by the French occultist Éliphas Lévi, where she discusses personal immortality. Along with Blavatsky’s remarks, there are some footnotes from one of her adept teachers, Mahatma Koot Hoomi.
In addition, Gomes provides an introduction exploring the historical context in which the ES was formed, how the Instructions were produced, and the origin of the Notes from the Inner Group. Throughout this work there are footnotes added by the editor providing general references to people and publications mentioned in the Instructions. When presenting the Notes, the editor also provides alternative readings derived from other records of the Inner Group teachings.
Esoteric Instructions: H.P. Blavatsky is a welcome publication of these lesser-known but important teachings in a compact and handy edition that the earnest student of Theosophy or esoteric subjects in general will find of great value.
Pablo Sender gives Theosophical lectures and classes throughout North and South America. His writings can be found on his website: www.pablosender.com.
The Presence of the Infinite: The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2015. xi + 285 pp., paper, $18.95.
Just when I thought I had a grasp on the meaning of the word postmodernity, I came across The Presence of the Infinite. This book not only put a whole new perspective on that word, it described in great detail the cutting edge of the next cultural movement that some expect will surpass postmodernity in scope and sophistication: post-postmodernity. And just when a significant part of our population might be about to come to terms with what McIntosh calls progressive spirituality, he challenges us to move toward the next, more comprehensive level — evolutionary spirituality.
The Presence of the Infinite is a highly intellectualized exploration of a new kind of unifying spiritual agreement that the author feels is on the horizon in America. If only evolutionary spirituality could gain traction in our fragmented culture, McIntosh claims, it would improve the overall quality of our collective spiritual experience, resulting in a greater sense of social solidarity and cooperation and supplying spiritual leadership for our civilization.
McIntosh contrasts evolutionary spirituality — still in its infancy — with the three main forms of spirituality that came before it: traditional religious spirituality, which “comprises America’s organized and historically established religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam”; secular spirituality, which includes atheism, secular humanism, and scientism; and progressive spirituality, encompassing movements such as Theosophy, New Thought, and other forms of New Age spirituality.
In McIntosh’s view, progressive spirituality, which serves as the antithesis of traditional religion and of secular modernity, is sort of on the right track but has failed to gain traction in mainstream society. One reason, he believes, is that progressive spirituality tends to discredit the valid contributions and achievements made by both secular modernity and the religious traditionalism that came before it.
Evolutionary spirituality, by contrast, will acknowledge “the spiritual quality of evolution’s ceaseless process of becoming.” It will offer a new synthesis based on an enlarged understanding of ultimate reality. Unlike progressive spirituality, it will respect the contributions and truths of all the earlier forms of spirituality, and will offer an improved and expanded set of values that allow us to experience greater beauty, truth, and goodness in our lives.
Furthermore, evolutionary spirituality acknowledges the differences between a nondual sense of the ultimate and a theistic one without feeling a need to resolve the gap between these two polarities. Rather they are given a chance to test and verify each other — synthesizing their strengths without erasing their differences.
Central to McIntosh’s premise is the stunning understanding that the pursuit and attainment of direct personal spiritual experience is the key driver for spiritual growth, and the primary means of evolving consciousness. Fostering this direct experience — as opposed to having spiritual truth dispensed by outer authorities of clergy and scripture, as in religious traditionalism, or dismissing it entirely, as in secular modernity — is the key factor that will bring evolutionary spirituality into fruition. McIntosh feels it is incumbent upon those who already enjoy such experiences to share their gifts — whether through the creation of liberating forms of art and music or through the writing of influential books — and to live up to their potential to bear spiritual fruit in their own lives.
I can readily buy McIntosh’s premise that enabling people to move toward direct experience of spirit (or connection or transcendence), by whatever name, will lead to individual transformation and to transformation of the overall culture as well. But despite great effort, I stumble on the way McIntosh derives proof of the existence of an intelligent Creator. He bases it on the sense that some kind of creative will or intelligence must have created the Big Bang in the first place and that this creative will or intelligence is continually still creating through the evolutionary process as humans continue to imagine and strive toward a better existence. He bases it also on the common human experience of connection, which, as he points out, most religions call the love of God. For me, this leans a bit too far into the theistic camp and detracts somewhat from my appreciation of the title: The Presence of the Infinite.
Overall, I am glad I read this book. Though I write on a related topic myself, I feel I have gained an enhanced appreciation of the type of faith that can evolve outside the walls of traditional religion — a perspective toward which increasing numbers are now being called, and of which it behooves us all to seek greater understanding.
Margaret Placentra Johnston
The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books).
A Jewel on a Silver Platter: Remembering Jiddu Krishnamurti
N.p: Peepal Leaves, 2015. 417 + xiii pp., $30 hardcover; $20 paper; $10 digital PDF.
A Jewel on a Silver Platter: Remembering Jiddu Krishnamurti is a collection of personal accounts about this modern spiritual teacher by those who knew him well. Its author, Padmanabhan Krishna, a longstanding member of the Theosophical Society, is a trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation in India and was rector of the Rajgat Besant School in Varanasi, India. He also knew Krishnamurti for many years and has a deep grasp of his teachings. All this puts him in an ideal position to write this book.
The author first seeks to provide a sense of who Krishnamurti was, not just as a teacher on a platform, but as a person in real life. A record of personal interactions, especially those during the last months of Krishnamurti’s life, illustrates his responses in different situations, which always revolved around his primary motive — a deep concern for the welfare of human beings. Interviews with senior associates such as Achyut Patwardhan, Vimala Thakar, Radha Burnier, and Mark Lee convey their experiences and their struggles to understand this extraordinary individual. (A version of an interview with Burnier, late international president of the TS, was published in Quest, spring 2015.) These reports, along with a collection of anecdotes, gives the reader access to intimate aspects of his personality that are not widely known.
The book also presents a fine collection of short essays written by Prof. Krishna that serve as a good introduction to Krishnamurti’s work. They either examine the fundamental aspects of his teachings or enquire into important matters of life in the manner furthered by Krishnamurti himself. There is a glossary of terms provided that the novice will find useful.
The author does not shy away from some interesting aspects of Krishnamurti’s personality and life, which constitute what is sometimes referred to as “the mystery of K.” Prof. Krishna enquires into his role as the “World Teacher,” something Krishnamurti typically refused to discuss in public. Several passages also show that Krishnamurti did not deny the existence of the Masters of Wisdom. For example, in one dialogue with Radha Burnier, Krishnamurti asked her, “Do you know what the Masters meant to amma [Annie Besant]? She would give her life for it! Knowing that, now tell me, do you believe in the Masters?” “Yes,” said Radhaji emphatically. Krishnaji held her hands and said, “Good!” Rather it was the misunderstandings of what the Masters really are, and the dependence that results, that Krishnamurti criticized.
The book also explores Krishnamurti’s remarkable sensitivity, which gave him perceptions and abilities most would regard as miraculous. There are accounts of instances in which he sensed invisible disturbances in places, perceived people’s thoughts, healed illnesses, and performed similar phenomena. Although he had these occult abilities, he was not attracted to them because, as he stated, this is “another form of power, it has nothing to do with goodness.” As the author remarks, “To him freedom from the ego was more essential than the cultivation of any power because the ego can misuse any power, including occult power.”
Krishnamurti’s life is a concrete embodiment of many Theosophical principles. His attitude and his at times cryptic statements suggest how a person who knows “the hidden side of things” firsthand acts in everyday life. For example, after finding out that a person they both knew had been arrested, Prof. Krishna tried to talk about it with Krishnamurti. However, says the author, “Before I could repeat the words I had heard on TV, he stopped me saying, ‘Don’t utter those words Sir! They attract evil. Just say poor fellow and move on.’ That was his level of purity.” Students of Theosophy familiar with the effect of negative thought-forms and their association with elementals and skandhas will recognize in Krishnamurti’s attitude the same advice repeatedly given by H.P. Blavatsky, Besant, and C.W. Leadbeater.
There are a few statements regarding the TS that its members may find inaccurate. As the author states, this is a truthful record of actual conversations, and they simply reflect the views of the speakers at that time. In fact, the book is written in a fair-minded spirit, true to Prof. Krishna’s personality, and certainly does not contain the kind of disparaging statements about Theosophical matters that one often finds in some books about the life of Krishnamurti.
A Jewel on a Silver Platter is a valuable addition to the literature about this influential world teacher. All those interested in his life, teachings, and approach to education would do well to add this significant resource to their bookshelves.
Pablo Sender lectures frequently for the TS worldwide. His writings are available on his website, www.pablosender.com.
The Process of Self-Transformation: Exploring Our Higher Potential for Effective Living
VICENTE HAO CHIN, JR.
Wheaton: Quest, 2015. 343 + xvi pp., paper, $24.95.
At the very beginning of The Process of Self-Transformation, Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., raises a critically important point. He asks, “How many schools teach children how to handle fear?” He then observes that not only do our schools ignore the question, they use fear to get students to follow the rules. Schools also ignore problems with anger and worry, yet we all suffer from these conditions from time to time and only by trial and error — if indeed we ever try — do we overcome those problems. Chin acknowledges that various groups talk about the need to overcome such negative feelings, but few if any ever suggest how we might do that.
In this book and in the Self-Transformation Seminars that he facilitates, Chin, former president of the Theosophical Society in the Philippines, gives people a step-by-step method to help them actualize their higher potential and overcome their psychological and spiritual problems. Early on in his book he encourages readers to notice that they have a dual nature: a higher nature, with an inner will motivated by principles and higher values; and a conditioned and self-centered nature, driven by desires and fears. He lists the characteristics of each and suggests ways to actualize the higher nature so that it can rid the lower nature of negative qualities.
Rather than simply telling the reader to trust that his methods work, the author provides a summary of success stories. One cannot help but be impressed by the testimonies of those who have benefited greatly from his approach.
Chin also discusses how a facilitator may help someone go through the process. While people can achieve success on their own, it would seem of enormous benefit to have a facilitator. On our own it is easy to give up when we discover that the path to success requires focus, effort, and determination. With an experienced person to encourage us, we are more likely to achieve our goal.
The reviewer is former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America. His book The Secret Gateway: The Mahatmas, Their Letters, and the Path was reviewed in Quest, summer 2015.
Art, Science, Religion, Spirituality: Seeking Wisdom and Harmony for a Fulfilling Life
DAVID V. WHITE
Knoxville, Tenn.: Meaningful Life Books, 2015. 347 pp., paper, $16.95.
Skeptico: What about people like me, who feel they have no artistic talent, for singing or anything else?
Wisdom Seeker: Everyone can sing!
Coming back from a divine music concert where I felt almost one with the music, I was thinking about David White’s book and the Venn diagram of art, science, religion, and spirituality. Where do these four aspects of life intersect? We tend to live separately in each of them, White says, and the people who live harmonious, fulfilling lives live in a place where they all meet. That is the central idea of this book. White wants us not only to see the possibility of a fulfilling life but to experience the reality ourselves.
White retired at the age of thirty-five (may all beings receive that blessing!) to reflect on what is important. He worked for many years in business, politics, and education but then spent several years studying spiritual practices. The insights in the book arose out of White’s extensive dedication to exploring the inner self. He saw how we compartmentalize our lives, and he also discovered the living edge where life happens and the separate currents mingle and merge.
The core motivation for a human being hasn’t changed throughout the centuries. It has always been to find happiness, joy, and harmony. The wise have pointed the way, whether through art, science, religion, or spiritual living. Listening to music, one forgets oneself. The way of science teaches one to dedicate one’s whole being to discovery. Religions point the way to practices that enrich our inner being and our relationships with others. The spiritual way embraces exploration of the deeper recesses of our minds through meditation. The challenge is how to practice these things in such a way that they all come together with a moment-to-moment clarity in our lives.
White presents his ideas in a unique way. He introduces us to a friend named Skeptico, who has dialogues with a “Wisdom Seeker.” These dialogues are inspired by what White calls “thought experiments.” The Wisdom Seeker is meticulous and thorough in his answers to the Skeptico. When the Skeptico asks, how do I decide what is meaningful?, the Wisdom Seeker mentions three ways: follow the meanings given to you when you were growing up; join a group and follow its guidance; or set off in a search of a personal experience of what is meaningful. The Wisdom Seeker follows this answer with a profound discussion of the advantages to each approach and how one should choose.
The discussion on science versus religion leads to a thought experiment: think of a time you felt like you just knew the answer to a problem or something you should do — or should not do. Kind of like a time you “just knew” something. Here is that intersection among the times when the scientist “just knows” the solution, a physician has quick insight into what is wrong with a patient, an artist creates a work of art from a vision, and a mystic has a profound spiritual awakening.
The Wisdom Seeker is patient with Skeptico in answering his unending questions, but he is also firm and direct. When Skeptico asks about a claim that consciousness could be completely explained by brain activity, the Wisdom Seeker is quick to say that the claim is not only mistaken but is devoid of evidence and based on only assumptions and assertions. The frankness is refreshing.
The chapter titled “Summing Up” begins with this quote from Vaclav Havel: “I have always thought that feeling empty and losing touch with the meaning of life are in essence only a challenge to seek new things to fill one’s life, a new meaning for one’s existence. Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in one’s life without first experiencing its absurdity.” It is a thought for awakening. Finding fulfillment is not easy. It requires many acts of faith and many mistakes as well. It requires difficult honesty with oneself and sincere dedication. Giving up is never an option.
White’s book makes us think. These discussions between Skeptico and the Wisdom Seeker make compelling reading. I had an insight while reading them: Skeptico and Wisdom Seeker are not two but one. We ask questions, and our wisdom answers them. We move from one to another within ourselves. White’s book highlights that inner travel towards a fulfilling destiny.
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.
Prophet for Our Times: The Life and Teachings of Peter Deunov
Foreword by Wayne Dyer
Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House, 2015. 272 pp., paper, $18.99.
This is a welcome new edition of the book published more than twenty-five years ago about the great spiritual teacher Peter Deunov. Master Deunov (1864–1944), a great luminary emerging from the Western tradition, deserves to be much more known than he is. His life and teachings have been little-known, perhaps because of the communist rule which was imposed on his native country, Bulgaria, for decades. In the West, he is best-known through the teachings of his disciple Omraam Mikhaël Aïvhanov.
The editor, David Lorimer, presents the teachings of Deunov succinctly and with clarity and insight. Lorimer came in contact with the teachings of the Bulgarian Master more than thirty years ago and has been actively involved in his work ever since. Lorimer, who is familiar with the world’s spiritual heritage, recognizes the quality of the teaching brought by Master Deunov.
Peter Deunov — his spiritual name was Beinsa Douno — was a great and inspiring teacher of eternal wisdom, embodying tremendous profundity and great simplicity. His teachings provide practical aids for living in harmony with the earth, with our fellow human beings, and with God. He looked at life through what he called Divine Love, the love that never changes and never varies. He also emphasized the mystical meaning of esoteric Christianity, not simply believing this or that, but actually living the teachings of Christ through a subtle gnosis, emphasizing loving God, loving fellow human beings and one’s enemies.
It is a historical fact that the official keepers of a religious tradition are often at odds with those who wish to fulfill the tradition. The more organized a religion is, the greater is this tension. Christ himself was accused of destroying the tradition, whereas, as he said, he came to fulfill it. Deunov too was persecuted by the Bulgarian clergy and was treated as a traitor to the church. He said, “They stir the people against me and say that I am defiling the name of God, that I am undermining the authority of the Holy Church. My question is: Where is your God? Where is the Son? The Son of God is the son of love. Where is your love? I can see no trace of love anywhere.”
To underscore the profundity of Deunov’s teaching, let me quote two of his remarks:
If anyone asks me, “Why do you love and serve God?’ I shall say, “Because God loves me.” Service and work are always the way to respond to love. Love works.
We preach the Christ of Love, which supports and fills every heart; we preach the Christ of Wisdom, which illuminates every mind; we preach the Christ of Truth, which liberates and elevates the world.
David Lorimer deserves our gratitude for bringing the teaching of Master Peter Deunov to a wider public. The world would be a better place if more of us could follow his teachings.
The reviewer is the author of many books, including The Pilgrim Soul: A Path to the Sacred Transcending World Religions (Quest Books).