Book Reviews 2018


Annie Besant (1847–1933): Struggles and Quest
Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière
Translated by the author, with Keara Engelhard
London: Theosophical Publishing House, 2017. xii + 325 pp., paper, £10.

Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière’s book, the product of “five years of research and reflection,” is an impressive and detailed biography of one of the modern era’s most fascinating and influential women. Theosophists are familiar with the role that Annie Besant played in the Theosophical Society, but they may not be aware of her struggle for women’s rights, her battle against social inequalities, or her fight for Indian independence from British rule. This new biography, translated from the French, describes her struggles and battles in such a way as to leave no doubt that Besant was one remarkable and courageous woman.

The story of how this book came to be written is worth noting. Dr. Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière is a senior lecturer in Victorian studies at the Sorbonne, and her research on Victorian women introduced her to Besant, a prominent figure of that era. The impetus to write a new biography came about when the author realized the two main Besant biographies, by Arthur Nethercot and Anne Taylor, had serious deficiencies. Neither author, she says, was able to perceive the continuity between the dramatic but seemingly disparate phases of Besant’s life; instead they saw only a fragmented and fractured life that (to them) bordered on incoherence. Both books also suffered from gender-based biases as well as prejudices regarding Theosophy. In writing this new biography, Dr. Pécastaing-Boissière explains, “I hoped to demonstrate the underlying continuities in her long life of struggles.” This reviewer believes the author has accomplished that objective in a convincing and admirable fashion.

Today the word Victorian has a largely pejorative connotation, primarily because of the repressed sexual attitudes of the day. It is an unfortunate stereotype, because the Victorian Age produced men and women of great stature and character: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, and—Annie Besant. As author Joseph Epstein states in Essays in Biography, “The cavalcade of Victorian genius is greater than that of any other period in any other nation in the history of the world.” While perhaps not a genius, Annie Besant was clearly a woman of indomitable courage and great stature. She certainly can stand shoulder to shoulder with the luminaries mentioned above.

Sometimes it seems difficult to relate to such towering figures, but Pécastaing-Boissière does a marvelous job of introducing us to facets of Besant’s life that we may not have known about: that as a young woman, she could play all the Beethoven sonatas and Bach fugues on the piano; that despite her strong intellect she was self-taught, because of the lack of educational opportunities for women in her day; that when traveling as a lecturer for the TS, she used her spare time to study Sanskrit and the sacred Hindu texts. Other facts: Her first tour in 1875, for Britain’s National Secular Society, had her doing twelve lectures per week in places where “she regularly encountered hostile crowds” and “barely escaped a lynching in Hoyland, Yorkshire.” In 1911 she was invited to lecture at the Sorbonne on the martyr Giordano Bruno to an audience of 4000, while angry Catholic students protested loudly on the streets outside. She learned to drive a car at the age of sixty-two, and in 1927, at nearly eighty years of age, she traveled Europe, giving fifty-six lectures in three weeks. Before reading this book, I thought I knew a lot about Annie Besant, but I have to admit that I didn’t know any of this.

If you are a feminist and want to be inspired, you need to read this book; if the lives of great social reformers motivate you, you should read this book; and if you think, as I did, that you already know everything about Annie Besant, buy this book, and your admiration and respect for this great Theosophist will grow by leaps and bounds.

David Bruce

David Bruce is national secretary of the Theosophical Society in America.


Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 1: The Physical World
Edited by Thupten Jinpa
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom, 2017. 530 pp., hardcover; $29.95

Monks and scholars, just as you test gold

By burning, cutting, and polishing it

So too well examine my speech.

Do not accept it merely out of respect.

—The Buddha

The Buddha said to accept the validity of what he taught only after direct experience; the mere testimony of scriptures is not sufficient. The examination of the nature of reality is only real when it is accompanied by direct perception. Scientists take a similar approach, with experimentation and mathematical logic as pillars of inquiry. Buddhism and science thus share this mode of critical inquiry, which draws its conclusions from evidence and reasoning. In Buddhism, however, empirical observation has a wider scope than the range of the five senses and includes experiences arising from meditation practice.

This, the first of a four-volume series, presents classic Buddhist scientific and philosophical explorations of the nature of reality for the contemporary reader. This series was conceived by the Dalai Lama and compiled under his supervision. The ancient Buddhist treatises identify three domains: the scientific, the philosophical, and the religious. The first two volumes in this series cover the scientific domain, with volume 1 presenting the physical world and volume 2 presenting the mind sciences.

Buddhism has two things that have great potential to serve everyone, regardless of their faith, as the Dalai Lama explains in his introduction. One is the presentation of the nature of reality (or science), and the second is the methods for training the mind to alleviate suffering and discover inner peace. Four principles of reason characterize the Buddhist outlook on the world: the principle of nature (that is, the way it is); the principle of dependence (cause and effect); the principle of function (those we perform and those we support); and the principle of evidence (drawing inferences: if such is the current state, such will be the future state). Contemporary science gives us the Big Bang theory for the emergence of the universe, but the Buddhist sources answer further questions, such as “what is the relationship between the natural world and the sentient beings that came to evolve with it?” The presentation of the nature of reality in Buddhism is fourfold: (1) the nature of the objective world; (2) the presentation of the mind, the subject; (3) how the mind engages its object; and (4) the means (the science of logical reasoning) by which the mind engages its object. This framework has been adopted for volume 1.

The depth with which volume 1 is presented is astonishing. The exploration is divided into six parts: “Overview and Methodology,” “Knowable Objects,” “Subtle Particles,” “Time,” “The Cosmos and Its Inhabitants,” and “Fetal Development.” Each part is introduced by Thupten Jinpa (the editor of this volume and the Dalai Lama’s principal translator) and provides a list of further readings in English. It is almost impossible to describe what each part entails in a short space. I was especially interested in causality and time.

The impulse to avoid pain is our nature, and being conditioned beings brings forth suffering (the First Noble Truth). Suffering necessarily has a cause (the Second Noble Truth). The ultimate cause of suffering is ignorance, but ignorance can be resolved (the Third Noble Truth). The cessation also has a cause (the Fourth Noble Truth).

The section on cause and effect in this volume is enlightening. Dharmakirti’s treatise The Exposition of Valid Cognition states:

Where it exists that arises

And when it changes that changes as well

This is referred to as the cause.

The section on time says that it is posited on the basis of “three states of conditioned things”: (1) that which is not yet risen; (2) that which has arisen but has not yet ceased; and (3) that which has arisen and ceased. This in turn relates to “entities of cause and effect that have already come, are coming, and will come into being.” In Buddhist thought, the shortest unit of time can be thought of as a moment. The Buddhist texts describe two types of moments: (1) the shortest moment of time; and (2) the moment required to complete an action. Vasubandhu posits that the “shortest moment” is 1/65 of the time it takes a strong man to snap his fingers. One hundred and twenty of these short moments are one second.

Major sources in this work have come from Tibetan translations of original Sanskrit works, which are mostly lost. Two canonical collections are used: “The precious collection of Kangyur contains translations of Buddha’s words embodied in the three baskets (Tripitaka), and the precious collection of the Tengyur contains treatises of great Nalanda masters such as Nagarjuna and Asanga.” (Nalanda University in India was the great center of Buddhist learning until it was sacked by the Muslims around AD 1200.) Works of the Buddhist sages Vasubandhu, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti are also quoted throughout volume 1. This is an astounding effort and a rich treasure, with the Dalai Lama’s vision shining through.

Dhananjay Joshi

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


Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump
Gary Lachman
New York: TarcherPerigree, 2018. xxii + 234 pp., paper, $17.

It is always a pleasure to read a new book by Gary Lachman, as there are few writers in the field of esoteric and occult studies who write as clearly and engagingly while also maintaining a mind-boggling level of output. Like his mentor and literary hero Colin Wilson, Lachman (a longtime Quest contributor) has the gift of digesting an array of ideas, theories, historical details, and mostly obscure thinkers, and rendering up highly readable books that avoid both scholarly nitpicking and pop sensationalism.

Dark Star Rising is no exception and, for bonus points, it may be Lachman’s most timely book, given its relevance to the Age of Trump, which continues to unfold on a daily basis.

To briefly summarize, Lachman starts out pondering the possible causes behind Donald Trump’s unexpected and, for millions, perplexing election victory. Rather than focusing on theories about Russian meddling, Lachman notes several factors that may have eluded most people’s attention.

One is Trump’s decades of practicing Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking (most famously described in his best-selling book of that title). Trump’s father introduced his son to Peale’s perspective in the 1950s and initiated his lifelong attendance at Peale’s Manhattan church. Lachman explores the history of New Thought, the hugely influential spiritual movement that blossomed in the late nineteenth century and counted Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and Ernest Holmes’s Science of Mind among its propagators. Peale was perhaps the most famous of its exponents.

In a nutshell, New Thought teaches that we create our own reality through the thoughts we cultivate; that our individual minds are a manifestation of the universal mind or intelligence; and that if we wish to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, we can attract those states through prayer, creative visualization, a positive attitude, and maintaining a faith that the bounty of life can be ours.

Lachman suggests that Trump’s insistence on his own positively defined reality, which strikes so many as delusional or sociopathic, is rather an ingrained case of positive thinking, which for the most part has served him well throughout his life (taking him to the White House, for example).

Lachman also notes the pervasive influence of postmodernist theories that have saturated academia and oozed into Western culture at large. Rejecting the grand narratives of historical and cultural explanation that have characterized modernity, postmodernism has championed the rise of a subjective fracturing of the notion of truth. This feeds into the present space, where consensus reality has broken down. Accusations of “fake news” arise from both left and right, exacerbating the sense that everything is just a matter of interpretation. “You create your own reality,” indeed.

 Lachman also examines the Internet-based phenomenon of meme propagation, which amounts to the rapid spread in social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and 4Chan) of catchphrases, images, and clusters of ideas that have widespread social influence. According to Lachman, these resemble the practices of Chaos Magick and the sigil-based magick of Austin Osman Spare. (This spelling of magick originated with occultist Aleister Crowley, who used it to distinguish occult magic from the sleight-of-hand variety. Chaos Magick uses unorthodox, often ad hoc, ritual forms and stresses the subjective nature of belief.) In other words, the “anything goes” meme propagators of the alt-right, who spread the cartoon image of Pepe the Frog in mockery of progressives, may have been unknowingly (or not) using an esoteric practice that harnesses the power of intention, will, and mental energy to produce real-world results. As unlikely as this may seem, Lachman makes a plausible case for it.

 The most extended section of Dark Star Rising ponders the influence of Traditionalism on current political trends. This includes both the Traditionalism of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon on the one hand and the more politicized version of Julius Evola on the other. Most curious among the defenders of Tradition in this sense is Alexander Dugin, a Russian intellectual who has bounced between supporting National Bolshevism, a Russian “red-brown” mixture of Stalinism and fascism, and Eurasianism, a geopolitical strategy that tries to cast Russia and its surrounding countries as an allied bloc. Given that Dugin identifies with the Traditionalist philosophy of Evola and savors the “positive” aspects of Stalinism and Nazism (whatever those may be), he is a controversial figure, to say the least. Lachman sees Dugin’s Eurasianism as a significant influence on Vladimir Putin’s attempts to restore Russia as a geopolitical force.

 But here too postmodernism may have the last laugh. If truth is up for grabs, and powerful rulers see fit to create their own realities, we may need to harness our own mental capacities and visualize a future that trumps those of both Putin and Trump.

In any event, Dark Star Rising is a stimulating read, and a provocative meditation on the hidden forces at work in our present juncture. Its timeliness, which is its greatest strength, may prove its greatest weakness a few years down the line. But for the time being, it serves as one of the most acute studies of the present moment.

 Jay Kinney

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


The Collected Letters of Alan Watts
Edited by Joan Watts and Anne Watts
Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2017. xv + 599 pp., hardcover, $32.50.

Collections of literary letters still emerge, but tragically there are ever fewer, because email has all but destroyed the art of letter writing. Yet when we find a collection of a great man’s or woman’s letters, doors open for us. We see into their minds and emotions, the weft and weave of their lives becomes an almost tactile texture. Smetimes we’re startled.

Author and lecturer Alan Watts (1915–73) is best known for introducing Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies to the generation that came of age in the 1950s and ’60s. Watts’s importance as a both a commentator on spirituality—indeed a bona fide revelator—and an agent of interfaith communication is never in doubt. He did more to sow the seeds of Zen in the West than any other single writer. His insights into the human and cosmic condition are on par with those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Swami Vivekananda, J. Krishnamurti, and Aldous Huxley.

This collection of his letters, edited by his two eldest daughters, Joan and Anne, occasionally renders up intimacy; certainly there’s insight, and plenty of intellectual shine. Of startlement there is little in the letters themselves. But the narrative presented in this collection of letters is agreeably goosed by intervals of commentary from Watts’s daughters. They tell us baldly what his letters only hint at: that he could be a womanizer and a kind of romance addict, often marrying and divorcing in search of a new fix. He struggled with alcoholism, and despite his good intentions he could be an aloof father.

The Collected Letters follows the arc of his life. They start with a number of precocious—and a little too precious—boyhood letters written from English boarding schools. This is followed by a good many somewhat stodgy college letters. Thereafter Watts moved to New York, became a citizen of the U.S. and, confronted with practicality, studied for the Episcopal priesthood. The constraints of this profession soon chafed, and he resigned after about six years, in 1950. Thereupon his letters—always well-written—become by turns academically austere, playful, and occasionally giddy during the balance of his life. This period was marked by an increasingly bohemian lifestyle, experimentation with psychedelics, deeper forays into meditation, and philosophical exchanges (only glimpsed in this collection) with the likes of Huxley, Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Collected Letters offers a selection of photos that illustrate the same arc, showing us a self-serious teen wearing a school tie, then an uncomfortable, mustachioed adult in suits, followed by the glowering priest in collar; on to long hair, trim beard, casual dress, Japanese kimonos, and loops of wooden beads.

Watts’s boyhood precocity and flair for independent thinking flowered in the 1930s, when he was captivated by a book on Buddhism. He officially became a Buddhist at the first opportunity. He wrote articles for a Buddhist magazine so well that he was asked to lecture, as his daughters tell us here, and when he arrived, the group was astonished to discover that he was a teenager. When he was merely twenty-one, he wrote to Carl Jung, taking him to task: “I was rather surprised to hear you say in your lecture . . . that you had never found any mandalas with six divisions.” He then gives Jung a longish epistolary lecture on the parts of mandalas.

 Watts was even younger, in his early teens, when he wrote An Outline of Zen Buddhism, a thirty-two page pamphlet. Just four years later, in 1935, E.P. Dutton published The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East.

Even as a priest Watts engaged in a quiet but persistent return to esotericism, Eastern and Western. In a letter to a friend in 1944, he said “Prayer in its essence is, of course, the contemplation of God as the living void or . . . the ‘luminous darkness.’ That is to say the aim is to reach the point where you abandon all images and concept of God whatever, as well as all specific technique of prayer.” This kind of casual, heretical discourse would have shocked his superiors in the church. In a letter of 1947 he suggests that the vitality of any religion issues from its esoteric nucleus and without it “there is a general decline of the entire religious and social order.”

In a letter of 1948 to a Yale scholar it becomes evident that Watts has already crystallized one of his key ideas—that the central consciousness of the universe experiences itself through us; that our job is to be God’s means of experiencing itself. “The concept of the infinite giving itself to the finite . . . is the central meaning of most Zen anecdotes.”

As trippy as that idea is, he hadn’t yet taken LSD. That came in the late 1950s. Certainly psychedelic experiences informed his later lectures, his speculation, his aesthetics, and quite possibly his erotic life. There are a few letters here to women self-effacingly, yet cunningly professing love. In his 1959 letter to a woman who was later to become his third wife, he says he has “an awful blast from my former girlfriend in LA . . . pointing out the dreadful defects in my character and intimating I will exploit you just as I exploited her. Oh Jano, aren’t you simply scared to death of getting so involved with me? . . . Perhaps I can console myself with the fact that only for you have I dropped the desire for all other relations.”

Watts never did completely find his way out of a morass of vodka and romance, but he accomplished much, he opened eyes, and he grew spiritually. The Collected Letters is a bit ponderous, at around 600 pages of fairly small print. His true devotees will want to read every word of it; others may choose to dip in. If that’s what you do, don’t neglect the parts written by Joan Watts and Anne Watts: they are nicely composed and entertaining. And the book is a worthy contribution to the literature of letters.

John Shirley

John Shirley is the author of Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas (Tarcher/Penguin), and such novels as The Other End (Open Road), Demons (Del Rey), and a novel of Arthur Conan Doyle in the afterlife, Doyle after Death (HarperCollins).


Holy Rascals: Advice for Spiritual Revolutionaries

Rami Shapiro
Boulder, Colo.: Sounds True, 2017. 232 pp., $16.95.

I preface this review with the warning that I have been a fan of Rabbi Rami Shapiro for some time. (For an interview with him, see Quest, fall 2017.) I was familiar with his use of the term holy rascals and therefore was delighted to learn of this book by that title.

Rabbi Rami tells us that a holy rascal is someone who seeks “to subvert stories that trap us in fear, hate, ignorance and violence, and [who tries] to help us tell new stories . . . Holy rascality is about freeing the human capacity for religiosity—the capacity for making meaning—from the confines of brand-name religion.”

The book is logically organized into three parts. The first supplies some information about Rami’s background and is billed as his unofficial autobiography. The second and longest part, called “Religion Unveiled,” contains ninety-two very short essays seemingly aimed at putting down institutional religion. It is full of racy one-liners, some of which are from Rabbi Rami himself: “The problem is not that religions are made up; the problem is that religions can’t admit they are made up.” Others are borrowed from notables from the past: “Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith: in this sense atheism is a purification” (from Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace). Rami employs a starkly irreverent tone, making true and realistic, but almost snide, comments in regard to aspects of religion that many would still consider too serious to joke about.

Have no doubt, however, that despite the jocular tone, this book addresses serious topics. I was especially impressed with this distinction: “Healthy religions have porous boundaries, welcoming truth wherever it is found. Unhealthy religions have rigid boundaries and obsess over who is in and who is out, who can marry whom and who can pee where.”

While I agreed with most of what I was reading, I will admit I didn’t quite understand what Rami was trying to accomplish until I reached part 3, called “Hacking the Holy.” Here is where the true advice for spiritual revolutionaries kicks in. Rami urges those who wish to effect change to engage in “spiritual culture jamming.” Here “we don’t simply deny the truth claims of any given religion; we play with them, we hack them, we push them to their absurdist conclusions in order to free people from taking them literally.”

Rami describes several tactics for spiritual culture jamming. The most astonishing to me is the use of aphorisms. Sadly, ours is a culture that discourages critical thought and has dumbed down dominant social messages. People are accustomed to simple one-liners meant to sum up complex concepts and discourage further consideration. Rather than fight this trend with excess logic or preaching, as some of us may be inclined to do, Rabbi Rami advises spiritual revolutionaries to go with the flow. Aphorisms, he tells us, must be just jarring enough that they provoke the listener into critical analysis. They should represent thoughts that we are willing to back up personally, be philosophical in nature, and use humor where possible. They should be designed to pull the rug of certainty out from under conventional believers in order to free them for a more authentic form of faith. A hint to how Rami distinguishes between belief and faith: “If your faith leaves no room for doubt, you can be sure you are a prisoner of belief.”

Readers may have difficulty understanding Rami’s overall concept if they are not already attuned to some degree to alternative spiritual concepts—that is, those beyond the limits of traditional religion. But the time for moving beyond conventional religious beliefs has come. Many spiritual leaders are describing an overall shift away from the limitations of insular religious beliefs toward a more open-ended and inclusive spiritual approach. Rather than just providing an alternative spiritual model, I believe what Rabbi Rami recommends represents an important evolutionary shift in how we find meaning in the twenty-first century. Instead of merely describing this shift, as others have done, Holy Rascals offers innovative ways to help it move forward.

As someone naturally inclined toward presenting complicated trains of thought in the most logical sequence possible, it will be a special challenge for me—if I choose to follow his advice—to compact any future commentary into the brief, definitive aphorisms Rami advocates. But I applaud his efforts, and hope this book will have the effect he intended.                                                                       

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, 2012) and the upcoming Overcoming Spiritual Myopia: A View beyond Religious Insularity.


Aging with Wisdom: Reflections, Stories, and Teachings
Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
Rhinebeck, N.Y.: Monkfish, 2017. 203 pp., paper, $16.95.

Gaining wisdom is said to be one of the benefits of aging, which is supposed to be done with grace and dignity. But that is difficult for many people in our modern world. Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle gently teaches us the dharma of aging to help ease us along this sometimes confounding stage of life.

Aging is difficult for us in today’s Western world, because we rarely think about this stage of our life until suddenly we find ourselves staring in the mirror at this “old” person. How did she get here? What does this mean? Youth is the idol; so much of our culture is geared toward youth. But Hoblitzelle reminds us through the words of Carl Jung that “old age is the most valuable phase of life.”

Unfortunately, particularly in the West, old age is also the invisible time of life. People begin to migrate from the homes where they spent their householder years (the grihasta stage in the Vedic tradition) to over-fifty-five communities, where they are encouraged to age collectively. Then often it is on to assisted living, where the elderly are even more closed off from the world, and finally many are shuttled to nursing homes, where, sadly, they become truly invisible, depriving the young of the opportunity to engage with what Hoblitzelle calls the “ElderSpirit.”

In part 1 of her book (“Aging: Reflections, Stories, and Mysteries”), Hoblitzelle encourages us to “honor the life cycle” in order to prepare for the sannyasa time—the time when we have renounced the hurried and often distracted life of the student (brahmacharya) and the sometimes stressful phase of the householder—and learn to embrace the slower life that comes with letting go of the identities formed by our careers.

Part 2, “Passages: Wisdom Treasures,” offers us a look at Hoblitzelle’s own journey and some of the people who helped her find her way through the aging process by finding a “spiritual orientation.” She gives us practices to help us find our way, such as the practice of silence, “to feel gratitude for life’s blessings”; mindfulness; stopping; and “finding the sacred in the commonplace.”

Obviously it is impossible to speak of aging without contemplating death, something that we are reluctant to do. Part 3, “Passages: Dying into Life,” contains short passages on aging and death, including writings by Henry David Thoreau and Henri Nouwen. “The Gift of Death” is Hoblitzelle’s account of the death of her mother after six years in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. She speaks too of the death of her husband, Hob, also from Alzheimer’s.

The lessons that one gains from helping a loved one to have a “good death” in the Buddhist sense are invaluable. Death is so near to us throughout our life, yet we seem not to consider it until we find ourselves standing on its doorstep. As my significant other was dying of cancer at age sixty-one, he commented to me softly before he took his last breath, “Dying is easy,” he whispered to me. “I thought it would be much harder than this, but it’s so easy.”

In part 4, “Wayshowers,” Hoblitzelle introduces us to those wise elders who have gone before and left behind their words of wisdom. To her they have become teachers of the dharma of aging and death—who influenced her journey of aging with wisdom. Among those are the late Theosophist and Jungian Alice O. Howell, author of The Dove in the Stone and other works, who taught Hoblitzelle how to live the symbolic life; Emerson Stamps, an African-American man whose life is lived with a purpose of love and healing; Polly Thayer Starr; Maud Morgan; and Bede Griffiths. Each of the stories of these wayshowers inspires us to prepare for these times of letting go.

Hoblitzelle concludes this wonderful book of the dharma of aging with wisdom with a quote from Sufi master: “Is this not a better path? Is this not a way that goes backward away from the body toward the light from whence you came?” She then tells us, “Finding the light of wisdom that guides us through our elder years, and the light into which we die, these illuminate both our living and our dying.”

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry, of the Phoenix Study Center, is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth, available on Amazon.


From Death to Rebirth: Teachings of the Finnish Sage Pekka Ervast
Jouni Marjanen, Antti Savinainen, and Jouku Sorvali, eds. Foreword by Richard  Smoley
Literary Society of the Finnish Rosy Cross, 2017; 123 pp., PDF. Available for download at http://www.teosofia.net/e-kirjat/From_Death_to_Rebirth_Pekka_Ervast.pdf.

Speculation about what happens to us after we die has been a staple of philosophy, religion, and poetry for millennia. But especially over the last fifty years, the literature on this subject has exploded into a cottage industry of first-hand accounts about life on the other side. This has been due largely to advances in medical technology, which have enabled us to revive individuals from illnesses or accidents that would have killed them a hundred years ago, but who now return to life with their eyewitness accounts in hand. The upshot has been a profusion of works about NDEs (or near-death experiences), as reflected in popular books by Eben Alexander, Betty Eadie, Natalie Sudman, and Dannion Brinkley, among others.

But this renaissance of interest in the afterlife has also triggered a closer look backward at accounts of such experiences that were written prior to the advent of modern medicine. In part, the intent has been to compare what those earlier figures described with what contemporary experiencers have related about their own otherworldly journeys. This has meant revisiting the insights of writers like Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritist Allan Kardec, clairvoyant Andrew Jackson Davis, Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, and Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater, to name a few.

Among the lesser-known figures to have resurfaced recently is the Finnish writer and teacher Pekka Ervast (1875–1934). A pioneer of the Finnish Theosophical movement, he lectured and wrote extensively on a multitude of Theosophical topics for almost forty years, and in various talks and writings discussed life after death from multiple points of view, apparently derived by psychic and intuitive means. Some of the most important of these have been brought together into this volume. The result is a fascinating collection of commentaries on the stages of consciousness beyond physical death, as well as their spiritual and psychological implications. It’s possible some of his terms will initially seem a bit quaint to some readers—Hades, purgatory, heaven, hell—but soon it becomes apparent that these are simply convenient labels for identifying various aspects and stages of the afterlife journey, rather than just vestiges of an earlier worldview.

Some of those descriptions correspond closely with what many modern near-death experiencers have related, such as encounters with deceased loved ones on the other side, or the panoramic life review, in which individuals see various episodes of their lives replayed back. Ervast writes: “[The individual] does not live in his reminiscences as he did while being physically alive. He just watches the great play and judges it objectively, calling each thing—depending on its own quality—as good or bad, crime or merit, and so on. He remains in a great light, so to speak . . . In fact, the viewer is the personalized higher self. In death the solemn experience of memories is not due to the ordinary physical personality; instead, it is due to the higher self, the ‘I,’ which is behind the physical personality. He is in the light of the higher self and watches the past life.” It is worth noting that Ervast published his first book on death and the afterlife as early as in 1904, whereas the first book about NDEs was published in 1975 (Raymond Moody’s Life after Life).

But some elements in Ervast’s teachings are less commonly found in the NDE literature, if at all—such as his claim that the deceased not only reviews experiences of the just-lived incarnation but also those of the prebirth state, as well as the individual’s collected dream states throughout life. Also, while some writers over the years have suggested that life in the afterworld is essentially similar to life in bodily form, Ervast’s view is different. In one difficult but intriguing passage, he describes how death brings about a division between the “lower” and “higher” selves—that is, between our mortal personality and the more spiritual component of our nature—and he goes on to address some of the surprising consequences this division holds for our survival in the afterlife.

The book includes a number of interesting tidbits for those interested in afterlife studies, such as speculations about a historical phenomenon that’s been long discussed in the paranormal literature: reports by soldiers during wartime of phantom presences or “angels” seen either over or on battlefields (as during the famed Battle of Mons in World War I). Ervast writes: “Some [of the deceased] are still eager to fight, and they continue fighting in the invisible world that is near the physical world, that is, in the etheric world. That is why another group is often seen fighting in the air above the physical troops. They are shadows, filled with vigor, attacking each other.”

That description struck a particular chord with me in light of something I once heard from a man who described a similar wartime experience. A battlefield medic while young, he remarked how he watched as a fellow soldier leapt up from the trenches and marched towards enemy lines, only to be fatally shot seconds later. But although the poor fellow’s body collapsed to the ground, my friend described psychically seeing his astral body continue marching into battle, seemingly oblivious to the fact he had just died!

While reading this book, I was reminded of a fascinating Brazilian film I happened to see recently, Astral City, based on the teachings of the South American medium Francisco Cândido Xavier (also known as Chico Xavier). Like Ervast’s writings, such accounts can only be taken as interesting speculation, of course, since they can’t be confirmed one way or another until we pass through that mysterious doorway ourselves. But until that day comes—hopefully later rather than sooner!—we have intriguing works like these to pique our curiosity, and maybe even to provide us with a kind of roadmap to help prepare us for what lies ahead.

Ray Grasse

The reviewer worked on the editorial staffs of Quest Books and Quest magazine for ten years, and is author of several books, including The Waking Dream and Under a Sacred Sky. Excerpts from his latest book, An Infinity of Gods, appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Quest. He is a practicing astrologer, and his website is www.raygrasse.com.


 

Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection
Sharon Salzberg
New York: Flatiron, 2017. 305 pp., hardcover, $24.99.

For forty years, New York Times–best-selling author and renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has been helping people learn the technique of mindfulness to focus the attention and deepen the experience of love. She is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of nine previous books.

 In her newest book, Salzberg takes us on a guided tour of love’s inner landscape. With her affable and easygoing style, she brings the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness into everyday life, offering astute observations on how love enriches human behavior.

Salzberg emphasizes that in the heart of every human being is the innate but latent capacity to love without conditions or judgment. We are made to love and to be loved, whether we realize it or not. She puts it this way: “I believe there is only one kind of love—real love—trying to come alive in us despite our limiting assumptions, the distortions of our culture, and habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation that we tend to acquire just by living a life.”

The one “real love” Salzberg describes is not sentimental or romantic. It’s a love that reaches into the substratum of our being and takes many forms of expression. It may be kindness to a stranger; a friendly smile to a stressed cashier in a grocery store; serving food in a homeless shelter; rescuing a lost animal; showing unselfish love for a child; or feeling empathy for people trapped in a war zone. On a larger scale, the world’s mystics, sages, and poets have pointed to one underlying love at the root of the universe. In The Divine Comedy, Dante referred to it as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Salzberg brings this love down to earth by suggesting it is our birthright to experience the beauty of love in all of its forms.

Salzberg views the daily practice of lovingkindness as essential to living a joyful and fulfilling life. She skillfully explores how ordinary but authentic interactions with others can form relationships grounded in lovingkindness. The book is filled with mindfulness techniques and exercises that have been helpful to her and to those she has worked with.

Moreover, Salzberg is passionate about the necessity of expressing lovingkindness to oneself. To illustrate this point, she quotes the Buddha: “If you truly loved yourself, you’d never harm another.” Without the capacity to be kind and loving to oneself, the ability to sustain lasting loving relationships is constrained. Obstacles include discomforting memories of the past and a mind conditioned by race, culture, gender, religion, violence, abuse, or other factors that generate fear, anger, guilt, or resentment, and over which we have little or no control. She also devotes a great deal of attention to self-worth issues, which inhibit the expression of lovingkindness in many people.

Whatever the past may be, it is the story we tell ourselves about it that is often most important. In Salzberg’s view, this is where mindfulness practices and lovingkindness to oneself can be healing and liberating. “Living in a story of a limited self—to any degree—is not love . . . You are a person worthy of love. You don’t have to do anything to prove that.” She makes it clear she is not advocating an egoic or narcissistic self-love. Rather she stresses that by having compassion for the entirety of our life experience, the pain and the joy, we can learn to integrate the disparate parts of our psyche and become whole. From within this interior wholeness, compassion flows naturally to all other beings, even in the midst of conflict and strife. It may not be a state of consciousness that is realized in every moment, but the daily practice of lovingkindness opens the heart to what is possible. Salzberg’s book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in living a fuller and more meaningful life.

Cynthia Overweg

Cynthia Overweg is a writer and educator. Her latest contribution to Quest was “Hildegard of Bingen: The Nun Who Loved the Earth” in the summer 2017 issue. Her website is www.cynthiaoverweg.com.


Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll
Christopher Hill
Rochester, Vt.:Park Street Press, 2017. 294 pp., paper, $16.95.


Christopher Hill is an intelligent and insightful critic, and his enthusiasm for his subject tends to be infectious. In his eclectic survey, he characterizes sixties rock and roll as a Dionysiac tradition and likens rock and roll concerts  to religious rituals. This tradition, he says, taking hold in an Apollonian power structure that is collapsing under its own neocolonialist weight, has transformed what he calls “the postwar American consensus.”

I suspect that in this case, he is attributing too much significance to the power of art. Whether you accept his thesis or not, he charts many hitherto little-traveled byways and offers up many intriguing theories. For starters, he suggests that “ecstatic” rock and roll has roots in the writings of the English Romantics, the French Symbolists, and especially “the black church liturgical tradition,” not to mention psychedelics. In his enthusiasm, however, he tends to stack the deck. For instance, in seeking to restore the historic influence of gospel music upon the formation of ecstatic rock and roll, he either downplays or ignores influences such as the jump blues practitioners, not to mention the electric-guitar influence of country and western and Western swing music.

Hill can be very persuasive, however, when he pinpoints the appeal of the Beatles, and the rest of the (admittedly often mushy and twee) British Invasion bands as in part a return to the “magical . . . history” of a fabled Albion. Hill states, “It was as if the new hip culture was finding a frequency which had been broadcasting for centuries . . . an alternative narrative.” In California, meanwhile, amid the Rosicrucians, the practitioners of yoga, and followers of the teachings of Manly P. Hall, a “transcendent” teen culture  began to emerge, as epitomized by bands such as the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Hill claims that “while it was the culture of the East Coast . . . that in a sense thought up the sixties, when it came to putting it into practice the West was the only place that was still open enough.”

One can question such extravagant claims and still greatly enjoy Hill’s further forays into tracing the somewhat obscure and  eclectic influences on the syncretic rock genre. Hill highlights the reemerging importance of the mystic concept of romantic love in songcraft by discussing, at great length, Michael Brown and his nearly forgotten “chamber rock” band the Left Banke. (But he omits any mention of the Jaynettes and their equally epically produced single “Sally Go Round the Roses.”) The author also offers a somewhat plausible explanation of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as an acid-tinged “song suite” which follows the journey of everyman figure Billy Shears into a “visionary realm,” a “dreamscape” which “could contain the world.”

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, supposedly represent, at the apex of their career, the old culture of a carnivalesque “festive perception of the world” (in the words of critic Mikhail Bakhtin). In Hill’s telling, they are the Lords of Misrule, “who spoke with a kind of dark merriment” in a world which “needed to be turned upside down.” And Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is the “most profound meditation on suffering in pop music.” But Hill also claims that the album is also “a kind of rite of passage . . . the journey to the land of the dead and the return to tell the tale.” Hill also makes the controversial claim that the “perverse” Velvet Underground’s first four albums constitute a monomythic “full cycle” with “four phases”: “contention for the soul of the hero”; “the hero . . . descends into the demonic world”; “the hero’s purgation/purification”; “the hero is reintegrated into the world.” Maybe Hill is on to something. But I don’t see it. The explanation is simply too pat.

No discussion of the transformative psychedelia of the sixties can be considered complete without mention of the Incredible String Band. Hill claims that the faithful listener will be “rewarded by moments of strange loveliness, mad invention, [and] dark magic that do not exactly have a useful comparison elsewhere in pop music.” He also links their appeal to that of the Victorian children’s literature exemplified by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s (somewhat treacly) novel The Secret Garden. Like a great many of Hill’s theories and suggestions, this seems more than a bit overdetermined.

Hill concludes by asserting that the MC5, the hippie agitprop band from Detroit, were actually avatars of “the ecstatic rock and roll moment,” who worked their “enthusiastic” stage magic by drawing upon the Holiness church convention of “testifying,” while at the same time their “acid-Marxist” rhetoric offered “experiential confirmation of a type of energy and consciousness that would require a new society to embody it.” In his afterword, Hill argues that the “development of vision” that took place among certain select British and American rockers may, over time, provide “political ramifications [which] can be earthshaking.” He unabashedly hopes that this music might ultimately provide “a way marker, a pointer to the work ahead, to the next convergence of the two worlds, inner and outer.”

To quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Francis DiMenno

Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and long-time music journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.


 

Your Inner Islands:The Keys to Intuitive Living
Will Tuttle, Ph.D
Healdsburg, Calif.: Karuna Music & Art; 144 pp., paper, $15.

Intuition involves living from the deeper self rather than just from surface experiences. Will Tuttle, who is a dharma master in the Zen tradition, has been leading workshops to help people develop intuition since 1990, and offers us a seemingly simple method for bringing forth our natural intuition so that it helps us evolve into our higher selves—our true nature.

Tuttle defines intuition as “tuition from within”—tuition being teaching or instruction—that differs from “conventional rational forms of knowing . . . and a basic separation between the knower and what is known” or, in the Hindu tradition, between purusha and prakriti respectively. While we all have this ability, most of us live on the surface of the material world, which results in the usual problems of separation, delusions, anger, and ignorance of the wholeness.

Our “inner islands”—of which there are six—are the source of this evolution, according to Tuttle, which he describes as crossing a vast ocean, making stops along the way and learning the lessons until we reach the other shore—“our fully awakened potential.” Crossing a body of water is a Buddhist metaphor for going beyond the world of separateness, ignorance, and attachment, where we stand now, to the world of pure nondual awareness—emptiness. The boat and the oars symbolize the methods of getting us across this divide.

After many days of travel we come upon the first, the Island of Understanding. There we encounter a sign containing words from a Zen koan, “The ox, trying to go through the gate, is stuck; only his tail won’t go through.” This gate leads us into the “realm of intuition,” which is our “own true nature.” It is our inner voice; the ox is the true self; and the ox’s tail is the ego, which is an obstacle to spiritual growth. It is “the belief that you are a separate thing,”but it is also all the delusions that we have about our stories and our attachments, which we are called to release so that we can take responsibility for our awakening.

We come next to the Island of Energy, where the spiritual energy is so strong that, “like music, we just let it move us and follow its promptings.” On this island we learn to raise our level of spiritual energy to a higher vibration “through cultivating inner receptivity through prayer and meditation.” Through this higher level of vibration, we learn to follow our inner guidance, and more importantly to trust it—perhaps the most challenging thing.

On the Island of Meditation we learn the practice of “looking more deeply” to begin to see the oneness of all things. Words and concepts, the Island of Understanding tells us, “can limit our awareness” and “can become distortions that distance us and distract us from awareness of the deeper process unfolding around and within us.”We thencan move beyond the “conditioned consciousness” of samsara’s illusions.

“The most beneficial teachings tend to come from within, when the mind is clarified and abides in witnessing awareness,” the island tells us. It is here we learn to “expand beyond thinking and beyond being anyone or anything.”

The Island of Imagination is where we learn that the outer world is a manifestation of our inner world. “The world appears as a dream of mind to remind you that as you imagine the world, so it is, and as you imagine yourself, so you are as well.”

The fifth island is the Island of Relationship. Because we have learned the lessons of the previous four islands, we can now allow our relationships to “heighten” our intuitive abilities, and our “intuition to deepen our relationships.” In this chapter Tuttle explores the ideal utopian society. While there have been many experiments in utopian societies, especially during the Second Great Awakening in the United States (c.1795–1840), none seemed to have been successful over the long term. But it has long been an ideal to which humans have sought in their efforts to create the perfect society—or at least one to their own liking.

Surprisingly, the last island—the Island of Compassion—turns out to be the place from which our journey began. Samsara and nirvana are not separate places but are one and the same—states of mind that depend upon how our mind perceives the here and now.“Everything contains everything else and perhaps nothing is ever separate from anything,” andall of our life’s experiences contain the seeds for awakening to wisdom and compassion, Tuttle tells us.

Tuttle, an accomplished pianist, created a CD of beautiful music to accompany each island  for an auditory experience on our journey. His wife, Madeleine, an artist, has painted six panels, each depicting the islands, to provide beautiful visuals for the reader to help in this exploration.

Ultimately, truth is a pathless land, as Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, and the journey to the other shore—beyond thought, beyond attachments and beyond the perceived self—is one that each of us must take on the path to enlightenment. In an age when we live more and more from Internet searches and Facebook commentary, Your Inner Islands is a thoughtful guide to connecting us with our inner self, that place where our intuition—and ultimately our truth—resides.

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truthavailable on Amazon.


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