Printed in the Spring 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Price, Leslie, "Facing the Third Object: An Interview with Kurt Leland" Quest 106:2, pg 17-19
By Leslie Price
Kurt Leland is a familiar figure to members of the Theosophical Society in America. In addition to his work as a national speaker, he has contributed to Quest more than once. An interview with him appeared in our fall 2013 issue, and his article “Rainbow Body: How the Western Chakra System Came to Be,” based on his book Rainbow Body: A History of the Western Chakra System from Blavatsky to Brennan (Ibis Press, 2016) appeared in our spring 2017 issue.
In the fall of 2017, Leslie Price of the Theosophical Society in England conducted an email interview with Kurt focused on the vexed topic of the Society’s Third Object: “To investigate unexplored laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.” The interview appeared in part in Insight, the TSE house journal, and in full on the Insight website.
Leslie Price: You have published a new edition of C.W. Leadbeater’s book The Chakras (Quest, 2013) and edited Invisible Worlds: Annie Besant on Psychic and Spiritual Development (Quest, 2014). Besant was a supporter of Third Object work in the Theosophical Society. How can the Society today take the Third Object—“to investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in humanity”—forward today?
Kurt Leland: During the first fifty years of the TS’s existence, Third Object studies focused on learning more about the universe of possibilities for intuition, thought, feeling, and action opened up by Theosophical teachings, such as those concerning subtle bodies and planes. After the deaths of Besant and Leadbeater in the early 1930s, the focus seems to have shifted away from accumulating such knowledge to proving that powers of clairvoyance and healing were latent in humanity and could be developed for the benefit of others and as a contribution to science. These goals were pursued by the Theosophical Research Centre, headquartered for many years in London.
Throughout the entire history of the TS, there have been struggles between experiencers and nonexperiencers of such powers over how to integrate such knowledge into sensible governance of the TS. Numerous schisms have left their scars, including distrust of people in the movement with claims of psychic and spiritual abilities. Nonexperiencers have been somewhat fundamentalistic about interpreting H.P. Blavatsky’s cautions against mediumship as a universal ban on such practices (whereas she actually said, “Subjective, purely spiritual ‘Mediumship’ is the only harmless kind, and is often an elevating gift that might be cultivated by every one”: Collected Writings, 6:329). A climate of fear, distrust, and discouragement of the development of psychic and spiritual abilities has arisen, based on the notion that such abilities are potentially dangerous to oneself and to the well-being of a group (as in cases in which charismatic individuals with claims to such powers try to take over an existing TS group).
In my role as national lecturer for the TSA, I’ve taken the following steps to rehabilitate the Third Object. First, I admit the potential dangers of development of psychic and spiritual powers—but I also point people toward the writings of Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbeater, and others within the movement that indicate how such development may be safely undertaken. There’s much wisdom of this sort in Theosophical writings, and it deserves to be better known, both within the TS and beyond.
Second, I encourage people to share their inner lives with each other within the context of TS gatherings—which may include dreams, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, mystical experiences, contact with deceased relatives, and so on. Such sharing deepens our connections with each other and builds lasting communities. There is too little such sharing in our society—and where better to make space for it than in the TS, where so much literature is devoted to understanding such experiences? I’ve been told that when I lead a meeting along these lines, no one wants to leave when the time is up, whereas when a meeting of the same group is engaged in intellectual discussion of Theosophical concepts alone, people run out the door when the hour is over.
I’ve come to realize that nearly everyone who is attracted to the TS has had at least one spiritual or mystical experience of some sort. Honoring that fact and encouraging further study of the theoretical basis of such experiences would go a long way toward encouraging visitors to join and groups to retain members.
Finally, I keep in mind something I learned from my training as a musician, which required many years of study of musical theory. When I was able to see the application of musical theory to a piece I was performing or composing, I experienced a moment of illumination that not only justified such study, but also revealed the composer’s practice in a new light and suggested ways of communicating what I’d learned to an audience.
Why shouldn’t our study of the Third Object do the same? The theory is amply presented in the works of Theosophical writers who were gifted with clairvoyance and other psychic and spiritual powers. TS groups contain members who have had such experiences. The art is to create a safe context for people to share such experiences and then suggest ways in which Theosophical theories, and writings, about subtle bodies and planes explain them. Then the teachings come alive.
Thus my recommendation for exploring the Third Object is not to create groups to try to prove anything about the existence of psychic or spiritual powers, or to lead people directly into the development of such powers, but to create a safe environment for discussing such things. The chief means of creating such safety is to distinguish between selfish and unselfish sharing. Selfish sharing is self-promoting: it tries to impress others with one’s spiritual status and tends to erode the principle of brotherhood. Unselfish sharing is made as a contribution to human knowledge and tends to support the development of brotherhood.
The failure of the TS to support Third Object studies in recent decades may have been the result of a loss of understanding of how these studies contribute to practice of the First Object of the TS, universal brotherhood. Even if we go no further in the development of our psychic and spiritual abilities than to empathize with the suffering of animals and our fellow human beings, we have taken an important step in linking the basis of all psychic and spiritual powers—the unity consciousness associated with the principle of buddhi, which Besant and Leadbeater called spiritual intuition—with the principle of universal brotherhood.
It is not perhaps a large step beyond that to realize there may be other, less tangible realms and beings who may also experience suffering as a result of human ignorance, to feel empathy and brotherhood with them, and perhaps through that fellow feeling, to embolden them to show themselves to our inner vision. It’s my belief that the emphasis on universal brotherhood in the TS encourages the development of unity consciousness and the principle of buddhi, and that there’s no safer way for our psychic and spiritual abilities to unfold than through constant immersion in unity consciousness in our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Leslie: C.W. Leadbeater remains a controversial figure in the TS. As one of the few persons to produce a scholarly edition of one of his books (the best-selling The Chakras), can you see how we can come to a balanced appreciation of his contribution?
Kurt : I’ve come to see Leadbeater neither as a saint (an often encountered assessment in certain TS circles) nor as a “monster of depravity” (to use his own words to sum up reactions in some sections of the TS and beyond), but as a flawed human being trying to master socially and spiritually pernicious motivations—allegedly including pedophilic tendencies—and not always succeeding. Let me be clear that it is the pedophilia and not necessarily the homosexuality that I consider pernicious, and that I use the word pernicious only with regard to behaviors that were damaging to himself, others, and the Theosophical movement. The various exposures and scandals helped to keep him in check and could be seen as karmic interventions, perhaps even motivated by the Masters, to make sure that a valuable worker did not wander too far astray and to remind him that too much was at stake to be sacrificed for mere personal pleasure, especially when the psychological and spiritual well-being of his young male charges and the reputation of the TS were at stake.
As a society, we have learned since his time that it is always wise to make sure that there is more than one adult about whenever adults are supervising children. And with regard to persons of spiritual authority, we have also learned the detrimental effects of creating an air of superior knowledge and a charisma that bewitches people’s common sense and allows them to be manipulated or abused. Certainly unmerited claims of social or intellectual status or of wonderful if not miraculous physical or spiritual adventures—for example, the many untruths Leadbeater told to enhance his position in the eyes of others—have accompanied the establishment of spiritual movements preceding, contemporaneous with, and following Leadbeater’s involvement with the TS. Such things are important considerations for understanding the development of spiritual and religious movements within academia.
When we have set aside these personal and historical elements, what we have left is the value of Leadbeater’s teachings. I believe we are unwise if we accept them without acknowledging the personality flaws, but equally unwise if we reject them wholesale because of these flaws. Through studying various other movements, I’ve come to the conclusion that the clearer the information that is available to a teacher, the more likely it is that that teacher will fall as a result of personality flaws. They fall so that their followers are forced to take back the spiritual authority they gave up by joining such movements. This is a natural evolutionary process, and Leadbeater simply represents an expression of it within the TS. The larger teaching is that it isn’t safe or helpful for us to accept what any spiritual teacher says without examining its validity and usefulness for ourselves. We must develop discernment as well as reliance on our own internal spiritual authority.
Much of what Leadbeater taught has passed into New Age lore without question or challenge—though the people who pass it on are often unaware of its origins and may have developed or improved upon it. I think current scholarship should make those origins clear. Much of what has not been perceived as useful in Leadbeater’s teachings—for example, the voluminous information on the past lives of various TS members—has been forgotten, and probably rightly so. In general, I think the principles he taught are often valid and useful, but the details used to illustrate them may be subject to personal and cultural limitations. They can’t be taken literally, but they shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. Thus rehabilitation of Leadbeater would require extracting the principles from the historical and personal context in which they’re embedded. I’ve sometimes thought that a reader’s guide to Leadbeater’s writings might demonstrate how that sorting could be done, not only as a lesson in the development of discernment, but also as a means of assessing his legacy and influence on later developments in spiritualist, Theosophical, and New Age thought.
Leslie: At 50 Gloucester Place in London (the headquarters of the English Section) we have just had an international conference devoted to Annie Besant, with papers from several countries and the launch of a new biography: Annie Besant: Struggles and Quest by Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière. What research is now most needed into Annie Besant’s work?
Kurt : I’ve noticed as I travel to various TS groups around the United States that Theosophical lecturers and discussion groups focus on certain texts, such as The Secret Doctrine or The Mahatma Letters, or on certain ideas, such as karma or reincarnation. There is little historical consciousness, except with respect to those works. There is also perhaps a tendency to choose texts accepted by most Theosophists as authoritative. The result seems to me to be an unacknowledged leaning toward fundamentalism.
Given the vast scope of Theosophical literature produced after the death of Mme. Blavatsky in 1891, especially by Besant and Leadbeater, much of what it contains of personal and perhaps global value (especially in consideration of Besant’s powerful writings on universal brotherhood) is being passed over. Thus, within the TS itself, I would like to see an emphasis not merely on Theosophical teachings, but also on historical context within the movement—and especially on the development of skills of discernment in reading controversial works or writers to discover what may be of value, what may be outdated and require rethinking, and what may be questionable and require further investigation or should be set aside as unhelpful or pernicious.
In reading Blavatsky’s Collected Writings, I came to the conclusion that she was as much if not more interested in presenting Theosophy as a method of intellectual and spiritual inquiry than as a body of spiritual beliefs. The TS no longer seems to emphasize this method, though it would be of great help in evaluating problematic works and authors, and would perhaps be one of the most useful traits, besides universal brotherhood, for Theosophists to carry with them into the outside world, where religious and political fundamentalism is flourishing.
As far as academic scholarship is concerned, my wish is that equal attention be placed on Besant’s involvement with the TS and with Indian politics as has already been placed on her pre-Theosophical work for the free-thought movement, and laborers’, women’s, children’s, and animals’ rights. The latter subjects are academically fashionable and have led to a skewed perspective on Besant’s motivations and an implication that she went off the deep end when she joined the TS, rather than that she saw in Theosophical teachings a broader and more integrated platform (“the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy,” as Blavatsky put it) from which to do the same work, not only in England, but in India.
Both within academia and the TS, I believe that researchers are limited in perceiving the full scope of Besant’s work by the large amount of material she produced, not only her 600 or more books and pamphlets, but also many presently unknown lectures, articles, editorials, and journals. Though a Collected Writings seems in order, the initial work of collecting her writings has not been done. There are enormous gaps in our understanding of her political work in India because the daily and weekly papers she produced there from 1914, New India and the Commonweal, are largely unknown. There are also many lectures and articles produced for the Esoteric School of Theosophy that are unavailable to nonmembers. This policy makes it difficult for historians to assess the development and scope of Besant’s clairvoyant abilities and activities.
Finally, I must admit to a personal bias against Besant’s World Teacher agenda on behalf of J. Krishnamurti. I have little confidence in most of her work produced after 1914, when she devoted herself so entirely to that agenda. And I think there are some Theosophists who dismiss her entire oeuvre on such a basis. However, I have recently been researching this phase of her life in depth and have begun to better understand her motivations. Such study has allowed me to bring a modicum of tolerance to my view of what she did. I no longer see her as simply mistaken, but as providing an object lesson in the dangers to spiritual organizations of certain beliefs and certain styles of leadership. We could all learn valuable lessons from her case.
Leslie Price is secretary of the Theosophical history conferences, held regularly at the Theosophical Lodge in England since 1986. He is also associate editor of the journal Theosophical History.