Compiled by WILLIAM WILSON QUINN
San Antonio, Texas: Turning Stone Press, 2020. 91 pp., paper, $18.95.
There is something to be said about the power of small spiritual books, particularly ones that condense some aspect of the Ageless Wisdom and deliver it with the intensity of a carefully distilled essence. One of these, The Chela’s Handbook, offers a straight arrow into the heart of discipleship.
As stated in Mabel Collins’ The Idyll of the White Lotus, Theosophy postulates that “the soul of man [and woman] is immortal, and its future is the future of a thing whose growth and splendor has no limit.” Somewhere along this endless process, we become fully human. We reach a level of conscious unfoldment, also called enlightenment, in which all our dormant spiritual potentialities bloom into full splendor. At this point there seems to be a choice. Either we continue that process of expansion no longer associated with humanity, or we become a bodhisattva, a human being who, after reaching nirvana, keeps her or his physical body to assist humanity in the arduous process of awakening.
A few of these enlightened beings, also called adepts or Mahatmas, had a major role in launching the Theosophical Society and finding the most suitable people for this task. As part of that plan, a great amount of correspondence took place between these adepts and the candidates who appeared to have the qualities required for this endeavor.
The Chela’s Handbook is a compilation of excerpts from the letters between three of those Mahatmas and a handful of Theosophical pioneers. The power of this work lies in the fact that the quotes relate exclusively to discipleship: chela is a Sanskrit word for pupil or disciple.
Although most of these letters have been in print for almost a century, many people have felt discouraged from reading them because of the copious references to specific circumstances and problems the Society was facing at the time, scattering the teaching somewhat among secondary details. The Chela’s Handbook not only rescues the pearls hidden in the correspondence but collects them from different publications, dividing them into five subsections.
As the compiler himself points out, “for the serious seeker this book should not be viewed as a substitute for reading the letters,” but the selection of quotes is still a useful tool both for research and inspiration. At the bottom of each excerpt, the reader will find the name of the recipient and sender; the date and number of the letter; and the publication and page in which it can be found for further study. Although the internal drama of the time may seem irrelevant, it can provide insights on the many facets and pitfalls of the probationary path, which leads toward chelaship.
One could fairly ask, why is this book relevant to me? What does discipleship have to do with my life and its problems? From a certain perspective, everything. Our life at this point in time is a reflection of what it was, and what we do today becomes our future. The obstacles we face on the path now are not fundamentally different from the ones we will face in the future. The context may change and the intensity may vary, but the root causes are the same and will not go away until we patiently remove them.
Discipleship is full of dangers and hardships. It is an accelerated journey, a voluntary sacrifice. As one of the Masters wrote, “Chelaship unveils the inner man [or woman] and draws forth the dormant vices as well as the dormant virtue,” which explains why so many have failed. Those who succeed are propelled by an unswerving selflessness and a childlike purity.
This compilation is especially inspiring in that it reveals the unusual spiritual heights of the early members of the Theosophical Society and how many of their achievements and failures could have been part of the tests they underwent as chelas. Eternal gratitude to them for forging the path for us.
Juliana Cesano is manager of the Quest Book Shop. She lectures and teaches regularly for the TSA.