[At the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions, held in Cape Town, South Africa, December 1-8, over 7,000 people from around the world came together to exchange insights and share their diverse religious perspectives. At the same time, they sought to understand and find moral and ethical keys to critical global issues. The following is condensed from a talk presented at the Parliament. -- Eds.]
As children of the Divine, we are each gatekeeper and path to the rebirth of soul, ours and the world's. From inner to outer transformation the limits to our greatness are largely self-imposed, partly because we stay married to old battles and are seldom willing to sacrifice our precious collection of half-truths and favorite beliefs. For a more compassionate future, forgiveness and reconciliation are active ingredients needed to help birth the natural peacemaker in our hearts. The thought behind reconciliation is to bring together, to agree, or to put something right. In the United States divorce is often granted due to the partners' "irreconcilable differences," a phrase which reminds us what happens when there is no agreement: we become divorced from each other, from intelligent discourse, from ourselves. To solve conflicts in everyday life we usually look for resolution, but in spiritual life we also look for dissolution: to dissolve inner boundaries so as to absorb the personal self into the larger, spiritual self. I am reminded of the alchemical formula "solve and coagula," to melt and reform, dissolve and come together. The spirit of reconciliation, and of this Parliament, encourages us similarly -- to release our attachments to present-day thinking so as to allow larger visions to take shape.
Outer disagreements are often mirrors and manifestations of inner ones, which is why addressing the external problems often doesn't work. Neither does arguing, as it appeals either to the fuzzy thinking of a sentimental heart or to linear logic, and intellectualizing doesn't convince anyone satisfactorily. As one teacher put it, "conviction must come from the inner consciousness absorbing a truth." Reconciliation begins interiorly, usually generated by a new vision, and spreads outwardly.
While each of us dreams of peace, we probably have different pictures of what it will look like. Some imagine it will happen only after a victory (usually theirs). Some picture it as a quiet harmonious scene with no disagreements, while others envision peace as a noisier, more dynamic process requiring a new commitment each day. If we concentrate on our mental pictures, we essentially focus on the superficial side of the question and may never agree. Where we can agree is on the deeper issues, the principles of respectful coexistence. Identifying, then dissolving, the boundaries around our superficial differences in order to come together in a loving spirit seems an important path to peace and spiritual rebirth as well.
When we speak of spiritual renaissance, we are describing the process of bringing to birth the Christos spirit, the inner peacemaker. And as we know that nothing comes from nothing, any birth is a kind of rebirth, a new expression of something that went before.
Spiritual reconciliation is perhaps more art than science, and in theosophy the basis for our art or vision is that we live in an alive, dynamic universe in which we are all related to each other and to everything. Every imaginable spot in space is a life or a potential life. Compare the size of an apple seed to a full-grown apple tree and tell me, isn't an apple tree alive? Where do the branches, leaves, and fruit come from if sunlight, rocks, water, and dirt are all inorganic or dead? How do they quicken the seed unless they too are expressions of life --moving and changing, dissolving and transforming matter, energy, and information from one realm to another? And just as there is a continual interchange of forces, just so is there continual need for making peace; for continually reconciling what is newly born (or reborn) with what is already present. If we couldn't change it would be tragic, as troubles would last forever. Imagine if you had to remain forever just as you are now -- no new ideas, no chance to learn or grow.
I believe we live in a participatory universe, one which asks us to notice the quality of our participation and reacts to our thoughts as much as to our actions. I suspect that the universe responds to our inner purpose, our motives, just as we react to the intentions of others as conveyed by their tone of voice. So we sensitive idealist Parliamentarians are forever having to readjust ourselves, deepen our understanding, in order not to fall out of love with the world and others. All our traditions teach us to be virtuous, kind, honest, charitable -- but when we fall short of our own ideals, can we find peace in our own hearts, or do we find bitterness, guilt, and unhappiness? How can we help bring harmony to the world if we are distressed? Reconciliation is not only about forgiving others, it's about forgiving ourselves, for until we can live with our own inadequacies, we are less able to make peace with others. Here I offer a model: If something blocks our vision, we can step back a little, and the object that once totally obscured everything gets proportionately smaller. Great philosophical teachings help us take an inner step back, away from where we are stuck. The larger the scope of our imaginings, the smaller the area where we are stuck. Imagine if we could back up far enough to consider our lives from the vantage of our eternal spirit-soul, which sees our previous births and future paths? What might our present position look like from that point of view?
Instead of taking a philosophical step back, sometimes we look longingly back at what we imagine to have been an easier past, the good old days. Or we wish for guarantees. It takes courage to try to make peace inner and outer, never knowing for sure what the outcome will be. The first principle of theosophy is that deep within us lives a divine, eternal mystery which is essentially unknowable and unchanging. Because it doesn't change (and everything in the known and visible universe does), we call it real. Our philosophy tells us the version of reality our senses bring us is distorted and partial. To me this means that there is always mystery. No matter how certain we feel that we understand something, there is a mystery which dwells at the heart of all and says, "keep searching, come find me." It continually beckons and recedes. Each day presents the question of how to reconcile absolute infinite boundlessness with the relative vision of mortal bodies bound up in the cycles of nature. This is the heart of the bodhisattva ideal: to notice the illusion, to see clearly the temporariness and essential unreality of suffering, but to stay compassionate to it at all times. So we find ourselves facing paradoxes constantly, seeming contradictions which need to be understood and integrated.
How, we may ask, do we reconcile the psychological with the spiritual? One prescribes self-examination, the other self-forgetfulness. Clearly they both have value. I believe the gate (and the gatekeeper) to true reconciliation lives in our hearts, but not in the romantic, emotional, sentimental heart. There is another path, the path of the wise heart, which tries to look fearlessly for principles and truth and does not want to be confused by sentimentality, romanticism, or sensationalism. The feeling side of our nature (which is largely emotional) brings us useful information about how we presently value the world, so we don't want to ignore it or leave it out. We need to include its message in our deliberations, but we can't allow ourselves to be dominated or confused by it.
For example, the sentimental heart chokes up at the suffering of others, maybe even while watching the news. It becomes emotionally involved, often blinded by its own tears, thereby increasing the amount of suffering in the world -- where there was one sad person, now there are two. The sentimental heart believes that love, romantic love, conquers all and often sits still, while the wise-hearted endeavors to understand, then learns to act compassionately. Both strive to be loving, but one strives personally, one impersonally. The wise heart knows not to assume that complex problems can be resolved simply and always strives to see a larger picture. The sentimental heart longs to fill-in-the-blank, ``All you have to do is ,'' and often responds happily to bumper sticker psychology. True reconciliation requires us to grow an increasingly wise heart. It takes loving knowledge, knowledgeable love. No need to devalue or try to get rid of our emotional nature, but we must try not be limited to it or blinded by it. When we make commitments or agreements only from the sentimental heart, we find they often evaporate in a day or two -- consider New Year's resolutions.
Lasting reconciliation involves first seeing the difference between the two paths, and then moving towards the one with broader vision. I believe that spiritual reconciliation begins when we move from the sentimental heart, the part of us rooted in time, to the wise heart rooted in eternity. Spiritual reconciliation is about transforming our attitude so we can literally bring to birth a new perspective. What is essential is that we take the time to pay caring attention.
Recently I read of a 14-year-old boy who was paralyzed with guilt over the death, nine years earlier, of his younger sister. She was two and he five when they were outside playing together and a car struck and killed her. Nothing helped, no amount of counseling or of assuring him that it wasn't his fault. He was still haunted with self-blame and guilt. His mother could hardly bear to think of the event, it still caused her so much pain, yet she knew she had to do something to help relieve her son of his self-made hell. Instead of being trapped by her sadness, she watched and pondered and paid caring attention until a possible solution presented itself to help dissolve the problem -- loving knowledge, knowledgeable love.
One day she took him to a kindergarten classroom to observe the children. In response to his questioning, she only said they were going to learn about responsibility. As mother and son watched the youngsters paint, cavort, and play, they were touched and delighted by their laughter and innocence. It was apparent how immature and babyish the youngsters were, and it slowly dawned on the adolescent that that was how he had been too, for he was the exact age of these kindergarten children when his sister died. For the first time since the death of his sister, he knew, really knew, that her death wasn't his fault. The Buddha taught that ignorance causes suffering. Learning to reason symbolically and to think creatively and metaphorically (outside the box, like this creative mother did) helps give us the freedom to look at the world in new ways. The sentimental heart believes that if we do good and live right, no bad things happen, but the wise heart knows differently: there is no inoculation against bad times, for endings and death are a part of the life cycle. Whenever there is a birth, death walks in too; they are as inseparable as spirit and matter.
Though the sentimental heart wants to believe that bad things won't happen to spiritual people, for seekers after truth karmic consequences are even more focused and often more intense. Mabel Collins explained it this way: Most people
walk waveringly, uncertain as to the goal they aim at; their standard of life is indefinite; consequently their karma operates in a confused manner. But when once the threshold of knowledge is reached, the confusion begins to lessen, and consequently the karmic results increase enormously, because all are acting in the same direction on all the different planes . . . -- Light on the Path, p. 89
The sentimental heart imagines that all invisible energies are spiritual, but the wiser heart knows there are many gradations of invisible energies, many shades of healing energies, some that suppress, some that help express. The wise-hearted try to discriminate between them.
The sentimental heart believes that things end, while the wise heart realizes that nature repeats endlessly. Psychologists tell us that we try to recreate the emotional environment we grew up with; instinct in the animal kingdom dictates predictable repeated behavior (courting dances, nest building, offspring rearing). Laws of nature are laws because they inevitably repeat -- we see this in the seasons, in the forests, in our lives. Sacred scriptures are as alive to us now as thousands of years ago when they were first written down because we are repeating the same processes. Legacies and traditions are all about continuation, repetition and, when done with conscious awareness, renaissance.
Since nature endlessly repeats her forms and functions in the large and the small, we can't underestimate the value of studying spiritual and philosophical principles, for when we understand them, we can identify the same processes in our own lives. Our lives are just as much an expression of our will, wisdom, and action as the universe is an expression of the Divine's, for we are each the hierarch in our own small universe.
What we think about, we grow towards and eventually become, and as we grow, the world grows. As we evolve, the planet evolves. Let us try to surround ourselves with beauty and marvelous thoughts, study philosophy, learn to think philosophically -- learn to think at all. Look to discover grand ideas so they will inform our lives, as they carry within them the careful consideration and love of generations who came before.
We are taught that indifference to suffering shows a lack of spiritual development, so we must practice benevolence, practice charity, practice looking through the eyes of the wise heart that it may continually grow wiser. In the history of the earth, our lives are but a fraction of a second -- how little our benevolent gestures take up in the economy of time and space, but how large their effects.
Let me close with one last story. I recently visited with a special lady in a rest home where she was newly settled. Once dynamic, her advancing age and illness ensure she will never go home again. On previous visits she had been fretful because she had been asked not to speak so much theosophy to the mostly Christian staff. On this particular occasion she was asked if she missed being able to talk theosophy. She looked surprised and then spoke quietly but emphatically, "No. No, my friends the nurses and aides speak it all around me, and when I comment on what they've said, often they don't even remember saying it. So I repeat their remark, sometimes truly a golden gem, and they recognize it and say, 'Oh yes, I have always believed it to be so.' And by my hearing and repeating their own thought, they come to be more aware of their own wisdom."
How in her own way and in her own time this woman came to inner peace is a splendid illustration of true reconciliation and spiritual renaissance. It is well and truly said that "whatever we hold in our hearts finds its way into the world."
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)