The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
August 2003 Vol. 6 Issue 6
There is something special about symbols -- the way they catch our attention, awaken memories, preserve and reveal truths without a word being said. As a matter of fact, symbols are a philosophic shorthand that has been inscribed on clay tablets, carved into stone, painted on temple walls and, millions of years ago, impressed by wise and godlike beings into the consciousness of mankind. In doing this they assured us of guidance: we have but to turn within "where truth abides in fullness" to find direction, answers to our problems, and inspiration.
What are some of these symbols? There are geometric forms, such as circles, spirals, crosses, triangles; and natural objects like stars, trees and flowers, soaring birds, and coiling snakes. Each in its own way condenses truths about the laws and operations of cosmic and human life. H. P. Blavatsky found such depth of meaning in them that she used symbols as the basis of the cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis she presented in The Secret Doctrine. Taking several circles -- a white disk, and circles with a dot, a horizontal line, a cross, and a swastika inside -- she expands their meaning and describes in fascinating detail the creation and evolution of worlds and men.
Similar ideas have been preserved and revealed in the symbols of many religious, philosophical, and scientific systems, as well as in myths, architectural designs, and sacred rituals. The circle, one of the simplest and most profound symbols, can be found everywhere: in the shape of the sun, moon, and planets, and of various fruits; and by extension, in our circle of friends, activities, and in the cycles of the day, the seasons, and centuries. Such circles have many meanings: they suggest containment, the fullness of space, a womb, and hence the Great Mother or source of all being; and thus eggs, like the Egg of Brahma, and arks such as those of the Biblical Noah and the Zoroastrian Yima.
All these symbols are keys which can open before us the "secret doctrine" of the ages, as they did for H. P. Blavatsky when she studied the symbols on that archaic manuscript which had been preserved for millennia. With figures as simple as a circle, cross, and triangle, and their variations, she presented to the world not only a history of human and cosmic evolution, but also a vision of our present and future possibilities. -- Eloise Hart
Rivers appear frequently in the world's sacred traditions as symbols of divine influence and of life's interdependence. They evoke an image of spiritual-intellectual energies cascading through the manifold planes of cosmic and individual life -- linking us intimately with our spiritual source, nourishing and sustaining us, and flowing forth to connect us with all things. We may recall, for example, the Hindus' description of the Ganges descending from heaven, encircling Brahma's city of gold on the summit of Meru, the earth's central mountain, then dividing into four rivers which flow to the four points of the compass. Embodied in this imagery is a set of ideas suggesting a continuous flow of life, wisdom, and guidance from our original homeland to every corner of the world.
Like the ancient Egyptians who understood the gift of the Celestial Nile as well as of its earthly counterpart, we can be enriched by exploring these ancient waterways; so that next time we see a Christian baptism, or millions of Hindus assembling on the banks of the Ganges, the inner significance of these rites and celebrations will be apparent, serving as a refreshing draft from the Well of Memory deep within us. For sacred rivers are not only mythic reminders of forgotten truth, they represent the ever-present stream of who and what we essentially are: not a static being, but a dynamic ever-becoming flow of godlike radiance. -- W. T. S. Thakara
The Bhagavad-Gita Book Circle continues on Tuesday, August 12, 7:30-8:45 pm, at Newport Way Library. We will be reading Chapter 6. The following meeting will be Tuesday, August 19, 7:30-8:45 pm, at the Newport Way Library, 14250 SE Newport Way, Bellevue. Feel free to drop in at any meeting!
Directions to Newport Way Library. From I-90: Take exit 11A to 150th, turn right onto 150th, go up the hill and turn right onto Newport Way at traffic light. The library is a short distance on the right-hand side, visible from Newport Way. Turn right onto 142nd SE and then right into parking lot. From I-405: Take the I-90 exit East, then follow the directions above. A map and directions are available online at www.kcls.org/npw/direct.cfm.
Meeting Schedule: Twice a month from 7:30 - 8:45 pm at Newport Way Library
"Myths and Symbols: A Universal Language" is our subject is month. We will be discussing such questions as: What are myths, and where do they come from? What symbols do various traditions use to express important concepts and truths? Why are myths and symbols important in our lives and in our understanding of reality? Come share your ideas!
Open to the public, unsectarian, non-political, no charge.
The topics for the monthly discussion group for the next few months are:
September 25: What Is the Basis of Ethics? (At Newport Way Library - Bellevue Library remodeling and closed to meetings)
October 30: Bringing Ourselves to Birth (at Newport Way Library - Bellevue Library remodeling and closed to meetings)
November: What Is the Meaning of Life?
Fables are more than amusing tales; they encapsulate ideas that are timely and appealing. Some address current issues, assuring us that we can change the world if first we change ourselves. To do this we need to discover who and what we are; with satire, exaggeration, and pathos, fables hold up a mirror before us. In this way they instruct and uplift -- and do it quite effectively.
Looking particularly into the often quoted fables of Aesop and the Jataka tales of Buddhist tradition, we discover more than meets the eye for, as the French collector and translator of Aesop's fables, Jean de la Fontaine, observed: "We yawn at sermons, but we gladly turn / To moral tales, and so amused we learn."
To this end, fables have been repeated and adapted for each generation and life situation. Many, stemming from truths older than time, have passed orally from age to age and country to country. This accounts for their startling similarities and variations, and for the confusion surrounding their origins. Some scholars, for instance, believe that Aesop's fables were drawn from the wisdom of Egypt; others, that they were carried to Greece by way of the ancient Indo-European country of Phrygia, where Aesop was born and probably heard these stories as a child. Archaeologists have unearthed in ancient Mesopotamia three to four thousand-year-old cuneiform tablets with proverbs that feature animal characters. They suggest that the fables were brought from Sumeria to Assyria and from there by Hittites to Phrygia.
Animals play important parts in fables like The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Fox and the Grapes, The Race between the Tortoise and the Hare, The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, and many more. These stories -- whose characters also include humans and gods -- captivated the Greek fancy.
During the past 2500 years or so Aesop's fables have been translated and enjoyed the world over. Generations have been instructed to emulate their clarity of style and satire. Typical examples of his compassion and skill are found in the well-known stories of The Lion and the Mouse, and The North Wind and The Sun. In the first, we read of a lion who awoke to discover a mouse running over his back. He seized him and was about to eat him when the mouse said, "If you will let me go, I will repay you." The lion, amused, released him. Later the lion was caught by hunters and tied up. Hearing his groans the mouse came to his rescue; gnawing through the rope he set the lion free.
In the contest between the North Wind and the Sun each wagered that he was the stronger and would prove it by forcing a man to take off his coat. The Wind blew and blew, but the more he blustered, the tighter the man wrapped his coat about him. The sun just beamed, and the man, warmed and relaxed, took off his coat!
The five hundred or more Jataka tales are as familiar in India as Aesop's are in the West, and enjoyed for the common sense and consideration for others they illustrate. Jataka means "birth story." These are stories which chronicle the former incarnations of the hero, a Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be, from the time he resolved to "live to benefit the world" until he became enlightened. Since he had made his vow of compassion ninety-one aeons ago, these tales describe incidents in both animal and human incarnations. Some relate the mistakes he made and point out the lessons learned; others dwell on acts of kindness and wisdom which, while furthering his attainment of the Virtues (Paramitas), helped and ennobled all those about him.
Paramitameans "to go beyond," and implies that through spiritual effort one is able to leave this world's suffering and illusion and to cross over to the "other shore" of spiritual awareness. The Paramitas are one of the world's noblest codes of conduct, practical guidelines for everyone who would improve his life, be he householder or monk.
Fables have lasting appeal because of their many levels of meaning and because in their heroes we see ourselves. By their ingenious examples we learn how to disentangle ourselves from materialistic involvement, and how to develop the use of the five weapons of spiritual attainment so that, when in the end we triumph, we will have helped not only ourselves, but others on the journey towards perfection.