Theosophy Northwest View

The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society

August 2015 – Vol. 18 Issue 6

News and Views

A Tale

Fate met a discontented man.

“Why are you discontented?” asked Fate.

“Alas!” said the man, “my life is so monotonous. I desire a change of time and place.”

“That is impossible,” said Fate.

“Nay,” said the man, “it is in your power to transport me to a distant land and a different era.”

“Choose,” said Fate.

The man’s eyes sparkled. “I choose Rome, during the Augustan age.”

His wish was granted, but before long Fate found him again disconsolate.

“Why are you discontented?” asked Fate.

“Alas!” he said, “my life is so monotonous. I desire a change of time and place.”

“Choose,” said Fate.

“I choose England in the Elizabethan age,” said the man.

His wish was granted, but before too many moons Fate found him again disconsolate.

“Why are you discontented?” asked Fate.

“Alas!” he said, “my life is so monotonous. I desire a change of time and place.”

“Fool,” said Fate. “Have you not yet discovered that one is always here and it is always now?” – W. Q. Judge

Being Ourselves

How often when life and our own limitations weigh heavily on us do we turn to nature and the out-of-doors. Something deep within is touched by a corresponding aspect in our surroundings, and an inner peace reaches out to the frayed edges of our personality – an intimation of the harmony underlying all being. Wherever we look, at the sky or ocean, desert, woods or fields, we sense a fitness, an atmosphere of beings living within a greater unity. In all their variety of kind and size, they fulfill their roles as individuals simply by expressing what they are. There is a self-sufficiency and unquestioned significance in these lives who exist and grow without the pre-meditation and personal angst we so often feel. Each tree and stone and galaxy expresses its uniqueness while at the same time by its own nature it contributes a necessary element to the general pattern of unfolding nature.

Are we humans so different from the rest of the universe? We, too, are a part of nature, contributing to the whole by our intrinsic qualities. Far from being aliens living on the globe’s surface, we help to form the planet and participate in every phase of its existence. Our whole being – physical, psychological and spiritual – is sustained by the vast circulations of forces and matters which are the earth. If we fail to recognize this connection, it is because we have built up habits of thought and feeling which isolate us from the natural rhythms of growth and awareness, as well as from others and our own depths.

As human beings our fundamental responsibility is to become a more balanced expression of what we truly are; and our humanity surely lies in those qualities which unite us to the whole, rather than those which divide us even from ourselves. At any time we may look beyond our self-constructed walls to the multitude of lives around us and the unbounded ranges of our own being. We are continuously changing, creating new opportunities and developing previously hidden aspects of our character. Going deeper within, we can perhaps come in time to that universality of being we share with everything that exists. We then will know that we are not the separate islands of consciousness we generally feel ourselves to be and that the root of our self is the same as the heart of nature and all its manifestations.

Looking again to nature, we see the value of all things, regardless of size, length of life or accomplishment. The seed that falls to the ground and does not sprout is no less in itself than the seed which is given the opportunity to grow. Plankton and proton each plays its part with as much integrity and importance as a planet or a star performs its role. And so it is with us humans. We each are essential parts of the world to which we belong, no matter how short our lives or how little we seem to realize of our potentials. For our greatest accomplishment is in being, to whatever extent, that which we are in our inmost self.

As the natural currents of harmony flow through us and out from us, our lives in time will take on in degree the stateliness and dignity, the fitness and unconscious nobility we so often feel in the rest of nature. For we, like they, are expressions of the one life, energy and consciousness which lies behind the many aspects of cosmos.


As the island of knowledge grows, the surface that makes contact with mystery expands. When major theories are overturned, what we thought was certain knowledge gives way, and knowledge touches upon mystery differently. This newly uncovered mystery may be humbling and unsettling, but it is the cost of truth. Creative scientists, philosophers and poets thrive at this shoreline. – W. Mark Richardson

Theosophical Views

The Earliest Buddhist Manuscripts

By Sally Dougherty

Ancient birch-bark documents began appearing on the antiquities markets in Pakistan in the early 1990s. Found in clay jars buried in eastern Afghanistan, they turned out to be the oldest Buddhist manuscripts – indeed, the oldest surviving South Asian manuscripts – yet discovered. Written in the Kharosthi script and Gandhari language that only a handful of scholars can read, they continue to be published as they are deciphered and translated.

These texts came from Gandhara in what is now Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan (central Asia was largely Buddhist before the rise of Islam). Internal evidence and carbon dating of the bark put the manuscripts between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD, when this realm flourish-ed. It was instrumental in Buddhism’s spread into central and east Asia, and was also in contact with the western world, having been conquered by Alexander the Great long before.

Buddha, like most ancient teachers, wrote nothing down. Tradition holds that the Buddhist canon was establish-ed at early councils, particularly one held right after Buddha’s death in 404 BC. There monks are said to have agreed on and memorized the stories, words and rules as recited by leading disciples. One tradition has it that a monk and his students came late and asked what had gone on. When told what had been recited, he said, “That’s not what I heard the Buddha say. I am going to stick with the words and teachings as I heard them.” This story points to the existence of several traditions even in the first generation of students, as one might expect when Buddha travelled all over northern India teaching many, many people for 45 years. In fact, few scholars now accept that this first council even took place; as leading Pali scholar Dr. Oskar von Hinüber says, "Nobody holds the view of an original canon anymore."

The split between the Theravada or southern school with their Pali texts and the Mahayana or northern school with Sanskrit and Chinese texts is dated to the reign of King Ashoka in the 200s BC, though there were earlier divisions. All religions and their sects relate histories that reinforce their own group’s spiritual authority, usually tracing it back to the founder of the religion or a high spiritual source. Theravadins claim that their canon, completed in the 1st century BC, most accurately embodies Buddha’s words and teachings. Several Mahayana schools trace their distinctive doctrines to Buddha’s esoteric teachings or to rediscovered hidden manuscripts. Theravadans meanwhile reject most Mahayana scriptures as inauthentic.

Western scholars tended to accept the Pali texts as older and more authoritative, but the Gandhari manuscripts record well-known Buddhist texts that show the influence of both Pali and Sanskrit versions. A text might have verses ordered as in the Pali but the wording of the verses as in the Sanskrit. Also, there are references to the paramitas and other Mahayana concepts. The Gandhari texts confirm that schools were developing simultaneously and cross-pollinating one another. Dr. Richard Salomon, a principal translator of the Gandhari texts, has said: “None of the existing Buddhist collections of early Indian scriptures, not the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese or even the Gandhari, can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.”

The Gandhari texts raise issues similar to those raised by early Christian texts rediscovered in the 20th century, whose diversity undermined the notion that if one could find writings of the earliest Christians, one would recover the most genuine words and deeds of Jesus and the true Christian faith. Elaine Pagels said in an interview in Tricycle magazine: “The Church father Tertullian said, Christ taught one single thing, and that’s what we teach, and that is what is in the creed. But he’s writing this in the year 180 in North Africa, and what he says Christ taught would never fit in the mouth of a rabbi, such as Jesus, in first-century Judea. For a historically based tradition – like Christianity, and as you say, Buddhism – there’s a huge stake in the claim that what it teaches goes back to a specific revelation, person, or event, and there is a strong tendency to deny the reality of constant innovation, choice, and change.” This issue holds for Muslims too, who look to the life of Muhammad and his earliest successors as a guide in individual and civic life. Hadith, or stories of Muhammad’s words and deeds, differ between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and to a lesser extent among Sunni schools. The feeling that the key to spiritual authority and validity lies in what took place at a faith’s beginnings seems built into human psychology.

The Gandhari texts demonstrate the value of scholarly examination of a faith’s early years and texts, though such findings may be challenging for some believers. It is always difficult to judge texts we ourselves accept free from the authority and stories our particular group ascribes to them.

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