The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
November 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 9
Throughout recorded antiquity the exploration of consciousness has been charted as a journey inward. The maps are provided in the testimony of those who have gone before and who therefore towered above the majority of their contemporaries by virtue of their knowledge of human nature. This journey into the world of character has been pictured as an odyssey, also as the ascent of a mountain, the traveling of a path, feats of bravery and the accomplishment of tasks, such as the experiences of the Knights of the Round Table or the Twelve Labors of Heracles, whose cleansing of the Augean Stables may well symbolize the whole process.
Wherever we turn, we find the human self depicted as an ever-changing creature forever transforming, like Proteus, into the appearances of manifold other beings, shapes and conditions. The inward journey involves grasping this facet of ourselves so that ultimately the reality may be known. Although travel along this way does not imply physical movement through places and countries, examples survive to show that the names of roads, landscape sites and towns were utilized by sages to show us how we need to behave in the circumstances of life where we meet our qualities face to face. For instance, we have the account of the wanderings of Pythagoras, who left markers at certain places to intimate to later travelers what to do or where “to go.” There was too the symbolic geography of the ancient Egyptians, who used the physical design of their country, sometimes mirror-image fashion, to represent the stage-by-stage overcoming and transformation of the unprogressed elements in the human microcosm. And who has not heard of the heavenly Jerusalem?
It is because these various symbols are more than the containers of the thoughts placed in them, or bestowed by those who first used them, that they retain their magical effect today. For they stir out of their static, inert condition when we place ourselves inside the story they have to tell, instead of regarding them as items on museum shelves and we outsiders looking in on them. Their animation is a personal thing between the ideas they represent and ourselves.
We may be helped by maps, but we must do our own traveling to approach the center of the whole experience of illumination. Since we all journey on this Way, we may help our fellows as best we can, or we may hinder them by imbodying our worst characteristics, our selfishness. But if the essence of these ancient/modern stories of the unfoldment of our true qualities from within eludes us because we are not willing to lead the necessary kind of life, the misunderstanding is ours alone. In such case, the day of ultimately achieving the meaning of life is deferred, not utterly put down. Only we can decide what course we shall take, and how long it will entail – I. M. Oderberg
It happened just last Thanksgiving Day on my way to our family feast. Filled with gratitude was I, thankful indeed for many blessings, mindful of my loving family who welcomes me to their bountiful table, yet at the same time I felt somewhat “down in the dumps.” I have a tendency to hold a bit too tightly the woes of the world and the cares that come close to me. Some might say I’m a worry-wart.
And then … right there in front of me, stopped at a traffic light, was the gospel! Good news! “Don’t worry, we can climb out of it” proclaimed the license plate frame on the truck ahead of me. Instantly my mood lifted and I couldn’t help but smile. I considered jumping out of my car to ask the truck’s driver if his message was meant to dispel the depression the world seems to be stuck in. Second thoughts kept me from doing so, but I did wish I could talk to the driver about that optimistic credo.
Then, as fate would have it, the truck continued on my way. I followed it for miles, and guess what! It stopped right across the street from my destination! I hopped out, ran over to the driver and thanked him for making me smile all the way from the freeway. He was a bit dumbfounded till I explained that the message round his license plate had given my spirits a much needed boost. I asked him if it was intended to be a comment on the sorry state of our world affairs. He laughed and explained that he and his family are into snow sports in a big way and the words are simply a reminder that if they’re stuck in a drift, they can get out of it.
So there you have it. But those few words continue to remind me that no matter what trouble may befall us, we can climb out of it. A favorite thinker of mine, General Douglas MacArthur, remarked that “In the central place of your heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, grandeur, courage, and power from the earth, from men, and from the infinite, so long are you young.” So I’m going to try to keep my wireless station tuned to those broadcasts. I figure that General MacArthur’s wireless station is not just a receiver but is also a transmitter. Therefore it should send out messages of beauty et al., as we aspire to what Steven Pinker has called “the better angels of our nature.”
Maybe that Thanksgiving Day “don’t worry” message was a reminder that if we truly aspire, surely “we can climb out if it,” whatever it may be. – Lyn Lambert
“The whole world is one as a city is one, or as an animal is one, or as man is one.” – The Rasa’il
In An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, Seyyed Hossein Nasr contends that a body of ancient teaching found expression in Islam. One of the cosmologies he discusses is the 11th-century Rasa’il of the Ikhwan al Safa, who seem to be members of a secret Sufi brotherhood but whose origins are unknown. Such Sufi writings are read as widely today as they ever were so that these teachings continue to penetrate the entire Islamic community. Their stress, essential to all other considerations, is the “unicity” of life, the one truth under-lying all things: “so many ways of seeing Unity within multiplicity and multiplicity as the projected image of Unity.” To these Muslim sages separatism represented ignorance of a basic reality, while the recognition of life’s wholeness became the first step towards spiritual understanding. The teachings of the Rasa’il reflect the influence of Indian and Persian thought as well as the doctrines of Pythagoras, Hermes, Jabir and the Sufis. They list four sources from which they derive their knowledge: early mathematical and scientific writings; sacred books, such as the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran; the archetypes (or Platonic “ideas”) of the forms of nature, from the celestial spheres to the minerals; and wisdom revealed through “intellectual intuition.”
The emanational cosmology of the Ikhwan begins with a First Principle, the Creator – eternal and indescribable – and, using the Pythagorean system, symbolized by the number 1. The Ikhwan explain it this way: “The first thing which the Creator produced and called into existence is a simple, spiritual, extremely perfect and excellent substance in which the form of all things is contained. This substance is called the Intellect. From this substance there proceeds a second one which in hierarchy is below the first and which is called the Universal Soul. From the Universal Soul proceeds another substance which is below the Soul and which is called Original Matter. The latter is transformed into the Absolute Body, that is, into Secondary Matter which has length, width and depth.” It is self-evident that there is no place for an anthropomorphic deity in the cosmic pattern described here.
The Ikhwan taught mainly through analogy and numerical symbolism, attempting always to point out the beauty and harmony of the universe in order to show that human destiny lies beyond material existence. They say the human being is created between the Universal Man and the Particular Man – or the immortal self and the transitory personality – and takes part in the nature of each. They state, “Our end consists of showing here how man can be considered as a small world”; and further: “God has placed everything that is in the Universe in the microcosm. Man cannot know all that is in the Universe by going around and studying it because life is too short and the world too large; only by studying himself can he come to the knowledge of all things which already exist within him.” With their doctrine of unity, then, these Islamic savants regarded humanity as merely one aspect of the Divine, the return to which is the evolutionary purpose of all life. Consequently, “the minerals, like all beings, are created for the purpose of knowing God.”
Like Islam and Christianity, the Ikhwans have their own angelology and sweeping concept of hierarchy: “Starting from the highest heaven, which is nearest to the Divine, the hierarchy of Being descends through the heavenly spheres … and down to the world of the four elements … The elements then are mixed to various degrees by the Soul which from them forms the three kingdoms. The process terminates with man, who is the final term of the effusion: ‘The unity and complexity of his soul and body respectively make him “the antipode of God.”’ By virtue of this position, man is the central link in the great chain; below him stands the animal kingdom, and above, the world of the angels, and he is connected to one domain as well as to the other.”
By this we see that the Ikhwan believed ours is an ensouled universe, and that matter is the building material which souls of varying grades use to construct forms suitable to their level of life. The universe is a unity, and mankind is not unique except for its particular place on the evolutionary ladder. Every particle of matter is enlivened because of the spiritual essence at its core. In itself it is nothing, the Ikhwan tell us, just as a person’s arms and legs are useless until they are made to move by the human mind and will. If God is in everything, or everything is in God, then the tiniest wave-washed pebble on the beach has a share in the Divine heritage, even as we do. So the hierarchical universe of the Ikhwan implies one bursting with life, filled with evolving entities small and great, linked one to another by reason of a common divine parentage.