Moving toward Brotherhood

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

The Theosophical Society began as a platform for realizing universal brotherhood. How can we forward that goal today? Recently I attended a local Interfaith Diversity Fair, the first one organized in my city. It was a happy, friendly occasion, where people of various traditions and opinions came to share and learn. Today as in the past, most people choose to rely on a formal exposition of truth that appeals to and satisfies them. At that point they generally accept a good deal on faith and authority, and are orthodox to that extent -- a truism that applies to theosophists and scientists as much as to religious adherents. Some of those who are committed to a definite system of thought do not like to admit, even to themselves, that they are part of an orthodoxy, much of which they accept on faith. Yet how many of us can measure up to Buddha's last words?

Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your own belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. . . . Be ye lamps unto yourselves. . . . Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the very topmost height.

Few are determined and industrious enough to discover most things for themselves. Therefore, for most of us, systematic presentations are very valuable. But all too often we become attached to these beliefs and the authorities they rest on. Once we have accepted a system, it is easy to fall into the view that we know better, having found the source of knowledge which in time others must come to recognize as true. We become evangelists -- to help others see more clearly and find a better way. We encourage them to read certain books or follow paths that have been helpful to us, or try to disabuse them of various "mistaken" ideas. Some people may find our efforts helpful, others will not, but a missionary attitude, however altruistic the motive, is generally condescending and sometimes harmful. We lose sight of the fact that the central issue is each of us -- our awareness, our responses, our expressions of loving kindness -- not other people's beliefs or behavior. We can only change ourselves, not others. They must, and inevitably will, change themselves as they choose to.

Uniformity of thought or belief certainly will not bring about brotherhood and better human conditions. It is a route which has been tried more than once, and which various groups continue to pursue. But people will never all think or believe the same way, even under coercion. Even those who accept the same worldview have conflicts, sometimes seeking to destroy each other. We easily forget our common humanity when we become caught up in what we think is right and true. Moving toward brotherhood involves not changing or enlightening people, but accepting them simply because they are fellow human beings, and for that reason alone treating them with kindness, consideration, and understanding. Accepting others as they now are acknowledges their spiritual autonomy and independence. This allows us to share and exchange ideas, listen and learn, instead of seeking to do most of the giving on the grounds that what we have to offer is superior or closer to reality. We can sincerely encourage others to continue to grow through their own search or their own brand of orthodoxy, without needing to convert or transform them before brotherhood can come about.

Many people today are seeking a broader understanding. They want insight into their own lives, with room to think and decide questions for themselves. They wish to discuss matters, to share what they have discovered and to adopt or adapt what seems useful from others. Many of these seekers have no interest in embracing a prefabricated philosophy or theology, however grand. It does not speak to them. Still larger numbers are firmly committed to their current beliefs and worldviews. Thus, to concentrate our fraternal efforts on the dissemination of teachings, paradigms, and texts, however enlightening these may be, leaves most people unmotivated to participate with us. We can put ourselves on an island by our attachment to our beliefs and authorities. Instead, let us bring brotherhood to life in our hearts, cultivating love and respect for all, seeking to express it day by day in our solitary thoughts and in our contacts with others. How? Jawad Khaki, a 2003 recipient of the Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Award, provided some suggestions in his acceptance speech:

it is by action and not just words that we inspire others. Each one of us can take these simple actions. It could be as simple as sharing a cup of coffee with a person of a different background. It could be inviting someone from a different faith over for a meal to enhance our understanding in building lasting bonds of humanity. It may even mean signing up for and enlisting our colleagues, our neighbors, to swing a hammer, to install a roof where one does not exist. Most importantly, most importantly, it is looking in the eyes of a stranger and seeing a potential friend.

He closed with a prayer:

Almighty God, give us the inspiration and strength to build bridges of understanding between humanity, moving us from tolerance to respect, from mere acceptance to love and compassion for all that reside on this planet. Our dignity is in working towards dignity for all in this global society. It is through open hearts and minds that we can effectively communicate and reach understanding, strengthening our bonds and achieving unity as we focus on common causes.

This is a sure path to brotherhood. In our own spiritual life let us explore and utilize our chosen belief system to the full, and share it freely with others when they express an interest. But in our quest for brotherhood let us put our concepts and authorities to one side and together seek to create a platform for realizing brotherhood that is broad enough so that that every person of good will, regardless of their beliefs or lack of them, can feel drawn to join us in this most vital enterprise.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2003/January 2004; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

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