Theosophy Northwest View

The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society

August 2010 – Vol. 13 Issue 6

Harmlessness: Ends and Means

Nearly everyone agrees that, all things being equal, not causing harm is superior to injuring others. But most justifications of deliberate harm come when outcomes aren’t “equal,” when being nonviolent threatens reaching a desired goal or entails more delay than those involved wish to tolerate.

The relative importance between an end and the means of bringing it about is complex and controversial. In practice reaching the goal – whether success, power, safety or salvation – is usually treated as the most crucial matter, one that can and does justify causing harm. For instance, the current business system is premised on people competing to achieve their individual self-interest irrespective of damage to others or to the system as a whole. Adopting a wider or long-term perspective is not anyone’s personal responsibility unless it forwards their self-interest.

Besides decisions in daily life, many larger public policies raise the question of if and when causing injury is defensible. Issues include capital punishment, torture, the use of military and police force, the extent and means of social control, human use of animals and the environment, and regulations that prevent harm. In medicine some practitioners have abandoned the traditional maxim “First, do no harm” because common treatments such as chemotherapy do intentionally injure patients. Still, the goal is to find less harmful cures – though often through deliberately harming animals.

Such choices raise the issue of motive. For some, motive is the compelling or even the only factor in evaluating human action. But well motivated people can cause unhappiness and harm through their good intentions, while often remaining self-righteous or oblivious to the pain they’ve caused. This is true also of inquisitions, persecutions and the oppression of many groups which have often been justified by lofty motives and sometimes even touted as beneficial to all those involved. Thus, since no one can foresee the full results of any action, it’s essential to always monitor outcomes, particularly of one’s own acts, as fairly, honestly and critically as possible.

There are also those who hold that violence is never justified, a position that usually has a spiritual basis. If we believe each person is of great worth, whether as a child of God, a spark of divinity or a unique manifestation of life, then it’s hard to justify harming others for the benefit of ourselves or a group we belong to. For those who believe that all humans (or all beings) are essentially one, every entity is in some sense ourselves. In this case, to harm another is literally to harm one’s self. The Society of Friends and the Jains are two of the few groups that put the practice of harmlessness squarely at the center of members’ day-to-day considerations. Quakers say that “Since there is that of God in every person, Friends believe that every person is worthy of infinite respect. Our words and lives should testify to this belief and should stand as a positive witness in a world still torn by strife and violence.” Jains seek to do as little harm as possible to all beings, who are evolving souls deserving respect. Causing harm attracts karma that holds people in unenlightened states, so self-interest as well as kindness motivates their efforts. Jain ideas of ahimsa (harmlessness) strongly influenced Gandhi and through him the American Civil Rights movement.

Taking a cue from Buddhism, perhaps violence and harm spring ultimately from ignorance. Few have the knowledge or skill to achieve their goals through harmless means alone, and so they injure others or themselves. Such ignorance can only be overcome by knowledge and practice. Individuals and groups must first desire to learn and improve and then act persistently on this desire if we are ever to see a less violent, more kind and just world. – Sally Dougherty


The world censures those who take up arms to defend their causes and calls on them to use nonviolent means in voicing their grievances. But when a people chooses the nonviolent path, it is all too often the case that hardly anyone pays attention. It is tragic that people have to suffer and die and the television cameras have to deliver the pictures to people's homes every day before the world at large admits there is a problem. – Bishop Carlos Belo

Great Ideas Discussion Group

Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. This month our topic is Do No Harm. Is nonviolence or harmlessness practical, or desirable? Why do most societies glorify aggression and violence? How does "do no harm" apply in the mental and emotional spheres; to economic activity, medicine, politics, religion, entertainment, scholar-ship? Do the ends justify the means? How can we do the least harm – to other people, other life forms and the environ-ment,? How can ordinary people help bring more peace, compassion, and wholeness/health into their circle of life and into the larger world? (Here are some quotes to get the discussion started.) We hope to see you there!

  • When: Tuesday, August 3, 7:30 to 8:45 pm
  • Where: Bellevue Library, 1111 - 110th Ave NE, Bellevue
Upcoming Topics
September 7: Relativity: Scientific, Philosophic
October: Utilitarianism
November: The Oneness of Life
December: Gods / God

Theosophical Views

The Space within a Seed

By I. M. Oderberg

Where lies the individuality of a tree? Ages ago a young student in India asked the question of his teacher who, rather than giving a direct answer, tried to stimulate his pupil’s own thinking. After considering the parts of a nearby tree, they came to the seed. When cut, clearly visible was the food intended to support the seedling in its first stages of growth. Nestling in a corner was a minute replica of the tree-to-be, so small yet containing the germ that in the right circumstances would multiply into a new individual. It would be similar to its parent, yet different in its own way. Further examination of the kernel located the empty “space of the heart.” Out of the invisible would pour all the potentiality of a tree.

There is a similarity here with our own inner being. If we look into the mirror of our nature, we perceive numerous selves. There is the public person and the private person, the mask and the face behind it. But even this face is not the real individual who experiences all the events of the day. We may think it is, and also that it creates the images of ourselves that are familiar to us. But if we peel off these projections, these layers of selfhood, paring away the diverse people we may like to be or appear to be, we would at last reach the invisible self. As we gradually become aware of it, we find ourselves being more the spectator than the actor. We may even see our posturing on our own private stage for what it really is.

How many of us are prepared to look into the mirror of truth and see our many selves? To wait for the images of the lesser to fade away and to recognize them for what they really are – illusory creations of our fancy and desires? We shall need great patience and strength to bring into focus these reflections of the higher qualities of our being.

Christian scripture states that if we have the faith of a grain of mustard seed we shall move mountains. Does this suggest that implicit trust can help us bring forth our potential, to become more completely humanized beings? The task of transmuting all our personal selves may seem impossible. Yet if we can become inwardly detached from the roles we play, not only before our fellows but even before our inmost self, we shall indeed be captains of our soul. Winds of circum-stance will not sway us, nor opposites such as pleasure and pain, nor confusion between reality and what it appears to be. This poise stems from the maturity of the truly human being.

Daily life provides us with many lessons to acquire self-mastery. Yet the main one seems to be emancipation from our selfishness, which assumes many forms. For this trait may be not only of the grasping kind but also take on the guise of a centeredness that ignores the plight of our fellows. The symbolic mustard seed – so small – grows into the plant, representing the development of any entity out of its unexpressed resources. It reminds us of the tree as the age-old symbol of the universe – or of the human being – drawing sustenance from and rooted in space. Unfolding more and more of what is locked up within its invisible heart, it fills its field of possibilities again and again but never exhausts its fertility. It contains a multitude of lesser beings, its branches supporting its kith and kin, from microscopic organisms to birds and other creatures.

In the far-off days when myths kept alive through generations the seeds of insight planted there by sages, trees embodied concepts about gods and the creative forces of nature. The Scandinavian Eddas told of the World Ash, Yggdrasil, growing upside down with its roots in the skies and its branches towards earth. Its trunk was the axis of the revolving heavens, and the World Eagle perched on its summit. This is similar to the old Egyptian story of the Two Brothers: one was slain and his soul entered the Persea Tree, from the branches of which he later emerged as the Bennu Bird, the Phoenix and hieroglyphic symbol of the reimbodying soul. India’s Ashwattha tree, also with its roots in the heavenly realms, represented the cosmos unfolding itself into the material world, the life-force fed by its sap; and the Bo-tree of the Buddhists gave strength to the Buddha in his hour of enlightenment. The Banyan tree yields its meaning more readily, perhaps, for it can represent the duality of spirit and matter, bound into unity by its essence. From its ‘heavenly’ branches descend those aerial offshoots searching for the ground where they might strike root and become a new trunk, thus extending the range of manifested life farther and farther out. The stories could be multiplied endlessly.

So our forbearers were wiser than we think when they pictured this great, pulsing, ever fecund Life as a tree, linking everything with the All, its heart found in the invisible space within a seed.

Current Issue

A few quotes reflecting different views, to help get the conversation started:

Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love. – Martin Luther King, Jr.


In the absence of the international rule of law or a just world order, organized violence appears to be the ultimate recourse against intolerable conditions and grave threats to our lives, interests, and values. It persists, on the one hand, because of a widespread but largely unexamined belief that it “works” and, on the other, because there are no generally recognized alternative means of resolving those critical conflicts in which one or both parties perceive the stakes as too high to permit compromise. – C. Kruegler and P. Parkman


Violence sometimes may have cleared away obstructions quickly, but it never has proved itself creative. – Albert Einstein


You have heard that it has been said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, do good to those that hate you, and pray for those that despitefully use you; that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. – Matthew 5:44


Man and his deeds are two distinct things. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. For we are all . . . children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world. – M. K. Gandhi


I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death: I am not on his payroll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome. – Edna St. Vincent Millay


The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating. – Cesar Chavez


Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children. – Dwight D. Eisenhower


What is more fluid, more yielding than water?
Yet back it comes again, wearing down the rigid strength
Which cannot yield to withstand it.
So it is that the strong are overcome by the weak,
The haughty by the humble. – Laotse

--------- Him I call indeed a Brahmin who without hurting any creatures, whether feeble or strong, does not kill or cause slaughter. Him I call indeed a Brahmin who is tolerant with the intolerant, mild with the violent, and free from greed among the greedy. Him I call indeed a Brahmin from whom anger and hatred, pride and hypocrisy have dropped like a mustard seed from the point of a needle. – Buddha, The Dhammapada


Reflect for a moment on the language we tend to use most, on the shades of violence and combat which color so much of our discourse. . . . We speak of “fighting for peace” and “ammunition for peace makers.” . . . If we wish to journey toward the peace paradigm, would it not at least be worth the attempt to change our language as a step toward changing our thinking? Many have conceded the significance of language as the reinforcement of racism and sexism. Can we not admit the same of militarism and the peace system? . . . Can we not think in terms of tools and tasks instead of weapons and battles, nourishment and cultivation in lieu of artillery and victory? As we change our words, we will also begin to change our images, and our metaphors may be transformed as we move from the language of war and death toward one of peace and life. If we speak differently, we can become more intentional about changing how we think and live. – Betty A. Reardon