Esoteric Wisdom East and West

By Robert Rensselaer

The mushrooming interest among the youth over the past several decades in the ideas and religions of the Far East is understandable, though based in part on a fallacy. The young people are in moral revolt; they have been turned off by what they see to be a crass materialism as the mainspring of Western ways of life, and an apparent lack of any moral or spiritual content in Western philosophy and religion. They see no improvement in the quality of life resulting from religious movements and institutions, nor in the individual or collective conduct of leaders and members of society. Feeling their own tradition to be bankrupt, they very logically have looked elsewhere for help mainly to Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and the I Ching of China, although other less wholesome traditions have also received considerable attention. As in every age, the vital questions for them are still those about man and the universe: who and what these are, why they are, and where they are, or should be, going. It is very easy for older persons, or for those to whom these questions never mattered, to forget how supremely important their solution can be for many younger minds.

The quality of life in the contemporary Orient offers no more evidence of sound spiritual or religious practices or enlightenment than can be found in the West. Selfishness and a disregard for the sacredness of human life is as pervasive there as anywhere in the world. And among oriental religious authorities can be encountered as much useless dogmatism, ritual, and ignorance as our own tradition displays. The present-day East is experiencing a burst of material improvement and progress, but it still exhibits considerable degeneration from a once-lofty religious standard of life and offers little of enduring spiritual inspiration for us.

What, then, is the attraction? In the first place, a long tradition of religious tolerance has allowed numbers of movements and sects to exist and flourish amicably side by side in the East. In an important sense this represents the carrying out into the real world of central ideas in these religions in a way that our own have not seemed able to do. Then Eastern religions contain definite traditions of spiritual discipline by which a practitioner is said to be able to transcend his ignorance and achieve inner enlightenment. Because of their ideas on rebirth and karma Eastern religious traditions acknowledge the beautiful complexity of the total human nature, and offer a bright hope for man's future because time and scope are allowed for the full development of it through a long evolution of consciousness. Those traditions moreover put the material world in its place and, by connecting thought and action with destiny, achieve great coherence and logic which appeal to the questing mind. At a lower level, some Eastern yoga teachings, by apparently offering a way of acquiring psychic and phenomenal "powers," attract numbers of young persons who think such achievements desirable or easy.

By comparison, the Western religious tradition comes across as rather diffuse, offering for man's future destiny a relatively paltry hope at best. Who, for instance, really wants after his brief (and seemingly only) earth-sojourn to go on existing forever -- just as he was on earth -- strumming an ethereal harp atop a heavenly cloud despite whatever beatitude may accompany such an experience? Our tradition as given to us seems, moreover, to constrict greatly the definition of what we are. It tends to disconnect us from the universe which surrounds us, and makes that universe a material shell having no true raison d'etre and not much internal logic or philosophic cohesion. In fact, if, in accordance with Western scientific thought, we are only our bodies, and these disappear forever after a short threescore years and ten, which means we disappear forever, then the concept of cosmic evolution and all of the mysterious and majestic experiences of our individual consciousnesses are meaningless and without intrinsic value.

These statements point up the fact that any attempt to compare Western and Eastern religious traditions must suffer because of our habit of separating knowledge of Reality into three distinct and often conflicting departments of thought, known as religion, science, and philosophy. Eastern traditions do not do this but rather seek to describe a total Reality which has what we can term religious, scientific, and philosophical aspects -- each a necessary part of the total vision. It is quite likely that some of our youth, feeling the nonhomogeneity of their traditions as compared with the organic quality of the Eastern, see the latter as a strength and the former as a weakness. That is certainly understandable.

There is little doubt that such Oriental texts as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and the Tao-Teh-Ching, for example, cannot be surpassed in profundity of spiritual philosophy. But these were all written thousands of years ago when India, Ceylon, Tibet and China were in their cultural heyday. And it is evident that their uniformity reflects the existence of an inner, or esoteric wisdom which was much more a living reality in that far-off time than it is today. For at present that tradition is so enwrapped and incrusted with fable and allegory in Eastern thought that it is difficult to find. Western scholars only began to undertake serious study of Eastern scriptures at the end of the 18th century, and it was not until H. P. Blavatsky, in her The Secret Doctrine and collateral writings toward the end of the 19th century, offered the first clear explanation of their esoteric content, that we really began to learn what the classical Oriental religious philosophy had to tell us.

The writings of Blavatsky also explain, it seems to me, how onesided is the present absorption with things Eastern. For she points to the undeniable existence of a corresponding inner or spiritual tradition in the Western world which has always incorporated the major ideas that we have ascribed to the Eastern esoteric presentation. These are found in Platonic and Neoplatonic thought and, for instance, in the Gnosticism which formed a part of Christian doctrine until it was excised from canonical scripture by several church councils around the 5th century A.D. They can also be found in the teachings of a series of persons who flourished amid the formal institutions of Christianity down to the Reformation and beyond. Among those may be mentioned Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, Dante, the Meisters Eckhart and Wilhelm, Stephan Lochner, Cagliostro, the theosopher Jakob Boehme, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, and the Reverend William Law.

This esoteric tradition was also maintained by a series of apparently dissimilar movements and mystical brotherhoods, such as the Albigenses, the Masons and their orders, the Rosicrucians, and the Illuminati. But because of the early centralization of theological power in the official church hierarchy, based upon the deliberate excision of this inner body of ideas and its declaration as heresy, those exponents of an esoteric tradition, which is really world-wide in its scope, had perforce to conceal themselves and their teachings to escape religious persecution.

The consequence of all this was, of course, that Western religion as offered to the public became steadily less capable of addressing the perennial hunger of minds and hearts for satisfying explanations about man and the universe such as felt by young people in our own time.

The fallacy that was referred to in the first paragraph is, then, that one must go to the East in order to gain enlightenment. Long ago in the Orient, unwise men succeeded in hiding under an almost impenetrable facade of ritual and fable the pure concepts about man and universe that had been shared with mankind by great seers and sages. Later, in the West, equally unwise men deliberately threw those concepts out of the canonical scriptures, and in their place offered a soporific catechism based not upon the observed laws and regular operations of the invisible as well as visible universe, but instead upon a quite arbitrary and illogical theology. Paradoxically, the most useful interpretations of classical Oriental philosophy can today be found in the West. What remains to be done is to show Western seekers that the truth about ourselves and the cosmos can also be found in our own backyard, and perhaps more adequately stated for our real purposes than are some of the better-known Eastern expressions of the same.

 (From Sunrise magazine, June-July 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

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