Mystery and Mystery Schools

By W. T. S. Thackara
Life is a mystery as deep as ever death can be;
Yet oh, how dear it is to us, this life we live and see!-- Mary Mapes Dodge

Even with the twentieth century's staggering expansion of knowledge and our ability to see billions of light-years across the universe, anyone who looks up at the starry skies on a clear night and asks the simple question "Why?" understands the essential meaning of mystery. From there it is not too great a distance to the Mystery tradition and its schools, whose teachings center on the mysteries of death and the path of life (see The Mystery Schools by Grace F. Knoche). The following excerpts from the Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu take us directly to the heart of the problem, evoking both its depth and its paradox:

The Way [Tao] that can be described is not the eternal Way;
the name that can be given is not the absolute name.
Nameless, it is the source of heaven and earth;
named, it is the mother of all things.
Whoever is desireless, sees the essence of life.
Whoever desires, sees its manifestations.
These two are the same,
but what is produced has names.
They both may be called the cosmic mystery:
from the cosmic to the mystical
is the door to the essence of all life. -- ch. 1 (Beck tr.)

Then, somewhat more than half-way through, we collide with a seemingly insuperable problem:

Those who know do not speak.
Those who speak do not know.
Close the mouth; shut the door.

How then to speak meaningfully about that of which we cannot speak? How to pass through a doorway which has been shut? We may wonder why Lao-tzu should have said anything at all if those who know do not speak. Yet ever since the human race developed language and the capacity to wonder, somehow we have artfully practiced the impossible: we talk around it, symbolize it, allegorize it, find words to approximate it, to say what it isn't, point to it -- all the while yearning and reaching to understand that ineffable, nameless, mysterious source of who and what we essentially are.

Lao-tzu's paradox needs context, and he obliges, offering a few universal guidelines to help us cross a threshold of our own:

Close the mouth; shut the door.
Smooth the sharpness; untie the tangles.
Dim the glare; calm the turmoil.
This is mystical unity.
Those achieving it are detached from friends and enemies,
from benefit and harm, from honor and disgrace.
Therefore they are the most valuable people in the world. -- ch. 56

He closes his brief guide in a similar vein, perhaps to drive his point home and have us dwell upon its import:

True words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
The good do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not scholarly.
The scholarly do not know.
The wise do not hoard.
The more they give to others, the more they have.
The Way of heaven sharpens but does no harm.
The Way of the wise accomplishes without striving. -- ch. 81

Our Western word mystery shares common ground with these thoughts, for it comes from the Greek musterion, meaning "secret thing." Its verb form mueo means "to initiate into the Mysteries," also "to instruct," and this in turn comes from muo, "to be shut or closed," the Greek letter mu referring to the sound made with closed lips. Scholars believe this last word probably derives from the Indo-European root MU, meaning "to shut the mouth," referring to "ritual silence."

The term Mysteries denotes not only the plural of "mystery," but refers more specifically to the esoteric or mystical tradition of divine wisdom handed down from remote antiquity. It refers as well to a wide variety of institutional expressions which existed prior to the Christian era throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, which modern scholars sometimes call the Mystery religions. For example, there were the Eleusinian, Samothracian, Orphic, and Dionysian Mysteries in Greece, the Egyptian Mysteries of Isis and Osiris, and the Mithraic Mysteries of the Roman Empire. In ancient Greece the Mysteries were the secret heart of its religion, just as they were in other cultures from Ireland to Egypt to Mesopotamia and beyond, including Judaism and Christianity.

Many Christians do not realize that the terms mystery and mysteries are frequently used in the New Testament and carry the full sense of their original meaning of secret thing or teaching, including mystical knowledge about God, rebirth, and the afterlife. For example, Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory. -- 2:7
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. -- 13:2
Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, . . . the dead shall be raised incorruptible, . . . and this mortal must put on immortality. -- 15:51-3

One of his more interesting phrases appears in Ephesians:

Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
And to enlighten all as to what is the fellowship of the mystery, which has been hidden from the ages [aions] in God, . . .* -- 3:8-9
*See "Linking Ourselves with the 'Fellowship of the Mystery'," Sunrise, April/May 1991.

At a more fundamental level, each of the three synoptic gospels --Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- uses the terms to emphasize the age-old pattern of esotericism, of inner teachings reserved for disciples in contrast to exoteric stories for the public. Matthew 13:10-17 gives perhaps the fullest expression, revealing the purpose of parable, yet re-veiling it with paradox:

And the disciples came, and said to [Jesus], Why do you speak to them in parables?
And he answered and said to them, Because to you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens, but to them it has not been given.
For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance;

When this last phrase is compared with Lao-tzu's -- "The more they give to others, the more they have" -- it is evident that both men speak from a common tradition. Jesus continues:

but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. . . .
For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, . . .
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

This pattern of esotericism was followed in most of the early Christian communities, and it is well known that in many of them secret or quasi-secret gospels and other writings were circulated for the instruction of the initiated (baptized) neophytes. The Apocryphon (or Secret Book) of John, for example, begins with a declaration that it contains "The teaching of the Savior, and the revelation of the mysteries and the things hidden in silence, even these things which he taught John, his disciple." The better known Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus' sayings which some have called a Fifth Gospel, begins with a central topic of the Mysteries:

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
(1) And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death."

In Saying 62, moreover, Jesus indicates there are admission requirements in his school: "It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries."

Yet for all his references to mysteries in public and private, Jesus also said -- echoing again the universal tradition -- "there is nothing hidden, which shall not be manifested; neither has there taken place any secret thing [apocryphon] but that light should come to it. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4:22-3) -- a clear enough indication that if one practices the requisite discipline, one can know the mysteries of the "kingdom" from direct experience, rather than through the external intermediaries of scripture and hearsay. According to its teachers, real knowledge arises from within -- and for one to see and hear, there are periods when one must shut the door, dim the glare, and calm the turmoil.

The antiquity of the Mystery tradition is documented in our oldest written records; and its patterns and practices may be discerned in the spiritual expressions of peoples on every continent. In the prologue to the Gilgamesh Epic, for example, we find that Gilgamesh "was the one who saw the Great Deep. He was wise and knew everything; Gilgamesh, who saw secret things, opened the hidden place(s) and carried back a tale of the time before the Flood -- he traveled the road [i.e., the Path or Tao], he was weary, worn out with labor, and, returning, engraved his story on stone." When we explore the inner content of that story, we discover an initiatory tale about the mysteries of death and rebirth, and about who and what we are as human beings.

While most of the inner rites and doctrines of the ancient Mysteries have remained secret, their fundamental aim was never a mystery: the enlightenment and spiritual regeneration of humanity. Nor has the tradition's basic teachings -- the divine source within, the universal brotherhood of life, altruism, and the inherent respect, consideration, and truthfulness due all beings -- ever been held back from public knowledge. Or that we as self-aware humans are fully and individually responsible for our thoughts and actions, both in our physical body and after its death; that our real being is "life" and that we are therefore the immortal craftsmen of our own destiny through the eternities. We reap what we sow -- no god or priest, christ or bodhisattva can alter that. Similarly with our sacred instructions -- to practice charity and seek wisdom -- these have never been secret.

In the esoteric schools, the candidate is expected to undertake the lengthy discipline of self-knowledge and self-sacrifice, of progressively identifying with the divine mystery and its limitless resources of wisdom and compassion, from which gods and atoms, universes and human beings are born. The language of rebirth is the language of the Mysteries -- from the twice-born Hindu to the reborn Christian; from Socrates who would help us bear our own spiritual-intellectual children, to Paul who "travails in birth again until Christ be formed in you."

"Show us the place where you are," said the disciples to Jesus, "since it is necessary for us to seek it." And he replied, "Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If it does not shine, he is darkness" (Gospel of Thomas, 24). "What precepts are we to follow after you are gone?" Ananda asked Buddha. "Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the truth. . . . Work out your salvation with diligence!" (Maha-paranibbanasutta, 2.33, 6.10).

But teachings are teachings, not earned practical knowledge derived from our own effort and experience. No matter how sacred they may be, written and spoken teachings are likely to be misunderstood, dogmatized, and abused, as the record of history amply shows -- one of the reasons the so-called pagan Mysteries eventually died out, and why the Mysteries of divine wisdom must periodically be renewed. Hence the universal tradition of avatars, sages, and great teachers who periodically come to restore, reform, and re-present the "anciently universal Wisdom-Religion."

Interestingly, the term "Mystery school" is a modern one, not found in the ancient literatures or even in H. P. Blavatsky's writings. She used the term "esoteric schools," adding that all genuine schools are derivative from the sacred original whose existence is hinted at in the spiritual traditions of mankind -- from Paul's "fellowship of the mystery hidden in God," to the Mandaean Gnostic's Mshunia Kushta, to the mystic community of Shambhala in Hindu and Buddhist texts (see "Our Spiritual Home," Sunrise, April/May 1989). In HPB's first philosophical article, written two months before the Theosophical Society was founded in 1875, she affirmed that "regular colleges for neophytes of the Secret Science" still existed in the East, and that all their mysterious doctrines "had come down in an unbroken line of merely oral traditions, . . . passed from one initiate to another, in the same purity of form as when handed down to the first man by the angels, students of God's great Theosophic Seminary."

Throughout history every real teacher has stated, implied, or shown that the temple of God and the temple of Truth are within, built without the sound of hammer or axe, and admission is open and free to anyone who fits himself accordingly. And how, we might ask, might this be accomplished? Perhaps there is no better summary than the following from one of HPB's teachers:

Behold the truth before you: a clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a brotherliness for one's co-disciple, a readiness to give and receive advice and instruction, a loyal sense of duty to the Teacher, a willing obedience to the behests of TRUTH, once we have placed our confidence in, and believe that Teacher to be in possession of it; a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defense of those who are unjustly attacked, and a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection which the secret science depicts -- these are the golden stairs up the steps of which the learner may climb to the Temple of Divine Wisdom.

 (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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