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Archive for March, 2008

Trinities

I’ll start off the debate on trinities in various religions with a very simple (sceptical) observation:

I very much doubt it makes sense to pretend the various trinities in various religions can be equated. Father-Son-Holy Spirit is the Christian trinity and it says something about the relationship between the divine and each individual, as well as about how God relates to man. The son is said to have died for us, while the Father stayed immaculate, or something. The Holy Spirit is the one way in which God can communicate with normal human beings like us – and I would say it might (with a stretch) be equated with our Buddhi: that which mediates between the divine (Atman) and our ordinary personalities (kama-manas).

(more…)

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sort of perplexing

The following passage seems to go against basic Buddhist thought- at least what i have heard- that there is no “self ” outside of the 5 skandhas, and what we experience as “self”  is nothing other than a coalescence of the stuff’s of the five skandhas, perhaps mixed with a bit of avidya. but here is a passage that seems to be saying otherwise, which seems to imply that there is something “other,” which actually maintains from life to life- another no -no, i thought, in buddhist philosophy. What do you think?

“According to tantric theory, the residence of the mind is not the brain, but the heart. The mind is said to reside in the indestructable drop at the heart chakra. There are two types of indestructable drop, on coarse, and one subtle.  The coarse drop is a coalescence of cells from the semen of father and ovum from mother, and the subtle drop is a coalescence of subtle levels of consciousness and subtle physical energies. The course drop is said to be “indestructible” because it endures throughout one’s life, from the moment of conception untill the final moment  of physical death. The subtle  drop is “indestructible” because it endures throughout all of one’s lives, from beginningless time and into the future, untill the time of enlightenment, at which point one’s body is transformed into the perfect body of a buddha.”

Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, by John Powers. page 295/6

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To Be or Not to Be

Katinka, Chris and I have been discussing in the last few posts about the value of our personality, our psychological self, and so on. I need to use the theosophical terminology in order to express more or less accurately my understanding of this topic.
I’d say that kama-manas (the personal mind, identified with this particular body and working in close relationship with our personal emotions) has to cease as a center of consciousness for buddhi-manas (the enlightened or spiritual mind, which perceives unity and truth) to work. As I see it, manas functions alternatively associated with either one or the other principle. As HPB says in The Voice of the Silence:

The Self of matter and the SELF of Spirit can never meet. One of the twain must disappear; there is no place for both.

Our real consciousness comes from Atman, the universal Self, and it acquires self-consciousness through Manas, a ray of the universal mind. But the light of Manas reflected in the lower principles gives origin to an illusory self, the psychological “me”, our personal mind. This illusory self is like the “me” in a dream. Would you say it is real? Well, it has a reality behind, but that “me” is created by the mind and will soon disappear. In the same way, the feeling “I’m Pablo” is an illusion. By “crucifying the material self” I only meant to get rid of that false identity. Then, the real Self, our spiritual individuality, would express itself through our brain-consciousness, emotions and body, without being deluded as to its real nature, without that feeling of “I’m this personality”. In fact, I think that all real virtues have nothing to do with the psychological self, but with the expression of our spiritual individuality. As HPB states in her Diagram of Meditation, the virtues:

… are really the outcome of wisdom, for benevolence, sympathy, justice, etc., arise from the intuitive identification of the individual with others, although unknown to the personality.

Katinka wrote in her previous post Self confidence or letting go of self about how self confidence may be healthy or unhealthy. I think there is a personality-centered self confidence that comes with feelings of pride, self-sufficiency, etc., and a different self-confidence that brings courage and calmness, which is the outcome of our spiritual nature expressed through the personality.
Even those feelings of ecstasy Chris was talking about in Everyday Ecstasy appear when for some reason (for example, the perception of beauty) our personal self ceases to be, at least for the time being. In that sense, the personal self is like a clown. After a good act is performed by a skillful juggler, the clown goes to the stage and undeservedly receives the applause.
I don’t mean that we should have a feeling of low self esteem or hate ourselves, etc. If there is love in our hearts, that love will embrace everything, including our personality. But we should always be aware of our process of identification with things, and strive to “Live in the Eternal”.
Would you agree with that?

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Two recent posts by Pablo and Katinka have addressed a similar idea.

I’d like to talk more about the idea of crucifying our material selves. Generally, I’m curious about the range of attitudes towards not only the physical body, but the embodied self, the personality, the ego (which also relates Katinka’s distinction between self-confidence and letting go of the self).

Granting that in reality the traditions are more subtle than this, we can nonetheless see a tendency to diminish, perhaps even demonize the ‘lower’ self. In Gnosticism the body becomes a prison, in theosophical circles there is abundant talk of transcending the ego.

I don’t experience my body as a prison. To me it provides opportunity (in the same way any limitations are necessary for creativity), incarnation is a gift, even with the body’s weakness, vulnerability and inevitable collapse. Same with my personality. Metaphysically, I believe my spirit choose this body and self, and its legion flaws, intentionally.

If the entire manifest universe is the ultimate One coming to know itself, then the ultimate aspiration for each of us, for every moment of manifestation, is to be fully our self.

Let me be clear. In the vast, concept defying, vastness of time and space, there will be only one You (insert your name and defining story here). Your atma-buddhi-manas is eternal, but the particular form it chose to take here and now is utterly, radically unique.

That uniqueness includes, essentially, your temporal, embodied self, your body and personality. To negate that is to negate the motivation of manifestation.

The subtlety comes from the fact that we are layered beings. The question, then, is where to locate our uniqueness. I’ve done some incredibly selfish, mundane, harmful and indulgent things in the name of ‘following my bliss’ and ‘being true to my self’.

I keep coming back to Krishna talking to Arjuna about the chariot, where the horses are the senses and the chariot is the body. It isn’t a matter of getting rid of the horses and the chariot, it is a matter of who is guiding them.

This is why theosophy is so important.  It gives us a model of the self that can help us identify who, or what in us, is really responding.

To play on the Easter theme, Pablo is correct to say we must crucify our materials selves, but the message is also that this material self is reborn, not discarded.  Our eternal, spiritual self acts through our temporal, physical/emotional self.

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Psychologists, especially amateur psychologists, emphasize self confidence as a major predictor of success and happiness. On the other hand, spiritual traditions like Theosophy, Buddhism and Sufism stress the fact that our personalities are a major source of trouble and we should let them go.

Can those two views be connected? Sure they can. They target very different life-experiences.

First lets look at why self confidence works in so many ways. A friend of mine in high school, lets call her Esther, was a troubled teen. Obviously teens, most teens, lack self confidence – but they do express that in very different ways. Some limit their lives to partying. Some work harder because it never seems good enough. Esther wasn’t the best student, but she was a fabulous dancer. She really had energy and style. She also had a weight problem and her bone structure would never have passed most performance dancing standards. She had a choice, after high school, to pursue dancing and perhaps become a teacher of dancing or to do what her family wanted her to do: work with kids. Being an insecure teen, she went along with what her parents wanted. I am very curious where she ended up. Had she had more self confidence, perhaps she would have lost the weight and become the best dancer she could be and taught it to others.

Now Esther’s parents did have good reason to discourage this. After all: working with kids is a more stable career move. Perhaps she did have to let go of the dream and serve humanity through working with kids. This is the sort of thing that is very hard to judge. Balancing out realism and just going for it is one of the main challenges in all of our lives. It is part of the struggle of modernity.

Spirituality is about letting go of self. Letting go of hurt feelings, when someone does something to make you feel slighted for instance. But to let that go, one needs a certain amount of emotional maturity, self confidence if you will: you need to know that in many cases such things aren’t about you. People are busier thinking about themselves and their own preoccupations than about your needs. Letting that go is wisdom, but it’s also hard if you don’t have self confidence. So actually, it seems self confidence and wisdom go hand in hand.

On the other hand, like all virtues, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. Too much self confidence does become arrogance. Too much self confidence also makes for less of a willingness to learn. Self confidence is needed for learning as well. Self confidence can help with perseverance, certainly a trait necessary in learning. Arrogance stops a person from being open to the world and learning from it. N. Sri Ram put that aspect differently by saying:

To be conscious of one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, and an ignorance of parts will not trouble the man who has achieved a happy sense of relationship with the whole. All truth will come to him who has a living relation to things, since to live is to grow and progress. (Thoughts for Aspirants, the chapter on Wisdom)

Paradoxically perhaps – only when you are really secure in yourself is it possible to really be open to the whole. Psychologists might put that differently. They might say that arrogance actually isn’t self confidence. Arrogance is an artificial shell people who are really not so confident hide behind. I’m not sure I agree with that though. Some people have just had so much success that it doesn’t seem necessary to listen to others, be open to them, learn from them. That is self confidence, but it is surely harmful in the long run. Some types of criminals suffer from too much self confidence as well. So self confidence is not the panacea to all the ills people have.

I do feel that in this crazy world one needs self confidence to find ones way – which may be part of the reason ‘the secret’ is so popular.

By the way, I have a very good Robert Frager quote on various levels of transforming the self within the Sufi tradition on my website.

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A Good Day to Die.

The underlying theme of Easter is death and resurrection. And today, “Good Friday” Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus at Calvary . That name, “Good Friday” is a very interesting and philosophical one, quite far in spirit from the current message of Christianity about Jesus’ death. Why is it called “Good Friday” and not “Sad Friday”, or “Sinners Friday”, or “It’s-your-fault Friday”?
Much before Jesus’ time, death and resurrection was the main theme of the Ancient Mysteries, so we can look at their philosophy for a deeper insight. From a symbolic point of view, the cross was always a symbol of matter. The deity who was put to death was a symbol of our spiritual nature. In Christianity, the Christ is this same symbol. When we are born, our spiritual nature is “crucified” in our body and dies, but only to be “resurrected” full of glory—when we work properly.
There is also a very interesting interpretation of this universal archetypal image on the psychological level. In order to be resurrected (in a new glorified being) we have to die first. Nothing new can appear if the old doesn’t die, psychologically speaking. And most of us don’t want to die. We cling to our attachments, to our memories, to our hopes—that is to our (artificial) self-identity. We are not a culture that encourages detachment from the things that identify us. For the most part life is a matter of acquiring more stuff. Not only material but also psychological stuff. This is the case even for those who try to tread the “spiritual path”. Many times we see this as a process of acquisition—acquisition of more knowledge, more experience, more virtues, more understanding, etc… Very little emphasis is usually placed on the idea of dying to the known, externally and internally. But as Jesus said, if you are wealthy and full of possessions you cannot get to the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to become like children, divested of all possessions, even at the psychological level. And that is not enough, according to Jesus we must die and be born again, to be able to reach that Kingdom.
Of course, he is not referring to a physical death and re-birth, but “to be born of water [of life] and of the Spirit.” The act of Jesus dying physically on the cross means for us to “crucify” our material self and be “resurrected” as spiritual beings. The road to Calvary is then our daily life.
So, how are we going to celebrate this Easter weekend?

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I’m reading one of the classics in theosophical literature, from the former leader of the Pasadena TS (which is what I’ll call it for convenience, it’s headquarters have moved about a lot in the past century): ‘Messages to Conventions: and other writings on the politics, work and purposes of the T.S.‘, G. de Purucker (See here for meanings of theosophical abbreviations).

In one of the lectures G. de Purucker says the following – which I’ve heard echoed through theosophical debates a lot as well:

(p. 19) the most ‘practical’ thing … is for us theosophists to concentrate on disseminating Theosophy as it was brought to us by H.P.B. from the Masters.

Well, that rubs me the wrong way on several levels. First of all – theosophy isn’t just the teachings of H.P. Blavatsky (HPB). Theosophy includes the study of the world religions as well. Second – is study really the only way to be practical about theosophy? This ties in with something else de Purucker says on the same page:

in concentrating our thoughts and our minds on the heart of our Theosophical teachings: in living them, in teaching them, in giving them to the world, so that we may change men’s minds and hearts. (italics in original)

I’m not sure I agree that the hearts and minds of people can be changed merely through teachings. I’m not saying the Blavatsky teachings aren’t important. In fact I do feel that one of the implicit duties of the TS is to keep a knowledge of her work alive and to keep her teachings accessible. It does that quite well by publishing books and having study classes. Other theosophical organizations have taken on the work of publishing her work online.

Sure – but do the hearts and minds of people really get affected by book-learning? Don’t practical initiatives not work better in that area? Certainly in most countries, where the divide between rich and poor is larger than in my own (The Netherlands), the poor are hardly going to be impressed by teachings about inner unity if it’s a struggle each day to find a decent place to sleep.

I could go on – I will stick quite simply to saying that there is a TOS for a reason. The Theosophical Order of Service does work all over the world for poor people – for instance to get them food on holidays, help in case of disasters like the Tsunami or Katrina and also organize schooling for unwed mothers and their children. All that without asking people for their opinion on religion and without forcing a theosophical point of view on them.
Each individual has to decide for themselves where the weight of their theosophical work needs to be. It takes all kinds. We need theosophical scholars, but the world also needs people who are willing to get dirty. For myself I have not yet decided where the center of my activity needs to be. I do know that Blavatsky herself gave Annie Besant of her limited monetary supplies in support of Besant’s social work in London. So G. de Purucker doesn’t seem all that Blavatsky based to me in his emphasis on ‘teachings’.

In general: I feel a healthy lifestyle includes volunteer work. Certainly for people who’s profession or personal life generally doesn’t have a reach out aspect. I’m going to protest at the Chinese Ambassy in The Hague later today (sunday the 16th of March) – in the rain. Protesting against things is generally not my thing, but what goes on in Tibet does have my heart. Also, with the Olympics coming up, this is a good time to remind the Chinese government of the importance of respecting human rights.

I guess it comes back to balance. Or in Buddhist terms: the middle path.

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Everyday Ecstasy

I live in Chicago where we have endured a particularly lengthy and brutal winter. Weeks and weeks of bitter cold and grey, unremitting winds that freeze the tears on your face. Today was the first real break. It would still feel cool to my southern family, maybe even to me in in October after a comparably long summer, but today it was heavenly. Walking from my work, which is in the Loop, the center of downtown Chicago, to the train for my evening commute back to Wheaton, I was awash in what can only be described as ecstasy.

Every building stood forth against the pale sky in formidable pride and I reveled in the subtle varieties and the flow of styles as I moved westwards. Young women chatted loudly on the cell phones and I beamed at the sense of love and friendship they were sharing across the invisible distances. The business men seemed more at ease, slightly but noticeably less tense without their shoulders unconsciously tensing upwards to protect their necks. I saw a man shaped like a fallen cupcake locking up a McDonald’s and thought, ‘yeah, that looks right’. Best of all, on one corner stood a beggar with a large sign, ‘Hungry and homeless’, and behind him on his crate stood an exuberant young woman who massaged his shoulder through his coat. He looked slightly bewildered, but afterwards he shrugged again and again in genuine satisfaction.

If I were a poet, I’d find a way to capture all this is in verse, with a rhythm of sounds to reflect my pace through the city. If I were an artist, I’d capture some of these moments in colors, shapes, movements or melody. Me, I’m a theosophist, a philosopher and mystic. This ecstasy comes so frequently, and occasionally with such force, I just ride it and let the accompanying humility and gratitude protect me from being overtaken with inspired madness. Still, sometimes I end up laughing out loud, or just grin bigger than my muscles allow. And later, I reflect, dwell, question, probe for meaning, significance, compare my experiences to others, look for ways to guide others here.

Even as I write this, I’m lingering in the afterglow. Every song that comes up on my iPod threatens to destroy me with bliss. There is simply too much beauty in the world, and my instinct is to strip naked and dance, to cradle the faces of strangers in my hands and affirm their divine source, the glorious uniqueness of their being, to loudly exclaim the inexplicable, overabundant, undeniable and overwhelming suchness’of every spatial, temporal and conceptual moment of existence. But I’m on a crowded train and that might end with me in a police station. Alas.

Do some of us have a predisposition to ecstasy? Am I genetically prone to rapture? Is there an evolutionary purpose to such feelings? Is there a place for the modern mystic? How would society respond if I did act out the above inclinations, but was still able to rationally defend my actions, even eloquently convey their context? Why don’t I act them out? Are you ever embarrassed by your own joy? Why? Why is it easier to share pain than bliss?

Do you know that I truly, deeply love you?

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Forgiveness

There is a discussion group that meets every Sunday night at Olcott, the National Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America.

During a discussion last week, someone brought up forgiveness. This is one of those words we use frequently, but whose meaning is rarely explored. It occurred to me then that I didn’t really know what forgiveness meant.

 

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Several of my co-inquirers offered very cogent explanations, but as I reflected, those explanations essentially amounted to a recognition. Forgiveness was an event you could recognize. When you have really forgiven someone, you know it, and there is a distinct reordering of internal engergies. Most agreed it involved a letting go, a release of anger, resentment, certain expectations.

This then foregrounded the real question. How does forgiveness happen? How do we truly forgive?

I’m grateful to be surrounded by such bright people, because they quickly worked towards the realization that understanding always preceded forgiveness. You could tell someone who had harmed you, ‘It’s okay, I forgive you’, but unless you had really done the work of understanding their actions, those words were likely empty. However, if you did understand, the feeling we recognize as forgiveness, that release, naturally followed.

First, it should be noted that forgiveness isn’t granting license. You can deny the rights of someone to act a certain way, even condemn and punish their actions, and still forgive them. Mothers do this constantly.

I’m intrigued by this dynamic and curious of the implications.

How do we begin this process? How do we set in motion the understanding that precipitates forgiveness? Is it a particular type of understanding? What is the relationship between the mental exercise of trying to understand another’s actions and the emotional component, the active empathy? Can either succeed alone or are they codependent?

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I’m getting into the sociology of modernity, for my bachelors paper. Anthony Giddens is one of the primary sociologists in that field. He wrote:

The problem for us – those who wish to see a cosmopolitan world prosper – is to reconcile commitment and skepticism.

(From Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity, p. 132)

This is relevant to our discussion of religion versus spirituality, because spirituality often doesn’t have commitment at all. Spirituality is deeply skeptical towards any and all authority. Spirituality only implies a commitment to ones own spiritual growth, and perhaps to the development of quality relationships with other people, perhaps the world.

Religion on the other hand implies commitment to a specific tradition, perhaps a church. Religion in a Christian sense implies community building. Communities can be stifling in their judgement of certain behaviors, but they give a home as well.

Theosophy is somewhere between the two. Our lodges are meant as places for community building, but as Chris mentioned, sometimes they aren’t so open to outsiders. In fact, community usually implies a firm marking of ‘insiders’ versus ‘outsiders’. It does take work to become one of the insiders. Sects invest a lot in getting people to feel welcome and only show their ugly side when people are trying to leave. The TS does not make that mistake, but I do think it’s one of the duties of lodges to make newcomers feel welcome – which does mean that they should make a commitment to at least initiate a conversation.

How does skepticism fit into all this? It’s part of our modern lives that we mistrust all kinds of things we are in fact dependent on. The government is consistently mistrusted in the US, yet it obviously has responsibilities people depend on. The same goes for banks. They give people loan’s, and people trust in their own ability to pay them. They trust in the banks to be reasonable. That system got a big blow recently and the international stock markets are in turmoil because the trust is gone. When the trust is gone, there is less reason to invest – to commit.

Commitment builds trust. A relationship where both partners commit fully is one in which there is also likely to be trust. But it’s a gamble. The relationship doesn’t start out with trust on both sides. It starts out with a bit of trust – a bit of commitment – the dating system. At some point the jump to full commitment has to be made, in order for the relationship to succeed. But that is still a gamble: what if I commit and the other person is actually cheating on me?

Spirituality in its radical sense distrusts organizations to such an extent that there is no way people will make a long term commitment to a religious or spiritual organization at all. Many organizations therefor offer courses and retreats that only require a temporary commitment. Yet, like in any relationship, a spiritual organisation will give more back, if you do commit.

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Pecha Kucha

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Last week I attended Vol. 4 of Chicago Pecha Kucha (pronounced PEH-CHUH ku-CHUH). Essentially, it is an evening of presentations where each presenter gets to share 20 slides and has 20 seconds per slide. Someone gets up, has six minutes and 40 seconds to do their thing and then it is on to the next. Read more about it here.

I’ve long been fascinated with the relationship between form and content. The way material is presented is another layer of the material itself. That Michelangelo made frescoes, Van Gogh painted on canvas and Bill Viola uses video speaks equal volumes as their widely varying subjects.

Theosophy likewise comes in different forms. Palm leaves, oral teachings, precipitated letters, books, videos, podcasts (well, the last one has yet to happen, but it will soon, I promise!). Outside of the written word, the most common dispensation is the lecture, where a purported authority stands in front of and higher than an audience of individuals all seated in rows faced forward. The lecturer speaks for about an hour, maybe answers a few questions, and then everyone leaves. It is a classic model for information sharing: a single active authority giving, and a mass, passive audience receiving.

I have to confess I actually have a soft spot for this model. I love listening to John Algeo, Joy Mills, Tim Boyd, Ravi Ravindra, Huston Smith, etc. And these people are all far more informed than me, they have information and perspectives I want, and I’ll happily sit for an hour taking it all in. When I was studying at Oxford, the high point of my week was having the opportunity to listen to Stephen Mulhall ruminate aloud for an hour about Heidegger’s Being & Time.

That being said, I think the model is increasingly irrelevant and reflects out of date political and social models. Most people don’t want to sit passively, hell, most people can’t sit for that long. I have no desire to moralize on this point; it is simply a reality to be recognized. People have less time and attention; they want to be engaged. Lectures simply won’t cut it.

So, I attended Pecha Kucha with this thought in mind: can this provide an alternative model for how we present theosophy? The short answer is an enthusiastic ‘yes’. The event I attended was sold out. Over 300 people crammed in a bar on a Tuesday night to hear presentations by artists, designers and writers, and they were excited to be there. When a presentation worked, it left you wanting more, scribbling down names and websites to explore later; when one didn’t, well, it was over pretty quickly.

Now, theosophy deals with some rather complex and frequently abstract ideas, and 20 images at 20 seconds apiece isn’t much opportunity for depth. However, it is exactly limitations like this that inspire creativity and innovation.

My idea is this. Pick a theme. Invite four to six people (or teams) to give presentations, within the Pecha Kucha parameters, leave room for dialogue between each presentation, and then end with a panel discussion.

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I think we would pack the house, inspire incredible discussions, encourage tremendous creativity and leave people wanting more. The presentations could then be housed online along with forums for further discussion and sustained treatments. If particularly appealing, they could even be packaged and distributed.

So, my fellow theosophists, especially those in Chicago, what do you say we pick a theme and commit to doing this next Fall at Olcott? If it works, we could then invite others from all around and do another event during the Annual Conference.

I’m in.

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Chogyam Trungpa wrote:

We have the idea that an enlightened person is supposed to be more or less an old-wise-man type: not quite like an old professor, but perhaps an old father who can supply sound advice on how to handle all of life’s problems or an old grandmother who knows all the recipes and all the cures. That seems to be the current fantasy that exists in our culture concerning enlightened beings. They are old and wise, grown-up and solid. Tantra has a different notion of enlightenment, which is connected with youth and innocence. We can see this pattern in Padmasambhava’s life, the life of the great teacher who brought the tantric teachings of Buddhism to Tibet. Here the awakened state of mind is portrayed not as old and adult but as young and free. Youth and freedom in this case are connected with the birth of the awakened state of mind. The awakened state of mind has the quality of morning, of dawn — fresh and sparkling, completely awake.

From “Primordial Innocence,” in CRAZY WISDOM, pages 26 to 27.

Not only does tantra have this notion, so did Jiddu Krishnamurti:

To live fully and completely, there must be freedom, not an acceptance of authority; and there can be freedom only when there is virtue. Virtue is not imitation; virtue is creative living. That is, creativeness comes through the freedom which virtue brings; and virtue is not to be cultivated, it does not come through practice or at the end of your life. Either you are virtuous and free now, or you are not.

In Tibetan Buddhism in general, Chogyam Trungpa’s path, some young people are sought out and trained to be spiritual teachers. The Dalai Lama was raised that way, and that’s given the world a remarkable public figure. That’s what happened to Jiddu Krishnamurti as well.

Obviously not all young people are wise, or on the path to wisdom – but I do wonder: why does the Theosophical Society (which I love BTW) put an age minimum on membership of it’s Esoteric Section (E.S.)?

Disclosure: I was myself too young when I applied and therefor not  allowed into the E.S.

I’ve spoken to many people about this – and most seem to agree: it’s because wisdom comes with age. I agree. People in their teens, even their late teens, are awful. I was very ignorant and foolish at 19. I made some of my worst mistakes back then. But I have to wonder: would I have made those same mistakes if some wise people had taken me on? I will never know, because they didn’t. Instead, a few years later, I got taken on by a scholarly theosophist, Henk Spierenburg, who gave me the Blavatsky Collected Writings among other things, but no practical life advice. Maybe I wasn’t meant to get that. Anyhow, I’m getting off track here.

The main issue with people getting spiritual teachings ought to be their motivation. Young people are often at their most idealistic in their teenage years. Moral issues are seen in black and white at that age. I’ve known quite a few people who were vegetarians in high school but turned back to eating meat in college. In college social realities catch up with them and the issue of animal welfare is suddenly no longer that big a deal. Does that mean they should not be allowed to be vegetarians in high school? Of course not. It just means that life isn’t through testing them yet. But is life ever through testing any of us?

[And no, this isn't an application to get into the E.S. now. I probably could get in if I wanted to, but that ship has sailed, as far as I'm concerned.]

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Religion has a bad name in alternative circles. It’s associated with the Christian church and all it’s crimes (real and perceived). Religion is associated with dogma, stifling rules that don’t fit our day to day lives and worse of all: authority. A preacher to tell me what to do in my personal life? Never!

In my religion classes at Leiden University very different definitions of religion are taught. I’ll use a famous one by Clifford Geertz to sum up the point:

“Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

[Geertz wrote in 1966, just before political correct formulations would have replaced 'men' by 'people'.]

The basic point here is that religion is that which gives direction to our lives, helps us establish priorities (consciously or unconsciously) and helps us understand our lives – in such a way that our worldview and priorities seem uniquely realistic.

That definition actually includes spirituality. We have symbols: Ying & Yang, the Buddha and the Tibetan flag (1). We have ideas about the universe we live in which often include: holism, karma, alternative health, aura’s etc. (3). These ideas about life and the universe seem real to us (4) and therefore the lifestyle that comes with them does too (2, 5).

The obsession with the difference between religion and spirituality comes, I think, from the bad reputation the Christian churches has with many of us. Religion has often been defined as ‘organised religion’.

Spirituality – taking place in yoga classrooms, alternative bookstores and retreats – is not organized in the same clear way. One can be spiritual within any religious system. The main thing is that one hasn’t settled for dogma’s, thinks for oneself and keeps ones own spiritual and ethical growth as a top priority (2).

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I’ve been struggling with understanding The Secret for a while now  – in fact before the hype started. Part of my struggle is that I hear people say to (to me) opposite things. On the one hand there’s the idea that we are responsible for our own life. If we truly clean up our act, we will be happy, because we’ve let go of guilt and only let positive energy into our lives. If we want something, we should visualize it and create it from within. I’ll leave the contrast between actual action and visualizing change for the moment.
We are told to ‘let go’, to ‘not be ambitious’, to surrender to the universe. People are saying that we should let coincidences into our lives. We should be open to what presents itself – because the universe knows best.

Am I missing something here? Isn’t it part of life to make choices, take responsibility for where we are and where we want to go? How does waiting for fate going to change my life?

The type of thinking I’m trying to understand here seems to have two aspects:

  • You are in this life to learn life’s lessons, the lessons you chose to learn. You are responsible for both the lessons and the way you respond to them.
  • Your most interesting life is going to be lived not by controlling everything, but by letting the universe tell you where you need to be. Let coincidence and fate decide things for you.

While I have my reservations about the first idea – I’m not responsible for the mistakes people make while learning their lessons (to name one – I have more reservations about the second: If I let coincidences rule my life, I am not making choices – I’m just being a passive feather on the sea of life. I know some people who live like that – and I feel they are doing even worse than not making choices: they’re not taking responsibility for their lives.

The most important lessons I’ve learned in my life were while taking actual responsibility. I chose something, threw myself into that, and ended up failing miserably. No coincidences there. No universe telling me something: just me trying to find my way in a very complicated world.

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Monks at Interfaith

In November of last year I was invited to represent the Theosophical Society at the 17th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service at St. Procopius Abby in Lisle, Illinois.

This is a lovely event hosted by the Benedictine monks of St. Procopius Abbey. Representatives from nine different faiths came to this sublime hall to talk about their tradition and offer prayers and blessings to a lovely audience of open minded spiritually oriented pilgrims.

There were Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians; the choir from the Second Baptist of Church rocked the house. The Baha’i House of Worship Choir reminded why music has always served the sacred, their singers had me wanting to leap out of my seat and praise . . . everything.

 

It occurred to me at some point in all this rapture and glow of gratitude that I should figure out what I was going to say. I am a legendary procrastinator, a terrible habit enabled by an almost perverse ability to think quickly on my feet. Undoubtedly this habit is essentially simple immaturity, but there is a strange kind of alchemical intensity provoked by desperation, the proximity to performance acting as a crucible, quickening my connection to whatever strange source my words spring from (credit to Socrates for providing further philosophical justification).

As it drew close to my time, I noted that of all the groups represented, I was alone in being alone. I was preceded by entire choirs for Christ’s sake. My heart began to race, but then, quite suddenly the ideas began forming in my mind, whole phrases and paths of thought lit up as clear as a Broadway marquee. I am forever grateful for the reliability of this strange magic.

This is what came to me (not quite verbatim as I didn’t get around to recollecting what I said until several weeks later). And please know that unlike my usual speaking, this was very slow and deliberate, a prayer:

 

“As the representative of a truly syncretic tradition, I feel as if I should just wait until the very end, stand up and say, ‘Ditto’.

Of course, theosophists do more than that. When we attend events such as this, we listen to the many prayers and perspectives and ask, “What is it that unites them? What are their differences, and what can we learn from such unity and difference?”

I think it fair to say that all the traditions represented here today share certain commonalities, at least one of which is the recognition of a transcendent reality, a divine source, a holy Other. Further, that we can relate to this ultimate ground, that the very substance, nature and character of this relationship is love, and that in this relationship lies our greatest, and perhaps only hope for salvation.

Theosophists are interested in this original source, how it comes into being, and our various relationships to it in different times and places. As such, we seek to form a nucleus of the universal family, we encourage a comparative study of religion, philosophy, science and art, and we endorse an exploration of the undiscovered laws of nature and the unrealized potentials of humanity.

All of which can become terribly abstract were it not for the one simple, fundamental premise upon which all of Theosophy is predicated: the unity of all life. To that end, we have an invocation that I would like to share with you.

I’ll say it once so you can hear it, and then I will say it a second time and I invite you to repeat it after me.

O Hidden Life, vibrant in every atom.

O Hidden Light, shining in every creature.

O Hidden Love, embracing all in oneness.

May all who feel themselves as one with thee, know they are therefore one with every other.

Thank you very much, and blessings to you all.”

I met many wonderful people that evening, and I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to share Theosophy with them.

If you are able to attend this event next year, I encourage you to do so.

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dropping labels

There is an Intelligentsia cafe near my work. They have the best coffee in the city. I frequently go there for lunch, to read, write, to take a break from the chaos of my office. They have a consistent staff of really interesting young people. They look like the cast of some hip, undiscovered indie movie, and talk like it too. It’s beautiful.

It is also very small and customers frequently have to share tables with strangers. More often than not everyone sits quietly in their own little world, but I’ve also met some delightful people through encounters of this sort.

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Today, as the women in this picture was sitting down at the table next to me something fell out or off of her coat. She was a bit harried and didn’t notice. I picked it up off the floor and awaited for her to get herself together. It was the brand label from inside her coat. The threading had become bare and the whole label fell off.

I handed it to her. “I doubt you need this, but it dropped from your coat.”

She replied, “Ugh, a metaphor for my life.” As in, ‘everything is falling apart’.

I looked at her and said, “If dropping labels is a metaphor for your life, you might be well along the road to enlightenment.”

She may have heard me, but she certainly didn’t hear me. I turned back to my coffee and Huston Smith’s ‘Forgotten Truth’, and she busied herself with her coat and bag while awaiting her order.

We have so many opportunities to touch each other, however briefly. We are guerilla bodhisattvas.

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Prayer (by Karl Gerzan)

This question has been on my mind lately.

That we even talk about certain experiences being spiritual reveals a mark of otherness. For most of us, only rare moments earn the denomination. Yet one of the most consistent claims proceeding from examinations of such experiences is the fundamentally spiritual nature of total reality, the oneness of all that is.

I’d like to better understand what leads me, you, he or she, to designate an experience spiritual. What are the qualities of that experience that separate it from non-spiritual experiences?

Further, within the class of spiritual experiences, are there differences? Are some experiences more spiritual than others? Are there different types of spiritual experience?

When first confronted with this line of inquiry, many understandably balk. They anticipate a dystopia of ranked ineffables and the inevitable hierarchies that would proceed. “I’ve had fourteen documented level 6 spiritual experiences, you’ve barely had three level fives, so I think we’ll go with my idea.” Imagine a militaristic organization with the Dalai Lamas as a five star general overseeing an army of average materialists who occasionally experience bliss during a close football game.

Such anxieties, and the lack of faith they reveal, shouldn’t dissuade us. If spiritual experiences are real, they will resist colonization by such thinking. Indeed, they may offer us the very qualities and criteria needed to relegate this type of thinking to its proper place (a reverse colonization, like Greek gods in Rome).

A proper examination of what constitutes spiritual experiences, if the consistencies of the reports are any indication, may reveal a reality that palimpsests the typical flatland of contemporary western ontology.

But that’s jumping ahead.

First, the question remains: what constitutes a spiritual experience?

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First


Welcome to the Theosophist blog.

A common and useful trope in spiritual literature is the idea of an opening, a sacred space into which you can invite . . . whatever.

Heidegger, in his later works, talks about the clearing required for Being to disclose itself. There is also the story of the professor who goes to visit a Zen master.

This blog will be a kind of clearing, a space in which theosophical voices can share their stories.

Too often our spiritual lives are abstracted into something ‘other’. This blog will be a shared conversation about living theosophically, the struggle to wake up, to find our way along the path.

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