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we are pleased to present here an in depth manual of Theosophical ideas and concepts by Alfred Percy Sinnett
who was a major contributor to the development of modern Theosophy in the early years of the Theosophical movement
Alfred Percy Sinnett
The Doctrine Reviewed
LONG familiarity with the
esoteric doctrine will alone give rise to a full perception of the manner in
which it harmonizes with facts of Nature such as we are all in a position to
observe. But something may be done to indicate the correspondences that may be
traced between the whole body of teaching now set forth and the phenomena of the
world around us.
Beginning with the two great perplexities of ordinary philosophy — the conflict between free-will and predestination, and the origin of evil, it will surely be recognized that the system of Nature now explained enables us to deal with those problems more boldly than they have ever yet been handled. Till now the most prudent thinkers have been least disposed to profess that either by the aid of metaphysics or religion could the mystery of free-will and predestination be unraveled. The tendency of thought has been to relegate the whole enigma to the region of the unknowable. And, strange to say, this has been done contentedly by people who have been none the less contented to accept as more than a provisional hypothesis the religious doctrines which thus remained incapable of reconciliation with some of their own most obvious consequences. The omniscience of a personal Creator, ranging over the future as well as the past, left man no room to exercise the independent authority over his own destinies which nevertheless it was absolutely necessary to allow him to exercise in order that the policy of punishing or rewarding him for his acts in life could be recognized as anything but the most grotesque injustice. One great English philosopher, frankly facing the embarrassment, declared in a famous posthumous essay that, by reason of these considerations, it was impossible that God could be all-good and all-potent. People were free to invest him logically with one or other of these attributes, but not with both. The argument was treated with the respect due to the great reputation of its author, and put aside with the discretion due to respect for orthodox tenets.
But the esoteric doctrine comes to our rescue in this emergency. First of all it honestly takes into account the insignificant size of this world compared to the universe. This is a fact of Nature which the early Christian church feared with a true instinct, and fought with the cruelty of terror. The truth was denied, and its authors were tortured for many centuries. Established at last beyond even the authority of papal negations, the Church resorted to the “desperate expedient,” to quote Mr Rhys David’s phrase, of pretending that it did not matter.
The pretense till now has been more successful than its authors could have hoped. When they dreaded astronomical discovery, they were crediting the world at large with more remorseless logic than it ultimately showed any inclination to employ. People have been found willing as a rule to do that which I have described esoteric Buddhism as not requiring us to do, to keep their science and their religion in separate water-tight compartments. So long and so thoroughly has this principle been worked upon, that it has finally ceased to be an argument against the credibility of a religious dogma to point out that it is impossible. But when we establish a connection between our hitherto divided reservoirs, and require them to stand at the same level, we cannot fail to see how the insignificance of the earth’s magnitude diminishes in a corresponding proportion the plausibility of theories that require us to regard the details of our own lives as part of the general stock of a universal Creator’s omniscience. On the contrary, it is unreasonable to suppose that the creatures inhabiting one of the smaller planets of one of the smaller suns in the ocean of the universe, where suns are but water-drops in the sea, are exempt in any way from the general principle of government by law. But that principle cannot co-exist with government by caprice, which is an essential condition of such predestination as conventional discussions of the problems before us associate with the use of the word. For be it observed that the predestination which conflicts with free-will is not the predestination of races, but individual predestination, associated with the ideas of divine grace of wrath. The pre-destination of races, under laws analogous to those which control the general tendency of any multitude of independent chances, is perfectly compatible with individual free-will, and thus it is that the esoteric doctrine reconciles the long-standing contradiction of Nature. Man has control over his own destiny within constitutional limits, so to speak; he is perfectly free to make use of his natural rights as far as they go, and they go practically to infinity as far as he, the individual unit, is concerned. But the average human action, under given conditions, taking a vast multiplicity of units into account, provides for the unfailing evolution of the cycles which constitute their collective destiny.
Individual predestination, it is true, may be asserted, not as a religious dogma having to do with divine grace or wrath, but on purely metaphysical grounds — that is to say, it may be argued that each human creature is fundamentally, in infancy, subject to the same influence by similar circumstances, and that an adult life is thus merely the product or impression of all the circumstances which have influenced such a life from the beginning, so that, if those circumstances were known, the moral and intellectual result would be known. By this train of reasoning it can be made to appear that the circumstances of each man’s life may be theoretically knowable by a sufficiently searching intelligence; that hereditary tendencies, for example, are but products of antecedent circumstances entering into any given calculation as a perturbation, but not the less calculable on that account. This contention, however, is no less in direct conflict with the consciousness of humanity, than the religious dogma of individual predestination. The sense of free-will is a factor in the process which cannot be ignored, and the free-will of which we are thus sensible is not a mere automatic impulse, like the twitching of a dead frog’s leg. The ordinary religious dogma and the ordinary metaphysical argument both require us to regard it in that light; but the esoteric doctrine restores it to its true dignity, and shows us the scope of its activity, the limits of its sovereignty. It is sovereign over the individual career, but impotent in presence of the cyclic law, which even so positive a philosopher as Draper detects in human history — brief as the period is which he is enabled to observe. And none the less does that collateral quicksand of thought which J S Mill discerned alongside the contradictions of theology — the great question whether speculation must work with the all-good or all-potent hypothesis — find its explanation in the system now disclosed. Those great beings, the perfected efflorescence of former humanity, who, though far from constituting a supreme God, reign nevertheless in a divine way over the destinies of our world, are not only not omnipotent, but, great as they are, are restricted as regards their action by comparatively narrow limits. It would seem as if, when the stage is, so to speak, prepared afresh for a new drama of life, they are able to introduce some improvements into the action, derived from their own experience in the drama with which they were concerned, but are only capable, as regards the main construction of the piece, of repeating that which has been represented before. They can do on a large scale what a gardener can do with dahlias on a small one; he can evolve considerable improvements in form and colour, but his flowers, however carefully tended, will be dahlias still.
Is it nothing, one may ask in passing, in support of the acceptability of the esoteric doctrine, that natural analogies support it at every turn? As it is below, so it is above, wrote the early occult philosophers; the microcosm is a mirror of the macrocosm. All Nature lying within the sphere of our physical observation verifies the rule, so far as that limited area can exhibit any principles. The structure of lower animals is reproduced with modifications in higher animals, and in Man; the fine fibres of the leaf ramify like the branches of the tree, and the microscope follows such ramifications, repeated beyond the range of the naked eye. The dust-laden currents of rain-water by the roadside deposit therein “sedimentary rocks” in the puddles they develop, just as the rivers do in the lakes and the great waters of the world over the sea-bed. The geological work of a pond and that of an ocean differ merely in their scale, and it is only in scale that the esoteric doctrine shows the sublimest laws of Nature differing in their jurisdiction over the man, and their jurisdiction over the planetary family. As the children of each human generation are tended in infancy by their parents, and grow up to tend another generation in their turn, so in the whole humanity of the great manvantaric periods, the men of one generation grow to be the Dhyân Chohans of the next, and then yield their places in the ultimate progress of time to their descendants, and pass themselves to higher conditions of existence.
Not less decisively than it answers the question about free-will, does the esoteric doctrine deal with the existence of evil. This subject has been discussed in its place in the preceding chapter on the Progress of Humanity; but the esoteric doctrine, it will be seen, grapples with the great problem more closely than by the mere enunciation of the way human free-will, which it is the purpose of Nature to grow and cultivate into Dhyân Chohanship, must by the hypothesis be free to develop evil itself, if it likes. So much for the broad principle in operation, but the way it works is traceable in the present teaching as clearly as the principle itself. It works through physical Karma, and could not but work that way, except by a suspension of the invariable law that causes cannot but produce effects. The objective man born into the physical world is just as much the creation of the person he last animated, as the subjective man who has in the interim been living the Devachanic existence. The evil that men do lives after them, in a more literal sense even than Shakespeare intended by those words. It may be asked, how can the moral guilt of a man in one life cause him to be born blind or crippled at a different period of the world’s history several thousand years later, of parents with whom he has had, through his former life, no sort of physical connection whatever? But the difficulty is met, by considering the operation of affinities, more easily than may be imagined at the first glance. The blind or crippled child as regards his physical frame, may have been the potentiality rather than the product of local circumstances. But he would not have come into existence unless there had been a spiritual monad pressing forward for incarnation and bearing with it a fifth principle (so much of a fifth principle as is persistent, of course) precisely adapted by its Karma to inhabit that potential body. Given these circumstances, and the imperfectly organized child is conceived and brought into the world, to be a cause of trouble to himself and others — an effect becoming a cause in its turn — and a living enigma for philosophers endeavouring to explain the origin of evil.
The same explanation applies with modifications to a vast range of cases that might be cited to illustrate the problem of evil in the world. Incidentally, moreover, it covers a question connected with the operation of the Karmic law that can hardly be called a difficulty, as the answer would probably be suggested by the bearings of the doctrine itself, but is none the less entitled to notice. The selective assimilation of Karma-laden spirits with parentage which corresponds to their necessities or deserts, is the obvious explanation which reconciles rebirth with atavism and heredity. The child born may seem to reproduce the moral and mental peculiarities of parents or ancestors as well as their physical likeness, and the fact suggests the notion that his soul is as much an offshoot of the family tree as his physical frame. It is unnecessary to enlarge here on the multifarious embarrassments by which that theory would be surrounded, on the extravagance of supposing that a soul thus thrown off, like a spark from an anvil, without any spiritual past behind it, can have a spiritual future before it. The soul, which was thus merely a function of the body, would certainly come to an end with the dissolution of that out of which it arose. The esoteric doctrine, however, as regards transmitted characteristics, will afford a complete explanation of that phenomenon, as well as of all others connected with human life. The family into which he is born is, to the re-incarnating spirit, what a new planet is to the whole tide of humanity on a round along the manvantaric chain. It has been built up by a process of evolution working on a line transverse to that of humanity’s approach; but it is fit for humanity to inhabit when the time comes. So with the re-incarnating spirit, it presses forward into the objective world, the influences which have retained it in the Devachanic state having been exhausted, and it touches the spring of Nature, so to speak, provoking the development of a child which without such an impulse would merely have been a potentiality, not an actual development; but in whose parentage it finds — of course unconsciously by the blind operation of its affinities — the exact conditions of renewed life for which it has prepared itself during its last existence. Certainly we must never forget the presence of exceptions in all broad rules of Nature. In the present case it may sometimes happen that mere accident causes an injury to a child at birth. Thus a crippled frame may come to be bestowed on a spirit whose Karma has by no means earned that penalty, and so with a great variety of accidents. But of these all that need be said is that Nature is not at all embarrassed by her accidents; she has ample time to repair them. The undeserved suffering of one life is amply redressed under the operation of the Karmic law in the next, or the next. There is plenty of time for making the account even, and the adepts declare, I believe, that, as a matter-of-fact, in the long-run undeserved suffering operates as good luck rather than otherwise, thereby deriving from a purely scientific observation of facts a doctrine which religion has benevolently invented sometimes for the consolation of the afflicted.
While the esoteric doctrine affords in this way an unexpected solution of the most perplexing phenomena of life, it does this at no sacrifice in any direction of the attributes we may fairly expect of a true religious science. Foremost among the claims we may make on such a system is that it shall contemplate no injustice, either in the direction of wrong done to the undeserving, or of benefits bestowed on the undeserving; and the justice of its operation must be discernible in great things and small alike. The legal maxim, de minimis non curat lex, is means of escape for human fallibility from the consequences of its own imperfections. There is no such thing as indifference to small things in chemistry or mechanics. Nature in physical operations responds with exactitude to small causes as certainly as to great, and we may feel instinctively sure that in her spiritual operations also she has no clumsy habit of treating trifles as of no consequence, of ignoring small debts in consideration of paying big ones, like a trader of doubtful integrity content to respect obligations which are serious enough to be enforced by law. Now the minor acts of life, good and bad alike, are of necessity ignored under any system which makes the final question at stake, admission to or exclusion from a uniform or approximately uniform condition of blessedness. Even as regards that merit and demerit which is solely concerned with spiritual consequences, no accurate response could be made by Nature except by means of that infinitely graduated condition of spiritual existence described by the esoteric doctrine as the Devachanic state. But the complexity to be dealt with is more serious than even the various conditions of Devachanic existence can meet. No system of consequences ensuing to mankind after the life now under observation, can be recognized as adapted scientifically to the emergency, unless it responds to the sense of justice, in regard to the multifarious acts and habits of life generally, including those which merely relate to physical existence, and are not deeply coloured by right or wrong.
Now, it is only by a return to physical existence that people can possibly be conceived to reap with precise accuracy the harvest of the minor causes they may have generated when last in objective life. Thus, on a careful examination of the matter, the Karmic law, so unattractive to Buddhist students, hitherto, in its exoteric shape, and no wonder, will be seen not only to reconcile itself to the sense of justice, but to constitute the only imaginable method of natural action that would do this. The continued individuality running through successive Karmic rebirths once realized, and the corresponding chain of spiritual existences intercalated between each, borne in mind, the exquisite symmetry of the whole system is in no way impaired by that feature which seems obnoxious to criticism at the first glance, — the successive baths of oblivion through which the reincarnating spirit has to pass. On the contrary, that oblivion itself is in truth the only condition on which objective life could fairly be started afresh. Few earth-lives are entirely free from shadows, the recollection of which would darken a renewed lease of life for the former personality. And if it is alleged that the forgetfulness in each life, of the last, involves waste of experience and effort, and intellectual acquirements, painfully or laboriously obtained, that objection can only be raised in forgetfulness of the Devachanic life in which, far from being wasted, such efforts and acquirements are the seeds from which the whole magnificent harvest of spiritual results will be raised. In the same way the longer the esoteric doctrine occupies the mind, the more clearly it is seen that every objection brought against it meets with a ready reply, and only seems an objection from the point of view of imperfect knowledge.
Passing from abstract considerations to others partly interwoven with practical matters, we may compare the esoteric doctrine with the observable facts of Nature in several ways with the view of directly checking its teachings. A spiritual science which has successfully divined the absolute truth must accurately fit the facts of earth whenever it impinges on earth. A religious dogma in flagrant opposition to that which is manifestly truth in respect of geology and astronomy, may find churches and congregations content to nurse it, but is not worth serious philosophical consideration. How then does the esoteric doctrine square with geology and astronomy?
It is not too much to say that it constitutes the only religious system that blends itself easily with the physical truths discovered by modern research in those branches of science. It not only blends itself with, in the sense of tolerating, the nebula hypothesis and the stratification of rocks, it rushes into the arms of these facts, so to speak, and could not get on without them. It could not get on without the great discoveries of modern biology; and, as a system recommending itself to notice in a scientific age, it could ill afford to dispense with the latest acquisitions of physical geography.
The stratification of the earth’s crust is, of course, a plain and visible record of the inter-racial cataclysms. Physical science is emerging from the habits of timidity which its insolent oppression by religious bigotry for fifteen centuries engendered, but it is still a little shy in its relations with dogma, from the mere force of habit. In that way geology has been content to say, such and continents, as their shell-beds testify, must have been more than once submerged below and elevated above the surface of the ocean. It has not yet grown used to the free application of its own materials to speculation which trenches upon religious territory. But surely if geology were required to interpret all its facts into a consistent history of the earth, throwing in the most plausible hypotheses it could invent to fill up gaps in its knowledge, it would already construct a history for mankind which in its broad outlines would not be unlike that sketched out in the foregoing chapter on the Great World Periods; and the further geological discovery progresses, our esoteric teachers assure us, the more closely will the correspondence of the doctrine and the bony traces of the past be recognized. Already we find experts from the Challenger vouching for the existence of Atlantis, though the subject belongs to a class of problems unattractive to the scientific world generally, so that the considerations in favour of the lost continent are not yet generally appreciated. Already thoughtful geologists are quite ready to recognize that in regard to the forces which have fashioned the earth, this, the period within the range of historic traces, may be a period of comparative inertia and slow change; that cataclysmal metamorphoses may have been added formerly to those of gradual subsidence, upheaval, and denudation. It is only a step or two to the recognition as a fact, of what no one could any longer find fault with as a hypothesis, that great continental upheavals and submergences take place alternately; that the whole map of the world is not only thrown occasionally into new shapes, like the pictures of a kaleidoscope as its coloured fragments fall into new arrangements, but subject to systematically recurrent changes, which restore former arrangements at enormous intervals of time.
Pending further discoveries, however, it will, perhaps, be admitted that we have a sufficient block of geological knowledge already in our possession to fortify the cosmogony of the esoteric doctrine. That the doctrine should have been withheld from the world generally as long as no such knowledge had paved the way for its reception can hardly be considered indiscreet for the part of its custodians. Whether the present generation will attach sufficient importance to its correspondence with what has been ascertained of Nature in other ways remains to be seen.
These correspondences may, of course, be traced in biology as decisively as in geology. The broad Darwinian theory of the Descent of Man from the animal kingdom is not the only support afforded by this branch of science to the esoteric doctrine. The detailed observations now carried out in embryology are especially interesting for the light they throw on more than one department of this doctrine. Thus the now familiar truth that the successive stages of ante-natal human development correspond to the progress of human evolution through different forms of animal life, is nothing less than a revelation, in its analogical bearings. It does not merely fortify the evolutionary hypothesis itself, it affords a remarkable illustration of the way Nature works in the evolution of new races of men at the beginning of the great round-periods. When a child has to be developed from a germ which is so simple in its constitution that it is typical less of the animal — less even of the vegetable — than of the mineral kingdom, the familiar scale of evolution is run over, so to speak, with a rapid touch. The ideas of progress which may have taken countless ages to work out in a connected chain for the first time, are once for all firmly lodged in Nature’s memory, and thenceforth they can be quickly recalled in order in a few months. So with the new evolution of humanity on each planet as the human tide-wave of life advances. In the first round the process is exceedingly slow, and does not advance far. The ideas of Nature are themselves under evolution. But when the process has been accomplished once, it can be quickly repeated. In the later rounds the life-impulse runs up the gamut of evolution with a facility only conceivable by help of the illustration which embryology affords. This is the explanation of the way the character of each round differs from its predecessor. The evolutionary work which has been once accomplished is soon repeated; then the round performs its own evolution at a very different rate, as the child, once perfected up to the human type, performs its own individual growth but slowly, in proportion to the earlier stages of its initial development.
No elaborate comparison of exoteric Buddhism with the views of Nature, which have now been set forth — briefly indeed, considering their scope and importance, but comprehensively enough to furnish the reader with a general idea of the system in its whole enormous range — will be required from me. With the help of the information now communicated, more experienced students of Buddhist literature will be better able to apply to the enigmas that may contain, the keys which will unlock their meaning. The gaps in the public records of Buddha’s teaching will be filled up readily enough now, and it will be plain why they were left. For example, in Mr Rhys Davids’ book, I find this: “Buddhism does not attempt to solve the problem of the primary origin of all things;” and quoting from Hardy’s “Manual of Buddhism,” he goes on, “When Malunka asked the Buddha whether the existence of the world is eternal or not eternal, he made him no reply; but the reason of this was that it was considered by the teacher as an inquiry that tended to no profit.” In reality the subject was manifestly passed over because it could not be dealt with by a plain yes or no, without putting the inquirer upon a false scent; while to put him on the true scent would have required a complete exposition of the whole doctrine about the evolution of the planetary chain, an explanation of that for which the community Buddha was dealing with, was not intellectually ripe. To infer from his silence that he regarded the inquiry itself as tending to no profit, is a mistake which may naturally enough have been made in the absence of any collateral knowledge, but none can be more complete in reality. No religious system that ever publicly employed itself on the problem of the origin of all things, has, as will now be seen, done more than scratch the surface of that speculation, in comparison with the exhaustive researches of the esoteric science of which Buddha was no less prominent an exponent than he was a prominent teacher of morals for the populace.
The positive conclusions as to what Buddhism does teach — carefully as he has worked them out — are no less inaccurately set forth by Mr Rhys Davids than the negative conclusion just quoted. It was inevitable that all such conclusions should hitherto be inaccurate. I quote an example, not to disparage the careful study of which it is the fruit , but to show how the light now shed over the whole subject penetrates every cranny, and puts an entirely new complexion on all its features.
“Buddhism takes as its ultimate fact the existence of the material world, and of conscious beings, living within it; and it holds that everything is subject to the law of cause and effect, and that everything is constantly, though imperceptibly, changing. There is no place where this law does not operate; no heaven or hell therefore in the ordinary sense. There are worlds where angels live whose existence is more or less material according as their previous lives were more or less holy; but the angels die, and the worlds they inhabit pass away. There are places of torment where the evil actions of men or angels produce unhappy beings; but when the active power of the evil that produced them is exhausted, they will vanish, and the worlds they inhabit are not eternal. The whole Kosmos — earth and heavens, and hells — is always tending to renovation or destruction, is always in a course of change, a series of revolutions or of cycles, of which the beginning and the end alike are unknowable and unknown. To this universal law of composition and dissolution, men and gods form no exception; the unity of forces which constitutes a sentient being must sooner or later be dissolved, and it is only through ignorance and delusion that such a being indulges in the dream that it is a separable and self-existent entity.”
Now, certainly this passage might be taken to show how the popular notions of Buddhist philosophy are manifestly thrown off from the real esoteric philosophy. Most assuredly that philosophy no more finds in the universe than in the belief of any truly enlightened thinker — Asiatic or European — the unchangeable and eternal heaven and hell of monkish legend; and “the worlds where angels live,” and so on — the vividly real though subjective strata of the Devachanic state — are found in Nature truly enough. So with all the rest of the popular Buddhist conceptions just passed in review. But in their popular form they are the nearest caricatures of the corresponding items of esoteric knowledge. Thus the notion about individuality being a delusion, and the ultimate dissolution as such of the sentient being, is perfectly unintelligible without fuller explanations concerning the multitudinous æons of individual life, in as yet, to us, inconceivable, but ever progressive, conditions of spiritual exaltation, which come before that unutterably remote mergence into the non-individualized condition. That condition certainly must be somewhere in futurity, but its nature is something which no uninitiated philosopher, at any rate, has ever yet comprehended by so much as the faintest glimmering guess. As with the idea of Nirvana, so with this about the delusion of individuality, writers on Buddhist doctrine derived from exoteric sources, have most unfortunately found themselves entangled with some of the remote elements of the great doctrine, under the impression that they were dealing with Buddhist views of conditions immediately succeeding this life, The statement, which is almost absurd, thus put out of its proper place in the whole doctrine, may be felt, not only as no longer an outrage on the understanding, but as a sublime truth, when restored to its proper place in relation to other truths. The ultimate mergence of the perfect Man-god or Dhyân Chohan in the absolute consciousness of paranirvana, has nothing to do, let me add, with the “heresy of individuality,” which relates to physical personalities. To this subject I recur a little later on.
Justly enough, Mr Rhys Davids says, in reference to the epitome of Buddhist doctrine quoted above: “Such teachings are by no means peculiar to Buddhism, and similar ideas lie at the foundation of earlier Indian philosophies.” (Certainly by reason of the fact that Buddhism, as concerned with doctrine, was earlier Indian philosophy itself.) “They are to be found indeed in other systems widely separated from them in time and place; and Buddhism, in dealing with the truth which they contain, might have given a more decisive and more lasting utterance, if it had not also borrowed a belief in the curious doctrine of transmigration, a doctrine which seems to have arisen independently, if not simultaneously, in the Valley of the Ganges and the Valley of the Nile. The word transmigration has been used, however, in different times and at different places for theories similar, indeed, but very different; and Buddhism, in adopting the general idea from post-Vedic Brahminism, so modified it as to originate, in fact, a new hypothesis. The new hypothesis, like the old one, related to life in past and future births, and contributed nothing to the removal here, in this life, of the evil it was supposed to explain.”
The present volume should have dissipated the misapprehensions on which these remarks rest. Buddhism does not believe in anything resembling the passage backwards and forwards between animal and human forms, which most people conceive to be meant by the principle of transmigration. The transmigration of Buddhism is the transmigration of Darwinian evolution scientifically developed, or rather exhaustively explored, in both directions. Buddhist writings certainly contain allusions to former births, in which even the Buddha himself was now one and now another kind of animal. But these had reference to the remote course of pre-human evolution, of which his fully opened vision gave him a retrospect. Never in any authentic Buddhist writings will any support be found for the notion that any human creature, once having attained manhood, falls back into the animal kingdom. Again, while nothing indeed could be more ineffectual as an explanation of the origin of evil, than such a caricature of transmigration as would contemplate such a return, the progressive rebirths of human Egos into objective existence, coupled with the operation of physical Karma, and the inevitable play of free-will within the limits of its privilege, do explain the origin of evil, finally and completely. The effort of Nature being to grow a new harvest of Dhyân Chohans whenever a planetary system is evolved, the incidental development of transitory evil is an unavoidable consequence under the operation of the forces of processes just mentioned, themselves unavoidable stages in the stupendous enterprise set on foot.
At the same time the reader, who will now take up Mr Rhys Davids book and examine the long passage on this subject, and on the skandhas, will realize how utterly hopeless a task it was to attempt the deduction of any rational theory of the origin of evil from the exoteric materials there made use of. Nor was it possible for these materials to suggest the true explanation of the passage immediately afterwards quoted from the Brahmajala Sutra: —
“After showing how the unfounded belief in the eternal existence of God or gods arose, Gautama goes on to discuss the question of the soul, and points out thirty-two beliefs concerning it, which he declares to be wrong. These are shortly as follows: ‘Upon what principle or on what ground, do these mendicants and Brahmans hold the doctrine of future existence? They teach that the soul is material, or is immaterial, or is both or neither; that it will have one or many modes of consciousness; that its perceptions will be few or boundless; that it will be in a state of joy or of misery or of neither. These are the sixteen heresies, teaching a conscious existence after death. Then there are eight heresies teaching that the soul material or immaterial, or both or neither, finite or infinite, or both or neither, has one unconscious existence after death. And, finally, eight others which teach that the soul, in the same eight ways, exists after death in a state of being neither conscious nor unconscious. Mendicants,’ concludes the sermon, ‘that which binds the teacher to existence (viz. tanha, thirst) is cut off, but his body still remains. While his body shall remain, he will be seen by gods and men, but after the termination of life, upon the dissolution of the body, neither gods nor men will see him.’ Would it be possible in a more complete and categorical manner to deny that there is any soul — anything of any kind which continues to exist in any manner after death?”
Certainly, for exoteric students, such a passage as this could not but seem in flagrant contradiction with those teachings of Buddhism which deal with the successive passages of the same individuality through several incarnations, and which thus along another line of thought may seem to assume the existence of a transmissible soul, as plainly as the passage quoted denies it. Without a comprehension of the seven principles of man, no separate utterances on the various aspects of this question of immortality could possibly be reconciled. But the key now given leaves the apparent contradiction devoid of all embarrassment. In the passage last quoted Buddha is speaking of the astral personality, while the immortality recognized by the esoteric doctrine is that of the spiritual individuality. The explanation has been fully given in the chapter on Devachan, and in the passages quoted there from Colonel Olcott’s “Buddhist Catechism.” It is only since fragments of the great revelation this volume contains have been given out during the last two years in The Theosophist [magazine] , that the important distinction between personality and individuality, as applied to the question of human immortality, has settled into an intelligible shape; but there are plentiful allusions in former occult writing, which may now be appealed to in proof of the fact that former writers were fully alive to the doctrine itself. Turning to the most recent of the occult books in which the veil of obscurity was still left to wrap the doctrine from careless observation, though it was strained in many places almost to transparency, we might take any one of a dozen passages to illustrate the point before us. Here is one: ---
“The philosophers who explained the fall into generation their own way, viewed spirit as something wholly distinct from the soul. They allowed its presence in the astral capsule only so far as the spiritual emanations or rays of the “shining one” were concerned. Man and soul had to conquer their immortality by ascending toward the unity, with which, if successful, they were finally linked, and into which they were absorbed, so to say. The individualization of man after death depended on the spirit, not on his body and soul. Although the word ‘personality’ in the sense in which it is usually understood, is an absurdity if applied literally to our immortal essence, still the latter is a distinct entity, immortal and eternal per se, and as in the case of criminals beyond redemption, when the shining thread which links the spirit to the soul from the moment of the birth of a child, is violently snapped, and the disembodied entity is left to share the fate of the lower animals, to dissolve into ether, and have its individuality annihilated — even then the spirit remains a distinct being.” [“Isis Unveiled,” volume 1, Page 315]
No one can read this — scarcely any part, indeed, of the chapter from which it is taken — without perceiving, by the light of the explanations given in the present volume, that the esoteric doctrine, now fully given out, was perfectly familiar to the writer — though I have been privileged to put it for the first time into plain and unmistakable language.
It takes some mental effort to realize the difference between personality and individuality, but the craving for the continuity of personal existence — for the full recollection always of those transitory circumstances of our present physical life which make up the personality — is manifestly no more than a passing weakness of the flesh. For many people it will perhaps remain irrational to say that any person now living, with his recollections bounded by the years of his childhood, is the same individual as some one of quite a different nationality and epoch who lived thousands of years ago, or the same that will reappear after a similar lapse of time under some entirely new conditions in the future. But the feeling “I am I,” is the same through the three lives, and through all the hundreds; for that feeling is more deeply seated than the feeling, “I am John Smith, so high, so heavy, with such and such property and relations.” Is it inconceivable — as a notion in the mind — that John Smith, inheriting the gift of Tithonus, changing his name from time to time, marrying afresh every other generation or so, losing property here, coming into possession of property there, and getting interested as time went on in a great variety of different pursuits — is it inconceivable that such a person in a few thousand years should forget all circumstances connected with the present life of John Smith, just as if the incidents of that life for him had never taken place? And yet the Ego would be the same. If this is conceivable in the imagination, what can be inconceivable in the individual continuity of an intermittent life, interrupted and renewed at regular intervals, and varied with passages through a purer condition of existence.
No less than it clears up the apparent conflict between the identify of successive individualities and the “heresy” of individuality, will the esoteric doctrine be seen to put the “incomprehensible mystery” of Karma, which Mr Rhys Davids disposes of so summarily, on a perfectly intelligible and scientific basis. Of this he says that because Buddhism “does not acknowledge a soul,” it has to resort to the desperate expedient of a mystery to bridge over the gulf between one life and another somewhere else, the doctrine, namely, of Karma. And he condemns the idea as a “non-existent fiction of the brain.” Irritated as he feels with what he regards as the absurdity of the doctrine, he yet applies patience and great mental ingenuity in the effort to evolve something that shall feel like a rational metaphysical conception out of the tangled utterances concerning Karma of the Buddhist scriptures. He writes: —
“Karma, from a Buddhist point of view, avoids the superstitious extreme, on the one hand, of those who believe in the separate existence of some entity called the soul; and the irreligious extreme on the other of those who do not believe in moral justice and retribution. Buddhism claims to have looked through the word soul for the fact it purports to cover, and to have found no fact at all, but only one or other of twenty different delusions which blind the eyes of men. Nevertheless, Buddhism is convinced that if a man reaps sorrow, disappointment, pain, he himself and no other must at some time have sown folly, error, sin, and if not in this life, then in some former birth. Where, then, in the latter case, is the identity between him who sows and him who reaps? In that which alone remains when a man dies, and the constituent parts of the sentient being are dissolved, in the result, namely, of his action, speech, and thought, in his good or evil Karma (literally his doing), which does not die. We are familiar with the doctrine, ‘Whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,’ and can therefore enter into the Buddhist feeling that whatever a man reaps that he must also have sown; we are familiar with the doctrine of the indestructibility of force, and can therefore understand the Buddhist dogma (however it may contravene our Christian notions) that no exterior power can destroy the fruit of a man’s deeds, that they must work out their full effect to the pleasant or the bitter end. But the peculiarity of Buddhism lies in this, that the result of what a man is or does is held not to be dissipated, as it were, into many separate streams, but to be concentrated together in the formation of one new sentient being — new, that is, in its constituent parts and powers, but the same in its essence, its being, its doing, its Karma.”
Nothing could be more ingenious as an attempt to invent for Buddhism an explanation of its “mystery” on the assumption that the authors of the mystery threw it up originally as a “desperate expedient” to cover their retreat from an untenable position. But in reality the doctrine of Karma has a far simpler history, and does not need so subtle an interpretation. Like many other phenomena of Nature having to do with futurity, it was declared by Buddha an incomprehensible mystery, and questions concerning it were thus put aside, but he did not mean that because it was incomprehensible for the populace, it was incomprehensible or any mystery at all for the initiates in the esoteric doctrine. It was impossible to explain it without reference to the esoteric doctrine, but the outlines of that science once grasped, Karma, like so much else, becomes a comparatively simple matter, a mystery only in the sense in which also the affinity of sulphuric acid for copper, and its superior affinity for iron, are also mysteries. Certainly esoteric science for its “lay chelas” at all events, like chemical science for its lay chelas, — all students, that is to say, of its mere physical phenomena, — leaves some mysteries unfathomed in the background. I am not prepared to explain by what precise molecular changes the higher affinities which constitute Karma are stored up in the permanent elements of the fifth principle. But no more is ordinary science qualified to say what it is in a molecule of oxygen, which induces it to desert the molecule of hydrogen with which it was in alliance in the raindrop, and attach itself to a molecule of the iron of a railing on which it falls. But the speck of rust is engendered, and a scientific explanation of that occurrence is held to have been given when its affinities are ascertained and appealed to.
So with Karma, the fifth principle takes up the affinities of its good and evil deeds in its passage through life, passes with them into Devachan, where those which are suitable to the atmosphere, so to speak, of that state, fructify and blossom in prodigious abundance, and then passes on, with such as have not yet exhausted their energy, into the objective world once more. And as certainly as the molecule of oxygen brought into the presence of a hundred other molecules will fly to that with which it has the most affinity, so will the Karma-laden spiritual monad fly to that incarnation with which its mysterious attractions link it. Nor is there in that process any creation of a new sentient being, except in the sense that the new bodily structure evolved is a new instrument of sensation. That which inhabits it, that which feels joy or sorrow, is the old Ego — walled off by forgetfulness from its last set of adventures on earth, it is true, but reaping their fruit nevertheless — the same “I am I” as before.
“Strange it is,” Mr Rhys Davids thinks, that “all this,” the explanation of Buddhist philosophy which esoteric materials have enabled him to give, “should have seemed not unattractive, these 2300 years and more, to many despairing and earnest hearts — that they should have trusted themselves to the so seeming stately bridge which Buddhism has tried to build over the river of the mysteries and sorrows of life . . . . They have failed to see that the very keystone itself, the link between one life and another, is a mere word — this wonderful hypothesis, this airy nothing, this imaginary cause beyond the reach of reason — the individualized and individualizing grace of Karma.”
It would have been strange indeed if Buddhism had been built on such a frail foundation; but its apparent frailty has been simply due to the fact that its mighty fabric of knowledge has hitherto been veiled from view. Now that the inner doctrine has been unveiled, it will be seen how little it depends for any item of its belief on shadowy subtleties of metaphysics. So far as these have clustered round Buddhism they have merely been constructed by external interpreters of stray doctrinal hints that could not be entirely left out of the simple system of morals prescribed for the populace.
In that which really constitutes Buddhism we find a sublime simplicity, like that of Nature herself — one law running into infinite ramifications — complexities of detail, it is true, as Nature herself is infinitely complex in her manifestations, however unchangeably uniform in her purposes, but always the immutable doctrine of causes and their effects, which in turn become causes again in an endless cyclic progression.
Blavatsky, H.P. Isis Unveiled, two Volumes, New York,
Rhys, T. W. Buddhism,” etc. New
Draper, J. W. History of
the Intellectual Development of Europe. New York, 1863
Camille.La Résurrection et la
Fin des Mondes. Paris
Hardy, Robert Spence. Manual of Buddhism, in its Modern Development, translated from Singhalese mss. 2nd ed London, 1880
Éliphas. (pseudo of Alphonse Louie Constant) Dogme et Rituel de la
Haute Magie, Paris, 1861. (later translated by
A. E. Waite as Transcendental Magic)
Lillie, Arthur. Buddha and Early Buddhism,
Olcott, Henry Steel. Buddhist Catechism,
Hermann. Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine,
His Order, Translated by Hoey,
The Theosophist (periodical) started by H.P. Blavatsky and
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