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Exoteric and Esoteric Theosophy

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Exoteric and Esoteric Theosophy[1]

 Exoteric

 

“Theosophist is who Theosophy does”, H.P. Blavatsky paraphrases in her chapter on Exoteric and Esoteric Theosophy in The Key to Theosophy.

Theosophy means ‘the wisdom of the gods’ or ‘the wisdom concerning the divine’. Still Theosophists are humans, not gods. Ultimately it is their, i.e. our, destiny to become gods – fully grown humans in the highest sense. Theosophists ultimately become consciously at one with their own Inner Essence. It has nothing to do with belonging to a Society – though the Theosophical Societies probably provide the best channel to the Gates at hand in our days. Being a Member or Fellow “cannot make a Theosophist of one who has no sense for the divine fitness of things,” says HPB. A Theosophist may privately belong to any religion or caste, but he or she must also realize that Theosophy is above ANY sectarianism.

Theosophy is Universal Wisdom, and a true Theosophist seeks to enter into the arcana of the Unlimited – ever expanding his knowledge, consciousness and where necessary correcting himself, always improving spiritually. To be a true Theosophist we must develop our highest, ethical and divine qualities and overcome our human weaknesses.

We begin being a Theosophist by seriously believing that such superhuman wisdom indeed exists, and that it is innate in our nature and our right and duty to access that wisdom.

The other side of being a Theosophist is to strive to give up, and ultimately actually give up all selfishness, to become an imperturbable altruist, who ultimately leaves behind any idea of isolated egoness.

This last thing is not easy. Millennia after millennia our cultures, philosophies and habits in many successive lifetimes have taught and trained us to care for our own interests first, or those of our family, religious group or country or any other larger entity we can associate with our personal ego.

It was particularly the Buddha – who is also the grand Lord of the mahatmas who inspired the founding and development of the Theosophical movement – who emphasized the non-existence of an independent, isolated, separated self or ego.

The Buddhist and Theosophical philosophies simply undermine the conception that we or any creature in the universe can do anything for their own benefit alone. The idea of a self and selfishness is a philosophical monster which must be beaten by Wisdom. “Separateness is the greatest heresy,” it has been said. It is for that reason, not sentimentally but philosophically, that a Theosophist must overcome the illusion of selfishness – if he wishes to be a true Theosophist and helper of humankind. In fact that is not even difficult, it is a matter of cooperating with Nature as it truly is instead of being deluded and imprisoned by mind-created illusions.

As in Mahayana Buddhism the entrance to the arcana of wisdom is only permitted to those who are guided by Compassion. Compassion is the Law of laws, as stated in The Voice of the Silence. Our egos are consciousness centers, centers of concentration of powers which can be astral, kāmic, mental, buddhic or spiritual; or animal, human, spiritual or divine. But all are connected, influencing each other, growing together.

It is easy to say; “O, I am unselfish”, “I am very compassionate.” It is just as easy to say as “I have the most beautiful house in town” or “I have the highest position in the society” But to beunselfish only comes by understanding the philosophical keynote of the māyāvic nature of an isolated self or ego.

Then, what happens, as long as the wrong conception of ego is not really killed by the sword of wisdom: all our thoughts, theories, feelings connected with that false ego concept wake up and protest against our higher pursuits. We keep telling ourselves that our attachments truly exist and need due attention. We have to give up our attachments and that can only be accomplished by the insight in the emptiness of their existence – as the Buddhists express it, the illusion of their true existence in their own right.

This difficulty is not only the cause of our inner psychological, mental and spiritual struggles, but it is also the direct cause of quarrels and schisms within the Theosophical movement and the painful situations that sometimes arise for individuals within the Societies. There should however never be a total separation of a member of any theosophical or other truly spiritual body (except perhaps for strictly material reasons such as theft and misuse of position). All these difficulties are parts or aspects of our Path, of our upward struggle. As long as we practice puruṣārth – spiritual effort – we are all brother pilgrims on the same quest.

HPB writes about the Theosophical Society in this Chapter: The Society is a philanthropic and scientific body for the propagation of brotherhood on practical instead of theoretical lines. Every member must be either a philanthropist, or a scholar, a searcher into Aryan and other old literature, or a psychic student.” But that still does not make him or her a Theosophist de facto. Even those who pursue the esoteric study of Theosophy are “not necessarily” real Theosophists “until they have proven themselves such.”

 

Esoteric and exoteric

Esoteric means ‘the hidden side or Truth of phenomena and mentalities’ Esoteric knowledge is ‘the knowledge of the Heart’ (spiritual intuition) while the term exoteric refers to the knowledge of the mind. To the latter belong all worldly activities and also all exoteric religions – with all their forms, habits, rituals, limited doctrines and their dogmas. In general – all things which can be seen by the eye and reasoned about by the common mind. Every human being of average intelligence can learn rules and prescriptions, can develop feelings of personal devotion and attachment. Even people with great intellect can be misguided with open eyes, because their mind is as yet unable to enter the universal, the buddhic side of Nature. One who studies Theosophy only mentally and thus gets a better picture of the true meaning of religion than in other extant systems, and who lives Theosophy, is still not an esotericist, an occultist.

 

Esoteric

The word ‘esoteric’ is derived from the Greek ‘esoterikos’ which means ‘pertaining to the inner.’ It refers to the body of mystical and sacred teachings reserved for students of high and worthy character. The esoteric teachings and practices are carefully hided and protected from the eyes of the unworthy.

Those who can stand the tests of character can be initiated – i.e. make a beginning with the occult path – into a mystery school or arcanum or esoteric school. This exclusivity is not out of haughtiness, but to protect humankind and individuals against knowledge and application of the tremendous forces and fields of consciousness which we in our present state of evolution can not handle. The initiant is pledged to utter secrecy. The knowledge and application of the living hidden forces of inner nature could destroy us and destroy humanity more efficiently than a nuclear bomb. Therefore, higher knowledge can only be handled by those have slain even the most hidden forms of selfishness and are entirely guided by altruism and compassion.

The esoteric schools or sections we know of are at best outer portals – unless they stand under guidance of a true adept or a pupil (chela) authorized by an adept for this purpose. If a person would be a member of a true esoteric school nobody around them would know or even surmised them to be such.

It was and is one of the tasks of the Theosophical Movement to make known the fact that such inner wisdom of the Heart – to be understood by the Buddhi rather than by the Manas – indeed exists. Humanity in the nineteenth century, had reached, according to the cycles of Nature, a stage where a tiny little corner of the veil over Isis, the Secret Knowledge, could be lifted for a larger part of humanity. That is why Blavatsky and some others dared to give out teachings which were known by nobody outside the world of the initiates so far. Hints and keys – often under veil of blinds or exoteric explanations – were given which could not have been openly found even in any classical Indian sacred literature or other literature.

For people who have a bit of their spiritual intuition opened up – their direct understanding of what is between or beyond the written lines or heard teachings – it appears that keys have been given which have not been part of the public heritage of humanity for ages. The Theosophical movement had indeed the task to help humanity a small step forward. It is also a foreshadowing of the rather far future, when kali yuga is over and ‘the unjust have been destroyed’ The Theosophical movement certainly never had the aim to create an elite, an ‘inner circle’, or an isolated group of students who would carry knowledge that others would not.

The things that were given out, first in a semi-esoteric environment and later written down and published, are there for the whole of humanity – for all those who recognize the value of it, and for those who do not recognize that directly but will receive the abhishekh or blessing of it. Step by step the deep values of the esoteric Theosophy which are meant for broadcasting among humankind will percolate towards all layers of society for its benefit, and indirectly for the welfare of all living beings. Thus the whole of humankind and others receive a tremendous boon.

It is true that almost the day Helena Petrovna Blavatsky died all unconquered weaknesses of human nature rose to the surface among members, and people from both sides of the ocean started to accuse each other, distrust each other, throwing mud and shunning no ‘esoteric’ terms and concepts including dark forces and black magicians to insult each other and bring each other down – and this rapidly led to split after split into a large number of groups. That this happened was very sad – we could have done so much more together, I suppose – but no doubt unavoidable in the present stage of human evolution. Nevertheless the Theosophical Movement as a whole survived all this, and still all sects and sections adhere to the very basis of brotherhood, altruism and compassion and genuine belief in the existence of true and pure adepts of Wisdom and Compassion – and that ‘there is no religion higher than Truth.’ Even though split, we are still brothers and sisters, working with more or less success for the same goal.

But do you think that the aim and decision of the Mahatmas to dissipate a particular section of universal knowledge, a decision based not on their theories and fantasies but on Knowledge of the inner side of Nature, could ever be hampered by a heap of small and foreseeable human weaknesses? I don’t think so.

Partly behind veils some have continued Blavatsky’s work and assignment. In the Theosophical Society at large some people who belonged to the same School as HPB and the Masters themselves, have explained and, when and where allowed, extended the esoteric teachings – first in small circles of pupils, with the preconceived purpose of publishing these teachings later.

It brought one of the leading Theosophists of one of the sects in the 1950’s to the very serious pronunciation: “The esoteric has now become exoteric and the exoteric has become esoteric.” In this sense the Theosophical Movement has fulfilled one of its major task for its first century of its existence. The meaning of the first part of this quote is that, till then secret information that had purposely been given en petit committee to particular Theosophical workers forming esoteric or inner groups originally, was part of the great plan of enriching humanity. The teachings given publicly as well as the teachings which were originally given to a closed group, had now all become public – however, as it was said – with “certain keys removed”.

This work was an extension of what HPB had already done in Isis and especially in The Secret Doctrine. Notably that last work contains hints that make it possible to understand ancient Indian texts on a level never understood before even by the learned Brahmin public. Exoteric Theosophy is amazing enough – esoteric Theosophy is even more amazing.

The other side of this verdict was that “the exoteric had now become esoteric.” Which, as I interpret it, means to say that everything that was already known to humankind (the exoteric) could henceforward be seen in a new and brighter light.

Of course this applies only to that part of esotericism of which it was the task of the TS to make public now. More may come in the coming centuries.

Part of the teachings found in the Esoteric Writings of HPB – now widely published in books and on internet (and thus ‘exotericized’ – perhaps this was never the intention of the Masters?) can only be understood and practiced under supervision of a Master (Mahātma, Guru) by a shisha or chela. They prepare for development of realms of consciousness inherent in each of us, but not available for humanity at large. Even though all notes, tables, figures and schemes have been published now, they can not be understood and practiced without unwritten keys. This is for our protection – the protection of the individual as well as humankind. Awful are, no doubt, are the forces and applications of knowledge concerning the not strictly physical realms. Indeed this knowledge does not belong to the human inhabitants of Bhūrloka-Pātāla – our states of being on this physical earth – because the spiritual evolution of average humanity does not go beyond this loka-tāla.

In such an esoteric school indeed absolute compassion/ altruism in an advanced state is conditional. One must have reached utter ahimsa, that is, have lost the utter ability to harm any creature, either in action, speech, and, most importantly: in mind – because the mind exerts power over all invisible beings.

In the history of the Theosophical Movement there have been several examples of chelas who made rapid psychic progress and became helpers on planes of being where we usually have no access. True chelas gain a deep understanding of the workings and inner realms of the universe, and they can teach others from direct inner knowledge.

 

Only few may have the specific task to lead a public life and teach and lecture, because there are no doubt many tasks to be fulfilled on the inner plains. Some may be trained for special tasks in the future, in accordance with specific large astrological cycles of evolution. To such people, the truly unselfish and self-forgetting workers for the great cause of the hierarchy to which the Masters of Compassions and their majors belong, we owe every gratitude as humankind. No doubt there exists no greater honor for a man than being added to their ranks.

The basis of esoteric teaching as given by HPB and others is first to learn – most thoroughly and in all detail – about the occult composition of the solar system and about the circulations life – living beings – throughout the solar system. The next is to learn to consciously see the unity and correspondences of all phenomena within the solar systems: between colors, lokas, talas, planets, sounds, elements, gemstones, metals etc. etc. Ultimately one will learn to enter into and function consciously on various cosmic planes without permanently leaving one’s body.

Blavatsky amply emphasized the identity of esoteric Theosophy and Esoteric Buddhism. One of the earliest Theosophical works from the founding of the Theosophical Society was Alfred Percy Sinnetts Esoteric Buddhism, based on direct information he had received form the Masters and published with their permission. Blavatsky wisely said later that a better title would have been Esoteric Budhism (with one d) which means Esoteric ‘Wisdomism’, because esoteric wisdom is of all ages and Teachers, and this second name would unlink it from the exoteric Buddha. Nevertheless the esoteric Buddha is the head and fountain of all Wisdom which is given to humanity in our root-race to which the Masters and all of us here belong. It already explains much about the planets and the solar system and about its for us invisible stratification (or rather intermingling strata). But neither in Sinnett’s writings or in the texts published by Mme. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, William Quan Judge, Charles Leadbeater, Krishnamurti or Gottfried de Purucker, written or concrete instructions are given how to proceed further – because they could not be given.

Let me conclude this part of the lecture with the remark that I think that true esotericism stands far above human kāmic and lower-mental considerations, and is independent of sects and splits and personalities. Different occultists, existing on many levels, have different individualities and different tasks. They can work on the background and remain unknown, or can fulfill the arduous task of working on the foreground. They are not principally bound to any particular Theosophical Society or Theosophical sect whatever.

 

Vajrayana

Nowadays we hear much about Esoteric Buddhism from the side of the Tibetan lamas, foremost of all the Dalai Lama as their outer Head, and this is generally associated with Vajrayana – which means ‘diamond vehicle’ and is regarded as the highest part of Mahayana Buddhism. Vajrayana is also known as Tantrayana or Mantrayana. The general term is Tantric Buddhism.

Tantra, however, is a term never mentioned by Blavatsky and those true to her in a positive sense. If she mentions the term at all it is in reference to degraded black magical and sensual practices which have taken hold in Hindu cultures, especially among Shivaites. Still, Tsong-khapa, the great fourteenth century Tibetan teacher, purifier and reformer of external as well as esoteric Lamaism who is said to have taken the initiative to Theosophical efforts in the Western world in each last quarter of the European centuries since his time, talks about tantra and Vajrayāna all the time. Here tantra – which exists on four progressive levels of which Highest Yoga Tantra is the Highest – has nothing directly to do with black magic and base practices.

Therefore, let us see how esoteric Theosophy and Esoteric Buddhism of Tsong-khapa and the Dalai Lamas relate. What do they have in common and where do they differ? Are these systems compatible? Should Theosophists turn to Vajrayāna Buddhism?

The Pāramitā side of Mahāyāna Buddhism, that is characterized by the Path of the (six or ten) Perfections (Pāramitās) is extensively described in Theosophical literature. It is thoroughly discussed by HPB in her The Voice of the Silence, – a translation of an ancient text and her commentary – section III: The Seven Portals. She actually mentions seven perfections here, each of which represents an entrance to the occult world. The highest or last Portal is the Perfection of Wisdom. Also in other theosophical literature these Perfections are amply discussed; but Vajrayāna or Tantrayāna is, to my knowledge, never even once mentioned in early Theosophical Literature.

Let us quote some lines from what the Dalai Lama says about the characteristics and conditions of tantric practice in relation to Kalachakra, which belongs to the Highest Yoga Tantra. The Dalai Lama has openly performed this elaborate rite in East and West in sessions of various subsequent days in presence of thousands of people[2]: ]

Based on descriptions found in Highest Yoga Tantras about the four tantra sets it is said in [the lowest of the four sets of tantras] that the desire involved in male and female looking or gazing at each other is used in the path; in [the second lower] Tantra the desire in male and female smiling at each other is used in the path; in Yoga Tantra [the third] the desire involved in male and female embracing and touching is used in the path, and in Highest Yoga Tantra the desire involved in sexual union is used in the path. When the arising desires [arising in all these practices] are used, desire itself is extinguished and especially in sexual union (‘without ejaculation’) the practitioner generates blissful withdrawn consciousness – a very subtle mind – which is used for realizing ‘emptiness’

To put this in esoteric theosophical terms, the yogi who seeks union is the chela or aspirant towards acquiring the highest wisdom that is possible and ultimately nirvāṇa. We are talking about those who have already entered an esoteric Path. The four levels of Tantra all have the same ultimate purpose (nirvāṇa, or to take on one of the three occult kāyas or vestures) and can respectively be read as ‘awakening recognition and interest in true spiritual wisdom’, ‘touching it’ (for example by more thorough study and practicing ethics.), embracing the same completely, i.e. dedicating one’s whole life to it, theoretically and practically, and ultimately unification of Compassion and Wisdom (‘male and female’) – thus creating a Buddha or bodhisattva. The male, the yogi, identifies with Method [the method or Path towards adeptship or mahatmahood], which is usually compassion. The female symbolizes ultimate wisdom. Of course both exist within ourselves, and no gender bound physical bodies are needed. By practicing the highest ethics, while our mind becomes more and more subtle we reach buddhahood. This is where the whole esoteric training is for: to develop the mind into ever increasing subtlety, clarity and penetration. The mind is not in the first place trained in the physical realm and logically, as our universities do. The mind has to become acquainted with the inner realms of Nature and experience. By knowing the laws and workings of the higher realms we acquire ‘skillful means’ and can apply our knowledge and will power to accomplish feats of compassion which for others would be miraculous. This is where all the stories of so-called ‘miracles’ and ‘powers’ in religious literature come from. These stories, when genuine, are based on Truth and Knowledge. The ultimate aim is to reach or rather realize the true nature of Consciousness-Mind-Being, which is beyond all human imagination.

The Tantra regarded as one of the highest within Highest Yoga Tantra is Kalachakra Tantra. According to tradition this Tantra was first taught by the Buddha himself to the King of Śambhala. Successive kings kept it secret, until a shortened rendering was made by one of the kings, centuries later, which later became public. The present Dalai Lama has performed the Kalachakra rite dozens of times for large public in all parts of the world. That, of course, can not mean that teachings that were always kept secret and esoteric have now become as pearls thrown before the swine. I suppose that what has to be kept hidden is still hidden as much as before. The Dalai Lama himself has said repeatedly that everyone present (and even those not present) benefit from the rite, but only according to their state of development.

Two researchers, Henk J. Spierenburg of Europe and David Reigle of the USA, have on basis of their studies proposed that the Stanzas of Dzyan used by HPB in The Secret Doctrine are actually a part of Kalachakra Tantra. But HPB nor other occult writers ever mentioned this as a reliable fact – and the question is, which part of the (published or ‘lost’) Kalachakra Tantra?

The Kalachakra maṇḍala consists of a colorful flat (sand) painting but it represents a three-dimensional structure. The purified initiate enters the maṇḍala (= sphere of influence) of this esoteric teaching repeatedly, first through one of the four doors in the wall around the lower platform, and learns, by experience, the meaning of all the deities there. Never ever should a chela allow himself to abandon his altruistic and compassionate mind, if he does not want to bring great harm to others and fall down into black magic.

The three platforms are called in Buddhism: body, speech and mind. I suppose that esoterically these mean the astral, mental and causal levels, or lokas/talas. Perhaps they can be called successive levels of occult teaching. Between every platforms are also walls with four doors at the four directions. Ultimately, at the top, the holy of holies, the multi-armed Kalachakra deity or yogi, who represents Adi-Buddha, resides in ‘eternal’ intimate union with his female consort. Those who reach there, have reached, the highest enlightenment. The aspirant always has to keep in mind that all deities, including Kalachakra himself, are ‘empty of inherent existence’ which means that they have no objective existence, but exist subjectively in the spiritual world.

During the processes of Kalachakra initiation, occult powers in relations with the chakras and the prāṇas will be developed, and also the awakening and control of Kuṇḍalinī is mentioned by the Dalai Lama as part of the process. The equivalent of such processes we have indeed seen in some Theosophical chelas in the early days of the TS, who quickly evolved occult powers. The mind, carried by very subtle prāṇas, will reach and pass through several successive stages of increasing clarity and freedom from worldly shackles, and reach what is called ‘clear light’. This is the highest and most subtle mind, completely liberated and omniscient, which makes it possible for a man to enter Nirvāṇa as a dharmakāya, for ever liberated from worldly concerns and concern for any of the beings living on Earth. But the Great Compassion may motivate him to refuse this blissful state and return in the form of a sambhogakāya or a nirmāṇakaya – a teacher without physical body for the sake of guiding all living beings who the dharmakāya-buddha would abandon.

A remarkable difference between the path of ‘our Masters’ and the Vajrayana Buddhists seems to be, as I understand it, that the Theosophical esoteric path teaches analogies in the first place, between all principles in Man. In Nature and in the Cosmos. Also in the Kalachakra is stated that the universal is reflected in the microcosmic (Human constitution). But Tantra uses the energy of desire (kāma), to reach enlightenment including the strongest and ‘lowest’ passion we know, which theosophical literature over the whole line firmly rejects. I do not think the last is possible. How can the coarsest prāṇas running through the body be used to carry the subtlest spiritual thoughts? So, personally I believe that the teaching in this form is an exoteric blind. It is the subtle energy of genuine desire or will to reach Truth beyond phenomena on all levels, its applications in helpfulness or skillful means, to illusionless enlightenment, and of true compassion for all living beings which carries the human consciousness further and further upward.

Tantra, besides the above mentioned techniques, also uses Deity Yoga, in which the aspirant must visualize the body and body parts of a particular deity that exists only in the spiritual worlds. Everything or being that exists, physically, astrally, mentally and higher is or represents in its own spiritual essence a particular spiritual quality. Every such deity has many attributes. No doubt these imaging practices can lead to refinement of the mind and development of the occult powers for which these deities and their prāṇas stand, but the higher realms of understanding are, as Theosophists and Buddhists both know: arūpa – beyond form. As far as I can judge, Buddhist Tantra as provided to the public is hiding more than it reveals and is partly a blind. Vajrayana is ‘esoteric’ within Mahayana Buddhism or lamaism, but not identical with Esoteric Theosophy. This is my personal view.

 

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  1. Lecture at the Headquarters of the Theosophical Society (Adyar – Chennai) on April 18, 2014 during the South Indian Convention of the Theosophical Society. [<<]
  2. I quote from Kalachakra Tantra – Rite of Initiation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, translated, edited and introduced by Jeffrey Hopkins; Wisdom Publications, Boston 1999. [<<]