The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Originally printed in the Summer 2011 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  "From the Editor's Desk
." Quest  99. 3 (Summer 2011): 82.

It's time for some straight talk about the Masters.

     Koot Hoomi, Morya, Hilarion, the Comte de St. Germain'the hidden Masters who, we are told, inspired and nurtured the fledgling Theosophical movement'are shadowy figures, as they no doubt meant to be. Human nature being what it is, speculation, imagination, and sheer fancy have been pulled in to fill in the gap of knowledge, with results ranging from the improbable to the comical. As Pablo Sender points out in his article in this issue, the Theosophical Masters are frequently confounded with the Ascended Masters of several New Age movements, although the Theosophical Masters never claimed to have "ascended" and indeed insisted that they were human beings in fleshly incarnation.

     How much of the early accounts of the Masters is truth, how much is speculation, and how much is sheer flapdoodle? I am sure that there are nearly as many opinions on this score as there are Theosophists, and since I did not witness those events, I can only respond to them with that old esoteric maxim "Neither accept nor reject."

     And yet some things can be said. In the first place, it seems misguided to dismiss the notion of the Masters as mere fiction. There are too many such figures on the fringes of history'forest-dwelling yogis, Sufi shaikhs, and individuals like the unnamed "Friend of God in the Highlands," a fourteenth-century German sage who provided guidance to the German mystic Johannes Tauler. There are also the Rosicrucian brothers, the maggids or inner-plane teachers of the Kabbalah, and the Immortals'the Taoist sages who are said to dwell undetected in the mountains of China. They all point to one conclusion: that the potential for human development is much greater than we usually believe and that some rare individuals over the centuries have realized this potential.

These stories, like those surrounding the Masters in the early days of Theosophy, are fascinating'too fascinating, perhaps. They have encouraged many to gauge their own expectations in the light of these accounts. But such expectations are unrealistic.

     To put the matter bluntly, if you are expecting a turbaned Master to materialize in your living room some evening, you are going to be disappointed. Whatever the early Theosophists did or did not experience, their contacts were of a unique time and place and are highly unlikely to be replicated for us 125 years later. It is probably safe to say that any meeting you may have with a genuine Master is not going to be what you expected.

     Why? At least two reasons suggest themselves. To begin with, a Master may be defined as someone who represents a level of knowledge higher than that of the student. If the Master is indeed embodying this higher level, he or she is not going to bear much resemblance to your preconceptions. After all, your expectations are based on lower-level concepts.

     Furthermore, development on the spiritual path requires one to penetrate the surfaces of ordinary reality and see beyond what is apparent. For those who fail to learn this elementary lesson, there are any number of posers with elaborate names and titles, pretentious costumes, and extravagant claims that will be more than happy to satisfy their expectations, usually for a handsome price.

     I remember one story of an individual I knew who was, if not a Master, certainly closer to one than anyone else I have ever known. He had taught his students a movement practice, and the students gave a performance of it one day. Two people who witnessed the show were leaders of another esoteric school, one reputed'and apparently with good reason'for being able to make things "go bump in the night." They ran up to the teacher and asked who was responsible for the performance. To which the man replied with a drawl, "I'm not really in charge...You have to go and find so-and-so"'indicating a pupil who was managing the event for the evening. And off the two went.

     Was the man playing games with them? As alleged adepts in their own right, should they have been able to see through his little subterfuge? Possibly. At the very least, the story teaches what most seekers either know or soon learn'that the trail to knowledge is not only hidden but deliberately hidden. This is not to create difficulties for their own sake; rather, it is to teach us to see past appearances. If we can't accomplish this, we are unlikely to go very far.

     Another story: some Kabbalistic traditions speak of the Messiah not as an individual who will come at the end of time, but as the spiritual head of humanity at any given point'an equivalent of the Sufi concept of the qutb or "Pole of the Age." According to this story, a man went to an esoteric school to meet a great Master and was kept waiting in the courtyard. In a corner of the courtyard he saw a man sweeping. The visitor recognized the sweeper as the Messiah. And the sweeper, seeing this, put his finger to his lips and said, "Shh."

     The punch line to this story: if you meet a Master, maybe the best thing to do is keep your mouth shut.

Richard Smoley