The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Summer 2012 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Editor's Desk
" Quest  100. 3 (Summer 2012): pg. 82.

Richard_SmoleyI had a friend, now deceased, who ran a small eso­teric school in London. One time he told me he had made a flag for that school for the purposes of some exercise or another, using some bits of cloth that he put together.

"Who knows?" I said half-jokingly. "Maybe someday there will be people who will die for that flag."

He looked at me sharply and said, "When an impulse begins to die, allegiance to it increases."

To my mind this remark, however offhand it may have been, says more about the religious history of humanity than dozens of learned volumes. How many people over the centuries have died for crosses and crescents and stars while utterly traducing the teach­ings that these symbols represent? You could even say that the frantic allegiance of today's fundamentalists reveals, not a resurgence of their religions, but a kind of horrible death agony.

And yet allegiance is necessary, or at any rate inevi­table. If you have no allegiance to anything, you are a nihilist. If you have no allegiance to anything apart from yourself, you are what is politely called a sociopath, and what is impolitely called by many other names.

The question is, then, to what do we owe allegiance? In the Theosophical movement, many feel that their pri­mary allegiance is to H. P. Blavatsky and the teachings that she brought to the world. And Blavatsky remains an inspiring character, whether she is seen as a pure, much-maligned soul or as a blunt-spoken brawler who knew how to throw a punch as well as take one.

The problem with this attitude lies in determining what to do with Blavatsky's ideas today. Are they to be taken for Gospel, from which one iota cannot be added or subtracted without incurring heavy curses? Obvi­ously not. Blavatsky herself stressed the highly provi­sional nature of her work, saying that much of it was left unfinished and that it was for those in the future to complete. Furthermore, language changes and sensi­bilities change, and the same idea written down in 1890 does not read in the same way in 2012. You only need look at the classic Theosophical use of the term "ego" to see this. Originally it meant a higher, transcendent Self, but today it usually means the lower personal self as opposed to the higher Self. All sorts of confusion are possible unless you understand this.

There is a poignant, almost tragic truth about the transmission of sacred traditions. The one who changes them as he carries them on is a betrayer, making adjustments here and there that may prove misleading or dangerous. But the one who carries them on without changing anything betrays them as well. It does no service to a tradition to preserve it inflexibly in a world that, as the Buddhists remind us, is based on impermanence.

Given this, on what terms does one interact with an esoteric tradition, whether it be Theosophy or any­thing else? There's much to be said for faith in what you know through your own experience as opposed to hearsay or book learning. In the Kabbalah students are sometimes told to preface anything they have heard or read with the phrase "It is said that . . ." and to use categorical statements only in speaking of things that they know firsthand. This prevents the student from telling an unintentional lie by stating something that he does not know to be a fact through personal experience.

So, then, are we to give allegiance to what we know? (I am talking about esoteric, experiential knowledge here as opposed to mere conceptual learning.) This is undoubtedly a better solution than enslaving yourself to flags and slogans. But it too presents a trap. What we know is inevitably limited—sometimes ridiculously so. To give ultimate allegiance to that closes off the pos­sibility of further enlightenment. It may even lead to bigotry and fanaticism.

Thus blind allegiance should not even be given to knowledge. There is too much that we do not know, and what we may discover tomorrow may invalidate every­thing we know today. We need to have the honesty and courage to face that fact.

All this said, there is, I think, one thing in ourselves that we can trust. It is not any body of knowledge that we may have accumulated, whether through reading or through experience. Rather it is what could be called the "knower," that often-overlooked but essential part of one's being that is capable of seeing and recognizing truth in any context, and—which is at least as impor­tant—of recognizing when it does not know something. In this way it is always open and available to further knowledge. If we remain in contact with this deep, knowing aspect of our own being, which enjoys and appreciates truth in whatever form it may take, we will be saved from making many mistakes. In addition, I would suggest, we will be giving the fullest honor to the roots of Theosophy or whatever tradition we may embrace. 

Richard Smoley