The Theosophical Society in America

Viewpoint: The Human Project

Printed in the Winter 2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: BoydTim, "The Human Project" Quest 105.1 (Winter 2017): pg. 8-9

By Tim Boyd, President

Tim BoydAt this point in my life I have done a significant amount of travel, yet there are still certain things that never cease to amaze me. Often I find myself waking early in the morning to go to the airport. Within a few hours I am getting off of a plane in a place whose flora and fauna, geography, climate, language, and customs have shifted dramatically from those of “home.” The outfits people wear, the ways they recognize and celebrate divinity, the foods they eat, even the way they eat their foods can seem so different. While visiting with my wife’s family in the multicultural and cosmopolitan city of Singapore, more than once I have had the experience of eating breakfast with my fingers, lunch with a spoon and fork, and dinner with chopsticks, depending on whether I found myself in an Indian, Eurasian, or Chinese community.

One side effect of travel is that you find yourself exposed to a host of differences, but also to similarities. Just scratch the surface, and shared, even universal, qualities appear. The costumes we wear are made of different materials and have different styles and colors, but we all wear clothing. The foods and the instruments we use to feed ourselves differ, but we all eat. The names, symbols, and imagery for the local concepts of divinity vary widely, but everywhere people attempt to reach out to something beyond their limited selves.

One of America’s dubious gifts to the world is the modern shopping mall. Beginning in the 1960s, this phenomenon swept across the U.S. and Europe and now has taken root in the rest of the world. It may be surprising to some, but originally the shopping mall was conceived as a community center where people would converge not only for shopping, but also for cultural activity and social interaction. In Chennai, India, where I spend a good deal of time these days, the phenomenon is relatively new. On those occasions when I have found myself at one of Chennai’s glittering new Western-style malls, I have been impressed, not with the products or shops, which closely mirror those of the rest of the world, but with the people and the vitality. Except for the oldest and the poorest, all types of people find their way there.

For someone like me, the vision of humanity on display is both fascinating and awe-inspiring. Thousands of people stream through the place on weekends and holidays. From one of the upper levels, looking down at the movement of people, their collective motion literally resembles a river—a flow of humanity. Although each person and family has their separate thoughts and particular destination, collectively all are moving as one body. Like a river, the human flow has its eddies where families break away from the motion and the children play their games or dance alone, oblivious to the surrounding crowd; or where young couples sit simply talking and enjoying a “private” moment together before rejoining the flow.

As much as we cling to the idea of ourselves as separate, self-determining individuals, when we actually look, it becomes apparent that we are subsumed in some larger life. What is so impressive is the solidarity of the human experience. However much we may cherish a sense of independence and individualism, our participation in a greater whole is undeniable and at times breaks through to our normal awareness.

Since its founding, the Theosophical Society has espoused a worldview that embraces the unity of the human family. Its First Object, “to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity,” has been emphasized again and again from the Society’s early days until now. Like anything that is profound, this unity of the human family, expressed as “universal brotherhood” in the language of the late 1800s, must be understood on many levels.

In our times it is easy to lose sight of how radical the idea of a universal brotherhood “without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color” was in 1875, when the Objects were first formulated. In the U.S., the Civil War had ended in 1865, so, just ten years prior to the TS’s founding, laws in the U.S. permitted slavery. At least in the southern part of the country, any person who could afford it could purchase another human being of African descent and own him or her as his personal property. In his inaugural address for the TS delivered on November 17, 1875 in Mott Memorial Hall in New York City, Henry Steel Olcott referred to this condition, saying that thirty years from that time, Americans would be “ashamed . . . of ever having owned a slave or countenanced human slavery.” It would take another forty-five years before it would be legal for women to vote in the U.S.

After the holocaust of World War II, and the genocidal struggles preceding it, the newly formed United Nations adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration expanded on the language of the TS’s First Object in stating that human rights were unaffected by “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

This level of understanding of the human fraternity has since been accepted and encoded in law worldwide. This rapid evolution in the collective worldview should be considered remarkable progress. Yet from the perspective of the First Object, it is superficial. The changes of the last century and a half relate merely to rights and legislation. The universal brotherhood of the First Object relates to being. In Buddhism, and in H.P. Blavatsky’s The Voice of the Silence, there is the concept of paramitas, or “perfections.” The last of these perfections is Wisdom—the direct perception of reality or truth. One component of this elevated state of seeing is the recognition of “dependent arising,” which is to say that there is nothing that exists that is not composed of countless other things and conditions. Everything arises (comes into being) dependent on other things.

One example that is sometimes given is a simple thing like a chair. The question is asked, “What is a chair?” Whether it is a three-legged stool, an elaborate throne, or some interpretive modern art rendition, we all can recognize a chair when we see one. But what makes it a chair? Is it the wood? The glue or nails used to construct it? Is it the rain and sunshine that made the wood grow? Is it the carpenter? The idea in his mind? Carried to its logical extreme, the existence of a chair, or anything else, ultimately depends on everything there is. At a fundamental level all things are interdependent. Buddhist monk and noted international teacher Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term interbeing to further stress this idea.

The Theosophical perspective on human interdependence adds some specificity to this idea. In The Secret Doctrine, HPB makes the point that our habit of regarding ourselves as independent units needs rethinking. HPB depicts the human condition from the point of view of consciousness—that humanity as a whole and its component units (us) are composed of gradations of intelligence. The human being “arises” dependent upon the interblending of three evolutionary streams (spiritual, intellectual, and physical) and upon the hierarchies of intelligent beings that guide and direct those streams. She writes, “Each of these three systems has its own laws, and is ruled and guided by different sets of the highest Dhyanis or ‘Logoi.’ Each is represented in the constitution of man . . . and it is the union of these three streams in him which makes him the complex being he now is” (The Secret Doctrine, 1.181).

From the perspective of the Ageless Wisdom, humanity, and we human beings, are more like a cooperative project than independent entities.

While this way of looking at ourselves may seem challenging, it is not as unfamiliar as we may think. At the most basic level, we are all aware that our physical bodies are composed of literally trillions of individual cells, each with its own needs, direction of growth, and expression of consciousness. Within the body, these individual cells join together to form the organs, the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, etc., each organ having its own needs, function, and consciousness that is significantly more expansive than are those of the participating cells. With the addition of the “soul,” or spiritual consciousness, this combination of diverse lives and functions becomes that greater life described as “me” or “I.”

The universal brotherhood at the heart of the Theosophical movement is rooted in oneness. There is no road to a genuine spirituality that does not lead us toward a deepening awareness of our shared experience. The Bible describes the human condition in this way: “In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).That Divine Consciousness is everywhere present, expressing itself in us and as us. Our role is to know it, not as a mere idea or concept, but as the essential truth of our being. The motto of the Theosophical Society is “There is no religion higher than Truth”—and there is no truth higher than oneness.