Treading the Secret Path

Pablo Sender

The Indian Theosophist, July& August 2014

The Voice of the Silence is a collection of three treatises (referred to as “Fragments”) that H. P. Blavatsky memorized during her stay in Tibet with her Adept teachers. The second of these Fragments deals with a concept that in Mahāyāna Buddhism—the tradition on which The Voice is based—is known as the Bodhisattva Ideal. This teaching is also central to the Theosophical worldview. In fact, although such idea is now fairly well known in modern spirituality, this was not so before the founding of the Theosophical Society. Our organization played a key role in spreading this concept, especially in the West, where it was virtually unknown.

In this article we will examine the two main themes in the second Fragment of The Voice, which can be referred to as “The Two Doctrines” and “The Two Paths”. They describe the way chosen by he who, in Theosophical parlance, is called a Master of Wisdom, from the time he is just a spiritual practitioner until he reaches the state of enlightenment—and beyond.

The Two Doctrines

At the beginning of the second Fragment we encounter a pupil asking his Teacher what he should do to reach to Wisdom; to gain perfection. The answer is given as follows:

Before thou takest thy first step learn to discern the real from the false, the ever-fleeting from the everlasting. Learn above all to separate Head-learning from Soul-Wisdom, the “Eye” from the “Heart” doctrine.

As the first sentence states, the faculty of discernment of what is real and eternal is the first qualification needed to start on this path. [*] This faculty, however, is not here merely stated in its abstract sense, but is immediately applied to a special case—the difference between intellectual understanding and spiritual wisdom, between the “eye” and “heart” doctrines.

In a footnote, Mme Blavatsky explains these two doctrines based on the information found in one of the few books on Mahāyāna Buddhism available at the time—Joseph Edkins’ Chinese Buddhism (chapter VII). She states that the “Eye” Doctrine belongs to the exoteric school (kiau-men), and was the work of Gautama Buddha’s head (manas), while the esoteric doctrine (tsung-men) emanated from the Buddha’s heart (buddhi).

The Doctrine of the Eye

The Voice of the Silence describes the exoteric view as being “the embodiment of the external, and the non-existing”. This “eye doctrine” is said to be taught and practiced by the tīrthika-s (the non-Buddhist religious practitioners), who Mme Blavatsky identifies more specifically with the Brahmin ascetics that retire from the world. They renounce action, seeking to develop a pure and quiet mind with the intention of attaining mokṣa (liberation) from embodied life. This approach, however, is denounced as false:

Believe thou not that sitting in dark forests, in proud seclusion and apart from men . . . will lead thee to the goal of final liberation.

Think not, that when the sins of thy gross form are conquered, O Victim of thy Shadows, thy duty is accomplished by nature and by man.

In these passages The Voice suggests that, although “conquering the sins of the gross form” may be necessary, this is not the sole aim of life.

One problem in this approach to spirituality is that it is focused on attaining an individual goal; and even if the goal is liberation, it is still based on a selfish outlook, unconcerned for anybody else’s welfare. This may be why Mahatma M. wrote:

What have we, the disciples of the true Arhats, of esoteric Buddhism and of Sang-gyas [Buddha] to do with the Shastras and Orthodox Brahmanism? There are 100 of thousands of Fakirs, Sannyasis and Saddhus leading the most pure lives, and yet being as they are, on the path of error, never having had an opportunity to meet, see or even hear of us. [1]

Although occasional retreats from the busy world may be useful in the search of truth, in the Theosophical view a person should not abandon his fellow men by escaping to the forest, the mountain, or the desert, with the mere aim of seeking individual liberation. This view is in tune with the path of the Bodhisattva, who vows to stay in touch with the world and work for the relief and liberation of all sentient beings as long as saṃsāra (illusion) persists.

There is, however, another reason why renouncing action is a “path of error” that cannot take us to the goal of final liberation.

When the Theosophical Society was founded, the popular view in Buddhism and Hinduism was that what kept the soul chained to the wheel of rebirth was the generation of karmic causes. The latter, once produced, would need a future incarnation to be exhausted. The natural conclusion from this view is that in order to break the cycle one has to stop generating causes. In other words, the spiritual seeker had to stop producing actions and establishing relationships, and for that purpose he retired to the forest, plunging himself into meditative states of physical and psychological inaction.

Notice that in this view there was no concept of the need for any specific development on the spiritual planes. Thus, the general or exoteric understanding in these religions was not one of evolution but of liberation from the wheel of rebirth. In fact, the Theosophical Society was the first organization in modern times to propose in a clear and systematic way the idea of spiritual evolution. In this context, we can understand the following statement in The Voice:

If thou art taught that sin is born of action and bliss of absolute inaction, then tell them that they err. Non-permanence of human action; deliverance of mind from thraldom by the cessation of sin and faults, are not for “Deva Egos”.

According to the Theosophical teachings, the higher Ego (“Deva Ego”) incarnates in order to acquire experience. Earth-life is not merely an illusion or a prison, but a school. There is a purpose to why we are here, something we need to learn or accomplish before we can move on. Therefore, there is no use in trying to prematurely escape from the cycle of rebirth.

A person can break this cycle by killing all desire for the lower planes in which reincarnation takes place. But when this is done without having developed all the vehicles of consciousness and having become one with the Monad, the result is not final liberation. In this case, the Ego falls into an artificial nirvāṇa—a kind of very long Devachan, which will eventually end. As the evolutionary cycle develops new phases and new sets of experience, the soul will be dragged back to the world. Only now, he will find himself behind those who were his companions; those who kept on treading the evolutionary path while he was in a kind of “spiritual suspension”. Consequently, the stay in this false nirvāṇa ultimately results in a waste of time.

The Doctrine of the Eye is thus focused at the level of the impermanent personality and only addresses the external effect. It endeavours to kill desire but does not touch its cause, namely, the lack of evolutionary experience of the reincarnating Ego.

That being said, there is a seed of truth in the idea of the need for inaction. There is an autonomous activity of the lower mind (kāma-manas)—a constant thinking that keeps the Ego bound to the personality. This activity must cease. The means for this, however, is not bodily inaction but something more difficult—stopping the activity of the lower ego while performing the external actions. As The Voice says:

Both action and inaction may find room in thee; thy body agitated, thy mind tranquil, thy Soul as limpid as a mountain lake.

The aspirant must learn to live in the world without being caught in its illusion—he must engage in action without being attached to the fruit of it, nor falling into personal reaction.

The Doctrine of the Heart

The esoteric view is described in The Voice as “the embodiment of Bodhi (divine wisdom), the Permanent and Everlasting.” This approach takes into consideration the whole nature of human beings and not only its lower aspect. For example, we read:

The Lamp burns bright when wick and oil are clean. To make them clean a cleaner is required. The flame feels not the process of the cleaning.

In this metaphor, the lamp represents the whole human being. The wick is the body, the oil the psyche, and the flame is ātman. Here, it is implied that body and psyche are not clean, that is, there is something extraneous or adventitious attached to them. This symbolizes the animalistic elements (kāma) that the lower vehicles of consciousness bring, since they were built by physical evolution out of the animal kingdom. In this condition the lamp is not bright—the black smoke of the lower ego and selfish action obscures the light emitted by the flame. How can this be corrected? The higher Ego working through the antaḥkaraṇa is the “cleaner” that can attune the lower vehicles with the spiritual Monad. Once the work is finished the flame, which was never really affected by this process, finds nothing to obscure its light, and the lamp shines brightly.

Because of this evolutionary work, giving up prematurely the manasic consciousness by plunging oneself in physical and mental inaction (thereby “destroying the antaḥkaraṇa“) is a mistake. So, what are the means to attain final liberation? The Voice states:

Shalt thou abstain from action? Not so shall gain thy soul her freedom. To reach Nirvana one must reach Self-Knowledge, and Self-Knowledge is of loving deeds the child.

The Sanskrit word for self-knowledge is ātma-vidyā. This term implies the knowledge by experience of what we really are—ātman, the universal self, which is non-self. It is only when the aspirant realizes that he is not a separate ego, but the universal self, that final liberation can be attained. And how can we develop this self-knowledge? The Voice has many teachings regarding the spiritual path, meditation, etc. But the quote above points out to the foundation of Theosophical morality—to realize we are the universal self we need to act accordingly and live for the benefit of all. As we read in the article “Morality and Pantheism” by Mohini Chatterji:

It availeth naught to intellectually grasp the notion of your being everything and Brahma, if it is not realized in practical acts of life. To confuse meum and teum [mine and thine] in the vulgar sense is but to destroy the harmony of existence by a false assertion of “I,” and is as foolish as the anxiety to nourish the legs at the expense of the arms. You cannot be one with ALL, unless all your acts, thoughts and feelings synchronise with the onward march of nature. [2]

Since we are really the universal self, every time we act based on the idea that we are the separate personality we reinforce the illusion, moving away from the realization of our true nature. This includes not only direct selfish actions, but also selfish inaction:

Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin.

The Voice teaches that the spiritual path has to be treaded within the world, and that the aspirant has to live more and more as a beneficent impersonal force, instead of being focused on seeking pleasure for the separate personality.

Now, how can we help the world? It is obvious that any act of kindness is useful. In fact, the aspirant should strive so that helpfulness is a constant attitude in himself. However, The Voice highlights a particular aspect of service:

Point out the “Way”—however dimly, and lost among the host—as does the evening star to those who tread their path in darkness.

Give light and comfort to the toiling pilgrim, and seek out him who knows still less than thou; who in his wretched desolation sits starving for the bread of Wisdom and the bread which feeds the shadow, without a Teacher, hope or consolation, and—let him hear the Law.

The ideal of service here is framed particularly in the context of the need for spiritual nourishment. Unfortunately, feeding the body is still a challenge for a large part of humanity, and it is good that there are organizations working at this level. But this writing is pointing to a deeper need, that of feeding the soul with the bread of wisdom, something that relatively few can do in today’s world. We should therefore always be ready to help others to better understand life challenges and purpose. Now, it is obvious that to be able to help others, we ourselves have to be wise. It is for this reason, and not just to personally enjoy its results, that the follower of the Doctrine of the Heart strives for wisdom.

The Two Paths

The other main topic dealt with in this Fragment has to do with a choice that those who followed the Doctrine of the Heart encounter once they attain enlightenment. It is described as follows:

The PATH is one, Disciple, yet in the end, twofold. . . . At one end—bliss immediate, and at the other—bliss deferred. Both are of merit the reward: the choice is thine. The One becomes the two, the Open and the Secret. The first one leadeth to the goal, the second, to Self-Immolation.

The Open and Secret paths eventually lead to the same goal—nirvāṇa. The difference, as the text indicates, is that one leads to it immediately, while the other postpones its attainment until the whole of humanity reaches it. [**]

The Open Path—Liberation

When a person attains enlightenment he experiences nirvāṇa, an unspeakable state figuratively described as “bliss”, where he has become one with the reality behind everything. The lower planes have nothing to offer him anymore, and therefore he is liberated from the cycle of rebirth. Now, in order to fully merge into this state, the enlightened one must drop all the lower principles that separate him from the whole, only to retain a kind of “nirvanic body” called dharmakāya. However, in doing this a problem arises:

The “Open Way,” no sooner hast thou reached its goal, will lead thee to reject the Bodhisattvic body and make thee enter the thrice glorious state of Dharmakaya which is oblivion of the World and men for ever.

No longer can the perfect Buddhas, who don the Dharmakaya glory, help man’s salvation.

Having forgone of the lower principles, there is no means of communication with the lower planes where humanity toils. The awakened one becomes thus unavailable to those who are still struggling in the illusion.

Now, he who reached nirvāṇa following the Doctrine of the Heart laboured not just for personal liberation, but to enlighten humanity. What is he going to do now that he has attained absolute wisdom? Is he going to merge with the Abstract All thus becoming unavailable for those who cannot perceive this level of reality; those who can only communicate to a separate form? The Voice, which furthers the path of compassion, characterizes this choice as an act of selfishness:

Alas! shall SELVES be sacrificed to Self; mankind, unto the weal of Units?

Know, O beginner, this is the Open PATH, the way to selfish bliss, shunned by the Boddhisattvas of the “Secret Heart”, the Buddhas of Compassion.

The Secret Path—Renunciation of Nirvāṇa

There is another option—a path that implies a great sacrifice for the sake of humanity. He who now sees the world as a prison and an illusion; he who now has access to the unspeakable bliss and freedom of the world of Reality; he refuses to make of nirvāṇa his permanent abode. Instead, he chooses to retain the nirmāṇakāya, a “Bodhisattvic body” composed of matter of the lower planes which, though limiting his experience of Reality, affords a means of communication with those fellowmen that are still suffering on the lower planes.[***] This act is characterized as the highest step on this path:

To don Nirmanakaya’s humble robe is to forego eternal bliss for Self, to help on man’s salvation. To reach Nirvana’s bliss, but to renounce it, is the supreme, the final step—the highest on Renunciation’s Path.

Know, O Disciple, this is the Secret PATH, selected by the Buddhas of Perfection, who sacrificed The SELF to weaker Selves.

This path is referred to as the “path of woe”. One reason for this, as we indicated, is that the Bodhisattva renounces to dwell in the bliss of nirvāṇa and submits himself to the limitation of matter and form. This is a willing sacrifice made out of a boundless love for humanity. But there is another source of sorrow, one that is born from compassion. As we read in The Voice:

Path the Second is—RENUNCIATION, and therefore called the “Path of Woe.”

That Secret Path leads the Arhan to mental woe unspeakable; woe for the living Dead, and helpless pity for the men of Karmic sorrow, the fruit of Karma Sages dare not still.

For it is written: “teach to eschew all causes; the ripple of effect, as the great tidal wave, thou shalt let run its course.”

In spite of having renounced nirvāṇa in order to help humanity attain true (spiritual) happiness, the enlightened one cannot—and would not—stop the causes of sorrow already generated under the karmic law. He knows that suffering is necessary as long as the alchemical process of spiritual evolution is taking place:

The tears that water the parched soil of pain and sorrow, bring forth the blossoms and the fruits of Karmic retribution. Out of the furnace of man’s life and its black smoke, winged flames arise, flames purified, that soaring onward, ‘neath the Karmic eye, weave in the end the fabric glorified of the three vestures of the Path. [****]

Thus, all the Bodhisattva of compassion can do is to help men grow spiritually and develop wisdom. It is only by these means that humanity can stop generating causes for future sorrow and break free from its imprisonment.

The Bodhisattva continues on this path, attaining nirvāṇa in each new and higher cycle only to renounce it, until the end of the manifested cosmos when at last everything becomes one in parinirvāṇa. But because justice and compassion are two aspects of the universal law, when this period of absolute rest comes, those who chose the Secret Path will be found among the greatest:

The “Secret Way” leads also to Paranirvanic bliss—but at the close of Kalpas without number; Nirvanas gained and lost from boundless pity and compassion for the world of deluded mortals.

But it is said “The last shall be the greatest”. . .

Humanity’s evolutionary journey would be much longer and difficult if not for the help and guidance of these great beings, these elder brothers of our race who sacrifice themselves for our sake. But this journey is only half way through. A great deal of help is still needed from more who can reach those heights and join the Brotherhood of Wisdom and Compassion.

This is the high ideal, perhaps the noblest of all, that The Voice of the Silence puts forth before the spiritual aspirant—to strive and become co-workers in this cosmic task. As it is expressed in the closing words:

The Bodhisattva who has won the battle, who holds the prize within his palm, yet says in his divine compassion: “For others’ sake this great reward I yield”—accomplishes the greater Renunciation. A SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD is he.

 

NOTES

[*] This coincides with the foundational value of viveka in Shankaracharya’s system, which is also reflected in the Theosophical classic At the Feet of the Master.

[**] In the Theosophical view, all humanity will enter nirvāṇa at the end of the present evolutionary Round and dwell there until a new cycle begins. Those who had attained this state by their own spiritual efforts before the end of the Round will spend this time consciously, while those who had not will be as if in a blissful deep sleep.

[***] Although it is true that by doing so the Bodhisattva renounces the constant experience of nirvāṇa, he is still able to reach that state of union temporarily when in samādhi.

[****] The “three vestures of the path” refers to the three spiritual bodies available to the enlightened being: dharmakāya, sambhogakāya, and nirmāṇakāya.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence, No. 30 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 95.

[2] Boris de Zirkoff (comp.), Blavatsky Collected Writings vol. V (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 337.

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