Jñāna Yoga and “The Secret Doctrine”

It has been 125 years since The Secret Doctrine (SD) was first published and, looking back, we can see that this book has had an important influence on the world of thought. In its pages, Mme Blavatsky (HPB) promotes some views that were revolutionary in the late 19th century, but today are accepted by many. For example, the SD offered a synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, at a time when the chasm existing between these disciplines seemed unsurpassable. This idea, however, gradually took root during the following century, eventually leading to the development of the growing field of ‘science and spirituality’. The SD also pointed out the existence of an ancient Wisdom-Religion to a world that, excited about the advance in science and technology, regarded the past as a primitive age of ignorance and barbarism. However, this idea spread and was eventually accepted even by a number of scholars in the field of philosophy of religions. And, certainly, the SD has been a lasting reference source when it comes to the study of the Esoteric Philosophy from which many have drawn, both within and without the Theosophical Society. However, in spite of all these accomplishments, it is possible that we have not yet taken full advantage of what this book has to offer.

A short time before her passing, Mme Blavatsky pointed to a dimension of the SD that is not so commonly acknowledged, namely, that its study may become a form of yoga—more specifically, of what is known as jñāna yoga.[*] On this path, the aspirant studies spiritual teachings in a special way, seeking to raise his consciousness so that he can realise these truths, instead of merely becoming acquainted with the conceptual side of the teachings. When we try to approach the SD in this way, the first thing we need to keep in mind is that the teachings of the Esoteric Philosophy found there are said to be ‘secret’. Why? Because, for the most part, they do not belong to the dimension of life we experience in our personal nature, but to realities perceived by our inner self. As Mme Blavatsky said to a student:

Your axioms of logic can be applied to the lower Manas [mind] only and it is from the perceptions of Kama-Manas [material mind] alone that you argue. But Occultism teaches only that which it derives from the cognition of the Higher Ego or the Buddhi-Manas [spiritual mind]. [1]

Now, when having to convey some information about the spiritual realities, most sages have stated that words and concepts are not enough to produce a real understanding of them. For example, Mahatma K.H. wrote:

The recognition of the higher phases of man’s being on this planet is not to be attained by mere acquirement of knowledge. Volumes of the most perfectly constructed information cannot reveal to man life in the higher regions. One has to get a knowledge of spiritual facts by personal experience and from actual observation. . . [2]

While words and concepts are created to describe the material world we perceive through our senses, the spiritual realm cannot be appropriately explained in terms of this experience. How would we teach a blind person what colours are? We can read him the definition from the dictionary; explain the nature of light and colour from a scientific point of view; teach him the colour theory in visual arts; etc., and yet, all this will fail to make him really know what colours are. He will have a true knowledge of this only when he sees them. Something similar happens with the spiritual teachings. Even though a person can read and memorize them, the mere accumulation of concepts will not bring a real understanding of what they are trying to describe. One may ask why, then, there are books written about these subjects. Although concepts about the spiritual will not convey true knowledge of it, they can be useful as a map to assist us in our search for what is real. However, as HPB pointed out, this map has to be read with the spiritual ‘eyes’:

First let the student clearly realize that he cannot see things spiritual with the eyes of the flesh, and that in studying, he must use the eyes of the Spiritual Intelligence, else will he fail and his study will be fruitless. [3]

The mundane life stimulates almost exclusively the ‘eyes of the flesh’. It forces the mind to remain focused on concrete things, so that the person can ensure the survival of his body and psyche, and of those who may depend on him or her. But transcendental realities such as the underlying unity of all things or the purpose of life are beyond the plane of perception of the lower mind. And although within us there exist spiritual eyes, in most people they remain closed because they are not used to paying attention to the spiritual and metaphysical. According to its author, the SD was written to assist us in awakening this spiritual perception:

Come to the S.D. . . . without any hope of getting the final Truth of existence from it, or with any idea other than seeing how far it may lead TOWARDS the Truth. See in study a means of exercising and developing the mind never touched by other studies. [4]

It must be remembered that all these Stanzas appeal to the inner faculties rather than to the ordinary comprehension of the physical brain. [5]

The brain is the instrument of waking consciousness, and every conscious mental picture formed means change and destruction of the atoms of the brain. Ordinary intellectual activity moves on well beaten paths in the brain, and does not compel sudden adjustments and destructions in its substance. But this new kind of mental effort calls for something very different—the carving out of new “brain paths,” the ranking in different order of the little brain lives. [6]

When a person’s attention is always turned towards the mundane, the lower mind remains oblivious to the higher, and even the brain itself is fit only to receive material perceptions and produce concrete thoughts. The earnest study of the SD is a way to stimulate the abstract mind and reshape the brain, so that it can become a vehicle of the spiritual wisdom.

Now, for this to happen, the study cannot be reduced to a mere acquisition of concepts. Dr Besant wrote:

The seat of Self-consciousness is moved from the lower mind to the higher by strenuous thinking, by the intellectual travail of the student, the philosopher, the man of science—if the latter turn his thoughts from objects to principles, from phenomena to laws. [7]

We read in the SD that the Absolute is ‘An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable PRINCIPLE . . . devoid of all attributes and essentially without any relation to manifested, finite Being’. [8] It is easy enough to read and remember this concept, so that whenever we talk about the Absolute we can repeat it. But this is the work of the lower mind, and even if many concepts are accumulated in this way, we still do not possess spiritual knowledge.

How, then, should we approach study so that it becomes something more than the mere gathering of information? The answer given by Dr Besant was ‘by means of strenuous thinking’. It is only through a sincere effort to perceive what lies beyond the concepts that access to the higher mind can be gained. Thus, when studying spiritual truths, we should strive to penetrate the meaning behind the words, to see the implications of what is being said. For example, it is not enough to stay satisfied with the statement that the Absolute is omnipresent. Think deeply about the meaning of it. You may ask yourself, if this Reality is said to be present everywhere, how can it be beyond the finite, or without any relation to the manifested? Or how can we say that the cosmos is nothing but this Reality and, at the same time, say that everything we perceive is an illusion? Or if the Absolute, being immutable, is the only Reality during the period of universal rest, what is it that changes when a new cosmos is manifested? Some questions like these may have an (approximate) answer, while others may be utterly beyond response. But it matters not, because the conceptual answer is only of a secondary importance. What matters is the ‘strenuous thinking’ about questions that are not concrete, that are essentially ‘beyond the range and reach of thought’, for it is through this that we stimulate the awakening of a higher perception.

It is easy to see how this special effort can be passed over when we read a very systematic exposition of concepts, even if they are highly metaphysical. If everything is clear to the lower mind, there is the feeling that one understands, and that no further effort is required. The puzzling style of the SD, its ‘confusing’ and fragmentary nature, has the specific purpose of inducing the necessary exertion. Dr Besant explained this was the old ‘eastern’ way of teaching:

When we begin to teach a subject, we try to get a grasp of the whole subject, and we try to present it to those we are teaching in a clear form. That is the modern way of teaching. It makes people rather lazy, because too much is done for them, and the result is that the memory is very much more, and the reasoning much less exercised than they ought severally to be. The teachers take all the trouble, and present an already cooked and digested teaching to save the pupils from the trouble of exercising their mental faculties. So that they have quite a large amount of second-hand knowledge and very little first-hand knowledge.

The old ways were different. The teacher came along, threw one great truth to his pupils and said: “Go and think about it”. The result is that in the eastern books you do not get a clear presentment of a doctrine as a whole. It is scattered over the books. A careful student can gather the whole teachings. But he has not now the patience and industry required for the task. In the old days men had to work out results; so they grew into great thinkers, because they exercised their minds. [9]

If a person remains through the years at the conceptual level of study he may amass enormous amounts of information, but this will not make him ‘a great thinker’, that is, somebody who can come to his own insights. In fact, mere conceptual study tends to narrow a person’s views and he frequently becomes somewhat of a fundamentalist, unable to see the truth in presentations that do not agree with the style he is familiar with.

This is why the SD was not written as a well-structured philosophical production for the intellect, but as an occult work that intends to stimulate the spiritual intuition. Mme Blavatsky stated this in several occasions:

You cannot expect me to give everything; something must be left to the intuition and to human intelligence. [10]

The foregoing are all mysteries which must be left to the personal intuition of the student for solution, rather than described. [11]

It may be a parable and an allegory within an allegory. Its solution is left to the intuition of the student, if he only reads that which follows with his spiritual eye. [12]

An intellectual study of the SD will provide concepts which, for all we know, may or may not be true. And even if they are true, being just concepts, they fail to bring the living truth into our consciousness. It is for this reason that HPB discouraged too much reliance on other people’s interpretation of the SD. Robert Bowen, reporting a conversation with HPB, wrote:

It is worse than useless going to those whom we imagine to be advanced students (HPB said) and asking them to give us an “interpretation” of the SD. They cannot do it. If they try, all they give are cut and dried exoteric renderings which do not remotely resemble the Truth. To accept such interpretation means anchoring ourselves to fixed ideas, whereas Truth lies beyond any ideas we can formulate or express. Exoteric interpretations are all very well, and she does not condemn them so long as they are taken as pointers for beginners, and are not accepted by them as anything more. [13]

So, do not go to the SD as if you were going to read a story, or expecting to have a neat description of a landscape—cosmic or otherwise. Go rather with the spirit you have when you sit to solve a puzzle. Sit with a note pad, ready to draw diagrams, write down key words, and consult other texts dealing with the SD or with philosophies and religions there mentioned.[†]

Be ready to differentiate what is part of the essential teaching from what is just HPB supporting that teaching by referring to concepts and imagery of one religion or the other. As it is to be expected, you will rarely get the main point in your first reading. Frequently, you will have to read a section, or part of a section, several times. Read it once, to get the general idea, and then again, until you understand the main point being made. Then, retain that idea (maybe by writing it down in the margin) and think about how it relates to what was being said previously. Many times you will find that what seems to be a digression is really making an important point, while at other times it is just a digression that you can disregard, at least for the time being.

If while studying you are trying to understand a certain point and, after due effort, you are still unable to grasp it, you can put that aside for the time being and go on with your study. The effort made will have its effect, even if you do not come to a conclusion. As you continue studying the ability to grasp these truths will increase, your general understanding will deepen, and eventually, when the subject presents itself to you again, you will be able to understand it better.

By working in this way, the student will little by little create his own system of interpretation of the SD. It may or may not be different from that of other students, but if he does his work, it will bear his way of perceiving these metaphysical realities. Now here, he has to be on guard. The insight he may gain, even if it comes from his higher nature, will still necessarily take a conceptual form as it ‘descends’ to the lower mind. And once made into a concept, it is just a concept. Any definite image or thought is but a limitation of the more holistic perception of truth on the spiritual planes. This is why HPB said:

Spiritual Occultism forbid[s] the use of figures or even symbols further than as temporary aids. Once define an idea in words, and it loses its reality; once figure a metaphysical idea, and you materialize its spirit. Figures must be used only as ladders to scale the battlements, ladders to be disregarded once the foot is set upon the rampart. Let the Esotericists, therefore, be very careful to spiritualize the Instructions and avoid materializing them; let them always try to find the highest meaning possible, confident that in proportion as they approach the material and visible in their speculations on the Instructions, so far are they from the right understanding of them. [14]

Diagrams, ideas, examples, analogies, are all useful in helping us grasp a truth at a conceptual level. That is the first step. But we should always aim at perceiving the most abstract aspect of them, that is, the supra-conceptual truth they are symbolizing. If we forget that ‘truth lies beyond any ideas’ and get attached to the picture we form through study we may get stuck there. Clinging to our ideas, we will tend to reject whatever may upset the superstructure built, closing the doors for future insights. Thus, ideas previously acquired may inadvertently become a prison for the intellect.

Some spiritual traditions, aware of this problem, have set up ways to upset the intellectual understanding by the use of paradoxes and contradictions, as is the case of the famous Zen koans. Mr A. P. Sinnett learnt about this method first-hand during his correspondence with two of the Mahatmas. He wrote:

. . . especially is this the case with occult study, in connection with which the traditional methods of teaching, generally followed, aim at impressing every fresh idea on the memory, by provoking the perplexity it at last relieves. [15]

The information presented in the SD will always provide sources of ‘contradiction’ to the system we are trying to build. If study is to be a form of yoga, we have to avoid the common tendency of selecting only those ideas that fit in our pre-conceived structure. By paying attention to whatever contradictions that arise we may discover that we had formed a mistaken conception, or perhaps that our idea, although relatively ‘correct’, was too narrow or rigid (something very possible, since we will frequently be studying facts that belong to formless realities). Sometimes, after due consideration, we may realise that the statement in question was made in a general sense, or applied in a different way, or perhaps even in a misleading form, thus not being really a contradiction with our previous conception. Whatever the case may be, the earnest consideration of the contradictions will afford the necessary ‘upset’ so that we do not get stuck in fixed views and may always perceive something new.

This upset is frequently frustrating because it challenges, and even destroys, the picture we formed with much effort, throwing us again into a state of uncertainty and confusion. But the earnest student must be ready to face this, since it is an essential part of the process of raising our consciousness, which was described by HPB as follows:

This mode of thinking is what the Indians call Jñāna Yoga. As one progresses in Jñāna Yoga one finds conceptions arising which, though one is conscious of them, one cannot express nor yet formulate into any sort of mental picture. As time goes on these conceptions will form into mental pictures. This is a time to be on guard and refuse to be deluded with the idea that the new found and wonderful picture must represent reality. It does not. As one works on one finds the once admired picture growing dull and unsatisfying, and finally fading out or being thrown away. This is another danger point, because for the moment one is left in a void without any conception to support one, and one may be tempted to revive the cast-off picture for want of a better to cling to. The true student will, however, work on unconcerned, and presently further formless gleams come, which again in time give rise to a larger and more beautiful picture than the last. But the learner will now know that no picture will ever represent the Truth. This last splendid picture will grow dull and fade like the others. And so the process goes on, until at last the mind and its pictures are transcended and the learner enters and dwells in the World of NO FORM, but of which all forms are narrowed reflections. [16]

We can see now the importance of realising that concepts are only provisory garments of the formless truth; steps which, although necessary at the present moment, have to be left behind if we are to keep moving forward. The difficulty with this is frequently not so much the overestimation of the value of concepts, but rather our inability to suspend judgment and feel comfortable with uncertainty until the time when a new and higher view is formed. Here we are struggling against the very essence of the lower mind, whose main feature is to define things and arrive at conclusions. This is why, for example, there is such a strong tendency in us to make judgments about all kinds of things and situations, even when we obviously have no elements to arrive at an intelligent conclusion. But if we are in earnest, we should strive to rise above the concrete mind to more ‘abstract’ states of consciousness, that is, states of non-definition or non-judgment, whenever necessary. Then, little by little, we begin to build a dwelling place in the worlds of no-form. And it is here, in the silent, formless dimension, that the higher reality lies.

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Notes

[*] The Sanskrit word jñāna means ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’.

[†] A Theosophical Wiki (tswiki.net) is being developed to aid in the study of the SD, The Mahatma Letters, and many Theosophical topics.

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References

[1] Blavatsky, H. P., Collected Writings (CW) vol. X, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL, 1988, pp. 384-5.

[2] Hao Chin, Jr, Vicente, The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence (ML), no. 65, Theosophical Publishing House, Quezon City, 1993, p. 168

[3] CW XII, 1980, p. 691.

[4] Robert Bowen, Madame Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy (HST), The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, 1992, p. 9.

[5] Blavatsky, H. P., The Secret Doctrine (SD), vol. I, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, 1978-9, p. 21.

[6] HST, p. 12.

[7] Annie Besant, The Reality of the Invisible and the Actuality of the Unseen Worlds, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, 1921, pp. 14-15.

[8] SD I, 14.

[9] Annie Besant, The Inner Government of the World, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, 1976, p. 44.

[10] Gomes Michael (ed.), The Secret Doctrine Commentaries, I.S.I.S. Foundation, The Hague, The Netherlands, 2010, p. 495.

[11] SD II, p. 106.

[12] SD II, p. 94.

[13] HST, pp. 8-9.

[14] CW XII, p. 600.

[15] Sinnett, Alfred, Esoteric Buddhism, The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd., London, 1972, pp. 109-110.

[16] HST, pp. 12-13.

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