2007 Adyar Convention talk

From Within Outwards: The Way of the Universe

John Algeo

The theme of this convention is taken from Light on the Path, where, near the beginning of the second part of the book, these words are written:

To hear the Voice of the Silence is to understand that from within comes the only true guidance.

That statement is echoed also in The Secret Doctrine, near the end of the first part of whose first volume is a recapitulation of six points (1:272-9). The last of those six points begins with these words:

The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards.

These two statements, one from Light on the Path and the other from The Secret Doctrine, are intimately connected. Indeed, they are saying the same thing on two different levels. What The Secret Doctrine says, namely 'The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards', is a general statement, a truth about the universe as a whole. What Light on the Path says, namely, 'To hear the Voice of the Silence is to understand that from within comes the only true guidance', is an applied statement, a directive about our individual practice. The two statements are about the macrocosm and the microcosm, the great world of the universe and the little world of our own consciousness. Immediately after the general statement in The Secret Doctrine, Mme. Blavatsky continues by pointing out this very fact of a correspondence. She writes:

As above so it is below, as in heaven so on earth; and man—the microcosm and miniature copy of the macrocosm—is the living witness to this Universal Law and to the mode of its action.

So, according to The Secret Doctrine, each of us is a 'living witness' to the law that the 'Universe is worked and guided from within outwards' and each of us is a 'miniature copy' of the universe when we 'understand that from within comes the only true guidance'. Those are two intimately connected great truths. But every candle casts a shadow, and every great truth can be misunderstood and misapplied. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna, after revealing the ultimate truth of life to Arjuna, adds these words of caution:

You must never pass on what I have told you to anyone who lacks self-control and dedication or who will not listen or who speaks evil. (paraphrased from 18.67)

First we need to understand the general truth correctly, and then we need to apply that truth effectively in our own lives. So let us approach these two truths carefully, in an effort to understand the general truth correctly and to apply it effectively.

The general truth:

The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards

Let us begin, then, by attempting to understand the general truth, 'The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards'. Theosophy has been said to be like a body of water with shallow pools in which a child may safely wade and depths in which even a giant must swim. A single Theosophical concept can be understood both simply, as shallows for wading, or complexly, as a depth for swimming. Let us see how the general truth manifests variously in the world.

We can begin in the shallows, with a bit of scripture and a bit of folk wisdom. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7.16), Christ says, 'Ye shall know them by their fruits'. And he goes on to ask rhetorically, 'Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?' The world is worked from within outwards by an unfailing and exceptionless law of karma. So thorn plants produce prickly spines, not grapes; and thistle plants produce spiky flowers, not figs. Only grape vines bear grapes; and only fig trees bear figs. Like comes from like. As an old folk proverb says, Great oaks from little acorns grow. Oak trees are no more like acorns in appearance than grapes are like thorn bushes, or figs like thistles. But the inner nature of an acorn has an oak tree potentially within it. And so the oak works from within the acorn outwards to become a great tree. It is the dharma of an acorn to become an oak. Thorns have no grape nature in them, nor do thistles have any fig nature. So grapes cannot grow from thorns, nor figs from thistles. That is simple enough, isn't it? It is a shallow pool in which a child may safely wade.

But that same truth has profound philosophical depths. I have just said that the dharma of an acorn is to become an oak. Now the concept of dharma has great depths. The word itself has many meanings, as most words do, especially important words. Because 'dharma' is a term in the Sanskrit original of the Theosophical Society's motto, Theosophists ought to be especially sensitive to the meanings of this word. The English of the motto, 'There is no religion higher than truth', is from the Sanskrit Satyān nāsti paro dharmah, in which 'dharma' has been translated as 'religion', but it has many other senses.

According to Monier-Williams's Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 'dharma' can mean any of the following:

that which is established or firm, steadfast decree, statute, ordinance, law; usage, practice, customary observance or prescribed conduct, duty; right, justice . . . ; virtue, morality, religion, religious merit, good works . . .; the law or doctrine of Buddhism . . .; the ethical precepts of Buddhism . . .; nature, character, peculiar condition or essential quality, property, mark, peculiarity . . .; a partic[ular] ceremony . . .; sacrifice . . .; religious abstraction, devotion [and a good deal more in addition]

So the word 'dharma' has depths in which even a giant must swim.

The general truth, 'The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards', is talking about dharma. The Universe itself has a dharma, and everything and all beings in it—including you and me—also have a dharma. The dharma of a thing or being is its 'nature, character, peculiar condition or essential quality'; and the nature or essential quality of a thing or being prescribes its conduct and defines its duty. Thus 'dharma' means both what we really are in the core of our being and what we should do or become during our lives.

In the West, it is usual to suppose that every human being is the product of just two forces: nature and nurture, that is, genetic inheritance and social environment. And those are two very important factors, but they are not the only factors that define us.

For example, environment is more than the society and culture in which we grow up. The physical environment and psychic environment of the land in which we live are also very important factors. To grow up on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu is quite different from growing up in a Himalayan valley of Tibet. To grow up in a world imbued with the spirit of King Arthur of Celtic England is quite different from growing up in a world imbued with the spirit of the Sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and the forty-nine Ronin, or lordless knights, of Japan.

Likewise, inheritance is more than the genes we get from our parents and our parents' parents in a long line stretching back into the mists of time. Both our inheritance from our own earlier incarnations and also the vocation of what we are called to become hereafter are also very important factors. Our former incarnations have determined our skandhas, that is, those karmic fruits of our past actions that define and mold our present forms, feelings, perceptions, predispositions, and consciousness. These skandhas are forces from the past that push us, as it were, from behind. But there is also a force from the future, our vocation or calling that pulls us ahead. That force of the future is our dharma. Just as the oak's dharma pulls a tree out of an acorn, so also within each of us there is a dharma pulling a perfect human out of an imperfect semi-human. Most of us are not yet fully human; we are only in the process of becoming so. At the present time, we are only partly humans. We are called 'humans' because it is our dharma to become fully so, just as it is the dharma of the acorn to become an oak.

The great general truth, 'The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards', is a statement of the fact that everything in the universe has a dharma working within it and guiding its development toward a final outward realization of its dharmic goal. The future is ours. It needs only that we realize it. This is a great depth indeed.

Between the shallows and the depths are many other realizations of the general truth that everything 'is worked and guided from within outwards'. Mme. Blavatsky points to several of those realizations. She observes that every outward action of ours is preceded and caused by an inward energy: an impulse of feeling or thought or will. And just as that is true in us, the microcosm, so also it is true in the macrocosm, which, she says, 'is guided, controlled, and animated by almost endless series of hierarchies of sentient beings' (SD 1:274). Now, that is very important and is applicable to a controversy currently raging in certain parts of the Western world.

In the West, ever since the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, two worldviews have contended for dominance. The older of those two is Christian theism, which imagines the universe as having been created from the outside by a transcendent personal God. The newer is scientific materialism, which dismisses all talk of creation and God as irrelevant and maintains that the universe just happened to happen, without intention or plan. These two worldviews are clearly at loggerheads; neither has room for the other. But there is a third worldview, more ancient than either of the two that are dominant today. It is the view of the Ancient Wisdom, the Perennial Philosophy, the Prisca Theologia, the Sanātana Dharma, or—as we call it—Theosophy.

Theosophy holds that the universe consists of matter endowed with consciousness acting energetically. It agrees with science that the hypothesis of an outside personal creator God is unnecessary and that there is nothing whatever of that sort outside the universe—but it also holds that there is a very great deal inside the universe that science has no techniques for recognizing. The divine is inherent in the mundane, not apart from it. Theosophy agrees with religion that the universe is intelligent and purposeful, and is by no means limited to the matter that science can study.

Theosophy holds that order and purpose are inherent in the very nature of the universe—its dharma—and that universal order is mediated by conscious beings, including humans like us, but also by both prehuman and superhuman beings. The universe is inwardly alive. And its inward life is what works and guides its outward forms. The dharma of the universe is to develop from denser to subtler forms, from limited to expanded consciousness, and from fragmentation to unity of spiritual awareness. Theosophy's worldview is as grandly profound as the depths of the ocean, but as simple as the assurance that great oaks from little acorns grow.

The applied truth:

From within comes the only true guidance

A recognition of the dharma of the universe brings us to the other great truth, the applied truth, concerning how we can realize our own dharma, how we can 'understand that from within comes the only true guidance'. Light on the Path refers to the Voice of the Silence three times, finally connecting it with 'the only true guidance', which comes from within. In the first of those three references we are assured that, once we have experienced 'the peace', the Voice of the Silence will be always with us:

Once having passed through the storm and attained the peace, it is then always possible to learn, even though the disciple waver, hesitate, and turn aside. The Voice of the Silence remains within him, and though he leaves the Path utterly, yet one day it will resound, and rend him asunder and separate his passions from his divine possibilities.

This is the same promise of ultimate achievement that the statement 'There Is a Road' gives us. It says

There is a Road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a Road. And it leads to the very heart of the universe. I can tell you how to find those who will show you the secret gateway that opens inwardly only, and closes fast [that is, firmly] behind the neophyte forever more.

Once we have 'passed through the storm and attained the peace', once we have passed through the secret gateway that opens in but not out and closes firmly behind us, there is no going back. We may dillydally on our journey, we may linger along the way, but we have committed ourselves to a one-way trip. Eventually the Voice of the Silence will speak to us, and it speaks with a sound that cannot be ignored. The world in which we live seems often to be a confusing maze. But the Path is a monocursal labyrinth: it provides only one way to go, so as long as we continue walking, we will reach the goal.

The second reference in Light on the Path to the Voice of the Silence links it with the Hall of Learning:

Thou who art now a disciple, able to stand, able to hear, able to see, able to speak, who hast conquered desire and attained to self‑knowledge, who hast seen thy soul in its bloom and recognized it, and heard the Voice of the Silence—go thou to the Hall of Learning and read what is written there for thee.

In the book The Voice of the Silence, three halls are spoken of: those of Ignorance, Learning, and Wisdom. Despite the identity of name, the Hall of Learning in Light on the Path clearly seems to be the Hall of Wisdom in the later guidebook.

The third and final reference is the one which has provided the theme of this convention:

To hear the Voice of the Silence is to understand that from within comes the only true guidance; to go to the Hall of Learning is to enter the state in which learning becomes possible. Then will many words be written there for thee, and written in fiery letters for thee easily to read. For when the disciple is ready the Master is ready also.

Hearing the Voice of the Silence, learning fiery words of wisdom, and experiencing the ready presence of the Master—these are three metaphors talking about the same thing, which is being guided from within.

Because to 'hear the Voice of the Silence is to understand that from within comes the only true guidance', we must know what the Voice of the Silence is and how we can hear it. For that knowledge, the best source is undoubtedly that great spiritual guidebook, The Voice of the Silence. But before plunging into the very deep water of that magnificent book, let us dabble our feet in a shallow pool.

Many human beings, probably most human beings, would like to have some knowledgeable person tell them what is right and what they should do. For many years I taught history of the English language and English grammar to postgraduate students. Few of them knew much about either subject. You might find that surprising; you might suppose that students who had gone through some sixteen or more years of schooling would know a fair amount about their own language. But that is not the case.

The students I taught had majored in English and had read a great deal of English literature; they wrote passably well (and for the most part quite correctly from the standpoint of grammar). But because their primary interest was literature, rather than their native language, in which that literature was written, and because they wrote with facility and correctness, they had never had any formal instruction in the grammar of English. In American schools, grammar is taught only to students who write poorly. These students wrote well. So they had encountered terms like 'noun' and 'verb', but they were a little shaky about how to distinguish prepositions from adverbs, and if they came across terms like 'nominative absolute' or 'retained object', they were completely flummoxed.

To be sure, most people have little need to distinguish prepositions from adverbs, and never encounter such terms or concepts as 'nominative absolute' and 'retained object'. Consequently, ignorance of these matters does not hamper most people from living a full and rewarding life. However, many of the postgraduate students I was teaching were themselves serving as teaching assistants working with college freshmen. They were expected to analyze the essays written by freshmen and to explain to those freshmen what their errors were and how to correct them. To do that, the postgraduate students needed an analytical knowledge of English grammar. They had none whatever. So I taught a grammar course for postgraduate teaching assistants to prepare them to talk with freshmen students about good and bad writing.

Now, here's the point: in that class we talked about formal grammar, and we talked about correctness and what is right and what is wrong in English usage. Actually, 'right' and 'wrong' in language usage is an exceedingly complex matter. What is right in one context or set of circumstances can be quite wrong in another. Correctness in language is relative to the time, the place, the participants, the medium of expression, the purpose of communication, and a host of other factors.

For example, the great fourteenth-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer praised one of the characters he wrote about by saying (and here I modernize the form of the words, but not the relevant grammar): 'He never yet in all his life no villainous thing did not say to no sort of person.' Today that would be very bad grammar, but it was excellently good grammar seven hundred years ago. Or to give a contemporary example, the English novelist Jeffrey Archer wrote: 'It's going to be very safe . . . as long as the British government don’t get greedy', and that is fine for an Englishman, but would be quite ungrammatical for an American, who would insist on 'as long as the government doesn't get greedy'.

To judge what is right or wrong in language, one has to internalize a great many variables and also be able to correlate them quickly and accurately. Making such judgments is an involved and, alas, often rather foggy matter. The students in my class, like people generally, did not like such uncertainty. They wanted to be given a list of things that were wrong, so they could watch out for those things and not bother about anything else. I was the authority in the class, so I was supposed to be able to provide them with such a list. Alas, I could not.

Most people want simple answers to complex problems—not just in grammar, but in life. Religious fundamentalists believe that what scripture says is absolutely right and absolutely clear. But it is neither. Many aspirants want a guru to tell them exactly what they can do to attain moksha—ten easy steps to enlightenment. But there are no such set steps, so no guru can give them. In life, as in language, people don't want complications or options. People just want to know what is right, always with the assumption that there is a single right way. But life is complex, and rightness is relative. That is the muddy shallows.

Now let us dip into the depths of The Voice of the Silence. That book talks a good deal about the guru, teacher, or master. And often it seems to be referring to some authority outside of oneself—a wise person, an embodiment of the archetype of the Wise Old Man. To be sure, all of us have had teachers who have pointed the way for us to follow. And, whether we know it or not, all of us have also served as teachers for others. However, the master we are searching for, the master whose voice is the Voice of the Silence, is not someone outside of ourselves; as The Voice says:

Of teachers there are many; the Master-Soul is one, Ālaya, the Universal Soul. Live in that Master as Its ray in thee. (verse 221)

The true master, the great master, is not any other human being, or even any superhuman being. A gloss to verse 14 of The Voice makes that quite clear. It reads:

The 'great Master' is the term used by lanoos or chelas to indicate one's 'Higher Self'.

And the last verse of the first fragment is fully explicit:

Behold! thou hast become the light, thou hast become the Sound, thou art thy Master and thy God. Thou art Thyself the object of thy search: the Voice unbroken, that resounds throughout eternities, . . . The Voice of the Silence (99)

Therefore, as Light on the Path says:

To hear the Voice of the Silence is to understand that from within comes the only true guidance.

However, now let us return to the caution Sri Krishna gave to Arjuna: We must be very careful to understand these fiery wise words, for all words are capable of being misunderstood. And wise words are no exception. Remember, the first qualification for the Path is viveka, discrimination, an ability to distinguish the true from the false. And words may be true, but our understanding of them may still be false. How do we recognize the Voice of the Silence? It would be nice if I were able to give you a clear, easy, and reliable test for that recognition. But from what has already been said before, you must recognize that nothing in life is clear, easy, and reliable.

Within us are many voices. Jungian psychology talks about an archetype of the persona. 'Persona' is a Latin word (from which English gets the word 'person'). That Latin word means primarily a 'mask', such as actors wore in the Greek and Roman theatres; hence it means also a 'role' that actors played in a drama, or a role that anyone plays in life, and thus a 'personality'. Each of us has, not just one, but many personas or masks. We are different persons as we interact with our children or our parents, with our friends or with strangers, with those we trust or those we distrust, with our supervisors and our subordinates, and so on. We also have several different personas or masks that we present to ourselves—we think of ourselves in various ways.

Each of the many personas within us has a voice. And those voices chatter to us as soon as we fall into a role pertaining to a particular personal mask. None of those, however, are the Voice of the Silence. The Voice of the Silence comes from a much deeper place within. It comes from what Mme. Blavatsky has called our own special archetype, our individuality, the mānasaputra or 'child of Wisdom', within us. And that source of the Voice of the Silence is our one true Master.

How do we recognize that Voice? If we have to ask, we have not heard it. It is unmistakable. It is the Voice of the Thunder in the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad, which T. S. Eliot refers to in the last part of his poem The Waste Land. The Upanishadic story goes like this:

The divine father, Prajāpati, had three sorts of children: the gods, human beings, and demons. When they had all completed their studies with their father, they each came to him to receive the special instruction appropriate for them.

First, the gods came and said, 'Tell us what we need to know.' And Prajāpati thundered the syllable DA! And he asked, 'Have you understood?' The gods answered, 'We have understood that you said to us Damyata', which means 'Control yourself', the gods being naturally unruly and self-indulgent.

Then human beings came to him and said, 'Tell us what we need to know.' And Prajāpati thundered the syllable DA! And he asked, 'Have you understood?' The humans answered, 'We have understood that you said to us Datta', which means 'Give', humans being naturally selfish and avaricious.

Last the demons came to him and said, 'Tell us what we need to know.' And Prajāpati thundered the syllable DA! And he asked, 'Have you understood?' The demons answered, 'We have understood that you said to us Dayadhvam', which means 'Be compassionate', the demons being naturally cruel and insensitive.

The heavenly Voice of the Thunder repeats to all: DA! DA! DA! Control yourselves, give, be compassionate. Those are the three great virtues: self-control, generosity, and compassion.

When we hear the Voice of the Silence, it is like that thunder clap, unmistakable and irresistible, and it tells us what we need to know. What it tells us is so self-evident that we cannot doubt it or be uncertain about it. No one can give us a list of criteria by which to recognize it. But no such list is needed to know the Voice of the Thundering Silence. It is overpowering.

Lessons from Great Books

Every great book is unique, yet all great books are alike. All great texts have the same basic message for us, but every great text says that message in its own unique way and gives us a particular aspect of the basic message. Here we have been considering seven great texts: Light on the Path, The Secret Doctrine, the Bhagavad Gita, the Sermon on the Mount, 'There Is a Road', The Voice of the Silence, and the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad. What are the aspects of the one basic message that we can deduce from those texts? We can summarize them as follows:

To summarize the summary:

The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards.

To hear the Voice of the Silence is to understand that from within comes the only true guidance.