Reprinted from The Theosophist July 1986
Studying to Some Purpose
The second object of the Theosophical Society is to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science. In some of the older books published by members of the Society there are frequent, and generally kindly, references to "the student" It was assumed that anybody who approached any of the subjects dealt with in that literature must do so in the character of a person engaged in study. It was taken for granted that to be a student of anything was an acceptable and indeed a meritorious role to fill.
In the last century there was a widely held belief that if only everybody was able to read, and so gather the information available in books and other printed publications, humankind, being basically a reasonable species, would become civilized in a new way and would grow in virtue and achievements. With the advantage of some hindsight we can now entertain doubts about these pleasant effects of literacy. There has indeed been a remarkable diffusion of cultural material made accessible in various forms of printed matter; but the great moral change for the better that this was to make in humanity has not been so conspicuously evident.
Today, indeed, many publications are not aimed at readers. They are aimed at people who cannot read or do not want to read. They take the form of strip cartoons. And the cinema and television, with their spin-off in the form of video material, have, for some people, reduced all life to a sort of animated strip cartoon.
With the decline of reading there has been a decline in respect for the intellectual effort which has to accompany some forms of study. And there has been a recession in the number of people of years ago, in Britain, a highly literature country, a newspaper noted that there were now more than two million illiterate young adults unable to cope with any form of printed matter.
There seem to be two reasons for study. The first is to acquire information - the information which our forefathers thought was going to give us a better, safer and more virtuous world. The second reason is that reading makes available a fascinating variety of enjoyable images and leads into areas far beyond the printed page and beyond the austere limits of mere utility. The first of these objectives for study may be symbolized by the textbook; the second by the poem or the novel.
As well as getting factual information from textbooks, we extended our sympathies by the other kinds of study and accumulate capacities of response to many kinds of human situation. This is what we sometimes feel that there is a certain futility in the pursuit of culture, for, in our extension into it, we can never reach any finality; and we tend to measure the worth of things by their ability to bring us to goals of achievement or finality.
In most people's lives there are moments of disillusionment when, through fatigue, disappointment or alienation, they feel an emptiness in all that life can offer. Doubts arise about supposed fulfillment.
This disillusionment can touch our pursuit of any human interest or activity, including literature. At the close of one of the most powerful and poetic passages of the Jewish and Christian Old Testament, the writer reaches the conclusion that "Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh".
Our awareness of a hollowness or inadequacy in all the vast range of cultural pursuits brings us to a certain freedom. We cease to look on study as an end in itself and can begin to question its value and purpose. Without inhibition. As we lay our books down, we can begin to wonder where else we can turn for fulfillment. Is there, for example, a sort of upper floor to the palace of culture where we can ascend to read some special kind of literature, perhaps about religions or philosophy?
This is dealt with decisively in one of those books that we have been encouraged in the Theosophical Society to read. It is that translation of VivekachChudamani, known as The Crest Jewel of Wisdom, made by Mohimim Mohun Chatterjee just a hundred years ago. The work is attributed to the great sage Sri Shankaracharya. Concerning study , this ancient book says: If the supreme truth remains unknown, the study of the scriptures is fruitless; even if the supreme truth is known, the study of the scriptures is useless. In a labyrinth of words the mind is lost like a man in a thick forest, therefore, with great effort, must be learned the truth about oneself from him who knows the truth. Of what use are the Vedas to him who has been bitten by the snake of ignorance?
What is asserted here is that there is a greater truth which cannot be written or spoken about in words. The study of words will never bring us to it.
What, then, is it that we do with words which we cannot do with respect to that greater truth? When we speak to another person in words, we appeal to some common ground of experience that we experience that we have in common. As soon as something is experienced, it is committed to memory. So words are concerned with the past. They cannot deal with what lies outside our conventionally accepted time process. If that greater truth lies outside the confines of those process, words can have no connection with it.
We do, of course, have our ways of trying to lead other people from the known to the unknown by means of words. We do this by comparisons, by metaphors and similes. We say, "It is like ..." or "It is as if ... "We do this not only poetically but in our textbooks and factual literature. But, obviously, if there is a truth that is incomparable, nobody can be led to it in that way.
Again, we know things by their limitations, by their defining frontiers and surfaces and their relations with other things which condition and locate them. We know a truth because it falls into a particular class of truth and has other truths, as it were elbowing it on each side. But if there is a truth which is one and whole, limited within no classes of truths but permeating and constituting the reality of all truths, then it would have no frontiers or surfaces by which we could know it, no defining limits for the mind to contemplate , no interface between itself and us.
For handling such a supreme truth, our minds will not suffice. We could not grasp it. It would have to be found to grasp us. Perhaps it has always done so, but we have not yet discovered and accepted this.
What is the barrier to that discovery and acceptance? The barrier, we are told, is that very habit of mind that we have been depending on for all our other knowledge. In that well known and repeatedly quoted passage in The Voice of the Silence it is said that "the mind is the great slayer of the Real" and we are invited to "slay the slayer".
It is unnecessary to image that we are being asked to destroy those ordinary capacities of the mind which we enable us to walk safely across a street or see that two and two make four. What we are asked to abandon is the illusion that that level of capacity constitutes the self in us.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are concerned with this abandonment of the mind which we have hitherto thought of as "my" mind. We are told that yoga is the stilling of the changes in citta, which we translate as "mind". In the ordinary course of life, mind is a tyrant. It does not permit consciousness in us to become aware of anything without placing it and valuing it in relation to criteria which have been accumulated from the past.
A very young child does not do this, for it had not been alive long enough to collect criteria and develop standards of assessment. Its views is, as we say, innocent and involves no conflict. Many poets and autobiographers have written of the ecstasy of things experienced in early childhood and have told how "trailing clouds of glory do we come". Christ's teaching about the need to become as a little child is entirely in harmony with what is to be found in Patanjali or in The Voice of the Silence.
When we think about this subject, we find ourselves imagining a wonderful breakthrough in which the whole structure of antecedent thinking, all the concepts we have gathered, will fall away and we shall find no barrier between the self in us and the self that is the Real . Much mystical literature refers it in poetic terms. As the last surface tension of personal thought is relaxed, "the dewdrop slips into the shining sea". Yet even what is said about this cannot be directly true, since it is said in the language of thought and time.
In the ordinary experience of people's lives, there does not often seem to occur anything which at all mirrors that time less event. Plotinus thought that it had happened to him on three occasions. Perhaps there comes to us a fleeting glimpse of the kind of experience that is described as mystical, leaving an illuminating mark upon memory. But the mind quietly resumes its daily task of slaying the Real, assessing and choosing, approving and disapproving.
Yet there remains a paradox in The Crest Jewel of Wisdom. Thought it dismisses as useless the study of books and expositions, it goes on itself to expound. If Sri Shankaracharya held the view that he appears to express, why did he go on writing for others to read?
A little apart from the more or less automatic functioning of the mind, we engage in this partially regulated kind of mental activity which we call study. Most people assume that one studies for the purpose of acquiring information, and it is traditionally assumed that the acquisition of knowledge is a meritorious pursuit. Patanjali treats this notion in a way that may be startling to many people. In listing the agitations of the mind which have to be dropped, he reduces them to five classifications - right knowledge, wrong knowledge, fancy, sleep and memory. This seems strange because so many people have become accustomed to the idea that, while wrong knowledge is a desirable acquisition. But Patanjali is in no two minds about it; right knowledge, just as much as wrong knowledge, is to be suppressed and dropped.
What Patanjali is dismissing is that whole process of knowing as we have hitherto pursued it. If Reality is one and whole, then the notion of the separability of the knower and the known is an illusion. And indeed in a later sutra Patanjali says that when the transformations of the mind have been ended, the knower, knowledge and the known are identical with one another and are entirely absorbed into one another.
So if we study to good effect, what are we doing? It is generally believed that we study to add to the contents of memory, to fill the mind with more and more furniture. But the true purpose of effective study is to empty the mind, to make it entirely translucent and pure, to end thought.
We have in what we are pleased to call our minds these vastly complex structures of memories, judgements, evaluations, concepts. These structures stand between consciousness and the Real. We imagine that we should lose our identity if we did not have them. But indeed our true identity can assert itself only when those barriers between consciousness in us and consciousness in the Real are broken down. Only when that happens can the events of supreme bliss take place. If , after that, and from the time point of view, we still require some sort of structure, we may presume that anything necessary will come into being.
The structure which has been the cause of our bondage and sorrow has done us a great service and was not brought into being without a purpose. It has given us self- conscious individuality, an anchorage in this immediate order of experience. But we are now beginning to outgrow our need for it and are looking for the possibility of its break-up.
We might think of that structure as like a log jam on a river - the river of our life. We cannot see how it can possibly be released; it is so vast and tangled and interconnected. But, if we study effectively, it is possible to make some little adjustment in some corner of the log jam. Perhaps we take out a little stick from the great barrier of timber and throw it away. And then we perhaps find that that little stick had been wedging a larger piece of timber which in turn begins to come free. So we work away at changing our structure, loosening it, detaching little pieces from it, simplifying it. And one day the whole thing may begin to move.
Study, therefore, is not to be condemned out of hand any more than it is to be made into an oppressive superstition. We have to find out as we go along whether the study we are pursuing is helping to free and empty the mind or is merely adding to its clutter.
For practical reasons we have to acquire information in order to deal with that level of existence for which information is necessary. But there is a further kind of study in which we can expose to risk some of the values and assumptions that are embedded in our existing structure and find ourselves sufficiently emboldened to pull a stick or two out of our log jam.
Sometimes it is revealing to notice the aspects of a study which most repel some people. One hears people say, "Oh, that is too intellectual for me. I haven't enough brains for that". But nearly always it is heart that is lacking, not "brains". The study has taken a turn that is in some way a challenge to the student's self- centredness.
Naturally there are studies which we cannot take up because they require some linguistic or scientific background that we do not have. But very few studies are too difficult for our intelligence. Mankind has not got as far ahead of us as that. We can understand if we will, and if there is a resistance if we will, and if there is a resistance in us we can look for its psychological roots in ourselves.
Usually we do not accept a fact or idea that is presented to us unless we are prepared to accept the implications which it will carry for us. And those implications are usually subtly psychological, not just intellectual. They are bound up with the defence of our structure of memories and values with which we have come to identify our selfhood. They threaten the continuance of our log jam on the river of life.
But right study directs itself intuitively to the emptying of the mind and the ending of psychologically organized memory and hence of thought and time as we have known them.
More Hugh Shearman