THEOSOPHY IN PRACTICE: practical methods for putting spiritual theory into practice in everyday life. 

Andrew Rooke 

The following is an ongoing series of articles published in ‘Theosophy Downunder’ Newsletter. For 130 years the Theosophical Society has been discussing the wonderful ideas of the Ancient Wisdom. Now, many people are asking for practical means to apply these principles in daily life. This new series will be devoted to such practical ideas in the form of stories and parables, methods we have found through life experience, or methods from past and present which busy people of today can practice.  

1. FOLLOWING THE DAILY KARMIC SCRIPT: We are compassionate beings, a whirlpool of forces amidst the greater sea of life in which we are immersed. The enduring part of us, our higher self, animates the material forms and energies with which we are more familiar, and sends us forth periodically on the journey we call a lifetime. As the conductor of our lives, it exactly balances the joys and hardships we face, so that hopefully our understanding will have increased at the close of each life. Our daily experience here and now is an unrolling day by day of a karmic score or script, if we have the eyes to see it. Reading this script enables us to appreciate more of the purpose that our higher self is trying to communicate each second as it urges our footsteps along the path to greater awareness of the oneness of being. As James A. Long put it: In our struggles toward a fuller understanding, we begin to realise we can develop the ability to read the unfolding karmic script of our lives. When we work with this, then we find ourselves better able to feel out the situations as they arise, and deal with them more intelligently. We can think of it as a Book – the Book of records as the Koran calls it – in which is inscribed in its entirety our individual life. Each of our days, representing a page of so-called merit and demerit, will contain the signposts, the impellings and repellings, the conscience knocks, and even the intuitions that are there to be utilized. Once we are able even slightly to read the daily script of our experiences, we realize something else: that there is a direct relation between the quality of a reaction and the quality of action that brought it into being. This is not going to be spelled out, but if we keep in mind that our major task in the long run is to unfold fully the divine values within us, we will know that the process of transmuting the lower by the higher self must be accompanied by a continued effort to improve the quality of our attitude in every circumstance.         From Expanding Horizons, pp. 24-5Religious and philosophical teachers have offered various insights towards developing our ability to read this daily script. Discussing a few of these signposts perhaps will stimulate our own efforts. In these days of uncertainty in world affairs, it is easy to slip into the habit of becoming absorbed in the darker sides of life. Yet to discern the patterns of the daily karmic script which our higher self is trying to communicate, we should take a positive attitude toward our experiences. Rather than asking “Why me?” we could develop the habit of asking what our inner self is giving us the opportunity to learn. We might start by looking for the best aspect of every person and situation, rather than thinking and talking negatively about others and world conditions. A friend once described this habit as looking for “the Saint George and not the Dragon” in whatever we meet. This is no easy task when the people or problems which aggravate us most are close to us and there is no ready avenue of retreat.One simple practice we can follow to help strengthen a positive attitude is greeting each day for the unique opportunities it offers, and in the evening reflecting on what we have learned from the day’s activities. In such tranquil hours we can make a real effort to empty ourselves of selfish and irritable thoughts, hurt feelings, and the jangle and pressure of our lives. In the privacy of our deepest being, let us daily renew our vow to live up to the best of ourselves and to work each day for the betterment of all peoples, no matter how they have behaved towards us.                                                                                                  

2.  AN EXERCISE FOR DEVELOPING COMPASSION FOR OTHERS 

Theosophy tells us to constantly be loving and compassionate towards others. But how can we do this when we are surrounded by exploitation and selfishness in the world, which can lead us to easily become disillusioned, about the behaviour of other people?One technique from Buddhism is to learn to have affection for other people by simply thinking of them as being close to you, like a friend or relative. Particularly, since your mother is the closest person to you, cultivate recognition of all beings as your mothers. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem! When you think about it, science tells us that all human beings are related genetically, and that everyone in the past or future was or will be our relative! The Buddhist teacher further advises us to extend feelings of compassion outwards gradually. First, cultivate such a love and compassion towards friends by thinking of them as relatives/mothers. Then, cultivate love for persons for whom you have neutral feelings. Next, cultivate such feelings toward your enemies. Then, cultivate it gradually toward all beings. Such is the attitude of compassion and desire to help all beings that characterises the “Bodhisattva”, or the ideal to which all Theosophists are urged to aspire.

3. BODHISATTVA ATTITUDE 

Modern Theosophy says that the aim of every theosophist should be the betterment of other beings based on compassion for others. In this aim, Theosophy follows the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism by teaching our ideal is to eventually become a Bodhisattva (Sanskrit for Compassionate spiritual being) after many lifetimes of self-directed effort. The Buddhist tradition teaches there are basically three types of spiritual students and we have to make up our mind early in our search which we want to be!! These three stages as given by Mahayana Buddhism are: Sravaka (Sanskrit: ‘hearers’), the vast majority of people who are involved in religion/spiritual searching with the thought of what they can get out of it for themselves as individuals.  Pratyeka (Sanskrit: ‘everyone for himself’), meaning those who follow the spiritual path with the idea of liberation from this world of suffering rather than alleviating the suffering of others as their primary concern. 

Bodhisattva (Sanskrit: Compassionate, truth-embodying being), being the Ideal of Theosophy to join the ‘Brotherhood of Compassion’ of those people/beings who seek spiritual knowledge in the service of others.The essential difference between these three approaches is “Sravaka’ and ‘Pratkeya’ would look at this world of suffering and say: ‘If only those people/beings could have happiness and be free of suffering’, but they are not yet prepared to do much about it personally as their major motivation in life. They are typically disillusioned with this world, and direct their considerable spiritual energies to trying to escape from the physical world. The Bodhisattva approach, in contrast, would be: ‘I will take on the responsibility to remove the suffering and to provide for the happiness of all living beings’.Bear in mind that we may move through all these stages in our spiritual search and are not guaranteed of staying at one particular level or other. Remember that “Sravaka” and ‘Pratyeka’ spiritual searchers, are good and high-minded people who help many people in their way; and that it is possible at any stage prior to ‘Buddhahood’ of making the transition ‘forward’ or ‘back’, from any one of these three conditions. An interesting question for us all to consider is, how well qualified are we at a comparatively low level of spiritual training such as most of us are at now, to make value judgements about the paths, or the stages of spiritual development, reached by others? Theosophy encourages us to develop the ‘Bodhisattva Attitude’ of a wholehearted resolve that assumes the responsibility of liberating all beings based on compassion. Theosophical teachers have told us that developing this attitude, i.e. ‘to live to benefit mankind [and all beings], is the first step’ along the path to Bodhisattvahood. It is the responsibility of the Theosophical Society as the ‘kindergarten’ of the ‘Mystery Schools’ to encourage this attitude at the very beginning of our ‘training’. To follow the six noble perfections or ‘paramitas’, is the second step according to Theosophy. In the next and subsequent issues of our newsletter we will examine the ‘Six Perfections’ and practical ways to apply them in our lives in detail.  

4. PUTTING THEORY INTO PRACTICE

Those who wish to change the world and relieve suffering must do more than say: “May they be free from suffering”. Theosophy tells us that if we wish to follow the Path of Compassion we must engage in methods that will bring this cherished ideal about in actuality. If we do not first engage in those methods ourselves, we will be unable to assist others in freeing themselves. Therefore, Theosophy advises that if you want to work sincerely for others welfare, you must first discipline yourself, and put Theosophical theory into practice in whatever way is appropriate to your own life. OK – but how? Theosophy advises us to proceed by first gearing our attitudes towards benefiting Mankind rather than destructive, self-centred habits of thought. Then, secondly, to practice the ‘Paramitas’ or ‘Perfections’, as they are sometimes called, in our daily lives. Buddhism numbers the Paramitas as six:

 

Generosity; Ethical Discipline; Patience; Joyous Perseverance; Meditative Stabilization; Wisdom. 

Why should we develop these particular qualities along the Path of spiritual learning? To achieve the aims of others for spiritual understanding you must first help them with material goods as they won’t appreciate spirituality if they have an empty stomach! Since no benefit will come from Generosity accompanied by harmfulness towards living beings, you need Ethical Discipline, which has great purpose for others; this is the state of desisting from harm to others and the causes of harm. To bring this to its full development, you need Patience that disregards the harm done to you. You need to develop the ability to fix your mind on your ideals so you need to develop Meditative Stabilization. Calmness and single-mindedness in the service of others lead to Wisdom. None of this is attainable by laziness, so you need Joyous Perseverance in pursuit of wisdom through service to others and so this quality is the basis of the other Perfections.[These comments are based on Tibetan spiritual teacher Tsong-Kha-Pa, from his Great treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment] 

5. THE PARAMITAS: the six ‘Perfections’ of Buddhism are most often referred to as the seven ‘Paramitas’ in Theosophy. These aspects or requirements of enlightened living are given by H. P. Blavatsky in her, Voice of the Silence, and G. de Purucker in his, Fountain-Source of Occultism, as follows: 

TO LIVE TO BENEFIT MANKIND IS THE FIRST STEP.

TO PRACTICE THE SIX GLORIOUS VIRTUES IS THE SECOND. 

1. DANA: the key of charity and love immortal. If someone comes and asks for anything, as far as we are able, we should grant the request ungrudgingly and in a way to benefit them. If we see anyone in danger, we should try every means we have to rescue and impart to them a feeling of safety. If anyone comes to us desiring instructions in the Dharma, we should, as far as they are able and according to our best judgement, try to enlighten them. And when we are doing these acts of charity, we should not cherish any desire for recompense, gratitude, merit, advantage, nor any worldly reward.

2. SHILA: the key of harmony in word and act, the key that counterbalances the cause and the effect, and leaves no further room for karmic action. Harmonious action. We should abstain from killing, stealing, adultery, lying, deception, gossip, greediness, malice (hatred or cruelty), persuading for personal benefit, and misleading. We should endeavour by our conduct to avoid all disapproval and blame, and by our example incite others to forsake evil and practice the good.

3. KSHANTI: patience sweet, that naught can ruffle. Patient forbearance. As we meet the ills of life we should not shun them nor feel upset. Patiently bearing evils inflicted by others, we should have no resentment. Neither should we be elated because of prosperity, praise, or agreeable circumstances; nor depressed because of poverty, insult, or hardship. Keeping our mind concentrated on the deep significance of the Dharma, we should under all circumstances maintain a quiet and equitable mind.

4. VIRAG: indifference to pleasure and to pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived. Non-attachment. A doing only of our duty without desire for results, for if we become attached we deter not only forward progress but fill the Path, not leaving it void for our passing. Attachment would necessarily draw to itself scenes of passion which would cloud the view. Attachment to the Supreme Goal, however, draws us toward it, to ever-increasing splendour.

4. VIRYA: the dauntless energy or fortitude that fights its way to the supernal TRUTH, out of the mire of lies terrestrial. Courageous vigour. In the practice of good deeds we should never become complacent. We should look upon any mental or physical suffering as the natural consequence of unworthy deeds done in previous incarnations, and should firmly resolve that henceforth we would do only those things which are in keeping with a spiritual life. We should always make deliberate effort in the direction of the Path, never tarry or assume we have reached an “end,” for there are no ends, just subtle and gradual transformations.

5. DHYANA: whose golden gate once opened leads the adept toward the realm of Pure Being, eternal, and its ceaseless contemplation. Intellectual insight is gained by truthfully understanding that all things follow the law of causation, but in themselves are transitory and empty of any self-substance. These are two aspects of Dhyana: the first is an effort to suppress idle thinking, the second, mental concentration in an effort to realize the emptiness (Shunyata) of Mind-essence. We should contemplate the fact that although all things are transitory and empty yet, nevertheless, on the physical plane they have a relative value to those who are cherishing false imagination; to these unaware ones, suffering is very real – immeasurable and innumerable sufferings. Because of this, there is awakened in the mind of every earnest person a deep compassion for the suffering of all beings.

7. PRAJNA: the key to which makes of a man a god, creating him a Bodhisattva. Direct perception or intuitive wisdom. When we by the faithful practice of Dhyana attain to Samadhi, we have passed beyond discrimination and knowledge, we have realized the perfect oneness of mind-essence. With this realization comes an intuitive understanding of the nature of the universe. We now realize the perfect oneness of essence, potentiality, and activity. This principle makes of wisdom a separate thing from knowledge. Knowledge is learning from the physical apparatus, while wisdom is an innate understanding or intuitive glimpse. It affords us wider perception to the view of the universals and their patterns

SUCH TO THE PORTALS ARE THE GOLDEN KEYS.

6. HOW CAN WE BE GENEROUS? You may recall that the Paramitas as listed by the Mahayana Buddhists of the Dalai Lama’s school of teaching are as follows: Generosity; Ethical Discipline; Patience; Joyous Perseverance; Meditative Stabilization; and finally Wisdom.  

Let’s look in greater detail at practical ways in which can we be generous in a materialistic world: Picture this, the phone rings or someone knocks on the front door when you are busy serving dinner to a hungry family, and they ask you for money for a charity. What do you do? The world we live in is incredibly rushed and there always seem to be people putting their hands out for money when we are all finding it hard to make ends meet paying mortgages, school fees, and the like. The pressure of life today can certainly undermine one’s sense of charity when the doorbell rings at the ‘wrong’ time! Yet, theosophy says that it is a requirement of enlightened living that we develop a sense of generosity. How can we do this given the conditions that most people live in today? 

Firstly, for those of us living with family responsibilities, we obviously need to place the family first. We cannot naively give everything away at the expense of our own family, even to needy people who come into our lives. But this is exactly what many people do when they become seriously committed to try and live according to the Paramitas.   In Hinduism they speak of ‘Artha’ or material prosperity as being a real responsibility for seekers on the Path. This means that you must look after yourself and your family as a first priority, then do what you can for others. Otherwise you will add to the problems of the world by losing the ability to look after your self and your family. This does not mean becoming uncharitable or cynical about helping others who are in need. The ideal rather, is to create a mental attitude of not being ‘attached’ to material goods whilst recognizing their importance and your responsibilities to those closest to you. We do what charitable works we can according to our situation and our means, but always with an attitude of detachment from materialism. How can we achieve such detachment in a materialist culture like we live in today?  Buddhist teachers suggest that:

  • Don’t become overly attached to the body and its needs.
  • Meditate on the impermanence of material belongings and material life generally.
  • Consider the life stories and example of great teachers such as Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, etc… who gave up their material goods in their efforts to help others.

Further, Buddhism suggests that charity does not just relate to giving material goods but also offering our knowledge of ethical principles and esoteric teaching so that others can be saved from getting into problems in their life which generate negative karma.  In both giving material goods and advice to others, Buddhism recommends that:

  • Be even minded towards all recipients.
  • Give without thought of reward or expecting something in return. This includes the fame or notoriety of being known as a generous person.
  • Don’t be arrogant about giving.
  • Consider our responsibility as people who believe in universal brotherhood. It is our duty to be compassionate knowing as do from theosophy that everything is connected.
  • If possible it is better to ‘do’ rather than just give money. Through personal involvement through voluntary work, directly helping family and friends in crisis, etc… we can learn empathy and compassion through personal involvement.

7. HOW CAN WE PRACTICE ETHICAL DISCIPLINE? 

We continue our series on putting theosophical ideas into practice in daily life based on the Buddhist teachings of Tibetan Buddhist Master Tsong-Kha-Pa. This issue we continue our analysis of the six ‘Paramitas’ or ‘Virtues’ which are said by Mahayana Buddhists and Theosophists alike to be necessary for those seeking to live a more enlightened life or, as the Buddhists would say, follow the ‘Boddhisattva Ideal’. These six virtues are: Generosity; Ethical Discipline; Patience; Joyous Perseverance; Meditative Stabilization; and finally Wisdom.  Let’s take a closer look at the second such virtue: Ethical Discipline. 

When we set out seriously on the spiritual path, we may start to develop an exaggerated sense of our own importance after we receive a few teachings of the ancient wisdom. The every present tendency is to think of ourselves as ‘more along the spiritual path’ than others, and from here it is a short step to not practicing what we preach. Buddhists call keeping a sense of perspective and sincerely practicing our spiritual ideals, ‘Ethical Discipline’. Besides keeping high standards of personal ethics, it means refraining from harming others in thought or deed or even developing the attitudes which have the potential to harm others. Do not be hypercritical of those who know less than you or of the standards of the world which, after all, we helped create in other lives of the past, and must now work to put aright. Practice what we preach and sincerely work towards our own perfection of ethical discipline. For, how can we help others if we have no ethical discipline ourselves? 

Think and ponder upon the importance of maintaining ethical discipline and what follows karmically from it, and what may follow for us from the non-observance of it! One of the great benefits of quietly working at the implementation of these ‘virtues’ in our lives is that other people will automatically see it in our behaviour and people who need advice or assistance will be attracted to you. I remember a case like this once of an old lady in Canberra who had sincerely worked at the ‘inner work’ of incorporating theosophical teachings in daily life for a whole of a long lifetime. When at a bus stop one day, a young woman started spontaneously talking to her because she said she sensed there was something special about the old lady. It turned out the young woman was on her way to commit suicide, and the old lady was able to talk her out of it, and from then they became firm friends and the young lady went on to have a full life. 

So how can we practice ‘Ethical Discipline? Here are some suggestions from Tsong-Kha-Pa, the founder of the Buddhist order of monks the Dalai Lama belongs to: 

The ethical discipline of restraint: this means restraining from harm in word or deed to others, or doing that which is inconsistent with the ‘boddhisattva ideal’ [to live to assist humanity forward on the spiritual path], ie. restraining from deeds that are wrong in their very nature, or even the motivation towards such deeds. This was said to be important as the basis of the other two practices of ethical discipline being:

 

The ethical discipline of gathering virtue: this means sincerely working towards the development of the six ‘virtues’, ie: Generosity; Ethical Discipline; Patience; Joyous Perseverance; Meditative Stabilization; and finally Wisdom.  We should work towards developing those of the six that remain undeveloped in our nature, don’t spoil the ones we have developed already, and increase them even further in our thought and consequent behaviour.

 The ethical discipline of acting for the welfare of others: means that we should focus our energies on the welfare of others, and help them accomplish their spiritual development as far as possible in this and future lives in a suitable manner without wrongdoing. 

These may seem pretty high, and perhaps even, unattainable ideals in the hurly-burly of modern life. But at least we can do something along these lines in principle according to whatever job or situation we find ourselves in. If we genuinely try to pratice ‘ethical discipline’ in the arena of everyday life, we will strengthen our adherence to the ‘Boddhisattva Ideal’ and thus strengthen our capacity to serve the cause of the Masters of Wisdom in this and in future lifetimes.

This is an ongoing series. Please check every now and then for new articles in this series.