Western humanity, in its religious moods, has expended much energy in speculation on its future, but this speculation has been confined almost solely to the life after death — when, as far as this earth was concerned, there was to be an end of things for the soul that passed on. In philosophic mood, this same humanity should rightly concern itself with a far more comprehensive picture, not only of its destiny, but of its origin and the real purpose of its existence. And this it is progressively doing as the larger ideas in science and philosophy build the basis for a metaphysical conception of the Universe and man's place in it.
There are certain teachings in the theosophical philosophy that present this far-flung concept with such fundamental clarity that they may be regarded as keys — keys that open doors of understanding not only into other aspects of the doctrine, but into the humble problems of every day.
One of these key-teachings, a phase of the philosophy of spiritual evolution, is the doctrine of Self-becoming, the doctrine of the unfolding of innate powers and characteristics from the interior being of all creatures. For according to the esoteric philosophy, all evolution is through the bringing forth of powers and faculties already latent in the entity — not through an accretion added layer upon layer from without.
The Sanskrit word Swabhava is what describes this inherent power and faculty, this innate characteristic and its spontaneous evolvement. Its literal translation is just that: self-becoming: swa, self, and bhava, from bhu, to become. "Everything becomes what it actually is in the heart of its being." This is the teaching of the oldest existing school of Buddhism, the Swabhavika, and there is a sense of completeness, of philosophic satisfaction, in the thought that the teaching is true of every entity whatsoever, whether it be a star or an atom or a human being. We are always becoming, we are always on the way. Our own world and all its beings are an outer manifestation of inner vital causes: the work, the activity, is within, it flows outward into the visible.
The symbols of this process are all about us in equal prodigality with the manifestations of nature. Go out on any clear evening, and at this time of year the sky is peopled with the winter galaxy, crowded with brilliant and less brilliant stars, encircled by the silvery haze of the Milky Way, itself composed largely of incomputable hosts of stars. I say peopled, because there is a companionship in the stars, the companionship of greatly evolved beings — of which the stars are the bodies or vehicles for beings less evolved. How did these beings become clothed in such splendor? By unfolding that splendor from within their essential selves. They shine there as a prophecy, a promise, of what we, their younger brothers, will one day arrive at. They are the ultimate visible forms that are still brothers to us in the galactic universe; and the kinship that we feel with them extends itself to take in all the hosts of our fellow-beings, of whatever kingdom. No longer can we conceive of a static condition in any of these inhabitants of the universe; we are all moving on to greater spiritual stature, in a progress that is accomplished by that unfolding from within of already inherent powers and faculties; and in this sense we can truly say with the old Sanskritists: "Without moving, O Holder of the Bow, is the travel along that road."
The palm-tree, so common in semi-tropical gardens, is one of the most obvious symbols of this self-becoming: it continually renews itself from within itself; as the old leaves drop lower around the trunk and become successively less bright and finally withered, new ones forever unfold from within the upper part of the trunk, where there is a central bud that pushes out and up endlessly. Everything that lives is verily such a symbol, so near to us are the reminders of these deep-seated teachings that comprehend all life, harmonize and revitalize it.
There are two distinct aspects of this teaching of Swabhava that we might consider here. One is the thought of all the multitudes and hosts of beings in the universe ever moving out of themselves — then-present selves — into a greater expression of themselves, under the urge of a vital energy that springs from an intelligent energy, which springs in its turn from a spiritual energy, coming from a divine energy — at the heart of it all being the Essential Monadic Self, which is one with the Universal Self. Back of us, therefore, are the energies of the whole universe, if we can rise to a realization of this fact and in some degree make use of them.
The other aspect of the doctrine of self-becoming is that of Individuality: that each individual, however minute in the great hierarchy, has its own essential characteristic, its own inherent character, which differentiates it from all other individuals. At the same time, all individuals in the universe are essentially one, partake of, spring from, and will return to, the One Life — i.e. the Greater Being, of which we are a part. In this paradox lies one of the greatest mysteries of the Ancient Wisdom. As we become more highly evolved, this individuality becomes more marked, because every godlike faculty is more fully brought forth. We can conceive of the Masters of Wisdom, the most evolved types of human beings, as mighty geniuses in anything they wish to set their hand to. Yet at the same time, in their relatively perfected compassion, they are more at one than ordinary men with all that lives. Again a paradox.
This doctrine of Swabhava is not solely metaphysical. None of the great doctrines are. They have their application to the most familiar things on earth. It is this fact of essential individuality in all the inhabitants of the universe that causes the absolutely endless variety of beings in all the kingdoms, a variety which leaves us no excuse for not finding life intensely, thrillingly interesting. It is simply a matter of bringing into play the imaginative faculty, to see all the wonders of nature as wonders, as examples of the intriguing ways in which all the creatures proceed to show forth their various quaint characters.
In the course of a morning's walk you encounter a series of adventures. You go along beside a hedge of bright berries — itself a wonder of vegetable swabhava. You look into the hedge, and right into the bright eye of a mocking-bird, who looks back at you boldly without a sign of fear. Bold, aggressive, you know him for the fellow who out-sings all the other birds, sitting in his particular tree, from which he has driven off all comers, and you remember his battles with other mockers, when the luscious notes of his song are altered to a raucous scolding. You walk on and come upon a lizard sunning himself on a stone. He blinks a small black eye at you but continues his nap — apparently — until he spies an unsuspecting insect about a yard away, makes a lightning dash for it, and you hear the click of his jaws as they close upon it. Next, on a flowering shrub, you may see both a humming-bird, a tiny dynamo of one-pointed energy, and a dallying butterfly, both sipping — a study in contrasts. Or you may notice underfoot the telltale burrow of a mole — the funny little blind, velvet-coated dweller underground, whose consciousness is chiefly concerned with damp earth and worms, but even at that is a more evolved consciousness than that of the worm he feeds upon. On the same walk you may encounter a snake, with its secretive, sinuous habit — various birds, even a sea-gull flying over perhaps; and in the vegetable kingdom such divers characters as poison-ivy, ferns, the sturdy oak and prickly cactus; and in the minerals, soils and rocks of varied colors and compositions.
As we come on to the higher animals this difference among the individual characters becomes greater, they have advanced farther in the bringing out of their respective individual traits — but these traits were all latent in them to begin with. Take the coyote, an animal so cunning and intelligent that even its most inveterate human enemies are obliged to accord it a reluctant admiration. Again, take the ancient friend of man, the little ass or donkey; any owner will tell you tales of its sagacity. The age-old custom of these animals, when gathered together into a herd, as is their natural habit, is to detail one of their number to stand watch at the stable door at night — the custom is said to have survived from the ancient days of Egypt among the wild asses of that country, who were preyed upon by wild beasts. At midnight a second ass among the herd will invariably wake and go to the relief of the one at the door.
Another most interesting animal is the pig, which has, according to Louis Bromfield, "nearly always been maligned and underrated.... The pig," he says, "has countless amusing, endearing, and irritating qualities. He can never be accused of lack of character and even individual personality . . . probably the most intelligent of all farm animals, and certainly the shrewdest. . . . Pigs make the best and most humorous pets in the world. They are instinctively ham actors and have a highly developed sense of humor. . . . Pigs have been associated with man about as long as any animal, and appear again and again in history and legend back into the misty reaches of prehistoric time."(1) It is material for a lifetime's reflection to wonder how these animals ever developed such well-defined characters, and further, why the domesticated ones should have had the karmic association with man that has brought them both benefit and suffering.
And when we come to the human kingdom, we are well aware of the vast differences in temperament and physiognomy as well as in the manifestations of character. Only now we come to the higher attributes, which at moments take on a hint of the godlike. This matter of human individuality and possibilities is recognized by students of human behavior, and there are flashes of insight. Professor Irwin Edman, who holds the Chair of Philosophy at Columbia University, conceives of individuality, "not as competition and assertiveness, but as the realization of one's own qualities and capacities in one's own special way." And he thinks that education should foster this type of individuality, a certain distinction, — for all, not just for a few. Allen Boone also, in his book You are Adventure, speaks of "the unmatchable spiritual individualists who, in a sadly massed-up and messed-up world . . . dare to live their own lives for the good of all. . . ."
For of course this unfolding from within of the individuality is for all: as Louis Untermeyer says in his sketch of the life of Robert Frost: "The creator, the artist, the extraordinary man, is merely the ordinary man intensified."
The human scene looked at in the large presents evidences of racial and national swabhava in the characteristic architectures, arts, languages, customs, dress and in their music — differences that again show the variety of ways in which human beings in their various categories unroll and unfold their peculiar racial or national genius.
There are many other examples of distinguishing characteristics in all the kingdoms of nature: the peculiarities of metals, for instance, their colors and atomic structures; the sound that comes from a silver bell as contrasted with that from one of bronze. Even the woods from different trees not only differ in grain and hardness, but when seasoned, cut, and tapped with a suitable instrument or the finger-tip, each will give out its distinctive musical tone. The fragrances of different flowers, the flavors and forms of different fruits, vegetables and nuts — all are due to the various swabhavas of these creatures of the kingdoms. In the night sky, the colors of the different great stars, some fiery red, some rose red, or icy blue, flame, or golden, come, Dr. de Purucker suggests, from the individual characters of those stars, or of the beings who use them as vehicles; and more advanced studies of the planets would show them to be each quite distinct in character.
But all this visible detail, you may say, is mere froth — the most superficial manifestation of that majestic law of swabhava — and yet it is all we can see, our living evidence, of the working of that sublime law.
The ethical implications of this teaching take us into the great world of spiritual and divine possibilities. We, in our present human condition, are curiously conscious chiefly of the differentiation, not to say the sense of separateness of ourselves from other individuals; but the nearer we reach to the Inmost, the more we shall be able to see our fellows as our other selves, or at least as brothers, semi-counterparts of ourselves. Only to hold these great thoughts close to us in our daily living opens the way to all brotherly kindness and understanding and mutual helpfulness, and a trust in the inexhaustible energies always welling up from within. As Katherine Tingley expresses it:
The Soul can rest on nothing this side of infinity, it loses its vitality if it seeks to do so. All eternity awaits it, how should it be satisfied with the half-life we live and the many imperfections that mar us? The nature of the Soul is to be winging its flight forever towards the boundless, to be working, hoping, and conquering, to be going forward forever and ever.
— The Gods Await, p. 173
The doctrine of self-becoming is closely tied with cosmic evolution. For what is it that is the impelling cause of evolution if it is not the Essential Self, the Monadic Ray,
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die —
as Thomas Hardy conceived it. And the process of evolution is simply "the interior self self-expressing itself, unfolding always what is latent within," to use the words of Dr. de Purucker. It is this Inmost that is the unbroken connecting thread in all the existences of any one entity, in all the kingdoms, through all the aeons, immortal in any one galactic manvantara, the innate characteristic or swabhava running through them all. Its expressions on this plane of ours point back to its pervading presence, enlivening, sustaining, giving impulse to all life.
Here among nearby things we have the genes, those mysterious portions of the cell-life, that seem to be the ultimate vehicle for "the continuous transmission of an identic life." Back of our uncertain science of heredity there is a spiritual heredity arising in the innate character of the being itself.
Look at fingerprints, of which it is said that no two on earth are exactly alike. Someone had the intuition once that possibly these imprints of character on the hand of the individual might reproduce themselves in that individual from one incarnation to the next. The answer to his question as given by Dr. de Purucker was as follows:
I am quite sure that fundamentally your idea is not only sound but absolutely correct. The great difficulty would be to find the thumb-print or finger-prints from former lives of an individual. It is perfectly true that for Theosophical or occult reasons the markings of the thumb and fingers of each body taken up by a reincarnating ego would very closely parallel and perhaps are almost identic with the dactylographic markings on the thumb and fingers of the preceding body of the same ego. Any changes that would be found, if we could compare two such markings, would be those brought about by evolutional changes in the soul producing modifications m the body, and also the hereditary influences from the ancestry which would tend to modify markings of such character.
— Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp 421-2
This individualizing process begins at the very commencement of manifestation in a manvantara, it is the differentiation spoken of by the philosophers. William Blake's system embraces it. And this individualization becomes progressively more marked as the manvantara proceeds and the entities become more truly self-directed. Yet, in spite of individuality, nothing can stand alone in the universe — the "heresy of separateness" is the idea that one can do so. Again the paradox. We have to stand each one alone, yet come to realize that we are all but different facets of the One. At moments of inspiration this realization comes even into the human mind, in a flash of insight. Instances of this are often come across, recorded in literature. Mary Austin, in Note 13 of her Earth Horizon, describes a summer morning when she, a child of five or six, wandered alone down beyond the orchard to a breezy prominence with grass waving in the wind, and one tall tree reaching into infinite immensities of blueness" — when suddenly earth and sky and tree and wind-blown grass and the child in the midst of them came alive together with a pulsing light of consciousness." She recalled in later years the "swift, inclusive awareness of each for the whole — I in them and they in me, and all of us enclosed in a warm lucent bubble of livingness."
And Blake's famous vision as he sat on the sands at Felpham:
My eyes did expand
Into regions of air,
Away from all care,
Into regions of fire,
Remote from desire;
The light of the morning
Heaven's mountains adorning
In particles bright
The jewels of light
Distinct shone and clear.
Amaz'd and in fear
I each particle gazed,
For each was a Man
Human-form'd. Swift I ran,
For they beckoned to me.
Remote by the sea,
Saying "Each gram of sand,
Every stone on the land,
Each rock and each hill,
Each fountain and rill,
Each herb and each tree,
Mountain, hill, earth, and sea,
Cloud, meteor and star,
Are men seen afar."
All I ever had known
Before me bright shone,
Such the vision to me
Appear'd on the sea.
These are visions of the Many in the One: how at the same time, the many can be and are the One, a mystery rarely to be sensed except in inspired moments.
Then there is the question of Immortality, which has preoccupied the mind of man from time immemorial. We will take the thought from Dr. de Purucker that: the Atman-Buddhi, the Upper Duad in the sevenfold human constitution, is the seat of the swabhava in man; it is the Essential Self, the perpetual root of man's constitution, the divine-spiritual monad. It is unconditionally immortal throughout the immense time-period of the life of a galaxy. This immortal and ever-enduring Essential Self, the seat of the fundamental selfhood in man, is the unifying and binding root which not only holds the composite man together, but is the lasting link from life to life. It brings the compound man together again and again, out of its identic life-atoms. It is the persistent individuality, the inner originant, the swabhava. At the end of the Great Cycle, when a universe indraws into the subjective worlds, all the individualities which have made up that universe are re-absorbed: "The dewdrop slips into the shining sea." But at the re-emergence of the universe into manifestation, the individualities re-emerge in their integrity, and commence a new unfoldment of their inexhaustible energies and powers.
1. From his review of Pigs: From Cave to Cornbelt, by Towne and Wentworth. (return to text)
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