Opening Ourselves to Brotherhood

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

As its 52nd volume opens, Sunrise again invites its readers on a voyage of exploration, for we are all explorers: willing or not, we confront the unknown each moment. We often cover up this uncomfortable mystery with a patina of routine, seeking to stop where we are now and settle down for a long stay. Yet try as we will, the unknown peeps out, occasionally to overwhelm our attention, sometimes our very being. The resulting change is traumatic to the illusion of permanence we have built out of ideological and psychological habits. Unfortunately, our attachment to these habits inclines us to pay greater attention to people's opinions and beliefs than to the fact of our shared humanity. We imagine that, if only others would agree with us — feel as we feel, think as we think — problems could be resolved and all would be right with the world.

Some may consider theosophy, too, as a series of ideas, such as reincarnation and karma, spiritual emanation and evolution. This, however, was not its initial thrust. The Theosophical Society, its founders repeatedly said, is not a new religion or school of thought which seeks to impose dogmas or a creed on mankind. It is a fellowship that encourages each person's investigations into the mysteries of life. Its primary emphasis is universal brotherhood, and people of any religion or none, and of any philosophic persuasion, are welcome to participate so long as they recognize the principle of brotherhood and the right of others to hold their own views. Nor are theosophical teachings a cut-and-dried commodity for mass acceptance. Rather, the perennial philosophy is something for each person to discover and interpret — not because reality is relative, but because each person's grasp of it is necessarily so.

The central place that we give beliefs and ideas may lead us to question what we really know. We are constantly accepting or rejecting statements, facts, theories, systems of thought. Certainly we do not have personal knowledge of many things that life brings to our attention: our ignorance of facts is too extensive, our perceptions and interpretations too often distorted, our minds too indolent. When confronted with novel or conflicting ideas, most of us turn to a trusted authority that, for us, determines what is true. This may be a book or scripture, a system of thought, a prominent person, or assumptions absorbed over a lifetime. For many Westerners, this ultimate arbiter of reality is found in the current scientific consensus; others may find it in the Bible, Koran, Vedas — or even modern theosophical literature.

Whom we allow to stand between us and reality is an important question — as important as whom we let stand between us and divinity. We may even wonder whether we need an intermediary. Perhaps the Buddha refused to discuss many metaphysical matters because whenever opinion goes beyond personal experience, an authority is involved. He concentrated instead on human consciousness and practical life — areas where individuals can observe, experience, and test matters for themselves. Perhaps this is also why The Theosophical Society is based on universal brotherhood, with freedom of conscience and belief: not doctrines or blind faith, but primarily the effort to make brotherhood a living force in daily life.

Does this mean that philosophic, scientific, and religious topics that go beyond our own experience are irrelevant? What is the purpose of discussing the history, nature, and destiny of the universe and mankind, or the structure and properties of matter and energy? As human beings we are part of the cosmic whole, so that understanding the universe and all in it is useful in the same fundamental way that understanding ourselves is. Moreover, such subjects are abstract only if we do not understand how to apply them. Every fact or idea becomes practical once we find a way to use — or abuse — it. Our civilization employs its conception of the material world to create technologies that feed, shelter, heal, transport, and entertain us. Religious conceptions are presented in equally pragmatic terms, as means for contacting divinity, insuring advantages in visible and invisible worlds, or establishing moral and social order. But in thinking about all the information available to us, let's not confuse verbal or mathematical descriptions of the real with reality itself, and instead remain free and open in our explorations.

How then can we learn to discern reality more clearly and accurately, to know? Although fallible and limited, our intellect and intuition become our best guides to deeper understanding if TRUTH, and truth alone, is our objective. Most of us are ruled by knowledge and habits accrued while we operate on autopilot. We can refine our perceptions through independent thinking and research, declining to accept second-hand information as final and refusing to give unquestioning acceptance to any authority. Self-examination and candid analysis allow us to become aware of the basis on which we make our judgments, and what or whom we permit to stand between us and reality. Digging deeper into ourselves can expose entrenched patterns of thought and feeling, giving us an opportunity to change and grow. It is our actions, feelings, and habitual thoughts, not our opinions, which reveal what we really believe in our hearts.

It is not our responsibility to open other people to our viewpoints, but to open ourselves — to life and to others. There is tremendous egotism in the attitude that we know better than the rest of mankind what is right and good for them. Our fellow humans are not raw material for our noble purposes or for us to mold into our own image. As human beings we are inevitably going to have differing outlooks and beliefs based on the differing assumptions and authorities we adopt. We must accept this consequence of human imperfection without letting the conflict among these various authorities divide and alienate us from one another. Embracing our fellow human beings as they now are, unconditionally and with no agenda, is the key to putting brotherhood into practice and making it a reality in human life.

 (From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)


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