Now bend thy head and listen well, O Bodhisattva — Compassion speaks and saith: "Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?" — H. P. Blavatsky
These beautiful words epitomize the bodhisattva ideal. Sincere students of life's mysteries who wish to lift a little of the burden from humanity's shoulders will eventually, after many lifetimes of impersonal effort, join the bodhisattvas or perfected human beings in their compassionate work. These beings vow to help suffering humanity even though they, through their own efforts, have attained right of entry into the blissful state of consciousness known as nirvana. For us ordinary folk, this sacrifice is equivalent to choosing to live consciously in the animal kingdom to help those beings with their inner advancement. This high state of consciousness and sacrifice may seem far off, but the road stretches at our feet every moment as we make the seemingly small choices that compose our days. How can we be sure that we are directing our lives in such a way that we can eventually join the compassionate bodhisattvas in their ageless work to help humanity?
We are fortunate to have guideposts in all the world's religions from those who have trodden this path before us. From the Noble Eightfold Path and Paramitas of Buddhism to the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes of Christianity, the message is essentially the same: deceptively simple guidelines of behavior based on the principles of brotherhood and concern for others. It is easy to read and repeat their advice — but trying to apply these guidelines every moment is another matter!
In 1890 H. P. Blavatsky shared some guidelines to enlightened living in a circular letter. In one paragraph her teacher sums up various measures we can take here and now to reach the Temple of Wisdom:
Behold the truth before you: A clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a brotherliness for one's co-disciple, a readiness to give and receive advice and instruction, a loyal sense of duty to the Teacher, a willing obedience to the behests of TRUTH, once we have placed our confidence in, and believe that Teacher to be in possession of it; a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defence of those who are unjustly attacked, and a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection which the Secret Science (Gupta-Vidya) depicts — these are the Golden Stairs up the steps of which the learner may climb to the Temple of Divine Wisdom. — Collected Writings 12:591
Let's take a little time to climb each of these "Golden Stairs" in turn, and see if we can't learn more about this journey we are all on.
A clean life: This step is necessary to harmonize our outer life with the life of our inner god. Of this her teacher says:
This means a purity of body, and a still greater purity of mind, heart, and spirit. . . . As pure water poured into the scavenger's bucket is befouled and unfit for use, so is the divine Truth when poured into the consciousness of a sensualist, of one of selfish heart and a mind indifferent and inaccessible to justice and compassion. . . . a sound and pure mind requires a sound and pure body.
He says further: "The 'six and ten transcendental virtues,' the Paramitas, are not for full-grown yogis and priests alone, but for all those who would enter the 'Path'." HPB adds:
gentle kindness to all beings, strict honesty (not according to the world-code, but that of Karmic action), virtuous habits, strict truthfulness, and temperance in all things; that these alone are the keys that unlock the doors of earthly happiness and blissful peace of mind, and that fit the man of flesh to evolve into the perfect Spirit-Ego . . .
A tall order, and we have only taken one step! How can we apply these demanding principles in the rush and bustle of everyday life? One simple but effective way to start is to follow a time-honored meditation for learning from our life experience. Before going to sleep at night, briefly run through the events of the day, searching for those things that were good and helpful to spiritual advancement, and those aspects which were not. This practice strengthens our determination to live a better life when we arise next morning to face the challenges of a new day.
An open mind: We should be open to the perspectives of others, while not abandoning principles we hold dear at any particular point in our spiritual journey. After all, "an open mind does not mean a hole in the head"! As we grow in spiritual understanding, doubtless our fixed views will change as we begin to appreciate wider perspectives. The important thing is not to get too bogged down in the limited view of the truth we have now nor to succumb to the temptation to stop listening to others. It is up to each of us to use our own gifts and perspectives to appreciate the truths of the perennial tradition in our own way and in our own time. As a friend once said, "You can't learn mathematics by getting into the habit of always looking up the answers at the back of the book before you tackle the problems." We have to work our way through countless opinions and byways of thought over many lifetimes to appreciate more fully the great truths taught through the ages. One of Blavatsky's teachers wrote concerning spiritual aspirants:
If his motive is right — he is all right. His views are not of the slightest consequence, for as a Chela [disciple] he will change them as he learns the Truth, which only the true students of the mysteries find. He had better have no fixed views until later, but be ready to change as he passes on.
A pure heart: Our attitudes flow from our motive, and from these are derived perspectives on any field of life. If our life is based on sincerity and an honest concern for others, we are exhibiting a pure heart. We can find examples of purity of heart, not only in the Father Damians and Mother Teresas, but all around us. A woman I know, 70 years old and without formal training, volunteers as a grief and trauma counselor for the State Emergency Service in rural Australia. Recently she was called out in the middle of the night to counsel a father who had lost his son in a car accident. After working all night with the grief-stricken family, she attended a family birthday the next day and you would be none the wiser as to what she had been doing all night.
The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnettmentions the light of compassion shining in the hearts of aspirants wherever they are around the world. When spiritual teachers find this "buddhic light," they watch and guide those who demonstrate a genuine purity of heart and motive for helping humanity. Blavatsky said that she had met high students of the mysteries who were not enormous intellects but who in goodness and purity of heart outshone all others. Purity of heart aligns us with our inner god and from there knowledge and wisdom can flow at the appropriate time and not just via intellectual training. Harmonizing the inner and outer man leads to a profound joy and happiness because we are working closer and closer to nature's purpose.
These features of the spiritual life should not be seen, as they are by many, as a dreary and sterile puritanical path devoid of humor and happiness. Reading the letters of many spiritual teachers, we see a keen sense of humor and wit. When they point out the foibles and frailties of students, they do so in an attempt to help us understand the challenges along the path to the Temple of Wisdom.
An eager intellect: This does not mean we need a high IQ to follow the spiritual path, but rather a willingness to think issues through with the intellect we are blessed with. Theosophy follows the Buddhist tradition in encouraging students not to accept what they are told by spiritual authorities, but to test every statement against what they feel to be true within. Two ways to truth presented in Indian traditions are bhakti or devotion and jnana or knowledge. Bhakti — devotion to a teacher, God, or religious system — is the easiest way and is thus pursued by most people, as it fits in with the demands of normal life and human psychology. Jnana — the path of knowledge through study and meditation — utilizes the intellect to build mental pictures of the truth which are successively broken through into larger vistas as we grow closer to the doors of the temple within.
An unveiled spiritual perception: In the New Testament Jesus tells us that we must "be as little children" if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This could mean stripping away the veils we inevitably build up around our inner self, attempting to get back to the direct perception of childhood. Such a spiritual perception would enable us to see through the outer problems of individuals and the world to look for the spirit at work in every situation. Artists and poets sometimes approach this direct type of perception, seeing God in a blade of grass or a grain of sand. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it another way when he urged us to see through to the godlike potential of all people and the good side of every situation:
In the universe, reverence that which is highest: namely, That to which all else ministers, and which gives the law to all. In like manner, too, reverence the highest in yourself: it is of one piece with the Other, since in yourself also it is that to which all the rest minister, and by which your life is directed.
In the spiritual journey we rediscover this godlike part of ourselves, and an unveiled spiritual perception is necessary to see it at work all around us.
A brotherliness for one's co-disciple: Isn't it true that the most serious disagreements of our lives can be with members of our family or people with whom we work closely? Looking at history we see endless damaging conflicts between people who say they subscribe to the same ideals but disagree on how to achieve them. From the perspective of reincarnation we all have been on this earth before. We walked in many lands and worshipped many gods before incarnating in the here and now. How much sense does it make, then, to criticize others when we may have shared their beliefs in another life or, indeed, may grow towards their viewpoint in a future one?
Again, all religions emanate from one source of Being where truth is one. There, various perspectives on reality coexist happily as facets of the single diamond of truth. Through the ages great teachers have brought facets of this gem to various cultures, and people have clasped tightly their little facet of the truth and said: "See, here I have the whole diamond!" If truth shines like the sun from a single source, how much sense does it make to condemn any brother on the spiritual path?
A readiness to give and receive instruction: There are always people who know more than we do, and those who know less. Therefore we should be ready to listen to the wisdom of others, no matter what their traditions and background, and be ready to give what little we have when the time comes. It can be tempting to demean what we see, rightly or wrongly, as an inferior teaching and thereby miss learning something of value — even from a Jehovah's Witness lecturing us on our doorstep. Especially, we should listen to instruction that comes from within — the inner "voice" that tells us whether our outer ears are hearing spiritual sense or nonsense for us as an individual. With time and earnest striving, this inner teacher will also present us with insights which may instruct other pilgrims on the path.
A loyal sense of duty to the teacher, a willing obedience to the behests of Truth, once we have placed our confidence in and believe that teacher to be in possession of it: We go through life in relative states of ignorance and understanding, forming pictures of the truth based on our experiences at one point in our life, only to break through to a new level further down the track. Teachers and mentors are supremely important in this maturing process. They can be found everywhere — at home, in the community, at school, in the trades and professions. In spiritual training the relationship of student and teacher has ever been considered a sacred bond. As put in the Book of Discipline of the Schools of Dzyan, quoted by Blavatsky in her ES Instructions: "To the earnest Disciple his Teacher takes the place of Father and Mother. For, whereas they give him his body and its faculties, its life and casual form, the Teacher shows him how to develop the inner faculties to the acquisition of the Eternal Wisdom." Not only does this step stress the importance of our relation to the traditions or individuals in which we place our trust, but it makes us realize how important is our choice of teachers. Again, it comes back to listening to the inner voice as to what we feel is spiritually right for us at any point on our journey up the Golden Stairs.
A courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defence of those unjustly attacked: How often myths and folktales speak of battles and great adventure by knights and warriors — consider the Holy Grail, Theseus and the Minotaur, the Rainbow Warriors of Native American tradition, the Egyptian Path of Horus through Fire and Water, and modern equivalents such as Star Wars, The Never-Ending Story, The Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix. At first it seems a strange way of discussing spiritual matters, but besides having an instant appeal in times of conflict, the warrior's code contains qualities which must be developed by spiritual students. Certainly a courageous endurance of personal injustice requires the bravery and self-control of a soldier applied to spiritual pursuits. A brave declaration of principles and a valiant defense of those unjustly attacked has ever been expected of soldiers. There come times when we are put to the acid test of our principles, sometimes en masse when our country is threatened in war. For example, a friend's father, a German army officer during the final days of the defense of Berlin in WWII, at enormous risk to himself simply told his motley crew of boy-soldiers and old men to return home and accept the inevitable changes in Germany. Bravely following his principles, he saved the lives of many innocent people under his command.
A constant eye to the ideal of human progression which the Secret Science (Gupta Vidya) depicts: Sensitive people seeking to climb the Golden Stairs inevitably reach a stage of despair with the state of their fellow humans' behavior and the standards of the world generally. We each may also despair of attacking those aspects of ourselves that seek to keep us from starting the climb in the first place. The Bhagavad-Gita depicts this stage as the despair of Arjuna, who ponders whether to enter the fray against his own relatives. At these moments it helps to consider that these challenges aid us in expressing our inner god more fully and lead humanity to higher states of consciousness. Think of the many trials mankind has overcome and the glorious future that awaits us as we unfold our true human potentials of love, compassion, and understanding. We can also bear in mind that in past lives when we were less spiritually aware, we contributed to the state of the world as it has become now. In the meantime we have learnt better standards of behavior but must contribute toward putting aright the wrongs we helped engender in the past. Therefore we cannot throw up our hands in horror and bemoan the sins of the world when in fact karma has put us here to assist in setting them right.
Finally, we know that there are broadly speaking two paths in occult study: the path of compassion and the path of spiritual selfishness. Will we seek to escape the misery of the world that we are intimately a part of by directing our efforts away from helping our fellows and toward our individual progress? Or will we recognize that humanity, good and bad, is part of a single entity, and that therefore we have to bear with others and help enlighten all with our small efforts? Ultimately we humans cannot escape from ourselves.
How much effort we put into climbing these ten steps to the Temple of Wisdom determines whether we languish in the mud at the foot of the stairs; falter part way up, sometimes taking one step forward and two steps back; or join the steadfast few reaching the temple doors. Standing at the threshold, the quality of our attitudes and motives while climbing will determine whether we knock aright on the temple doors and the quality of what we are capable of learning once within. Blavatsky's words encourage us: "Let us Think, and in thinking, Try; the goal is worth every effort."
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)
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Listen to the Salutation of the Dawn! Look to this Day, for it is Life, the very Life of Life! In its brief course lie all the possibilities and realities of your existence — the Bliss of Growth, the Glory of Action, the Splendor of Beauty. For yesterday is already a dream and tomorrow is only a vision; but today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to this day! Such is the Salutation of the Dawn.