Theosophical University Press Online Edition
The Schoolhouse of Nature
The Law of Cause and Effect
"The Universe, including the visible and the invisible . . . . exists for the sake of the soul's experience and emancipation." — Patanjali (Ancient Hindu philosopher)
The Universe is a vast school of experience for the unfoldment of a greater Consciousness in all life-units, which compose the Universe. Material Nature is one of the schoolhouses in which certain courses of instruction are given. The Monads that gain their experience in the great school of Nature all began their evolution for this cycle at various times in the far distant past, and therefore show vast differences in development. Therefore they cannot all profit by having the same experiences at this time, and Nature provides for this great diversity of development by offering opportunities for embodiment in a vast variety of different forms: in the Mineral, Plant, Animal and Human Kingdoms; and an almost infinite number of sub-grades or sub-divisions within these.
The less evolved Monads embody themselves in the Mineral Kingdom; those that have advanced farther in their evolution embody in the Plant Kingdom and those still more advanced, in the Animal Kingdom. The Monads that have learned all that can be gained from an existence in the Animal Kingdom advance beyond it and begin their evolution in the Human Kingdom.
Since the Monads, now embodied in human form, started on their evolutionary journey at different times in the far distant past and therefore "arrived" at the Human stage at different times, it is but natural that human beings should show vast differences in their development. Those who arrived at the Human stage ages ago, and hence had many opportunities to incarnate, have advanced quite far in their human evolution, and embody themselves in one of the more highly civilized races of mankind. Those Monads, on the other hand, who more recently arrived at the Human stage, embody themselves in one of the more primitive races to begin their human evolution. As their advancement proceeds they embody in more highly developed races. Within the race the Monads are attracted to and incarnate in that nation and that family which most closely correspond to their own development.
Thus there is passing up through Nature a vast army, an immense aggregate of Monads successively inhabiting various forms in the lower kingdoms, then migrating to higher and higher forms, ever learning and advancing by means of such experiences as their various embodiments offer.
An ordinary school has classrooms and courses of instruction for children of kindergarten up to graduation age. Every year a new group enters kindergarten, and every year the children in one grade complete their courses and advance into the next higher one. After each semester there is a vacation period before the new term begins, and each year one class graduates from the highest grade and leaves the school for other fields of activity, or perhaps to enter the lowest grade in the next higher school. There is then a continuous stream of children gaining instruction in this school by working up through its various grades, "migrating," as it were, from classroom to classroom, after having gained suitable proficiency in the preceding grade.
The classrooms and courses of instruction in the school remain unchanged, as in the Kingdoms of Nature, but the children, like the Monads, form a constant stream of new and advancing entities. The time-periods consumed in these migrations of the Monads up through the Kingdoms of Nature are of such immense duration as to stagger the imagination and far exceed anything that would seem acceptable today.
It has been said that the Universe is a School of Experience. In order to learn by experience, it is necessary to repeat an act over and over again. It is also necessary that Nature should be consistent in her reactions. If we bounce a ball against the floor it rebounds in a direction that depends entirely on how it was thrown. It is because the forces of Nature obey definite and invariable laws that the ball thrower can profit by experience and produce certain desired results. If the forces of Nature were not constant, the ball might react differently each time and it would be impossible to predict what might happen. Under such conditions there would be nothing to base experience on and all progress would be impossible.
The Ancient Teachings state that everything in the Universe is subject to an absolute and unerring Law of Cause and Effect that brings to every action an equal and opposite reaction. This law governs all actions involving atoms and universes and everything between these, whether visible or invisible, physical, psychic, mental or spiritual.
In an ordinary school the teacher is an individual. In the "School of Experience" the teacher is no individual, but is this law of Cause and Effect, that is inherent in Nature. This law is referred to in the Ancient Teachings by the name Karma, and will be discussed in greater detail under this heading.
No child can learn all that its school has to teach in one single day. The time would be too short and the labor too strenuous. Hence he returns day after day to his studies. The child cannot stay in school 24 hours a day, month after month, without interruption. If he is to retain his health and capacity for learning, his study periods must be alternated with periods for play, refreshment and rest, and our school systems are arranged in accord with these requirements. Neither can a Monad learn all that may be experienced in a certain form of body during a single embodiment, any more than a child can absorb all its schooling in a single day.
Evolution of the Monad would be impossible if it were limited to a single life in any one form of body. In order to accomplish the purpose of Evolution, the Monad must have time and more time. And Nature provides the necessary time by giving the Monad new opportunities for repeated embodiments in any particular form, so long as such reimbodiment is needed.
The doctrine of Reimbodiment, says the Ancient Wisdom, applies to every individual life-unit within the Universe. All assume bodies or vehicles of various types; all have their periods of activity of various lengths; all discard their outworn garments and enter into their periods of assimilation and rest, and all reimbody to continue their evolution.
When the reimbodiment takes place in a body of flesh it is called Reincarnation, from the three Latin words: re, "again," in, "in," and carnis, "flesh," which therefore gives the word the meaning of "again in flesh." All life-units reimbody. Only those whose bodies are of flesh reincarnate. Reincarnation therefore is a "special case" of reimbodiment.
According to the Ancient Teachings, all activity in Nature is cyclic. That is, it repeats itself, and consists of periods of activity alternated with periods of rest. On a small time scale we see this law of Periodicity, or law of Cycles, operating in such phenomena as the return of the seasons, the ebb and flow of the tides, day and night, sleeping and waking, etc. On a larger time-scale, the same principle operates by means of repeated embodiments, life-periods, broken by death, and followed by rest-periods in other states of being, followed in their turn by new embodiments in the material world.
In the Human kingdom our evolution is advanced both by outer and inner experiences. Outwardly we learn our lessons from contact with Nature and with our fellow men. Sometimes we learn pleasantly, but often through suffering and struggle. We "brush up against life"; we find ourselves in varying circumstances that call forth our ingenuity, draw out our latent faculties and talents, and develop courage, fortitude and patience.
Inwardly Man finds himself enmeshed in a network of conflicting forces and energies at play within his own nature. On the one hand are his desires and his "tumultuous senses and organs which impel to action in every direction," to borrow an expression from The Bhagavad-Gita. These are stimulated into activity by the needs, temptations and allurements presented by the material world. On the other hand is Man's divine nature from which he receives impulses to do unselfish, altruistic acts, to serve, to give, to build a better world. To strengthen him in his efforts, he has also the ethical teachings of religion that urge him to love his neighbor, to "seek the Kingdom of Heaven," and to do unto others as he would be done by.
The average man oscillates between these two sides of his nature, sometimes obeying one and then the other. He stands, as it were, between two opposite poles that attract his being, but he is not a helpless pawn of either side. He has free will, and can follow his higher impulses or yield to the lower, just as he chooses. By his repeated thoughts and deeds Man has it in his own power to alter his character and thereby determine his own destiny.
When we realize that the Law of Cause and Effect governs all our actions and will bring us a reaction of pain for every pain we inflict on others, as well as a benefit for every beneficial act, we begin to see the wisdom of doing good to others and the folly of doing them harm. We then realize that if we want to experience happiness and harmony, we must first sow seeds of happiness and harmony.
If, in spite of this knowledge, we persist in wrong-doing and bring unhappiness and sorrow to others, we thereby bring a reaction of suffering on ourselves. This suffering, however, is not without its compensation, for it teaches us lessons that we were unwilling to learn any other way. It turns our attention to the important issues in life, that might otherwise have been overlooked. It brings out compassion, sympathy and understanding for the sorrows of others. If we do not repeat our wrong-doing, suffering will gradually cease, and if we listen to the voice of our Higher Nature and live in accord with it, life will flow smoothly and harmoniously.
Thus we learn from the experiences of life and gradually become wiser and gentler, and better able to live in harmony with one another.
"Theosophy considers Humanity as an emanation from Divinity on its return path thereto." — H. P. Blavatsky
The Ancient Wisdom tells us that the goal of Man's existence on Earth is to become godlike, and to express actively and fully in his daily life the godlike qualities which, though dormant, are innate. It is Man's limited and self-centered personality that prevents these godlike qualities from finding expression. The purpose of Man's evolution is, therefore, to broaden, refine and raise the personality until it becomes a fit instrument to express the godlike qualities within him.
All great Teachers such as Christ and Buddha were at one time ordinary human beings. Compassion for their suffering fellow men aroused in their hearts a desire to bring relief and establish a happier and more harmonious relationship between men. To accomplish this they had to hasten their evolution by a self-directed effort, continued during many lives. Thus they forged ahead of their fellows, advancing in perfection until they reached union with their inner god. The attainment of this union made them the highly evolved, outstanding characters they were, with a far deeper understanding of Nature's Laws than ordinary men, hence a greater control over known and unknown forces in the Universe.
Christ and Buddha always taught that their attainment could be achieved by all. Jesus showed his belief in the perfectibility of Man when he admonished his listeners: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matt. V, 48). The "Father in Heaven," says the Ancient Wisdom, is the Divinity innate in every man. Jesus said also, in John, X, 30: "I and my Father are one," indicating thereby that his human self had been refined and raised into full and conscious union with his inner god.
The purpose of Man's existence — here on Earth — shall have been accomplished and the goal of evolution attained when, in the distant future, the human race as a whole has become Christ-like. Then godlike men will walk the Earth, harmony will reign, and the Kingdom of Heaven will be a reality on Earth.