Symposium on The Secret Doctrine*

Review Article by W. T. S. Thackara

*Symposium on H. P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, Proceedings, July 21-22, 1984, 111 pages.

In July 1984 an event of note took place amid the pleasant surroundings of San Diego's Mission Bay. Nearly a hundred people of various theosophical affiliations, coming from as far as Holland and the Philippines, met together to share views on H. P. Blavatsky's magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine (SD). Seventeen papers were read at the two-day session, major topics including the nature of the SD, what it offers, its effect on world thought, and its relation to contemporary knowledge. The typescripts have been photographically reproduced and issued in book form by one of the Symposium sponsors, Wizards Bookshelf, publisher of the Secret Doctrine Reference Series.

Before reviewing the Proceedings, however, we should briefly describe The Secret Doctrine. Published in two large volumes, "Cosmogenesis" and "Anthropogenesis," the SD is the main source-book of modern theosophy. It treats of first principles, of cosmic life, and the birth, evolution, and composition of the universe and man. The SD also contains valuable sections on symbolism in the world's sacred scriptures and on the theosophic teachings in relation to science.

The SD is based on selected stanzas translated from the Book of Dzyan, a record of a primordial wisdom-tradition said to have been originally imparted to the earliest humanities by "divine instructors," portions being restated periodically by the world's great sages. The inner content of this tradition forms the esoteric or undisclosed basis of all authentic spiritual-philosophic expressions — hence, the title of H. P. Blavatsky's book. Not put forward as a "revelation" of the Secret Doctrine, the aim of the work is

to show that Nature is not "a fortuitous concurrence of atoms," and to assign to man his rightful place in the scheme of the Universe; to rescue from degradation the archaic truths which are the basis of all religions; and to uncover, to some extent, the fundamental unity from which they all spring; finally, to show that the occult side of Nature has never been approached by the Science of modern civilization. — The Secret Doctrine 1:viii

It is well to recall that this was written in 1888, when the orthodox institutions of science and religion were hardening into antagonistic, mutually exclusive camps. On the other hand a reverse trend was also manifest. The atom, which had been argued to be the ultimate, irreducible building block of the cosmos, was discovered to be quite otherwise, opening the door to the new, quarky world of physics to come. Western religious dogmas were jolted, too, as more and more prototypes of stories and teachings that long predated their supposed originals were found in "heathen" scriptures and shown to be the common property of nearly every race and nation worldwide.

Long-standing prejudices were giving way to the power of facts, and a small but growing number of people were recognizing that a whole knowledge of the universe requires that both the physical and metaphysical worlds — i.e., matter and consciousness — be understood. The SD affirms the necessity of this approach throughout and, to underscore its importance, H. P. Blavatsky subtitled her work "The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy." The Proceedings of the SD Symposium, among other things, affords the reader an up-to-date report of the rapprochement between scientist and mystic, between the thinking public and the ancient wisdom.

I. M. Oderberg points to certain modern trends sparked by theosophic concepts and refers to the SD as "A Granary of Ideas" which has seeded vast changes in the climate of thinking. A particularly striking example in the scientific area is presented by Jack Y. Dea, post-doctoral Research Associate in atmospheric physics at Arizona State University:

A scientist of the 1980s can adopt one of two basic attitudes towards the contents given out in H. P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine (SD). The first attitude consists of disbelief. It assumes that the SD is the product of an overactive imagination and that no more time should be wasted in checking its claims. The second attitude consists of openness and a willingness to examine the claims of the SD in light of the best available knowledge. It assumes neither the validity nor the invalidity of the SD, but rather examines the SD in an objective manner.
In adopting the second attitude I studied the SD with both an open and yet critical mind. However, certain facts gleaned from the pages of the SD indicated knowledge that is quite modern, even though the SD was written about a century earlier. — p. 86

These facts, unknown or unaccepted by most secular researchers in 1888, prompted Dr. Dea to consider seriously other concepts in the SD, such as space, time, matter, forces, and fields, which he summarizes in comparison with the latest views. He concludes that he

must admit surprise at the similarity of description given by modern science and by the SD. The ultimate aim of physics, it has been said, is to unify. To unify all the forces of nature into one grand equation is the dream of the physicists. The aim of the SD is also to unify: to show that legends and traditions around the globe have common origins; and to show that all existence on this objective plane are derivatives of a metaphysical plane. In this search for unification both modern science and the SD meet at a common point: the vacuum state of physics and the Lay a point of the SD. — p. 94

In connection with this "point," Eugene Jennings' comparison of the SD's Stanza III, sloka 10, with modern cosmological ideas merits careful reading as this verse brings to focus the heart of the matter-consciousness issue.

Although the majority of papers in the Proceedings emphasize scientific subjects, showing where modern theories and the SD appear to agree, and where they collide, other important areas are not neglected.

Three essays deal with the physical contents of the SD, how and from what sources it was written: John Van Mater's "A Secret Doctrine Bibliography" gives a picture of the immense scope of the work; Dara Eklund, who is completing the editing of H. P. Blavatsky's Collected Writings, provides fascinating sidelights on the first draft of the SD, the "Wurzburg Manuscript"; and students of Sanskrit will be interested in David Reigle's "New Light on the Book of Dzyan."

It is well recognized that the allegories of sacred literature and mythology are multivalent, yielding several layers of meaning. A number of speakers took up the subject of hermeneutics, the manner of interpreting religious writings, and indeed the SD itself, pointing to interpretive keys offered by the SD which help decode the universal mystery language of symbolism. A fine example is Vicente Hao-Chin's survey of "The Hidden Deity in World Religions."

Though space permits mention of only a few papers, all of them are interesting, and most do not require a technical knowledge of science or the SD to understand the general line of thought. While the reader may not agree with every conclusion presented, nor with each premise, he will be enriched by acquainting himself with these contributions.

The SD mentions that "in the twentieth century of our era scholars will begin to recognize that the Secret Doctrine has neither been invented nor exaggerated, but, on the contrary, simply outlined." The Symposium report amply confirms this statement, providing yet another evidence of the SD's remarkable insight. But H.P.B. commented that this was not pretension to prophecy, explaining that in each century an attempt is made by the adepts to advance world understanding of the esoteric tradition. Elsewhere, she associated these efforts with a "wave of transcendental influence following upon that other wave of mere phenomenalism" — a cycle of philosophy or awakening spirituality maturing out of interest in psychism and other superficial aspects of the inner life. The strength of the Proceedings lies here, for it draws our attention to the pure "Universal Theosophy" of the ages which H. P. Blavatsky has so masterfully re-presented. We are indebted to Richard Robb of Wizards Bookshelf, the Continuum Foundation, and the conference participants for this record of their Secret Doctrine Symposium.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1985; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)

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