Our soul is on an immortal pilgrimage, learning and growing toward inner illumination, and in ages to come we will evolve into glorious godlike beings. When we begin to believe in this pilgrimage and try to live in tune with it, we place our feet on a spiritual path.
Today people are free to follow the path of their choice. However, the vast majority are busy with living, giving little thought to inner development. But eventually all mankind will have to choose consciously whether to take a spiritual path or a downward one. Are these paths something we can ignore for the present because they are so remote? Not really, since we are already setting down footprints on what will become a well-worn trail, too comfortable to leave easily.
There are, in fact, two spiritual paths with different ultimate objectives. Both require high levels of discipline and self-knowledge, but at some point they diverge. One path seeks eternal happiness and escape from the wheel of life; the other is the path of service, turning back from bliss to become part of the inner Guardian Wall that protects humanity.
The first path is the foundation of many schools and religions where disciples and ascetics practice meditation and purification in order to reach heaven or nirvana. If successful, they leave the problems of the world behind, becoming pratyeka buddhas (pratyeka meaning "for oneself"). Make no mistake, such buddhas must be highly spiritual to reach nirvana; but once there, they can no longer exert an active protective influence over humanity and world karma.
In this context, the word "eternity" takes on a different meaning. William Q. Judge points out that heaven has a beginning and, while it may last for aeons, it will eventually come to an end. Then "the weary task of treading the world — whether this or some other one — has to be recommenced." (1) Because our total nature is much more vast and complex than we are aware of, only a small part can be expressed at any time in order to expend our karma, good or bad. A student who by certain disciplines and practices earns the reward of a heavenly state may have a large part of his karma still unexpended. When forced eventually to return to incarnation on earth, his physical and psychic machinery may then supply just what is needed to experience a heavy load of karma, and he will have to face it.
Ironically, nearly all of us will spend considerable time, after the present life and before the next begins, in a state of consciousness very close to paradise. Our degree of happiness depends on the kind of person we were and the kind of unfulfilled dreams we had while living. This experience is probably the source of the religious teachings about heaven.
Not all those following a spiritual path seek to reach heaven or nirvana, however. Those who choose the path of compassion do so from an unselfish desire to help all beings, and they become part of the hosts of enlightened ones who serve and protect the great orphan humanity. When a disciple of this path reaches the point where he could enter nirvana, he instead turns back — as Gautama Buddha did — in order to continue working as one of the guardians and helpers of mankind.
Who are these guardians? They are called variously Elder Brothers, mahatmas, or adepts. Sometimes they work openly, but usually quietly and unseen, anywhere they find the possibility of cultivating the spiritual nature of struggling, learning human beings. They
assist individuals and groups who try to follow a high-principled, compassionate way of life. They are aware of those who yearn for light and wisdom, and help whenever permitted by karma. Worthiness is the sole test: the motive must be to serve others, and anyone seeking merely for self-benefit will be passed over.
At some point all those on the evolutionary path begin to develop psychic sensitivities and power over the hidden forces of nature. These abilities arise naturally in the course of practicing self-discipline, purification of motive, and concentration. Many try to cultivate psychic powers for personal ends. They may start out with relatively innocent desires to explore the mysterious hidden astral realms, but soon find that these subtle forces give power to influence others. With self-interest as the motive, the novice can easily surrender to temptations and malevolent forces difficult to resist. Though unaware of it at the early stages, the student slips into the downward or so-called left-hand path, leading through selfishness, coldly calculating intellect, and control over others to moral destruction. Therefore, such powers must not be employed for selfish uses, but only for beneficent purposes — the very essence of "white magic."
Progress on both the "left-hand path" and spiritual path requires effort, discipline, and knowledge. Up to a certain point all students of magic, whether "white" or "black," journey together. (Instead of black and white magic, we could just as well say, black and white motive.) But eventually the common path divides, and from deep within our soul an awesome voice gives the stern command: "Choose this day whom you will serve"!
How does a student place his feet on the spiritual path of service? Certainly not by thinking of himself, but by concern for others. Daily life is rich with trials that can test our motives, challenge our inner strength, and open our intuition. Students of this path find their best training, not in retiring from the world to a beautiful location and pleasant surroundings, but in working with people, sharing the joys and sorrows we all experience. And if we can give no more to struggling souls than a few moments of listening to their troubles, we may at least try to lighten their burdens with a cheering word.
It is easy, for example, when working on a pet project, to refuse to be interrupted by someone who needs assistance or an understanding ear. We may tell ourselves, "My project is more important," but then two things happen: refusing to be "bothered" makes us more selfish immediately, and also makes it harder to tear away from our project the next time. On the other hand, willingness to be interrupted to help someone usually makes them feel better and, incidentally, frequently benefits our project.
When is the critical choice made? It does not wait until the moment when the student is about to be initiated into bodhisattvahood; the choice is made over a long period, beginning perhaps lifetimes before. With every choice we make — as a parent, brother or sister, son or daughter, friend or neighbor, employee or citizen — we make the groove of habit deeper and more definite. Judge expressed it so well:
The student of occultism is rushing on [to] his destiny, but up to a certain point that destiny is in his own hands, though he is constantly shaping his course, freeing his soul from the trammels of sense and self, or becoming entangled in the web, which, with warp and woof will presently clothe him as with a garment without seam. — "Considerations on Magic," The Path 1:377
Theosophical literature speaks of the "moment of choice," due to come for the human race at the midpoint of the Fifth Round. The significance of this event, thousands upon thousands of years in the future, fills the mind with awe. It is also remote enough to lull the student of this philosophy into complacency, with the thought that this moment will not come upon us for ages. But even now in this present lifetime we are building habits which will gradually and surely make us fit or unfit to meet safely that moment when it comes.
I think we have all begun to choose our path: the keys are motive and habit. Those who choose to follow the path of compassion begin long before they feel worthy of that path. We take our first steps when we sense the beauty of it, when we admire those who embody the ideal, when we respect an unselfish person we know and want to be like him. Only after we have devoted much time and effort to developing love and respect for our fellows (and for ourself, too), and have developed the willingness to serve others unselfishly, do we finally believe we are worthy to enter the noble path. And by then we have already taken many steps along it. In Judge's words, "You look and wait for some great and astounding occurrence, to show you that you are going to be permitted to enter behind the veil; that you are to be initiated. It will never come . . . He who enters the door, does so as gently and imperceptibly, as the tide rises in the night time." (2)
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1. Cf. Essays on the Gita, p. 158. (return to text)
2. "Musings on the True Theosophist's Path," Echoes of the Orient 1:21. (return to text)