Many times over the ages spiritual knowledge has been summarized for us lesser mortals. Such epitomes are the result of the experiences and teachings of those brave souls who have ventured into the inner realms of consciousness and returned with their observations. We know that these soul-adventures date back to ancient Egypt and beyond: Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblicus (250-330 AD) refers to the Egyptians as having such a system "concerning principles and the Supreme cause of things." One modern summary is the seven jewels of wisdom. These jewels are a kind of perceptual atlas to help us find our way through a highly complex and yet unutterably simple universe. They are practical, influencing our ethical perceptions and behavior for the good over the long-term of soul growth — and what could be more deeply practical in solving individual and world problems? Using these jewels, we can unlock some of the mysteries of the universe, better understand ourselves and others, and harmonize our thoughts with the functioning of the universe. Perhaps examining each beautiful jewel will encourage us to continue our own researches.
The first jewel, reincarnation or reimbodiment, concerns the indestructibility of centers of consciousness, though their outward forms may change. It has been compared to an actor who, in one role, is "killed" on stage, but then changes his costume to take on another role. In Egypt reincarnation was accepted as transformation, symbolized by the Benu bird or Phoenix arising from the ashes to new life. Joseph Campbell suggests that there is a deeper level of our being:
"those who have identified themselves with the mortal body and its affections will necessarily find that all is painful, since everything — for them — must end," even if subsequently reembodied. "But for those who have found the still point of eternity, around which all — including themselves — revolves, everything is acceptable as it is; indeed, can even be experienced as glorious and wonderful." — Quoted in Sylvia Cranston and Joseph Head, Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery, p. 22
The list of well-known people in the West who accepted the concept of reincarnation is enormous, including Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Paracelsus, Henry More, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Gustav Mahler, H. G. Wells, and George Santayana. As Benjamin Franklin said:
When I see nothing annihilated and not a drop of water wasted, I cannot suspect the annihilation of souls, or believe that [God] will suffer the daily waste of millions of minds ready made that now exist, and put Himself to the continual trouble of making new ones.
. . .
I look upon death to be as necessary to the constitution as sleep. We shall rise refreshed in the morning. — Ibid., p. 271
A general belief in reincarnation might encourage people towards ethical behavior if they realized that they would be the people they deserved to be in their next life. It is also food for thought that we may meet our friends and enemies in another incarnation!
The second jewel is karma (from the Sanskrit "to do," "to make"), the law of cause and effect. If we throw a stone into a pond, the ripples will fan out and eventually be transformed into new forms of energy. Similarly, any thought or act has its effect on the environment for good or ill, fanning out to affect others over a long period. Therefore, we cannot separate our actions and thoughts from the rest of the universe and hope to be immune from their results. Theological systems of reward and punishment, such as the heaven and burning hell of Christianity, are perversions of this idea, for karma is not a system of punishment or reward. Rather, it is an impersonal law where the results we create are eventually balanced by us.
The third jewel is hierarchies, which implies that not only is there no separateness in the universe but that no part of reality is immune from the influences around it. Reality is interblended on all its many levels through which we may progress. Hierarchies suggests that there are limitless levels of being in the grand march of evolution. At each level are consciousnesses directing and guiding the almost countless entities living on the various planes of the universe. As G. de Purucker writes:
The universe is imbodied consciousnesses; and these imbodied consciousnesses exist in a practically infinite gradation of varying degrees of perfection — a real ladder of life . . . stretching endlessly in either direction, for our imagination can conceive of no limits except a hierarchical one; and such hierarchical limitation is but spatial and not actual, qualitative and formal. This ladder of life is marked at certain intervals by landing places, so to say, which are what theosophists call the different planes of being — the different spheres of consciousness, to put the thought in another manner. — Occult Glossary, p. 86
Hierarchies can also be understood as the doctrine of interpenetrating existences. As the ancient Stoics said, "Everything exists in everything else."
Svabhava, the essential nature of each being, means in Sanskrit "to become," "to grow into something," or "self-becoming." It implies that each being expresses its essential nature through bodies suitable for each stage of its spiritual evolution. The fundamental, immortal self sends rays into the material worlds and uses appropriate vehicles to express its inner nature, much as the sun sends out rays into the surrounding darkness of the solar system and nourishes the different planets of its kingdom. As G. de Purucker writes:
Svabhava has two general philosophical meanings: first, self-begetting, self-generation, self-becoming, the general idea being that there is no merely mechanical or soulless activity of nature in bringing us into being, for we brought ourselves forth, in and through and by nature, of which we are a part of the conscious forces, and therefore are our own children. The second meaning is that each and every entity that exists is the result of what he actually is spiritually in his own higher nature: he brings forth that which is in himself interiorly, nothing else. . . .
What makes a rose bring forth a rose always and not thistles or daisies or pansies? . . . It is because of its svabhava, the essential nature in and of the seed. . . . Svabhava, in short, may be called the essential individuality of any monad, expressing its own characteristics, qualities, and type, by self-urged evolution. — Occult Glossary, p. 170
Clearly the seven jewels all involve and build on each other. But what is the point of these complex ideas and why all this struggle in nature? The next jewel, evolution, suggests that there is an unending development for every aspect of the universe and of ourselves. In theosophy it denotes that everything has unrealized potential and that growth comes from within. This learning is not a process of adding qualities but of removing barriers to the expression of qualities already in us. As Lao-tzu took great joy in pointing out: "The more one knows, the more one has to get rid of."
To cultivate the essential characteristics or svabhava of the individual is to realize them in manifestation. Nature is the field of action on and in which these inherent qualities act and receive corresponding reaction, which becomes the spur to further manifestations on the part of the evolving entity. Our inner nature uses outer vehicles to learn with, growing in understanding by gradually evolving more complex bodies that can manifest in greater degree the potentialities within. At one time in the vast past we manifested as minerals, then in the vegetable kingdom, then in the animal kingdom, now as human beings, and in the future as what we would consider to be gods.
The Two Paths: Though buddhahood is far away across the mountains of spiritual achievement, this jewel refers to the quality of our daily spiritual efforts and therefore is relevant to our lives now. Simply put, it asks: do we pursue our spiritual efforts for our own advancement chiefly, or is our principal goal service to others without a strong concern about how far we are advancing ourselves? Theosophy advocates that we follow the path of compassion rather than concentrate on individual achievement or escape from the plight of other people in this suffering world. The choice is ours every moment — and not just in the direction we give to our spiritual studies.
The path for oneself has been described as one of "pure intellectualism and selfishness, eventual spiritual suffocation and obscuration." If this is the case, then maybe we have never had an easier decision to make! Nevertheless, eventually self-centered seekers will find the bliss of nirvana they have directed their powers to achieving for so long. There, it is said, they will reside for long ages while the bulk of humanity catches up to their stage of spiritual development. As we have been told by spiritual teachers repeatedly, we cannot escape the brotherhood of mankind — like it or not, we are all part of one entity and are bound to each other even at the high level of buddhahood!
With the seventh and final jewel, atma-vidya or knowledge of the self, the notion of selfhood takes on a new dimension. We must now expand our definition of who we are, perhaps by letting go concepts and habitual perceptions more than by holding on. Commenting on the limitations of self, Buddha Gautama said: "Veil upon veil shall lift, but still veil upon veil will be found behind." We are already infinite, and eventually will self-consciously encompass all reality. Blocking ourselves off from the universe is something we are very good at, which is why brotherhood (or peoplehood), compassion, and ethics are seen as fundamentals in theosophy. Because there are no unrelated beings in the universe, to hurt others is to hurt ourselves. To act or think harmoniously from universal principles is thus to be a stronger, more conscious part of the universe. Atma-vidya also implies "how the One becomes the many."
The seven jewels of wisdom are one attempt to present the elements of reality in a way that allows us to comprehend the universe and its operation more fully. When we swim we are most aware of what is above the water — for us this is reality — but beneath the water is another reality supporting us, an ocean of other-being. We can swim on without any awareness until we feel the curiosity to look at what lies beneath the surface. Until we make that decision, we are only half awake as to what we really are above and below the surface of appearances.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)