Four possible paths for the Theosophical Society (Adyar)

As I write this, I have pretty much given up on the TS to be honest. I’ve minimized the volunteer work I do for the organisation and am looking into Buddhism and going back to university for my further spiritual and intellectual nourishment.

However, that does not stop me from thinking about the TS and the place it has in world history as well as some organisational issues.

My recent post about the issue of whether or not the general secretaries of the various sections should be allowed to call themselves ‘president’ was ultimately about the kind of Theosophical Society we want. What style of organisation should it be?

Titles are ultimately not very important, obviously. I mean – whether Eric McGough  calls himself president, or whether Betty Bland does, is way less important than how they run their respective sections.

As the grandchild of a protestant minister, that style of dealing with religion and spirituality is ingrained in me. The idea of having officials without grand titles therefore appeals to me.

In fact, the apparent humbleness of TS officials was one of the reasons for me joining. However, apparent humbleness is not the same as actual humbleness. Merely not thanking people (as Radha Burnier apparently wants to see done, as witness a recent mail sent around by Gunnar Larson) will not make people actually forget about the personal aspect of their service. Worse: it makes those who do NOT thank forget about the human aspect of service, which is a lack of kindness.

We should not let ‘impersonal service’ become an excuse to deal with people as though they’re machines.

Or put differently: a real spiritual teacher can afford to forget about social norms, because they compensate for it by a serious personal regard, when an organisation does the same what is created will be lacking in mutual affection. (See for instance the recently out biography of Leroy Stilwell, a disciple of Adi Da)

Not that thanking people in itself will help prevent problems either. Ultimately what matters isn’t the words, or the lack of them, but how well people work together. In a good team nobody needs thank anybody else, because everybody knows they’re appreciated. When things get tough though, and they will at some point or other, it IS necessary to show appreciation. Why? Because some people are too insecure to realize they’re appreciated.

While humbleness may be a good thing, insecurity does NOT work.

The issue is, from a psychological perspective, realism. The reality of the situation is that a lodge does not function without someone making coffee or do the dishes. The only reason NOT to show appreciation for that, is insensitivity.

The only exception is when a spiritual teacher is involved. They really are above the rules. But an organisation can’t take the place of a spiritual teacher.

Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with the TS: We lost our spiritual teachers and are carrying on as though we do still have them.
Historically of course Blavatsky was a spiritual teacher to the Esoteric School. She was NOT a spiritual teacher in the general TS. When she died, the TS was left without its spiritual rudder. Nobody had been appointed a successor. Blavatsky made it clear that finding a successor was not part of her plan. She did not believe in apostolic succession. Even though this system is part of ordinary Buddhism as well.

In Buddhism, as in the TS, organisational leadership and spiritual leadership aren’t necessarily the same thing. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. The head of a Buddhist monastery doesn’t have to be a meditation teacher. These days they often are, I think, but in general what they need is administrative capacities.

A Buddhist meditation teacher gives their students ‘transmission’ when they’re ready to teach in their own right.

Blavatsky and Olcott functioned in a similar dual leadership: Blavatsky was the spiritual teacher, Olcott the administrative head.  The two aspects got merged after HPB died in all Theosophical lineages that I know of.

However, NONE of their successors have that ‘apostolic succession’ thing going for them, because Blavatsky didn’t give anybody the right to teach esoteric theosophy. This is a controversial statement of course: The non-Adyar theosophical organisations generally claim their head IS true to the lineage Blavatsky – Judge – …

However, the lineages are very messy, even if one does accept W.Q. Judge in this sense.

What we’re left with is books.

There are, I think, four paths the TS might walk in the coming century:

  1. Dogmatic Theosophy
  2. Spiritual / New Age Theosophy
  3. Scientific / Philosophic Theosophy
  4. Human regeneration (Radha Burnier’s project)

Dogmatic Theosophy

This is the path the United Lodge of Theosophists is walking: they see themselves as teachers of theosophy first, everything else second. They limit themselves to Blavatsky and whatever they find that is consistent with that. Their best teachers find ways to connect theosophy with todays world, and with spiritual lineages out there in the world, but they’re the exception.

Spiritual New Age Theosophy

This is the path Eric McGough seems to be walking. He’s a teacher of astral projection and the English section digital newsletter had topics in there like: ‘the cosmos as being a living being’ and plasma scientists. The program for the TS London headquarters includes things like ‘ENLIGHTENMENT – AN EXPERIENTIAL GUIDE: TOOLS FOR WELLBEING, JOY AND ABUNDANCE’, ‘T’AI-CHI SPIRIT AND ESSENCE – A NEW VISION OF A HEALING PROCESS’, ‘BEYOND 2012 – THE GEOMETRY AND RHYTHM OF TIME: POST-MAYAN CALENDAR FUTURISM’, ‘THEOSOPHICAL GALLERY TOURS: BRITISH MUSEUM. GODS AND GODDESSES OF MANY CULTURES’ and ‘GNOSTIC CHRISTIANITY: ORIGINS, BELIEFS AND COSMOLOGY OF GNOSTIC CHRISTIANITY’ (all from the April 2011 Theosophy Ezine, caps in original).

The result is, so he tells me, that the English Section is growing.

Within that context it is not so strange that we find him quoting those who call him the spiritual head of the Theosophical Society in England. New Age is, after all, full of claims like that. In comparison to which his teaching astral projection is not so very extravagant at all.

Better that than Benjamin Creme who says the Maitreya is here without actually telling is where He is.

Scientific / Philosopic Theosophy

The Theosophical Society was envisioned, by Col. Olcott, as a place like a science society: where people would compare their results, discuss their theories, and make up their own mind at the end of the day.

The only difference being that the topics under discussion were to be spiritual (from clairvoyance and spiritualism to Vedanta and occultism) as well as scientific. The Theosophist included Olcott’s findings in fields like agriculture and economy for the sake of the improvement of India.

The second object of the Theosophical Society reminds us of this aim: ‘To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science.’ The third does too: ‘To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.’

Only a very few theosophists actually practice these two beyond reading widely. One would think the people who did were prominent members, asked to lecture all over the world. But they’re not. Rupert Sheldrake and Amit Goswami come to mind.

Human regeneration

Whereas the previous three future paths have clear roots in theosophical history going back to Blavatsky and the three objects, Radha Burnier‘s project of incorporating Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings through ‘human regeneration‘ does not.

That may sound like a rough statement, but it seems to me a fact.

The previous three all suit the culture within the TS as a rather dry, intellectual, reader-oriented place where one can study and learn.

This one… well… Human Regeneration is a great idea. In fact, it’s a great thing when it happens. However, to practice human regeneration requires a knowledge of practical psychology. It requires things like meditation practice.

The thing is: We don’t have that on offer. Not really. Theosophical meditation as I’ve experienced it was limited to two models, neither of which work.

  1. The ‘let’s sit still together and hope meditation happens’ model
  2. The ‘let’s repeat some nice words and listen to some meditation music’ model

With meditation classes on offer left and right, we just can’t compete.

Except…Vic Hao Chin has a three day self-transformation workshop that is, so I’ve heard, of high quality and gives people tools to get on and transform their own lives.

The advantage of the ‘human regeneration’ project is that it gets back a practical path of spiritual growth into the theosophical work. However, it usually strands on the sandbank of merely talking about it. Or, as one lecturer said to me about some of the talks at the world congress, preaching.

Combine preaching with a lack of humanity, of sensitivity, and you get a very cold, very inflexible organisation.

Which of the four?

It seems to me that at present we try to mix them together. There are people who pull the TS in each of these directions. The result is, I’m afraid, usually rather mediocre.

I’m not Eric McGough’s greatest fan, but he does at least pick a side and stick to it. He’s consistent in where he wants to go with the English section and has a program that fits the bill. Once such a program is in place, one can get to promoting it and so forth.

I really don’t know which side the TS should go in. As I said: I’m giving up on the Theosophical Society. I do know that whatever it ends up doing, it should do it well or it will merely keep on floundering.

2 thoughts on “Four possible paths for the Theosophical Society (Adyar)”

  1. Dear Katinka Hesselink,

    I am sad to hear that you are giving up on the TS. You have just inspired me to renew my membership in the Norwegian section. I find your writing and inquiring very inspiring and stimulating and you have, by your example, shown me that there is life and relevance to the TS today.

    What you have made me realize is that even though I personally can’t relate to the sensational appearance and disappearance of the masters and their letters, or Leadbeaters soup of light digestible hindu tantrika, the TS mirror our modern human condition and the fact that it has survived its own history is remarkable and gives hope for the humanity at large.

    You outline four paths for future TS and express concern about the fact that TS is not able to pursue any of these paths in any good fashion. Personally I see only the future of two of the paths, namely the Scientific/Philosophic Theosophy of Olcott and the Human Regeneration Movement of Radha Burnier. The Leadbeaterian Synthetic Theosophy has very little credibility and the Dogmatic Theosophy of ULT does not seem to have any actuality since it seems unable to communicate with the world at large. But because of the Freedom of Thought “Act” there is room for all of them.

    Still, I think Radha Burniers efforts of leading the the TS through the “Krishnamurti incident” has been a really valuable contribution to the TS of today. When the TS was born, Blavatsky presented the motto “There is no religion higher than truth”. With Krishnamurti the phrase “Truth is a Pathless Land” was introduced. It seems to me that Radha Burnier has been fairly successful in uniting the two. She seem to have been what the TS needed after the Leadbeater-bubble bursted.

    I hope you do not desert TS just yet. Please stay a little while longer 🙂

    Love from Andreas,

    1. Well, I haven’t given up my membership just yet. And won’t, as long as I’m still doing volunteer work there (which I’ve promised to do till 2014).

      From what I hear the Scandinavian sections are amongst the ones that function best.

      The thing about the new age version (which you identify with Leadbeater etc. I think) is that it speaks very clearly to a very real movement in the world right now.

      I used to think the various aspects of the theosophical work made interesting cross-fertilization possible. I still think that with an enthusiastic leadership who takes that on as a project it might still happen that way. However, I don’t see that happening much. Mainly because what talent we have in that direction isn’t stimulated by the leadership with the result that new talent isn’t attracted.

      I agree about Radha to an extent. I do think that integrating Krishnamurti’s teachings into the TS helped get rid of the Leadbeater and co. excesses. I even think that this project is still necessary in some parts of the TS worldwide.

      However, that project is mostly done. It’s no longer revolutionary or interesting. And I’m not seeing Radha move on to something that speaks to the issues the TS and the world need addressed today.

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