Stories of the Mysteries
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1925
Besides the great Books of the Mysteries, we may recognize, in the spiritual records of all peoples and all times, a supplementary class of Stories of the Mysteries.
The Dramas of the Mysteries are primarily records of Initiation. Their purpose is, to record, so far as that may be possible, the tremendous spiritual realities that are revealed in Initiation through the transcendental powers of perception which are unfolded by the process of Initiation; to record these realities both for the general instruction of mankind, and for the particular guidance of students of spiritual life, who are consciously working and fighting their way toward Initiation.
A part of the Scriptures of all races and peoples consists of these records of spiritual reality based on knowledge gained through Initiation. The sacred cosmogonies; the descriptions of the remote past and future of the world; the teaching of the spiritual powers, latent in the uninitiated multitude, active in the Initiate; all these must, in so far as they correspond with reality, be records of the wisdom gained through Initiation. They may have been defaced or obscured by transmission; they may have been added to or curtailed; but the central nucleus, if it be real, can have no other source.
This part of the Scriptures we may think of as a record of spiritual science for the general teaching of mankind. The true Scriptures contain, in addition, teaching, the direct purpose of which is the particular guidance of disciples who are treading the path leading to Initiation. And the Scriptures might, in a sense, be graded by the validity and practical availability of these directions, and the distance they will carry the disciple toward his goal, aiding him to prepare for Initiation.
This direct practical purpose of the Sacred Books is described with eloquent simplicity in one of the discourses attributed to the Buddha, which is named The Fruit of Discipleship. As is so often the case in the Buddhist books, it is introduced by a story. King Ajatashatru, namesake of a far earlier king in the period of the older Upanishads, desires to find the true way; he visits the famous teachers of religious doctrines, putting to each in turn this question:
“All practical arts and sciences show visible and immediate fruit. Thus the potter makes vessels which are useful to mankind, and the sale of which brings him money. So with the carpenter, the builder and others. Now, I wish to know whether there is in the life of the disciple any visible, tangible and immediate fruit like the fruit obtained by the potter, the carpenter, the builder.”
Each of the famous teachers avoids giving a direct answer; one discusses the origin of matter; another, the indifference of all things; another, the complete extinction of consciousness. Ajatashatru protests, with humorous perplexity, that it is as though he had asked about a mango, and had been told about a breadfruit. Finally he comes to the Buddha, who thus replies:
“In this world, O king, a Tathagata is born, who sees and knows the universe face to face, the worlds above and the worlds below; and, having known it, makes his knowledge known to others. The truth, lovely in its origin, lovely in its progress, lovely in its consummation, he proclaims, in the spirit and in the letter; the higher life he makes known in its fulness, in its purity. Thence comes the awakening of him who hears, his renunciation of the world, his self-discipline in act, word and thought, his conquest of avarice, anger, sloth, perplexity, his attainment of joy and peace as he rises through the higher realms of consciousness to truth and mastery.”
A later passage speaks of the disciple “calling forth from this body another body, having form, made of mind, having all limbs and parts, not deprived of any organ”; the body of the disciple on the way to adeptship. “It is as if one were to draw a reed from its sheath, a sword from its scabbard.”
Here, then, is the origin and purpose of what is most real in the Sacred Books: coming from Initiation, they lead to Initiation. The Stories of the Mysteries are guide posts along the sacred way; they reveal and record some aspect of the Mystery Teaching, telling something of the realities which are seen by those who know the universe face to face.
Stories of the Mysteries form a considerable part of Sacred records of Buddhism; they are held to be the words of the Tathagata himself, drawn forth by the questions or acts of his disciples; very often they are cast in the form of an account of the past births of those whom the Buddha is addressing, to throw light on the circumstances of the present birth.
One of them, not, however, the story of a former birth, is known as the Sutta of Kevaddha. It has that rich quality of humour so constantly present in the teachings of the Buddha; a humour which is more characteristic, perhaps, of that great Master, than of any other among the highest Teachers of mankind:
“Once, when the Master was at Nalanda, in the mango garden, a certain Kevaddha, a landlord’s son, came to him and said:
“’Master, this our city Nalanda is great, rich, prosperous and devoted to the Master. Would it not be an excellent thing for the Master to bid one of his disciples who possesses occult powers to perform some phenomenal wonder here? Thus would our Nalanda become even more devoted to the Master.’
“But the Master answered: ‘Kevaddha, I do not teach my disciples to perform phenomenal wonders for the multitude.’
“Kevaddha said: ‘I do not wish to offend the Master, but what I said was that Nalanda is great, rich and prosperous, and that it would be an excellent thing for the Master to bid one of his disciples who possesses occult powers to perform some phenomenal wonder here, for thus would our Nalanda become even more devoted to the Master.’
“Again the Master answered: ‘Kevaddha, I do not teach my disciples to perform phenomenal wonders for the multitude.’
“For the third time Kevaddha said: ‘I do not wish to offend the Master, but what I said was that Nalanda is great, rich and prosperous, and that it would be an excellent thing for the Master to bid one of his disciples who possesses occult powers to perform some phenomenal wonder here, for thus would our Nalanda become even more devoted to the Master.’
“The Master answered: ‘Kevaddha, I teach three wonders: occult powers, occult insight, and occult training. What are these occult powers? They are the powers by which a disciple takes many forms, becomes invisible, rises in the air, walks on the water. If a believer who had seen this should tell it to a skeptic, might not the skeptic say, “Oh yes, that is the Gandhara trick!’”
“’He might say so, Master.’
“’That is why I am opposed to exhibitions of occult powers. And if a disciple should read the thoughts of another, and a believer who had seen it should tell it to a skeptic, might not the skeptic say, “Oh yes, that is the Jewel trick!’”
“’He might say so, Master.’
“’That is why I am so opposed to the exhibition of occult powers. But the third wonder, occult training, teaches a disciple that he should think in this way and not in that way, that he should keep this in mind and not that, that he should shun this and not that. When a Tathagata appears, this is what a disciple should learn. A certain disciple desired to know how the four elements, earth, water, fire and air, dissolve and leave no residue. He meditated so deeply that the inner worlds were revealed to him.
“’He came to the angels of the Four Regents and asked them how the four elements dissolve and leave no residue. But the angels of the Four Regents answered: “Disciple, we do not know how the four elements dissolve. But the Four Regents are more advanced and more perfect than we; they will tell you about the four elements.” So the disciple went to the Four Regents and asked them. But they answered, “Disciple, we do not know how the four elements are dissolved. The angels of the Thirty-three are more advanced and more perfect than we; they will tell you about the four elements.” So the disciple went to the angels of the Thirty-three, who sent him to the Thirty-three, who sent him to Indra, who sent him to Yama, who sent him to Suyama; and so it went till he came at last to the world of Brahma.
“’He asked the angels of the world of Brahma concerning the four elements, but they answered: “Disciple, we do not know; but Brahma, mighty Brahma, the surpassing; the unsurpassed, the all-seeing, the omnipotent, the Lord, the maker, the creator, the most excellent ruler, the Father of what has been and what shall be, is more advanced and more perfect than we. Brahma will tell you about the four elements.”
“’“Where is mighty Brahma?”
“’“Disciple, we do not know where Brahma is, or whereby Brahma is, or why Brahma is. But where the shining and the radiance appear, there Brahma will appear, for these are the signs of his presence.”
“’In no long time there came the shining and the radiance, and mighty Brahma appeared. Thereupon the disciple, approaching, asked him:
“’“How, Sir, do the four elements, earth, water, fire, air, dissolve without a residue?”
“’When the disciple had thus spoken, Brahma said:
“’“I, O disciple, am Brahma, mighty Brahma, surpassing, unsurpassed, all-seeing, omnipotent, Lord, maker, creator, most excellent ruler, Father of what has been and what shall be.”
“’A second time the disciple addressed Brahma, saying: “Sire, I did not ask thee whether thou art Brahma, mighty Brahma, surpassing, unsurpassed, all-seeing, omnipotent, Lord, maker, creator, most excellent ruler, Father of what has been and what shall be. I asked thee where the four elements, earth, water, fire, air, are dissolved without a residue.”
“’A second time mighty Brahma said to the disciple: “I, O disciple, am Brahma, mighty Brahma, surpassing, unsurpassed, all-seeing, omnipotent, Lord, maker, creator, most excellent ruler, Father of what has been and what shall be.”
“’The disciple put the same question a third time. Then mighty Brahma took the disciple by the arm and led him to one side and said to him: “Disciple, the angels of the world of Brahma think that there is nothing that Brahma does not know, nothing that Brahma does not see, nothing that Brahma does not understand. Therefore I did not answer in their hearing. But the truth is, disciple, that I do not know where the four elements, earth, water, fire, air, are dissolved without a residue. But go, disciple, to the Buddha, and ask him. As the Buddha answers, so it will be.”
“’So, swift as a homing bird, the disciple came to the Buddha and put his question.
“’The Buddha answered him that there is surcease of the four elements in the spiritual consciousness of him who attains Nirvana.’”
So far this Story of the Mysteries. It has a good many lessons. It shows, for example, that the desire to witness occult wonders was much the same twenty-five centuries ago as in our own days, and that much the same arguments were used to persuade the Masters to produce or permit them. There is a striking likeness of tone between the argument of the Buddha and that of a living Master, who is reported to have written: “It adds no force to our metaphysical truths that our letters are dropped from space on to your lap or come under your pillow. Put that conviction into your consciousness and let us talk like sensible men. Why should we play with Jack-in-the-box?” And this Master goes on to insist on occult discipline, just as the Buddha did. It is further worth noting that, confronted with the report of occult wonders, our modern skeptics replied, as of yore: “Oh yes, that is the Gandhara trick.” The Gandhara trick seems to have been a bit of juggling, which created the illusion of invisibility; the Jewel trick had to do with apparent thought-reading; both may have been familiar feats of hypnotism.
It may well be that the Buddha told the story of the disciple to give a graphic picture of the ascending planes of consciousness, and to stress the truth that not all their denizens are possessed of ultimate knowledge, or can solve ultimate problems; yet another lesson which is relevant to many latter day revelations.
Finally, it would seem to be the Teacher’s purpose to show that there is only one path along which we can proceed to the solution of cosmic problems, even those which appear to be questions of pure physical science. This is the path through the ascending planes of consciousness, the path of Initiation. Only when the highest consciousness is experienced, when the partition wall is broken down and the twain become one; only when Matter and Spirit are revealed as not opposed in essence, but as the two poles of the one Substance, the Life, can the problems even of pure physics find their final solution. Therefore Brahma, mighty Brahma, the personification of the pole of Spirit, sends the aspiring disciple to the Buddha, in fact to seek Initiation through the guidance of that great Master.
There are in Plato many echoes of the Mysteries and of the records of Initiation, the tradition of which was commonly current in Plato’s day. The story of Atlantis admittedly comes through Solon from the hierophants of Egypt, and it would be well worth while to gather from Greek literature all the traditions in which Pythagoras, Solon and Thales and other founders of Greek philosophy and science are said to have gained their wisdom from the sacred schools of Egypt. It is probable that in Egypt, rather than in Greece, we should find the real source and foundation of Hellenic thought, which in its turn is the source of so much of what is best in modern thought, both philosophy and science.
In the Republic of Plato there are two famous passages which appear to fall within our category of Stories of the Mysteries. The first is the often quoted parable of the cave dwellers, at the beginning of the seventh book. Humanity in this earthly bondage is likened to men in a cavern-like dwelling, seated with their backs to the entrance, and so fettered and chained that they cannot turn to the light. At some distance behind and above them is a great fire. Between the fire and the cavern men pass carrying all sorts of utensils and human statues and figures of animals, so that the shadows of these are cast on the wall in front of the fettered men, and the wall further sends them back echoes of the speech of those who are passing outside the door of the cave. Shadows and echoes are their world. Plato goes on to describe the great liberation:
“When any one should be loosed, and obliged on a sudden to rise up, turn round his neck, and walk and look up towards the light, and in doing all these things he should be pained, and be unable, from the splendours, to behold the things he formerly saw the shadows of, what do you imagine he would say, if one should tell him that formerly he had seen trifles, but now being somewhat nearer to reality, and having his face turned toward what was more real, he saw better; and so, pointing out to him each of the things passing along, should question him, and oblige him to tell what it was, do not you imagine he would both be in doubt, and would deem what he had formerly seen to be more genuine than what was now pointed out to him? And if he should oblige him to look to the light itself, would not he find pain in his eyes, and shun it; and turning to such things as he is able to behold, reckon that these are really more certain than those pointed out? But if one should drag him from thence violently, through a rough and steep ascent, and never stop till he drew him up to the light of the sun, would not he whilst he was thus drawn, both be in torment, and be filled with indignation, and after he had even come to the light, having his eyes filled with splendour, he would be able to see none of those things now called genuine. But he would need to be accustomed to it some time, if he were to perceive things above. And, first of all, he would most easily perceive shadows, afterwards the images of men and of other things in water, and after that the things themselves. And with reference to these things, he would more easily see the things in the heavens, and the heavens themselves, looking in the night-time to the light of the stars and the moon, than by day, looking on the sun and the light of the sun. And, last of all, he may be able thoroughly to perceive and contemplate the sun himself, not in water, nor images of him, appearing in any thing else, but as he is in himself, in his own proper region, such as he is. And after this he would now reason with himself concerning him, that it is he who gives the seasons and the years, and regulates all things in this visible region, and that, of all these things which they formerly saw, he is in a certain manner the cause.”
Here, once more, we have the path of Initiation, the rough and steep ascent, following which the disciple attains each degree of spiritual consciousness in turn, until at last he enters the light of the Logos, which illumines all things, ordains the successions of cyclic time, and is in a certain manner the cause of all things visible. There need be no doubt about the meaning of the parable: Plato tells us that it represents “the soul’s ascent into the region of Intelligence,” that is, the Logos.
Even more impressive than the parable itself is its conclusion:
“If such an one should descend and sit down again in the same seat, should not he now have his eyes filled with darkness, coming on the sudden from the sun? And should he now again be obliged to give his opinion of those shadows, and to dispute about them with those who were dazzled, would he not afford them laughter, and would it not be said of him, that having gone above, he was returned with vitiated eyes, and that it was not proper even to attempt to go above, and that whoever should attempt to loose them and lead them up, if ever they were able to get him into their hands, should even be put to death?”
Even more celebrated is Plato’s story of Er, son of Arminius, in the tenth book of the Republic, and ending that enigmatic treatise. Er, left for dead on the battlefield, is carried as a shade to the abode of the discarnate, where are visibly presented to him the mysterious workings of the law of rebirth through Karma, the utter destruction of those who are vile beyond redemption, and the liberation of the elect. Er returns to this world on the twelfth day, to reveal what he has seen. Here again, there need be no question as to Plato’s meaning:
“If the company will be persuaded by me, accounting the soul immortal, and able to bear all evil and all good, we shall always hold the road that leads above. And justice with prudence we shall by all means pursue in order that we may be friends both to ourselves and to the Gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and, we shall both here, and in that thousand years’ journey we have described, enjoy a happy life.”
The thousand years’ journey is the traditional period between two incarnations. The same period is given in the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, which closely follows the lines of the story of Er. It seems certain that the same meaning is conveyed by the thousand years, in the twentieth chapter of the Revelation; the serpent, the lower nature, is bound a thousand years, while the higher nature rests in paradise. It may be wise to include the Revelation among the Dramas of the Mysteries, a record of Initiation. There is, perhaps, a vision of Masters of the Lodge: the four and twenty elders, “clothed in white raiment.”
This brings us back to the wonderful vision in the second book of Esdras:
“I, Esdras, saw upon the mount of Sion a great people, whom I could not number, and they all praised the Lord with songs. And in the midst of them there was a young man of a high stature, taller than all the rest, and upon every one of their heads he set crowns, and was more exalted; which I marvelled at greatly. So I asked the angel, and said, Sir what are these ? He answered and said unto me, These be they that have put off the mortal clothing, and put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God; now they are crowned, and receive palms.”
Space does not permit us to speak of those authentic Stories of the Mysteries, the Parables of the Kingdom, beyond the suggestion that they fall into that category. The parable of the Prodigal Son not only depicts the return of a penitent soul, it foreshadows the final return of the soul, the “pilgrim of eternity,” when ascent of the steep and rugged way is ended and the cycle of wandering is completed.
There is another class of books to which the name, Stories of the Mysteries, might perhaps be given, though not in the same sense. These books are not records of Initiation, nor are they the work of Initiates. They are rather the testimony of eager, intuitive souls ardently striving toward the light and, through the intensity of their aspiration, catching glimpses of the way before them.
Such a book is the Pilgrim’s Progress, in which John Bunyan’s fervent soul and vivid, pictorial imagination has described the journey “from this world to that which is to come.” It is based on real spiritual experience, but the experience of one who is at the beginning of the way, not of the victor who has completed the journey. Bunyan was writing from the depth of his own spiritual trials when he described the crossing of the river of death.
“Then they addressed themselves to the water; and entering, Christian began to sink . . . a great darkness and horror fell upon him, so that he could not see before him. . . .”
We might, perhaps, class with Bunyan’s allegory some of George Macdonald’s stories. At the Back of the North Wind has its passages of intuitive vision and poetic beauty:
“It seemed to Diamond likewise that they were motionless in this centre, and that all the confusion and fighting went on around them. Flash after flash illuminated the fierce chaos, revealing in varied yellow and blue and gray and dusky red the vaporous contention; peal after peal of thunder tore the infinite waste; but it seemed to Diamond that North Wind and he were motionless, all but the hair. It was not so. They were sweeping with the speed of the wind itself towards the sea.”
And again, speaking of the cries of the drowning in the sinking ship, North Wind says:
“I will tell you how I am able to bear it, Diamond: I am always hearing, through every noise, through all the noise I am making myself even, the sound of a far-off song. I do not exactly know where it is, or what it means; and I don’t hear much of it, only the odour of its music, as it were, flitting across the great billows of the ocean outside this air in which I make such a storm; but what I do hear, is quite enough to make me able to bear the cry from the drowning ship. . . . It wouldn’t be the song it seems to be if it did not swallow up all their fear and pain too, and set them singing it themselves with the rest. I am sure it will. And do you know, ever since I knew I had hair, that is, ever since it began to go out and away, that song has been coming nearer and nearer. . . .”
That is a higher and more intuitive note than Bunyan ever reaches. It leads us directly to Light on the Path:
“Listen to the song of life. Store in your mind the melody you hear. Learn from it the lesson of harmony. You can stand upright now, firm as a rock amid the turmoil. . . .”
And this leads us, by natural steps, to the most recent of the great Stories of the Mysteries, though it goes back to ancient Egypt, the Idyll of the White Lotus, with its final picture of Initiation:
“I went back to my room and sat down, holding the flower in my hand. It was the same over again as when I had, long ago, a mere child, sat in this same chamber, holding a lily and gazing into its centre. I had a friend, a guide; a union with that unseen Mother of grace. But now I knew the value of what I held; then I did not. Was it possible that it would be again taken from me so easily? Surely no.
“For I could understand its language now. Then it spoke to me of nothing save its own beauty; now it opened my eyes, and I saw; it unsealed my ears, and I heard.
“A circle was round me; such as had surrounded me when I had taught, unknowingly, in the temple. These were priests, white-robed, as those had been who knelt and worshipped me. But these did not kneel; they stood and gazed down upon me with profound eyes of pity and love. Some were old men, stately and strong; some were young and slender, with faces of fresh light. I looked round in awe, and trembled with hope and joy.
“I knew, without any words to tell me, what brotherhood this was. . . .”
We have quoted from many books, of widely separated times and lands and races, these Stories of the Mysteries, guide-posts along the way of immortality. Where is the need of other books, less worthy? Should not all true books record parts of this one mighty epic? What other concern have we, what other destiny, what other hope? This is the path, steep and rugged, yet leading to the sunlit summits, on which our feet should be firmly set, as we strive toward the goal.