Of Studying Theosophy
The Path, January, 1890
It is often asked: How should I or my friend study theosophy?
In beginning this study a series of “don’ts” should first engage the student’s attention. Don’t imagine that you know everything, or that any man in scientific circles has uttered the last word on any subject; don’t suppose that the present day is the best, or that the ancients were superstitious, with no knowledge of natural laws. Don’t forget that arts, sciences, and metaphysics did not have their rise with European civilization; and don’t forget that the influence of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle of ancient Greece is still imposed upon the modern mind. Don’t think that our astronomers would have made anything but a mess of the zodiac if the old Chaldeans had not left us the one we use. Don’t forget that it is easy to prove that civilization of the highest order has periodically rolled around this globe and left traces great and small behind. Don’t confuse Buddhism with Brahmanism, or imagine that the Hindus are Buddhists; and don’t take the word of English or German sanscrit scholars in explanation of the writings and scriptures of eastern nations whose thoughts are as foreign in their form to ours as our countries are. One should first be prepared to examine with a clear and unbiased mind.
But suppose the enquirer is disposed at the outset to take the word of theosophical writers, then caution is just as necessary, for theosophical literature does not bear the stamp of authority. We should all be able to give a reason for the hope that is within us, and we cannot do that if we have swallowed without study the words of others.
But what is study? It is not the mere reading of books, but rather long, earnest, careful thought upon that which we have taken up. If a student accepts reincarnation and karma as true doctrines, the work is but begun. Many theosophists accept doctrines of that name, but are not able to say what it is they have accepted. They do not pause to find out what reincarnates, or how, when, or why karma has its effects, and often do not know what the word means. Some at first think that when they die they will reincarnate, without reflecting that it is the lower personal I they mean, which cannot be born again in a body. Others think that karma is – well, karma, with no clear idea of classes of karma, or whether of not it is punishment or reward or both. Hence a careful learning from one or two books of the statement of the doctrines, and then a more careful study of them, are absolutely necessary.
There is too little of such right study among theosophists, and too much reading of new books. No student can tell whether Mr. Sinnett in Esoteric Buddhism writes reasonably unless his book is learned and not merely skimmed. Although his style is clear, the matter treated is difficult, needing firm lodgment in the mind, followed by careful thought. A proper use of his book, The Secret Doctrine, The Key to Theosophy, and all other matter written upon the constitution of man, leads to an acquaintance with the doctrines as to the being most concerned, and only when that acquaintance is obtained is one fitted to understand the rest.
Another branch of study is that pursued by natural devotees, those who desire to enter into the work itself for the good of humanity. Those should study all branches of theosophical literature all the harder, in order to be able to clearly explain it to others, for a weak reasoner or an apparently credulous believer has not much weight with others.
Western theosophists need patience, determination, discrimination, and memory, if they ever intend to seize and hold the attention of the world for the doctrines they disseminate.