Chapter 5:

Seven Keys

In speaking of the number seven, HPB explains that it is often used in the perennial philosophy as a blind for unity. Perhaps a better way of understanding the meaning of the number seven as used throughout the Secret Doctrine and similar writings, is to refer to it as standing for E Pluribus Unum, as in the motto of the United States of Amnerica. "A Pluralistic Unity" is what the esoteric seven often stands for, though it is more than that; it is also a comprehensive unity.

An interesting thing about pluralities, however, is that they are composed of disparate elements, which may be, and often are, at odds with one another. This ingredient of apparent disharmony is essential in the esoteric perception of life, since as the Master KH pointed out, "discord is the harmony of the universe."1 The "harmony of the universe," then, is not a cloning of homogeneous elements. It is instead a harmony that comes as a result of incongruous elements somehow coming together. That is the way harmony expresses itself in music as well. A beautiful or interesting sound coming out of the simultaneous presence of several others that are very different among themselves, is an essential ingredient for good music. And according to the Master, it is also the way harmony expresses itself in life in general.

So in using the expression "seven keys" HPB is using poetic license in an esoteric mode, to refer in part to the cacophony of modes of perception concerning life in general that are possible, and of how in the "mystery language" they are all accepted simultaneously--and transcended. That is, they are transcended at least in the sense that identification with any one key to the exclusion of any of the others, would imply ignorance of the mystery language. The element that provides the harmony is the capacity of the perceiver to not go crazy with the various alternative modes of perception, but to instead accept the beauty, goodness and truth in each, and move on, seeing that in and of themselves, they are all limited. If the perceiver becomes infatuated with any one of the innumerable approaches or explanations that are possible (such, for instance, as metaphysical, intellectual explanations), the perfume of direct contact, of sensitivity, will not be there, and the sense of comprehensiveness and therefore of harmony will be lost. As Plato pointed out, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder."

A new mode of perception

The secret doctrine therefore abandons any linear approach to understanding the way things are, and puts its trust in direct perception, a perception denuded of all conditioning. This form of direct perception that takes place together with dying to conditioning may be seen as a more sophisticated, deeper form of empiricism. It implies perceiving things a little more the way they are, since elements foreign to the actual perception--and which are usually present primarily because of one's conditioning--are eliminated. Esoteric studies, then, begin by not responding to absolutely any vested interest whatsoever. The only concern in esoteric investigations is with encountering and accepting that which is the case, independently of any theory, polarization, or ideology.

In the early days of the founding of the Theosophical Society, the comprehensive approach implied in the secret doctrine was, by and large, ignored by the membership. Many of the members interpreted--and a few became well-known writing about--the secret doctrine as if it were a "rational," that is, a linear, exposition of reality. They took it as a metaphysical system in the conventional sense; they took it as a world of ideas that is "more pleasing to the mind," and meant to explain logically the nature of reality. In order to do that, they had to use conventional logic, unaided by the mystery language.

In a way, the outcome was somewhat amusing, because from the 1880s on, there were new books coming out from those sources every year, and almost all of these books contradicted on important points the previous ones. Even the same author would often revise the data in subsequent expositions of "the teaching." This "problem" led in some cases to the creation of a number of splinter groups, each of which thought it had the real explanation. This is exactly what has happened in the history of religion, as soon as people begin to identify with conceptual interpretations, and to create theologies. It also led, after HPB's death, to the creation of standardized explanations of "the secret doctrine" or Theosophy, in the various organizations thus formed.

Unfortunately, it was not perceived at the time that the secret doctrine is to be understood in terms of seven keys. That is, the various theories or approaches have each a value, but none of them is complete or sufficient in itself. Not only that, but all of the various explanations that have been given can collectively be subsumed under what could be called the metaphysical key. They all have in common the characteristic of appealing to the mind's linear or time-bound approach, and of providing a rational picture of the way things are. Other "keys" appeal to ways of perceiving that are different qualitatively from the metaphysical, and are given "equal time" by the esoteric doctrine.

The mythical key

A case in point is the mythical key, of which much is said in the Secret Doctrine. This way of understanding is never meant to provide a rational picture of the universe, and is therefore qualitatively different from the metaphysical key. Its approach is to tell, for instance, a story which is not meant to be historically true (even though sometimes it may have points of contact with historical events). Rather, it is meant to teach either by morals one can derive from the story, or by impressing upon one some universal principle which is never verbalized in a straightforward, rational way.

This key was actually picked up from HPB's work by Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and others, who for the most part obliterated all or most other keys for the sake of it. Thus, mythical studies in the 20th Century, while they have brought about a keen awareness of the viability of this mode of perception, tend to also ignore the comprehensiveness implied in the perennial philosophy's "seven keys." Although these mythical studies are generally much closer in their approach to the mystery language, they nevertheless tend to minimize the importance of the metaphysical key, as well as of other keys. As mentioned earlier, the critical key for us at this juncture in history is, accorging to HPB and her teachers, the psychological key.

In any case, the mythical form of communication is extremely powerful, and its main messages are not generally spelled out conceptually, as is done or at least attempted when the metaphysical key is used. The messages of the mythical key are expressed silently, through the power of symbols.

In fact, one of the characteristics that most of the keys (other than the metaphysical) have in common is that silent quality of their main messsages. Although words are often used to convey these messages, the main thrust of what they try to communicate is almost never what is actually said. Such may in fact be an important part of the reason for the tremendous power that art forms can exert psychologically and spiritually. The individual person receiving art's subliminal messages is given the space in which to accept their meaning according to his or her capacity for understanding. Usually, these other modes of communications have several levels of meaning, so one could go back to them again and again, and invariably continue discovering new levels of significance and value.

The psychological key

Seeing what the secret doctrine is not can be an important step towards understanding what it is. If it is not exclusively a metaphysical system, then the use of other approaches to understanding it becomes a necessity. Once one takes into account the existence and significance of the seven keys and of the mystery language (the language of silence), it may be possible to explore--hopefully with some clarity--what the actual teaching is. Further, the psychological or mystical key must be turned first, as is insistently pointed out in the writings of Alice Bailey, where HPB's esoteric teaching on this subject is revealed. One reason for this is that the psychological key involves the required individual transformation that opens the field of perception to an understanding of all the others.

It may then be possible to understand from a wider perspective the statement made in chapter 1, that the essence of the Secret Doctrine is human transformation. After all, the process of such a transformation is the psychological key. That statement is further explored in what follows.


1 Christmas Humphreys and Elsie Benjamin, eds., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1962, p. 395.

The Secret Doctrine | Victorian Theosophy | Victorian Zen | The Mystery Language | Seven Keys
The Stanzas of Zen | The Voice of the Silence | The Kalachakra Tantra | Krishnamurti and Transformation

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