Landmarks of the Esoteric Tradition


(Talk given at the Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, August 1993)

In his introduction to the revised edition of Fritjof Schuon's classic work, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, Dr Huston Smith refers to the manner in which Schuon draws a distinction between the esoteric and exoteric features of the various religious traditions. As Dr Smith point out:

The fundamental distinction is not between religions; it is not, so to speak, a line that, reappearing, divides religion's great historical manifestations vertically, Hindus from Buddhists from Christians from Muslims, and so on. The dividing line is horizontal and occurs but once, cutting across the historical religions. Above that line lies esoterism, below it exoterism..
Schuon's concept is not particularly original, but it does point to a very significant distinction in considering the several traditions. Commonalities among the faiths of the world cannot be sought in the realm of the exoteric, that area which concerns creeds, forms of worship and all other outer expressions. Rather one must look to underlying principles, ideas that in the abstract may be found to be significant as central to all traditions. If one could identify those basic principles, one would then come to the heart of religion itself from the esoteric point of view. It is to that task that we propose to address our present inquiry.

With the advent of the Theosophical Society into the world over a century ago three essential features of the esoteric traditions were given an exoteric expression. These three features may be briefly summarized as:

1. There is a wisdom-tradition, a teaching or a doctrine, essentially esoteric in nature, once taught in mystery schools and found at the heart of every religion.

2. There are now and have always been those who know, those who by intensive study, meditation and training have become initiates in the wisdom-tradition. They have been known by many names: the magi or wise ones, the Christs and the Buddhas, the sages and mahatmas, the rishis and the theodidaktos of the ancient mysteries. They have become both the guardians and the transmitters of the esoteric tradition.

3. Finally, there is a way, a path, a road that leads to the wisdom. There may be many approaches, but ultimately the way itself is one. And the way involves a mode of life, a discipline, a willingness to learn which also means an obedience simply not to an outer teacher, but to one's own highest and most inviolate Self.

Within each of these three divisions of the esoteric tradition, four major areas of concern may be identified: (1) the Ultimate Reality or source from which all existence emerges; (2) the nature of the human state; (3) the ethos which defines the relationship both between the human and the source and between the human and all else in the universe; (4) the goal or end and aim of human existence. The further one goes in discussing each of these areas, the further one moves into the realm of the exoteric, where divisions are more apparent and agreement becomes more difficult. Yet it may be suggested that while the 'knowers' of the wisdom-tradition have necessarily addressed these four areas in terms consonant with the language, culture, and mores of the historical periods in which they lived and spoke, the underlying wisdom, its esotericism, has been the same and consequently the way to it has also been fundamentally the same.

Is it possible, then, to identify the major landmarks of the esoteric tradition in such a way as to avoid religious sectarianism on the one hand and metaphysical reductionism on the other? Within the esoteric tradition there has been and perhaps continues to be a rich flowering of diverse expressions, each seeking to address itself to the major questions of our source, our identity, our action, and our goal. As those many expressions have taken on more and more exoteric clothing in terms of creeds and established belief systems, they have crystallized as the great religions of the world, all too often claiming exclusivity and thereby denying the true nature of religion itself. For religion by its very nature acknowledges the spiritual dimension in life and our connectedness (through re-ligere, or a re-binding) with it. This acknowledgement must first and foremost characterize the esoteric tradition and provide its total raison d'être.

'Religion...in its widest meaning,' wrote Blavatsky in her journal Lucifer (November 1888), 'is that which binds not only all MEN, but also all BEINGS and all things in the entire Universe into one grand whole.' And she added,

...unity of everything in the universe implies and justifies our belief in the existence of a knowledge at once scientific, philosophical and religious, showing the necessity and actuality of the connection of man and all things in the universe with each other; which knowledge, therefore, becomes essentially RELIGION, and must be called in its integrity and universality by the distinctive name of WISDOM-RELIGION.
As that 'Wisdom-Religion' may be seen as the source from which all the various religious systems have come, we may look to the 'Mother-Source' as HPB once called it, for the unifying elements that will carry us beyond the external or exoteric forms which divide the many faiths to those internal and esoteric realities which inspire the religious spirit. It is those unifying elements that may comprise the landmarks of the esoteric tradition, although not everyone will agree upon the words which define them.

At the risk, then, of seeming to define that which--since it deals with the esoteric--is ultimately undefinable except as it is known in experience, I propose to list those landmarks in the language which Blavatsky used in summing up her exposition of the 'Wisdom-Religion' or esoteric philosophy, as she presented it in her major work, The Secret Doctrine. Having identified that presentation as the 'accumulated Wisdom of the Ages', she then set forth certain fundamental ideas which, in her judgement, constituted primary 'laws' or essential truths inherent in that 'Wisdom'. (The Secret Doctrine, Vol. I. pp. 272-276, Adyar edition 1978).

First and foremost is the recognition of 'One Homogeneous Divine SUBSTANCE-PRINCIPLE, the One Radical Cause', which undergirds all existence. 'It is', as Blavatsky put it, 'the omnipresent Reality, impersonal, because it contains all and everything....It is latent in every atom in the universe, and is the universe itself.'

The second principle, or landmark, of this tradition follows inevitably from the first: 'The universe is the periodical manifestation of this unknown Absolute Essence.' The One Reality is 'neither Spirit nor Matter, but both', though we perceive them as distinct, assigning to the ultimate the designation 'spirit' and to manifested existence the term 'matter'. Yet if the ultimately Real pervades all existence, then it (or whatever other term is used for That which is beyond all terms) must embrace both spirit and matter. At the same time, the manifestation of That, the ultimate or the ultimately Real, is subject to continual change. Hence, the third axiom of this tradition:

'The universe, with everything in it, is called MAYA, because all is temporary therein....Compared to the eternal immutability of the ONE, and the changelessness of that Principle,' the perceivable universe (perceivable not only at the physical level but by whatever mode of conscious perception) is subject to continual change. 'Yet the Universe is real enough to the conscious beings in it, which are as unreal as it is itself.' Stated in another way, we begin to recognize a supreme mystery: while every existent thing, every existent being, is undergoing continual change, even its momentary exhibition has a reality for the perceiver. At the same time, the ultimately real is not in the form but in That which is beyond all forms and which can exhibit Itself through the transitory.

Essential to the esoteric philosophy is the recognition that 'Everything in the universe, throughout all its kingdoms, is CONSCIOUS, i.e., endowed with a consciousness of its own kind and on its own plane of perception.' Such concepts as 'dead' or 'blind' matter, as Blavatsky points out, 'find no place among the conceptions of Occult Philosophy'. At the heart of this idea, of course, is the definition of consciousness and the distinction between rudimentary consciousness or life-responsiveness, if we may call it that, and self-awareness or self-reflective consciousness as we know it in the human kingdom.

Because consciousness or life is present throughout the universe, at the heart of all that exists, a further principle must be recognized: 'The universe is worked and guided, from within outwards.' This follows the well-known Hermetic principle or axiom that as it is above, so it is below, for even in our own experience, we realize that our actions are 'produced and preceded by internal feeling or emotion, will or volition, and thought or mind'. There is always the movement of consciousness from within outwards.

While others will inevitably define landmarks of the esoteric tradition differently, the principles just enumerated must be held to be basic. I have used the language in which HPB couched the ideas because I would contend that it was she who opened the door of the Wisdom-Religion to all who would seek behind the outer forms the hidden realities of existence. Her work bore testimony to the fact that there has always been in the world an esoteric tradition, part of every faith, taught under the veils of symbol and allegory in the mystery schools of past ages, accessible to those who would tread the ancient way to enlightenment. Always too there have been the Self-realized ones, the sages and seers of every culture, the saviors of humanity, those who live but to be of service and point the way to all genuine aspirants.

Ultimately, beyond all words and definitions, all statements regarding the esoteric tradition, lies the religious experience itself. In discovering our own spiritual center, that deep center at the heart of our very being, we move toward a genuine religious understanding, toward the One Truth which we may know, with utter certainty, lies behind all outer and partial expressions of it. As we journey inwards or upwards (spatial dimensions are irrelevant in the domain of the spirit), toward Truth itself, we move beyond all forms of worship, all creedal systems, all differences of terminology, to the realization of that One Self, the Universal Self, the One Life, which is immanent in the heart of every being and transcendent to all as the Supreme Reality embracing everything.

Perhaps it is enough to know that there is an esoteric tradition which we may explore as we venture forth onto the domain of the spirit. It is enough to know that there have been, in all ages, the 'knowers' of that Wisdom. And it is enough to know that we too may walk the way that leads to transformation, to peace, and to a healing of ourselves and of the world.


Joy Mills

Miss Joy Mills is former National President of the TS in Australia.


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