The One and the Many


(An address at the European Congress, Bosön Sport Center, Sweden, July 1995)

'IF it be a dream, it is at least a noble one,' wrote the Mahatma K.H. to A.P. Sinnett concerning the ideal of brotherhood. From the very inception of the Theosophical Society, that ideal has been the central focus for defining our aims and purpose. Again and again, throughout that amazing correspondence between the two Englishmen, Mr. Sinnett and his colleague, A.O. Hume, and the Adept Teachers, K.H. and M., there is an emphasis on the ideal of brotherhood among all peoples. It is the ideal which K.H. further declared to be 'the aspiration of the true adept' (Letter No. 5). And his great brother, the Mahatma M., reminded Mr. Sinnett in a later letter (No. 33) that 'It is he alone who has the love of humanity at heart, who is capable of grasping thoroughly the idea of a regenerating practical Brotherhood who is entitled to the possession of our secrets." Yet, are we more brotherly? Has that 'noble dream' come closer to realization?

The very term 'brotherhood' implies a relationship, a familial relationship, first of all, and then by extension a relationship within what is now called the 'global family', the family of all humanity. And relationship indicates the presence of a number of units, a multiplicity of beings, many as contrasted with one.

Even when there appears to be a single one, I, for example, as a single individual, if I speak of a relationship with myself, I imply thereby that there are several aspects of the person I call 'I'. And, of course, if we are really honest, we know that we do not always get along with ourselves very well. No one expressed this better than St. Paul, when he wrote of the 'warring in his members'. a truly graphic phrase to describe the conflict among the disparate elements that seem to comprise the entity we call 'I'.

So, as we have said, brotherhood implies relationship, a relationship sometimes between or among conflicting or at least disparate elements. At the same time, the word brotherhood also implies a common source: brothers share a common parentage, although these days one should qualify that to say that they share at least one parent in common. Underlying the relationship, whatever the relationship may be, there is a common factor. In the family relationship, that is the parent. In the case of the individual, of each one of us aware of the several elements within ourselves, the common factor may be the consciousness which embraces the many parts of our singular being.

Now if anyone were to ask us, as Theosophists, what is the most basic principle of the theosophical philosophy, I would venture to suggest that by far the majority of us, if not every one of us, would respond by saying that the basic, the most fundamental, concept is the oneness or unity of all life. According to one of her students, Commander Robert Bowen, H.P. Blavatsky emphasized that 'Existence is ONE THING, not a collection of many things.' Every student of The Secret Doctrine is familiar with the statement that the radical unity of the ultimate essence of each constituent part of compounds in Nature--from star to mineral atom, from the highest archangel to the smallest infusorium--this Unity is the ONE FUNDAMENTAL LAW in occult science.

What indeed could be clearer? Unity, oneness, whatever word is used: this is the heart, the very core, of Theosophy. And the heart, the essential purpose, of the Theosophical Society is brotherhood. On the one hand, a oneness of all life, and on the other hand, brotherhood, which implies many who have come together in some manner, who are related in some way. What is the relationship between the one and the many? These are questions that deserve to be pondered.

As I have contemplated such questions, an image has often recurred. It is the image of a physical body, any physical body or object, but let us consider particularly the physical vehicle in which each one of us is presently incarnate. Each such physical embodiment is composed of a multitude of cells, each cell an independent life, undergoing its own unique experience. To make the image a little more graphic, let us say that on some occasion, perhaps through carelessness, I cut my finger. Blood gushes forth, a veritable flow of blood. Examined under a microscope, with sufficient magnification, the flow is seen to be composed of a staggering number of structures which we term cells. If, for convenience, we call the flow a 'wave' and the individual cells 'particles', we have a rather simple illustration of the famous scientific paradox of light as both wave and particle. Just so, the blood that rushes forth from my cut finger is both a flow and a composite of cells, each one a life.

Such an image may seem very far removed from our central question of the relationship between the one and the many. Yet it may provide us with a clue toward understanding the nature of brotherhood, that relationship which encompasses the many and which, in its essence, is dependent upon the singular source we call the One. Therefore, to return to the image I have suggested, we are certainly all familiar with the undeniable fact that when all the multitude of cells that comprise the physical vehicle are working together in perfect harmony, there is the condition we call health. By extension, when the various components of the body--the organs, the skeletal structure, etc., all composed of cells--function harmoniously, we feel quite free and happy. We know what happens when a few 'wild' cells run rampant or some composite of cells such as an organ becomes damaged; the harmony, the health, the well-being, of the whole is disturbed.

It is not my intention to carry this analogy too far, although there is a certain temptation to do just that. Let me only note, then, that within our very physical bodies we have a beautiful metaphor for the existence of the many within the one, an existence that is a relationship which, for physical well-being, must be harmonious, orderly, and natural. Uniting what we may call all the separate 'lives', or cells, organs, and other component parts, is the physical consciousness, if I may call it that, which is the consciousness of the physical system we term our 'body'. Just so, uniting the body, the sensations which arise within it, the feelings and emotions we experience, the thoughts, ideas, and mental activity we produce, is a consciousness we call 'ourselves'. Or we may say that each sensation is a 'cell', a particle, in that flow of consciousness; so is each emotion, each feeling, each thought, but a 'cell', a single unit, often seemingly independent from other emotions, feelings, thoughts, sensations, but all part of that flow or 'wave' of consciousness to which we assign the singular pronoun 'I'.

I am reminded here of a statement made by the eminent sientist, Erwin Schrodinger, in his essay on 'What is Life?' As a result of his efforts to integrate biology with quantum physics, Dr. Schrodinger wrote:

Consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular. Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown... There is only one thing and that, what seems to be a plurality, is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception...; the same illusion is produced in a gallery of mirrors, and in the same way Gaurisankar and Mt. Everest turned out to be the same peak, seen from different valleys.
Perhaps, indeed, we do live in a 'gallery of mirrors', for which Indian philosophy assigns the word 'maya', but which enables us to see the multitudinous images of ourselves, thinking each image to be separate and failing to see that all images are only the One perceiving itself in this 'gallery of mirrors'.

In the words of H.P. Blavatsky,'...we all regard ourselves as Units, although essentially we are one indivisible Unit, drops in the ocean of Being, not to be distinguished from other drops. ...It is this sense of separateness which is the root of all evil' (see Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, in Vol. X of the Collected Writings, pp. 326-7). Yet, while perhaps indistinguishable from some higher vantage point, here at this level of existence, we do see separate 'drops' or individuals and quite distinguishable units that we call 'you', 'I', 'they', 'we', etc. Again we return to the questions posed at the outset of this paper, the questions of the relationship between the one and the perceived many.

Let us now approach the matter from the metaphysical point of view as presented by H.P. Blavatsky, for however difficult it may be for us to comprehend the essential teaching which she presented (although we may think that we do understand it, even when our actions belie us!) it is incumbent upon us as members accepting the principal object of our Society to explore ever more deeply the fundamental tenet upon which that object is based. In Paper 3 of her Esoteric Instructions (see Collected Writings, XII, 624-5), HPB set forth the central thesis of the theosophical worldview in unequivocal terms:

To understand this abstruse metaphysical doctrine fully and correctly, one has to be thoroughly impressed with an idea...the great axiomatic truth that the only eternal and living Reality is that which the Hindus call Paramatman and Parabrahman. This is the one ever-existing Root Essence, immutable and unknowable to our physical senses, but manifest and clearly perceptible to our spiritual natures. Once imbued with that basic idea and the further conception that if 'IT' is omnipresent, universal and eternal...we must have emanated from It, and must, some day, return into It, and all the rest becomes easy.
Note her use of the term, 'emanate', in speaking of the process by which we emerged from that 'ever-existing Root Essence', the One whether called Paramatman or Parabrahman. We will return to that term, 'emanate', as within it, we may suggest, lies the clue to the oneness and the manyness which in relationship comprises the root of our relationship or interconnectedness. First, however, we may note that HPB continues her exposition of the metaphysical doctrine by quoting a remarkable statement from the great Buddhist teacher, Aryasanga:
That which is neither Spirit nor Matter. Light nor Darkness, but is verily the container and root of these, that thow art. The root projects at every Dawn its shadow of ITSELF, and that shadow thou callest Light and Life. O poor dead Form. (This) Life-Light streameth downward through the stairway of the seven worlds, the stairs of which with each step becomes denser and darker. It is of this seven-times-seven scale that thou art the faithful climber and mirror. O little man! Thou art this, but thou knowest it not.
HPB follows this passage by Aryasanga with the stern words: 'This is the first lesson to learn.' Have we, we may well ask, learned this lesson? Intellectually, perhaps, but have our lives, our every action, every thought, the mode of our conduct in every relationship, exemplified that lesson? 'Ay, there's the rub,' as Hamlet might say!

To return to the world, 'emanate,' we need to consider yet another statement of HPB's which clarifies the theosophical metaphysics. In The Secret Doctrine (I, 130), we find:

In Occult metaphysics there are, properly speaking, two 'ONES'--the One on the unreachable plane of Absoluteness and Infinity, on which no speculation is possible, and the Second 'One' on the plane of Emanation. The former can neither emanate nor be divided, as it is eternal, absolute, and immutable. The Second, being, so to speak, the reflection of the first One...can do all this.

In an extremely helpful response to a question from one of her students (see Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge), HPB further clarified the distinction between that One which may be termed Absoluteness and the second 'One' from which or through which a manifested universe arises by means of an emanational process. The distinction is made between the terms 'radiation' and 'emanation', HPB stating:

[These two terms] express, to my mind two entirely different ideas, and are the best apologies for the original terms that can be found; but if the ordinary meanings are attached to them the idea will be missed. Radiation is, so to say, the unconscious and spontaneous shooting forth, the action of a something from which this act takes place; but emanation is something from which another thing issues in a constant efflux, and emanates consciously. ...Radiation can come from the Absolute; Emanation cannot. One difference exists in the idea that Radiation is sure, sooner or later, to be withdrawn again while Emanation runs into other emanations and is throughly separated and differentiated. Of course at the end of the cycle of time emanation will also be withdrawn into the One Absolute, but meanwhile, during the entire cycle of changes emanation will persist.
Perhaps, if one may speculate, emanation persists in order that the apparently separate and differentiated units may awaken to a full consciousness--the essential Self-consciousness--of their uniqueness in such a way as to bring about the blending of all our uniquenesses (if one may coin such a word) in the total and complete awareness of our unity. For, paradox as it may be and paradox it truly is, the passage of consciousness is from unconscious unity through conscious diversity to fully conscious--what shall we call it?--'unity-uniqueness' or 'unique-unity', that state so beautifully described in The Light of Asia as the dewdrop slipping into the sea. Some have suggested that it would be equally true to say that the sea has slipped into the dewdrop.

Again to quote HPB: the journey which is the emanational process outwards has as its counterprocess a 'reabsorption' which is absolute existence, an unconditioned unity, or a state, to describe which human language is absolutely and hopelessly inadequate. ...Nor is the individuality--nor even the essence of the personality, if any be left behind--lost, because reabsorbed. ...Once reached, the same monad will re-emerge therefrom, as a still higher being, on a far higher plane, to recommence its cycle of perfected activity.' (The Secret Doctrine, I) Truly the metaphysical context presented to us for our comprehension of the great principles on which the ideal of brotherhood is based is staggering!

A further thought on the emanational process may be suggested. The image used by Aryasanga of the streaming forth, downwards, of that 'Life-Light', which is the Absolute, creating the 'stairway of the seven worlds', is a particularly helpful one. It is echoed in a remarkable exposition on 'The One in the Many', given by the Islamic scholar, Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. First presented as a plenary talk on religious pluralism at the Parliament of the World's Religions in 1993, the lecture appeared as an article in Spring 1994 issue of the journal, Parabola. There prof. Nasr proposes that 'there is a cascading of absoluteness, which, if understood metaphysically, does not diminish the quality of absoluteness even within the world of relativity and despite differences in the "descent" of the Absolute within each sacred universe,' the 'sacred universes' being analogous to the 'stairway of the seven worlds' of Aryasanga. So, as Prof. Nasr emphasizes:

The doctrine of oneness is unique. There cannot be two Absolutes. There is only the One within a particular sacred universe.
Then he adds, significantly:
We thirst for the Absolute, that reality which constitutes deep down the essence of human nature. Human beings cannot live with pure relativity, which is why, when they are cut off from the real Absolute, they absolutize the relative.
Two ideas emerge from Prof. Nasr's remarks. First, the image of the 'cascading' of Absoluteness, in contrast to the image of a 'stairway' found in Aryasanga's writings, emphasizes the interconnectedness, the interrelatedness, of all existent things. It is this very interconnectedness that needs to be emphasized in our search for the relation between the one and the many; the many are not separate from, although at the same time distinct from, the one, but the One as the Absolute has, by virtue of its own emanational nature (and here we speak of HPB's 'second One'), densified itself, through a cascading process downwards, so that in this world of mirrors we see only the differentiated drops of water, as it were, or, to expand the image of cascading, we see only separate pools, lakes, rivers, each with its distinct character. Yet they are all composed of water, and water, by its very nature, is composed of the same elements whether it be contained in large or small vessels, in large or small lakes or rivers. So it is truly the One in the many that we must perceive, no longer the One and the many!

The second idea to emerge from Prof. Nasr's writing is that what he calls the 'quality' of absoluteness is never diminished by its radiation, even in the world of the relative or the realm of the emanational in which we exist. And because it is not lessened in any way, we thirst for the Absolute, as Dr. Nasr suggests, knowing in some inner way that it is truly the essence of our very being. In other words, if the Absolute were not present as the essence of the relative, we would not seek that inner unity of being which also is the search for right relationship with others.

It has been said that the notion of unity is, quite literally, unthinkable, simply because for anything to be or exist, it must in the affirmation of itself negate that which it is not. As the Egyptologist, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, has said: 'The Number One is only definable through the number two: it is multiplicity which reveals unity. ...The intelligence of things exists only through what we may call an original fractioning.' Yet, as emphasized throughout The Secret Doctrine and in all HPB's expositions of theosophical metaphysics, unthinkable though unity may be, both the logic of the theosophical worldview and spiritual experience compel us to place it at the beginning. Everything that exists is One; perhaps we can say that it is a fraction of the unknown Absoluteness, and because these fractional parts can be and are related proportionately to one another, they constitute the knowable world through which and by which we ultimately come to know the Unknowable Oneness. As Sri Aurobindo wrote, in The Life Divine:

At the origin of things we are faced with an infinite containing a mass of unexplained finites: an indivisible full of endless divisions, an immutable teeming with mutations and differentiations, a cosmic paradox is at the beginning of all things. This paradox can only be explained as One, but this is an infinite Oneness which can contain the hundred and the thousand and the million and the billion and the trillion. ...This does not mean that the One is plural, or can be limited or described as the sum of the many. On the contrary, it can contain the infinite many because it exceeds all limitation or description by multiplicity, and exceeds at the same time all limitation by finite, conceptual oneness.
Unity, the One without a Second, Absoluteness, the Rootless Root and Causeless Cause: by whatever name this metaphysical concept is called, Oneness is, finally, a mystic experience. It is a knowing, in the fullest sense of that word, a knowing which is at once a state of being.

So we come full circle in our inquiry, and finally must ask: 'If unity, oneness, is the inner core of our existence, the Absoluteness within all the fractured bits and pieces of the manifested world, what is it that divides us? If brotherhood is to be 'no idle word', as one of the Adept Teachers wrote to Mr. Sinnett, then we must examine closely the nature of our divisions. For example, it has been said that the greatest threat to the creation of a one-world consciousness, of a universal brotherhood of humanity, is our tendency to identify ourselves with those who appear to be similar to us--not those who differ from us, but those whose thoughts, feelings, ideas, culture, religion, speech, and so on are the same as or similar to our own. We are comfortable with those with whom we agree; the relationship of brotherhood is easy among the group who perceive matters as we perceive them. If we examine the matter, we soon see how subtle is the tendency to separate 'we' from 'they'. 'We' are the ones who know; 'they' are all who do not know or understand, and so on. A feeling of being 'different' arises even within ourselves: I am my 'higher self' which is different from and opposed to a supposed 'lower self'. So I am at war within myself, and project that conflict outwards upon the world of existent things. This is a vast area which time does not permit us to pursue within the limits of this talk, but it has a bearing upon the realization of that 'noble dream' of which our Teachers spoke--the 'noble dream' of brotherhood.

Let HPB have the last word. In an article in her journal, The Theosophist, in June of 1883, she wrote of the mighty problem of reconciling humanity, of gathering all...into one family, and of bringing all to a conviction of the utmost necessity in this world of sorrow to cultivate feelings of brotherly sympathy and tolerance, if not actually love.' And in her message to the Convention of the American Section in 1889, she quoted the words of her own Teacher: 'How many of you have helped humanity to carry its smallest burden...would you be partakers of Divine Wisdom or true Theosophists? Then do as the gods when incarnated do. Feel yourselves the vehicles of the whole humanity, mankind as part of yourselves, and act accordingly.' So shall we bring the dream of brotherhood into reality, aware of the essential relationship of the One and the Many, seeing in the Many only the countenance of the ONE.


Joy Mills

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


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