Theosophy by Rudolf Steiner: a field guide to reality

Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos (Cw 9)

Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos by Rudolf Steiner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book speaks with vigor and authority about things that most of us spend our lives studiously trying to ignore.

Sometime in late adolescence I became aware that my life had a spiritual dimension and even a spiritual purpose. I might not have put it that way at the time, but I had developed a seasick feeling that all of my notions of about life and its aims were inadequate and wrong. I had no idea what to replace them with, so I embarked on a search that in time got me looking at the great religions of the world. While I did hear of a thing called the perennial philosophy, which taught that all the spiritual traditions share fundamental beliefs, I couldn’t help noticing that the religions were also very different from each other and made conflicting claims about many things.

In my late 20s I joined a Vajrayana Buddhist congregation and felt that I had found my spiritual home. But a thought that also occurred to me was that all these various issues addressed by religions, things such as what happens when we die, what are the fundamental aspects of reality, is there an unseen world, and are there sentient beings beyond what we can cognize with our senses, are fundamentally questions of fact, just as questions about the natural world are questions of fact. The world religions have different things to say about these various questions, but my thought was that these things shouldn’t be articles of faith, but matters that could, in principle, be decided objectively one way or the other, somehow or another. I thought that it should be possible to bring a scientific attitude to matters of the spirit.

I didn’t realize it, but I had reinvented the impulse behind theosophy, the spiritual movement that took shape in the 19th century, popularized by Helena Blavatsky. Knowing nothing about it, I’d always assumed it was just flaky New Age mumbo jumbo. Having arrived at the Buddhist path, my need to look into other things died down, so I gave it no more thought for the next couple of decades.

In recent years, though, my interest has flared up again. Not that I’m dissatisfied with the Buddhist teachings—I just find myself interested to hear what other traditions have to say. I’m a Western Buddhist, which means that I am practicing these teachings in a melting pot of other spiritual ideas, some of which may be quite valuable. And then there is still the question of what are the facts.

I searched for books on theosophy, and this one by Rudolf Steiner appeared to be a promising introduction. And I was not disappointed. In this primer, first published in English in 1910, Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and Goethe scholar, lays out the fundamental principles of theosophy, the science of the spirit. Both Steiner himself and Michael Holdrege, the author of the foreword to this edition, warn that the material is difficult and cannot simply be absorbed in a casual reading. An active intellectual effort is required of the reader to reach out and take hold of what Steiner is presenting. And here I must agree, for, even though I’m used to reading challenging texts, I found that this one made unaccustomed demands on my attention and my imagination.

This is largely because the subject matter is the unseen realms of reality, and these are being discussed with language that was invented to help us communicate about the sensory world. But there is also the issue of the inherent subtlety of the ideas themselves, and even their surprising complexity at times. One of the most mind-stretching teachings in the book is that the human being has 7 different “bodies” or components, of which our physical body is but one. For now I can only say that I’ve been introduced to that idea; it will take time for me to reflect on what it means.

However, for most purposes, it’s convenient to look at the human being as composed of 3 more familiar elements: body, soul, and spirit. Steiner clearly explains what these things mean, and how we need to orient ourselves to them in order to live full, worthwhile, human lives. In brief, body is the realm of sensations; soul is the realm of urges and feelings; spirit is the realm of thought. In these 3 realms, which we all occupy simultaneously, we seek to move toward beauty, goodness, and truth, respectively.

There are things here which conflict with the Buddhist teachings as I understand them. Steiner talks about our immortal or eternal aspects, including the “I,” while Buddhism denies the existence of any lasting soul. But I’m at a stage of life where I don’t feel I need to go either/or with these ideas; I feel that they can be in dialogue with each other, and that the truth can be found this way. Certainly I do feel, deep down, a desire to move toward beauty, goodness, and truth.

Why are we here? What are we doing with our human lives? These are important questions, and this book is a portal to the road of discovering the answers for ourselves.

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